partpart 1 of this book contains a brief overview of trees and their biological importance as well as a survey of various beliefs from a range of cultures. It also provides an introduction to several methods of working with tree energy to help you bring the wisdom of trees into your everyday world and spiritual life.
Threefold wisdom of the tree:
Leaf wisdom-of change, ever releasing; Branch wisdom-of growth, ever reaching; Root wisdom-of endurance, ever deepening.one
A Celtic Journal
Living Entities; Living History
If we take an environmental look at trees, we find that they help to moderate the climate. They give off water and oxygen, they cool their surrounding area during the day, and the soil around them radiates heat at night. Trees protect rivers and streams and conserve water by reducing run-off, securing the ground from erosion. They offer protection from the sun, rain, snow, hail, and wind for animals and human homes.
For city dwellers, trees are especially important because they act as filters, absorbing pollutants from the air, including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and ozone. In a study on urban trees in 1994, the U.S. Forest Service estimated that the trees in New York City removed approximately 1,821 metric tons of pollutants from the air annually.1 It is estimated that a large tree can produce five pounds of oxygen a day and provide the cooling equivalent of ten room air conditioners.2 You can experience this cooling effect as soon as you enter a forest on a hot summer day.
While some trees are impressive in size, all trees are remarkable because they seem to defy gravity. A tree trunk can seem rather precarious to hold such a heavy load of branches and leaves. For this reason alone it is no wonder that ancient people considered them with great awe.
A tree trunk consists of three separate concentric sections. At the center of the trunk is the heartwood, which is not living wood. Its purpose is to give the tree support. However, it is not unusual to find an old tree that is hollow. This does not affect the tree because the heartwood that is gone was not part of the living system. Older trees that have become hollow have generally developed enough girth and heavy bark to assume the load-bearing role.
The heartwood is surrounded by sapwood through which water and nutrients flow up to the branches and leaves. This area of sapwood consists of the most recent annual rings.
The third section of trunk is the bark, which functions like a protective skin. As the tree grows, the bark stretches. In older trees, it is common for the bark to crack and form fissures when it can no longer stretch. The bark provides insulation against heat and cold. In addition to protection from the climate, some trees, such as blackthorn and honey locust, have prickly spines to keep animals from climbing them. Others contain their own insect repellent to guard against destructive pests.
While we tend to associate trees such as willows and birches with flexibility, all trees have enough "give" to move with the wind and not be blown down under normal weather conditions. The leaves also shift in such a way to present as little surface area to the wind as possible. The next time you have an opportunity to watch a tree during a storm, observe how it moves.
We think of spring and summer as times of growth, and they are for a tree's trunk, branches, flowers, leaves-everything above ground. When all this activity subsides in the autumn, the roots have their turn until the hard frosts arrive. There are exceptions, such as blackthorn and gorse. Of course, in climates that do not have a wide range in temperatures, tree cycles differ, but generally above and below ground growth occurs at different times.
Trees seem to hold some kind of mystery and fascination for everyone, mathematicians and numerologists included. In order to take in as much sunlight as possible, some trees have limbs that grow in spirals around the trunk to maximize positioning. In addition, many types of trees have leaves that spiral around the branches. Pine needle bundles also spiral, as do pinecone scales around the seeds.
Scientists have studied the spiral effect of branches and have found some interesting patterns. Spiral characteristics differ according to the type of tree. For example, beech trees have a 1/3 spiral, which means that if you placed a string at the base of a branch you would have to wind it around the trunk once and pass over the base of three other branches before you get to one directly above the starting branch. Oaks have 2/5 spirals, which means you would pass the string two times around the trunk and pass five branches until you get to one that is directly in line with the branch where you started the string.3
Spiral types are 1/2, 1/3, 2/5, 3/8, 5/13, 8/21, 13/34 and so on. As the numbers increase, the spirals get tighter. Nature loves mathematics: if you add two consecutive numbers (numerators and denominators separately), you will get the next spiral number.
The ancient Greeks discovered that tree rings correspond to annual growth. Over the two millennia since then, dendrochronology has become an important scientific tool that has aided other disciplines by helping to correct flaws in radiocarbon dating, which proved to be off by as much as a thousand years in some cases.
Tree ring "signatures" are shared by all trees living at the same time, no matter what type of tree or their location. Matching and overlapping these signatures has allowed dendrochronologists to compile an unbroken record of approximately 7,500 years. In this way, trees provide a time capsule that preserves "snapshots" of the environment.
