Until a few years ago, Punan tribals of Sarawak, Borneo, were animists. This young man, photographed in 1975, presents an egg as an offering to mountain spirits. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In former times, all humans were animists, who believed that everything in nature – animals, stones, trees, etc. – harboured a spirit, benevolent or evil, who controlled the acts of men. These spirits were able to leave the creature, or the place they dwelled, flying around to benefit or harm humans. You had to be very careful not to be possessed by an evil spirit, which could be prevented by presenting offerings, e.g. an animal, bits of cloth, or food, to the spirit. Likewise, offerings could be made to benevolent spirits to obtain their goodwill.
On this small scaffold in the Punan village of Long Ba, Sarawak, Borneo, lie sacred stones, where, in the old days, pig blood was offered before the men went head-hunting. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Jani tribal female shaman near a sacred pole outside a shrine, dedicated to a local goddess, Mauli, near Kotpad, Odisha (Orissa), India (top). Clay offerings, placed beneath a sacred tree outside a Jani tribal shrine, also dedicated to Mauli. Offering a clay tiger will protect against tigers; offering clay domestic animals will protect against disease among the animals, etc. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Carved wooden images, depicting local gods, called bulol, guard the rice harvest in an Ifugao tribal house, Bocos, northern Luzon, Philippines. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In Asia, offerings to stone cairns, sacred trees etc. indicate remnants of pre-Hindu and pre-Buddhist animism. To the ancient Asian animists, practicing a religion called Bon (pronounced with a long ‘o’), the ox was a sacred animal, often presented as an offering to gods or spirits. Today, there are still traces of this ancient practice, e.g. in Ladakh, northern India, where horns of cows, yaks, and wild goats are placed as offerings on stone cairns. The horns and stones are often painted red, called Lato Marpo (‘Red Gods’), the red dye probably symbolizing blood from sacrificed animals.
Horns of Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica) and a small yak skull, placed as offerings on a cairn near a mani wall (stone slabs with carved Buddhist mantras), Tunespa, Markha Valley, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This skull of a bharal, or Himalayan blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur), has been placed among Tibetan prayer flags and fragrant juniper branches (Juniperus), Kagbeni, Mustang, central Nepal.
Yak skull, placed as an offering near mani stones on the kora, or pilgrim route, around Tashilhunpo Monastery, Shigatse, Tibet. Note that mantras have also been carved into the skull.
The following four pictures show other offerings, which probably represent remnants from the pre-Buddhist and pre-Hindu animism in India and Nepal.
These Hindus place a flower offering, consisting of blue and white Anemone obtusiloba and yellow Primula stuartii, on a stone cairn, dedicated to a local goddess, atop the peak Rakhundi (3622 m), Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India. Both plants are presented elsewhere on this website, see Plants: Mountain plants – Plants of the Himalaya. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Offering, consisting of small clay figures and sticks with bits of paper attached, placed on a mountain trail in the Modi Khola Valley, Annapurna, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Another offering on a trail near Kakani, Helambu, Nepal, consisting of eggs and small figures (gods?), made from sticky rice and soil (?), with hats made from banana leaves. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A little doll, placed on a tiny wagon, Honnavar Forest, Karnataka, South India. Black magic? Or perhaps to ask the gods to cure a disease? (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Local god, carved into a pole outside a gompa (Tibetan Buddhist monastery) at the village of Nagonde, Helambu, central Nepal – perhaps a remnant of pre-Buddhist animism. Poles with Tibetan prayer flags are seen in the background. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This little herder in Tashigaon, Arun Valley, eastern Nepal, is wearing a necklace with corals and turquoise, and a talisman bag, the latter probably a remnant from pre-Buddhist animism. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sacred village trees and groves
When primitive Man began to control fire, life-giving warmth was obtained by burning wood during cold nights. On hot days, trees would provide cooling shade. Some trees would yield an abundance of fruits or other food, and a decoction of bark or leaves from certain trees would cure or ease certain diseases. Much later, trees provided timber for houses, tools, wagons, ships, etc. – a steady flow of gifts for humanity.
In the vast forests, certain trees – especially hollow ones – supposedly possessed enormous powers, and it would be wise of the hunter to be on good terms with the tree women. He would bring offerings to them, but also had a mysterious mythical-erotic relationship with them.
When humans began building villages, a tree would often be planted on the founder’s grave, around which the village was centered. This sacred tree, which was believed to be endowed with the spirits of the deceased family members, could be birch (Betula), oak (Quercus), ash (Fraxinus excelsior), linden (Tilia), Norway spruce (Picea abies), Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), or yew (Taxus baccata). During festivals, mead was presented as an offering, and also blood, when animals were slaughtered.
Until about a hundred years ago, among certain African tribes in Liberia, a tree would be planted, when a village was founded, and a beautiful maiden would be buried alive under the tree. Hereby, this tree would be endowed with the spirits of the forefathers. The tree and its surroundings were protected, and if weaver birds – which are serious pests, as they eat crops – founded a colony in the tree, nobody dared to harm them. If somebody pursued them, the village must be burned down, and a new one established far away.
