Trees in mythology

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The Bodhi Tree, Bodh Gaya is believed to be the sacred fig tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. It is worshipped by Buddhists. The sacred fig is also venerated in Hinduism and Jainism.

Trees are significant in many of the world's mythologies and religions, and have been given deep and sacred meanings throughout the ages. Human beings, observing the growth and death of trees, and the annual death and revival of their foliage, have often seen them as powerful symbols of growth, death and rebirth. Evergreen trees, which largely stay green throughout these cycles, are sometimes considered symbols of the eternal, immortality or fertility. The image of the Tree of life or world tree occurs in many mythologies.

Sacred or symbolic trees include the Banyan and the Peepal (Ficus religiosa) trees in Hinduism, the Yule Tree in Germanic mythology, the Tree of Knowledge of Judaism and Christianity, the Bodhi tree in Buddhism and Saglagar tree in Mongolian Tengriism. In folk religion and folklore, trees are often said to be the homes of tree spirits. Germanic paganism as well as Celtic polytheism both appear to have involved cultic practice in sacred groves, especially grove of oak.[1] The term druid itself possibly derives from the Celtic word for oak. The Egyptian Book of the Dead mentions sycamores as part of the scenery where the soul of the deceased finds blissful repose.[2]

Trees are an attribute of the archetypical locus amoenus.[citation needed]

Wishing trees[edit]

Main article: Wish Tree

In many parts of the world travelers have observed the custom of hanging objects upon trees in order to establish some sort of a relationship between themselves and the tree. Throughout Europe, trees are known as sites of pilgrimages, ritual ambulation, and the recital of (Christian) prayers. Wreaths, ribbons or rags are suspended to win favor for sick humans or livestock, or merely for good luck. Popular belief associates the sites with healing, bewitching, or mere wishing.

In India, the Korwas hang rags on the trees which form the shrines of the village gods. In South America Darwin recorded a tree honored by numerous offerings (rags, meat, cigars, etc.); libations were made to it, and horses were sacrificed.[3]

World tree[edit]

Main article: World Tree
Yggdrasil, the World Ash (Norse)

The World Tree, with its branches reaching up into the sky, and roots deep into the earth, can be seen to dwell in three worlds - a link between heaven, the earth, and the underworld, uniting above and below. This great tree acts as an Axis mundi, supporting or holding up the cosmos, and providing a link between the heavens, earth and underworld. In European mythology the best known example is the tree Yggdrasil from Norse mythology.[4]

Religion and folklore[edit]

Numerous popular stories throughout the world reflect a firmly-rooted belief in an intimate connection between a human being and a tree, plant or flower. Sometimes a man's life depends upon the tree and suffers when it withers or is injured, and we encounter the idea of the external soul, already found in the Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers of at least 3000 years ago. Here one of the brothers leaves his heart on the top of the flower of the acacia and falls dead when it is cut down. Sometimes, however, the tree is a mysterious token which shows its sympathy with an absent hero by weakening or dying, as the man becomes ill or loses his life. These two features very easily combine, and they agree in representing to us mysterious sympathy between tree and human life.

Sometimes the new-born child is associated with a newly planted tree with which its life is supposed to be bound up; or, on ceremonial occasions (betrothal, marriage, ascent to the throne), a personal relationship of this kind is instituted by planting trees, upon the fortunes of which the career of the individual depends. Sometimes, boughs or plants are selected and the individual draws omens of life and death. Again, a person will put themselves into relationship with a tree by depositing upon it something which has been in close contact with them (hair, clothing, etc.).

Often a tree will be associated with oracles. The oak of Dodona was tended by priests who slept on the ground. Forms of the tall oaks of the old Prussians were inhabited by gods who gave responses, and so numerous are the examples that the old Hebrew terebinth of the teacher, and the terebinth of the diviners may reasonably be placed in this category. Important sacred trees are also the object of pilgrimage, one of the most noteworthy being the branch of the Bo tree at Sri Lanka brought thither before the Christian era. The tree spirits will hold sway over the surrounding forest or district, and the animals in the locality are often sacred and must not be harmed.

