T rees, throughout the ages, have been given deep and sacred meanings in many of the world’s mythologies, TREE LORE features in all aspects of culture.
” Thus, though tradition may have but one root, it grows, like a banyan, into a whole overarching: labyrinth of trees.”
~ Carlyle, as quoted by Miller M.
The banyan tree has the ability to support its ever growing branches by adventitious roots, which hang down and act as props over an ever widening circle- regarded as a symbol of a long life in Hindu culture.
The variety of cultural values and symbolic functions ascribed to trees are as numerous and diverse as the communities and cultures of earth. Physically and mystically forests and trees have defined the environment of communities throughout time. From the mythical concepts of paradise and damnation through trees, to the romantic and physical aspects, artists and scientists alike have been inspired by trees and forests throughout history. Today, tangibly and intangibly, they feature in all aspects of culture.
- Trees provide the venue for religious, social, and healing ceremonies, they are places of worship and veneration
- may house the spirits of ancestors as well as those of the newborn
- Woods are viewed in both positive and negative lights as sources of evil as well as power and munificence,
- as providers for, and hindrances to development.
People has sought to divine meaning from the natural world, often by explaining its origins through mythology and folktales. Advances in agriculture and horticulture had an obvious impact on human development, but to study the mythology of a plant in addition to its taxonomy, characteristics, and habitat can bring about enriched layers of understanding.
Information on the cultural significance of woods can be gleaned from
- anthropological and
- folkloristic studies.
Such studies generally focus on a particular community or ethnic group. The literature does however provide invaluable insight into peoples’ views regarding forests and is a never ending source of Tree Lore.
Frazers proposal that human belief developed directly from elemental magic to scientific method is a poignant and encouraging reminder of our own potential for inquiry and evolution. The study of human ritual and its links to natural history carries awareness of how we are woven into nature.
T ree Lore is about the meaning of trees (traditional customs, stories, beliefs, myths, instructions, songs, art forms, rituals, recipes, and practices) and the lore has for millennia informed the people in how to be human in a natural world. Lore comes from the same root word as learn. It includes both knowledge and know-how, passed down from the ancestors. Special trees occupy a respected, ceremonial position.
At a time when history and legend were one and the same, forests were mysterious places, where heroes can lose their way, face unexpected challenges, and stumble on hidden secrets.
Part of the age-old magic of forests lies in the ideas that people have had about trees. They have been, and remain, universal symbols, totems, and icons and play a prominent role in mythology and legends from around the world.
Trees appear as a link between worlds, as sources of life and wisdom, and as the physical forms of mythical beings. They feature in stories as abodes of gods, places of prayer, homes of spirits, and subjects of taboos. So are
”…trees often depicted as gods and goddesses, which, in turn, are often depicted as trees”,
as Wassink writes in his, Man-wood relationship (1974), as quoted by Coder K.
People believed that they were created from trees or turned into them. Greek mythology tells that humanity was created from an ash tree. Five transformations of humans into trees are described in Ovid’s poem,
- Daphne (Met. 1.548–56),
- the Heliades (2.346–66),
- Dryope (9.349–93),
- Myrrha (10.489–502), and the
- Thracian women (11.67–84)
They can be seen to evolve into laurel, poplar, lotus, myrrh, and oak trees, respectively. Ovids “Metamorphoses” mention also a romantic story of Philemon and his wife Baucis who wished to be turned into trees, after their death.
…They told the fortune of the place, Philemon old and poore
Saw Baucis floorish greene with leaves, and Baucis saw likewyse
Philemon braunching out in boughes and twigs before hir eyes.
And as the Bark did overgrow the heades of both, eche spake
To other whyle they myght. At last they eche of them did take
Theyr leave of other bothe at once, and therewithall the bark
Did hyde theyr faces both at once. The Phrygians in that park
Doo at this present day still shew the trees that shaped were
Of theyr two bodies, growing yit togither joyntly there…
~ Ovid. Met. 8.612.
Tree of life
The continuing significance of trees in a variety of religious traditions, both historical and current, help define a common heritage and culture, so the Tree of Life prominent in holy books, writings, and records of religions: the Bible, the Koran, and various Buddhist, Hindu, and Hebraic writings, just to name a few.
” In the Judaic faith this was the tree in the garden of Eden; the Scandinavians made it an ash, Yggdrasil; Christians usually specify the tree as an apple, Hindus as a soma, Persians as a homa, Cambodians as a talok; this early tree is the vine of Bacchus, the snake-entwined caduceus of Mercury, the twining creeper of the Eddas, the bohidruma of Buddha, the fig of Isaiah, the tree of Aesculapius with the serpent around his trunk.”
