“One of the sacred functions of the tribe of men who love men is that we are Guardians of the Trees. There is something in our nature that is like the nature of the trees themselves, for the pattern of our love creates a ladder of energy, vertical, heaven and earth connecting, just as the tree-people do. And the first thing a tree presents to you is itself, not its gender, for most trees are androgynous, bearing male and female organs together. This balance of genders is an echo of our nature. This wholeness in one body is an echo of our purpose.” From Two Flutes Playing, by Andrew Ramer.
Holy Trees and Sacred Groves were central features of the lives of the ancient pagan communities of Europe, which is why Christian forces, over many centuries, put a lot of effort into destroying them, symbolically uprooting the old religion as well as eradicating sites of worship (perhaps building a Church to replace them) and pushing out the pagan priests/priestesses who tended them.
In the 1st century CE, Pliny the Elder indicated that trees were the first temples of the gods, and Roman historian Tacitus recorded that the Germanic peoples “consecrate woods and groves and they apply the name of gods to that mysterious presence which they see only with the eye of devotion.”
Christians came to see tree worship as ‘idolatrous’. Only their invisible god was allowed. Roman emperor Theodosius II (5th century) issued an edict directing that the groves be cut down unless they had already been appropriated for some purpose compatible with Christianity. Bishops preached against the groves in the 6th century and Pope Gregory banned offerings at sacred trees. Attacks on the trees by ardent priests and monks spread in the 7th century, but in the 10th and 11th centuries Church councils were still complaining about tree worship.
”Hagiography describes legends of monks working to root out paganism through the eradication of sacred trees and groves. The French historian Montalembert describes monks entering the forests, “sometimes axe in hand, at the head of a troupe of believers scarcely converted, or of pagans surprised and indignant, to cut down the sacred trees and thus root out the popular superstition.” On Monte Cassino, St Benedict cut down a sacred grove and destroyed the temple to Apollo in order to convert the people in the surrounding area to Christianity. In place of the grove he built the first monastery. Charlemagne felled Irminsal, the Anglo-Saxon World Tree. The most famous story of this sort… is that of St Boniface, who cut down the Oak of Thunor, the sacred tree of the Saxon thunder god. For a somewhat more recent example, the African St Bernard Mizeki cut down all the trees in a sacred grove in Zimbabwe in the late 1800s.” quoted from Ecospirit: Religions and Philosophies for the Earth (Transdisciplinary Theological Colloquia) 2007
“In legends of the old days… Moon was horned god, horned just as we are, a changing god, mirroring our capacity for change. Moon stands between light and darkness, between sun and earth. And in our sacred groves, on those nights of the moon’s phases, men who loved men gathered together to dance their sacred dances—just as we will dance together again.” Two Flutes Playing
As well as SACRED GROVES two other prominent features of the Old Religion that Christianity decided to firmly suppress were ECSTATIC DANCE and EROTIC LOVE BETWEEN MEN. In nature, all three went together: Groves were sites for ritual, dance, love-making – all of which enriched and sustained the sacred presence in the location, a presence that could only be known, as Tacitus said, ‘with the eye of devotion.‘
The groves were cut down, pagan rituals in the woods became secretive nighttime feasts of joy and pleasure, much to the horror of the medieval Inquisition who hunted down participants in these revelries, some of whom reported that in these erotic nocturnal rites, true heavenly bliss was found. The suppression of pagan ritual and also of same sex relationships, both long associated in people’s minds, intensified in the late medieval and early modern era – this is reflected for example in England by the prohibition of both ‘Buggery’ and ‘Witchcraft’ during the reign of Henry VIII.
Where once the whole community went into the woods to ‘commune’ with each other and nature, the eventual eradication of pagan practices by Christian forces meant that forests were turned into places of fear and darkness in popular legend. Forbidden from public displays of affection, only men who sought communion with other men continued to go to privacy provided by the trees to find each other. Cruising grounds were born.
“Remember… men who loved men were the guardians of the trees. To this day we meet in the trees as no other people do. Honor the trees.” Two Flutes Playing
Historian Rictor Norton points out that there were already city gay subcultures in Europe in the late medieval and Renaissance periods and those that came to public attention in early 18th century England were already well established, with their own rituals and accepted ways of being. In Italy, Florence was home to so much same sex activity in the 15th century that a special police force, the Uffiziali di Notte (Officers of the Night), devoted to controlling gay activities, operated for 70 years. Norton says that “by the late fifteenth century there were queer subcultures in major cities in Germany, France, Spain, and most large towns in Italy.” Where there are queers there is cruising:
“Queer geography turns around public parks, streets outside theatres in the evening, quays along the waterfront, and bridges (in days when one crossed them on foot rather than in cars). In early eighteenth-century Paris queers looked for pick-ups on the Pont-Neuf and then went to taverns where they hired a private room. The molly subculture in London was first revealed to the public in 1707, when the members of the Society for the Reformation of Manners set out to entrap the homosexuals who were in the habit of making their pick-ups on London Bridge. It was not long before at least eight men were arrested, and soon the agents discovered that the Royal Exchange was also a molly market, where further arrests were made, and eventually an extensive subculture of cruising grounds and molly houses was discovered. Some forty-three ‘He-Strumpets’ are supposed to have plied their trade in the Royal Exchange in 1707.” Rictornorton.com
Norton mentions St James’s Park in London, the Tuileries and Luxembourg gardens in Paris, all known cruising areas since at least the 18th century.
