The Golden Bough A study of magic and religion
2. The External Soul in Plants
FURTHER it has been shown that in folk-tales the life of a person is sometimes so bound up with the life of a plant that the withering of the plant will immediately follow or be followed by the death of the person. Among the M’Bengas in Western Africa, about the Gaboon, when two children are born on the same day, the people plant two trees of the same kind and dance round them. The life of each of the children is believed to be bound up with the life of one of the trees; and if the tree dies or is thrown down, they are sure that the child will soon die. In the Cameroons, also, the life of a person is believed to be sympathetically bound up with that of a tree. The chief of Old Town in Calabar kept his soul in a sacred grove near a spring of water. When some Europeans, in frolic or ignorance, cut down part of the grove, the spirit was most indignant and threatened the perpetrators of the deed, according to the king, with all manner of evil.
Some of the Papuans unite the life of a new-born babe sympathetically with that of a tree by driving a pebble into the bark of the tree. This is supposed to give them complete mastery over the child’s life; if the tree is cut down, the child will die. After a birth the Maoris used to bury the navel-string in a sacred place and plant a young sapling over it. As the tree grew, it was a tohu oranga or sign of life for the child; if it flourished, the child would prosper; if it withered and died, the parents augured the worst for the little one. In some parts of Fiji the navel-string of a male infant is planted together with a coco-nut or the slip of a breadfruit-tree, and the child’s life is supposed to be intimately connected with that of the tree. Amongst the Dyaks of Landak and Tajan, districts of Dutch Borneo, it is customary to plant a fruit-tree for a baby, and henceforth in the popular belief the fate of the child is bound up with that of the tree. If the tree shoots up rapidly, it will go well with the child; but if the tree is dwarfed or shrivelled, nothing but misfortune can be expected for its human counterpart.
It is said that there are still families in Russia, Germany, England, France, and Italy who are accustomed to plant a tree at the birth of a child. The tree, it is hoped, will grow with the child, and it is tended with special care. The custom is still pretty general in the canton of Aargau in Switzerland; an apple-tree is planted for a boy and a pear-tree for a girl, and the people think that the child will flourish or dwindle with the tree. In Mecklenburg the afterbirth is thrown out at the foot of a young tree, and the child is then believed to grow with the tree. Near the Castle of Dalhousie, not far from Edinburgh, there grows an oak-tree, called the Edgewell Tree, which is popularly believed to be linked to the fate of the family by a mysterious tie; for they say that when one of the family dies, or is about to die, a branch falls from the Edgewell Tree. Thus, on seeing a great bough drop from the tree on a quiet, still day in July 1874, an old forester exclaimed, “The laird’s deid noo!” and soon after news came that Fox Maule, eleventh Earl of Dalhousie, was dead.
In England children are sometimes passed through a cleft ash-tree as a cure for rupture or rickets, and thenceforward a sympathetic connexion is supposed to exist between them and the tree. An ash-tree which had been used for this purpose grew at the edge of Shirley Heath, on the road from Hockly House to Birmingham. “Thomas Chillingworth, son of the owner of an adjoining farm, now about thirty-four, was, when an infant of a year old, passed through a similar tree, now perfectly sound, which he preserves with so much care that he will not suffer a single branch to be touched, for it is believed the life of the patient depends on the life of the tree, and the moment that is cut down, be the patient ever so distant, the rupture returns, and a mortification ensues, and terminates in death, as was the case in a man driving a waggon on the very road in question.” “It is not uncommon, however,” adds the writer, “for persons to survive for a time the felling of the tree.” The ordinary mode of effecting the cure is to split a young ash-sapling longitudinally for a few feet and pass the child, naked, either three times or three times three through the fissure at sunrise. In the West of England it is said that the passage should be “against the sun.” As soon as the ceremony has been performed, the tree is bound tightly up and the fissure plastered over with mud or clay. The belief is that just as the cleft in the tree closes up, so the rupture in the child’s body will be healed; but that if the rift in the tree remains open, the rupture in the child will remain too, and if the tree were to die, the death of the child would surely follow.