Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Power Ballads: Don't catch you slippin' up!

Of all art forms the ballad has the benefit of expediency. From event, to composition, to broadcast: no art form can compete with the efficacy and proliferation of a good song. The reach and emotional impact of a ballad, "a form of verse, often a narrative set to music" allows for any event affecting individuals or groups, to rapidly become popularised and understood globally. While historically ballads tended to be sentimental, their descendant, the protest song, sits alongside modern ballads with ease.

While both the ballad and the protest song can have as their basis socio/political narratives, their differences are more in the formal qualities of tempo. Ballads still tend to be slower than protest songs, but conveying in emotion what they lose in excitement.

While the ballad may satisfy with its unhurried melody and storytelling, the protest song has an immediacy of lyric and beat that gives vocal power to mass events like concerts and demonstrations.

History of  the ballad

Ballads have a long history in European culture.They started out as the "medieval French chanson balladée or ballade, which were originally 'dance songs'. Ballads were particularly characteristic of the popular poetry and song of Britain and Ireland from the Late Middle Ages until the 19th century. They were widely used across Europe, and later in Australia, North Africa, North America and South America." In the nineteenth century they were associated with sentimentality which led to the word ballad "being used for slow love songs from the 1950s onwards."

In Ireland ballads have been a very important part of the nationalist struggle against British colonialism since the seventeenth century. They reached the zenith of their popularity in the 1960s with the Dubliners, and the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Ballad folk groups are still in demand today in Europe and the USA. 

Billie Holiday, 'Strange Fruit' (1939)


Ballads tend to have a slower tempo that allow the audience to experience the nuances of the lyrics. An early and powerful example of this is 'Strange Fruit', a song written and composed by Abel Meeropol (under his pseudonym Lewis Allan) and recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939. A ballad and a protest song, 'Strange Fruit' "protests the lynching of Black Americans with lyrics that compare the victims to the fruit of trees. Such lynchings had reached a peak in the Southern United States at the turn of the 20th century and the great majority of victims were black." 'Strange Fruit' has been described as call for freedom and is seen as an important initiator of  the civil rights movement. The lyrics are full of horror and bitter irony:

"Southern trees
Bearing strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
And blood at the roots
Black bodies
Swinging in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hangin'
From the poplar trees
Pastoral scene
Of the gallant south"

Woodie Guthrie, 'Dust Bowl Ballads' (1940)


Woodrow Wilson Guthrie (1912–1967) was an American singer-songwriter and composer who was one of the most important figures in American folk music. His songs focused on themes of American socialism and anti-fascism. As a young man he migrated to California to look for work and his experiences of the conditions faced by working class people led him to produce Dust Bowl Ballads is an album of songs grouped around the theme of the Dust Bowl storms that destroyed crops and intensified the economic impact of the Great Depression in the 1930s. 'Dust Bowl Ballads' is thought to be one of the earliest concept albums.

The songs lyrics tell of the storms and their apocalyptic affect on the local farmers:

"On the 14th day of April of 1935
There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky
You could see that dust storm comin', the cloud looked deathlike black
And through our mighty nation, it left a dreadful track

From Oklahoma City to the Arizona line
Dakota and Nebraska to the lazy Rio Grande
It fell across our city like a curtain of black rolled down
We thought it was our judgement, we thought it was our doom


The storm took place at sundown, it lasted through the night
When we looked out next morning, we saw a terrible sight
We saw outside our window where wheat fields they had grown
Was now a rippling ocean of dust the wind had blown"


Pete Seeger, 'We Shall Overcome' (1967)


Peter Seeger (1919–2014) was a popular American folk singer who was regularly heard on the radio in the 1940s, and in the early 1950s he had a string of hit records as a member of The Weavers some of whom were blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. In the 1960s, Seeger became "a prominent singer of protest music in support of international disarmament, civil rights, counterculture, workers' rights, and environmental causes." 

'We Shall Overcome' is believed to have originated as a gospel song known as 'I'll Overcome Some Day'. In 1959, the song began to be associated with the civil rights movement as a protest song, with Seeger's version focusing on nonviolent civil rights activism. It became popular all over the world in many types of protest activities.

The song is a very understated (both musically and lyrically) declaration of protest and unity in the face of oppression:

"We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome some day

Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome some day"



Special A.K.A., 'Free Nelson Mandela' (1984)


In contrast, the  lively anti-apartheid song 'Free Nelson Mandela' written by British musician Jerry Dammers, and performed by the band the Special A.K.A. was a hugely popular song in 1984 that led to the global awareness of the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela by the apartheid South African government:

"Free Nelson Mandela
Twenty-one years in captivity
Shoes too small to fit his feet
His body abused but his mind is still free
Are you so blind that you cannot see?
I said free Nelson Mandela"


Rage Against The Machine, 'Sleep Now in the Fire' (1999)


Rage Against the Machine  was an American rock band from Los Angeles, California. Formed in 1991, "the group consisted of vocalist Zack de la Rocha, bassist and backing vocalist Tim Commerford, guitarist Tom Morello, and drummer Brad Wilk."

The video for 'Sleep Now in the Fire' turned a protest song into an actual protest when the band played on Wall Street in front of the New York Stock Exchange:

"The music video for the song, which was directed by Michael Moore with cinematography by Welles Hackett, features the band playing in front of the New York Stock Exchange, intercut with scenes from a satire of the popular television game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? which is named Who Wants To Be Filthy Fucking Rich. [...] The video starts by saying that on January 24, 2000, the NYSE announced record profits and layoffs, and on the next day New York mayor Rudy Giuliani decreed that Rage Against the Machine "shall not play on Wall Street". The shoot for the music video on January 26, 2000 caused the doors of the New York Stock Exchange to be closed."

