Sacred Groves

What Exactly is a Grove Anyway?

"grove ... n. 1 a small wood or group of trees. 2 an orchard planted for the cultivation of olives, citrus fruit, etc. ” grovy adj. [Old English graf, related to græfa 'brushwood']."
The Concise Oxford Dictionary (9th Edn.)

The popular conception of a grove is a collection of exceptionally well-formed trees set in a place of outstanding natural beauty. Under the friendly sheltering boughs of these arboreal sanctuaries our forebears were inspired to contemplate the wonders of the universe, particularly the countryside in which they themselves lived, and perhaps were prompted to first ask the question; "who created such beauty?"

Ancient Arboreal Temples of the Sun God...

The first object revered as a deity was without doubt the sun. The ancients knew that it provided the world with light and promoted the growth of vegetation, upon which ultimately, all life on the land depended, and themselves enjoyed its warming rays as it travelled across the sky on its daily journey from the Orient to the Gardens of the Hesperides. It is small wonder that our ancestors considered the sun to be an extremely important force in the shaping of their lives, and was worshipped as the supreme deity.

It was very quickly realised that no earthly temple could ever be built to contain the sun-god, and this soon became law; Mundus universus est templum solis or 'the whole world is a temple of the sun', was to become a common maxim by Roman times. The most favoured places in which to worship such an all-powerful deity would naturally have been these open sylvan temples.

... And of Lesser Gods

In contemplating the nature of the world, ancient man assigned lesser deities to help the sun-god fulfill his role as the primary creator, first among them being the Goddess of the Moon, in almost all ancient religions the sister of the Sun. Many ancient creeds also recognised the importance of the visible planets. There were gods of wind, thunder and lightning, powerful gods of earthquakes, volcanoes and mountains, life-giving gods of springs, streams, pools and rivers, gods and goddesses were patron to certain species of flora and fauna, and dark deities assisted the dead in their journey to the underworld. Many of these gods had groves reserved for their earthly worship.

Earthly Abodes of the Gods

The gods themselves were believed to frequent their favoured groves, often visiting them in animal form. To kill an animal in such a place would have been utterly unthinkable to a contemporary game-hunter, who must simply curse his own bad luck and reluctantly allow his quarry to escape. After all, the hind he was just about to spear may have been the Goddess of Hunting herself, come to inspect her temple; while within the sanctuary of the grove the frightened animal could now rest her weary frame.

Groves as Druidical Enclosures

Druid - 60k
A fanciful Victorian
depiction of a Druid
"And you, O Druids, now that the clash of battle is stilled, once more have you returned to your barbarous ceremonies and to the savage usage of your holy rites. To you alone it is given to know the truth about the gods and deities of the sky, or else you alone are ignorant of this truth.¹ The innermost groves of far-off forests are your abodes. And it is you who say that the shades of the dead seek not the silent land of Erebus² and the pale halls of Pluto;³ rather, you tell us that the same spirit has a body again elsewhere, and that death, if what you sing is true, is but the mid-point of a long life." (Lucan Pharsalia I.450-8)
  1. Lucan means that druidic teaching is so unusual that either they alone know the truth, or else they are ignorant of a truth that is the common property of the rest of mankind. [footnote from T.D. Kendrick's The Druids.]
  2. A poetic allusion to hell itself; Erebus ('Darkness') was a deity of hell in Greek mythos, son of Chaos ('the primeval force'), husband to Nyx (or Nox; 'Night') and father by her of Aether ('the pure air'), Hemera ('Day'), Ananke ('Fate') and Nemesis ('Vengeance').
  3. Roman God of the Underworld, whose equivalent in the Greek pantheon was Hades.

Wood Henges, ...

Although the naturally occurring groves remained the most revered, it was sometimes found necessary to construct man-made glades for the use of local communities. If the soil were not suitable for trees to be planted, a circle of timber posts may be erected as a substitute. These 'woodhenges' were thought to have had interconnecting beams between the posts, arranged so as to ressemble the boughs of the trees they were designed to replace. The central portion of such a structure was certainly open to the sky, and it is debatable whether any part of these timber groves were actually roofed-over.

... Stone Henges, ...

Just like nowadays when the adage 'the bigger, the better' is prevalent, so it seems to have been in ancient times. If a Bronze or Iron-Age community became powerful and rich, the ruling class - often of the druidical order - may decide to expend some of their surplus manpower to build a monumental grove, not of wood, which rots and crumbles in the space of a generation, but of everlasting stone. Thus were the first stone circles constructed, the most famous of which on Salisbury Plain even had interconnecting 'boughs' in the form of massive lintel-stones. It's a 'stone grove' man!

... And Prominent Places

The astronomically-inclined druids made many of their groves - be they of living trees, timber or stone - on the top of prominent hills, often encircling them with ditches and banks. These high places were chosen for a number of reasons, primarily in order to be as close to the sun's life-giving disc as possible, although these assembly points also had the twofold advantage of being visible from miles away thus making it an ideal meeting place, and from the reverse standpoint, able to view the land for miles in all directions with an unimpeded view of the heavens.