For archaeologists and historians, this record has provided insight into understanding the human historical record. For example, beginning in 1159 BCE disastrous climatic conditions affected most of the world. For eighteen years, trees experienced little or no growth during a drought that lasted almost one hundred years. In the human record, at around 1200 BCE there was a major shift to a warrior society model of civilization, with an increase in weaponry and massive hilltop forts. During times of food shortages, the strongest or most well-armed people survive.
Similarly, there were catastrophic conditions in the sixth century CE that made the tree rings go haywire worldwide. From 536 to 541, trees exhibited drastically reduced summer growth due to the cold. In Ireland and elsewhere there is evidence of increased fortification of cities and towns.
Dendrochronology has also helped scientists map sunspot cycles (11.5 and 500-year cycles) as well as predict some long-term climatic changes.
One cannot discuss tree rings without mentioning the bristlecone pines. These immortals made of wood grow in one of the harshest climates on earth, at ten thousand feet or more above sea level where the air is thin, the wind incessant, and the growing season only about forty-five days, most notably in the Inyo National Forest in the highest part of the White Mountains between the Sierra Nevada mountain range and Death Valley. In addition to being incredible symbols of perseverance, these trees were major contributors to extending the record back in time. They have been described as looking more dead than alive because as the trunk dies, side branches take over to support the weight. When a tree is completely dead it may continue to stand for a thousand years.
Carrying on the research that University of Arizona scientist Edmund Schulman began in the 1950s, one of his students was horrified when he had counted over 4,600 rings in a tree trunk and realized that he had probably killed the oldest living thing on the planet in order to study it. Schulman's assistants have found an older bristlecone that has become known as Methuselah. Its location is being kept secret in order to protect it.
Impact on Human Consciousness
Many types of trees live five hundred years or more. One of the nearest rivals in age to the bristlecones is the yew, which can live over two thousand years. It is no wonder that early people perceived trees as immortal.
Like mythological heroes, trees are larger than life. Their beauty evokes wonder, and so it is no surprise that they have had a central place in folklore, myth, and religion. Their grandeur serves as a symbol of life, hope, and perseverance. It is common to see new branches sprouting from the remains of an old tree, providing a vivid illustration of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
In early civilizations, the tree symbolized a two-fold identity: the World Tree, which connected the realms of existence, and the Tree of Life, which represented the source of life and abundance. In many instances these were aspects of the same sacred tree.
One of the best known of World Trees is the ash of Norse mythology called Yggdrasil. It was upon this tree that Odin suspended himself and from which he was able to perceive the runes. (More on this later.) While many cultures believed in the existence of three realms (heaven, earth, and the underworld), Norse legend tells of nine realms existing on three levels.4 These realms were said to be connected by the nine roots of Yggdrasil.
In Finland, the Tree of Life also served as the cosmic sky pole that held the heavens aloft. It was believed to extend from the North/Pole Star through the center of the earth. Some sources define this tree as an oak, others as a pine.
Germanic tribes had a practice of erecting pillars, which were made from whole tree trunks, on hilltops to represent their tree of the universe. Known as Irmensul, some of these pillars were said to have existed into the eighth century.
Similarly, the Tree of Life in ancient Egypt was usually portrayed atop a sacred mound. As the Axis Munde, its branches reached to the stars and its roots extended deep into the netherworld. Osiris, the god of the dead, was sometimes represented as this World Tree. In legend, he was imprisoned in a wooden chest around which a tamarisk tree (Tamarix africana) grew. A great pillar containing Osiris was fashioned from the tree's trunk. He was eventually rescued and resurrected by his wife, Isis.
The Mesopotamian Tree of Life was associated with the supreme god Enlil. This tree was a symbol of cosmic order and was thought to have been either a date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) or a pomegranate (Punica granatum). In India, the sal or salwa tree (Shorea robusta) represented the cosmic World Tree. It was sacred to Shiva who is part of the triad of major Hindu gods. In some legends, four of these great trees supported the world and represented the cardinal directions.
The lote tree (Ziziphus spina-christi) was believed to exist between the realms of people and the Divine. It was both a connection and a boundary. Ancient Arabs sometimes planted lote trees to mark the end of a road. In the story of Muhammad's ascent, a lote tree marked the point beyond which no one but Allah knew what existed. The lote tree was used to represent the manifestation of Allah, as well as to symbolize the spiritual aspect of the human self.