The lyrics are spartan, yet cover many topics: bible-belt conservatism, the corrupting aspects of wealth, and its connection with right-wing politics. The second verse gives a potted history of the USA: 'I am the Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria' (Columbus' three ships), 'The noose and the rapist, the fields overseer' (the slave system), The agents of orange (the Vietnam war), The priests of Hiroshima' (Oppenheimer's fascination with mysticism). Any shorter and these lines could almost be described as a haiku embedded within the song. The third verse deals with the future: 'For it's the end of history, It's caged and frozen still, There is no other pill to take, So swallow the one That makes you ill' referencing Francis Fukuyama's argument "that the worldwide spread of liberal democracies and free-market capitalism of the West and its lifestyle may signal the end point of humanity's sociocultural evolution and political struggle and become the final form of human government", caged because there is no alternative, and will continue this way (of making us 'ill') without any viable socio/political alternative vision:

"The world is my expense
The cost of my desire
Jesus blessed me with its future
And I protect it with fire
So raise your fists and march around
Dont dare take what you need
I'll jail and bury those committed
And smother the rest in greed
Crawl with me into tomorrow
Or i'll drag you to your grave
I'm deep inside your children
They'll betray you in my name

Sleep now in the fire

The lie is my expense
The scope with my desire
The party blessed me with its future
And i protect it with fire
I am the Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria
The noose and the rapist, the fields overseer
The agents of orange
The priests of Hiroshima
The cost of my desire
Sleep now in the fire

For it's the end of history
It's caged and frozen still
There is no other pill to take
So swallow the one
That makes you ill
The Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria
The noose and the rapist, the fields' overseer
The agents of orange
The priests of Hiroshima
The cost of my desire
Sleep now in the fire."


Bill Callahan, 'America!' (2011)


In Bill Callahan's (born 1966) song and video 'America!' he contrasts the symbols and perception of America globally with its darker past. He mentions legendary American songwriters and performers Mickey Newbury, Kris Kristofferson, George Jones and Johnny Cash and their past roles in the army, showing the deep connection between culture and the military in the USA. Callahan lists countries where the USA has been: Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iran, and ends with Native America, turning its colonialism and imperialism back on itself. There is also an oblique reference to the system of haves and have-nots (Others lucky suckle teat) ending with the slight change 'Ain’t enough to eat' emphasizing the growing poverty in the richest country on earth:

You are so grand and golden
Oh I wish I was deep in America tonight

I watch David Letterman in Australia
You are so grand and golden
I wish I was on the next flight
To America!

Captain Kristofferson!
Buck Sergeant Newbury!
Leatherneck Jones!
Sergeant Cash!
What an Army!
What an Air Force!
What a Marines!
[Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iran, Native America]
Well, everyone's allowed a past
They don't care to mention

Well, it's hard to rouse a hog in Delta
And it can get tense around the Bible Belt
Others lucky suckle teat
Others lucky suckle teat



Childish Gambino, 'This Is America' (2018)

In his video, 'This Is America', Childish Gambino (Donald Glover, born 1983) shocked his viewers, who were not used to seeing the cinematic realism of gun violence in a music video. Gambino focuses more on the present than the past, while using cars from the 1990s probably as a symbol of poverty. The violence and drugs scene behind pleasure-seeking party-goers is emphasised with an execution at the start and followed up by a mass murder of a gospel choir. His demeanor constantly changes very suddenly, from dancing one moment, to exhorting his clients another, then cold-blooded killing, yet despite it all, running for his life in the end as his life style catches up with him:

"We just wanna party
Party just for you
We just want the money
Money just for you
I know you wanna party
Party just for me
Girl, you got me dancin' (yeah, girl, you got me dancin')
Dance and shake the frame
We just wanna party (yeah)
Party just for you (yeah)
We just want the money (yeah)
Money just for you (you)
I know you wanna party (yeah)
Party just for me (yeah)
Girl, you got me dancin' (yeah, girl, you got me dancin')
Dance and shake the frame (you)

This is America
Don't catch you slippin' up
Don't catch you slippin' up
Look what I'm whippin' up
This is America (woo)
Don't catch you slippin' up
Don't catch you slippin' up
Look what I'm whippin' up"


Bob Dylan, 'Murder Most Foul' (2020)


In 2020, Bob Dylan (born 1941) released this seventeen-minute track, "Murder Most Foul", on his YouTube channel, based on the assassination of President Kennedy. It is a long, slow ballad that intertwines culture and politics, contrasting the optimism of the one with the stark brutality of the other. It is the poetry of America re-examing its past at its best, the detail and condemnation in its lyrics reflecting a political undercurrent that refuses to accept modern myths, a murder 'most foul':

"It was a dark day in Dallas, November '63
A day that will live on in infamy
President Kennedy was a-ridin' high
Good day to be livin' and a good day to die
Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb
He said, "Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?"
"Of course we do, we know who you are!"
Then they blew off his head while he was still in the car
Shot down like a dog in broad daylight
Was a matter of timing and the timing was right
You got unpaid debts, we've come to collect
We're gonna kill you with hatred, without any respect
We'll mock you and shock you and we'll put it in your face
We've already got someone here to take your place
The day they blew out the brains of the king
Thousands were watching, no one saw a thing
It happened so quickly, so quick, by surprise
Right there in front of everyone's eyes
Greatest magic trick ever under the sun
Perfectly executed, skillfully done
Wolfman, oh Wolfman, oh Wolfman, howl
Rub-a-dub-dub, it's a murder most foul


