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Painting of a sacred grove with ceremony in progress

Trees are a source of the mysterious quintessence, which is an externalization of the unconscious mind. (Image: Wikipaintings)

The concept of “the quintessence” has more than one historical root. Here I will deal with the one that really does have roots, the one that involves sacred trees. It may seem strange that people once considered certain trees (and by extension, groves) sacred, yet there is a simple logic to the belief and – not surprisingly – a link to modern psychology.

Most of us associate the practice of worshipping trees, or worshipping among trees, with the Celtic peoples of Western Europe. Tacitus (writing about Celts in his book Germania) says, “The Grove is the centre of their whole religion. It is regarded as the cradle of the race and the dwelling-place of the supreme god to whom all things are subject and obedient.”

For the Druids, sacred groves were places of mystery as well as worship. Designated groves of especially large or old trees became a kind of pagan temple or chapel that was literally part of the natural world. Unlike our familiar churches, the groves were not places of spiritual refuge where believers could retreat to gather their thoughts, refresh their spirit, and find comfort in times of distress. They were inviolable locales that only priests might enter.

However, sacred groves are not unique to the Druidic tradition. They have been part of numerous religious practices throughout the Mediterranean basin, in the Middle East, and all across Asia in such diverse places as India, China, Burma, Thailand, and parts of Indochina. Many of these groves have existed for thousands of years.

So what is so special about trees?

We get the vital clue from the ancient Hermetic tradition. These early alchemists believed there were four basic elements: air, water, earth, and fire. They realized that trees need all of these same elements (with the sun as fire) to grow. Furthermore, the wood from trees burns thus releasing the fire stored within. It must have seemed only natural to regard wood as the quinta essentia, or fifth element, since it unites in harmony all four primary elements. In other words, those four primary elements have mysteriously combined to form a fifth. Wood is the quintessence. Trees have exceptional powers. Mithraism, Christianity’s great rival, took up the concept of wood as the quintessence and often included sacred trees in its murals.

The Hermetic tradition developed this idea of combining essential elements and came up with the notion of finding the philosopher’s stone. As time passed, distilling the stone came to symbolize absolute perfection, enlightenment, and the attainment of heavenly bliss. Some practitioners claimed it could even confer immortality!

Here is where psychology comes in. Humankind faces the reality of a mind divided between a small, but seemingly central, conscious awareness and a much larger unconscious of which we are – by definition – only vaguely cognizant. For such beings, there must always be something “beyond.” The extra “element” or powerful “stone,” the quintessence, is the externalized concretized vision of our dimly sensed unconscious mind. The qualities ascribed to the quintessence, its uniting of all the elements is a fair representation of the nature of the unconscious. The transformative powers of the philosopher’s stone reflect the unconscious mind’s potent associative and intuitive functions. The way in which the quintessence (wood) burns parallels the bright conscious awareness that miraculously springs from the otherwise dark unconscious. Appropriately, Mithraism symbolized consciousness, regarded as the human spirit, with the image of the Flame Everlasting.

Remember that Celtic sacred groves were off limits to all but the solemnly initiated Druidic priests. Much the same is true of the unconscious mind. Only a person who has suffered the agonies of integrating irrupting unconscious contents has any real grasp of what lies buried in the unconscious. Only someone knowledgeable in the structure of the psyche and the proper relationship between ego and the unconscious can function as a unified whole.

Individuation, as Jung noted, is not for everyone. We all partake of the quintessence for the simple reason that we all have unconscious minds. We all make use of the philosopher’s stone in the simple sense of being intuitive or drawing on associative thinking. Mithraism’s Flame Everlasting burns in even the most humble among us. However, the other aspect of the Hermetic tradition, the transformation of the alchemist him- or herself is reserved for those willing and able to endure the excoriating rigours and gruelling hardships of Jung’s individuation process. In this sense, only the initiated may actually enter the sacred grove.