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A recent book examining the social construction of trees in modern Britain – something the authors Jones and Cloke term ‘arbori-culture’ – urges us to cast off any anthropocentric presumptions about who or what can be agents. Trees too, they insist, need to be acknowledged as active and powerful agents, shaping the culture in which they are rooted. Moreover, in so doing the authors hope to plug what they see as a serious gap in recent anthropological and sociological scholarship:
While some conceptual approaches … have adopted a serious approach to non-human agency, there remain some significant gaps in the types of non-human agent that have been subjected to serious study. Overall, there has been a distinct preoccupation with technological materials as non-human agents, and an under-emphasis on organic non-humans whose rather more unruly agency has been neglected by comparison.
Taking a leaf out of Jones and Cloke's book, it is the ‘unruly agency’ of trees which will now come to the fore in this book. Trees of course often make shows of their agency: they grow, change colour, lose and regain leaves, wither and die. This agency is also more obvious than that of many organic but non-animal phenomena. Flowers, for example, are so much frailer and shorter-lived than trees that any displays of agency might well go unnoticed. Rocks too undoubtedly change over time, but at a rate imperceptible to the human eye. Springs and rivers make far more overt shows of their agency, but arguably enjoy fewer options than trees for expressing it. By contrast, continual changes in trees' appearance and their relatively fast growth intensify and foreground their apparent agency. As well as being obvious, the agency of trees is also ‘unruly’, in the sense that it often feels beyond human control and prediction. And it is thanks to its unruly nature that arboreal agency makes its impact on Roman religious thinking. For, as we will soon see, the unpredictable behaviour of trees prompted questions which went straight to the heart of Roman grappling with the nature and meaning of divine interference in the human world.
Contrary to appearances, this book is not all about trees. For the significance of the trees we have met, and the theological questions they raise, spill out into our wider understanding of Roman religion. Trees have plenty to say, for example, about Roman understandings of sacrifice. Sensitivity to prepositions displayed by the fratres Arvales as they sacrificed because a tree had died has shown us that Roman thinkers might sacrifice about a situation, rather than to a deity; their pruning sacrifices too have challenged our understanding of piacula as atonement for unwitting faults. Trees have also enriched our knowledge of Roman thinking about statues of the divine: at Corinth, making statues of Dionysus from a tree was a way of worshipping that tree, along with the god; at Delphi a hybrid Athena-cum-palm articulated something essential about Athena's identity. To throw out a few more examples, the fig which prompted the coining of Adolenda Conmolenda Deferunda has shown us that there is nothing simplistic about Sondergötter. An oak beloved of Atalanta (among other trees) has urged us to rethink our understanding of the word numen. A palm which sprang up on an altar at Tarraco has revealed how engaging in imperial cult can raise challenging questions about an emperor's self-knowledge. Trees have long stood at the edge of the field in scholarship on Roman religion, but their ability to prompt Roman thinking about multiple aspects of their religious practices and the nature of the divine demands that they be rooted in the centre.
Moreover, as soon as trees are allowed to take a centre-stage position within our portraits of Roman religion, they urge us to revive those portraits in two major ways. Firstly, trees urge us to discard the inflexible legalistic definitions of ‘sacrality as consecration’ so dominant in current scholarship. The trees encountered in this book have insisted that their sacrality is far too diverse and multi-layered to be forced into such a model. Rather we have seen that Roman thinkers engaged with trees as sacred by placing a palm shoot among their penates, by sacrificing to Adolenda Coinquenda, preserving the remains of a plane in a temple, calling Jupiter ‘Fagutalis’ or commissioning an image of Hercules hugging a tree.
After his conversion to Christianity, Arnobius found time to reflect on the thinking behind his former pagan self's veneration of idols, stones and trees:
venerabar, o caecitas, nuper simulacra modo ex fornacibus prompta, in incudibus deos et ex malleis fabricatos, elephantorum ossa, picturas, veternosis in arboribus taenias; si quando conspexeram lubricatum lapidem et ex olivi unguine sordidatum, tamquam inesset vis praesens, adulabar, adfabar et beneficia poscebam nihil sentiente de trunco, et eos ipsos divos, quos esse mihi persuaseram, adficiebam contumeliis gravibus, cum eos esse credebam ligna lapides atque ossa aut in huiusmodi rerum habitare materia. (Ad. nat. 1.39.1)
In my blindness I used to worship statues recently brought out from the furnace, gods made on anvils with mallets, bones of elephants, paintings, ribbons on ancient trees; if ever I caught sight of a stone anointed and meanly dressed with olive oil, I used to adore it as if it had an internal force, I used to address and demand benefits from an insentient tree trunk, and I afflicted with serious insults those very gods, whom I had persuaded myself existed, since I used to believe them to be bits of wood, stones and bones, or to live in the matter of things of that kind.
