The principal religion of the West is, in present day, Christianity. In this sense, it seems wise to begin my assessment of trees and the world religions by exploring how the religion of Christianity is associated with trees, and what different trees symbolise within the religion. In total, the Bible references trees over 525 times (only humans are mentioned more often), of which the references relate to a suggested 25 different species (Musselman, 2007).
Before delving into specifics however, one can start right at the beginning of the Old Testament of the Bible, in Genesis 1. Here, on the third day of creation, before any other life forms were created, God was said to create all of the plant life that can be found in this world though, of course, only those plants that can reproduce naturally (Evans, 2014; Musselman, 2007). God also remarked that his trees were all “pleasing to the eye”, which is suggestive of the innate natural beauty man (usually) finds in trees. Soon after, and still within Genesis, man is requested, by God, to ‘subdue’ his creations – trees included, for the food they provide, firewood (Leviticus 6:12-13), timber, and other materials and resources. Whether such a phrase means to dominate or to steward (responsibly protect) is certainly up for discussion, and discussion has indeed been undertaken (Altman, 2000; Cohen, 1985; Daneel, 2011; Fortin, 1995; Johnson, 2000; Kay, 1988; Rolston, 1993; Sadowski, 2012; White, 1967), though certainly in recent times Christians have taken it upon themselves to conserve and enhance the natural world, of which trees feature markedly (within pasture, woodland, forest, and otherwise) (Evans, 2014; Hall, 2011). At least historically, though perhaps carrying on to present day, White (1967) does however remark that Christianity is “the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen”.
In the view of Attfield (1983), White’s stance is an over-dramatisation of how the world view of nature has changed, since the emergence of Christianity. Interestingly, some modern day Christian theologians do share White’s stance, and promote a more ecologically-friendly world view (Haberman, 2013). However, as Christians are monotheistic and therefore do not deify trees, their value is perhaps inherently lesser than in polytheistic, pantheistic, and animistic religions (Cusack, 2011; Hall, 2011; Sadowski, 2012), which generally hold trees at the core of worship; either as the world axis (axis mundi) or world image (imago mundi) – or, sometimes, both (Cusack, 2011). This may, for example, explain why there is a lack of literature relating to trees, during the Christian-dominated Middle Ages in England (Hooke, 2010).
Furthermore, it is one reason for why the Bible generally, though not always, refers to plants as non-living (non-sentient and mechanical) organisms – such is certainly the case in Genesis during the days of creation, and again when Noah takes two of all living beings (excluding any plant whatsoever) onto his ark (Hall, 2011). Where plants (including trees) are referred to as possessing sentience (such as in Judges 9, where the trees vote to have as forest king the tree known botanically as Ziziphus spina-christi), it is generally a case of plants being used in a metaphorical fashion, instead of being referred to directly. Another reason, Hall (2011) states, is the fact that Christian scholars and philosophers (such as St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas) adopted Aristotle’s view on plants, which was one of them ranking below both humans and animals, and made by God to benefit man (and thus enables humans to avoid moral dilemmas when it comes to utilising plants). This Aristotelean viewpoint (at best zoocentric and at worst anthropocentric) will be discussed in more depth later on in another post.
Before touching upon the specific tree species referred to within the Bible, it is important to recognise the four trees of greatest importance: (1) the Tree of Life (Genesis 2:9); (2) the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:9); (3) the tree upon which Jesus died, and (for a second time); (4) the Tree of Life (Revelations 22:2) (Beattie & Stenhouse, 2007; Evans, 2014; Musselman, 2007). The second tree mentioned, the tree of knowledge of good and evil, has traditionally been considered an apple (Malus sp. – ‘Malus’ in the sense of it meaning ‘evil’), though some texts also refer to it as a fig (Ficus sp.), date (Phoenix dactylifera), apricot (Prunus armeniaca), pomegranate (Punica granatum) or even a tree without a species identification (Altman, 2000; Hamilton, 2002; Musselman, 2007; Western, 1961). The Tree of Life (from Genesis), on the other hand, whilst not necessarily a particular species (though potentially a yew – Taxus baccata – or cedar of Lebanon – Cedrus libani), is likened to the imago mundi when it is compared to Jesus in the popular German Christian poem ‘Der Traume des Baume‘, and because of its location close to a primeval water source within the Garden of Eden it may also be the axis mundi (Altman, 2000; Cusack, 2011; Hageneder, 2000). In fact, even the crucifixion of Christ is incredibly similar to how Óðinn hangs himself upon Yggdrasil, the Nordic axis mundi (and also imago mundi – supporting the Nine Worlds), to obtain the runes that are of immense benefit to the Nordic people. On this note, the potential exchangeability of the cross for the tree (and vice versa) is thus not at all far-fetched, within the Christian faith (de Cleene & Lejeune, 1999).