It is possible, though yet unproven, that at least some of the sites which have been labelled by archaeologists under the category 'Neolithic Causewayed Encampments', many of which are now known, may perhaps be the earthworks of ancient druidic groves.

Places Consecrated to the Most Powerful Gods

Entry into these consecrated enclosures was forbidden except through the appropriate gateways, and even then very few individuals were privileged to enter. The penalties for taking firewood or hunting game in such holy places were severe, often mortal, and accidental trespass, even by one's sheep, was treated with varying degrees of punishment. If one were to stumble upon the ground whilst inside a grove, it was unlawful for the guilty party to accept any help - indeed, it may be unlawful to even offer aid - and he would be forced to retreat beyond the groves perimeter on his belly (or worse!)

Playgrounds of Goblins and Fairies

Some ancient groves were built in places where strange lights are nowadays reported, with many Stone and Bronze-Age sites being the centres of modern UFO phenomena. There have been recorded examples of unexplained 'lights in the sky' at places such as Glastonbury and Silbury for many centuries. It would appear that these ancient locations were specifically chosen because of this unusual activity.

The phenomenon has since been scientifically associated with the presence of geological fault-lines nearby. These generate massive amounts of piezo-electric energy whenever the fault shifts, which in turn ionizes the molecules in the air above the ground causing them to emit light. These 'lights' then travel along the fault line as the rocks to either side invisibly ripple into place deep below the ground.

These sites were centres of superstition, generating primal fear within all who entered them, especially during the hours of darkness. It was thought that ghosts and spirits dwelt in these places, and took delight in beguiling any who drew near.

The Spirits of Pools and Streams

Many iron-age deities were closely associated with the veneration of water in all its forms. Native deities lived in springs, pools and rivers, and votive deposits have been found at many such British sites.

Some Classical Groves

The Oracles of the classical world were often associated with groves; the Grove of Dodona at the foot of Mount Tomarus was dedicated to Zeus and based around an ancient evergreen oak (Ilex), the priestesses of this grove were believed to receive their oracular messages from the birds inhabiting the tree, and were thus called the pleiades ('doves').

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi was based around a volcanic fumarole from which 'mephitic vapours' issued, causing all who breathed the gases to hallucinate and prophesy. This holy place was consecrated to Apollo and in his honour was planted with Laurel trees (Daphne sp.) whose branches met overhead, forming a templum nemorale (a natural temple formed from the interwoven boughs of trees). The central trees were later replaced by a large and imposing classical temple of stone. The priestesses here were called Pythia, they wore laurel crowns and chewed the leaves of the plant in order to experience the divine visions, they were for this reason also known as the Daphnephagi ('laurel-eaters').

The Grove of Aricia overlooks the circular volcanic crater of Lake Nemi, about sixteen miles from Rome in the Alban hills. This place was dedicated to the goddess of hunting, Diana, the lake also being known as Diana's Mirror, the sanctuary itself the Lucus Dianae Nemorensis 'The Grove of Diana of the Sylvan Glade'. The high priest of the temple here was known as the Rex Nemorensis or 'King of the Glade', and was an ex-slave who obtained this position by killing his predecessor in mortal combat.

Philo mentions a religious sect named the θεωρητικοι, (theoretikoi, 'thinkers') who were given to contemplation, and who were wont to retire into the solitudes of woods and groves. The City of Vienna arose around a sacred grove, the last remaining tree of which, the Stock am Eisen 'Timber of Iron', still stands in the centre of the city.

Other 'Grovey' Classical References

The following references, far from complete, all mention Groves in one way or another...

Genesis xviii
1 Kings xvi.33
2 Kings xvii.10, 16, xviii.4, xxi.3, 7, xxiii.6, 7
Deuteronomy xvi.21
Horace Odes i.7, iv.2, 3
Lucan Pharsalia III.399
Ovid Metamorphoses viii.741
Pausanias VIII.xxxviii.6
Pliny Natural History iii.17, xvi.15, 91
Seneca Epistles iv.13.2
Virgil Eclogues vi, viii

Apart from the appropriate passage from Lucan's Pharsalia, you're gonna have to look 'em up for yourself. I may get round to including the others sometime in the future.

Other 'Grovey' RBO Stuff

Druids * Nemeton * British Groves * MONA / Ynys-Môn

See: The Law of the Forest by Alexander Porteous,
The Druids by T.D. Kendrick (the definitive work on the subject),
The Gods of the Celts by Miranda Green,
Lempriere's Classical Dictionary by John Lempriere.

Associated Lynx

Sacred Groves Of Britain - by Craig Chapman.Northern Earth 1996 Autumn issue 67/15ff, Winter issue 68/16ff 67, Autumn 1996 68, Winter 1996