Two factors were at play in his idiocy. The first was a deluded ‘animistic’ conception of such objects: he would worship an idol or stone or tree ‘as if it had an internal force’ (tamquam inesset vis praesens). Nineteenth-century lauding of ‘animism’ as the interpretative key to tree worship was, we see, no innovation. The second factor was a category mistake which resulted in Arnobius conceiving of gods either as synonymous with bits of wood, stones or bones, or as inhabitants of such objects. Sulpicius Severus also characterised pagan tree worship as a ridiculous category mistake. In his Life of St Martin, we read how the hero Martin had succeeded in destroying a pagan shrine, but once he moved to attack its associated tree found himself facing organised opposition.
In summer 2011, Private Eye featured in their ‘Funny Old World’ column a letter written by one Radnor the Wise. He had sent this letter to the Surrey Advertiser, in an attempt to address local concern about the Wiccan practice of draping a sacred tree in underwear.
Some of your readers may be aware of the recent discovery of a tree in the Hurtwood forest, which was found to be covered in black underwear (both men's and women's panties, briefs, bras and ladies' stockings), and reported in the local Peaslake parish magazine. As a practising Wicca (with the ceremonial title of High Witch), I can confirm that there is nothing sinister in this practice, and users of the Hurtwood forest should have no fear. The decoration of sacred trees is a feature of our religion, and represents our faith in the virility and generosity of mother nature. The tree-dressing ceremony is conducted very early during an icy spring morning, and is followed by a tactile exploration of rebirth, rejuvenation and renewal which is the highlight of the Coven's annual calendar. A similar ceremony is held at Harvest time, followed by our annual barbecue and quiz night. I hope this ceremony shows how religion, fashion, feminism, and ecology can work harmoniously together in the modern day.
Radnor is at pains to emphasise the intellectual sophistication and relevance of the tree-dressing practice, enacting as it does the potential intersection of religion, fashion, feminism and ecology in modern culture. He also takes care to frame sacred trees within the recognisably normal: what could be ‘sinister’ about anything followed by a barbecue and quiz night, that staple of Anglican social life and no doubt often advertised in the Peaslake parish magazine? Yet Radnor is fighting a losing battle here. For there is nothing sophisticated about sacred trees in the public imagination. To the contrary, sacred trees almost always find themselves stereotyped as the preserve of the weird and deluded, something very much marginal to the concerns of mainstream society. For most people today, ‘Funny Old World’ is simply the only appropriate kind of space for giving any thought to sacred trees.
Today trees sit in a blindspot for scholars of Roman religion. Yet if we take a long view back over the history of scholarship on Roman religion, this sidelining of trees becomes an ironic coda to almost a century and a half of unmitigated scholarly enthusiasm for sacred trees. Why have sacred trees been pushed to the margins in this way? What effect has the sacred tree's fall from grace had on our own scholarship? Understanding the history of our thinking about sacred trees – the way it moulds our presumptions about their significance within Roman religion and dictates what questions we ask about them – is the major aim of this chapter.
From early in the nineteenth century until well into the twentieth century sacred trees were overwhelmed with scholarly attention, thanks to the way they were felt to speak to concerns at the heart of intellectual culture during this period. The nineteenth century saw thinkers much exercised by questions about the origins of mankind and human culture, and when it came to religious studies the central aim was to identify the most primitive form of religion and then to trace its adaptations and developments down to the present day. Confidently titled books such as Caird's The Evolution of Religion (1893) or Allen's The Evolution of the Idea of God (1897) say it all. Certainly the search for the originary germ of religion was by no means entirely new – Hume's Natural History of Religion had argued in 1757 that this lay in people's fear of natural forces and consequent deification of them – but the nineteenth century saw an intensification of this particular scholarly mode. No small part was played in this by the influence of Darwin's evolutionary theories, which sanctioned the rationale of pursuing an original idea and tracing its developments in linear, chronological fashion. At the same time, this mode of scholarly enquiry was also deeply Christianocentric, as scholars pondered how it was possible that the most primitive religious thinking could eventually evolve into the sophistication of the Christian faith, something Caird sums up in laying out the central methodological questions for those who take ‘the idea of development’ as ‘a key to the history of religion’.