Don't worry, Mr. President, help's on the way
Your brothers are comin', there'll be hell to pay
Brothers? What brothers? What's this about hell?
Tell them, "We're waiting, keep coming," we'll get them as well
Love Field is where his plane touched down
But it never did get back up off the ground
Was a hard act to follow, second to none
They killed him on the altar of the rising sun
Play "Misty" for me and "That Old Devil Moon"
Play "Anything Goes" and "Memphis in June"
Play "Lonely at the Top" and "Lonely Are the Brave"
Play it for Houdini spinning around in his grave
Play Jelly Roll Morton, play "Lucille"
Play "Deep in a Dream", and play "Driving Wheel"
Play "Moonlight Sonata" in F-sharp
And "A Key to the Highway" for the king of the harp
Play "Marching Through Georgia" and "Dumbarton's Drums"
Play darkness and death will come when it comes
Play "Love Me or Leave Me" by the great Bud Powell
Play "The Blood-Stained Banner", play "Murder Most Foul""

Hope for the future ...

These songs show us that, despite the music industry's continuing avalanche of industrial pop, composers and bands are still able to produce music that as an art form can combine melody and criticism, that can look behind facades and describe the reality they see which we hear only as background noise. It shows the way to other art forms that take so much time and energy and money to get up and running, that a fight for more radical content is possible and necessary. 



Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. Caoimhghin has just published his new book – Against Romanticism: From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment and the Culture of Slavery, which looks at philosophy, politics and the history of 10 different art forms arguing that Romanticism is dominating modern culture to the detriment of Enlightenment ideals. It is available on Amazon (amazon.co.uk) and the info page is here.



Monday, January 29, 2024

Sacred Tree or Paradise Tree? The Christmas Tree and Nature


A red bauble on a Christmas tree
(a symbol of apples?)


The ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews used evergreen wreaths, garlands, and trees to symbolise their respect for nature and their belief in eternal life. The pagan Europeans worshipped trees and had the custom of decorating their houses and barns with evergreens, or erecting a Yule tree during midwinter holidays. However, the modern Christmas tree can be shown to have roots in Christian traditions too.


The term ‘pagan’ originated in a contemptuous, disdainful, and disparaging attitude towards people who had a respect for nature, the source of their sustenance: “Paganism (from classical Latin pāgānus "rural", "rustic", later "civilian") is a term first used in the fourth century by early Christians for people in the Roman Empire who practiced polytheism, or ethnic religions other than Judaism. Paganism has broadly connoted the "religion of the peasantry".”

As people gradually converted to Christianity, December 25 became the date for celebrating Christmas. Christianity’s “most significant holidays were Epiphany on January 6, which commemorated the arrival of the Magi after Jesus’ birth, and Easter, which celebrated Jesus’ resurrection.” For the first three centuries of Christianity’s existence, “Jesus Christ’s birth wasn’t celebrated at all” and “the first official mention of December 25 as a holiday honouring Jesus’ birthday appears in an early Roman calendar from AD 336.” It is also believed that December 25 became the date for Christ's birth “to coincide with existing pagan festivals honouring Saturn (the Roman god of agriculture) and Mithra (the Persian god of light). That way, it became easier to convince Rome’s pagan subjects to accept Christianity as the empire’s official religion.”


During the Middle Ages, the church used mystery plays to dramatize biblical stories for largely illiterate people to illustrate the stories of the bible “from creation to damnation to redemption”. [1] Thus, we find evidence of a connection between the Christmas tree and the Tree of Life in the Paradise plays as well as pagan sacred trees.

In western Germany, the story of Adam and Eve was acted out using a prop of a paradise tree, a fir tree decorated with apples to represent the Garden of Eden:


“The Germans set up a paradise tree in their homes on December 24, the religious feast day of Adam and Eve. They hung wafers on it (symbolizing the eucharistic host, the Christian sign of redemption); in a later tradition the wafers were replaced by cookies of various shapes. Candles, symbolic of Christ as the light of the world, were often added. In the same room was the “Christmas pyramid,” a triangular construction of wood that had shelves to hold Christmas figurines and was decorated with evergreens, candles, and a star. By the 16th century the Christmas pyramid and the paradise tree had merged, becoming the Christmas tree.”


Full-page miniature of Adam, Eve and the Serpent, [f. 7r] (1445)
(The New York Public Library Digital Collections)


The story of Adam and Eve begins with their disobedience, but the play cycle ends with the promise of the coming Saviour. The medieval Church “declared December 24 the feast day of Adam and Eve. Around the twelfth century this date became the traditional one for the performance of the paradise play.”


Over time the tree of paradise began to transcend the religious context of the miracle plays and moved towards a role in the Christmas celebrations of the guilds. [2]


For example:

“The first evidence of decorated trees associated with Christmas Day are trees in guildhalls decorated with sweets to be enjoyed by the apprentices and children. In Livonia (present-day Estonia and Latvia), in 1441, 1442, 1510, and 1514, the Brotherhood of Blackheads erected a tree for the holidays in their guild houses in Reval (now Tallinn) and Riga.”


“Possibly the earliest existing picture of a Christmas tree being paraded through the 
streets with a bishop figure to represent St Nicholas, 1521 (Germanisches National Museum)”.

