Monday, 6 August 2012

Book review: The Sacred Tree

The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations
Carole M. Cusack

My only previous experience with this author is from an article on Brigid that's available available online, which I only mention because it might be of interest...

But anyway. You can find a good preview of the book online and it was certainly enough to pique my interest; the subject of the bile is one that I've long been keen on so it was only a matter of time before I gave in and bought the book, really. To be clear, though, the book doesn't just cover the Irish evidence of the bile as a sacred tree. Just as the title says it covers both ancient and medieval manifestations of it, and for the book that means chapters that cover Classical representations in Roman and Greek belief, as well as Germanic, Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian sources.

It's a small book - hardly 200 pages all told - but it covers everything in a chronological order and certainly tries to cover a lot. It begins, sensibly enough, with giving some context by covering Indo-European (and at times, beyond) evidence and symbology, with a discussion of what the sacred tree expresses in very basic, fundamental terms - the tree as axis mundi or imago mundi, or both. In that sense, we take a look at how the sacred tree can represents a hub or axis of the world (the axis mundi), and as such acts as a sacred centre, a place of communication between people and the gods. Sometimes, however, it can be in itself a representation of the world, an important idea and element of creation. And so on. There are some familiar names in the references here (for anyone familiar with this kind of thing, anyway!) - Bruce Lincoln, Mircea Eliade and J. P. Mallory, to name a few - and a good amount of critical discussion of some of the theory involved, which I particularly appreciated.

The first chapter covers a good amount of Indo-European theory and - I found - explains a lot of concepts that I've come across before in just the right amount of detail. It gives just enough to explain what we're looking for, and what it all means, but doesn't go too far in insisting on "it's all the same in the end, regardless of the culture" as can sometimes can happen.

The second chapter deals with the Classical evidence. It's been a long while since I've dealt with Classical religion but as far as I can tell it was all good and interesting, though I'll leave any criticisms to the experts for those particular cultures. One thing that struck me here is that the writing can be a little rambly, and the digressions are not always relevant or obviously relevant at the time. It's interesting enough all the same but if there were a more brutal editor I think this book would have been a lot shorter.

Following on from the Greeks and Romans comes the chapter on the Celtic sources. What's covered here is primarily Irish evidence once we get passed talking about druids, which is fair enough, I think. I have to say I'm disappointed that Gaul wasn't covered in more detail because I was looking forward to some meaty discussion of the pillars or Jupiter columns common to Romano-Gaulish belief in particular, but there wasn't as much to be found as I was hoping for. The rest is dealing with the bile, and what you'll find here is solid enough and a good run down of the subject.

My only concern here is that once we get into the main discussion the author relies heavily on a limited number of authors in their references - primarily Mary Low's Celtic Christianity and Nature and Alden Watson's article 'The King, the Poet and the Sacred Tree' - plus a slightly dodgy and disappointing reference to Caitlin and John Matthews' The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom: The Celtic Shaman's Sourcebook. The latter is used to reference a description of ogam being used in a possibly magical ritual and I don't see why Cusack didn't go straight to the source. What's quoted appears to be a translation and if it's Matthew's own then it's a little worrisome because they're notoriously selective and liberal in their translations or interpretations. Nigel Pennick's name comes up as well and the author is very sensitive towards modern paganism so perhaps a little too sensitive at times? They are certainly not the kind of sources I'd use in making an academic argument about historical practices, personally, anyway.

It's a mark against an otherwise decent rundown of what the bile is all about, although to be honest, I've got Low's book out from the library and reading the chapter that's primarily been referenced here isn't much different. In short, there isn't much that's new or different on offer in this particular chapter compared to what you can already find out there, so if you're just looking for an in-depth view of the bile, and that's all, then you may be disappointed. It's the context that makes this book a good read - providing both comparison with other cultures, and a run down of the kind of theories that give such trees meaning.

So all in all, the usefulness of the first chapter tempers the mild disappointment I felt about the third chapter. The rest of the book is taken up by Germanic, Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian evidence and Cusack certainly seems to be more confident with the material she's dealing with here. As she notes in the preface, this book grew out from her doctoral research into the Christian conversion of the Germanic peoples so that's hardly a surprise, but it really does show because this is where the tangents I mentioned earlier are the most noticeable. There is a lot of discussion of the conversion process and to some extent it's relevant because it's certainly something that affects the sources we have to hand. I did feel at times that perhaps there was a little more detail than absolutely necessary at times, though. By the time it got back onto discussing trees I was sometimes a little lost as to why we hadn't got here sooner.

Having only a vague idea about things like Yggdrasil, I did learn a lot in these chapters, in general but also in terms of thinking about the potential similarities between Germanic/Scandinavian evidence and Irish evidence (or lack thereof). Considering my comments about the Celtic chapter not offering much new, and my lack of familiarity with the subjects covered in these latter chapters, I couldn't really say if they suffer in the same way.

In the end, in spite of some mild reservations I do think this is a useful book, and considering the cost for it's size I should bloody hope so! If anything, it provides a good introduction to the subject, and as far as a reconstructionist audience goes it does offer some good food for thought in terms of how the concept filters down into everyday practice - and, for the heathens amongst us, how the sacred trees might relate to particular gods.