Touch Wood

At the dawn of history, Europe was covered with immense primeval forests that stretched for thousands of kilometres. Pliny the Elder tells us in his work, Natural History, that on the northern European continent, Germanic tribes travelled through forests for months without ever reaching a clearing.222 Excavations have revealed that the Po Valley of modern Italy was once covered with extensive forests of elms, chestnuts, and especially oaks. Similarly, in antiquity, the Greek peninsula was clothed in dense forests from sea to sea. The British Isles were just as densely forested, with trees covering the whole south-eastern portion of the island and the west coast. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that tree-worship, uniform in its rites and celebrations in all European cultures, has played such a significant part in religious history. Jane Philpot expounds on this subject in her well-known book, The Sacred Tree: ‘The worship of the tree was not only the earliest form of divine ritual, but was the last to disappear before the spread of Christianity; it existed long before the erection of temples and statues to the gods, flourished side by side with them and persisted long after they had disappeared’.223 

In forested countries, one of the most favoured seats of the gods was perceived to be in trees, their mysterious growth thought to be determined by the supernatural forces housed within. In these regions, the life of all humans depended largely on trees for survival. Trees supplied shelter, shade, and fuel; houses were built of wood; timber provided warmth during the long European winters, and the fruits from various trees yielded nourishment not only for livestock, but also humans.

Because some trees live for hundreds of years, seemingly dying every winter and being mysteriously reborn in spring, they were thought to harbour supernatural powers. Adding to their mystery was that trees were observed as spanning the three layers of the cosmos, their roots set firmly in the Underworld, their trunks in the world of mortals, and their canopies reaching into the heavenly world of the skies, the abode of the gods. Possibly the best known European example of this is the Scandinavian World Ash Tree, Yggdrasil, of the Eddas, the wondrous verses capturing the myths and legends of the North. Like the Sephirothal Tree of the Kabbalists and the Asvatha Tree of the Hindus, the mighty Yggdrasil has three roots reaching out into three different worlds. One root reaches up to the land of the gods, where they gather daily beneath its branches to hold their council meetings; the middle root goes to the land of the Frost giants; the third root extends to the Underworld, where Nidhogg the giant serpent gnaws at it, while an inexhaustible spring bubbles through the ages.

The symbol of the majestically spreading tree features in mythologies worldwide and is an emblem for the cosmos, youth, life, immortality, and wisdom. Hence, there are Cosmic Trees, Trees of Life, Trees of Immortality, Trees of Knowledge, Trees of Youth, Trees of Speech, and Wishing Trees, represented in differing cultures and their myths. Trees came to express everything religious and sacred to humankind. Therefore, myths describing a quest for youth or immortality were about sacred trees with magic fruit or leaves, growing in a distant land, guarded by dragons, snakes, or griffins. In antiquity, such monsters were emblems of wisdom rather than of cunning and had to be confronted by the hero for him to reach his goal successfully.

In the past, tree-worship was based on the notion that the world at large was animate. This meant that everything in nature possessed a soul and was therefore accorded the necessary reverence and respect. There was a time in Britain and on the Continent when it was a punishable offence to chop down a tree. All trees were regarded as sheltering tree-spirits, which were offended and inclined to be vengeful if their abode was harmed in any way. It was believed that should a man chop a large branch off a tree, he would later lose a limb. Every tree was thought to feel any injuries, so when an oak was being felled ‘ gives a kind of shriek or groan, that may be heard a mile off, as if it were the genius of the oake lamenting’.224 

When a paddy of rice was in bloom, the Javanese regarded it as pregnant, and no noise was made near the field lest they spoil the crop. In the African Congo, calabashes of liquid were placed at the foot of certain trees for them to drink. In India, shrubs and trees were formally married, and in Germany, peasants used to tie fruit trees together, thus marrying them in the hope that they would bear fruit. The medicine men of African tribes profess to have heard the cry of pain emitted by trees cut down. This might not be as far-fetched as it seems. In his book, The Secret Life of Plants, Peter Tompkins describes experiments conducted in the U.S. and Russia that confirm that plants and trees emit sounds; inaudible to us but which might be registered by specially designed sensitive electronic instruments.225

Amongst Christians, the mournful tree, which gave its wood for the Cross of Calvary, has always been a disputed question and has caused many curious legends about various trees. Foremost amongst the trees with this dubious distinction are the aspen, the poplar, the oak, the mistletoe, and the elder – all trees revered as sacred during pagan times. Hence, there are legends explaining the shivering of the aspen leaf and the trembling of the poplar. Apparently, the oak was the only tree that did not split itself in half to avoid being desecrated when the Jews were looking for wood to build the Cross. This is why many woodcutters tended to avoid the oak, as they regarded it as an accursed tree. 