(The Medieval Christmas by Sophie Jackson (2005) p68)



Early records show “that fir trees decorated with apples were first known in Strasbourg in 1605. The first use of candles on such trees is recorded by a Silesian duchess in 1611.”  Furthermore, the earliest known dated representation of a Christmas tree is 1576, seen on a keystone sculpture of a private home in Turckheim, Alsace (then part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, today France).


Keystone sculpture at Turckheim, Alsace (MPK)

The paradise tree represented two important trees of the Garden of Eden: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. It is likely that “because most other trees were barren and lifeless during December, the actors chose to hang the apples from an evergreen tree rather than from an apple tree.”

The mystery plays of Oberufer


A good example of this old tradition is the mystery plays of Oberufer. The Austrian linguist and literary critic Karl Julius Schröer (1825-1900) “discovered a Medieval cycle of Danube Swabian mystery plays in Oberufer, a village since engulfed by the Bratislava's borough of Főrév (German: Rosenheim, today's Ružinov). Schröer collected manuscripts, made meticulous textual comparisons, and published his findings in the book Deutsche Weihnachtspiele aus Ungarn ("The German Nativity Plays of Hungary") in 1857/1858.”

The plates giving an impression of costume designs, based on Rudolf Steiner's (who studied under Karl Julius Schröer (1825-1900)) directions, were painted by the Editor's father, Eugen Witta, who saw the plays produced by Rudolf Steiner many times while working as a young architect on the first Goetheanum.

Before the actual performance the whole theatrical company went in procession through the village. They were headed by the ‘Tree-singer’, who carried in his hand the small ‘Paradise Tree’—a kind of symbol of the Tree of Life. The story of the tree and its fruit is mentioned in the text of the play:


But see, but see a tree stands here

Which precious fruit doth bear,

That God has made his firm decree

It shall not eaten be.

Yea, rind and flesh and stone

They shall leave well alone.

This tree is very life,

Therefore God will not have

That man shall eat thereof.


Actors portraying Adam and Eve are expelled from paradise
(Eve: Ye must delve and I shall spin - our bodily sustenance for to win.)

Performed by the Players of St Peter in the Church of St Clement Eastcheap,
London, England in 2004 November.


The Paradise Tree: Egyptian origins?


Gary Greenberg has compared many stories of the bible with earlier Egyptian myths to try and understand where the ideas contained in the Old Testament originated. He explains:


“In the Garden of Eden God planted two trees, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and The Tree of Life. Eating from the former gave one moral knowledge; eating from the latter conferred eternal life. He also placed man in that garden to tend to the plants but told him he may not eat from the Tree of Knowledge (and therefore become morally knowledgeable). About eating from the Tree of Life, God said nothing: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen 2:17). […] Adam and Eve did not die when they ate from the tree. Indeed, God feared that they would next eat from The Tree of Life and gain immortality.” [3]


Greenberg notes the similarity of these ideas with Egyptian texts and traditions, specifically the writings from Egyptian Coffin Text 80 concerning Shu and Tefnut:


“The most significant portions of Egyptian Coffin Text 80 concern the children of Atum, the Heliopolitan Creator. Atum’s two children are Shu and Tefnut, and in this text Shu is identified as the principle of life and Tefnut is identified as the principle of moral order, a concept that the Egyptians refer to as Ma’at. These are the two principles associated with the two special trees in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Not only does the Egyptian text identify these same two principles as offspring of the Creator deity, the text goes on to say that Atum (whom the biblical editors had confused with Adam) is instructed to eat of his daughter, who signifies the principle of moral order. “It is of your daughter Order that you shall eat. (Coffin Text 80, line 63). This presents us with a strange correlation. Both Egyptian myth and Genesis tell us that the chief deity created two fundamental principles, Life and Moral Order. In the Egyptian myth, Atum is told to eat of moral order but in Genesis, Adam is forbidden to eat of moral order.” [4]


In another description we can see the similarities between the Egyptian and biblical stories:

“Atum-Ra looked upon the nothingness and recognized his aloneness, and so he mated with his own shadow to give birth to two children, Shu (god of air, whom Atum-Ra spat out) and Tefnut (goddess of moisture, whom Atum-Ra vomited out). Shu gave to the early world the principles of life while Tefnut contributed the principles of order. Leaving their father on the ben-ben [the mound that arose from the primordial waters Nu upon which the creator deity Atum settled], they set out to establish the world. In time, Atum-Ra became concerned because his children were gone so long, and so he removed his eye and sent it in search of them. While his eye was gone, Atum-Ra sat alone on the hill in the midst of chaos and contemplated eternity. Shu and Tefnut returned with the eye of Atum-Ra (later associated with the Udjat eye, the Eye of Ra, or the All-Seeing Eye) and their father, grateful for their safe return, shed tears of joy. These tears, dropping onto the dark, fertile earth of the ben-ben, gave birth to men and women.”

