Sacred groves of Britain
by Craig Chapman

In SE Essex lies a large and complex ancient wood. Its distinctive flora has persisted through the ages to adorn the woods with colour every spring for the last two thousand years. Hockley Wood, like all ancient woods, is unique.

The original perimeter woodbank of probable Anglo-Saxon origin is disturbed in places by encroachment into the margins of the wood by later Dark Age and mediaeval management. Inside its emerald shades, the trees are divided by further bank and ditch systems built by nearby manors and farms. We know the subdivision of the wood took place before the twelfth century, as parish boundaries conform to the divisions. During the Middle Ages, the wood fell under the supervision of a single owner. However, under the banks and ditches there are traces of even earlier wood banks from the Celtic Iron Age1.

After the last Ice Age, much of Britain was covered in what is known as 'wildwood'. Birch and hazel followed the retreating ice sheets north as pioneers, with Scots Pine coming after. Oak, ash, alder, lime and elm then began to establish their prominence in districts suited to their own particular needs. In evolutionary struggles forming climax woodland, one species would gain superiority; thus, in 5000 BCE Britain could be divided into five areas of particular climax woodland - lime, oak and hazel, hazel and elm, pine, and birch. The small-leaved lime forested southern and eastern England, containing and dominating woods of oak and hazel along with pockets of elm and ash.

The oak reigned supreme in the British uplands of Wales, Cornwall and the Pennines; in the Scottish south, the oaks began to mingle with the odd vanguard of Scots pine, but in England its commonest associates were hazel, elm and lime.

A vast forest of impenetrable giants captures the imagination when thinking of the oaken wildwoods. Evidence suggests that many centuries-old trees simply fell and carried on growing horizontally, opening up clearings and glades. The resultant mixture of saplings with fallen giants and upright boles holds true in the thin and stunted woods of wind-blown and high altitude location as a mosaic of running shadows and interlacing boughs, broken by shafts of sun and glades where insects drone.

In 4500 BCE, Neolithic farmers began to clear the wildwood for crops and pasture, creating landscapes similar to the eastern Steppes, where agriculture was born. The archaeological record of increasing arable weeds and decreasing elm pollen indicates not only a clearance of woodland for field crops but also the introduction of (Dutch) Elm Disease. The world's oldest known managed woodland is attested by the use of coppiced rods and poles used in the Neolithic tracks across southern English bogs, which required many acres of coppice to provide rods of equal thickness and length, grown from the stumps of felled trees. From the Neolithic bog under Somerset's Bell Track comes our first wooden idol, a goddess offered votively to the swamp to protect the travellers overhead from its murky depths and malevolent forces; the crudely carved offering is at total variance with the woodmanship of the trackway itself, and it is possible that it had been brought from a sacred woodland left to the gods.

During the Bronze Age (c. 2400-750 BCE), the wildwood began to be cleared from the hills, valleys and heavier topsoils, so that by the early Iron Age, half of England - some estimate up to two-thirds - had ceased to be wildwood. When the Romans arrived, Britain was not much more wooded than today, but was a familiar landscape of woods and hedged fields dotted with single trees and scattered farmsteads. Within this increasingly controlled cultural landscape, the Celts deemed the wild places of bogs, woods, springs, trees and rivers sacred. The deposition of sacrifices and artefacts in the watery places of NW Europe reflect their ritual concerns with fertility and regeneration, often artistically symbolised by wild bulls, stags and boars and by recurrent tree imagery, while wood and stone pillars became the focal centres of tribal ritual enclosures.

The retreat of nature, represented by species like wolves, aurochs, beavers and boar, into remnants of wildwood is attested to by the fact that the bear had become extinct in Britain by the time the Romans arrived.

The various Germanic tribes coming into Britain during and after the fall of the Roman Empire recorded and named in their later charters the remaining woods and trees. At least one in four of these was still there in the 20th century, such as Wanelund Wood in Norfolk, lúndr being Old Norse for sacred grove. Supposed massacres of the Britons are not supported by the pollen record and vegetative remains, land will revert to woodland within fifty years of disuse, but some crops were evidently growing on the same fields throughout and beyond the period of disruption, a remarkable indication of continuous use.

According to Ellis, the old agricultural tribes of India cleared the forest for their pasture and cropland, leaving intact groves - sarna - of what was thought to be remnants of the primeval forest for their local gods (one famous such grove was Sarnath, where it was once said the Buddha was born). This picture may not be dissimilar to the groves of NW Europe, associated with the earlier ritual enclosures and burial mounds of the Bronze Age and Neolithic landscapes, as in Ireland and Britain.