The custom of transferring disease or sickness from men to trees is well known. Sometimes the hair, nails, clothing, etc. of a sickly person are fixed to a tree, or they are forcibly inserted in a hole in the trunk, or the tree is split and the patient passes through the aperture. Where the tree has been thus injured, its recovery and that of the patient are often associated. Different explanations may be found of such customs which naturally take rather different forms among peoples in different grades.

Among the Arabs[who?] sacred trees are haunted by jinn; sacrifices are made, and the sick who sleep beneath them receive prescriptions in their dreams. Here, as frequently elsewhere, it is dangerous to pull a bough. This dread of damaging special trees is familiar: Cato instructed the woodman to sacrifice to the male or female deity before thinning a grove, while in the Homeric poem to Aphrodite the tree nymph is wounded when the tree is injured, and dies when the trunk falls.

Early Buddhism held that trees had neither mind nor feeling and might lawfully be cut; but it recognized that certain spirits might reside in them, such as Nang Takian in Thailand. Propitiation is made before the axe is laid to the holy trees; loss of life or of wealth and the failure of rain are feared should they be wantonly cut; there are even trees which it is dangerous to climb. The Talein of Burma prays to the tree before he cuts it down, and the African woodman will place a fresh sprig upon the tree. Some Ancient Indian tree deities, such as Puliyidaivalaiyamman, the Tamil deity of the tamarind tree, or Kadambariyamman, associated with the kadamba tree were seen as manifestations of a goddess who offers her blessings by giving fruits in abundance.[5]

Sacred trees[edit]

Stefan of Perm takes an axe to a birch hung with pelts and cloths that is sacred to the Komi of Great Perm

Trees were often regarded as sacred in the ancient world, throughout Europe and Asia.[6] Christianity and Islam treated the worship of trees as idolatry and this led to their destruction in Europe and most of West Asia.


In the manuscript illumination (illustration) Saint Stephan of Perm cuts down a birch sacred to the Komi people as part of his proselytizing among them in the years after 1383. His profanation of their shrines and cult images incurred their hostility.[7]

The Glastonbury Thorn in Glastonbury, England is a small Common Hawthorn tree regarded as sacred by many Christians. It is said to have sprouted miraculously from the staff of the early Christian figure Joseph of Arimathea. Of further religious significance and indeed scientific interest, the tree displays a rare phenomenon for its species, blooming not once but twice per year. The second bloom occurs around the holiday of Christmas.

South Asia[edit]

Honoring a sacred tree during Paush Purnima, Kumbh Mela, Allahabad (India)

Sacred trees remain common in India. They are found in villages, in the countryside and the heart of some temples (e.g. Jain temples). Shripad Vaidya of Nagpur, Maharashtra was founded as an Eco-Worship Center (Nakshatravan). It is the first in the world and is known for worship of the environment through plants. The Indian "shastras" and "panchang" too, mention several ways of doing so, one of them being offering prayers to various trees.[8]

In Sri Lanka, Buddhists venerate the Bodhi Tree. It is said to have protected the Buddha when he was meditating to attain enlightenment.

Southeast Asia[edit]

Besides the sacred Bodhi trees of Buddhism the veneration of certain spirits related to trees, known generically as Nang Mai, is common in Thai folklore. The most well-known of these tree spirits is Nang Ta-khian which according to Thai oral tradition[9] inhabits Hopea odorata trees and may appear as a beautiful woman wearing traditional Thai attire.[10] Trees, logs, beams or keels of wooden boats where the spirit is deemed to reside are an object of pilgrimage and have lengths of colored silk tied as an offering.[11] In present times Nang Ta-Khian is usually propitiated in order to be lucky in the lottery.[12]

Sacred groves[edit]

Main article: Sacred grove

Many of the world's ancient belief systems also include the belief of sacred groves, where trees are revered and respected and there are priests and priestesses attending to them who also serve as guardians, preventing those who wish to tear down the trees by means of ancient magic and elaborate protection rituals.

