Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, Vol 15, No 1-2 (2013)



Carole M. Cusack, The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011), xvi + 200 pp., £34.99 (cloth).

Prompted by late 2010 attack on the Glastonbury Thorn, Carole Cusack introduces us to concept of the sacred tree in European history. Although sacred trees are generally associated with ancient and medieval Pagans, she explains that while many of the great and religious important trees and groves were felled, there are those trees like the Glastonbury Thorn that were held to be sacred by a converted populace. Cusack frames her examination of the sacred trees within axis mundi and imago mundi: the centre of the world or universe and the image or representation of the world or universe, respectively. Indo-European creation stories are also referenced, as they deal with how the body is also symbolicaly the universe, and in some cases the tree is the body (think of Norse mythology with the giant Ymir’s body being dismembered to become the universe and the first humans being made from trees) which allows Cusack to also frame her argument around the idea of “tree=human=world.”

Beginning with the ancient Greeks and Romans, then moving to the Celts, Cusack follows with chapters on the continental Germanic Pagans and the Christianised Anglo-Saxons, and finishes with the medieval Scandinavians. The Greek and Romans chapter includes the place of the tree in ancient Minoan and Mycenaean religion, before moving to the Oracle of Delphi as axis mundi and the sacred oak tree of Zeus at Dodona. The Roman section further raises the idea of pillars as substitutes for sacred trees as important sites moved from the countryside to the built up cities. The Celts and their sacred trees are first examined via the Roman and Greek accounts of the Gauls, and then in the Christian Irish accounts. The continental Germans are approached in a similar manner to the Celts, though both the ancient Roman sources and the later medieval Christian accounts deal with much closer geographical areas. Both these chapters deal with the destruction of sacred trees and the reasons they were felled. Most deal with conversion and conquest, though some of the Irish accounts deal with the trees being cut down due to their association with a king and as a means to attack him.

Examining the Christian Anglo-Saxons, Cusack argues that although they converted early and there is not much historical evidence about their Pagan practices, it is likely that some continued into the new religion, such as the erection of a large cross before a battle, bearing similarities to a makeshift Irminsul of the continental Germans. The comparison of the cross and Jesus’ crucifixion to Odin’s sacrifice on the World Tree, Yggdrasill, transforms the cross (much like a pillar substitute) into an axis mundi. There is also Anglo-Saxon poems that clearly bring Jesus into the “tree=human” part of Cusack’s homology.

The final chapter deals with the medieval Scandinavian sacred trees, and most importantly their World Tree, Yggdrasill. It is this chapter that really brings forth the argument of trees as axis mundi, imago mundi, and the concept of “tree=human=world.” The central binding aspect of the nine world of Norse cosmology is the World Tree, and it is also identified with Odin through his sacrifice upon it. As mentioned earlier, within Norse mythology there is also the creation of the universe from the dismembering of a body and humans being formed from trees. All of this clearly demonstrates Cusack’s thesis of this book, yet it is not only what is discussed. The use of pillars as substitutes is also raised as is their connection to Thor, as well as Heimdall and his relationship with Yggdrasill.

The Sacred Tree is a wonderful book that sheds light on a subject that has not been touched for a long time. While the argument for why these Indo-European cultures held particular trees as sacred is framed around axis mundi and imago mundi, and the three part “tree=human=world” equation, this thesis does not come through strongly for each of them. However, because their common proto-Indo-European roots have been explored, it does allow the strengths of particular cultures hold up the argument for the others. It must also be mentioned that for those cultures Cusack’s thesis is a bit weaker are the ones where historical sources are also lacking, namely the Celts and the continental Germans. Regardless, The Sacred Tree is a fantastic read, and would recommend it to those interested in the sacrality of trees in Pagan and Christian Europe, as well as Indo-European comparative religion.

Lauren Bernauer

University of Sydney


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