Tree-worship is one of the oldest of all divinity cults. Right opposite Borgo’s Penny Market car-park entrance is a beautiful plane-tree addressed to the latest incarnation of the dryads and hamadryades. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it is yet another example of how ancient beliefs are constantly being transformed and regenerated in our world, especially in Italy. For there are many other trees which I have come across in my walks which have received objects of devotion and worship to them in the form of ribbons, religious icons and rosaries.
Hamadryades are the ancient classical embodiments of the trees themselves and the dryads are those who protect them to the point of themselves transforming into trees. The story of Daphne escaping from Apollo’s lust by transmuting herself into an olive tree (so beautifully represented by Bernini’s virtuoso sculpture) is a well-known of a wood nymph or dryad, metamorphosing into a hamadryade,
Different hamadryades protect different trees.
I’ve been able to find out the following hamadryades associated with certain trees:
Karya (walnut or hazelnut)
Aigeiros (black poplar)
Ampelos (vines, especially Vitis)
The essential word-root is Vir, meaning strength and not just manhood. ‘Vim and vigour’ is a popular phrase in English but it is not often realised that the term ‘Virgo’ meant ‘woman’ and not just ‘virgin’ as it seems to do today. The Virgin Mary embodies, in addition to her virginity and her immaculate conception, (i.e. the dogma that she was born free from original sin) female energy too.
There is barely a country in the world without a tree cult. Just think of dressing our Christmas tree for example! Among several of India’s southern hill tribes there is, for example, the celebration of a first marriage by a girl to a tree for eternity – whereas her marriage to a man only lasts as long as either is alive.
(Marrying a Peepal tree in India)
I worship trees. I don’t go as far as kneeling down before one and praying to it to crave a boon but I feel the great power than emanates from it as my fingers touch the tree’s bark and feel its sap rising from the roots to its outermost branches and leaves.
At this quintessential moment, when spring is invigorating the earth, the first sign is the flowering of such trees as hawthorns, plums and cherries colouring the landscape with their ravishing colours. The shrine to the Virgin opposite the supermarket car park might be deemed perhaps a little cranky if it were found opposite a south London Tesco’s and could be even prone to vandalism there. Not here, however.
For me, too, it is a wonderful sign that we must respect the female principle which is now spreading through the teeming seedful soil and finds its most splendid flowering in the growth of trees, those giants of the earth and our major living species which provides so much to us in terms of food, wood, beauty, bird-life and pure joy. That’s why for me – as it was for past generations – each tree is a temple to God and a pathway to Heaven itself.