The Golden Bough: Customs of the Pre-Modern World
“For myth changes while custom remains constant; men continue to do what their fathers did before them, though the reasons on which their fathers acted have been long forgotten”
The Golden Bough, 1890
It may be self-evident how pre-modern people recognised nature as an objective, sustaining force, uniting both myth and custom. To those not adopting a Boasian view on modern culture, that Germanic tribes of old recognised the relevance of nature, and too, the role of nature in sustaining culture, tradition, values and integrity of the pre-modern European tribes. To such tribes, it was not only gods whom were manifested as nature and harvest spirits, but it was the sacred marriage between male and female deities which represented the perennial return of nature besides. Indeed, it was common on such occasions for sexual intercourse to be had as a representation of this marriage. Indeed, this holy marriage between a god and a goddess, represented in the enactment in symbolic ritual whereby human participants represent the deities seemed to yield greater relevance within European tribes. Something which seems far from commonplace in modern cultures. Moreover, it is not only Thelema that the unification between divinity and man, through the reconciliation of opposites has been acknowledged (see, Hieros Gamos) This said, abstinence from sexual intercourse was also not uncommon: with the belief that the sexual energy would promote a fuller harvest yield. Ibn Fadlan’s The Land of Darkness discusses Slavic burial rites, for both civilians and criminals alike were sacrificed in order to bring a greater harvest yield.
Moreover, Germanic tribes believed that trees had spirits whereby trees held a powerful pre-Christian iconoclastic status. Indeed, there remains a degree of tree symbolism within Christian scripture too (see Della Hooke: Trees in Anglo-Saxon England). It was believed that trees yielded their own power. Dependant too, upon the type of tree, the essential animating force could be called upon and commanded by the magician. Indeed, Rudyard Kipling states: “Of all the trees that grow so fair, Old England to adorn, Greater are none beneath the sun, Than Oak, and Ash and Thorn Oak of the Clay lived many a day, Or ever Aeneas began. Ash of the Loam was a lady at home, When Brut was an outlaw man. Thorn of the Down saw New Troy Town From which was London born
Witness hereby the ancientry Of Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!
Yew that is old in, He breedeth a mighty bow. Alder for shoes do wise men choose, And beech for cups also. But when ye have killed, and your bowl is spilled, And your shoes are clean outworn, Back ye must speed for all that ye need, To Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!
Ellum she hateth mankind, and waiteth Till every gust be laid, To drop a limb on the head of him That anyway trusts her shade: But whether a lad be sober or sad, Or mellow with ale from the horn, He will take no wrong when he lieth along 'Neath Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!
Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight, Or he would call it a sin; But--we have been out in the woods all night, A-conjuring Summer in! And we bring you news by word of mouth- Good news for cattle and corn-- Now is the Sun come up from the South, With Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!
Sing Oak, and Ash, and Thorn, good sirs All of a Midsummer morn: England shall bide ti11 Judgment Tide, By Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!”
Moreover, the Northumbrian Unthanks acknowledge the same significance of the Oak, Ash, and Thorn (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5r2ke0-bInE) . The obvious correspondence to Yggdrasill may arise of course, whereby Oak, Ash and Thorn correspond to knowledge and wisdom, whereby the Subjective and Objective Universes may be linked. The recursive triadic qualities of any Tree of Life may be acknowledged of course, but within Yggdrasil, their remain three roots corresponding to three wells. One well pertaining to the three norns (past, present and future), another pertaining to the opposing forces of fire and water, and a third pertaining to the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom through sacrifice. Through this, albeit crude overview of correspondences, consider again the use of sympathetic magick; but too, the implied underlying essences of any notable manifest characteristic.