The once sacred mistletoe, which now exists as a parasite, was not spared either. Legend has it that it existed as a fine, tall forest tree before the Crucifixion, its present condition being a lasting monument to the disgrace it incurred through its ignominious use. The elder tree was similarly singled out. Although the elder does not naturally grow in Palestine, the legend arose that its wood was used to make the Cross of Calvary on which Christ was crucified. This would explain the widespread antipathy to using elder twigs for firewood. In the past, all firewood was carefully checked for elder pieces, as it was considered dangerous by the superstitious to burn elder wood, known widely as ‘wicked wood’, because of its association with the Cross. It is, however, possible that the elder’s unlucky reputation long predates Christianity and that the awesome respect accorded this tree has its roots in old pagan beliefs of northern Europe. To this day, it is said in Denmark that a being called the ‘elder-mother’ protects the tree so that it is not safe to damage it in any way. 

Another universal belief regarding trees is that they are bound up with humanity’s health and lives. For hundreds of years, it was customary in Europe to plant trees at the birth of a child, whose life and well being was then forever thought connected with the growth and health of the tree – if the tree died, the person it represented would also die. In northern European countries, children were still passed through cleft trees to cure various ailments as late as the early 1900s. Among the Maori, the power of making women fertile was once ascribed to trees, and barren women were directed to embrace trees to alleviate their shortcoming. Slav women hung an undergarment on a tree bearing plenty of fruit so that through contagious magic they themselves would be made fruitful. The power of easing delivery during childbirth was ascribed to certain trees, known as ‘birthing trees’. Hence, in Sweden and other European countries, women in labour clasped ash or elm trees to ensure an easy delivery. 

Those who, in modern times, still touch wood or knock on it for luck unknowingly do so because of ancient tree-worship. There is only a difference in degree between worshipping a tree and touching wood in the vague belief that to perform this action will ward off some calamity. Concerning magic, this action can be defined as defensive magic, as the wood is animated only with the imaginary power of warding off evil and cannot attract good luck. The expression ‘touch wood’ is generally uttered when we desire a wish to come true, seek protection for future health and prosperity, or wish to counter the threat of evil. It is firmly anchored in superstition and well-known in many cultures, although the origins of this superstition are unclear. Some believe that it stems from the time when many Christian churches treasured relics of the true Cross, which offered protection from misfortune when touched by the devout. 

Another explanation for the term stems from old-time sanctuary. When a hunted fugitive touched a church door, it was considered sacrilege for any pursuer to apprehend the runaway, as the Cross depicted on the church door was believed to give protective sanctuary. The most likely origin of the superstition, however, is that it is a relic of prehistoric times when beneficent tree-spirits and tree-gods who dwelt in trees were worshipped. Certain trees were identified with certain deities. For example, the oak tree was dedicated to the Greek god Zeus; the ash was sacred to the Norse god Odin; whereas the sycamore was dedicated to the Egyptian deity Hathor. Therefore, touching or knocking on the sacred tree’s trunk requested protection and assistance from the sylvan deity residing within that tree.

Usually, the gesture of touching wood was adhered to when it was feared that certain utterances tempted fate. Particularly after boasting of one’s exemption from misfortune or after having expressed satisfaction over one’s own health or fortune, the phrase ‘touch wood’ was, and still is, habitually added, accompanied by a distinct rapping on anything made of wood. Originally, it was considered essential that wood be touched with the right hand – never the left – to gain protection and ward off any impending evil. With the passage of time, however, the superstition was gradually modified, and in modern times, it is considered adequate to simply utter the expression ‘touch wood’ while demonstrably tapping one’s forehead.


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