Delving into some of the tree species of the Bible (Old Testament and New Testament, with the Old Testament having importance not only for Christians but also Jews – therefore, some of the below also has importance to the Jewish religion), and progressing alphabetically, one can start with the acacia (Acacia spp.). Musselman (2007) writes that the tabernacle, which was a portable place of worship that the Children of Israel took with them across the wilderness, was made entirely of acacia (likely to be made from the wood of Acacia albida). There is also suggestion of Noah’s Ark being made from acacia wood, though the prevailing consensus is that the Ark was made from the wood of the cypress (Cupressus sp.) (de Cleene & Lejeune, 1999; Western, 1961). Furthermore, the acacia was what Christ’s crown of thorns was made from, and is also a symbol of immortality (de Cleene & Lejeune, 1999).
The almond (Prunus dulcis) is also mentioned in the Bible, though only six times and exclusively within the Old Testament (Musselman, 2007). The most iconic of the references to the almond would be Aaron’s rod, which was presented, by Moses, along with eleven other species of tree branch (given by the Houses of the Israelites), to God. Moses placed the twelve branches in the ground, and come the following morning Aaron’s rod, the almond branch had budded, flowered, and already set fruit, of which all the almonds had ripened (de Cleene & Lejeune, 1999; Musselman, 2007; Wood, 1942). Mentioned even less than the almond, and in fact only once, is the carob (Ceratonia siliqua). Its reference is not even directly in relation to humans, but instead pigs, with the fruits being used as fodder for fattening pigs (Musselman, 2007). Even today, the carob may indeed be used to fatten pigs, prior to slaughter (Guarrera et al., 2006).
The highly impressive and ever-popular cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani), unsurprisingly, also features within the Bible. In the geographical region in which the Bible refers to, the cedar of Lebanon was the tallest tree, and was therefore revered within the passages of the Bible where it was referred to as a mighty king, and held a very high status amongst Semitic cultures (de Cleene & Lejeune, 1999; Musselman, 2007). For this reason, its timber was also used to construct the palaces of kings, and was the timber used to build the Temple of Solomon (Anderson, 1908; Evans, 2014; Liphschitz & Biger, 1992; Meiggs, 1982), and was sourced from the southern region of Tyre (which was geographically the most local source), under decree from the King of Tyre (Musselman, 2007), who had good relations with Solomon’s father (Meiggs, 1982).
In fact, the wood of the cedar was used not only for the roof beams, but interior walls were entirely covered with cedar wood panels (Evans, 2014). The larger of the temple doors were also made of cedar, whilst the flooring was likely made with wood of the cypress (Cupressus sermpervirens), or possibly the juniper (Juniperus spp.) (Meiggs, 1982). It is more probable that the former was used, much like its timber was used to make grand doors and statues elsewhere, because of its very high quality. For this reason, the cypress was held in very high regard – on the level of the cedar of Lebanon, and oak (Quercus spp.) (Liphschitz & Biger, 1989; Musselman, 2007), and this might explain why the cypress features in some engravings alongside the crucifix (Bintley, 2011). The wood of the olive (Olea spp.) was also utilised in the construction of the temple, either for internal doors, for door frames, or for intricate carvings within the temple itself (Meiggs, 1982); upon which palm trees (Phoenix dactylifera) would, amongst other objects, have been carved, in order to remind those present of the Garden of Eden (Altman, 2000; Evans, 2014).
The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera), which was mentioned both earlier as being one of the candidates for the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and directly above in the design of the Temple of Solomon, also therefore features within biblical texts. It is, beyond what is mentioned prior, attributed to human morphology, given its wholly upright growing habit (Musselman, 2007). Foliage of the palm was also taken by visitors who went to greet Jesus in Jerusalem, on the day of Passover (John 12: 12-13) (Altman, 2000). More fundamentally, this tree provided sugar-rich and mineral-rich fruit, even in the desert-like areas of that region (Berry et al., 2011; Jubrael et al., 2005). The fruit of the date palm may even have been made into a sweet syrup or honey (Evans, 2014). The timber, Evans (2014) states, may also have been used for construction, and its foliage for roofing, during the biblical times. However, the date palm was not a tree that was to be felled when a city or land area was claimed following on from war, because of its valuable fruit crop, as referred to in Deuteronomy 20:19-20 (Evans, 2014; Hall, 2011). This further signifies its importance, in Biblical times.
