In spring, early summer, or midsummer the villagers would go out into the woods to cut down a tree. They’d bring it back to the village and set it up there (“amid general rejoicings”); or, in other villages, they would cut up the tree and distribute the branches among the households. James Frazer tells us that the purpose of these rituals was to bring the spirit that dwelt in the tree into the village so that its blessing could be shared among the villagers.
Over time, the purpose of customs is forgotten: the tree is left up in the village square through autumn and winter so that it can be danced around again next year and the year after that. The spirit of the living tree is long departed by the time the tree is used again, and no new spirit is brought in that spring or summertime. No magic is being performed here: only the bare custom remains. A general sense that the change of season is something to be celebrated, and so there should be drink and dancing.
Or in some places, rather than being forgotten altogether, the custom is found to have been only altered over time. In places where the same tree is used year after year, or where the tree is replaced only every few years, an effort is made at least to decorate the tree with the vegetation that has appeared in the woods since spring. No new tree spirit has been brought in, but the general spirit of spring and summer is evoked, and the people know the purpose of the ritual: to bring in the blessings of spring and summertime.
What’s lost over time is the immanent quality of the belief that underlies the custom: even where the meaning is not forgotten altogether, the spirit of the season is no longer an individual spirit that dwells in a particular tree, but is instead a universal spirit of spring or summertime, transcendent to any particular instance of growth and blossoming, representing a general conception of the spring and summer seasons.
In this example we can see how, as people become less literal in their beliefs, less convinced that spirits are individual beings that inhabit individual tangible things, they abandon the immanent contact with spirits, and come to settle for an acquaintance with only a general conception of things.
(I’ve been reading “Relics of Tree-Worship in Modern Europe” in James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.)
(Image is from Pixabay.)