Hindus, placing a flower offering – blue and white Anemone obtusiloba and yellow Primula stuartii – on a stone cairn, dedicated to a local goddess, atop a peak named Rakhundi (3622 m), Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh, India. Offerings to stone cairns, sacred trees etc. indicate remnants of pre-Hindu animism. Likewise, the red colour of the offering stone probably symbolizes blood from oxen, which were formerly brought as offerings by Himalayan animists. (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.
Until a few years ago, Punan tribals of Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia, were animists. This young man presents an egg as an offering to mountain spirits. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
On this small scaffold in the Punan village of Long Ba, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia, 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)
Local god, carved into a pole outside a gompa (Tibetan Buddhist monastery), Nagonde, Helambu, Nepal – perhaps a remnant of pre-Buddhist animism. In the background poles with prayer flags. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Carved wooden images of local gods, called bulol, guard the rice harvest in an Ifugao tribal house, Bocos, northern Luzon, Philippines. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This little herder is wearing a necklace with corals and turquoise, and a talisman bag, the latter probably a remnant from pre-Buddhist animism. – Tashigaon, Arun Valley, E Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Three rituals, which probably represent remnants of pre-Buddhist or pre-Hindu animism. The upper picture shows an offering, which has been placed on a mountain trail in the Modi Khola Valley, Annapurna, central Nepal, consisting of small clay figures and sticks with bits of paper attached. The centre picture shows 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. The bottom picture shows an offering, which I saw in the Honnavar Forest, Karnataka, India, consisting of a little doll, placed on a tiny wagon. Perhaps to ask the gods to cure a disease? Or black magic? (Photos 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, and on hot days, trees would provide cooling shade. Some trees provided an abundance of fruits or other food, and a decoction of bark or leaves from other 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 – possessed enormous powers. The hunter had better be on good terms with the tree women. He brought offerings for them, having a twin, 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 that happened, 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, which are believed to contain supernatural powers, often situated around temples or graveyards. These trees are never felled, not even during periods of starvation.
For our ancient forefathers, certain trees – especially hollow ones – possessed enormous powers. This picture shows one such tree, Ulvedalsegen (’The Ulvedal Oak’), north of Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Worship of trees takes place around the world. Here is a grove of old drooping junipers (Juniperus recurva), Pangboche Monastery, Khumbu, E Nepal. These junipers 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 is making an offering to a sacred conifer in the Tirthan Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India, 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)
A large holly oak (Quercus floribunda), near Dharkot, Uttarakhand, India, serves as a ‘money tree’. Coins are hammered into the bark as an offering to obtain good luck. This habit 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 gigantic dimensions, engulfing the entire World. This tree was called Yggdrasil. 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, Sweden: “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 saw 72 such corpses, hanging close to one another.”
Odin is also called ’God of the Hanged’ or ’Lord of the Gallows’, and another name of him is 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 was hanging nine days in the tree, sacrificed by himself to himself, in his eternal quest for knowledge.
Almost to the present day, in the Nordic countries, eye trees, i.e. trees, in which two branches had joined to form a circular or oval opening, were considered to possess supernatural, healing powers. Sick persons – often children with rickets – were pulled through this opening, naked. This ceremony had to be performed at night, and, preferably, a Thursday night – presumably a relic from the Norse religion. By performing this ritual, the sick one would be reborn, healed.
In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil was the enormous tree, whose branches would stretch over the entire World, housing gods, giants, and people. Traditionally, Yggdrasil is considered to be an ash (Fraxinus excelsior). Many scholars, however, believe it was a yew (Taxus baccata), as the sacred tree in the shrine of Uppsala, Sweden, was an evergreen. – This picture shows an ancient yew in Glendalough, Ireland. To the right, still clinging to the trunk, is a withered ivy (Hedera helix). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
An old common oak (Quercus robur), Leestrup Skov, Zealand, Denmark. Formerly, this tree was a so-called eye tree, where a branch had joined the trunk, thus creating an oval opening, an ‘eye’. In the old days, sick persons – often children with rickets – were pulled through this opening, thus being ‘reborn’ by the tree, which would remove the illness. In 1967, the branch broke off, leaving only a small stump. For fun, this father lets his little daughter crawl 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 shore. (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 many tribes, which have not yet become ‘civilized’. On this website, I have described two ceremonies, in which shamans tried to heal sick persons. (See Episodes from my travels – Borneo 1975: Canoe trip with Punan tribals and Philippines 1984: Shamanism among Ifugao tribals).
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.
Ancient tribal cave painting, depicting a shaman in a boat, and a spiral – the spiral indicating that the artist was in a hallucinogenic trance. – Painted Cave, Niah National Park, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This shaman from the Markha Valley, Ladakh, India, is wearing the typical high felt hat of the area, and a rosary with 108 beads, made from plant seeds. Officially, Ladakhi shamans are Buddhists, but their practice contains many traces from Bon, the pre-Buddhist religion of Central Asia, which was mainly animistic. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This Punan tribal in the village of Long Ba, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia, is sick, and he is now sitting in a healing room in the longhouse. A scaffold, with a burning candle on its top, has been decorated with brightly coloured bits of cloth. In the evening, a shaman, the sick man, and several women circumambulate the scaffold, while three girls beat drums of various size. The shaman, wearing a special headgear with numerous hornbill feathers attached, performs a dance to urge the evil spirit to leave the sick man’s body. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
During a healing ceremony in the village of Bocos, northern Luzon, Philippines, a 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)
This tribal woman, who is probably a shaman, is collecting money for a local goddess. – Badami, Karnataka, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Daoism, the prevalent religion in Taiwan, contains many traces from pre-Buddhist animism. Here, a female shaman is performing a ritual for a pilgrim (the man in yellow dress) at a temple on Siao Liouchou Island. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A Daoist and animist shrine – a crack in deposited calcium bicarbonate at the Baishuei Terraces, Yunnan Province, China, which resembles a vagina, and a lump above it, which is symbolizing the pubic hairs. Incense sticks have been stuck into a grass tuft beneath the crack, in which a primrose (Primula) is growing. A local Daoist monk (centre) – who is also a tribal shaman – places juniper foliage on the head of a pilgrim, visiting the sacred site (bottom). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Today, there are still traces of the ancient Bon religion in Tibetan Buddhism, e.g. offerings of horns. A skull of a bharal, or Himalayan blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur), has been placed among prayer flags and fragrant juniper branches (Juniperus), Kagbeni, Mustang, C Nepal (top). A yak skull has been placed as an offering near mani stones (slabs with carved Buddhist mantras) on the kora, or pilgrim route, around Tashilhunpo Monastery, Shigatse, Tibet. Note that mantras have also been carved into the skull (centre). Horns of Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica) – painted red and called Lato Marpo (‘Red Gods’) – and a small yak skull have been placed as offerings on a cairn near a mani wall, Tunespa, Markha Valley, Ladakh, India (bottom). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Performance for tourists in Kathmandu, Nepal, depicting a shamanistic healing dance among Jhankri tribals. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The ancient volcano Bear Butte, South Dakota, United States, is a sacred site to the local Lakota people. A shaman has tied brightly coloured bits of cloth to this dead tree on top of the mountain, indicating a powerful vision quest spot. Here, a scientist is measuring airborne electric charge near the tree. This rock, as well as many other marked spots on the mountain, all showed powerful electric charge, which would cause mind-altering during vision quests (top). A shaman has tied this medicine bag to a tree to indicate another vision quest spot. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
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(Uploaded April 2016)
(Revised March 2018)