Though it was not only the seasonal ritualistic sacrifice of tree spirits, that ensured a plentiful harvest, a number of incorporated ritualistic practises also aimed at promoting crop health for yield quality & resilience to pests & inclement weather. A number of other rituals were conducted by pre-modern tribes, mainly in aid of greater harvest yields and the promotion thereof. Drawing back to the earlier mention of gods taking animal form, pre-modern tribes would both depict through embellished anthropomorphic art, as well as practice ritualistic sacrifice during seasonal celebrations. Moreover, the participation mystique of man holds much relevance here too. As long ago did man begin his quest to understand divinity by way of personification. Dressing specific identifiable qualities of the divine, with personified characteristics. All for sake of reconciling and integrating such qualities successfully. This said, it must be stated that the subject can never truly distinguish itself from the object, but indeed remains bound to it by a direct relationship, amounting to partial identity. Thus, is man inherently linked to the divine, by way of the objective manifestations thereof, but man’s simultaneous unconscious identity with All is suggested here also. Indeed, the dichotomy between individualised personality whereby man identifies himself as apart from the objective and the collectivised unconscious whereby man identifies himself as unified with the objective warrants acknowledgement. The collective unconscious indeed pertains to species specific archetypes and indeed species specific understandings of divinity through personification. Moreover, the same principle remains for specific sub-racial interpretations of such personifications of divinity. This being why there remain a number of pantheons pertaining to characteristics of divinity (see, Aleister Crowley, 777).
This being why a variety of animals, as well as other various crop staples would have been blessed and eaten in consecration to the harvest; a ritualistic practise known as ‘eating the god’. One such example being described by the folk song John Barleycorn Must Die, whereby the narrative of the ablation of the kings essence through beer, ales and mead derived from grain staples of the land, is present. Such traditions may be drawn into the practices of sympathetic magick, since, the eating of such food was intended to invoke the qualities of the associated god, for those who ingested the food & drink. The practise of sacrificing and eating of sacred animals, as an ordained event of sympathetically adopting the characteristics thereof, highlights the central trope of the sacrificed king at the end of his reign. This seems to draw one to reconsider the sacrificing of the king at the end of his reign.
Consider that the act of sacrificing could have been one of highest accord in pre-modern times. Indeed, sacrifice as an act underpins such a central place in Indo-European traditions (Ovid, Hesiod, Snorri), that Christianity made it a central virtue on the outcome of ordeal, of the crucifixion of the alleged perfect man, in Jesus. Or rather, the act of being sacrificed held the greatest known honour—this being why the personified symbol of the king or his office would too be sacrificed as such a regicidal gesture to the code of honour which stands aside for the furtherment of others—not the interests of the highest-self alone.
There seems something perhaps the present day mindset sidesteps about the relevance of sacrifice. Not that one should take up such any unprofitably anachronistic practice of course, but instead, consider what the essence of sacrificial practices entailed. Namely, whether it encompassed a literal and indeed physical sacrifice of a person or animal? For example, perhaps the oft-scorned child sacrifices distorted from the lines of Mr. Crowley, did not incite cases of killing youngsters at all, but an entirely different practice altogether.
Consider the king as the incarnation of the divinity or soul of the land in which he rules, then consider that as the king's vitality declines, so too might the vitality of the land he rules. So then, suppose an intricate link between king and land exists. Suppose too then, that if a people grow fearful of the land and indeed the world, they too become fearful of the king, and thus seek to overthrow him. The king is indeed be synonymous with a form of divinity, and so it is divinity itself which stands as the threatening force behind its proxy, namely the king. Thus, as divinity "dies" (becomes neglected until languishing), so too does the (objective) land die. In addition, if a man fears their king, their own divine nature, then such a man would see his own divine natures fall into oblivion; perhaps synonymous with the death of the king. Furthermore, the king, as representative of the collective subjective universe (SU), in death could represent a form of the collective outsourcing of divinity by stealthy negation.
The year 1799 marked the beginning-of-the end of the French Revolution, after the French monarchy was overthrown, and a self-appointed king (dictator) enthroned. Regarding this, Edmund Burke stated: “The Age of Chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever”. (see, Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry Into The Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime &The Beautiful) A trenchant statement indeed, one that seemed representative of the wider European lands’ relinquishing of divinity into a greater state of oblivion culminating in the developments of the later nineteenth century. Of course, such secularisation of the European soul was accelerated by subsequent thinkers from 1850 onwards such as Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Boaz; amongst others.
Furthermore, from Burke’s lamentation and the analogous and in some cases, literal, overthrowing or death of a king can come a perverse cult of radical absence in nihilistic values and all its valence. Since nihilism can never be taken on its own, and always holds an ontological epistemological, aesthetic, moral-ethical inflection (see, The Banalisation of Nihilism). Apprehend then, the dichotomy between religion (religare; to bind) and negligence (negligare; to unbind) regarding divinity, as well as the Will. Religion, whilst seemingly but a shadow to pre-modern magickal practises, serves or at least aims to bring one closer to divinity. Albeit, under the guise of present day religions which miss this ideal considerably.
