Juniper, a coniferous tree of the genus Juniperus, is a species that can adapt to many climates. Therefore, it is possible to find some practices, myths and folk beliefs about juniper in many societies.
Physical Characteristics of Juniper Tree
The juniper tree, which can be easily distinguished from its counterparts by looking at its fruits and leaves, is a member of the Cupressaceae family, along with trees such as cypress, thuja and sequoia. According to current information, it is thought that the genus Juniperus includes at least 70 juniper species.1
Many juniper species have spread throughout Siberia, the high parts of Inner Asia, the Tibetan Plateau, the Caucasus, Anatolia, Europe and North America, due to its adaptability to different climates. Its fruits are usually dark bluish, although in some species they are brownish or reddish. Its trunk tends to be lighter in color in harsh climates. The fact that it can be grown easily even in mountainous and rough lands has increased the importance of juniper for people living at high altitudes.
Uses of Juniper in Prehistory and Ancient Times
It is known that juniper has been used by people for a long time. Çatalhöyük, one of the Neolithic Age Anatolian civilizations, contains the oldest evidence of the use of juniper as a building material.
In Çatalhöyük, where more than 8000 people live, the residences were entered through the openings on the roofs. These openings also ensured that the smoke from the oil lamps and stoves burned in the house was thrown out. To keep the roof standing, juniper poles were used.
It is thought that the juniper pole rising from the floor of the house was given a sacred or supernatural meaning, considering the graves on the floor.
In Çatalhöyük, the dead were buried on the floor of the house. The number of skeletons removed from the floors of the houses is between 8 and 30 per household. It is thought that the corpses were first kept in the open air, and after turning into skeletons, they were buried in the floor.2
Sacred interpretations of juniper are found in later Anatolian civilizations.
Juniper in Ancient Egypt
In Ancient Egypt, aromatic oil from juniper berries was used during mummification and for anointing the body. During the excavations in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, many juniper berries were found.3
The medicinal use of juniper in Ancient Egypt dates back to the 16th century BC. In Ancient Egypt, where many medicinal plants were consumed, juniper berries were used in mummification and in the treatment of tapeworms.
Juniper in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome
In Ancient Greece, juniper berries were believed to have a refreshing and physical endurance-enhancing effect. Therefore, juniper was used before sports activities and during the Olympics.4
Juniper berries are actually the fleshy cones of the juniper tree.
The Romans used juniper berry against snake bites and stomach ailments.
Myths and Folk Beliefs About Juniper
As stated in the first paragraph, various practices and folk beliefs about the juniper tree and juniper berry have emerged in many communities over time. The most common among them is undoubtedly the belief that juniper incense keeps evil away.
Turkic Mythology and Siberian Shamanism
Juniper was considered at least as holy and purifying as fire in communities of Turkic origin spreading to the Eurasian steppes and shamanic groups living in Siberia. In fact, care was taken not to talk loudly, not to think bad things, or not to argue with someone near the juniper trees. The juniper was sacred for many Turks.
According to Professor Figen Güner Dilek, it was a common practice for Altaic Turks to scatter sacrificial drinks for the spirits of nature (saçı saçmak), tie a piece of cloth to beech or juniper trees and pray in order for the journey to go well.5
The fact that people in many parts of Anatolia today go up to the heights to make wishes and tie pieces of cloth (çaput) to juniper trees shows that folk beliefs about juniper continue their influence even after thousands of years.
In Altaic Turks and Siberian Turks, juniper incense was used to purify and keep evil creatures away. Tengrist Turks believed that diseases were caused by evil spirits. For this reason, juniper incense could be used for treatment during illness in the past.
Juniper incense was used not only in Turks but also in many communities to purify and expel bad luck. The US folklorist Jeremiah Curtin wrote that Siberian shamans smoked animals with juniper before sacrificing.6 Similarly, it is known that some shamans smoked their drums with juniper.7
In Europe, juniper has been used for thousands of years both for medicinal purposes, purification and protection from evils. It was a common tradition to use juniper incense for purification, especially in Celtic and Northern communities. In the past, Scandinavian communities could also use juniper incense in their rituals to communicate with ancestral spirits.
The belief that juniper incense heals was widespread throughout Europe. In Scotland, juniper was burned both to prevent animals from getting sick and to ward off the evil eye.8 Jean De Bourgogne, the Duke of Burgundy, recommended to the public to burn juniper branches and breathe the smoke in order not to catch the plague during the Great Plague Epidemic.
Another custom was to hang juniper on the door to protect the house from evil.9 Some Italians protected their houses by hanging juniper in places such as doors and windows where evil spirits could enter the house, or by incensing those places with juniper.
The juniper branch on the door was believed in some areas to deter witches. According to Margaret Baker, it was believed that a witch who wanted to enter the house would feel compelled to count all the leaves on the juniper branch hanging at the door. However, as the witch was never sure she was counting correctly, she had to recount all the time. So the witch would refuse to enter the house.10
- “A comparative analysis between SNPs and SSRs to investigate genetic variation in a juniper species (Juniperus phoenicea ssp. turbinata)“, Cristina GARCÍA, Erwan GUICHOUX & Arndt HAMPE, Tree Genetics & Genomes, Volume 14, Article number: 87, 2018
- “Anadolu Neolitik Çağ Uygarlığı”, Nazmiye MUTLUAY, Alter Yayıncılık, ISBN: 9786055465551
- “Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt”, Lise MANNICHE, Cornell University Press, ISBN: 9780801437205
- Mohamed, W.A., Mansour, M.M.A., Salem, M.Z.M. et al. “X-ray computed tomography (CT) and ESEM-EDS investigations of unusual subfossilized juniper cones” Sci Rep 11, 22308, Year: 2021
- “Altay Türklerinde Yolculuk İle İlgili İnanışlar ve Ritüeller”, Figen Güner Dilek, Cyprus International University, Folklor/Edebiyat, Cilt: 21, Sayı: 84, 2015/4
- “A Journey in Southern Siberia”, Jeremiah CURTIN, CreateSpace, ISBN: 9781511673129
- “Tarihte Ve Bugün Şamanizm”, Abdülkadir İNAN, Altınordu Yayınları, ISBN: 6057702357
- “The Treadwell’s Book of Plant Magic”, Christina Oakley HARRINGTON, Weiser Books, ISBN: 9781578638017
- “The Complete Language of Flowers: A Definitive and Illustrated History”, S. Theresa DIETZ, Wellfleet Press, ISBN: 9781577151906
- “Discovering The Folklore of Plants”, Margaret BAKER, Shire Publications, ISBN: 9780747801788