The scale and majesty of trees commands both respect and awe. Little wonder that mystic world-trees have a central role in the cosmogonies (creation stories) of ancient mythologies, religions and belief systems, are the venerable source of wisdom as the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ or ‘Tree of Life’ and consequently the subject of tree-worship (dendrolatry). Tree branches and roots link the firmament and its deities to the spirits of the underworld, while the canopy provides a perfect sanctuary for meetings and rituals of the living as they connect with these spiritual kingdoms and the spirits themselves.
The tree is therefore a connection between the Earth, Heaven, and the Underworld and in some belief systems they were the source of humanity itself.
Tree worship seems to have been a universal feature of Palaeolithic cultures. Roman historian and chronicler Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE), for example, notes in his Natural History that ‘trees formed the first temples of the gods, and even at the present day, the country people, preserving in all their simplicity their ancient rites, consecrate the finest among their trees to some divinity‘.
Deciduousness symbolizes rebirth-resurrection while evergreens symbolize eternal life. Vedic and Scandinavian mythologies tell of trees generating or shading the Earth. Similarities in mythological stories indicate their ancient origins. Indian, Chinese and South American legends all tell of souls that climb to heaven from a tree.
Ancient Egypt trees were thought to be occupied by deities, notably the fig, Ficus sycamorus.
Iran mythology there was a World Tree at the centre of Paradise, a cloud-tree supplying fruit to the gods and it is from a tree that the first man and woman were formed (modern evolution confirms that humans ‘descended’ from the trees). The Iranian world tree was Haoma (equivalent to Gaokevena of the Zendavesta) and a sacred vibnne of the Zoroastrians. It too produced the drink of immortality and grew in the Fountain of Life in a vast lake, Vouru Kasha, alongside another mother tree that produced all plant life. In Persian mythology the cypress was especially sacred as it also was in India, symbolising eternal life.
Scandinavia Norse mythology tells of the World Tree, the Ash (askr) Yggdrasill whose roots pass through the centre of the Earth to form an axis mundi (centre of the world) that fixes Earth and connects it to the heavens, the stem bursting from the tip of a mountain, its branches forming the celestial sphere, its leaves the clouds and its fruits the stars. God Odin hung from its branches to obtain wisdom.
India VedicHindu scriptures describe a tree that symbolises all life and immortality, a Tree of Paradise that is the source of ambrosia, the nectar drunk by the gods that gives them eternal life, the Rigveda equating the tree to the Brahma, all the gods making up the branches which embrace the Universe. The sacred cosmic or world tree of Hindus is ashvattha, the Sacred Fig. Buddhist teachings also mention the Sacred Tree of the Buddha (mostly deemed to be Ficus religiosa, but occasionally Ficus glomerata, Jonesia asoka, Musa sapientum and sometimes the palms Butia frondosa or Borassus flabelliformis) as imparting wisdom and ambrosia but also yielding life-giving rain and serving as a haven for souls of the blessed. It is smothered with multi-coloured gems that shimmer like the plumage of a peacock. Under this tree the Buddha struggled with temptation and supernatural forces focusing his mind to ever higher levels of abstraction until, finally, triumphing over Earthly distractions to achieve Enlightenment. In Hinduism the evergreen broad-leaf tree known as Rudraksha (Elaeocarpus ganitrus) is the traditional source of seeds used as prayer beads.
AssyriaAssur, supreme deity of the ancient Assyrians was closely associated with a Sacred Tree, sculptures depicting worshippers kneeling in front of it and hanging offerings from the branches. Phoenicians constructed effigies of a Sacred Tree by their temples and these marked the place for sacrifices: on festival days the tree was hung with flowers and ribbons.
Trees were a symbol of stability and order. Though not conclusive it is likely that the columns and pillars used so much in classical architecture are symbols of tree trunks and the sacred grove (their capitals frequently decorated with vegetational motifs) and therefore imbuing buildings with religious significance.
Hebrew Judaic Rabbinic traditions spoke of a Mosaic Tree of Life which grew at the entre of the Garden of Eden.The Old Testaent of the Bible has many references to sacred groves.
