Apple Tree Wassail – Survival of a Tree Cult

Apple Tree WassailFrom the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’ Volume 42 1922, an article written by the W. O. Beament, M.A. entitled ‘Apple Tree Wassail: Survival of a Tree Cult’

I propose for the purpose of this paper to consider firstly the ceremonies accompanying the Apple Tree Wassail which are, or were until lately, observed in the South West of England,and secondly to consider certain parallels to the rite which may be found at various stages of the civilisation of Western Europe.

It may then be possible to indicate some connection between the two, and to suggest a theory which accounts for what I believe to be a genuine pre-historic survival on English Soil. At the outset, I ought to explain that the theory which I shall outline at the conclusion of this paper is not intended to be the result of any research. It is simply an indication of the lines along which I believe a possible solution of the problems presented by the Apple Tree Wassail may be found.

At the present day the custom of wassailing the apple trees does not appear to be observed in Dorset; and when I first commenced collecting material for this paper I was not aware that it had been practised in our own county in recent times. However, our Vice- President, Judge Udal, has very kindly forwarded to me an extract from the manuscript of his forthcoming book on Dorset Folklore with permission to make use of it for the purposes of this paper. Judge Udal refers to an article in Folklore for 1918 from which it appears that the ceremony observed in Dorset did not differ in any important particular from those still to be found in the sister county of Somerset. When we turn to the latter county, there is an abundance of material for consideration ; and I propose to take as a representative account, and one which forms an excellent basis for discussion, the description of the ceremony given by Mr. Cecil Sharp in his note to Song 128, Folk Songs, from Somerset, 5th Series.

The rite appears to have been observed at Bratton on the 17th January, and the procedure as described by several witnesses is roughly as follows:

Meeting about seven in the evening, the wassailers proceed to the orchard which is to be the scene of their first celebration, and, forming a ring round one of the oldest of the trees, dance round, singing a particular song, to the words of which I will presently revert. Cider, sometimes warmed, is then thrown upon the tree or poured over the roots to the accompaniment of much shouting, stamping of feet, and firing of guns. Before leaving the tree a piece of toast soaked in cider is placed in the fork of the branches. Mr. Sharp states that, on enquiry of one of the revellers as to what became of the toast, he was informed that ” some say that the birds eat it, but I don’t know.”

There are five points in this ceremony which are worth considering :

  1. The Tree.
  2. The Song and Dance.
  3. The Libation of Cider.
  4. The Noise.
  5. The Offering of Toast

It may be interesting to consider them briefly in detail as they appear to-day.

1. SONG AND DANCE. I cannot obtain any very clear idea of the dance itself. Whatever it may have been in the past, it does not seem to-day to be a set figure; it rather has the nature of a wild gambol round a tree by a number of men joining hands in a ring. Probably the fact that they have already wassailed each other in cider before setting out has some effect upon their gyrations. The words of the song are at the present day more or less doggerel. As given by Mr. Sharp they run as follows:

Old Apple Tree we’ll wassail thee
And hoping thou wilt bear
The Lord doth know where we shall be
To be merry another year:
So blow well and bear well
And so merry let us be
Let every man drink up his can
And health to the old Apple Tree.

Then follows a spoken piece, cheering, shouting, stamping and gun-firing. I have come to the conclusion, as a result of comparison between this and similar ceremonies, that the words have in comparatively modern times been substituted for more ancient formula having practically the same meaning.It is perfectly clear that the wish expressed is for a good crop of apples in the ensuing year. It is rather curious that, in the Sedgemoor district, verses of the New Year Wassail Song are added to the Apple Tree Wassail.

2. SHOUTING, GUN-FIRING, ETC. The use of gunpowder, a comparatively modern invention, has led certain correspondents on this subject to suggest that we have a survival of a primitive method of pruning. The theory is that in early clays pruning was accomplished by beating the tree with a stick; and subsequently the firing of shot into the branches was used to obtain the same result. I am inclined myself to think that the gun-firing is merely a method of making a noise. Lieut. Latrobe-Bateman in describing his Congo Explorations in the middle of the last century has noted that natives belonging to the Mohammedan faith fire off guns at certain religious celebrations. In this case he knows that the object is simply that of making a noise. It seems rather more likely that the idea of noise-making should be predominant in a rustic ceremony such as wassailing, rather than that it should be necessary to prc-suppose a primitive method of pruning,for which not only does no evidence exist, but which is more over rather insulting to the intelligence of our ancestors.

3. THE LIBATION. This as it survives scarcely requires any comment. It can best be considered in the next section of the paper.

4. OFFERING OF TOAST. This is undoubtedly a real offering. Mr. Sharp’s informant was clearly of the opinion that it was not eaten by the birds, although twentieth century materialism had made him rather shy of expressing this belief openly.

None of the participants in the ceremony, however, appear to have any very clear idea as to whom the offering was made. It seems that we have here a case in which folk-memory is rapidly failing. Toast is still placed in the branches because it is remembered that once the offering was made to someone or something.

