Dæmon in the Wood; The Ritual Fallacy

Arthur Evans’ Tree of Aniconic Divinity
page twelve

A green tree with exceptionally graceful foliage but without the herbivores attends another monster-tamer in the same position on the following seal, which is also Middle Assyrian (Fig. 45):

Fig. 45. Hero with griffins.
(Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.)

I cannot agree with Henri Frankfort that the tree on this seal is a “bedecked maypole.” He did not derive his opinion of it from his own great erudition in Assyriology, but rather from Sidney Smith, who got it verbatim from James G. Frazer, whose confusion of the two trees I have rejected earlier in this chapter. The essential difficulty with Frazer’s understanding of arboreal motifs was his untenable idea that ancient and primitive cults and their supporting myths made no distinction between the symbolic properties of stripped, dry trees on the one hand and foliated, green ones on the other. In order to apply Frazer’s notion to the archaeological evidence of Assyrian religion, Frankfort cited certain findings of others that in fact argue strongly against any such confusion of green wood and dry stocks in Mesopotamia, especially when those findings are compared with the glyptic iconography. Quoting Sidney Smith further, Frankfort affirmed that a

“...bare pole...was the object of ritual practices...just as was the case [of the asherah] in Syria and Palestine.”

The tree is, in all probability, a cedar tree: and in front of the temples at Khorsabad cedar trees bound with copper bands, decorated with religious scenes, stood on either side of the entrance.59

A tree bound about with metal bands and “decorated with religious scenes” is of necessity a dead tree, a dry stock girdled against splitting, with its cultic associations carved into its very wood. Standing at the entrance to temples, this dry tree is an obvious relative of the many ringed and tasselled stocks and gateposts elsewhere in Mesopotamian glyptic art (e. g., Figs. 51 and 54 below). Frankfort objected that “...the very artificial structure on such seal designs as in [Fig. 45 supra]...are unintelligible as the rendering of natural trees... .”60 The same thing would have to be said about the modern piece of folk art on the Moravian mural in Figure 46a infra, or the designs painted on the exterior walls of the famous mosque at Travnik in Bosnia (Figs. 46b-e infra):

Fig. 46a. Women’s mural painting from Moravia.

Fig. 46b. The painted mosque in Travnik, Bosnia.

Fig 46c. Façade of the painted mosque.

Fig. 46d. Arboreal decorations on the painted mosque.

Fig. 46e. A stylized fruiting tree on the painted mosque.

Certainly however the Moravian and Bosnian Muslim figures are green plants, not maypoles, and so by the same token is the tree in Figure 45 supra. Frankfort’s own earlier explanation of the ornate tree in Fig. 45, that in it “purely decorative values are paramount”61 was quite sufficient without his becoming involved in Frazer’s careless arboreal typology, which never in the thirty years of Frazer’s work on this subject could tell the difference between a hewn and a green tree.

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