Perhaps then the ‘sacrifice of the king’ could be interpreted differently, in such a way that supposes that the king rather, sacrifices himself.
“I trow I hung on that windy Tree nine whole days and nights stabbed with a spear, offered to Odinn, myself to mine own self given, high on that Tree of which none has heard from what roots it rises to heaven.” Havamal: 138
The king deems his own sacrifice part of his duty. As a vital trait of kingship, the sacrifice of the king pertains to the duty of divinity toward every man (SU) and their Objective Universe (Kingdom). Additionally, the sacrifice of the king describes the sacrifice made by a king who does not continue his bloodline. Thus, he sacrifices himself by standing back from his own future lineages. Furthermore, the male bodied king embodies the female soul. This soul/body combination implies the alchemically balanced androgyne and thus, a lack of bloodline lineage and is akin to the sacrifice of a king. Indeed, even Christianity’s Jesus speaks about these people, referring to them as eunuchs (see, Matthew 19:11). The spiritual traits of a king being purposefully omitted here, and of course, would not rely solely on variables of alternative sexual proclivities, of course. Namely, that being a homosexual, for example, would not preclude Kingship. (see Alexander Jacob’s Nobilitas and Giles Herrada’s The Missing Myth).
Consider what occurs when the king physically dies or is killed. Frazer proposes that since a king denotes the divine spirit of his realm, that upon his death, his divinity once released, returns to the land. So then, the sacrifice of a king, closely precedes another king ascending in his place, and might serve perhaps as a parting gift from the late king, to his people and Kingdom. As is implied, by the returning of divine force to a land, the land could subsequently become enriched with fertile current and the bounty of his aristocratic animus. Second to this, the releasing of the spirit of the king, implies that it may be channelled by another, for their own means, consequently, subverting the force. There lying the dishonourable temptation for sorcerers like Morgana le Fey to plot to murder a king such as Arthur. Frazer also describes the pre-modern tradition of scapegoating, whereby a person is made to embody all the ills of a Kingdom, and in their death,
they take all ills of the Kingdom with them. Moreover, primitive societies are often invaded by mentalities which encourage desire on the basis of what another has, or what a societal model supposes one should have. This indeed heightens antagonism and a cycle of resentment. Furthermore, the solution remains to be found in the identification of an outcast victim who can be the target of the accumulated resentment. In the victims sacrifice, the cycle of resentment comes to an end. Thus, is this means of scapegoating a way in which a society may restore itself. As in uniting against a scapegoat, people release their rivalries and resentment. Indeed, one purpose of theatre is to provide a fictional substitute to real life scapegoating. Moreover, it aimed to avoid the horrific cost to the moral renewal which comes from scapegoating (see, Roger Scruton’s The Sacred and the Human). In relation to this, Frazer describes the individual transference of sin, misfortune, and disease to inanimate objects, animals and other persons. This pre-modern practice was also taken up publicly by way of festivals, in which the collective transference of undesired spirits and other such undesirables could be transferred into a person, who would be the scapegoat to be sacrificed. Interestingly, this practise could be conducted regarding the soul too. In that one could house one’s soul in inanimate objects, trees and plants, and animals for sake of protection. Additionally, the use of totems for soul storage could also take place. Indeed, totems can embody the ordered structure of the totality of the psyche, reconciled through opposites as the soul. This practise entailed the ritual enactment of the persons death and the transferring of the soul into the totem. Moreover, there are totems which may have specific inflexes upon the manifestation of the soul from therein. Consider too, the body. If one considers the application of this practice in physical death, then the natural conclusion is that a Kingdom or king’s totem might too preserve the kings spirit, and the benefits of that spirit to the Kingdom. In any case, it would seem that in the pre-modern world, death was not feared, but instead welcomed, revered and eagerly anticipated.
The worship of trees by pre-modern peoples was largely practised across Europe, likely due to the large amounts of forest land and tall trees which inspired the gothic vaults & so called ‘branchwork’ in cathedral architecture.