However, Greenberg points out the differences between the two stories:

“Despite the close parallels between the two descriptions there is one glaring conflict. In the Egyptian text Nun (the personification of the Great Flood) urged Atum (the Heliopolitan Creator) to eat of his daughter Tefnut, giving him access to knowledge of moral order. In Genesis, God forbade Adam to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, denying him access moral knowledge.” [5]

Why was Adam denied access to moral knowledge? Greenberg writes:


“God feared that he would obtain eternal life if he ate from the Tree of Life and it became necessary to expel him from the Garden. […] The Egyptians believed that if you lived a life of moral order, the god Osiris, who ruled over the afterlife, would award you eternal life. That was the philosophical link between these two fundamental principles of Life and Moral Order, and that is why Egyptians depicted them as the children of the Creator. In effect, knowledge of moral behaviour was a step towards immortality and godhead. That is precisely the issue framed in Genesis. When Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, God declared that if Adam also ate from the Tree of Life he would become like God himself. But Hebrews were monotheists. The idea that humans could become god-like flew in the face of the basic theological concept of biblical religion, that there was and could be only one god. Humans can't become god-like.” [6]

Adam and Eve and the Serpent—Expulsion from Paradise,
ca. 1480-1500 (Anonymous)

Greenberg then describes the fundamental differences between Hebrew monotheism and Egyptian polytheism:


“The Hebrew story is actually a sophisticated attack on the Egyptian doctrine of moral order leading to eternal life. It begins by transforming Life and Moral Order from deities into trees, eliminating the cannibalistic imagery suggested by Atum eating of his daughter. Then, Adam was specifically forbidden to eat the fruit of Moral Order. Next, Adam was told that not only wouldn't he achieve eternal life if he ate of Moral Order but that he would actually die if he did eat it. Finally, Adam was expelled from the Garden before he could eat from the Tree of Life and live for eternity. […]  When God told Adam that he would surely die the very day he ate from the Tree of Knowledge, the threat should be understood to mean that humans should not try to become like a deity. God didn't mean that Adam would literally drop dead the day he ate the forbidden fruit; he meant that the day Adam violated the commandment he would lose access to eternal life. […] Once he violated the commandment, he lost access to the Tree of Life and could no longer eat the fruit that prevented death.” [7]


The difference between the lord/slave relationship of monotheism and the nature-based ideology of polytheistic paganism is that the subject is denied an eternal place with the master in the former but is welcomed as an equal in the latter. This is because the subject is an integral part of nature in paganism:

“In the shamanic world, not only every tree, but every being was and is holy - because they are all imbued with the wonderful power of life, the great mystery of universal Being. “Yes, we believe that, even below heaven, the forests have their gods also, the sylvan creatures and fauns and different kinds of goddesses” (Pliny the Elder II, 3). [8]


It is also important to note “that the “serpent in the tree” motif associated with the Adam and Eve story comes directly from Egyptian art. The Egyptians believed that Re, the sun God that circled the earth every day, had a nightly fight with the serpent Aphophis and each night defeated him. Several Egyptian paintings show a scene in which Re, appearing in the form of “Mau, the Great Cat of Heliopolis,” sits before a tree while the serpent Apophis coils about the tree, paralleling the image of rivalry between Adam and the serpent in the tree of the Garden of Eden.” [9]


The sun god Ra, in the form of Great Cat, slays the snake Apophis.
(Image credit:  Eisnel - Public Domain)

Thus, we have moved from the biblical story of Adam and Eve back to the earlier paganism (the connection with Nature) of the Egyptians. While there is much evidence that one of the sources of the origin of the Christmas tree is in the ancient pagan worship of trees and evergreen boughs, there is also a lot of evidence that another source of the Christmas tree is in the medieval mystery plays where the Paradise tree was a necessary prop for the biblical story of Adam and Eve. If we look back even further to Egyptian mythology, we can see parallels between the biblical stories of creation and the Egyptian myths that also illustrate fundamental philosophical and spiritual differences between monotheist and polytheist ideology, i.e. the differences between the ‘enslaved’ (with their Lord/Master who can reward or punish) and the people who work with and respect the cycles of nature (persons outside the bounds of the Christian community, ethnic religions, Indigenous peoples, etc.).


Indeed, Tuck and Yang (2012:6) propose a criterion (for the term Indigenous) based on accounts of origin: "Indigenous peoples are those who have creation stories, not colonization stories, about how we/they came to be in a particular place - indeed how we/they came to be a place. Our/their relationships to land comprise our/their epistemologies, ontologies, and cosmologies".

By the 1970s, the term Indigenous was used as a way of “linking the experiences, issues, and struggles of groups of colonized people across international borders”, thus politicising their resistance to the dominant colonising narratives that historically spread while using Christianity as a form of social control on a global scale.

Thus, whether the Christmas tree arises out of the pagan worship of trees or the nature-based polytheism of Egyptian lore about Life and Knowledge (as the Paradise Tree), the Christmas tree still plays an important and special part in our lives today, demonstrating that our relationship with nature goes back millennia. We can choose to be exiled from nature or become involved in the cycles of nature in ways that end our current destructive practices.


[1] Inventing the Christmas Tree by Bernd Brunner (2012) p 15

[2] Inventing the Christmas Tree by Bernd Brunner (2012) p 16

[3] 101 Myths of the Bible by Gary Greenberg (2000) p48

[4] 101 Myths of the Bible by Gary Greenberg (2000) p49

[5] 101 Myths of the Bible by Gary Greenberg (2000) p51

[6] 101 Myths of the Bible by Gary Greenberg (2000) p51/52

[7] 101 Myths of the Bible by Gary Greenberg (2000) p51/52

[8] Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits, and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide by Christian Ratsch and Claudia Muller- Ebeling (2003) p24

[9] 101 Myths of the Bible by Gary Greenberg (2000) p49/50

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. Caoimhghin has just published his new book – Against Romanticism: From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment and the Culture of Slavery, which looks at philosophy, politics and the history of 10 different art forms arguing that Romanticism is dominating modern culture to the detriment of Enlightenment ideals. It is available on Amazon (amazon.co.uk) and the info page is here.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Art and Struggle: Olive Trees as Symbols of Palestinian Culture, Food, and Heritage


Painting by Sliman Mansour

"I hugged the olive tree. It was precious to me, so I hugged it. I felt like I was hugging my child. I'd raised the tree like my child. They attacked around 500 trees filled with olives. Each tree could have filled two sacks of olives. They destroyed my olive tree, but I grew them back. I tended them and they came back even better than before. Settlers will never be able to take my land. This is our land not theirs. We will keep resisting until the world ends."
Mahfodah Shtayyeh (2005 video)

November 26 will be World Olive Tree Day according to the 40th session of the UNESCO General Conference (2019). The olive tree has symbolised peace and harmony for millennia.