At the centre of such earthworks, a stone pillar or huge post would be erected as a cult focus, imitating a sacred tree, such as the 35-ft high 200-year-old oak pillar at Emain Macha in Ireland or the wooden posts within the 6th-century BCE enclosures of Goloring and Goldberg in Germany. Although usually impossible to identify, a sacred grove could well have been enclosed by a simple bank and ditch separating the sacred land from the well cultivated, acculturated landscape outside. Woodbanks mentioned in the 12th century seem mostly to have been already in existence, relics of the Anglo-Saxon or Norse landscape, even possibly dating back to the Iron Age, as at Hockley or the prehistoric earthworks in and under the woodbanks of Gamingley Woods in Cambridgeshire; for the circular woodbanks of the Celts differed little if any from those of later wood crafters.

The classical writers imagined a wilder grove within the imagination, in which Druids celebrated barbaric rites; some believed the Druids retreated under Roman oppression from open air gatherings to closet themselves and their dark rites in the remnants of the wild wood away from civilisationŠ

Whatever the reality, the sacred groves of Britain can be traced between the dusty faded pages of old texts such as the Ravenna Cosmography, written in 60000 AD, which in list form ambiguously locates some of the following groves.

Nemetambala: Archaeologists Richmond and Crawford, who translated the anonymous Ravenna text, believe this grove was situated overlooking the mouth of the River Wye, where according to Nennius grew a strange ancient apple tree, one of the marvels of Britain. The archaeologists argue that if the last element of the word was abala in stead of ambala; this would suit Nennius' interpretation, as it would then mean 'sacred apple grove'. However, it is ambala - which in Greek means 'shield boss', 'centre of the earth' or 'navel', and is obviously related to omphalos as well as the Irish imblim or Latin umbo, umbilicus. Thus Nemetambala as it stands may mean 'the sacred grove at the centre of the earth'.

In Germania, Tacitus tells of a Germanic tribe, the Semnones, who annually assembled at a sacred grove to witness sacrifices; any of those who, bound and trussed, should stumble and be unable to get up were left to the gods. Of importance, though, is that Tacitus says the Semnones considered the grove as their place of origin, the centre of creation. The Silures of Nemetambala probably regarded their grove likewise.

Visitors to the vicinity of Nemetambala may still encounter the genius loci on the Wyndcliff trail through ancient woodland, located half a mile past St Arvans. The main trees along the trail are disease-felled wych elm, wild cherry, oak, ash and beech, frequented by sparrowhawks and buzzards. For the sharp-eyed, the canopy holds tree creepers, goldcrest and nuthatch. Understorey trees are rare whitebeam, spindle and hazel. Among the plants such as woodspurge, herb paris,wild madder and birds-nest orchids - various butterflies can be seen - the holly blue, speckled wood and silver-washed fritillary. While drifting among the flowers and bees, keep a look-out for the wonderful 700 ft drop to the River Wye below, offering spectacular views for those who care to look.

Nemetotatio. This grove lay in the tribal lands of the Dumnonii, beside the River Tamar which divides Devon and Cornwall. The name of the grove is regarded as a mystery, along with its whereabouts. One possibility is that nemet conflated with totatis would mean 'sacred grove of the tribal god' (totatis as a variant of teutates, 'tribal god', has been recorded on a votive plaque at Barkway, Herefordshire). The tribal god of the Dumnonii may have been 'the dark one', the Tamar itself.

One candidate for the location of Nemetotatio is Kit Hill beside the river. Its numinosity since prehistoric times is attested to by tumuli and the earthworks on the summit. At the foot of the hill, the holy well of Dupath chapel marks the sacred springs. Significant in its relationship to the hill is the Neolithic henge, Castlewick, the site of later Saxon gatherings south of the hill. The Saxon connection proves fruitful, as the nearby Harrowbarrow derives from the Old English hearg, meaning 'heathen temple or grove'; barrow derives from berry, means 'hill, mound, tumulus', or beare, 'grove, wood', remnants of which survive on the valley sides.

