Sinister-looking trees casting darkness over a clearing encompassed by their gnarled arms; swampy mud underfoot; shadows and grim figures flitting between the trees and above a bloodied altar. Gives you the chills, right?
Let’s turn on the lights for a second. Now the bends and twists of branches are whimsical, the spring a sign of vivid life, and we can substitute the dark ghosts for translucent blue faeries. How can a simple grove carry such opposing connotations, and where did the dark spin come from?
As Rome expanded her borders beyond the Alps and the Rhine, contact with ‘barbaric’ tribes and sinister religions was inevitably reflected in literature. Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul and scouting of Britain in the 50s BC brought back rumors of insane, naked warriors prodded by mysterious religious figures and their sinister rites. The invasion of Germania by Augustus in 12 BC, and the subsequent wars of Tiberius and Claudius, revealed a ‘primitive’ but tenacious people capable of halting Rome’s expansion. The Roman Stoic and playwright Seneca the Younger (c.4 BC – AD 65) capitalized on terrifying rumors about these ‘barbaric’ peoples to convey a timeless fear: uncontrollable and supernatural forces corrupting nature.
Seneca perfects the ‘spooky grove’ motif in his tragedy Oedipus. He also includes sinister grove sacrifices in other plays, but this scene in particular is dripping with allusions and horror, as though the characters were not ‘noble Greeks’, but ‘savage’ Germans or mysterious Druids instead. The grove itself also mirrors those in the North that are depicted by contemporary Roman sources: twisted, damp, dark – and soon to be filled with the bloody remnants of human sacrifice.
So, what inspired Seneca to twist sacred groves into dark and dismal nightmares? Even though he himself seems never to have fought in a war, he must have heard personal accounts from surviving veterans of Britain and Germania. Through various sources including Caesar’s account of his conquest of Gaul, we can piece together the experiences of a soldier far from Rome, across the Alps in the deep foggy forests of Central and Northern Europe.
Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul and the invasions of Germania and Britain were an excursion into an alien landscape, sinister in its dense woodlands and expansive swamps. The climate was aggressive, damp and sometimes freezing. The people were hostile and ‘barbaric’. Their battles involved terrifying guerrilla tactics, like something out of a nightmare or a Francis Ford Coppola film. The impact on a soldier was twofold: they contended with both the physical setting and the paralyzing fear that naked, frenzied warriors might appear out of the fog at any moment.
Caesar’s De Bello Gallico provides a great deal of information about Celtic culture, with particular respect to the Druids. Caesar describes Druids as an order of supreme priests tasked with performing the most important religious rites. Nothing important could be done in Gaul without consulting the Druids in their sacred groves. There are (perhaps apocryphal) stories of Romans stumbling across ecstatic Druids covered in human blood, driving their onlookers into a religious frenzy. For instance:
stabat pro litore diversa acies, densa armis virisque, intercursantibus feminis, quae in modum Furiarum veste ferali, crinibus disiectis faces praeferebant; Druidaeque circum, preces diras sublatis ad caelum manibus fundentes, novitate adspectus perculere militem… praesidium posthac impositum victis excisique luci saevis superstitionibus sacri: nam cruore captivo adolere aras et hominum fibris consulere deos fas habebant.
On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors, while between the ranks dashed women, in black attire like the Furies, with hair dishevelled, waving brands. All around, the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven, and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight… A force was next set over the conquered, and their groves, devoted to inhuman superstitions, were destroyed. They deemed it indeed a duty to cover their altars with the blood of captives and to consult their deities through human entrails.
(Tacitus Annales 14.30; trans. A.J. Church)
Through their chief deity, equated with the Roman god of the dead, Druids were said to sacrifice men, eviscerate them, and ‘read’ their organs to extract prophecies. Such practices, so closely connected with the Underworld, offended and terrified the Romans – as did the enormous political power of the Druids – to such an extent that subsequent governors and emperors made efforts to get rid of them.
Away from Gaul and the shores of Britain, in the dense forests of Germania, the Germanic people represented a decidedly higher level of barbarity to the Romans. This made the German tribes all the more dangerous and yet fascinating at the same time.
The danger of the Germans was cemented in AD 9 by the Varian Disaster, one of Rome’s most shameful and catastrophic military defeats. Arminius, a Germanic auxiliary commander – in fact a Roman citizen who had been educated in Rome – led Publius Quintilius Varus’ army into a devastating ambush in the Teutoburg Forest: entire legions were slaughtered, and the Roman invaders who remained limped back across the Rhine with a newfound fear of their Northern neighbors.
We may not be able to ask a veteran what it was like to witness the aftermath of the Varian Disaster, but we can see it in prose thanks to Tacitus’ Annales, written in the early 2nd century AD. Tacitus gives a chilling description of the Roman expedition back into the Teutoburg during the second Roman invasion. He vividly relates how the emperor Tiberius’ nephew Germanicus and his troops took a detour into the Teutoburg Forest to honor their fallen comrades.
As the scouting party navigates the “dark woods and… sodden marshland”, they emerge in the clearing of Varus’ first camp. They move cautiously past the initial edge of the empty ruins of the fort. Far beyond the original ramparts, the remains of Varus’ final stand appear:
medio campi albentia ossa, ut fugerant, ut restiterant, disiecta vel aggerata. adiacebant fragmina telorum equorumque artus, simul truncis arborum antefixa ora. Lucis propinquis barbarae arae, apud quas tribunos ac primorum ordinum centuriones mactaverant.
