Sacred grove

Sacred grove

Sacred groves were a feature of the mythological landscape and the cult practice of Old Europe, of the most ancient levels of Germanic paganism, Greek mythology, Slavic mythology, Roman mythology, and in Druidic practice. Sacred groves also feature prominently in many Asian and African mythologies and cultures, most notably in India, Japan, West Africa, and Anatolia.

Ancient Near East

Excavations at Labraunda have revealed a large shrine - which, according to Herodotus was supposed to have contained a sacred grove. The site was sacred to both Carians and Mysians.

In Syria, some sacred groves are believed to have been made during Assyrian times.

Greco-Roman polytheism

The most famous sacred grove in mainland Greece was the oak grove at Dodona. Outside the walls of Athens, the site of the Academy was a sacred grove of olive trees, still recalled in the phrase "the groves of Academe."

In central Italy, the town of Nemi recalls the Latin nemus Aricinum, or "grove of Ariccia", a small town a quarter of the way around the lake. In Antiquity the area had no town, but the grove was the site of one of the most famous of Roman cults and temples: that of Diana Nemorensis, a study of which served as the seed for Sir James Frazer's seminal work on the anthropology of religion, The Golden Bough.

A sacred grove behind the House of the Vestal Virgins on the edge of the Roman Forum lingered until its last vestiges were burnt in the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE.

In the town of Spoleto, Umbria, two stones from the late third century BCE, inscribed in archaic Latin, established punishments for the profanation of the woods dedicated to Jupiter (Lex Luci Spoletina) have survived; they are preserved in the National Archeological Museum of Spoleto .

The Bosco Sacro (literally sacred grove) at Bomarzo, Italy is a well-known sculpture garden and sacred grove.

Baltic polytheism

Sacred groves have survived in the Baltic states longer than in other parts of Europe. The main Baltic Prussian sanctuary, which is also considered a sacred grove was Romowe. The last extermination of sacred groves was carried out in the lands of present-day Lithuania after its Christianization in 1387 and Samogitia in 1413. A sacred grove is known as alka(s) in Lithuanian.

Germanic polytheism

Sacred groves feature prominently in Scandinavian mythology. The most famous sacred grove of Northern Europe was at the Temple at Uppsala in Old Uppsala, where every tree was considered sacred - described by Adam of Bremen. The practice of Blót - the sacrificial ritual in Norse paganism was usually held in Lunds or sacred groves. According to Adam of Bremen, in Scandinavia, pagan kings sacrificed nine males of each species at the sacred groves every ninth year.

The pagan Germanic tribes also performed tree-worship and had the concept of sacred groves. It is thought that the idea of sacred trees like the Thor's Oak might have led to the concept of the present day Christmas tree.

Celtic polytheism

The Celts used sacred groves, called nemeton in Gaulish, for performing ritual animal and human sacrifices, and other rituals, based on Celtic mythology. The deity involved was usually Nemetona - a Celtic goddess. Druids oversaw such rituals. Existence of such groves have been found in Germany, Switzerland, Czech Republic and Hungary in Central Europe, in many sites of ancient Gaul in France, as well as England and Northern Ireland. Sacred grove remains had been plentiful up until the 3rd century BC, when the Romans attacked and conquered Gaul. One of the most well known nemeton sites is that in the Nevet forest near Locronan in Bretagne, France. Gournay-sur-Aronde (Gournay-on-Aronde), a village in the Oise department of France, also houses the remains of a nemeton.

Nemetons were often fenced off by enclosures, as indicated by the German term Viereckschanze - meaning a quadrangular space surrounded by a ditch enclosed by wooden palisades.

Many of these groves, like the sacred grove at Didyma, Turkey are thought to be nemetons, sacred groves protected by druids based on Celtic Mythology. In fact, according to Strabo, the central shrine at Galatia was called Drunemeton. Some of these were also sacred groves in Greek times (as in the case of Didyma), but were based on a different or slightly changed mythology.


In India, sacred groves are scattered all over the country, and do not enjoy protection via federal legislation. Some NGOs work with local villagers to protect such groves. Each grove is associated with a presiding deity, and the grove are referred to by different names in different parts of India. They were maintained by local communities with hunting and logging strictly prohibited within these patches. While most of these sacred deities are associated with local Hindu gods, sacred groves of Islamic and Buddhist origins are also known. Sacred groves occur in a variety of places - from scrub forests in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan maintained by the Bishnois, to rain forests in the Kerala Western Ghats. Himachal Pradesh in the North and Kerala in the South are specifically known for their large numbers of sacred groves.

Around 14,000 sacred groves have been reported from all over India, which act as reservoirs of rare fauna, and more often rare flora, amid rural and even urban settings. Experts believe that the total number of sacred groves could be as high as 100,000. Threats to the groves include urbanization, over-exploitation of resources, and environmental destruction from Hindu religious practices. While many of the groves are looked upon as abode of Hindu gods, in the recent past a number of them have been partially cleared for construction of shrines and temples.

Ritualistic dances and dramatizations based on the local deities that protect the groves are called Theyyam in Kerala and Nagmandalam, among other names, in Karnataka.

West Africa

The concept of sacred groves is present in Nigerian mythology as well. The Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove, containing dense forests, is located just outside the city of Osogbo, and is regarded as one of the last virgin high forests in Nigeria. It is dedicated to the fertility god in Yoruba mythology, and is dotted with shrines and sculptures. Suzanne Wenger, an Austrian artist, has helped revive the grove. The grove was designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. .

Sacred groves are also present in Ghana. One of Ghana's most famous sacred groves - the Buoyem Sacred Grove - and numerous other sacred groves are present in the Techiman Municipal District and nearby districts of the Brong Ahafo Region. They provide a refuge for wildlife which has been exterminated in nearby areas, and one grove most notably houses 20,000 fruit bats in underground caves. The capital of the historical Ghana Empire El-Ghaba, contained a sacred grove for performing religious rites of the Soninke people. Other sacred groves in Ghana include sacred groves along the coastal savannahs of Ghana . Many sacred groves in Ghana are now under federal protecttion - like the Anweam Sacred Grove in the Esukawkaw Forest Reserve Other well-known sacred groves in Ghana include the Malshegu Sacred Grove in Northern Ghana - one of the last remaining closed canopy forests in the savannah regions , and the Jachie sacred grove.


Sacred groves in Japan are typically associated with Shinto shrines, and are located all over Japan. The Cryptomeria tree is venerated in Shinto practice, and considered sacred. Among the sacred groves associated with such jinjas or Shinto shrines are the shrine at Atsuta-ku, Nagoya - one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan, and the Kashima Shrine - now protected as part of the Kashima Wildlife Preservation Area, on account of its varied bird life and plant life (it houses over 800 kinds of trees).

The Utaki sacred sites (often with associated burial grounds) on Okinawa are based on Ryukyuan religion, and usually are associated with toun or kami-asagi - regions dedicated to the gods where people are forbidden to go. Sacred groves are often present in such places, as also in Gusukus - fortified areas which contain sacred sites within them. The Seifa-utaki was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site designated in 2003. It consists of a triangular cavern formed by gigantic rocks, and contains a sacred grove with rare, indigenous trees like the Kubanoki (a kind of palm) and the yabunikkei or Cinnamomum japonicum (a form of wild cinnamon). Direct access to the grove is forbidden.


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