(Essay 2) 'Archetype or Patriarchetype? A Brief History of the Symbolic Meanings of Thorn Trees' by Kelly A. Greer

Children of Eve, Abraham, or Acacia?

The stories of Abraham offer yet another clue regarding the symbolic meaning of thorn trees. According to scriptures, after he returned from Beersheeba, Abraham was directed by God to sacrifice his son. He prepared the altar with wood for a fire and, as he was ready to raise his hand to the boy, an angel called out to stop him. Just then a ram, caught with his horns in a thicket, was provided in place of Abraham’s son (Genesis 22: 1-18). While he was in Beersheba Abraham had planted a grove (Genesis 21:33) which Jacob later cut and carried into Egypt.

This was the beginning of the biblical Patriarchs: Abraham begat Isaac; Isaac begat Jacob; Jacob begat Joseph, all in a patrilineal succession without the mention of their mothers. The substitution of the ram Abraham found in the thicket saved the life of Isaac, or Ishmael, and, according to Jay:

By this act, Isaac, on the edge of death, received his life not by birth from his mother but from the hand of his father as directed by God (Elohim); and the granting of life was a deliberate, purposeful act rather than a mere natural process, a spiritual “birth” accomplished without female assistance. Abraham received, at this sacrifice, assurance of countless descendants.

In the Islamic tradition, the near-sacrifice of the son took place with Ibrahim and Ismael, his son through Hajar (Hagar). An interpretation similar to Jay’s is given by M.E. Combs-Schilling, wherein sacrifice is likewise discussed as a form of male childbirth, and male childbirth, as argued above, is the central patriarchetype.

The thicket and the bundle of wood used for the fire intended for the sacrifice of Isaac are widely held to have been thorn-bushes. These bushes provided the sacrificial ram caught by its horns. If, as Jay and Combs-Schilling insist, the symbolic nature of the act of Abraham sacrificing the ram is a form of male childbirth, then the thicket is itself symbolic of the mother. If this is so, then Abraham’s son Isaac was symbolically born of the thorn tree. This explains why Isaac’s son Jacob returned to Beersheba on his way to Egypt to cut the grove planted there by his grandfather Abraham, taking the sacred wood of the thorn trees with him, and finally why Moses was instructed to use this wood for the Ark of the Covenant. Abraham’s planting of the grove foreshadows the near-sacrifice of Isaac and it also implies that these trees were already held to be sacred.

It is interesting that later folktales regarding the so-called “Man in the Moon” – in reference to the shapes of the darker images on the face of the moon — hold that this silhouette is that of Isaac, carrying the bundle of thorns for his own sacrifice. Literature that refers to the image also render it as a thorn tree, though many, including Dante, Shakespeare, and Chaucer, have written that Man in the Moon is the image of Cain carrying a thorn tree.

As the son of Adam and Eve, Cain is associated with thorn trees because in Genesis thorns are associated with the fall and perceived as punishment for having partaken of the tree of knowledge. According to Jewish legend, “In Paradise stand the tree of life and the tree of knowledge, the latter forming a hedge about the former.” Throughout history hedges have traditionally been made of thorn trees. Hence, in this role the thorn tree is the Tree of Knowledge enclosing the Tree of Life.

An enclosed area that is set apart by the use of a fence is symbolic of the womb. Such defended enclosures were the original “sacred precincts”; however, to apply an example given by Erich Neumann, “the primitive fence enclosing the female place of childbearing became a sign for the sacred precinct in general.” Thorn-bushes provide protection and so have been used in a variety of ways, including barriers and shelter for humans and animals.

Along with the curse of thistles and thorns in Genesis 3, Eve was cursed with the pain of childbirth, and sacrifice has been postulated by Jay as a “remedy for having been born of woman.” The blood of the sacrificial animal represented the father’s bloodline, replaced the mother’s biological tie to her offspring with socially constructed ones, and represented a symbolic birth of the child into the father’s realm. The symbolic use of acacia gum in the birth ritual parallels the use of sacrificial blood as a means of blessing a child. Why this is so is unclear beyond the likening of the tree to a woman. It is possible that if the meaning of the acacia ritual was matrilineal it might be the origin of what came to be a central patrilineal practice — the archetype underlying the patriarchetype.