In the centre of the field were the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near, lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.
(Tacitus, Annales 1.61; trans. A.J. Church)
Seneca’s Oedipus contains an atmospheric grove sacrifice scene with heavy undertones of Druidic ritual very similar to Tacitus. There are clear connections in imagery, tone, and content to (less gory) descriptions from Caesar and Tacitus. Seneca begins his Oedipus with the eponymous King of Thebes grappling with a terrible plague in his city. The Delphic Oracle, through Creon, informs him that the murderer of his predecessor, King Laius, must leave Thebes in order for the plague to end. Oedipus tasks Creon with contacting the dead king himself, as a last resort to discover the murderer.
The ritual itself takes place in the forest outside of Thebes, in an ominous grove of strange trees:
cupressus altis exerens silvis caput
virente semper alligat trunco nemus,
curvosque tendit quercus et putres situ
annosa ramos: huius abrupit latus 535
edax vetustas; illa, iam fessa cadens
radice, fulta pendet aliena trabe.
medio stat ingens arbor atque umbra gravi
silvas minores urguet et magno ambitu
diffusa ramos una defendit nemus.
tristis sub illa, lucis et Phoebi inscius, 545
restagnat umor frigore aeterno rigens;
limosa pigrum circumit fontem palus.
huc ut sacerdos intulit senior gradum,
haud est moratus: praestitit noctem locus.
A cypress thrusts its head above the towering woods
And with its ever greening bulk it binds the grove;
And an ancient oak tree stretches crooked branches
Rotten with decay. Devouring age has broken off
The flank of one; the other, tumbling, with its root
Now failed, is suspended, propped by another’s beam.
At the center stands a massive tree: with weighty shade
It overwhelms the lesser woods and stands sole guardian
Of the grove by spreading out its branches in a wide embrace.
Beneath it water grimly pools, of light and sunshine
Ignorant, and numb with chill perpetual;
A muddy swamp surrounds the sluggish spring.
When the aged priest set foot inside the grove,
There was no delay: the place provided instant night.
(Seneca, Oedipus 532–7, 542–9; trans. S.M. Braund)
Tiresias the blind seer, unkempt, wearing mourning clothes and yew leaves, carries out the ritual by chanting incantations and sacrificing sheep and cattle in a fire. “Copious gore” covers the firepit while the animals burn; their entrails are still twitching. There are libations and further prayers to summon up “anything and everything the deathless shadows breed and hide”. The once-prestigious diviner suddenly changes, his “ceremonial words” of sacrifice replaced by “chanting frenzied threats”. He turns to the onlookers and cries that “Dark Chaos is breached!” The trees suddenly shudder and split as an earthquake shakes the grove, disrupting what was once the domain of nature, but is now open to the Underworld.
Then, to the roaring anger of Cerberus, the ground opens and the grove is quickly flooded by shades of the dead. The first to arrive, jumping out of the darkness fully armed just as they did when Jason sowed the dragon’s teeth, are fierce warriors descended from Mars. Dismal gods, Horror, Anger, Fear, Grief, Disease, Age – all the worst causes of despair appear. Tiresias has to coax King Laius forward from the pack; Laius then launches into a frenzied tirade about his death and its ramifications.
It is not a stretch to imagine Tiresias in this scene as a Druid, adorned in “poison yew” and dark rags grimly chanting incantations, then becoming crazed through his connection to the Underworld. He, like a druid blessing Gallic troops before battle by the power of the god of the dead, brings forth countless shades under the branches of cypress and oak. The terrifying troop marches forth out of the dark fog to the horror of the assembled ‘civilized’ onlookers.
The story of Oedipus is one of subverting nature, and the religious practices of Gaul, Britain, and Germania were seen in much the same light by the Romans. A deep connection to the Underworld through nature is contradictory, yet that is what the Druids and Germans claim. Because of this, the supernatural grove adds to the ominous tone.
Seneca’s inspirations may no longer resonate with a modern audience (who has recently wintered in a dense German forest and heard the chants and cries of Germanic tribal armies?), but his imagery still does. Dark forests and the supernatural make appearances in a variety of popular culture, none of them losing their spooky edge. We can thank Seneca for corrupting nature in his literature, creating a motif that still makes your hair stand on end.
Kelly Zach is an Honors graduate with a BA in Classics from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has conducted digital language research in Ancient Greek as well as annotation and translation in Latin. Kelly hopes to continue his studies with a focus on the intersection between Classical literature and archaeology.
For more information about ancient Celtic culture, see Barry Cunliffe’s Ancient Celts (Oxford UP, 1997).
For a discussion on the differentiation between ‘barbaric’ ‘human sacrifice’ and ‘civilized’ Roman “ritual murder” (they were quite blind when it came to recognizing their own religious sacrifices as inhumane), see Celia E. Schultz, “The Romans and ritual murder,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 78 (2010) 516–41.
For detailed analysis of Seneca’s Oedipus, a wealth of information can be found in A.J. Boyle, Seneca, Oedipus, Edited with Introduction, Translation and Commentary (Oxford UP, 2011).