Why Did the Druids Worship Trees?

I’ve recently started watching the second season of Britannia.  My recommendation on it is here.  So while I was watching the stoned out of the gourds Druids, I got to thinking.

Worshipping trees.  Is that fucked or what?

I mean seriously, how much sense does it make? 

Worshipping cats makes sense.  No, really it does. When your grain stores aren’t that big, to begin with, there is no such thing as acceptable losses.   Vermin are a threat to your family’s existence, so a threat to the vermin is very welcome indeed, particularly when that threat is happy to eat the stuff you won’t.  And cats also clearly regard themselves as the rightful lords of the universe.

So, Bastet makes sense.

But trees? 

Aside from firewood and nuts what do they bring to the party?

Truthfully, quite a lot if you factor in two things.

  1. Pollarding
  2. How an innumerate society views the passage of time.

If you are an American You probably don’t have the slightest freaking idea what pollarding is. Understandably so, we didn’t really have a lot of use for it in this country. Well, actually that’s not precisely accurate Native Americans did practice pollarding themselves. But what my immediate ancestors practiced was clearance lumbering.  Trees were not a scarce resource when Europeans showed up here. They were an obstacle to be removed.

However, pollarding is probably what got us out of the Stone Age. In its simplest iteration, instead of cutting off a tree at the base, you cut it off above the height of where your domestic animals can typically graze.  If you have done it right, you don’t kill the tree and it starts to sprout new branches where the cut was made.  It appears that most societies discover the practice sooner rather than later.  Likely because it is easier to climb up a tree and cut it down with stone tools where the trunk is thinner towards the top. Now there’s a lot more to it than that if you are going to be successful at it but that is pollarding in its simplest form. 

Loyal Reader: The fuck does that do for the caveman version of me?! 

Plenty, as it turns out.   It makes harvesting firewood a lot more reliable for a start. You can settle down in one area rather than constantly having to keep moving. And depending on the variety of trees there can be uses for fibers or tree hay. Yes, tree hay is a thing and is healthier for ruminants than grain silage. It is what they would have eaten when they were wild cattle.  Pollarded trees make for a rough and ready open barn due to their low branches. Fruit and nuts are a welcome bonus.

So for a primitive society pollarded groves of trees were a critically important resource. 

Now comes the innumerate part. 

If I told you that an entire village of the Burkinabe people were beheaded by their neighbors and in unrelated news an entire town of Taexali people were tied up and beaten to death by some of theirs as well.  Your reaction to both bits of news is probably identical. 

But now what if I tell you that the Taexalis were killed 2000 years ago and that the Burkinabe were slaughtered this year?

Now your reaction is different.  Or at least it’s different if you’re not fucked in the head, (if you are fucked in the head, please don’t prove it in my comments.  Callousness is nothing to be proud of).

The truth is that the Taexali feel much more remote to you because you know long ago two thousand years is. 

But in an innumerate society, any period of time before the birth of the oldest person you know is jumbled together into “a long time ago.”  This is one of the big reasons that Third Worlders get so pissed off about shit that happened to them five hundred years ago.  To them, it’s no further back than the Roaring Twenties.

Now consider the innumerate world view regarding a grove pollarded trees that have been providing warmth for your hovels, feed for your livestock as well as shade and shelter for them, since before the birth of the grandfather of the oldest person you know? 

So far as you concerned, those trees have literally been there for-ev-er. Because you have no other way to view them.

looked at from that perspective, worshipping trees starts to make sense.

What doesn’t make sense is me watching the second season of Britannia, given how I felt about the first season.

5 thoughts on “Why Did the Druids Worship Trees?

  1. I have to agree with your assessment of the first season, but maybe the second will be a pleasant surprise. Here’s hoping.

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  2. We don’t really have any idea how the Celts understood their gods or how they worshipped them, nor the role of Druids in their society. We have only the very little of what Caesar and other contemporary writers wrote about the Gauls (and other tribes) and how their gods were equivalent to the Roman Pantheon (thus Lugh = Mercury, and so on). We have some tantalizing hints and remnants found in Old Irish and Welsh literature from 500 to 1000 years AD, but we have no Order of Service for Celtic Worship, nor scriptures, nor any Comparative Theology writings from the time.
    Thus, Britannia and everybody else (including neo-pagans) are free to make up pretty much whatever they want. Did the Druids worship trees? We really don’t know.

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  3. Druid, Anglicized from dryden, “tree knowledge”. Tree worship was Roman propaganda. Trees and forest care, animal husbandry as dry, astronomy with set stones, medicine from plants … the educated classes of their society, including bards we’d ho circulated tales and stories.

    Now, let the Romsns catch most of them on Mona and kill them. The 12 yr apprenticeship with lots of memorizing (DI on steroids and a couple good runs of coffee), that just broke. ‘S okay kids, have some Jupiter and like it, or crucifixion.

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    1. There is no “Old Celtic” language. We have to specify which one we are referring to (such as Gaulish, Old Irish, etc.)

      From the reputable Etymology online site:
      Druid (n.): “one of the order of priests among the ancient Celts of Gaul, Britain, and Ireland,” 1560s, from French druide (16c.), from Latin druis, fem. druias (plural druidae), from Gaulish Druides, from Celtic compound *dru-wid- “strong seer,” from Old Celtic *derwos “true” (from PIE root *deru- “tree,” especially oak) + *wid- “to know” (from PIE root *weid- “to see”). Hence, literally, perhaps, “they who know the oak” (perhaps in allusion to divination from mistletoe). Anglo-Saxon, too, used identical words to mean “tree” and “truth” (treow).
      The English form comes via Latin, not immediately from Celtic. Old English had dry “magician,” presumably from Old Irish drui. The Old Irish form was drui (dative and accusative druid; plural druad), yielding Modern Irish and Gaelic draoi, genitive druadh “magician, sorcerer.”

      I’ve been to Ynys Mon, along the Menai Strait from where the last stand of the Druids may have been. It is sobering to think about what happened there.

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