You might have heard of the expression ‘touch wood’. It is a popular saying in the UK. It is a relic of tree worship that ruled the roost in pagan times. By touching wood we invoke the protection of a tree spirit. It is a pagan ritual. Often unnoticed.

This brings me to a fascinating paper by J Ethnobiol Ethnomed. “The Supernatural Characters and Powers of Sacred Trees in the Holy Land.”

This study explores the worldviews of contemporary Muslim and Druze people who live in Galilee in Israel. It includes 118 interviews with both Muslim and Druze believers. I do not have space here to outline the Druze and Folk Islamic beliefs of the surveyed believers. I will just say that both groups have syncretistic beliefs. In short we are dealing with folk who mix animist with Muslim beliefs. We should note that orthodox Muslims do not approve of Muslims who visit shrines in order to worship and pray to ‘saints’.  Grave worshipping is discouraged by Wahabi Islam.

In Galilee sacred trees are regarded by some as possessing miraculous powers. In many cultures around the world sacred trees are strictly protected and injuring a tree is regarded as a sacrilege. Both the Vikings and the Druids shared this deep reverence for trees. Indeed we have compelling evidence that humans were sometimes sacrificed to the tree gods in pagan England and heathen Scandinavia.

The Druze and Muslim folk attribute divine powers to holy trees because they believe that dead people (saints) live in the trees. It is vital to keep these spirits cheerful and cooperative. In some communities fear of revenge by the spirits in response to any harm done to the sacred tree is so vast that special ceremonies (sacrifices, gifts, prayers etc) are held to appease the truculent tree spirits/saints.

Here are some comments by the Druze and Muslim believers:

“The house fell down because the person took wood for constructing a house.”

“The same axe that cut down the tree cut the leg off/killed the offender.”

“The person has to sacrifice a goat and give its meat to the needy.”

“The tree is protected by the ‘Welli’ (slang term for saint).”

In conclusion a story about how the worship of sacred trees impacts ordinary life.

A man lost all his chickens which escaped from their cage. He prayed to the sacred tree and lit a candle. All the chickens returned to the cage.

How should Christians respond to tree worship? Is it intolerant to quote the New Testament?

Mark Roques
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Mark Roques

Mark taught Philosophy and Religious Education at Prior Park College, Bath, for many years. As Director of RealityBites he has developed a rich range of resources for youth workers and teachers. He has spoken at conferences in the UK, Holland, South Korea, Spain, Australia and New Zealand. Mark is a lively storyteller and the author of four books, including The Spy, the Rat and the Bed of Nails: Creative Ways of Talking about Christian Faith. His work is focused on storytelling and how this can help us to communicate the Christian faith. He has written many articles for the Baptist Times, RE Today, Youthscape, Direction magazine and the Christian Teachers Journal.

3 Comments

Hugh Grear · July 18, 2022 at 11:24 am

In simple terms, no, I don’t think trees have spirits or ‘saints’, and are not worthy of worship in and of themselves. But as always, God’s fantastic creation takes us by surprise! I have been reading about the “Wood Wide Web”, which is the humorous nickname for the interconnectedness of trees through a fungal network in and beyond their root systems. This, they say, allows trees to communicate with each other, sharing resources, warning of threats, and possibly even sharing tree emotions. Not quite the Ents of Lord of the Rings, but still fascinating: “and the trees of the fields shall clap their hands, and you’ll go out with joy”. Keep up the good work, Mark.

    Mark Roques · July 18, 2022 at 11:41 am

    Thanks Hugh for this great feedback. In future posts I will say a lot more about how amazing trees are in the context of the biblical story. I reject both ‘inanimate nature’ (secularism) and ‘Mother Nature’ (paganism).

Ted Newell · July 18, 2022 at 12:45 pm

I’ve been watching Ballykissangel where in season four a New Ager gets the bluff gruff businessman to hug a tree on the golf course. I’m guessing tree hugging goes back some ways. Is it also in Frazer’s Golden Bough? No wonder the more revelation minded Saudi type Muslims would look sideways at tree worshipers. For them, the later revelation did not displace the more ancient religion. So it would seem way less than pure.

Is there also a syncretism where later stuff encrusts the revelation? Does modern era stuff get its barnacles over the biblical Christian faith? That is, do you and I have any syncretism we might like to be aware of?

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