In the spirit landscape of the shaman, it is the symbol of the Axis Munde that provides the means to traverse the realms. Tree roots provide access to the otherworld. Stretching deep into the underworld where many traditions believe departed spirits dwell, roots draw up the wisdom of those who have gone before on the earthly plane. When the gods need to be consulted, it is the branches reaching to the heavens that provide access to their airy realm. Odin is portrayed as a shaman using Yggdrasil to access knowledge.
Creation Myths and Beyond
Trees are central in the creation stories of diverse cultures including the Celts, Greeks, Indonesians, Scandinavians, Siberians, and Japanese. Peter Berresford Ellis provides a beautiful interpretation of a Celtic creation myth in which an oak tree represents Bíle, the consort of the Great Mother Goddess Danu.5 Her divine water as rain and his seed produce the Dagda and the other De Danann gods and goddesses. In Japan, the sakaki tree (Cleyera japonica) is featured in creation myths as an evergreen. It also fulfills the role of World Tree and is represented in Shinto shrines as a central post. The sakaki trees near a shrine symbolize the power of the shrine's goddess.
Archaeologists in England have found numerous Neolithic sites that have come to be known as woodhenges. These structures consisted of circles of posts surrounded by a ditch with a break in the northeast sector-similar to the layout at Stonehenge. A type of woodhenge may have existed at Tara in Ireland where there is evidence of approximately three hundred postholes under the sacred mound. There is some speculation that these structures may also have been roofed. One, located on the Salisbury Plain not far from Stonehenge, consisted of 168 huge poles in six concentric oval rings. If it had a roof, walking through the dimly lit interior with all its columns may have been evocative of strolling through a thick forest. It has been theorized that cathedrals, such as Chartres in Paris, were designed to elicit the same feeling with rows of trunk-like columns and leaf and branch motifs in the stonework.
Druids are perhaps best known for worshipping in sacred groves, but they were not the only people to do so. The earliest sanctuaries of the Germanic tribes were also in forests. These tribes became known as Teutonic tribes, from the word Teutons, the name that the Celts applied to them which meant 'the people."
Lithuanians designated certain areas as holy groves where they sought information from tree oracles. This is similar to the ancient Greek practice in the sacred groves at Dodona, which were dedicated to Zeus. Priests would interpret signs divined from the rustling of oak and plane tree leaves. A sacred grove also existed at Epidaurus around the sanctuary of Aesculapius, the god of healing. Ash groves were dedicated to Apollo, and myrtle trees were believed to be sacred to Aphrodite. In addition, several Greek myths feature people transforming into trees as a means of escape.
In ancient Rome, holy groves occupied the hills around the city and the sacred fig tree (Ficus carica) of Romulus, founder of Rome, was located within the forum. Diana's temples were located in sacred woods-appropriate for the goddess of wild beasts and hunting. In the temple of Vesta, the eternal flame was fuelled exclusively with oak wood.
Twin sycamores flanked the gates of the Egyptian heaven where the sun god, Ra, appeared each morning. Isis, Hathor, and Nut were believed to manifest in sycamores. The sycamore of Egypt (Ficus sycomorus) is a type of fig and not related to the American sycamore (Platanus occidentalia) or the London plane tree (Platanus acerifolic). Another type of fig, the pipal tree (Ficus religiosa), which is also called a bo or bodhi tree, is sacred to Buddhists. Siddhartha Gautama is said to have meditated under this type of tree until he achieved enlightenment, at which time he became Buddha. The fourth direct descendant of this historic tree stands beside the Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya, India.
Canaanites revered their mother goddess Asherah who was represented in temples with a wooden pillar. Some believe that at one time her name may have meant "grove of trees." Trees also serve as religious symbols for Christians and are mentioned throughout the Bible. A discussion of them could fill an entire volume on its own, and so only a few will be mentioned here.
Of the trees in the Garden of Eden-the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil-the latter is probably the most famous. Eve, following the advice of the serpent (symbol of the Goddess), partakes of an apple and gets blamed for all the ills of the world. However, it is a palm tree that is most symbolic in Christianity for strength and longevity. The palm is a symbol of the garden of paradise and Christ's triumph over death. This dual notion is not far from Pagan concepts of the Tree of Life providing sustenance, and trees in general representing the turning Wheel of the Year and the soul's immortality through rebirth.
