Trees in International Folklore

This article appeared in the North Clare Local in November. 

Image by Joe deSousa via Flickr

Image by Joe deSousa via Flickr

At this time of year, our eyes are drawn to the leaves at our feet and the colours on the trees. For our ancestors, trees were hugely significant. This worship of trees is near universal and examples can be found in many diverse cultures around the world.

Ever before humans identified the components of the air that we breathed, we knew trees were special. It’s possible to mention only some of the global beliefs around trees, but some concepts were universal.

One such concept is the “tree of life”. This can be found in many different cultures; it symbolises fertility, death, renewal, natural order and harmony. The tree is also a potent symbol of unity and natural cycles; the roots can represent the underworld or death; the trunk our lives on earth; and the leaves reaching for the skies stand for heaven. This symbolism appears in Christianity also; as well as the tree from which Adam and Eve

Several ancient religions had a sacred tree as a central facet of their mythos. In Persian myths, all life came from a sacred world tree; the evil Angra Mainyu tried to destroy it. Two fish guard it against destruction by the malevolent frog created by the destructive god. There are also Mashy and Mashyane, the two trees who are the ancestors of all mankind.

Norse myths are enjoying something of a renaissance these days and some readers may have heard of Yggdrasil, the giant ash (or possibly yew) that was central in many Scandinavian myths. It was so large that a dragon (wyrm), eagle and several stags resided in it. It was also the tree that the Norse god Odin sacrificed himself on. Indeed Yggdrasil translates as “Odin’s horse (gallows)”. Scholars believe it may be originate from very ancient shamanistic traditions of the far north, such as Siberia, where a huge tree was seen as a way to ascend to heaven.

Germanic and Scandinavian people venerated trees long after the introduction of Christianity. In German-speaking areas of the Holy Roman Empire (which spread over Germany, the Czech Republic and part of Italy to name but a few countries), the linden tree was of central importance. The Gerichtslinde, as it was called, was the focal point of the village, and courts and other assemblies were held there. It is thought to relate back to the goddess Freya, as the linden tree was sacred to her. A medieval story relates the tale of Godeskalk who ventured into the underworld and found a linden tree from which hundreds of pairs of shoes hung, to aid the pious dead on their way.

Further north there was a mythical tree in Uppsala, Sweden, which remained green all year around (and no, it wasn’t a pine). In Norway there was a much respected tree which received offerings of beer during festivals; it was felled in the 19th century.

An illustration of the mythical Norse world Tree Yggdrasil in the 1895 book, Den ældre Eddas Gudesange, by Karl Gjellerup (via Wikimedia Commons)

An illustration of the mythical Norse world Tree Yggdrasil in the 1895 book, Den ældre Eddas Gudesange, by Karl Gjellerup (via Wikimedia Commons)

It was not just the Norsemen and the ancient Germans who had a soft spot for trees (although it’s no coincidence that Christmas trees are a German invention). In the Mediterranean, the Greeks and Romans believed in the sacred powers of forests and wooded groves. These were often the sites of oracles in the Greek tradition, where people would come to ask the gods for advice and guidance. The most famous of these was the oracle at Dodona. This was only second to the oracle at Delphi for renown. It was dedicated to the mother goddess Dione. Priestesses interpreted the rustles of the leaves and added chimes as well to clarify the messages they received. The Academy outside Athens, too, was placed in a small olive grove.

In Rome, too, forests were of central importance. A grove behind the house of the Vestal Virgins at the Forum survived until fire ruined Rome in 64 AD (the famous fire that Nero fiddled at). In Spoleto, Umbria, strict laws were laid down to prevent damage to any sacred tree.

Some believed spirits resided in trees, the Greeks among them. Dryads were originally associated with oak trees, although the term came to be used for all tree spirits in Greek myth. These shy and beautiful spirits were tied to their home tree, and to cut down their resident tree was to damage them fatally.

In pre-Islamic Arab traditions, some trees were haunted by jinn who granted wishes; if you were sick and slept under such a tree you would receive a prescription for your illness in your dreams.  Similarly there is a global custom of pinning items to trees in the hope of granting wishes, health and prosperity.

Like Isaac Newton in a different context, the Buddha reached enlightenment under a tree. Our own Celtic ancestors relied on trees for many things. More about Irish beliefs around trees next month.

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