When the various religions arose, it was only natural that parts of the old animism would be incorporated in the new belief. Sanctity of trees has lingered up to the present day. Many cultures and religions still have sacred groves, often situated around temples or graveyards. The trees in these groves are believed to contain supernatural powers, and they are never cut down, even during periods of starvation.
To our ancient forefathers, certain trees – especially hollow ones – possessed enormous powers. This picture shows one such tree, Ulvedalsegen (’Wolf Valley Oak’), north of Copenhagen, Denmark. – Read about many other old oaks elsewhere on this website, see Plants: Ancient and huge trees. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Worship of trees still takes place around the world. This picture shows a grove of old drooping junipers (Juniperus recurva) near the Pangboche Monastery, Khumbu, eastern Nepal. These trees are sacred to the local Tibetan Buddhists – a remnant of Bon, the dominant pre-Buddhist religion of Central Asia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This man in Tirthan Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India, makes an offering to a sacred conifer, which is the abode of Koru, a local Hindu goddess. The trunk has been adorned with bits of cloth, padlocks, chains, etc. This habit is probably a remnant of pre-Hindu animism. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This large Indian holly oak (Quercus floribunda), growing near Dharkot, Uttarakhand, India, serves as a ‘money tree’. Coins are hammered into the bark as an offering to obtain good luck. This custom may be a remnant of pre-Hindu animism. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tree worship in Norse religion
In Norse mythology, which evolved during the late part of the Iron Age, the sacred village tree was enlarged to a tree of gigantic dimensions, called Yggdrasil. The branches of this tree stretched across the entire world, housing gods, giants, and people. Traditionally, Yggdrasil is considered to be an ash (Fraxinus excelsior), but many scholars now believe that it was a yew (Taxus baccata), as the sacred tree in the shrine of Uppsala, Sweden, according to several sources, was an evergreen.
The Norsemen had sacred groves, in which sacrifices were presented to Odin, the Sky God. Around 1070, historian Adam of Bremen describes one such shrine in Uppsala: “Of every kind of living things, nine males are sacrificed, their blood believed to reconcile the gods. The bodies themselves are strung up in the trees of a grove next to the shrine. This grove is so sacred to the heathens that each and every tree in it is considered to be divine through death and decay of the victims. Here are the corpses of dogs and horses, and also of humans, and a Christian has told me that he observed 72 such corpses, hanging close to one another.”
Odin was also called ’God of the Hanged’ or ’Lord of the Gallows’, and another name was Yggr (‘The Terrible One’). Yggdrasil is sometimes translated as ’Odin’s Steed’, and according to Hávamál (’Words of the High One’, from the Old Norse Edda), Odin hung nine days in Yggdrasil, sacrificed by himself to himself, in his eternal quest for knowledge. (Nine was a sacred number to the Norsemen.)
In the Nordic countries, far into the 1800s, trees, on which two branches had joined to form a circular or oval opening, were called eye trees, and these trees supposedly possessed supernatural healing powers. Sick persons – often children with rickets – were pushed through this opening, naked. This ceremony had to be performed at night, and, preferably, on a Thursday night – presumably a remnant of the Norse religion, as Thursday means ‘Day of Thor’. By undergoing this ritual, the sick one would be reborn, healed.
Many scholars believe that Yggdrasil was a yew. This picture shows an ancient yew in Gleann Dá Loch (Glendalough), Ireland. To the right, still clinging to the trunk, is a withered ivy (Hedera helix). – Read more about yew elsewhere on this website, see Plants: Ancient and huge trees. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Formerly, this old common oak (Quercus robur) in Leestrup Forest, Zealand, Denmark, was a so-called eye tree, where a branch had joined the trunk, thus creating an oval opening, an ‘eye’. In 1967, the branch broke off, leaving only a small stump. For fun, this father lifts his little daughter over the stump. The name of this oak is Kludeegen (‘Rag Oak’). Formerly, people attached bits of cloth to the tree as an offering, and this ancient habit has been adopted by tourists today. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Pramdrageregen (‘Barge-haulers’ oak’) is another ‘eye’ tree, situated near Gudenå River, Jutland, Denmark, where, in former times, men would haul barges up or down the river, using long ropes, attached to the barge from the bank. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Animism is often connected with shamanism, which is healing by exorcism of evil spirits. Even today, this healing practice takes place among tribes, which have not yet become completely ‘civilized’.