From ancient Norse and Celtic mythologies, to the Nigerian, Indian and Mongolian cosmological thought, extending far east in the ancient Shinto faith of Japan and the special habits of the 19 tribes of the forest peoples of Malaysia,[13] sacred groves provide relief and shelter from the mundane aspects of life and are considered living temples. A place of meeting where ancient rituals are performed, it is also a place of refuge for many in times of danger.

In literature[edit]

  • In literature, a mythology was notably developed by J. R. R. Tolkien, his Two Trees of Valinor playing a central role in his mythopoeic cosmogony. Tolkien's 1964 Tree and Leaf combines the allegorical tale Leaf by Niggle and his essay On Fairy-Stories.
  • William Butler Yeats describes a "holy tree" in his poem The Two Trees (1893).
  • Also in the Lord of the Rings, the White Tree of Gondor stands as a symbol of Gondor in the Court of the Fountain in Minas Tirith
  • In George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series one of the main religions, that of "the old gods" or "the gods of the north" involves sacred groves of trees (godswoods) with a white tree with red leaves at the center, known as the heart tree. Heart trees have faces carved into them, usually dripping red sap. Later the series explores the idea that "green seers" can see through the eyes of such trees, and that their souls inhabit them after death.
  • In Laurie Halse Anderson's novel Speak, the main character Melinda Sordino is assigned by her art teacher to make a tree "into a piece of art" (p. 12 Mr. Freeman talking to art class). The tree Melinda tries to draw and sculpt but keeps failing becomes a symbol of Melinda's internal battle of wanting to speak up about the rape that was inflicted upon her but continues to remain silent. When Melinda succeeds in creating a tree (and gets an A+), it symbolizes Melinda, finally speaking out against the injustice.
  • In C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia series, talking trees are featured.
  • Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson & the Olympians series feature dryads, or spirits of trees.
  • In the fantasy series The Wheel of Time written by American author Robert Jordan, sacred groves named Steddings are the homelands of the Ogier. The Ogier are stonemasons and grew groves near the cities they built after the Breaking of the World to remind them of their home. There is also a Green Man character who appears to be made of woven leaves and vines. He has hair that is grass, his eyes are hazelnuts and his fingernails are acorns. There is a deep scar running up his head, an injury from the Breaking of the World.

In film and TV[edit]

  • In the sixth (third chronologically) Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi, the Ewoks worship trees on the forest moon of Endor.
  • In The Lord of the Rings film series, Ents are a race of beings, who closely resemble trees.
  • In the fictional universe of the Avatar film, the pandoran biosphere habitates trees, which are of fundamental importance for the Na'vi people, like the Hometrees, the Tree of Souls and the Tree of Voices as well as Woodsprites.
  • In the TV Series, Teen Wolf, an element of the plot is the Nemeton, a sacred tree that druids in the series draw power from through human sacrifices, and later acts as a beacon, drawing supernatural entities to nearby town of Beacon Hills.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Taylor, John W. (1979). Tree Worship, in Mankind Quarterly, Sept., pp. 79-142. ISSN 0025-2344.
  2. ^ Gollwitzer 1984:13.
  3. ^ "The Voyage of the Beagle", Chapter IV
  4. ^ Mountfort 2003:41, 279.
  5. ^ Mythical Trees and Deities
  6. ^ Gorshunova. Olga V. (2008). Svjashennye derevja Khodzhi Barora…, ( Sacred Trees of Khodzhi Baror: Phytolatry and the Cult of Female Deity in Central Asia) in Etnoragraficheskoe Obozrenie, n° 1, pp. 71-82. ISSN 0869-5415. (Russian)
  7. ^ Forsyth 1992:5f.
  8. ^ A green act of faith - Times Of India › Collections › Trees A green act of faith. Payal Gwalani, TNN Sep 4, 2011, 01.06pm IST.
  9. ^ Spirits
  10. ^ Nang Ta-khian image
  11. ^ 9-year old asked Lady Ta-khian for help (Thai)
  12. ^ 10 อันดับ สถานที่ขอหวย ที่ฮิตมากที่สุด ในประเทศไทย
  13. ^ Simon Gardner, Pindar Sidisunthorn and Lai Ee May, 2011. Heritage Trees of Penang. Penang: Areca Books. ISBN 978-967-57190-6-6



Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

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