If one had to choose two trees most associated with the Celts, they would have to be the yew and the oak. Being an evergreen and able to live for over two thousand years, yews represented the immortality of the soul. Because stories were handed down from generation to generation and certain trees continually mentioned for centuries, one can begin to feel awe for anything that can survive so long. It is no wonder that Christians picked up on this theme and made the yew tree a seemingly requisite feature of graveyards.
The other great tree of the Celts, the oak, is mentioned throughout their legends. Druids are rarely discussed without talk of their oak groves. Although it is popularly believed that the name Druid is based on the Greek drus, meaning oak, Peter Berresford Ellis takes issue with this, and he questions why the Celts would look to the Greek language when their own root word dru, meaning "immersed," would seem to make more sense.6 Combined with uid, to know, a Druid is someone "immersed in knowledge" or someone with great knowledge. Ellis speculates that this meaning could date back to pre-Celtic culture and have a connection to survival in the dense oak forests that were abundant at that time.7 To the early people of Ireland and Gaul-the hunter-gatherer clans, circa 4000 BCE-a person who possessed great knowledge or wisdom of the woods was someone who knew how to survive. Clan members would look to such a person for leadership.
The oak was also important to other cultures, especially as it related to powerful thunder gods. These include the Norse Thor, the Lithuanian Perkunas (also called Perkuns), the Slavic Perun and the Teutonic Donar (or Thunar).
Trees also served as symbols for communities and events. In Celtic lands, most tribes had a particular local tree that functioned as their own sacred tree (crann beatha) or community talisman. It was a place to gather for important occasions. As a way to demoralize a rival tribe, one group would destroy the other's tree.
Trees that served as community symbols in Colonial America were called liberty trees, and they functioned as meeting points in each of the thirteen colonies. The first one was located in Boston and came into use in August of 1765. The Liberty Elm, as it became known, was cut down by British soldiers in 1775 because it had become a strong symbol for rebellion. Maryland's liberty tree was a tulip poplar and was the last to remain standing. It finally came down in 1999.
Sacred Trees and Holy Springs
As previously mentioned, water symbolizes the power of the Divine Mother/the Great Goddess and her gift of life and sustenance. Wells and springs were also thought to hold the power of local deities. Many pre-Christian and pre-Roman sites in Europe have been places of pilgrimage for physical healing as well as spiritual communion and cleansing. In addition to the water source, these locations frequently included a tree or grove. As part of the pilgrimage ritual, one would usually drink, bathe in, or be anointed with the water, and then he or she would leave an offering. If the site included a tree, it was common to tie a piece of cloth on a branch of the tree. The theory was that by the time the cloth disintegrated, the request would materialize. It was also symbolic of leaving a burden behind. In the British Isles, these are sometimes called clootie trees; in Gaelic, clootie is a name for the devil. It could be assumed, at least in the Christian era, that one would symbolically dump his or her burden or illness on the devil.
A similar practice of leaving offerings with a tree was described by Thomas Pennant in his Tour of Scotland and a Voyage to the Hebrides, published in 1771. Pennant mentions an oak tree on Inis Maree with nails and coins hammered into the bark. During the eighteenth century, the offerings were made to St. Maree, but at that particular location the practice may have dated back to the Celtic solar deity called Magh Ruith (Mow-rih). This tradition continues to the present day in other locations, such as Fore in County Westmeath, and Clonenagh, County Laois.8
In Cornish legend, St. Keyne is said to have planted four symbolic trees of oak, ash, elm, and withy (willow) beside the well that now carries her name. One legend about the well says that all four trees grew from one trunk. At any rate, they or it was destroyed in a storm in 1703. St. Keyne is believed to have been a daughter of the sixth century King Broccan.
The legendary thorn tree associated with the Chalice Well (although not located with it) is one of Glastonbury, England's relics. According to legend, the tree grew from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea when he stopped to rest. Because it bloomed at Christmas rather than early spring, many people took it as proof that Arimathea had come to England in 63 CE and established the first Christian church. The present tree, as the story goes, was taken as a cutting from the original.
We finally return to Odin. At the roots of Yggdrasil, a spring bubbled up from deep within the earth. As Odin hung suspended upside down, he was eventually able to stretch far enough to take a sip of water. It was then that he began to receive information. Some versions of the legend say that he saw the rune characters on the surface of the water. Perhaps the combined magic of water and tree-the reflection of branches- produced the images as his shamanic state of mind perceived related information.