Before menstrual blood came to be feared under patriarchy, viewed as dirty and dangerous, it was revered for its life-giving power. Since acacia gum was equated with menstrual blood, the use of this gum in the same manner as that of sacrificial animal blood in the birth or kinship rituals implies symbolic parallels. This reflects the fact that menstrual blood is the archetype and that sacrificial blood is the patriarchetype.

The history of the symbolic use of thorn trees is not limited to these Judaic and pre-Islamic traditions, nor are the associations with women and childbirth limited to the gum of the acacia. In fact, the thorn tree is also found in Christian symbolism, as Jesus was mockingly crowned with thorns as the King of the Jews. However, long before the advent of Christianity or Judaism, thorn trees were revered throughout Africa.

Thorn Trees in Ancient Egypt and Tribal Africa

The acacia was prominent among the sacred trees of ancient Egypt. The goddess Saosis, better known as Hathor, gave birth to the gods beneath the sacred acacia north of Heliopolis. The ancient pyramids proclaim that Horus was born from an acacia, and the temple of the acacia tree is mentioned in the Narrative of Isis.

The acacia was associated with death as well as birth. The funerary aspects of the acacia appear in reliefs in the Edfu temple, indicating that the Egyptians believed that a tree planted on top of a burial mound contained the spirits of those buried beneath it. Excavations of predynastic cemeteries in Egypt reveal tree roots of what may have been acacia and tamarisk.

In Egyptian myth the god Set tricked his brother, Osiris, into lying down in a sarcophagus. Set closed the lid and sent Osiris down the Nile River where he finally came to rest in an acacia. The tree grew around the coffin and eventually concealed it. The tree was noticed by a nearby queen for its lovely fragrance and was cut and shaped into a pillar (known as the “djed”) and placed in the palace. In her search for Osiris, Isis found and recovered the pillar and so conceived Horus.

In ancient inscriptions Osiris is referred to as “the solitary one in the acacia,” and as “the one in the tree.” Osiris came to rule over the dead; however, his soul was said to live on in the Benu, or Phoenix, which has been depicted sitting in the branches of a tree above the grave or coffin of Osiris.

Among the Swazi of southeast Africa, fetching the acacia is a yearly ritual celebrated by the whole tribe. According to strict taboo, only boys who have not engaged in sexual relations cut branches of the tree. The branches are then ceremoniously carried into the cattle byre, or kraal, the next day. The Tswana of southern Africa also engage in a similar ritual involving the hack-thorn, which is used to build and repair the fences of their kraal.

The buffalo thorn, a type of ziziphus tree, has long been considered sacred among the Nguni people of southern Africa. As among the Tswana, the Swazi and other Nguni peoples say it is forbidden to cut this thorn tree after the rainy season and it is never used for firewood. However, if one of the Nguni died while away from home, a designated person would carry a branch of the thorn tree to the place where the death occurred and call out the name of the deceased, declaring they were there to take his or her spirit home. The branch was carried back to the homestead in silence, where leaves from the branch were fed to a goat that was later cooked.

The branch itself was buried in an ancestral hut, or hung in the kraal. Whenever the tribe moved, the graves were moved in a similar ceremony using a branch for every spirit, placing each in separate graves. Trees might be planted on top of new graves to appease the ancestral spirits. Ziziphus thorn trees were also planted on the graves of tribal chiefs.

The symbolic use of varieties of thorn trees is also found throughout Europe and the British Isles, which is well documented into modern times. Historically they have been used as boundary markers, hedgerows, fences, and enclosures.

Throughout Ireland and the British Isles, single thorn trees were planted on top of ancestral burial mounds, some the sites of public assemblies. In Europe thorn trees are associated with funerals and placed atop graves. Thorn trees are the centerpiece of much myth and folklore; for example, they are the home of fairies. These contexts reveal a few historic and more recent applications of meanings associated with the archetypal symbol of the thorn tree and suggest further reasons that among all trees the thorn tree carries special significance. We can find its rituals and archetypal associations in the folk traditions of Old May Day, a pagan holiday that, unlike most, was not synchretized by the patriarchal bias of the Church. The patriarchal appropriation of archetypal symbols is thus disputed as we carry the spirit home. (See part 1)

(A Paper Presented at the S.W. Texas Popular Culture Conference, Albuquerque: New Mexico, February 11, 2006)