Combs of Wood: the Anthropomorphic Tree

February 6, 2010 at 5:23 pm Leave a comment

It has been said that in Medieval times a squirrel in England could travel from the East coast to the West cost without once having to clamber down. This is true not only of Medieval England, but of most of the world during the last ten thousand years. People lived in small clearings with the forest all round. Several millions of years we have lived mostly surrounded by trees and felt safe and protected among them. We used the wood for all our needs, for tools, for huts, for weapons, and for adornments.

Wooden comb from Jericho

Wooden comb from a Bronze Age tomb in Jericho

However, wooden objects perish, which means that of the astronomical number of wooden tools, weapons, ornaments and containers used during prehistoric times, very, very few things have been preserved. (We have been taught that during the Stone Age people used stone for everything and especially for scraping skins to make clothes. What a silly thing! Microwear studies show that only about 10% were used for working hides, while the majority served to fashion wooden objects.)

Therefore, I am not surprised that only four wooden combs appear in my collection: three of them saved by the dry climate of the desert: Jericho on the West Bank in Palestine and Naqada in southern Egypt, and one that was preserved under hermetic seal in the mud of Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland.

Wooden comb Naqada

Wooden comb from a tomb in Naqada, Egypt

We may have felt at home among the trees until we began farming the earth believing that we owned it and could do whatever we wanted with it. Then the forest that refused to be tamed became hostile and threatening. It was outside civilization; the place where dangers lurked and those who preferred to live there were the uncivilized ones.

On “my” Italian mountain my friends were much more suspicious of the forestieri than of us, the stranieri. It seems as if the forestieri, that is, those who live a couple of miles away “in the forest”, are if not dangerous at least less “human” than the stranieri who coming from another country cannot help being strani, “strange.”

Not only wolves and bears live in the deep forest, but our imagination has peopled it with more dangerous beings, such as elves, fairies, giants, trolls, and dwarves and although some are friendly, all are uncanny. It is the dark place outside our conscious world, and as the stories tell us, only the courageous prince goes into its center in search of the princess: Snow White in her glass casket, and the beautiful Aurora in the sleeping castle.

Trees are linked to the earth into which they sink their roots and from which they take their sustenance; to the water that as the sap circulates through the trunks; to the sunshine and to the air that photosynthesize with the leaves, and to the fire that consumes it. They represent life and death in a manner that is similar to that of the moon. Every winter they are dry and dead. Black and naked they stand in snow and rain. Then, suddenly with the arrival of spring, life returns to the dry branches. Leaves are reborn on the branches and during the summer the flowers turn into fruits. In the autumn the trees begin to draw back from life again. In the same way as every month the old crescent dies and is born again after the three black nights, every autumn the trees lose their leaves as if they were to die, and then they return to life when the days become longer and milder.

The tree is also a symbol of the mother who feeds us and protects us from the heat of the sun. It allows us to burn it giving us light, heat, and protection, and is a mother even to the dead: our coffins are made of wood and three thousand-year-old cremation urns were often placed on newly cut branches. We need mothering and when our mothers are no longer there and Mother Earth feels too big, the Tree, one of the archetypal images comes forward in our dreams and in the pictures we paint.

photo R. Bastoni

However, the tree is also a father as in this Korean story about the flood:

A boy is born from the union of a fairy and a laurel tree. The fairy mother leaves when the boy is seven years old and then it begins to rain and rain. The water threatens to cover the earth. When the father laurel feels that he is becoming uprooted, he takes the boy on his back and off they float until they arrive to the summit of a mountain.

In Europe, a young woman can become a laurel as the Roman poet Ovid shows in his transcription of an ancient Greek story:

Daphne’s father was an old river-god, but that did not help her when the god Apollo happened to catch a glimpse of her, because nothing could stop him once his passion had been fired. Daphne ran for her life. When she could not run anymore, she called to her father for help – and felt her body transforming into a laurel tree. Apollo knew he was defeated, but taking a branch from the tree he made his garland from it. Hers was the victory, but the god always carried her round his head.

A young woman defeats a god and the laurel tree still stands and during the final  graduation ceremony in Sweden the new Doctors of Philosophy are still crowned with laurel garlands. In the same way as we accept that a tree can engender a child and a terrified girl escape a god’s sexual assault by becoming a laurel, we have no difficulties in accepting Disney’s talking and walking trees, or be delighted by J.R.R. Tolkien’s portrait of Old Willow in the Old Forest, and Treebeard and Quickbeam among the Ents.

However, the story about Daphne and Apollo is not the only story about young women being trees: The French anthropologist Yvonne Vernier remembers in her book Coutume et destin how in some villages in the French Bourgogne in the 1960’s,  the young men went into the forest choosing saplings on the last day of April and then in the night they placed one tree in front of every house where an unmarried girl lived. Each tree was chosen to represent that special girl.

Wooden comb Switzerland

Wooden comb from Lake Neuchâtel, Switzerland

In the same way as a tree can be a father or a girl, the comb made of wood shows the abstract shape of a woman.


Entry filed under: Combs, Folktales, Myth, the Moon, Trees.

Sorry, Chronology is all Wrong Combs of Wood: The Cosmic Tree

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