World Olive Tree Day was proclaimed at the 40th session of the UNESCO General Conference in 2019 and takes place on 26 November every year. The olive tree, specifically the olive branch, holds an important place in the minds of men and women. Since ancient times, it has symbolized peace, wisdom and harmony and as such is important not just to the countries where these noble trees grow, but to people and communities around the world.

Think ‘holding out an olive branch’, an idiom that comes from Genesis 8:11 where we read “And the dove came into him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf plucked off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.” 

@aljazeeraenglish "I hugged the olive tree... I'd raised the tree like my child." Mahfodah Shtayyeh . On November 27, 2005, a #Palestinian woman was photographed hugging an olive tree after it was attacked by #Israeli settlers. . The photograph became an iconic image symbolising the daily struggle of many Palestinian farmers in the occupied #WestBank. . Over 800,000 olive trees on #Palestinian ♬ Ambient-style emotional piano - MoppySound

However, in Palestine where the people have been cultivating olives for thousands of years, the olive tree has itself become a subject of destructive battles as settlers cut down or burn the olive groves. Al-Walaja, for example, is a Palestinian village in the occupied West Bank, four kilometres northwest of Bethlehem and is the site of Al-Badawi, an ancient olive tree “claimed to be approximately 5,000-year-old and therefore the second oldest olive tree in the world after "The Sisters" olive trees in Bchaaleh, Northern Lebanon.”

It is estimated that about 700,000 Israeli settlers are living illegally in the occupied West Bank and extremist elements are becoming more violent. In October this year (2023) a Palestinian farmer harvesting olives “was shot dead by settlers in the occupied West Bank city of Nablus. ‘We are now during the olive harvest season – people have not been able to reach 60 percent of olive trees in the Nablus area because of settler attacks,’ according to Ghassan Daghlas, a Palestinian Authority official monitoring settler activity.”


Olive Tree by the late Ismael Shammout

Traditionally, harvest time would bring families and neighbours together, helping each other in a process called “al Ouna”. The importance to these communities for unity and an income has led to the trees being depicted in the arts, and in particular the visual arts. Many paintings show farmers and families gathering the olives or show the ancient trees as symbols of their struggle and resilience.


Olive Harvest by Maher Naji.

The close connection between the farmers and their trees was famously illustrated in the photo of Mahfodah from the village of Salem hugging what is left of one of her olive trees. This photo has since been the source of many posters and paintings illustrating the political conflicts that the people have been forced to endure.


Salem (2005)

Life for the artists has not been easy either. They have focused on themes such as nationalism, identity, and land. As a result, their art can be political and the artists “sometimes suffer from the confiscation of artwork, refusal to license artists’ organizations, surveillance, and arrests.”


Olive picking (1988) by Sliman Mansour

According to Sliman Mansour, a Palestinian painter based in Jerusalem, the olive tree “represents the steadfastness of the Palestinian people, who are able to live under difficult circumstances”, and like the “way that the trees can survive and have deep roots in their land so, too, do the Palestinian people.”

Painting by Salam Kanaan

Sometimes the paintings and posters incorporate other symbols of Palestinian identity like the City of Jerusalem (al-Quds), plants like Jaffa oranges, watermelon and corn, religious symbols, or the Palestinian flag.

Other traditional Palestinian arts like embroidery have used the olive tree in different ways. For example, the Palestinian History Tapestry “uses the embroidery skills of Palestinian women to illustrate aspects of the land and peoples of Palestine – from Neolithic times to the present. In the past, Palestinian embroiderers have mainly used cross stitch (tatreez) and geometric designs to decorate dresses and other items.”


Olive harvest  [59 x 110 cm]. Design: Hamada Atallah [Al Quds] Al Quds, Palestine
Embroidery: Dowlat Abu Shaweesh [Ne’ane], Ramallah, Palestine

The symbolism in art can take on even harsher characteristics like Sliman Mansour’s painting of an olive tree wrapped in barbed wire (Quiet morning). The subject, a woman in a beautifully embroidered dress, is contrasted with the denial of access to the olive tree and therefore access to her birthright (the past) and an income (the future).

Quiet morning (2009) by Sliman Mansour

The olive trees have provided a steady source of income from their fruit and the “silky, golden oil derived from it”. Moreover, it is believed that “between 80,000 and 100,000 families in the Palestinian territories rely on olives and their oil as primary or secondary sources of income. The industry accounts for about 70 percent of local fruit production and contributes about 14 percent to the local economy.”


Poster by Abu Manu (1985)

However, the idea of recovery and renewal is also a common theme as the resilient olive tree with its deep roots is shown to be able to recover its vigour despite being chopped down. This has provided inspiration for the farmers and artists alike. The struggle for nature has always been intertwined with the struggle for life, and respect for the olive tree has always been reciprocated with abundance over the millennia.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. Caoimhghin has just published his new book – Against Romanticism: From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment and the Culture of Slavery, which looks at philosophy, politics and the history of 10 different art forms arguing that Romanticism is dominating modern culture to the detriment of Enlightenment ideals. It is available on Amazon (amazon.co.uk) and the info page is here.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

The Afterlife: A Trick or a Treat? Halloween Celebrations Past and Present


Snap-Apple Night, painted by Daniel Maclise in 1833, shows people feasting and playing divination games on Halloween in Ireland. It was inspired by a Halloween party he attended in Blarney, Ireland, in 1832.