A far cry from the naturalists' and pagan imaginings of today is the Celtic grove described by the 1st-century CE Roman poet, Lucan, in Pharsalia, speaking of a Gaulish grove near Marseilles:

A grove there was, untouched by human hands since ancient times, whose interlacing boughs enclosed a space of darkness and cold shade, banishing the sun from above. No rural Pan dwelt there, nor Silvanus, ruler of the woods, nor dryads; but gods worshipped with savage rites, the altars heaped with hideous offerings, every tree sprinkled with human gore. On these boughs birds feared to perch; in those woods wild beasts refused to lie; no wind ever bore down upon the wood nor thunderbolts hurled from black clouds. The trees, spreading their leaves to no breeze, rustled amongst themselves. There were many dark springs running there and stern-faced gods, uncouthly hewn by the axe from untrimmed tree-trunks, rotted to whiteness.

What those stern-faced gods looked like may be suggested by the numerous wooden figures preserved in the bogs of northern Europe, such as the Neolithic goddess from the Bell Track or the wooden goddess from Ballachulish in Argyll, Scotland. Some may find the features of the god from Broddenbjerg, Jutland, more amenable, but I rather doubt it...

Ynys Mon (Anglesey): This stronghold of Druidism, an 'insula sacrum', was of great importance to the Celts, attested to by the votive offerings from as far away as Somerset, deposited in the sacred lake Llyn Cerrig Bach from a small ledge of rock above it. It is highly probable that groves were associated with such lakes, considering the literary and archaeological evidence. In this case the grove may have been a gwern, or alder grove, given the watery nature of the terrain. On Holy Island, off Anglesey, the only extant placename alluding to groves is Llwyn-y-Berth, 'the beautiful grove' - alas, not so beautiful today as the nearest original woodland is five miles away, around Bodior.

The most telling evidence for such groves on Anglesey is on lands adjoining the Menai Strait, the scene of Paulinus' attack on the Druids in the first century CE. Here lies 'the mound of the dark grove', Bryn Celli Ddu. This chambered cairn, built on a stone circle henge, contains fantastical carvings and a possible solar roof-box. The situation of the mound is in itself interesting as it overlooks the River Braint, derived from the Goddess Brigantia, and two 'ash groves' - Llwynonn. now sadly replanted with pines However, the mid winter solstice alignment from Bryn Celli Ddu indicates that this sightline, 225° SW, was clear of trees in the Bronze Age and even possibly earlier. Further investigation of this alignment is intriguing for ley and archaeo-astronomical enthusiasts alike. Starting off at the Mermaid Inn, or more preferably finishing there, the line runs through Brynscen cyn tumulus --- Caer Idris earthwork --- Bryn Celli Ddu --- Bryn Eryr earthwork --- Hendrefor earthwork --- Ucheldref burial chamber --- and starts/ends at the 'village grove', Pentterllwyn. The river of the goddess Brigantia weaves around the alignment for most of its course, its source lying within the Mynydd Llwydiarth forest at a small lake of especial sanctity.

Vernemeton: The name Vernemeton translates as 'especially sacred grove' or 'great sacred grove'. At a loss to Britain's religious culture, nothing now remains of this once numinous wood at what is now Willoughby, on the Fosse Way at the centre of England; instead, the traveller is greeted by the sound of chariots of metal careering around a roundabout on the A9.

It is reputedly in this vicinity that the Boudiccan insurrection was quashed. Aiming to destroy the Celtic centres of opposition to their rule, the Romans were desecrating the sacred groves on Anglesey, the 'seat of British druidism' while behind them the Iceni tribes of south-east England were razing Colchester and London. Boudicca, in celebrating her early victories, chose to sacrifice Roman women captives to Andraste, by impaling them upright on sharpened stakes (Andraste's skewering grove is unlocated, but lay in Suffolk); she then marched to the centre of Britain, Vernemeton, to meet the desecrators of the insula sacrum, Anglesey. It seems more than coincidence that the forces clashed here - were the legions bent on destroying and Boudicca on protecting this 'great sacred grove'? Was it seen as the natural site for a decisive battle of sovereignty, for the soul of Britain?

Vernemeton may once have played host to the annual gathering of the tribes, similar to the role played by Drunemeton, 'the sacred oak grove' venerated in Asia Minor by the Galatians. When excavations at Willoughby took place, they revealed nothing but burnt debris from the Celtic era and an Anglo-Saxon burial ground occupying the site from around 500-600 CE.

Medionemeton: 'The middle sacred grove' has been located by Stuart Piggott at Cairnpapple Hill in Lothian, Scotland. It was probably a royal Celtic inauguration site. Mysterious rock-cut graves believed to date from the Iron Age have been found on the east side of this henge. The whole site has seen non secular use since the Neolithic era and was possibly the 'omphalos' or 'sacred navel' of Scotland. Looking at the topography of Cairnpapple Hill today, there is a large expanse devoid of woodland - this was cleared during the Bronze Age or even earlier. The grove left in this clearance would have consisted of mature oaks, with an understorey of hazel or birch and the possible odd outlier of ash.