Tacitus describes in The Germania & Agricola: “In the election of kings they have regard to birth; in that of generals, to valour. Their kings have not an absolute or unlimited power; and their generals command less through the force of authority, than of example. If they are daring, adventurous, and conspicuous in action, they procure obedience from the admiration they inspire. None, however, but the priests are permitted to judge offenders, to inflict bonds or stripes; so that chastisement appears not as an act military discipline, but as the instigation of the god whom they suppose present with warriors. They also carry with them to battle certain images and standards taken from the scared groves”.
Additionally, Tacitus describes in A Treatise on The Situation, Manners and Inhabitants of Germany: “They [these pagans] conceive it unworthy the grandeur of celestial beings to confine their deities within walls, or to represent them under a human similitude: woods and groves are their temples; and they affix names of divinity to that secret power, which they behold with the eye of adoration alone”
Indeed, the Germanic, Latinate, Hellenic, Slavic peoples revered the sense of sanctuary the natural forests granted. Not forgetting of course, to the pre-modern European tribes, the world was viewed in a rather pantheistic way, and trees were no exception.
Rather, trees were heralded as most sacred, and to harm or kill a tree in pre-modern times, could be punishable by death. Indeed, it was believed that life comes not from the world, but from elsewhere, and that all life finally departs the world and returns to the elsewhere from which it first came, where life continues. Moreover, human life is preceded by a pre-existence and continued in a post-existence. So, death does not mean the end of life, nor indeed can it ever. It was believed too, that the cosmos is a living organism, renewing itself periodically. This being why the cosmos was imagined in the form of a tree, as indeed the mode of being of the cosmos, and its capacity for endless regeneration, are symbolically expressed by the life of a tree.
Not only was the appeasement of a particular tree practised, but folk at times, would even threaten a tree with death if it did not produce any fruit. Specifically, it pertained more to the type of tree and indeed the fruits it strived to bear. For example, Jesus cursed the fig tree for not producing fruit in various gospels. But this was an allegory for denouncing ‘lack of awareness’ , as the heptomadic interpretation of the fig links to the symbolisation of awareness. As indeed, “a deed done in ignorance remains a disjointed ‘stab in the dark’, whereas a deed done in knowledge is an integral deed. Moreover, it remains an extension of and an enhancement to, the totality of the doer”. To add further context, consider the belief that trees were the spirits of the dead. Moreover, there were two trains of thought regarding this view. One would suppose that the spirit was bound to the tree and so, if the tree died, then so too would the spirit with it. The other train of thought supposed that the tree was but hosting the spirit, of which could leave and return as it wished. In either case, this only emphasises why trees were heralded by pre-modern peoples. Such a practice is not only in likeness, but a form of, honouring those who came before oneself. Indeed, Frazer later notes the latter train of thought becoming the dominant one amongst pre-modern tribes.
Such spirits were not merely spirits, and indeed were heralded as gods; for there were many. Often, these spirits were given more human form, or at times, would be given a entirely human form; with some oblates residing in bodies, as incarnate men.
Furthermore, the tree spirits were known by seven main identifiers as well as other tree types yielding relevance across pre-modern Europe. One need only consider the planetary correspondences to fortify this doctrine.
Not only could one suggest a link between the tree worship of pre-modern peoples and the Heptomad, but one can also postulate, as Frazer does, a link between tree worship of pre-modern times, and contemporary festivals. Namely, Frazer proposes that festivals such as the Solstices, May Day and even St Georges Day were originally celebrations of the tree spirits themselves. Furthermore, with personifications of the spirits represented in models and puppets, and folk tales such as Lady May, Jack in the Green and the Green King; one immediately is drawn also to consider the Green Man. Indeed, it was the nature rituals and periodic adorations thereto, that maintained the sub-racial unconscious’ relationship to divinity. Consider too the manifestations of such a multitude of spirits, otherwise known, as Pan. For it is in worldly nature that we witness manifest glimpses of the cosmic nature of divinity itself, and so nature and indeed the world, remain Sacred. Since to fear the world, is to fear divinity itself. The perpetuated ever return.
Moreover, the present day aspirant certainly would have plenty to consider if he sought to adopt a more traditionally based lifestyle. Indeed, may he Be and Do as his ancestor.
V:5 ☉ in ♑︎