“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” – Stephen King

Halloween is creeping up on us again replete with all its ghostly traditions celebrated all over the world.

Also known as All Saints’ Eve, it is the time in the liturgical year or Christian year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed. It is followed by All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows’ Day on the 1 November, and All Souls’ Day, a day of prayer and remembrance for the faithful departed, observed by certain Christian denominations on 2 November.

However, it is also believed that Halloween is rooted in the ancient pagan Gaelic festival of Samhain which marks the change of seasons and the approach of winter. Samhain begins at sunset on October 31 and continues until sunset on November 1, marking the end of harvest and the start of winter. This Celtic pagan holiday followed the great cycle of life as part of their year-round celebrations of nature along with Imbolc (February 1), Beltane (May 1) and Lughnasadh (August 1).

During Samhain people would:

“bring their cattle back from the summer pastures and slaughter livestock in preparation for the upcoming winter. They would also light ritual bonfires for protection and cleansing as they wished to mimic the sun and hold back the darkness. It was also a time when people believed that spirits or fairies (the Aos Sí ) were more likely to pass into our world. […] Dead and departed relatives played a central role in the tradition, as the connection between the living and dead was believed to be stronger at Samhain, and there was a chance to communicate. Souls of the deceased were thought to return to their homes. Feasts were held and places were set at tables as a way to welcome them home. Food and drink was offered to the unpredictable spirits and fairies to ensure continued health and good fortune.”

Dancing around the bonfire. The Graphic | 7 January 1893

The Celts believed in an afterlife called the Otherworld which was similar to this life but “without all the negative elements like disease, pain, and sorrow.”

Therefore, the Celts had little to fear from death when their soul left their body, or as the Celts believed, their head.

As Christianity spread in pagan communities, the church leaders attempted to incorporate Samhain into the Christian calendar. The Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic lands by A.D. 43 and combined two Roman festivals, Feralia and Pomona with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. Feralia was similar to Samhain as the Romans commemorated the passing of their dead, while Pomona, whose symbol was the apple, was the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, and may be the origin of the apple games of Halloween.

Some centuries later the church moved again to supplant the pagan traditions with Christian ones:

“On May 13, A.D. 609, Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome in honor of all Christian martyrs, and the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day was established in the Western church. Pope Gregory III later expanded the festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs, and moved the observance from May 13 to November 1. By the 9th century, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, where it gradually blended with and supplanted older Celtic rites. In A.D. 1000, the church made November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead.”

While on the surface the changes from the Celtic Otherworld to the Christian concepts of Heaven, Purgatory and Hell may not seem very radical yet when one looks further into the different beliefs about the afterlife a very different story emerges.

The Otherworld

The Celtic Otherworld is “more usually described as a paradisal fairyland than a scary place” and sometimes described as an island to the west in the Ocean and “even shown on some maps of Ireland during the medieval era.” It has been called, or places in the Otherworld have been called, “Tír nAill (“the other land”), Tír Tairngire (“land of promise/promised land”), Tír na nÓg (“land of the young/land of youth”), Tír fo Thuinn (“land under the wave”), Tír na mBeo (“land of the living”), Mag Mell (“plain of delight”), Mag Findargat (“the white-silver plain”), Mag Argatnél (“the silver-cloud plain”), Mag Ildathach (“the multicoloured plain”), Mag Cíuin (“the gentle plain”), and Emain Ablach (possibly “isle of apples”).”

As can be seen from the names given to the places of the Otherworld there are two important, salient points. One is the positive, almost welcoming aspect of the descriptions implied, and secondly their close relationship with nature and places in the real world. The Otherworld is described “either as a parallel world that exists alongside our own, or as a heavenly land beyond the sea or under the earth,” and could be entered through “ancient burial mounds or caves, or by going under water or across the western sea.”

We may then ask who could enter the Otherworld in the afterlife?

“Although there are no surviving texts from the continent which comment on this, on the basis of comparisons with comparable societies and burial practices we can guess that both the gods and the ancestral dead were believed to inhabit the Otherworld. The earliest literary texts in Irish reflect exactly this idea.”

These deductions about the afterlife then reflect the nature-based ideology of pagan religion which is focused on the cycles of nature, and also the fact that we ourselves are part of that nature, thus both the ancestral dead and the gods inhabited the Otherworld. It seems that the dead entered the Otherworld fairly quickly and could even return to visit the living when the darkness started to take over from the light at Samhain. Even the living could visit the Otherworld but these visits would have their own drawbacks, for example, Oisín discovers that what had only seemed a short stay in Tír na nÓg had been hundreds of years in the real world.

Ghosts walk the night in Brittany by F. De Haenen | The Graphic | 5 November 1910

Christian Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory

The differences between nature-based paganism and the Master and Martyr ethics of Christianity mean that entry to heaven is not guaranteed and may even be delayed for a long time in purgatory. For example:

“Christianity considers the Second Coming of Jesus Christ to entail the final judgment by God of all people who have ever lived, resulting in the approval of some and the penalizing of most. […] Belief in the Last Judgment (often linked with the general judgment) is held firmly in Catholicism. Immediately upon death each person undergoes the particular judgment, and depending upon one’s behavior on earth, goes to heaven, purgatory, or hell. Those in purgatory will always reach heaven, but those in hell will be there eternally.”

