Sacred Trees, Christianization, and the Roman Countryside

In the small Mexican village of Tule, some 10 km east of Oaxaca, stands a cyprus (Arbol del Tule) that is claimed by the locals to be the largest tree in the world. While that claim to fame can be contested, the tree is enormously impressive, not least because of the way it has been integrated into a Christian context. It is estimated to be some 2-3000 years old. Right next to the tree (42 metres tall, 54 metres in circumference) stands a much younger church, Santa Maria del Tule, built in the 17th century. The decision by the Christian authorities to construct the church in this particular location was of course anything but coincidental. The size, age and materiality of the tree must have made it a potent place of reverence in the pre-Hispanic period. Even today, the tree is the focus of an annual fiesta. A sacred tree of this kind was a natural place of worship whose power the Catholic Church appropriated. At Tule, this was achieved in a more subtle manner than one would expect of the Catholic mission in New Spain. As can be partially seen in my photo below, the church is almost hidden under the massive size of the tree!

Visiting Tule and its famous tree last month made me think more about Roman parallels to this sort of Christianization of natural places (see also Bradley 2000). Sacred trees and groves were the focus of religious controversy during Constantine at Mamre and Bethlehem (cf. Caseau 2004: 123f). Last year at Christmas time, I wrote on the blog about St Nicholas of Sion in Lycia (modern Turkey), who is described in his hagiography to have cut down a pagan sacred tree, “in which dwel[t] the spirit of an unclean idol, that destroys both men and fields.” Typically for hagiographies, St Nicholas chose here confrontation with pagan cult rather than the peaceful appropriation seen at Tule and certainly also in Roman examples.

Our understanding of the Christianization of the Roman countryside is mainly based on textual evidence (for a good account, see Caseau 1999). While field survey has been extremely successful in reconstructing the economic and social landscape of late antiquity, the religious landscape (apart from the distribution of churches) remains more elusive from an archaeological viewpoint. This is unfortunate, as rural religion and cult is extremely fascinating, yet much less understood than its urban equivalents that have been much more intensively studied. Synchretism (or whatever we choose to call it) of pagan and Christian elements, similar to the appropriation of the tree at Tule, must have taken place at many rural shrines and natural places of worship in late antiquity. These sites that made up a complex sacred topography may also have shifted over time between violent confrontations and peaceful assimilation. Trying to reconstruct this micro-level of religious change and its relation to the narrative of Christianization is to me one of the most challenging and fascinating aspects of the study of late antiquity.

Richard Bradley. 2000. An Archaeology of Natural Places. London: Routledge.

Beatrice Caseau. 1999. “Sacred Landscapes”, pp. 21-59, in: Bowersock, G, P. Brown & O. Grabar (eds.) Late Antiquity. A Guide to the Postclassical World. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Beatrice Caseau. 2004. “The Fate of Rural Temples in Late Antiquity and the Christianisation of the Countryside”, pp. 105-144, in: W. Bowden, L. Lavan & C. Machado (eds.) Recent Research on the Late Antique Countryside. Late Antique Archaeology vol. 2. Leiden: Brill.

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  1. Interesting example with Tule. I saw similar imagery in Malta during a visit where at the site of a car crash one can see an image reminiscent of the crucifixion in a gnarled olive tree. The tree is now revered and there are Christian roadside shrines placed around it. Sacred landscapes are indeed evolving to this day.

    Very interesting blog- just stumbled across it. Keep up the good work!

  2. I realize I’m late, and maybe you will see this:
    In Estonia, not too far from where you are, there was a tradition of sacred trees and groves well into the 20th century. Unfortunately, the Church, both Lutheran and Catholic, worked very hard to destroy the trees and groves, and I can think of only one example where one tree has been subsumed into the Christian belief system.

    The the Pühtidsa Convent, a Russian Orthodox one (there’s only one Russian Orthodox convent in Estonia) in Eastern Estonia, there are the remains of a tree, barely alive now, in whose branches by local tradition an icon was found. A little chapel was built at the site, which evolved into a convent. Very often the trees were associated with hallowed springs, and there is one there too, where the believers go to dip themsels and drink the water.

  3. Many thanks for your comment, Kassandra.

    I know a Estonian archaeology PhD student who’s doing his dissertation on sacred groves and trees, so it seems that there’s now a fair bit of interest in this sort of thing in Estonia.

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