Death of a Sycamore

The story of the human being who destroys his environment and himself through greed and wantonness is a fable for our times, as the Greeks and Romans knew.

People look at what remains of the tree at Sycamore Gap, next to Hadrian's Wall, in Northumberland.
People look at what remains of the tree at Sycamore Gap, next to Hadrian's Wall, in Northumberland. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The slicing down of a magnificent sycamore tree, which for hundreds of years stood in a dip at Crag Lough in the rolling hills near Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, has led to a huge outpouring of grief and anger. There is sense of a terrible sacrilege having been committed by the felling of such a noble and venerable tree, akin to the sadness one might feel at the wanton slaying of a huge, benign animal. It was a matter of a few brutal minutes to cut through, with an electric saw, the great trunk grown over centuries and beloved of thousands of visitors. There is no possible remedy for this act of tragic savagery.

The deep sacredness of trees, groves, and forests was expressed in quite tangible terms in classical antiquity. Trees were thought to have divine souls, personified as feminine spirits called dryads. Specific names for such spirits were associated with different trees­ – Meliae for ash trees, Daphniae for laurels, Epimêlides for apple trees. Hamadryads differed from these in being long-lived but mortal: when the tree died, the Hamadryad died. As a result they were under the protection of dryads, who would punish those who harmed them.

The olive tree was so important to Athenians that, in their foundation myths, a tree took precedence even over the sea. Cecrops, the mythical founder of what was to become Athens, was said to have sought to appoint a divine patron and protector for the city, and two gods competed for the role: Poseidon, god of the sea, and Athena, goddess of wisdom and war. Requested to demonstrate the benefits that they would provide to the people of Attica, Poseidon struck a rock with his trident, creating a spring of salt water, while Athena thrust her spear into the ground and planted an olive branch on the spot. The salt water was undrinkable, while the olive tree, planted on the Acropolis, was to prove of enduring benefit. Olives and olive oil were always central to the Greek diet, and became valuable commodities for trade and export. Olive leaves were woven into crowns to adorn the heads of kings and athletes. The wood of the tree (along with that of oak, pine, and other trees) was used in house, boat, and furniture making. Its oil was used for lamp fuel, as salve for athletes, and for perfumiers to make creams and unguents. The city was duly named after the goddess who had given it the tree, and on Athenian coins the olive of Athena would often make an appearance along with her owl symbol.

Trees were objects of respect and veneration for the Romans no less than for the Greeks. Cato the Elder, the Roman statesman of the second century BC and writer on agriculture, instructed that no tree be cut down without a sacrifice first being made to the gods who dwelled in them, their genii (the root of the word ‘djinn’ – tree djinns were one form in Arabic lore). Cato preserves the ancient form of words required to be recited over the sacrifice of a pig before a grove was pruned, indicating the care that was needed to avoid punishment by tree-deities: 

Si deus si dea es quoium illud sacrum est… Be you god or be you goddess, to whom this place is sacred, since it is right to offer you a pig in atonement for pruning this sacred place, whether I or others by my order offer it, that it may be correctly done I offer solemn prayers to you in sacrificing this pig in atonement, so that you may be favourable and gracious to me, my family, household, and children.

In the first century BC the Roman poet Ovid told the story in his Metamorphoses of the old lovingly married couple Baucis and Philemon. They were alone in their town to offer hospitality to gods who visited in disguise, in return for which Zeus granted their wish that neither might live to see their beloved spouse die. At their dying moment he turned them into trees, and they saw themselves becoming intertwined with each other for ever:

Baucis saw Philemon, and her man

saw Baucis, both their bodies sprouting leaves;

and while the tops of trees above them grew,

veiling their faces, they addressed each other

as long as words might come. ‘Goodbye!’ said each,

‘Goodbye, my dear’; and as they said farewell,

new foliage grew and covered them all over.

While the moral of this story is that piety brings rewards, it is followed by a yet more powerful story, which warns against the dangers of impiety – particularly when it comes to doing harm to trees. Ovid builds on a version of the ancient Greek myth of Erysichthon (pronounced ‘Ery – sick – thorn’), King of Thessaly, who impiously orders the sacred grove of Demeter (Roman Ceres), goddess of the harvest, to be cut down. When his retainers refuse to do so, Erysichthon takes an axe and chops it down himself. The dying dryad of the grove lays a curse on him, whereupon Ceres punishes him with insatiable hunger. Having sold all his possessions in his desperate need for food, Erysichthon eventually sells his own daughter and has her procure food for him. But the more he eats, the more he is tormented by hunger, and after all his possessions are exhausted he gruesomely resorts to eating his own body:

His hunger burned him with increasing strength.

He gnawed his flesh, and rent his limbs asunder

to feed his body, as it shrank in turn.

The story of the human being who destroys his environment and himself through greed and wantonness is a fable for our times. In this case Ovid’s poetic fury at the destruction of the sacred tree feels as powerful as our response to the senseless destruction of the majestic ancient sycamore at Crag Lough.


Armand D'Angour