Hell is often depicted with fire and torture of the guilty. Thus, Christianity brings a strong element of fear into perceptions of the afterlife. The people whose behaviour needs to be controlled are frightened into being good and given long promises about eventual eternal bliss at the end of time.

The patriarchal element of Christianity and its desire to control and direct the remnants of pagan religion gave rise to other important aspects of Halloween. The dark symbolism of witches on broomsticks with black cats are an essential element of the Halloween imagery. By late medieval/early modern Europe, fears about witchcraft rose to fever pitch and sometimes led to large-scale witch-hunts. The Church saw these women (whose knowledge of nature was transformed into healing homoeopathic treatments) as a threat to their authority and demonised them before their own communities.

The witches “occasionally functioned as midwives, assisting the delivery and birth of babies, aiding the mother with different plant-based medicines to help with the pain of childbirth. […] The word Witch comes from the word for ‘wise one’ that was ‘Wicca’, and who were once considered wise soon became something to be feared and avoided.”

“Halloween Days”, article from American newspaper, The Sunday Oregonian, 1916

Like many traditional festivals Halloween has different historical sources, pagan and Christian, that have come together to form the holiday as we know it today.


Jack-o’-lantern represents the soul caught between heaven and hell who can know no rest and must wander on the earth forever. It is believed to originate in an old Irish folk tale from the mid-18th century which tells of Stingy Jack, “a lazy yet shrewd blacksmith who uses a cross to trap Satan.”

A plaster cast of a traditional Irish Jack-o’-Lantern in the Museum of Country Life, Ireland. Rutabaga or turnip were often used.

Jack tricks Satan who lets him go only after he agrees to never take his soul. When the blacksmith dies he is considered too sinful to enter heaven. He could not enter hell either and asks Satan how he will be able to see his way in the dark. Satan’s response was to toss him “a burning coal, to light his way. Jack carved out one of his turnips (which were his favorite food), put the coal inside it, and began endlessly wandering the Earth for a resting place.”

The Irish emigrants to the United States are believed to have switched the turnip for a pumpkin as it was more accessible and easier to carve. Ironically, in Ireland now, pumpkins are grown and sold to make modern Jack-o’-lanterns.

Modern carving of a Cornish Jack-o’-Lantern made from a turnip.

Door to Door Traditions

Another American tradition, trick-or-treating, has also taken root in Ireland in recent decades. As a child growing up in the United States, I also went trick-or-treating in Boston. However, after our move to Dublin, our trick-or-treating questions at Halloween were met with bewilderment as Irish people were used to a simple request for ‘anything for the Halloween party’.

The tradition of going door to door on Halloween may come from the belief that supernatural beings, or the souls of the dead, roamed the earth at this time and needed to be appeased. In Europe, from the 12th century, special ‘soul cakes’ would be baked and shared. People would pray for the poor souls of the dead (in purgatory) in return for soul cakes. In Ireland and Scotland “mumming and guising (going door-to-door in disguise and performing in exchange for food) was taken up as another variation on these ancient customs. Pranks were thought to be a way of confounding evil spirits. Pranks at Samhain date as far back as 1736 in Scotland and Ireland, and this led to Samhain being dubbed ‘Mischief Night.’”

Antrobus Soul Cakers at the end of a performance in a village hall in or near Antrobus, Cheshire, England in the mid 1970s. The Soul Cakers are a traditional group of mummers, who perform around All Soul’s Day (October 31st, Hallowe’en) each year. The characters are (left to right) Beelzebub, Doctor, Black Prince, Letter-In, Dairy Doubt, King George, Driver, Old Lady, and Dick, the Wild Horse in the foreground.

Antrobus Soul Cakers at the end of a performance in a village hall in or near Antrobus, Cheshire, England in the mid 1970s. The Soul Cakers are a traditional group of mummers, who perform around All Soul’s Day (October 31st, Hallowe’en) each year. The characters are (left to right) Beelzebub, Doctor, Black Prince, Letter-In, Dairy Doubt, King George, Driver, Old Lady, and Dick, the Wild Horse in the foreground. 

It has also been suggested that trick-or-treating “evolved from a tradition whereby people impersonated the spirits, or the souls of the dead, and received offerings on their behalf.” It was thought that they “personify the old spirits of the winter, who demanded reward in exchange for good fortune”. Impersonating these spirits or souls was believed to protect oneself from them.

Thus, while Halloween may have become highly commercialised in recent years it is still an important custom that brings people and families together in their communities. It still marks an important part of the annual  cycles of nature as the bountifulness of harvestime is contrasted with the bareness of winter. It prepares us psychologically for the dark days ahead. In the past Halloween allowed people to celebrate the completion of the work of life (the production of food) to having the time to contemplate the absence of their forebears: the people who gave them life, nurtured them, and taught them the skills of survival. It is a time to make the young generation aware of their parents’ temporary existence too, in a fun way.

Halloween is a time for confronting our basic fears about death and darkness. It is a time to remember the ancestral spirits of past generations who have ‘passed’ (a word that has become more popular than ‘died’ in recent years) through the thin veil between life and death. And, most importantly, a time to rethink our relationship with nature.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. Caoimhghin has just published his new book – Against Romanticism: From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment and the Culture of Slavery, which looks at philosophy, politics and the history of 10 different art forms arguing that Romanticism is dominating modern culture to the detriment of Enlightenment ideals. It is available on Amazon (amazon.co.uk) and the info page is here

He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG).