What Does Germanic Tree Veneration Look Like?

Written by Dyami Millarson

If one assumes the ancestral role of the Germanic polytheist who worships trees as Gods, how does one behave towards trees?

Tree worship in the Germanic context means the bringing of blood offerings (blóts) to trees; for Germanic worship always means ‘blóting/sacrificing to something’.

Germanic polytheism involves nature worship. This may not sound particularly concrete. So, what form may nature worship take in the Germanic religious context? Germanic polytheists may blót to trees, lakes and rocks.

In conclusion, when it comes to the concretisation of tree worship, bringing an offer before a tree is a Germanic polytheist thing to do; a tree is thus treated as a natural idol.

Chantepie de la Saussaye says on page 374 of volume 3 of issue 4 of Progress published in 1897: “Heads of horses and other sacrificial beasts, often the hides as well, were hung on trees as an offering to the [G]ods.”

James Steven Stallybrass translates on pages 650 and 651 of vol. II of Teutonic Mythology by Jacob Grimm published in 1883: “I have pointed out, p. 174, that the Ossetes and Circassians hung up the hides of animals on poles in honour of divine beings, that the Goths of Jornandes truncis suspendebant exuvias to Mars (p. 77 note), that as a general thing animals were hung on sacrificial trees (pp. 75-9); most likely this tree was also sacred to some [G]od, i.e. votive offerings [by] individuals, hence the whole place was called ‘ad votum.’ […] And not only were those trees hekd sacred, under which men sacrificed, and on which they hung the head or hide of the slaughtered beast, but [also] saplings that grew up on the top of sacrificed animals [observe this the natural equivalent of a gravestone]. A willow slip set over a dead foal or calf is not to be damaged (Sup. I, 838).

George Frederick Maclear says on pages 27-28 of hos 1863 work A History of Christian Missions During the Middle Ages: “The victims having been slaughtered before the images of the [G]ods, the heads were by preference offered to them, and with the hides were fixed or hung on trees in the sacred grove. The blood was caught in the blood-bowl and sprinkled with the blood-twig on the altar, the images, and the people, while the fat was used for anointing the images, which were then rubbed dry. The flesh was boiled down in caldrons, over fires placed along the whole length of the nave. Round these worshippers took their seats, and ate the flesh, and partook of the broth, while the chief, to whom the temple belonged, blessed the cups of mead or beer in honour of Odin, Freyr, Thor, Freyja, and last, of departed friends. Then the rest in order took took the cup, and each made his vow or offered his prayer.” Maclear speaks of all these details in the context of temples, but one may also see all the same details in the context of sacred groves and trees; for one may identify groves as natural temples and trees as natural images or idols. The Germanic peoples did not necessarily worship at dedicated man-made houses; they would also treat groves as Divine Houses and consequently all the details of sacrificial ritual may be applied to trees as idols.

Thomas Greenwood says on page 774 of The First Book of the History of the Germans: Barbaric Period published in 1836: “The Lombards frequently performed […] rites under a tree which they called the “tree of blood,” from the custom of besprinkling the tree with the blood of the victim. Upon the recurrence of certain pagan festivals, which were always so ordered as to fall either upon a Wednesday or a Thursday, both Lombards and Visigoths continued […] to perform sacrifice in their groves, and other places consecrated by national usage. On these occasions they practised the customary mummeries, with lighted tapers, processions, feasting, and revelry.” “[T]he sites of the ancient [H]eathen altars” are described on page 775 as places with “the aspect of the sacred grove, the fountain, the sacrificial stones, and of all the objects of pagan veneration.” This outlines the idea of the trees as natural idols.

As a logical consequence of tree worship, the Germanic peoples had sacred trees and by extension, sacred forests or groves; because, after all, when sacred trees are grouped together, they form a sacred forest or sacred grove.

We may compare Germanic sacred trees and groves resulting from Germanic tree worship to the wish trees in China and the healing trees in the indigenous cultures of the Low Countries. So, the Chinese and indigenous peoples of the Low Countries traditionally believe particular trees can be beneficial.

The traditional behaviours towards such trees are definitely comparable to the Germanic polytheist behaviours towards sacred trees; for the Germanic polytheists seek favours from trees in return for blood offers.

The Germanic tribes may religiously be described as tree-worshipping blood sacrificers (i.e. dendrolatric or arborolatric paleopagans). The Celts and Sámi were such pagans as well; they brought blood sacrifices to trees. The modern-day Mari pagans exhibit religious behaviours which are very instructive for students of Northwest European paleopagan tree worship (dendrolatry/arborolatry); for they worship their Deities in forests.

Blood sacrifice is an element that cannot be erased from the Germanic polytheist socioreligious cycle of gift-giving; in order to receive favours, favours must be paid in blood. In other words, one does the giver of favours (benefactor) a favour by offering blood. Blood is the life force of nature, and so it is a great favour to give this.

Chantepie de la Saussaye independently reached the same comclusion as evidenced by his words on 374 of volume 3 of issue 4 of Progress published in 1897: “Undoubtedly, however, sacrifice was the central fact, and Grimm remarks that many of the words used for prayers go back to the notion of an offering. … Religion was ceremonial and a bargain: the [G]ods were not thought to give blessings pour les beaux yeux [French: for the beautiful eyes] of their worshippers.”

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