Trees in mythology
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 sacred fig (Ficus religiosa) in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil of Judaism and Christianity. In folk religion and folklore, trees are often said to be the homes of tree spirits. Germanic mythology as well as Celtic polytheism both appear to have involved cultic practice in sacred groves, especially grove of oak. 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.
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.
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.
Religion and folklore
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 Ancient Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers from 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, such as hair or clothing.
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.
In Arab folklore, 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.
Trees were often regarded as sacred in the ancient world, throughout Europe and Asia. Christianity and Islam treated the worship of trees as idolatry and this led to their destruction in Europe and most of West Asia.
The Glastonbury Thorn in Glastonbury, England is a small Crataegus monogyna 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.
In Ireland, up to the 12th century AD, sacred trees known as bile were associated with sites of royal inauguration; it is possible that the king's wand of office was broken off from the tree. Destruction and uprooting of a rival tribe's bile was a common act of war.
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 has been dubbed 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 mention several ways of doing so, one of them being to offer prayers to various trees. There is even a belief in yakshas or yakshis, or nature spirits, who may dwell in trees or other natural places. By worshipping trees in which yakshas may inhabit, people seek to placate the spirits and bring health and prosperity into their lives. This is often done by placing incense and candles at the root of the tree or performing "tree puja". Sometimes the statues of deities and nāgas may be nestled in between the roots since the tree grants the deity's murti shade and protection.
In both India and Sri Lanka, Buddhists venerate the Bodhi Tree of Bodh Gaya. It is said to have protected Gautama Buddha when he was meditating to attain enlightenment. The Bodhi Tree symbolizes enlightenment and wisdom and people may continue to meditate under it in order to obtain buddhahood.
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 inhabits Hopea odorata trees and may appear as a beautiful woman wearing traditional Thai attire. 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. In present times Nang Ta-Khian is usually propitiated in order to be lucky in the lottery.
In the Avestan literature and Iranian mythology, there are several sacred vegetal icons related to life, eternality and cure, like: Amesha Spenta Amordad (guardian of plants, goddess of trees and immortality), Gaokerena (or white Haoma, a tree that its vivacity would certify continuance of life in universe), Bas tokhmak (a tree with remedial attribute, retentive of all herbal seeds, and destroyer of sorrow), Mashyа and Mashyane (parents of the human race in Iranian myths), Barsom (copped offshoots of pomegranate, gaz or Haoma that Zoroastrians use in their rituals), Haoma (a plant, unknown today, that was source of sacred potable), etc.
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, Baltic 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, 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, a mythology was 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. 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.
- W. B. Yeats describes a "holy tree" in his poem "The Two Trees" (1893).
- 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".
In film and TV
- In the sixth (third chronologically) Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi, the Ewoks worship trees on the forest moon of Endor.
- In the fictional universe of the film Avatar, 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 from which druids draw power through human sacrifices, and which later acts as a beacon, drawing supernatural entities to the nearby town of Beacon Hills.
- Axis mundi
- Celtic sacred trees
- Ceremonial pole
- Christmas tree
- Donar's Oak
- Five Trees
- Karam (festival)
- List of tree deities
- Mesoamerican world tree
- Nature worship
- New Year tree
- Sacred garden
- Sacred grove
- Sacred herbs
- Sidrat al-Muntaha
- Talking tree
- Trail trees
- Tree of life
- Tree of life (biblical)
- Tree of life (Kabbalah)
- Wish tree
- World tree
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