Historically, many cultures cultivated sacred groves, including the ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as the Celts. We recently were able to eat lunch in an oak grove above St. Cybi’s well. This 360 degree video will let you look around the grove while I talk.
We are sitting in a grove of oak trees, but throughout history sacred trees could be of many kinds, depending on the locality. The Greeks had a sacred cyprus grove at the Temple of Zeus at Nemea and an olive grove at the temple of Athena on Rhodes. There was a sacred fir grove near Croton in southern Italy, and a laurel grove on the road to Ostia. In Roman law, cutting down trees in a sacred grove was punishable by death.
For the Celts, living in more northern climates the sacred groves were often oak where the goddess Nemetona, translated to “she of the sacred grove” was worshipped. Dedications to her have been found as far apart as the Rhine in Germany and in Bath in England.
During the Roman conquest of Britain, one of the primary targets of the Roman legions were these sacred groves and the druids who tended them, because the Romans understood that it was the druids who were one of the driving forces of resistance against them. Unfortunately, the little that we know about the British worship practices comes from the Romans themselves. Cicero writes of a Gaulish druid he met that “claimed to have that knowledge of nature which the Greeks call physiologia, and he used to make predictions, sometimes by means of augury and sometimes by means of conjecture”. Julius Caesar reported that it could take up to twenty years to finish the course of study to become a full-fledged druid.
The only description we have of the druids and their sacred groves in Britain comes from Tacitus, a Roman senator, who describes the Roman attack on Anglesey. He sets the scene with these words: “On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors, while between the ranks dashed women, in black attire like the Furies, with hair disheveled, waving brands. All around, the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven, and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight, so that, as if their limbs were paralyzed, they stood motionless, and exposed to wounds.”
The Romans recovered and to continue the quote “Then urged by their general’s appeals and mutual encouragements not to quail before a troop of frenzied women, they bore the standards onwards, smote down all resistance, and wrapped the foe in the flames of his own brands. A force was next set over the conquered, and their groves, devoted to inhuman superstitions, were destroyed.”
Trees continued to be sacred to the people of Wales, however, who did not necessarily give up their old beliefs. During the Roman occupation, many Roman traditions were incorporated into existing Celtic ones, and the same is true once the conversion to Christianity began. Churches tended to be built near groves of trees that had once had a more pagan spiritual meaning, in the same way that a church might be founded next to an already existing healing well.
That appears to be the situation with this grove of trees, established between a pre-roman hillfort on the summit of Carn Pentrych and St. Cybi’s church and well in the valley below, founded in the 6th century AD.