Cultus Arborum: A Descriptive Account of Phallic Tree Worship (1890)

There are few of the works of nature that combine so many and so varied charms and beauties as a forest; that whether considered generally or particularly, whether as a grand geographical feature of a country or as a collection of individual trees, it is alike invested with beauty and with interest, and opens up the mind a boundless field for inquiry into the mysterious laws of creation.

So begins Cultus Arborum: A Descriptive Account of Phallic Tree Worship, published anonymously in 1890. The fourth entry in a ten-volume “Phallic Series” printed privately in limited number, Phallic Tree Worship was preceded by three 1889 studies: Phallicism: A Description of the Worship of Lingam-Yoni in Various Parts of the World; Ophiolatreia: An Account of the Rites and Mysteries Connected with the Origin, Rise, and Development of Serpent Worship; and Phallic Objects, Monuments and Remains. Less a self-contained book than a series of extended quotations from historical sources (ranging from Pliny to the Kangxi Emperor) and contemporary works on comparative religion, the text leans heavily on Henry Clark Barlow’s Sacred Trees (1862), James Fergusson’s Tree and Serpent Worship (1868), and James Forlong’s Rivers of Life (1883), which contains sections on “Tree Worship” and “Serpent Worship”.

As such, this book intentionally seems to relish missing the forest for the trees, offering hundreds of examples from religious history connected only by the soft logic of association. A sense of this volume’s eclectic breadth can be seen in the table of contents: “Invocation of Tree Gods”; “Origin of Groves”; “Persian bushes”; “The ‘Ash Faggot Ball’ of Somersetshire”; and “Universal Sacredness of the Oak”, to take examples almost at random. At times, the montage pace of the author’s quest produces dizzying, if unconfirmable, results. Tracking the oracular trees of the Sun and Moon, as described in a fictional fourth-century letter from Alexander the Great to Aristotle, the author ferrets out their supposed location from the Pseudo-Callisthenes and John Mandeville’s Travels (ca. 1350). He speculates that one of these specimens might have been a cypress tree “said to be 1,450 years old, and to measure 33 ¾ cubits in girth” near Kashmar, Iran, grown from a paradisical shoot brought down to Earth by Zoroaster, which was felled by al-Mutawakkil in the ninth century and transported to Baghdad on rollers by thirteen-hundred camels. In his footnote-chasing foray, the author elevates hearsay to a literary style.

Cover image of Hargrave Jennings’ bookScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Elsewhere, this associative method leaves only soughing prose where scholarship should be. The author dismisses the idea that Christmas trees, which have “become a prevailing fashion in England at this season”, find their roots in a Germanic Protestant tradition, and instead posits that they date to pre-Christian Egypt — a theory he substantiates with the observation that modern Germans, without tree-buying means, create “pyramids [formed by] slight erections of slips of wood, arranged like a pyramidal epergne, covered with green paper, and decorated with festoons of paper-chain work, which flutters in the wind and constitutes a make-believe foliage”. The sole unifying thesis seems to stem from the earlier Phallicism, where the practice under consideration is “the adoration of the generative organs as symbols of the creative powers of nature”.

Speaking of organ adoration, and despite the book’s title, there is very little explicitly sexual here. Describing the lingam worship of Hindu Shivaism, which takes place under “an umbrageous Bael” or “fine Ficus” — and, if both are lacking, “the poor god is often reduced to the stump of a tree” — the author cautions a potentially salacious audience: “My readers must not fancy that this worship is indecent, or even productive of licentiousness. It is conducted by men, women and children of modest mien, and pure and spotless lives.” He proceeds to admit that, at certain seasons, “the passions are roused and the people proceed to excesses” — but these are, he thinks, significantly less common than in the rites of Eastern Christianity.

Although published anonymously, the Phallic Series is undoubtedly the work of Hargrave Jennings (1817–1890), whom Paschal Beverly Randolph heralded as “the chief Rosicrucian of all England”. The author’s anonymity may have been as much about saving face as cultivating mystery: the Westminster Review deemed his 1870 The Rosicrucians as “the most absurd book”, with A. E. Waite flagging its associative methodology as “ill-digested erudition”. Mostly forgotten today, Jennings was nevertheless a key precursor of the occult revival in the 1880s. Joscelyn Godwin, one of the few scholars to have written on Jennings, believes him to be “an unrecognized pioneer in the exploration of oriental metaphysics and the reconciliation of East with West”. Acknowledging the “slapdash way that Jennings throws together his facts and fantasies”, he nevertheless encourages us to celebrate this “lonely intellectual adventure”, carried out “with minimal support, moral or financial, from anyone”.