Christian teachings place Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden which contained the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. Adam ate fruit from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge of good and evil thereby committing ‘original sin’ which was the reason God sent his son Jesus to earth to redeem humans, allowing them eternal life. Pagan tree worship was so difficult to eradicate that Christianity (see for instance a letter from Pope Gregory to Mellitus, Bishop of London in 601) Christianity conflating trees and the cross or crucifix with a ‘holy tree’ on which Jesus was crucified. Celtic goddess Brighid became the Christian saint of the same name, the vine became sacred as the source of wine for the Eucharist and in Medieval times grave slabs in both Britain and Scandinaviacasrried the symbol of the tree.
Germanic mythology related the birth of children to cavities in trees and described a tree, Irminsul, that formed a pillar holding the universe in place.
Greco-Roman mythology traces the origin of humanity to a cosmogonic Ash tree, Melia, daughter of Oceanos. There are many variations to this theme, Hesiod equating Jove as the creator of the Ash tree and Roman mythology as presented by Virgil, Juvenal and Ovid replaced the ash with an oak. It has even been suggested that the columns of classical architecture are references to the mythic tree trunks that held up the world.
Much of the Greek mythology would have dated back to pre-history and hunter-gatherer societies but the Homeric Olympian gods were the gods of a conquering aristocracy, not the fertility gods of nature and agriculture although nature was not excluded.
Jupiter’s sacred tree was the oak, and oak groves were sacred to goddess Diana. Major trees included the poplar, pine, cypress and plane gods being associated with individual trees or sacred groves. Individual trees were dedicated to famous people – a tradition which continues today in the planting of ‘commemorative trees’.
Both Greek and Roman mythology was peopled with the stuff of male sexual fantasy. In Greek mythology especially nymphs (young nubile female spirits who loved to dance, sing, and make love) were to be found everywhere and of several kinds: naiads (who presided over fountains, wells, springs, streams, brooks and other bodies of freshwater); nereids who lived in the sea, and were not to be confused with the alluring Sirens; and dryads, tree nymphs who dwelt in trees, groves and forests. Hamadryads were associated with specific trees, the two favourite trees being the oak and ash (Gk drys-oak). In some mythologies every tree had its presiding deity.
From trees were obtained forked wishing-rods and divining rods (in the form of lightning and a crude human effigy) and magic wands. The forked dichotomous branching was also characteristic of the branching pattern of the Mistletoe that was central to Druidic practice.
Celtic (Druidic) tree worship occurred across Britain and Europe and was never completely erased by Christianity, it persists through the traditions of the may pole dance and the Christmas tree with its offertory decoration whose pagan origins are barely remembered … a reminder of the power and persistence of tradition. Individual Celtic tribes in ancient Gaul were associated with particular trees. The Ark and the Cross. In Celtic tradition the Yew clearly had a special place from its use of its wood for wands and divination forks, and its frequent presence in cemeteries and churchyards sprigs of its foliage sometimes found in burial shrouds. It may have ben a surrogate for the cedar and palm so imporant in the biblical Middle East.
Today there may be as many as 3,000 holy wells in Ireland, many associated with trees, mostly hawthorn and ash. Under Brehon Law which governed Early Medieval Ireland trees were aggregated into groups of seven according to their significance, the most important being the ‘chieftain trees’ (oak, hazel, holly, yew, ash, pine, apple) and ‘peasant trees’ (alder, willow, hawthorn, rowan birch, elm, idha). Accounts of trees in Celtic mythology rank them in different ways but most are associated with special powers or spirits giving rise to the expression ‘fairy tree’ which on the Isle of Man, the phrase ‘fairy tree’ denotes the Tramman elder (Sambucus nigra). Accounts of Celtic mythology associated with particular trees can be found in James McKillop’s A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (1998). Fagus, the Latin name for the Beech tree, was a Gallo-Roman god.
Folkard classifies the legends of flowers into the mythological, ecclesiastical and the poetic.
Also the planting of commemorative trees often to mark the birth of a child, like a human the tree grows to maturity when it reproduces and in its senior years provide provides shade, shelter and protection.
Ascension into heaven via a tree (Jack and the Beanstalk etc.).
The sacred grove is a consistent theme in almost all cultures. Even after the Norman conquest in Britain trees marked places of assembly, especially the local government ‘hundreds’ , named as such c. 960 CE.