~ Skinner C. M.
Legends speak of a Tree of Life, which grows above the ground and gives life to gods or humans, or/and of a World Tree, which is linked with a “center” of the earth, evoking images of such ancient and majestic trees. Such as sacred figs, pines, oaks, olives, cypresses, yews and sequoias, being among the most massive and longest-living organisms in the world.
The Norse World Tree is a colossal tree that supports creation, reaches into the heavens with its branches, while its roots make up the underworld and the trunk is like the earth’s axis. It is found in Scandinavian, Slavic, Siberian, North and Meso-American mythology. The Scandinavian Yggdrasil of Norse mythology conceptualized their universe as follows:
Three roots there are that three ways run
‘Neath the ash-tree Yggdrasil;
‘Neath the first lives Hel,
‘neath the second the frost-giants,
‘Neath the last are the lands of men.
~ Poetic Edda, Grimnismol
Based in the underworld, adamantine roots twining about three deep springs, the tree unites the nine true worlds. At the crown of the tree stoops an eagle, and four stags feed on its highest boughs. Goats with mad slit eyes crop its leaves and prune its twigs. Beneath the great tree a wyrm, a dragon, gnaws the gnarled roots, and a squirrel runs up and down, bearing contention between the dragon and the sharp-eyed eagle.
The tree existed before the gods. At the end of the world, when the gods and giants contend, and slay one another until none is left, then the last man and woman will take refuge in the tree.
When the worlds begin again, they will be the first man and woman, left standing by the world tree.
Norse mythology has more than three Norns, but only three live at the well – Urdr (fate), Verdandi (happening or present) and Skuld (debt or future). They spin threads of life, cut prophetic runes into wooden poles and measure the destinies of people and gods.
An ash I know, | Yggdrasil its name,
With water white | is the great tree wet;
Thence come the dews | that fall in the dales,
Green by Urth’s well | does it ever grow.
Thence come the maidens | mighty in wisdom,
Three from the lake | down ‘neath the tree;
Urth is one named, | Verthandi the next,–
On the wood they scored,– | and Skuld the third.
Laws they made there, and life allotted
To the sons of men, and set their fates.
~ Poetic Edda, Völuspá
The Tree of Life and the World Tree It is probably the most ancient human myth, and is possibly a universal one.
“How serious that worship was in former times may be gathered from the ferocious penalty appointed by the old German laws for such as dared to peel the bark of a standing tree. The culprit’s navel was to be cut out and nailed to the part of the tree which he had peeled, and he was to be driven round and round the tree till all his guts were wound about its trunk. The intention of the punishment clearly was to replace the dead bark by a living substitute taken from the culprit; it was a life for a life, the life of a man for the life of a tree.”
~ Frazer J.G.
Along with their historical or cultural significance, trees are loved because of their special appearance, the rare fungi, plants and creatures they support and shelter.
This green giants, produce the oxygen we breath, in their microscopical chloroplasts, structures within the cells of plants (and green algae) that is the site of photosynthesis, the process by which light energy is converted to chemical energy, resulting in the production of oxygen and energy-rich organic compounds.
Trees have influenced humanity and the world about us. They are intimately linked with ancestry and cultural heritage. Trees are a source of much deeper meaning and wisdom than we can easily understand.
Perhaps because the majority of Earth’s terrestrial biomass is represented by trees, or is it the secret life of trees, when its mystical inhabitants dwell among them. Or just mythical folklore that enchants its forest!
Just imagine if trees could speak.
I collect #treelore on twitter, have a look if you like.
~ ○ ~
Works Cited & Multimedia Sources
- Coder Kim D. Cultural Aspects of Trees, Traditions and Myths.
- Crews Judith. Forest and tree symbolism in folklore.
- Frazer James George. The Golden Bough. 1922.
- Golding Arthur. Ovid. Metamorphoses. London. W. Seres. 1567.
- Mills Charles De B. The tree of mythology its growth and fruitage. 1889.
- Skinner Charles M. Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits and Plants. 1911.
- Wikimedia Commons: Chlorophyll d,
- The Woodland Trust.
- Woolf Jo. Trees: Wisdom at the Root of Folklore, for http://folklorethursday.com
- What is ethnobotany? What is ethnobotany and why does it matter?