Dæmon in the Wood; The Ritual Fallacy

Arthur Evans’ Tree of Aniconic Divinity
page three

James Frazer had depended considerably on a German, Wilhelm Mannhardt, for his notions about tree-cult, and Evans similarly owed much of his thinking about ‘sacred’ trees to the work of another German, Carl W. Boetticher’s Der Baumkultus der Hellenen (Berlin, 1856). Both Boetticher and Mannhardt stressed the green trees in cult, and regarded them as the embodiment of deities. According to this notion, so in keeping with the conventions of German Romanticism, the green trees of ancient cult were gods and spirits, and not merely botanical associates or properties of preternaturals like the trees in fable which I have discussed in the earlier chapters of this book. Evans called this cultic merger of the tree and its frequenting spirit ‘aniconism,’ and the green trees of cult he called ‘aniconic images’ of the gods.

But there were difficulties with the German scholars’ doctrine of aniconism, because the pictorial artistry of the Aegean Bronze Age emphasized the standing, green trees much less than did nineteenth-century Germans, and gave much greater prominence instead to pillars and rods of hewn wood. As Arthur Evans expressed it:

...a special feature of the Mycenaean cult scenes with which we have to deal is the constant combination of the sacred tree with pillar and dolmen.44

He followed Boetticher unswervingly in the latter’s explanation of the pillar’s origin. It was hewn wood:

...the living tree...can be converted into a column or a tree-pillar, retaining the sanctity of the original.44

But when it came to giving a reason why the sacred tree should be cut down and rendered into a pillar, Evans chose his words so as to leave the relationship between the wood and the preternatural less exactly defined than Boetticher had done:

It would appear that the indwelling might of a tutelary God was secured by using in the principal supports of important buildings the wood of sacred trees.45

Evans thus accepted Boetticher’s explanation that the sacred trees were hewn in order to endue architecture with the same influences that emanated from them in cult before they were cut down. Evans did not try to specify what exactly those influences or meanings of the trees might have been, but he did think that in time the desire to make buildings more permanent had led to the substitution of stone columns for wooden ones. The stone columns had, however, retained the foliation and other decorative marks of their wooden antecedents:

The Mycenaean column in its developed architectural form, as can be seen from its entablature, essentially belongs to woodwork structure. The fundamental idea of its sanctity as a ‘pillar of the house’ may at times...have been derived from the original sanctity of the tree trunk whence it was hewn, and a form, in this way possessing religious associations, have been taken over into stone-work.46

Boetticher thought that the ancient Mediterranean tree-cult had evolved from an early ‘animistic’ stage of reverence for green trees themselves as deities to a more refined spiritualism that would have distinguished between the pure spirit of godhead and sacred trees as its material symbols. Correspondingly, the ancients should have hewn sacred wood more and revered green trees less with the passage of time. Evans was loath to contradict Boetticher on that point of theology, but his archaeological evidence from the Bronze Age did not conform to Boetticher’s scheme. The hewn pillars of wood did not succeed green trees in Mycenaean and Minoan art. On the contrary, the green wood and the hewn were perfectly simultaneous. The hewn pillar was, for example, just as regular a feature of Evans’ ‘hypaethral sanctuaries’ as was the fruit-tree; no such sanctuary was complete without both the green tree growing within and the hewn pillar standing either within, or within view outside. The pillar usually stood free at the entrance to the green tree’s enclosure, or visible at a moderate distance through the doorway. The gold ring from Mycenae (reproduced in (Fig. 8) was a case in point, as was another gold signet which Evans himself unearthed at Knossos:

Fig. 11. A gold signet ring from Knossos.

Later discoveries and publication of other signets have tended to confirm the judgement Evans reached in 1901:

Fig. 12. A gold signet ring from Crete.

Fig. 13. A gold signet ring from Asia Minor.
(Courtesy of the Antikenmuseum, Berlin.)

Fig. 14. A gold signet ring from the island of Mochlos.

Sometimes the pillar supported a corner of the green tree’s enclosure:

Fig. 15. A gold signet ring from Mycenae.

Fig. 16. A gold signet ring from Mycenae. (After Evans.)

Fig. 17. Impression of a gold signet ring.


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