Arnemetia: Under the emerald green canopy of an ancient wood, amongst the gnarled trunks heavy with moss and lichens, dappled shades play across your face as you step lightly amid anenomes and bluebells. The drone of a thousand insects reverberates around the forest as you tread quiet beneath the oaks. The garlic smell of ramson lingers in the air like some woodland narcotic as you stare like a starry eyed narcissus into the depths of a dark mysterious pond. Arnemetia is present, goddess of the grove, and drifting to the echoing sound of warblers, two thousand years melt into the trees. The Corieltauvi worshipped 'she who dwells at the sacred grove', Arnemetia at Buxton in Derbyshire. There, amid the trees on the valley floor arose two springs the Celts deemed sacred; their goddess presided over them, and those who drank of her waters were cured of wasting disease and sickness. Even today, "every landscape of old trees has its own genius loci", whose presence can be sensed in ancient woods.

When our Germanic ancestors invaded post-Roman Britain, they brought with them their own pantheon of gods and there is no doubt that they set aside 'sacra sylvestre' where the powers emanated from the land. Tacitus, speaking of the Ingaevones and tribes of the North German coastlands, reports in Germania "they judge that gods cannot be confined within walls, nor portrayed in likeness to any human countenance; they consecrate groves and woodland glades, applying the names of deities to that hidden presence only sensed by the eye of reverence". He adds, concerning the tribes around the River Elbe, that there was nothing remarkable about them apart from the fact that they worshipped 'mother Earth', calling her Nerthus, believing the female form to be sacred.

Tacitus further reveals that "In an island of the ocean there is a sacred grove, and within it a consecrated chariot . Only the priest is permitted to touch it...He can perceive the presence of the goddess in this sacred recess, walking by her side as she is drawn along by heifers. It is a season of rejoicing and festivity reigns wherever she is received.;they do not go to battle or wear arms till the goddess is restored to her temple. The divinity herself, cart and vestments are then purified in a sacred lake, slaves performing the rite who are instantly swallowed up by its waters."

This agricultural fertility rite probably took place in Sol Monas - February, the mensis placentarium, when, according to Bede, "the English offered to their gods". The goddess' perambulation around the fields atop a chariot or cart likely occurred before cultivation, to ensure a wealth of fertile produce, Her presence in the grove, sensed by the priest, was possibly viewed as the reawakening of spring, the first sign of vegetation growth within the grove after the winter sleep - as Dylan Thomas so aptly put it, "the force that through the green fuze drives the flower".

On an island off the coast of Denmark, Sjaelland, Nerthus' grove may be recorded in the placename Niatharum, first written down c.1100 CE. An earlier Germanic tribe, the Semnones, regarded a sacred grove as being the centre of the tribe, their origin. Likewise it could be said that the English (Angles) originated from the sacred grove of Mother Earth Nerthus in old Anglia, as this is the region of their origin.

Placename evidence predominates in Denmark, where the old Norse word lundr, sacred grove, sheds light on the somewhat darker aspects of northern paganism taking place in the sombre pine and oak forests around the Baltic Sea. The home of the Svevi, Jutland, is famous for the number of preserved sacrificed bodies, figurines and votive deposits unearthed within its boglands. The serene face of the Tollund Man is probably the best-known bog body, whose preserved head takes pride of place in Denmark's National Museum. This individual, after being strangled with a rope fashioned like a torc, was offered to the gods in an old peat cutting (Two thousand years later, it might be said that the gods took a new life for old, when a man helping to extract the body died of heart failure). The bog itself is still surrounded by native trees and vegetation, not too dissimilar to the dark forest of Jutland that witnessed the spring sacrifice so long ago. Tollund first appeared in a 1481 document as 'Torlundr', a grove sacred to one of the primary gods of the Viking Age, Thor.

That the numerous Germanic tribes practised human sacrifice in sacred groves is beyond doubt. Tacitus tells of a visit to a Teutoburg wood in 15 CE, where three divisions of the Roman army and their general, Varus, were wiped out. The Germans left their bodies to rot after the victory, decapitating many and fastening the heads to tree trunks. "In groves nearby were the outlandish altars at which the Germans had massacred the Roman colonels and senior company commanders". Six years later, the Romans returned to build there a large burial mound of turves, relinquishing their dead to Dis Manibus and the gods of the shadows.

