Do plant symbols, myths and rituals still have any point?
- Dear PFAF group members,
I have attached, below, a copy of the speech given by Prof. Marcel
De Cleene (co-author) at the recent UK launch of the 'Compendium of
Symbolic and Ritual Plants in Europe', which I hope you will find of
This extraordinary publication is a unique reference source
containing more than 1500 pages in two volumes, covering the ritual
use of trees, shrubs and herbs throughout Europe. I hope this text
whets your appetite and you wish to delve further. I have included a
link to the Compendium web site, where an order form can be found.
Do plant symbols, myths and rituals still have any point?
Marcel DE CLEENE
It is a great honour and a true privilege to be here at this
fascinating historical Physic Garden. The Garden was founded in 1673
by the Worshipful Society of the Apothecaries of London to allow
medical students to study the plants then used in healing. Hence the
name `physic', the old term for the art of healing. One of the
Garden's present aims is to demonstrate to all its visitors the
numerous uses of plants, including those in medicine. We are
therefore delighted to be able to launch the Compendium of Symbolic
and Ritual Plants in Europe in this remarkable location. This
Compendium deals with popular medicine, magical healing and many
other common beliefs, plant legends and agricultural and industrial
uses. And of course, as the title suggests, it deals with plant
rituals, plant myths and plant symbolism.
What do we mean by ritual plants? The concept of ritual plants
covers all those trees, shrubs and herbs that have played or still
play a part in man's religious life. Western man is probably
baffled by this use of plants in religion, as he is no longer aware
of the crucial part Nature played in pre-Christian religions.
Nonetheless, the ancient magical reputation of such plants still
lingers on in present-day popular beliefs and medicine, in
traditions, and even in certain common expressions. However, we
hardly ever give this a moment's thought, as we are no longer aware
of its origin.
- Why do red roses symbolise passionate love?
- Why are the ceilings of old houses decorated with plaster roses?
- Why is it that, in Western Europe, twigs of willow, yew, holly, or
box are consecrated on Palm Sunday and taken home to protect the
house and stables?
- Why was a wreath of Rosemary laid before the altar at the memorial
service for the 1987 `Herald of Free Enterprise'disaster at
Zeebrugge in Belgium?
- Why do we still use sticks to knock walnuts off trees?
- What is the significance of Poppy capsules on a grave?
- Why did Princess Anne's wedding bouquet include a sprig of Myrtle?
- Why is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil portrayed as an
Apple Tree in Western iconography, and as a Fig Tree in Greek-
- Why is incense burned in churches?
- Why is a maypole set up at the beginning of May?
- Why do we say `touch wood', and knock on `wood'?
- Why do we hang garments of invalids and the ill on a rag tree?
- Why are war memorials decorated with laurel wreaths?
- Why are grains of Rice thrown at weddings?
- Why are the Mandrake plant and its fruits so popular in European
folk belief and medicine?
Numerous other examples of present-day plant rituals and symbolism
can be linked with old heathen beliefs, in which Nature played a
central role. Ancient peoples saw life differently. They sought
emotional stability and a feeling of security in their profound
respect for nature and the gods and spirits connected with it. They
offered sacrifices to trees, springs, stones and rivers. They
attached great importance to mythological stories and their
associated natural symbolism. In all their fear and misery it gave
them the sense that they had a greater say in those things that
were `beyond words', and their feelings were certainly
reflected in a wide variety of stories or beliefs. Nowadays many
believe that symbols belong to a long-vanished world of ancient
peoples, or to certain so-called `primitive' tribes that have
survived until the present day, but that they no longer have the
slightest relevance to that rational and complex species, the modern
human being. The fertility rites of Neolithic and present-day
Melanesian man are seen as nothing more than archaic superstition.
People no longer see any link between the myths of the Ancient
Greeks or the folk-tales of the American Indians and their own
behaviour and reactions to the `heroes' of our own age. And yet
there definitely is a connection.
It is unfortunate that modern man is so little aware of the
transcendent value of primeval symbols, which so many people have
for centuries understood to be a source of wisdom. Symbols represent
this connection and see to it that man's great universal myths
and rituals continue to be handed down. They still bear a message
that is relevant to the hectic life of modern, supposedly
Symbols can bring greater restfulness, stability and harmony, since
they offer us an insight into the immutable underlying values of
The great virtue of such eminent academics as the religious
historians Eugène Goblet d'Alviella (1845-1925), Sir James
Frazer (1854-1941), Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) and Mircea Eliade
(1907-1986) lay in their collection of universal myths and symbols,
reassessing them and making them acceptable as objects of academic
study. The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961) considered that
the fundamental issues of mankind have remained unchanged over time,
and that the subconscious plays an essential part in dreams,
fantasies and myths. He regarded symbols and myths as the bridges
that return man to the primal unity: the Earthly Paradise, the Lost
Word, the Elysian Fields, Avalon and so on. Symbols and myths make
people aware that they live in a fundamental duality, taking the
form of good & evil, man & woman, life & death, finite & infinite,
and so on.
In themselves they have no magical powers of expression. It is the
contemplation and understanding of symbols and myths that give man
greater insight. Everyone works in their own way and at their own
pace. They do so in the solitude of their deepest self, yet with no
feeling of exclusion, since they can count on the warmth and
tenderness of their fellow beings, and on rituals and symbols that
generate a feeling of solidarity. This feeling is of tremendous
value to modern man, who no longer experiences the doubts and
uncertainties of the past, but now faces other, more existential
We therefore believe that psychologists and sociologists would, more
than ever, benefit from a close study of ancient rituals and their
symbols, as they have a fascinating story to tell about man's
innermost feelings, a story which man himself would probably never
be able or dare to tell.
In the way it deals with ancient and modern plant symbolism, myths
and rituals as they are known in Europe, in the attention it pays to
legends, to folk beliefs, to magical healing, to popular medicine,
and the many other uses of ritual plants, the Compendium does not
claim to be complete. It covers a range of academic disciplines,
each of which is in itself extremely broad and sometimes less
accessible or even obscure. In addition, there are still a great
many missing links.
However, we have tried to provide an academically sound survey of
the current knowledge of ritual plants down the centuries, seen in a
broad perspective but also with a critical look at the accuracy of
the naming of plant species mentioned in literature. We have
attempted to present all this in comprehensible language, and have
added about 12,000 references for those who wish to explore the
field further. The thread running through this compendium is
man's innate fear of losing his grip on his own environment and his
consequent escape into a world of ill-conceived spiritual and
magical powers. This fear probably always existed, but it can now be
clearly felt in these turbulent and uncertain transitional times.
Moreover, at a time of major environmental pollution, it is
appropriate to reflect on the age-old bond between man and nature,
and the plant kingdom in particular, and to recognise its deeper
symbolism. The major motivation for the publication of this
Compendium is the hope that this understanding may in some way
contribute to a recovery of Man's lost harmony with Nature.
(Chelsea Physic Garden, Oct 23 2003)
Link to Compendium web site: http://www.smk.be/compendium
Further information can be obtained from Alpha Publishing in the UK,
at info@..., tel: 01293 881166