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Wednesday, July 16th, 2008, 12:17 AM
Tree and Well Veneration

It is very likely that the Heathen Anglo-Saxons saw most, if not all, inanimate objects of nature as living things. Objects that had a life and a soul of their own that required some form of veneration. And in the case of trees and wells we find a perfect example of the existence of their veneration amongst the Anglo-Saxons from an ancient canon that condemned such customs. The canon states the following:

'If anyone makes an offering on trees or wells or stones or railings or anywhere except in the Church of God...this is sacrilege, that is, sacrifice to demons.'

The above canon forbidding offerings to trees and wells in England dates back to the 7th century, making it over 1300 years old, a time when Heathenism was still rife in the land. We also find a law of a similar date that states that every priest shall extinguish '...the abominations that men exercise in various sorts of witchcraft, and in frithspottum, and with elms and other trees, and with stones, and with many phantoms'. But what is amazing is that, although much was done to rid the land of such Heathen superstitions, trees and wells are still to this day honoured in various ways with offerings. We see such in the enduring custom of wassailing, during which people hang food, usually toast soaked in cider, from tree branches.And of course today there is still the English custom of well dressing where people dress and lay gifts at local wells. So although much was done in trying to outlaw and forbid such customs and traditions 1300 years ago, and earlier, like much else these escaped and survived, and are still widely practised today.
Something that should be compared to this offering of gifts to so called inanimate objects of nature, is the offering of gifts to the earth itself. Just as the Heathen Anglo-Saxons saw life in all of natures creations, they too saw life in the earth itself, in the form of Eorthan Modor, or the
Earth Mother. Recorded in a land fertility charm is the custom of burying a cake within the first furrow ploughed by a farmer. The cake was a gift or offering to the earth, which in return he hoped for a good
Trees and wells were seen as being extremely sacred and holy, but also as givers of good health. This is evident from the times when Christianity was still finding it's feet in England, and concerns the well of Saint Augustine in Cerne. The well was said to have healing powers and could restore a persons eyesight.This belief in wells continued far into medieval times where people believed the pure water of a well could prevent a person from suffering the agonies of the black death. It was also very likely the same with trees. When Christianity was established in England, large vast crosses were constructed and stood in various parts of the land. Saint Willibald of Wessex claimed that as a child he suffered ill health, but when his parents laid him at the foot of such a cross he was blessed with good health. And he also claimed that this was a custom of the Saxon nation.
This idolatry doesn't sound very Christian at all, and it is very likely that such a 'Christian' superstition of 'healing crosses' was a Christianised continuation of a Heathen belief, where trees, or even maybe pillars (such as the Wessex ermula mentioned by Bishop Aldhelm), were seen as possessing such healing powers, but during the conversion of England these vast Christian crosses took their place, their power and their sacredness. We have other evidence concerning this continuation of Heathen superstition contained within the poem The Dream of the Rood. This Christian poem was composed at time when Christianity still had great competition from the Heathen religion. And so either deliberatley to win over new converts, or through natural Heathen influence, the poem contains much written imagery of a pre-Christian origin. And within the poem we find lines that say 'then the best tree of wood began to speak' and 'I can heal anyone who goes in fear of me'. The rood or tree of course is the cross upon which Christ hung, but like the healing cross of Saint Willibald it has the ability to heal, and like much with the pre and post Christian world of the Anglo-Saxons, this inanimate object has the gift of life and the ability to speak, and surely this is a continuation of a Heathen belief within Christianity in early England. And the ability of trees or pillars to heal or give good health wasn't restricted to just humans, but were also seen as being able to give good health to animals. We can see such a belief when in the 7th century St Eligus wrote the following:

"Let no one make flocks pass through a hollow tree or an aperature in the earth, for by doing so he seems to consecrate them to the devil."

But in this case it wasn't just the tree that may have been seen to be sacred or holy, but more so the natural hollow that it contained. To Heathens, and more so Heathen farmers, such natural phenomena would have held a magical aura, and would have been seen to contain magical powers capable of healing and giving good health to animals. A slightly similar custom from Cornwall persisted for a very long time. This involved a Bronze Age standing stone, now known as Men-An-Tol, that was constructed and designed with a hole at it's centre. Although the construction of the stone cannot be credited to Anglo-Saxons or Celts, traditions and superstitions that surround it more than likely can. And like the driving of flocks through hollows in trees to bring good health once existed, so too did the traditon of passing children through the stones hole, again for the purpose of healing the sick
As we previously read, much was done to outlaw these Heathen superstitions that the Christians regarded as sacrilege and as sacrifice to demons, but also as we have already read, much of it survived, even as far as today. To the Heathens everything that was part of nature contained life. Trees, wells, springs, stones, railings, the earth, and no doubt much much more, the moon, the sun, hills, mountains, the oceans. And they venerated and honoured them with offerings and gifts, and in return wished for good health or a good harvest. And even the coming of Christianity to England could not destroy these ancient superstitions, so they became as much a part of the new religion as much as they were a part of the old.