Medieval manuscripts blog

31 January 2020

The Trees of the Sun and the Moon

In modern times, ‘Moon Trees’ are trees that grew from the seeds that were taken into the Moon’s orbit by Apollo 14, which launched for the third manned mission to the Moon on 31 January in 1971. Medieval people, in contrast, would have associated ‘Moon Trees’ with an entirely different undertaking: the campaign begun in 326 BC by Alexander the Great (353–323 BC), king of the Greek empire of Macedon, with a view to conquering the world. The fictional 4th-century Epistola Alexandri ad Aristotelem (Letter of Alexander to Aristotle) tells that Alexander, during his expedition to India, visited a grove with two holy trees. Inside the grove, he met a high priest of more than ten feet tall who explained that one tree was male, could speak the Indian language, and foretold one’s future at the rising of the Sun; the other tree was female, could speak Greek, and foretold one’s future at the rising of the Moon. After Alexander prayed at the feet of the holy trees, they answered him that he would conquer the world but die from poisoning in Babylon before he could return home.

Alexander the Great, wearing a crown, with three of his men behind him, kneeling with his hands lifted in prayer at the foot of two trees. The trees feature symbols of the sun and moon, and are flanked by a tall figure wearing a red tunic, representing a high priest.

Alexander and his followers praying at the Trees of the Sun and the Moon guided by a high priest (England, 1333c. 1340): Royal MS 19 D I, f. 32r

The oracle trees feature in several Alexander narratives. One of these is the Roman d'Alexandre en prose, a French translation of a 10th-century Latin version of a Greek Alexander romance, spuriously attributed to the historian Callisthenes (c. 360–c. 327 BC). In illustrated copies of this narrative, the oracle trees are sometimes conflated with the ‘Dry Tree’, another tree that Alexander visited and in whose branches he found the phoenix, a legendary self-resurrecting bird.

Alexander the Great, wearing a crown, with three of his men behind him, kneeling and with his hands lifted in prayer at the foot of two trees, featuring symbols of the sun and moon among their leaves. Between the two trees is another tree which has no leaves, but features a large bird (a Phoenix) with purple and gold colours in its branches. The trees are flanked by an old man in a grey robe, representing a high priest.

The Trees of the Sun and the Moon and the Dry Tree (Rouen, 14441445): Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 18v

The oracle trees were well-known to medieval encyclopaedists and chroniclers. In the 13th-century L’Image du monde (Mirror of the World), Gautier de Metz referred to them as reference points. In the 13th-century Speculum Historiale (Mirror of History), Vincent of Beauvais stated that the balm of the trees allowed the priests at the grove to live for 300 years. The 14th-century Polychronicon of Ranulf Higden attributed their longevity to the trees’ apples. A unique Middle English translation of the Polychronicon in Harley MS 2261 (f. 25v) describes the trees as follows:

‘The Trees of the Sun and the Moon are in India, and by their apples priests live for 500 years’

[‘The trees of the sonne and of the moone be in ynde, by the apples of whom prestes lyffede by vc yeres’]

John Mandeville, the supposed author of a fictional travel memoir describing the wonders of the Holy Land, Africa, and Asia, located the ‘Trees of the Sun and the Moon that spoke to King Alexander’ (‘tres of þe sunne and of þe monne þat spak to kyng alysaundre’) in a desert beyond the unidentified river ‘Beaumare’, but noted that he was unable to visit the trees because of the dangerous animals in the desert, such as dragons, serpents, lions and elephants.

Two priests, one wearing a red tunic, picking and eating apples in the grove of the Trees Sun and the Moon with wild animals emerging from its bushes below, including a lion and an elephant in the right lower corner.

Dangerous animals surrounding the grove of the Trees of the Sun and the Moon, in Mandeville’s Travels (England: 1st half of the 15th century): Harley MS 3954, f. 64r

The Trees of the Sun and the Moon were also included on medieval world maps (mappaemundi). The Higden map (Royal MS 14 C IX, f. 1v), for example, marks the spot where ‘Alexander prayed for an answer from the trees’ (‘hic alexander petebat responsum ab arboribus’). Other mappaemundi, such as the 12th-century Tournai Map of Asia (Add MS 10049, f. 64v) and the 13th-century Psalter world map (Add MS 28681, f. 9r), also illustrate the oracle trees.

Christ wearing a blue and red robe, lifting both arms, and holding a small red orb of the world, while being flanked by two angels swinging censers above a circular map of the world. The upper half of the world map that is here visible features roundels with human faces representing the twelve winds of Aristotle in a green ring that goes around the map. Immediately below the roundel with the human face at the very top of the map is another roundel, representing the Garden of Eden, that features two figures facing a tree against a dark background. On the right side of this roundel, are drawn two yellow trees, representing the Trees of the Sun and the Moon.

The Trees of the Sun and the Moon (Arbor Solis and Arbor Lunae) close to the Garden of Eden on the Psalter world map (London, 12621300): Add MS 28681, f. 9r

Two trees with curled branches or leaves drawn in brown ink at the top of the map and on the left side of the Red Sea, which is here highlighted with a yellow colour.

The ‘Oracle of the Sun and the Moon’ (Oraculum solis et lunae) next to the Red Sea (Rubrum Mare) on the Tournai Map of Asia (possibly Tournai, 12th century): Add MS 10049, f. 64v

With increasing expeditions into Asia, mapmakers began to prefer Africa as the location of legendary sites. It is for this reason that the Harleian Mappemonde (Add MS 5413), which was produced around 1540, does not locate the oracle trees in India but in sub-Saharan Africa. Their name has been changed as well, and they are now simply referred to as ‘The Trees of the Moon’ (‘Les arbres de la lune’). These changes suggest that the mapmaker conflated these trees with the equally legendary ‘Mountains of the Moon’. According to the Greek geographer Ptolemy (c. AD 100–c. 170)’ in his  Geographia, these mountains were the source of the river Nile. A certain merchant named Diogenes who was crossing East Africa discovered them and observed that their snow-melt created two lakes from which the Nile originates. On the Harleian Mappemonde, the Trees of the Moon are placed exactly below the Mountains of the Moon.

Two groups of trees with a crescent moon above them, below green hills from which rivers flow that form two lakes from which two larger rivers originate that form the river Nile.

The Trees of the Moon on the Harleian Mappemonde (possibly Dieppe, c. 1540): Add MS 5413

The Mountains of the Moon highlighted in yellow, from which small rivers flow into two lakes. From these lakes flow larger rivers that join and form the river Nile.

The Mountains of the Moon in Ptolemy’s Geographia (Florence, 3rd quarter of the 15th century): Harley 7182, f. 85r

As people continued to explore the world , belief in the existence of the Trees of the Sun and the Moon waned. Ironically, it is because of continued explorations — namely, the Apollo 14 mission, which gave us the Moon Trees — that their name continues to this day.


Clarck Drieshen

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