But in a few years, if the ceremony lasts as long, the reason will have been entirely forgotten; and I think this particular part of the rite will disappear entirely or we shall be definitely told that it is intended as an offering to the birds, probably in the hope that they will not attack the crop during the year.

In considering one or two interesting parallels to the Apple Tree Wassail, I should like to begin with a reminder that tree worship still survives in twentieth century England in other forms. The simplest, and the one which comes most readily to mind, is the Maypole dance. The Maypole is usually a dry pole perhaps with a sprig of green at the top, but was once, as Sir James Frazer has pointed out in the Golden Bough, a living tree freshly cut from the forest. It was also not so long ago that the “Jack in the Green” was a well-known figure in village festivities. It is rather curious that, while Sir James Frazer lays great stress upon these two survivals, he does not in the Golden Bough refer to the Apple Tree Wassail.

Bearing in mind then that ceremonies, which at the present time appear to have a value only as burlesque, are none the less religious survivals, we shall he less surprised to find that our West Country Apple Tree Wassail has behind it a long and honourable history. I must apologise for proceeding to state one or two facts which are probably well known to most of those present to-day, but my excuse is that their clue remembrance is essential to the considerations I wish to advance.

It must be kept in mind that religions, and especially primitive religions as distinct from magical cults, fall generally speaking into one of two classes they are connected with earth spirits or with sky gods. Without being irreverent, it may be stated that Christianity, following its predecessor Judaism, falls into the latter class; but this class is, at any rate in Western Europe, by no means the older. Men worshipped spirits of the earth before they worshipped spirits of the sky.

If one may make an extremely rough generalisation of the work of archaeologists in the classical lands of the Mediterranean, it may be laid down that the first peoples of that region of whom we have knowledge were agriculturists who worshipped earth deities, and buried their dead ; while, at a later date, they were encroached upon by, and ultimately fused with, pastoral invaders from the north, a taller fairer race who worshipped sky and storm deities and practised cremation. If in the light of some of these researches we consider the various points of the Apple Tree Wassail we shall begin to see some connection between our folk custom and the religions of the ancient world.

The ritual song and the ritual dance are both expressions of the same idea. The dance expresses the result in action, the song is an expression of the wish in words. Thus the first men to dance round the tree, in the hope that a crop might be secured to them, were performing in their early world a species of primitive ballet, endeavouring to depict in action and to sing in words the ideas of life and fertility; they imitated the desired result by showing themselves in possession of health, vigour, strength and agility.

The problem that presents itself at this point is: why they should dance round the tree ? The answer is that, just as gods have been made in the form of men and in the form of animals, so we are beginning to learn they have also been made in the form of plants. The tree is, if it may be so expressed, a kind  of super-plant. It has an intimate connection with the earth. It towers in the air and it is strong and, generally speaking, has a long life. It is extremely likely that originally the ceremony which we are considering was not performed round an Apple Tree at all, but round some forest tree, in all likelihood an Oak. This is perfectly easy to understand if it be remembered that primitive man has connected the idea of life, as expressed in plant or animal, not merely with the plants which he eats or the animal which he uses for food, but with those which are not good for this purpose. Thus we have Snake Tribes and Rat

Tribes when, generally speaking, the snake or rat is not a common article of diet. Totemism is far older and has exercised far more influence in religious developement than any idea of prayer for actual food. Thus assuming that originally our tree was a forest tree, that the religious idea grew weaker and weaker, and that people began to query why they did this thing, the ceremony, to make it appear more rational, would be transferred to a tree whose crop was actually of value as food, and in such a district as South-west England the natural tree to select would be the apple tree.

In the libation of cider we have an obvious magical survival. The cider is simply apple-juice, the blood of the tree, drawn from it last year. It may be assumed still to contain the life of the tree and is, therefore, poured back upon the roots or upon the trunk during the dead season of the winter in order that the tree may once more blossom and bear fruit. It carries from one season to another life and growth.

In this connection it may be interesting to note that the sacred tree and the sacred pillar are considered to be merely two aspects of the same thing. The tree is a living sacred pillar, a pillar is a petrified tree. Each is the house of a god or spirit, the place of its indwelling, a central point between the spiritual and material worlds.

Jacob, when he set up the Stone of Bethel, poured on it .wine and oil in consecration and named it the “House of God,” thereby indicating that for him at least it w r as the dwelling-place of the God of his fathers whom he proposed to serve.

The cider poured on the tree is not a drink for the spirit dwelling there. It is a rather more magical rite, indicating that the celebrant is trying to bring about a desired result by assuming it done. He pours cider because he wants cider next year.

In the sacred dance we have imitated the desired result; in the song we have expressed our wishes and hopes in words; by pouring cider we have done our best by physical means to secure that a comparatively dead tree will come to life. All this belongs to a very .early stage in religious thought, when gods and spirits are scarcely as yet conceived as such. Primitive man thinks not so much of deities as of divinities vague, half understood forces at work something like that which the natives of Melanesia call ” mana.” And this word is so expressive that it has passed into current anthropological jargon. Thus we have hitherto dealt only with forces which are more or less impersonal and can be controlled by magic, spirits not requiring to be sought in prayer because they are not regarded as possessing definite personal wills. It is the great distinction between magic and religion as we know it. With the former it is a matter of knowing how to do the right thing, while the latter is a question of personal relationship with a being. Now the noise brings us to the stage in which a being is introduced.

The shouting, stamping, and gun-firing, while they may in some measure express the joy of life, yet none the less are intended to awaken the spirit in the tree who has fallen asleep during the winter and must be aroused in good time if he is to do his work in the coming spring. Elijah’s taunt to the prophets of Baal was not merely sarcastic : to those w r ho heard it meant something real. They were used to shouting to wake up their god when they had any particularly heavy work on hand for him to do. So the Wassailers shout to arouse the spirit of the tree.

The toast in the branches takes us one step further. Toast which is intended to disappear is obviously of no use unless it is consumed by somebody or something, and we have here an instance of the actual offering made to a god or spirit. It is rather interesting to query whether it is given in order that the god may do something in return, or as a bribe to induce him to refrain from doing harm. As a matter of fact in early religion God and the Devil are very  much one and the same. It might be noticed in this connection that the vegetation spirit in Syrian mythology is Adonis, and his connection with Aphrodite is a matter of common knowledge. Aphrodite is always accompanied by birds her doves have become a proverb. Is it then too fantastic to suggest that here in

Central Somerset we have a direct survival of rites which in the golden days of Greece centred round the worship of the Maiden of the Sea-Foam?

I have already hinted at what is possibly an explanation of the survival of such rites as tree-cults in Britain. There seems very little doubt that such cults were originally the property of a people who were agriculturists, whose religion was the worship of earth divinities and who buried their dead. We know as a matter of certainty that this was the case in pre-historic times in Greece and other lands around the Mediterranean.

The early culture of Crete, of Mycenae and of the traditional site of Troy has afforded abundant evidence of the fact that the phenomena which I have just mentioned occurred together. Moreover from the same sources we know that at some time a pastoral people worshipping Olympian deities came down upon the Mediterranean from the North and were fused with the original inhabitants of the basin, the result of which fusion can be seen in the strangely assorted collection of gods and goddesses which make up the Hellenic and Latin Pantheons.

Now it is a well-known fact that, even when one race is conquered by another, the ideas and institutions of the conquered survive with strange persistence.

Thus there will be no cause for surprise if it be suggested that vegetation cults have persisted from very early times, and through various stages of civilisation, down to the modern world. It remains for us now to endeavour to connect the known facts of the Mediterranean area with the survivals which we find in our own country. I would suggest as a basis for further investigation a theory somewhat on these lines:

Tradition and modern research alike lead us to believe that, when the Mediterranean race was squeezed between the mountains and the sea by the increasing pressure of the northern invaders, an outlet of escape was found in the far west, along the Spanish shores and into Gaul. The peculiar religious observances of an agricultural people can be traced along this route and into Britain. The traces of Neolithic culture in this country show that we are dealing with a people whose physical features, as far as can be ascertained, resemble those which Sergi has ascribed to the Mediterranean race; a people whose religious observances, so far as any evidence remains to us, were akin to those of primitive dwellers in the Mediterranean basin, and whose belief in future life and survival after death was connected with the under-world rather than with a heaven in the sky. I would suggest then that, in common with other survivals of tree-worship and vegetation cult, the Apple Tree Wassail is a survival of that common stock of religious experience possessed by those early inhabitants of Southern and Western Europe whom tradition has called in various places by the names of Pelasgians, Ligurians and Iberians.

These people, whom we know to have contributed to later Greek religion those elements dealing with the under-world, the gods of the sea, the vegetation demons and those divine or semi-divine beings who possess the power of appearing in the form of beasts such as Dionysus would, as long as they remain agriculturists, practise their particular cults; and that these would, moreover, be learnt by any races who came into contact with them who wished to change from the wandering pastoral life to the more settled occupation of agriculture. Primitive man knew very well that it was useless to carry on an occupation until he had first of all put himself right with the spirits whose special concern that occupation was. This fact alone would explain how the ceremony could survive through various changes of civilisation and religion, and would also explain why so many of these customs have been able to make honourable terms even with triumphant Christianity.

The Apple Tree Wassail is one of the more obscure of these ancient rites, but it is none the less interesting, and I have endeavoured to put forward an analysis of its elements and a suggestion as to the lines on which further investigation may be pursued.

Note.  An article in Folk-lore, Volume XXXI, page 307, by Miss M. A. Berkeley, in commenting on some of the conclusions reached by Miss J. L. Weston in her work From Ritual to Romance, points out that Avalon in Afalon has the traditional interpretation of the ” Isle of Apples,” and that Mr. Cook has in the “European Sky and Tree God ” connected the ” Apple tree of Avallach ” the “god” of Avalon with magic trees of Irish legends and with the grove of Nemi. After shewing the connection of the Holy Thorn with sacred trees in general Miss Berkeley proceeds to set out evidence for the existence of an important and widely-known cult of the life principle at Glastonbury in early, and even in historic, times. The whole of the article is most suggestive in connection with the persistence of the apple cult in Somerset in modern times.


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