Also linked with wisdom, the most important sacred spring in Celtic legend is the one inhabited by the salmon of knowledge. These salmon swam in a pool shaded by nine hazel trees. Containing the wisdom of the world, the hazelnuts dropped into the water from overhanging branches and the salmon fed on them and gained knowledge. In legend, the wisdom was transferred to a person who ate one of these salmon, or even just the roasted juices, as in the case of Fionn Mac Cumhail.
Just as the Celtic salmon and trees are linked in ancient legend, they also have an intertwined relationship in northwest British Columbia. According to Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki, as salmon return upriver to spawn, they bring incredible amounts of nutrients to the forest.9 This happens when animals catch the fish and take them into the woods to get away from thieving competitors, and parts of the carcasses are left to decay on the forest floor. Three percent of the salmon's body is nitrogen, which trees need. A direct correlation has been detected between the size of the tree rings and the size of the annual salmon runs.10
The Green Man
Folklore is filled with heroes who go off into the woods and encounter tree spirits- some friendly, and some not so friendly. One demon was characterized in England as a walking tree long before J. R. R. Tolkien wrote about Ents. This story proliferated into the late seventeenth century in tales of the "Man of the Oak."
In India, the Brahma Daitya are spirits of the Brahmans who inhabit banyan trees (Ficus benghalensis). These spirits are more like ghosts and are sometimes referred to as demons. Other legends of tree spirits are mentioned with their respective trees in part 2 of this book.
The Green Man is a symbol that has appeared at the edge of human consciousness for well over a millennium. He embodied the vitality of nature and male sexuality as the son and consort to the Goddess/Mother Nature. He was the epitome of the Pagan god who symbolized the Wheel of the Year-he died in the autumn and was reborn in the spring. As son, the tree/plant life emerges from the womb of Mother Earth. It grows, matures, and releases seeds to fertilize the mother, becoming her consort. Fulfilling the role of Green Man in Egypt, Osiris was portrayed as a tree spirit and god of vegetation.
As the plague swept through Europe in the mid-fourteenth century, the Green Man (under Christian influence) came to represent the decay of the flesh and death rather than the spark of life and rebirth. However, he managed to survive those dark years as well as the negativity to have his image carved onto tombs throughout the Renaissance period, bridging the gap from death to life in the transformation of rebirth. As a result, the Green Man's likeness proliferates throughout mighty European cathedrals over doorways, in ceiling bosses, and choir misericords. He can also be found on the Victorian-era gates of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in London.
The Green Man has come full circle as the growing Pagan community has brought him from the edge of human consciousness to center stage. He is again a strong symbol of the rising sap, the life force, and divine spirit that shares fertility with the Mother.
David J. Nowak, Tree Species Selection, Design, and Management to Improve Air Quality, included in the Annual Meeting Proceedings (Washington, DC: American Society of Land scape Architects, 2000), 23.
The National Arbor Day Foundation, http://www.arborday.org/trees/index.cfm.
Ross E. Hutchins, This Is a Tree (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1964), 38-39.
The upper level of realms consists of Asgard, domain of the gods known as the Aesir; Vanaheim, domain of the gods known as the Vanir; and Alfheim, the land of the Light Elves. The middle level holds Midgard, the world of humans; Jotunheim, the land of the giants; and Nidavellir, the land of the dwarfs. The lower level includes Svartalfheim, the domain of the Dark Elves; Niflheim, the land of ice and mist with few inhabitants; and Helheim, the domain of the dead and the goddess Hel. Arthur Cotterell & Rachel Storm, The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology (New York: Hermes House, 1999), 180-253.
Peter Berresford Ellis, The Chronicles of the Celts (New York: Carrol & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1999), 21.
Ellis, The Druids (New York: Carrol & Graf Publishers, Inc., 2002), 38.
7. Ellis, The Chronicles of the Celts, 7.
8. A similar custom called drawing the nail was practiced in the British Isles. A vow was symbolically sealed by driving a nail into a tree. It could be reversed only by removing the nail if all parties and a witness were present. Tom MacIntyre, Mind the Trees, Ireland of the Welcomes Magazine, Jan./Feb. 1990, 31-32.
9. Suzuki, The Sacred Balance.
10. Ibid.; Dana Codding, Tree Ring Research Yields Clues to Pacific Climate Change, The Ring The University of Victoria's Community Newspaper (February 18, 2000). Available at online archive, http://ring.uvic.ca/00feb18/treering.html.