Previous Page Table Of Contents Next Page

Sacred groves in Europe

Sacred groves also existed widely in western Europe in ancient times.

Sacred groves seem to have existed widely throughout western Europe in prehistoric times. They included natural or planted groves in which a local deity was believed to reside; temple groves, in which a temple was surrounded by planted trees; and groves surrounding or covering burial grounds. A trait common to these areas was their inviolability; only priests or those concerned with a ceremony could enter them. In some traditions, cutting down a tree in a sacred grove could mean death to the offender. There are still traces of sacred Druidic groves today in areas of France, the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The ancient sacred grove at Nemi near Rome, Italy was consecrated to the goddess Diana (Artemis in Greek), the divinity of the hunt (Brosse, 1989). The name Nemi comes from the Greek and Latin nemos/nemus, which meant a forest enclosing pastures, groves and a group of trees considered to be sacred. Within a nemus clearings were cut in order to put animals to pasture.

Nearly every tribe in ancient Gaul seems to have possessed a nemeton or sacred meeting place surrounded and protected by trees. These were centres of religious ritual, and their destruction was seen with the same horror that would attend the burning of a temple or church today. According to Matthews and Matthews (2002), “... many settlements [in Europe] were built beside, or derived their names from, the sites of ancient groves. Once Christianity began to move across the Western world, the nemeton were destroyed and Christian churches built on their ashes...”. Still today in Celtic countries offerings of ribbons can be seen hanging in the bushes around sacred wells, an ancient custom venerating nature as a feminine divinity or an “earth mother” principle.

Politically speaking, one group’s “sacred grove” could be perceived as a threat by another group, and conquerors often destroyed these places as a way of wielding power over local peoples. As recorded by Lucanus, for example, Caesar destroyed one of the Gauls’ sacred groves in the first century in order to abolish what were considered by the Romans to be pagan practices. During the Middle Ages, the Christian church destroyed Celtic and Druidic sacred groves throughout Europe with a similar purpose; the church’s prohibition of tree worship and of all rites having to do with tree veneration probably related to the fact that early tree guardians not only possessed knowledge (generally in the form of planting calendars, medicinal properties of plants including trees, and other types of knowledge) but carried on their practices and teachings in secrecy and could have constituted a political threat; destroying their “library”, so to speak, disempowered the magicians.


Brosse, J. 1989. Mythologie des arbres. Paris.

Matthews, J. & Matthews, C. 2002. Taliesen, the last Celtic shaman. Rochester, Vermont, USA, Inner Traditions International.

Previous PageTop Of PageNext Page