Moving forwards in time, we meet the heathens of the far north sacrificing in groves as late as the eleventh century at Uppsala in Sweden. Three large burial mounds were known by the names of the three main Viking deities - Wodenshowe, Thorshowe and Freyshowe - and the area was famed in history as the most notorious pagan centre in all Scandinavia. Adam of Bremen, a German cleric of 1075, described the site as a huge temple in whose vicinity a general feast was held, from which no-one was exempt from attending or making offerings; to the gods of everything that is male they offer nine heads, with the blood of which it is customary to placate gods of this sort; the bodies they hang in a sacred grove that adjoins the temple. This grove is so sacred in the eyes of the heathen that each and every tree in it is considered holy because of the death and purification of the victims. Even dogs and horses hang there along with men".

Adam adds in a footnote that near the grove grew a sacred tree that remained green all year round (presumably a conifer), and underneath its wide spreading branches "a spring arose between the roots, to which sacrifices were offered; if the victim sank without trace the gods had answered". This is clearly reminiscent of the description of Yggdrasil, the World Tree central to Germanic religion.

Yggdrasil grew at the centre of the world, the 'greatest and best of all trees', the World Ash; its branches reached the sky and covered the Earth, its roots stretched out to the realm of the dead and the world of humans. Under it the gods assembled a council. Beneath its roots lay the well of Fate, tended by three females, Past-fate, Present being and Future necessity - the Norns. Each day they watered the tree from the well of fate; no care was considered too good for it, since Yggdrasil bore up the Universe and the welfare of the world depended on its well-being. In its branches perched an eagle with a hawk between its eyes; at its root gnawed the serpent Nidhogg. Up and down its trunk ran mischief, the squirrel Ratatosk. Deer and goats devoured its shoots, and the huge trunk was infested with rot. Of its origins we know nothing; but we are told that it would endure aged and shaken, till the world's end.

An excavation in the mid-1970s at Uppsala uncovered a well with a ladder leading into it, underneath the roots of a huge ancient tree; although the species is not known, it is tempting to think that it may have been a descendant or even the original tree of which Adam spoke.

The waves of Germanic invaders and settlers formed the country of England that we know today. 90% of its Teutonic inhabitants arrived between 400-1066 CE. The Norse word lundr became in English 'lound', 'lownde' or 'land'. One good example of a sacred grove still standing is Wayland Wood in Watton, Norfolk. Going back to the Viking era as Wanelund, it was mentioned in the Domesday Book as the site of a hundred court held on the division of the county. This grove of pre-Conquest heathen worship is now owned by the Norfolk Naturalists Trust.

Further west, in Cambridgeshire, lies the ancient Hayley Wood, whose companion, littelund, was unfortunately grubbed up in 1650; however, the genius loci may still be sensed among the anenomes and yellow oxlips of Hayley Wood, at the centre of which grows an ancient oak that puts forth leaves of the deepest red. Woden's Groves The groves of our Germanic predecessors exist mainly as placenames on the map, and here one must be cautious, as the study of etymology is subject to the vagaries of fashion.

For seekers of Wilde's "spirit that dwells in dark dim woodland and walks unseen in open field", Roseberry Topping in North Yorkshire is a good place to start. This numinous conical hill was first recorded in 1119 as Othensburg. the hill of Odin. Under his Saxon name the god's groves can be found in Wensleydale - the valley of Woden's Grove where the annual 'Burning of Bartle' ceremony takes place every August.

A grove of Thor can be traced from the 11th century at Thundersley in Essex (TQ 77 88), or one of Tiw in Surrey at Tuesley (SU 97 43), also recorded in the 11th century. In Warwickshire a sacred oak still exists on the parish boundary once called Walluhtgrove in Long Itchingtonl. And recently a valley of the goddess Frigg was identified - the modern village of Fridon in Derbyshire (SK 13 60). A charter of 963 CE revealed the old name of Frigedene, shedding light on the boar-crest helmets found in the Saxon Benty Grange burial mounds.

So ancient groves mentioned in Anglo-Saxon charters and chronicles and the Domesday Book can indeed still be identified - and their genius loci found intact - but one must learn to decipher the names, and seek them; like Westgraf, in Hazelor in 704, where the sacred oaks of one of our old English groves stand yet.

originally posted by the atlanto-med9000