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?