“For many of us, our secret sexual lives have taken place beside deconstructed trees, by streams, that are stalls and public toilets, the last reflection of our once having been the guardians of the trees.” Two Flutes Playing
Built in the 19th century, Duke’s Mound in Brighton has a long history of hosting gay encounters amongst its generous foliage. The sexual antics that happen there upset some, and recently the Council stepped in to alter the Mound’s geography to discourage goings-on, but an exhibition in Brighton is by contrast celebrating the historical importance of such cruising spaces for gay men in a homophobic world.
The artist, Tony Mentel writes:
“After seeing the destruction of this Queer landmark by the city council, it made me dream about all the pleasure, excitement and illicit meetings this beautiful place has embraced since 1829. Hearing Queer elders reminisce of how special this place was, in a time when being LGBTQ could ruin your life and land you in jail. I want to immortalise this precious space through my paintings and drawings evoking fragments of memories of desire and love. My tapestries, which are influenced by Victorian Church art, bless this space into a holy shrine to all the men who sheltered in her shady thickets, hoping for a moment of joy.”
“Golden boys of Dukes Mound” art by Tony Mentel
1st – 14th August 2022 @ The Naked Gallery, 283 Madeira Drive, BN2 1EN
Nobody will honour the SACRED ENERGY of GAY CRUISING GROUNDS unless GAY MEN DO. But how many of us have ‘the eye of devotion’ open and able to see the ‘mysterious presence’ of the sex-loving pagan ‘gods’… The mass population was trained over the centuries by religion to view sex… and especially gay sex… as something ‘bad’. When faith in religion waned, science appeared and declared sex as simply a biological process, a nonsense that continues to spread through the education system.
However, the world’s mystics of pagan and tantric faiths have long known sexual congress to be the fastest way to heavenly connection. Sex was honoured in the ancient pagan world as a divine force whose purpose was UNION, of soul and body, of person and person, of human and god. Many gay men served in pagan temples as they had in shamanic tribes. Gay men often took roles as priests in the sacred groves, they led rituals honouring Pan, Dionysus and the Great Goddess, rituals that opened humans up in mind and spirit to the earth and the heavens – with trees as the supreme model of this holy state.
“There is something in our nature that is like the nature of the trees themselves, for the pattern of our love creates a ladder of energy, vertical, heaven and earth connecting, just as the tree-people do. And the first thing a tree presents to you is itself, not its gender, for most trees are androgynous, bearing male and female organs together. This balance of genders is an echo of our nature. This wholeness in one body is an echo of our purpose. Reach out to the trees. When you gather together in community, gather whenever you can in a sacred grove. As guardians of the trees, part of our work in the healing of the planet is to plant trees, join organizations that plant trees, and work to end the destruction of the planet’s forests… This work with the trees is one of our sacred functions. Each time we plant another tree, we make love to Old Man Earth again. Remember this. Remember him. Geb, Enlil, Pan, Dagda, Earth Father of a thousand long forgotten names. Remember that each tree that grows is Earth reaching out to you, with love.
“Be Priests of Father Earth and Mother Sky, as gay men have been for ten thousand years. Love the Earth and work to heal it. Know that this work is a part of your gayness. Move freely in the world of plants and trees, finding friends there, comrades, allies. For your energy can be strong as a forest of deeply rooted trees, shimmering in the sunlight, whispering, sheltering, mighty. And remember the ancient/future ways in which God was also known once as the Mother. Feel her power and claim it as your own. Be loving mothers to each other, nurturing and comforting and strong. Let the world that is changing include you with its changers. Own the power to heal and the power to renew.” Two Flutes Playing
There’s more to cruising in the woods than most people think!
Gay men, the only segment of society that still goes to the trees to open their energy bodies through sexual congress in order to experience heightened, ecstatic states of being may be keeping the ancient spirit of the woods alive through the dark ages of Christianity and Scientism, in order that the whole population might one day be reunited with the spirit dimension through nature.
Gay philosopher and poet Edward Carpenter wrote:
“The meaning of the old religions will come back to him. On the high tops once more gathering he will celebrate with naked dances the glory of the human form and the great processions of the stars, or greet the bright horn of the young moon which now after a hundred centuries comes back laden with such wondrous associations – all the yearnings and the dreams and the wonderment of the generations of mankind – the worship of Astarte and of Diana, of Isis or the Virgin Mary; once more in sacred groves will he reunite the passion and the delight of human love with his deepest feelings of the sanctity and beauty of Nature; or in the open, standing uncovered to the Sun, will adore the emblem of the everlasting splendour which shines within” Edward Carpenter, Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure 1889