Sacred Groves in Europe
By Judith Crews
Crews, Ph.D., is a specialist in comparative literature and languages
and is currently working as a consultant to FAO, Rome.
was first published in 'Unasylva' the International journal of
forestry and forest industries - 2003 from FAO - Food and Agriculture
Organization of the United Nations Sacred groves also existed widely in
western Europe in ancient times.
groves seem to have existed widely throughout western Europe in
prehistoric times. They included natural or planted groves in which a
local deity was believed to reside; temple groves, in which a temple
was surrounded by planted trees; and groves surrounding or covering
burial grounds. A trait common to these areas was their inviolability;
only priests or those concerned with a ceremony could enter them. In
some traditions, cutting down a tree in a sacred grove could mean death
to the offender. There are still traces of sacred Druidic groves today
in areas of France, the United Kingdom and Ireland.
ancient sacred grove at Nemi near Rome, Italy was consecrated to the
goddess Diana (Artemis in Greek), the divinity of the hunt (Brosse,
1989). The name Nemi comes from the Greek and Latin nemos/nemus, which
meant a forest enclosing pastures, groves and a group of trees
considered to be sacred. Within a nemus clearings were cut in order to
put animals to pasture.
every tribe in ancient Gaul seems to have possessed a nemeton or sacred
meeting place surrounded and protected by trees. These were centres of
religious ritual, and their destruction was seen with the same horror
that would attend the burning of a temple or church today. According to
Matthews and Matthews (2002), “... many settlements [in Europe] were
built beside, or derived their names from, the sites of ancient groves.
Once Christianity began to move across the Western world, the nemeton
were destroyed and Christian churches built on their ashes...”. Still
today in Celtic countries offerings of ribbons can be seen hanging in
the bushes around sacred wells, an ancient custom venerating nature as
a feminine divinity or an “earth mother” principle.
speaking, one group’s “sacred grove” could be perceived as a threat by
another group, and conquerors often destroyed these places as a way of
wielding power over local peoples. As recorded by Lucanus, for example,
Caesar destroyed one of the Gauls’ sacred groves in the first century
in order to abolish what were considered by the Romans to be pagan
practices. During the Middle Ages, the Christian church destroyed
Celtic and Druidic sacred groves throughout Europe with a similar
purpose; the church’s prohibition of tree worship and of all rites
having to do with tree veneration probably related to the fact that
early tree guardians not only possessed knowledge (generally in the
form of planting calendars, medicinal properties of plants including
trees, and other types of knowledge) but carried on their practices and
teachings in secrecy and could have constituted a political threat;
destroying their “library”, so to speak, disempowered the magicians.
Brosse, J. 1989. Mythologie des arbres. Paris.
J. & Matthews, C. 2002. Taliesen, the last Celtic shaman.
Rochester, Vermont, USA, Inner Traditions International.