This ancient tribal cave painting, in the ‘Painted Cave’, Niah National Park, Sarawak, Borneo, depicts a shaman in a boat, and a spiral – the latter indicating that the artist was in a hallucinogenic trance, when he made this painting. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This shaman from the Markha Valley, Ladakh, India, wears the typical high felt hat of the area, and a rosary with 108 beads, made from plant seeds. (108 is a sacred number to Buddhists.) Officially, Ladakhi shamans are Buddhists, but their practice contains many traces from Bon, the pre-Buddhist religion of Central Asia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This tribal woman in the city of Badami, Karnataka, India, is probably a shaman. She is collecting money for a local goddess. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Performance for tourists in Kathmandu, Nepal, depicting a shamanistic healing dance among Jhankri tribals. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In 1975, during a stay in Long Ba, a Punan tribal village in Sarawak, Borneo, I witnessed a ceremony, in which a shaman tried to heal a sick person in a healing room in the tribal longhouse. A scaffold, with a burning candle atop, was decorated with brightly coloured bits of cloth. In the evening, the shaman, the sick man, and several older women circumambulated the scaffold, while three girls beat drums of various size. The shaman, wearing a special headgear with numerous hornbill feathers attached, then performed a dance to urge the evil spirit to leave the sick man’s body.
The sick Punan man, sitting in the healing room. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In 1984, I participated in a healing ceremony in the Ifugao village of Bocos, northern Luzon, Philippines, described in detail elsewhere on this website, see Episodes from my travels: Philippines 1984 – Shamanism among Ifugao tribals.
During the healing ceremony in Bocos, this Ifugao shaman thrusts a sharpened bamboo stick deep into the lungs of a pig, twisting it several times. The pig screams horribly for a couple of minutes, and then dies of suffocation. Its screams are a signal to the evil spirit that the offering is meant for him, and he will leave the body of the sick person. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The prevalent religion in Taiwan – and in certain parts of China – is a unique mixture of Daoism and Buddhism, containing many traces from pre-Buddhist animism. Tibetan Buddhism, too, has many traces from the pre-Buddhist religion, Bon, which was prevalent in large parts of Central Asia.
Daoist female shaman, performing a ritual for a pilgrim (the man in yellow dress) at a temple on Siao Liouchou Island, southern Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This crack in deposited calcium bicarbonate at the Baishuei Terraces, Yunnan Province, China, is a Daoist and animist shrine, sacred to the local people. It resembles a vagina, a lump above it symbolizing the pubic hairs. Incense sticks have been stuck into a tuft of grass beneath the crack. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Local Daoist monk – presumably also a shaman. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The monk places juniper foliage on the head of a pilgrim, visiting the sacred site. Juniper foliage is widely used as incense in Asia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Vision quests on Bear Butte
Bear Butte is an ancient volcano in South Dakota, United States, which is sacred to the local Lakota people. My friend John Burke and I visited this mountain in 1999. On our way up the steep trail, we noticed several spots, which had been decorated with small bits of brightly coloured cloth, or by small medicine bags.
John, who was convinced that magnetic anomalies in the ground were mind-altering, at once began measuring the magnetic field at these spots, and at every single one was a magnetic anomaly, which the shaman, who had decorated these sites, had been able to detect by sheer physical sensitivity.
The top of Bear Butte is flat, but only about a hundred metres long and ten metres wide. Where the trail ended were two dead, festooned trees, framing a stunning panorama of the plains to the north at the edge of a 300-metre cliff. Right here was the most powerful magnetic anomaly John had ever measured.
At various places on the top, he found five magnetic anomalies, four of which had been marked by a ring of stones around the spot. The strongest one was marked very differently, with a complex set of colored flags, marking out four corners, with strings of knotted cloth connecting them, while tiny ‘flagpoles’ and Y-shaped vertical sticks held a horizontal stick. The poles and sticks were willow, which does not grow on top of the butte.
Later, in the nearby Crazy Horse Monument book store, we found a book, in which it was described how a Lakota man had asked for and received a night vision quest. He was taken to a similar butte and lead to a spot, surrounded by exactly all the identically colored flags at each compass point, the strings, willow sticks and poles, as on Bear Butte. He reported extremely dramatic visions in the hours around dawn (when telluric currents there would have been strongest), and came down cured forever of alcoholism, which was his purpose in requesting the vision quest.
Vision quests, and many other subjects connected with magnetic anomalies and telluric ground currents, are described in detail elsewhere on this website, see Books: Seed of Knowledge, Stone of Plenty: Understanding the Lost Technology of the Ancient Megalith-Builders.
John Burke, standing at two dead, festooned trees with the densest cloth cluster of all on Bear Butte. Right here was the most powerful magnetic anomaly he had ever measured. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Atop Bear Butte, a spot had been marked with small piles of rocks holding two-foot willow ‘flagpoles’ that marked the cardinal directions. Connecting the four flags were strings covered with hundreds of knotted bits of brightly colored cloth. This spot is a Native American site for vision quests. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This small medicine bag has been tied to a tree to indicate another vision quest spot. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
References (all in Danish)
Bæksted, A. 1974. Guder og helte i Norden. Politikens Forlag.
Fritzbøger, B. 1994. Kulturskoven. Dansk skovbrug fra oldtid til nutid. Gyldendal.
Hansen, M.A. 1952. Orm og Tyr. Wivels Forlag.
Marc, F. 1968. De frie slavers land. Aschehougs Minervabøger.
Nielsen, H. 1976. Lægeplanter og trolddomsurter. 3. udg. Politikens Forlag.
(Uploaded April 2016)
(Revised November 2018)