This week in Ireland, a 1000 year old skeleton was ripped unceremoniously from the ground when the tree in whose roots the skeleton was tangled blew over in a storm.
Locals found half of a young man dangling in the uptorn roots following the big blow. (Source: Irisharchaeology.ie) While the youth of this tree seems to indicate it was grown some 800 years after the man’s death (assuming the bones people and the tree ring people were all talking nicely to each other), it has reminded me of one of the most intriguine elements of my research… The practice of ‘seeding’ a corpse.
Seeds from the Tree of Life
One of the earliest formal references to the practice of ‘seeding’ comes from the 13th Century compilation of much older tales called Aurea Legenda (the Golden Legend) by Jacobus de Vorgaine.
The story goes that Adam (fearing the end of his life) sent his son, Seth, to the Garden of Eden (from whence he had been expelled) to ask the attending Angel for the Oil of Mercy which had been promised by God. Seth found his way there but the Angel refused him the oil. Instead, it gave Seth three seeds from the Tree of Life (aka Tree of Knowledge) and Seth returned home with these safely tucked away. Despite the fact that the Angel had not shown him mercy, Adam was ecstatic to see the seeds and expired days later, and his family buried him—as instructed by the Angel—with all three holy seeds under his tongue. A sapling sprouted from his corpse and grew (fed by ‘the blood of Adam’) into a three-trunked tree. Later, Noah dug up this tree by its roots (including Adam’s skeleton) and carried it on the long Ark journey, extracted Adam’s skull from the roots and buried them atop Mt Calvary before finally re-planting the tree on the summit of Mt Lebanon.
In this tale, the surviving tree or its timber go on to be integral in many biblical tales and finally come to rest back atop Mt Calvary (reunited with Adam’s skull) as the upright in the cross on which Jesus of Nazarath was crucified.
Quite separate to loving the idea of a saga told from the point of view of a tree (mental note to self for future story…), and ignoring for the moment that they don’t seem to have grasped how much of a solid the Angel has done them by giving them not one but three seeds from which to grow their own Trees of Life (which presumably exudes the Oil of Mercy and thereby demonstrates the whole ‘teach a man to fish’ principle) the fact that a pre-Christian tale such as this so effortlessly describes the practice of ‘seeding’ suggests to me that it was reasonably common. At least it was from then on.
When I was researching the GreenMan phenomenon (more here) I came across a compelling but half-buried theory by a historian/author (who—to my endless regret—I did not notate at the time and so cannot find again whenever I need it…which seems to be distressingly often).
His theory attributes pre-Christian pagans with the practice of seeding the dead as described in the Aurea Legenda, and suggested that this practice is behind the high incidence of recognition of the GreenMan image across multiple cultures and the similarities in incarnation of that imagery—namely that the resulting foliage bursting forth from a corpse’s orifice is what ‘seeded’ (pardon the pun) the GreenMan imagery across so many cultures.[I guess there are only so many ways a seedling can sprout from a face…]
In y Ddraig
The pagan practice resonated deeply with me (and seems so plausible in a tree-centric culture like the Celts) that I used it in y Ddraig, giving the Mathrafal people of Cymry the habit of laying out their dead without interment (*) but placing seeds under their tongues to grow tall on the corpse’s dying remains. In the case of y Ddraig I extended the practice to include dragons who are the reason tree (and stone) circles exist today.
In Cymry, seeding a person—or a dragon—is the highest honour.[ * Because seeds would have a harder time sprouting if they were within a buried body, I imagined that the bodies were NOT interred and that they were laid out with mouths open so that the little seed within had a chance of getting the light and moisture it would need to grow as the body decomposed.]