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The Neolithic settlements were tiny islands in a sea of green leaves. Still,
several thousand years later, in the early Middle Ages, the tree cover was so
thick that a squirrel could have leaped from tree to tree from Denmark to
southern Spain without ever touching the ground.
On the edges of the cultural islands, on the transitional ground between
agricultural fields and the primordial forest, an edge-biotope developed. Thorny
undergrowth such as blackberry, wild rose, sloe, gooseberry, hawthorn,
buckthorn, barberry, and sea buckthorn and fast-growing hedgerow trees like
rowan, black alder, hazel, and elder found a suitable ecological environment
there. This natural hedge acquired a practical purpose for the Neolithic farmers:
It was an effective fence for the scattered grazing animals. The more the
ruminants chewed on the growth, the thicker the thorn barrier became, until a
natural hedgerow was created. Posts, stakes, and rods could also be cut from the
hedge, as could laths for the walls (which were then daubed with clay) and
materials for basket weaving. Nutritious birds’ eggs, juicy berries, and tasty nuts
could be found in the hedgerow. The most potent medicinal herbs also grew in
But above all, the thick thorny hedge offered protection. It prevented the
wolves and bears from penetrating, as well as the voracious deer, which had a
keen eye for the emerging agricultural crops. The hedge probably also
discouraged the “wild people”—the last of the fur-wearing huntergatherers who
still roamed the forest and who were thought to steal children—from entering.
(In the Middle Ages such “wild folk” were hunted and executed by the knights.)
Today the thorny shrubs, especially the hawthorn and the wild rose,
symbolize protected, undisturbed sleep. Fairy tales speak of a thorny hedge of
roses, and many farmers still place a rose gall (the round, mosslike growth on the
stems of wild roses that is caused by the sting of the rose gall wasp, also called a
rose apple or sleep rose) under the crib of newborns so that they will sleep
quietly and deeply.
For Stone Age settlers the hedgerow was not only a physical barrier
between the cultivated land and the wilderness; it was a metaphysical boundary
as well. The wild men lived behind the hedges, and the world of ghosts, trolls, goblins, and forest monsters also began there. This was where one encountered
the seductive, beautiful, and sly elves. In this place the old deities of the
Paleolithic past were still at work.
The archaic hunters and gatherers had been one with the forest, and they
had lived in harmony with the forest spirits. In contrast, the forested wilderness
was no longer very familiar to the Neolithic farmers and was, in fact, sinister.
The Paleolithic goddess of the cave, the protector of the animals and of the
souls of the dead, increasingly came to be viewed as a fertile earth mother in the
Neolithic period. As with the early Stone Age hunters, the goddess of the
farmers appeared to the Neolithic people in visions and sent them their dreams.
They also knew that the goddess could hear, feel, and mourn. The fertility of the
soil was dependent on her benevolence. Agriculture progressed in a continuous
dialogue with her. Plowing and tilling the soil were considered an act of love;
impregnating Mother Earth was the religion, and those who impregnated her
were the worshippers. In fact, the word cultivate originally meant nothing more
than service to the gods, honor, sacrifice, and nurturing.
But in spite of worship and ritual, discontent arose and the consciousness of
the first farmers was seized with negativity. They defiled the forest, scorched the
earth, and laid waste to the soil. The earth goddess became the lamenting mother.
She mourned the countless children to whom she had given birth and who had
fallen victim to the sickle, the ax, and the spade.
The creation myths of cultivators and farmers always place the violent
death, murder, or sacrifice of a divine being at the beginning of their agricultural
way of life. The feelings of gratitude and security that permeated the connection
between the simple huntergatherers and the forest disappeared into feelings of
guilt that had to be ameliorated with increasingly elaborate sacrifices, including
gruesome, religiously institutionalized human sacrifices, head-hunting, and
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