Fig trees are also mentioned within the Bible, and the species Ficus carica and Ficus sycomorus are perhaps the fig trees referred to when references do arise, because of their commonality in the region (Musselman, 2007; Western, 1961; Włodarczyk, 2007). Curiously, the fig is the only tree that Jesus ever placed a curse upon (that withered and died within hours), as mentioned in Mark 11:20-21. The reason behind this may have been because the fig, whilst spectacular in full leaf, did not bear fruit, though this may have been because it was too early in the season when Jesus was drawn to it. Evans (2014) remarks, with some hilarity, that the fig’s location of Bethphage, literally translates to “the place of unripe figs”, so perhaps the fig was unjustly cursed in this regard.
Beyond the curse, leaves of the fig tree were used by Adam and Eve to cover themselves when they realise that they were naked, within the Garden of Eden (Musselman, 2007). The fruits, without doubt, were also well-received, and thus harvested in abundance and enjoyed by the populaces (either fresh or dried) (Evans, 2014; Moldenke, 1954), though there is also reference in the Bible to a poultice of the fruit being used to treat boils (Musselman, 2007). In the case of the Barren Fig of the Bible, however, it is evident that the fig is only cared for because of its material value to humans. After not producing fruit for three years, the tree’s owner requests for the workers to cut it down, for it has no use and takes up space on the ground (Hall, 2011). One can draw a similar conclusion from how Jesus dealt with the fig tree he placed a curse upon, solely because it was of no material value to him at the time of his visit to the tree.
Moving on, at the birth of Jesus, the Bible, in Matthew 2:11, refers to the offering of frankincense and myrrh by the visiting Magi. Such products would have likely originated from trees located in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, with the frankincense being sourced from the resin of species of the genus Boswellia (Musselman, 2007; Włodarczyk, 2007), and the myrrh sourced from the resin of the small tree (or, more accurately, large shrub) Cammiphora myrrha (Evans, 2014). These resins would therefore have reached Jesus’ birthplace through a trade route, and because of their desirable aroma they would also have been sourced in greater abundance for wider use (Musselman, 2007). Another product, ebony wood (sourced from the heartwood of the tree Dalbergia melanoxylon), would have probably also come along such trade routes, having too had its origins within Africa. The wood was highly valued in Biblical times, and is mentioned within Ezekiel 27:15 as a very important trade commodity (Musselman, 2007), which was oft used to make furniture (Meiggs, 1982).
Much like the cedar of Lebanon, which was held in great esteem in biblical texts, the oak (namely Quercus calliprinos and Quercus ithaburensis) is viewed in a similar light (Musselman, 2007). In the Old Testament, the oak is considered to be a mighty and strong tree with marked commemorative importance (Evans, 2014; Musselman, 2007). In fact, many important events took place under the oak, such as Abraham constructing an altar by an oak in Moreh (Wright, 1921). The oak is also referenced to, within Ezekiel 27:6, as a suitable timber for making oars, and therefore it can also be recognised that the oak had practical value as well as intrinsic value. Beyond the genus itself, species it hosted were also of use in biblical times, with a particular example being a coccoid scale (suspected to be Kermes echinatus) that produced a scarlet dye, when harvested from the Kermes oak (Quercus calliprinos). In fact, such a dye is referenced to in Exodus, Leviticus, and Samuel, and has uses both in the secular (dying garments) and ritual (cleansing lepers) sense (Amar et al., 2005).
The olive (Olea europaea var. oleaster) is also regarded as a very important tree within the Bible, and is mentioned a total of 25 times as a tree, and a further 160 for the oil its crop produces (Musselman, 2007). Curiously, there is no explicit mention within the texts of the olive ever being consumed by man (albeit the oil was) (Kaniewski et al., 2012), though the tree nonetheless had almost divine associations – this may explain why olive oil constituted part of the anointing oil used by the high priests, in Exodus 30:24. Olive oil did however have an array of other uses, including as lighting oil, as soap, as an ointment for the skin, and as a preservative for wooden shields clad with leather (Musselman, 2007; Train, 2004). The branches of the olive tree were also seen as symbols of peace and hope (Evans, 2014; Gruchy, 2007; Train, 2004), and the tree itself was valued as an amenity tree in the landscape setting (Musselman, 2007) and even compared, by Jeremiah, to the prosperous Israel (Kaniewski et al., 2012). As mentioned earlier in this section, the wood of the olive was also used in the construction of the Temple of Solomon.
