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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

[continued from last entry, below]


Ancient Europeans regarded trees as the dwelling places, not only of demonic spirits, but also of souls. Indeed, the wood nymphs, or dryads, of classical mythology had their lives linked to a certain tree. If the tree withered and died, they themselves pined away. Any injury to bough or twig was felt as a wound, and cutting down the tree put an end to them at once.  In many Teutonic legends, the souls of the departed passed into trees, or continued to live in the trees that grew upon their graves. These indwelling spirits were supposed to have the power to both cause and cure disease. A related belief was that “the soul of the family-ancestor had passed into the tree growing in or before the homestead, and this tree accordingly became associated with the tutelary [i.e., protecting or guardian] spirit of the family.” Nineteenth-century anthropologist James Frazer wrote: “A tree that grows on a grave is regarded by the South Slavonian peasant as a sort of fetish. Whoever breaks a twig from it hurts the soul of the dead, but gains thereby a magic wand, since the soul embodied in the twig will be at his service.”

The shared concepts that underlie such seemingly different expressions as the eternal embrace of deceased lovers and a desperate attempt to terminate a consumption epidemic take us deep into our past. Perhaps they are even the bedrock of belief that informs the vampire theory. If the vine growing from coffin to coffin was, indeed, a life token, the fate of the spirit within the grave would be bound up with the well-being of the vine. If the spirit was believed to be benevolent, we would want to nurture the plant; but if it was seen as harmful, we would be wise to destroy it.

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