Pliny's use of the verb colere to encapsulate how some Romans respond to the ficus Ruminalis (Nat. 15.77) gives us a glimpse of a world in which arboricultural interference with a tree might articulate religious conceptions of it. Yet, on one level, Pliny aims in this passage to distract attention from human interference with the ficus Ruminalis, encouraging us to experience for ourselves conceptions of it as a continuous organic unity, which work against the subtext of its dependence on human care and occasional replanting. His focus thus leaves many questions to be asked about the nature of arboricultural interference with sacred trees, and its implications for our understanding of the significance of a sacred tree's matter. Yet to date these questions have not been asked: scholars from Boetticher onwards, reliant on the idea that Roman sacrality means the transfer of an object to the gods' property, have understood any interference with a sacred tree to be blatant sacrilege, even if not all follow Boetticher quite so far as to deem it punishable by death or exile. Thus Thomas, in an influential article on tree violation in the Aeneid, articulates the standard view:
Every piece of relevant evidence from Greece and Rome, as from numerous other societies, conspires to demonstrate that the cutting of trees is a hazardous act, stigmatized by society and divinity alike.
Such ‘evidence’ can even be construed as a ‘law’, as when Hughes observes that ‘a basic law found everywhere forbade felling trees or cutting branches’. Indeed, if we add to this ‘law’ the common assumption that Roman thinkers considered trees sacred thanks to their perceived animation, then tree violation becomes an attack not just on divine property but on a divine spirit. Thus Thomas continues: ‘tree spirits are obviously hard to detect, and any tree is therefore potentially numinous, any tree felling potentially hazardous’.
Such assumptions are of course founded on juristic claims that being sacred meant belonging to a deity, reliance on which, as I have argued, stifles the complexity of what sacrality means in the Roman world. Yet it is not only a legalistic frame of mind among scholars of Roman religion which is to blame here.
When divine agents expressed themselves through arboreal behaviour, the human world and the world of the divine temporarily overlapped. The startling and unsettling nature of these arboreal portents made getting to grips with their meaning pressingly urgent: as such it is hardly surprising that these portents have quite a noisy presence in the literature of the Roman world. Yet to focus purely on such attention-grabbing moments in the life of a tree is only to scratch the surface of how Romans understood trees, rooted in the human world, to intersect with the world of the divine. Turning now to the more mundane existence of trees, we will find that Roman thinkers envisaged a diverse spectrum of ways in which a tree might stand in relation to a particular deity, as a point of contact between the human world and the world of the divine. Continuing the theme of Chapter 5 – how the divine is articulated and read in the arboreal world – in this chapter I explore how trees fleshed out Roman imagination of the identity of the deities they worshipped.
A striking fresco from the east wall of the calidarium in the villa at Oplontis gives us an idiosyncratic preview of the kind of thinking about trees which will dominate this chapter. Here we find Hercules hugging a tree, around which is tied a large yellow ribbon (Figure 2). Standardly this image is said to be of Hercules in the garden of the Hesperides, but I see no reason to accept this. The one gold shape which some might have seen as a cluster of golden apples is, on close examination, in fact a bird flying close to the tree. Without any apples on the tree, or a snake twisting round it, why see this as the Hesperides' garden? Odd as it may be to us, we should not ignore the fact that what we see here is Hercules embracing a tree. As such this image makes a tantalising contribution to our thinking about the relationships Roman thinkers constructed between trees and deities. Matters are made particularly complicated by Hercules' own ambiguous divine status: are we to imagine this as Hercules the temporarily earth-bound hero, Hercules the deity, or something in between?
Sacred trees are easy to dismiss as a simplistic, weird phenomenon, but this book argues that in fact they prompted sophisticated theological thinking in the Roman world. Challenging major aspects of current scholarly constructions of Roman religion, Ailsa Hunt rethinks what sacrality means in Roman culture, proposing an organic model which defies the current legalistic approach. She approaches Roman religion as a 'thinking' religion (in contrast to the ingrained idea of Roman religion as orthopraxy) and warns against writing the environment out of our understanding of Roman religion, as has happened to date. In addition, the individual trees showcased in this book have much to tell us which enriches and thickens our portraits of Roman religion, be it about the subtleties of engaging in imperial cult, the meaning of numen, the interpretation of portents, or the way statues of the Divine communicate.
quodsi in animum quis inducat, tormentis quibus et quibus machinis simulacrum omne formetur, erubescet timere se materiem ab artifice, ut deum faceret, inlusam. deus enim ligneus, rogi fortasse vel infelicis stipitis portio, suspenditur, caeditur, dolatur, runcinatur; et deus aereus vel argenteus de immundo vasculo, ut saepius factum Aegyptio regi, conflatur, tunditur malleis et incudibus figuratur; et lapideus deus caeditur, scalpitur et ab impurato homine levigatur, nec sentit suae nativitatis iniuriam, ita ut nec postea de vestra veneratione culturam. nisi forte nondum deus saxum est vel lignum vel argentum. quando igitur hic nascitur? ecce funditur, fabricatur, sculpitur: nondum deus est; ecce plumbatur, construitur, erigitur: nec adhuc deus est; ecce ornatur, consecratur, oratur; tunc postremo deus est, cum homo illum voluit et dedicavit. (Minucius Felix, Oct. 22)
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