Remaining with fruit trees, the pistachio (Pistacia vera) is a further species mentioned within the Bible – though only once. This reference is within Genesis 43:11, where the nuts from the pistachio tree were included, amongst other items, in a gift parcel dispatched to the leader of Egypt, from Canaan, which was carried by Joseph’s brothers (Moldenke, 1954; Musselman, 2007). Other species of the genus Pistacia (Pistacia atlantica, Pistacia lentiscus, and Pistacia palestina) also feature within the Bible, and were, because of their great size, used as landmarks; as were they used in memorialising the dead (Musselman, 2007), and for burying (beneath the tree) artefacts – and perhaps also memories – relating to foreign gods (Evans, 2014; Musselman, 2007). Cheshire (2003) even suggests that the root of hospitality and caring within the Christian (and Jewish) stems back to when Abraham set up camp amongst the terebinths (pistacias) in Mamre, as stated within Genesis.
Within Genesis, there is also reference to the plane tree (Platanus orientalis) as fodder for sheep (Evans, 2014), as is there reference in Ezekiel where the king of Egypt is compared to a tree, though a tree that outshone any literal tree in the geographical region. Within this comparison, the tree that represents (figuratively) the king of Egypt has greater importance than a cedar of Lebanon, better branches that a cypress, and larger boughs than those found on a plane tree (Musselman, 2007). From this, one can certainly infer that the king of Egypt was seen in the highest of regards, and that the plane was recognised as possessing massive boughs in biblical times.
A further very important tree, mentioned a total of 17 times in the Bible, is the pomegranate (Punica granatum). Like the olive’s oil was used by the high priests, the pomegranate was found upon their garments, and upon the Temple of Solomon’s two entrance pillars were carved 200 pomegranates (Musselman, 2007). Furthermore, the Song of Solomon refers to the pomegranate as being a fruit of distinct beauty (Evans, 2014). The tree is also regarded as one that brings fertility, abundance, and good fortunes (Duman et al., 2009; Jurenka, 2008).
Less majestic in terms of its fruit but nonetheless a great physical presence, the poplar (specifically Populus alba and Populus euphratica) is yet another tree genus featured within the texts of the Bible. The poplar is referred to within Genesis, in which its branches are used, alongside those of almond and plane, for the increased desired fecundity of Jacob’s sheep, in a form of genetic experiment to change the physical characteristics of the flock from that of Laban’s (Evans, 2014; Musselman, 2007). The Euphrates poplar was also used by exiles within Babylon to hang their harps (upon the trees’ branches). A common mistake is that one assumed these harps were hung upon weeping willows, though a translation error led to such misinterpretations of the text. As a result, the weeping willow, which was not even found in the region, adopted its inaccurate scientific name Salix babylonica (Launer, 2005; Musselman, 2007). In fact, within Babylon, the Euphrates poplar was also seen to symbolise the deep-rooted power of the empire (Launer, 2005).
The leafless tamarisk (Tamarix aphylla), with a native range that includes the Dead Sea region, features twice (explicitly) within the Bible. The first mention is within Genesis 21, where Abraham, in order to worship the Lord and establish a direct connection between man and God, planted a tamarisk in Beersheba (Evans, 2014; Musselman, 2007; Schoors, 1990). The motives behind the planting of a tree in place of an altar is perhaps intriguing, given that Abraham had previously constructed an altar in Shechem, in order to establish a link with God. The rationale behind using a tree, let alone a tamarisk, is not explicitly explained, though it may perhaps have been to make the place of worship less overt in the landscape (Kwakkel, 2010).
The second reference to the tamarisk is within I Samuel 22, where Saul held court beneath the tree’s canopy atop a hill in Gibeah. A court being held beneath a tamarisk is probably because of its evident presence upon the barren landscape of the Dead Sea region, so the tree was at least revered on a local geographical scale. It also appears that Saul was, upon his death, buried underneath a tamarisk (Musselman, 2007), which gives it further importance. In addition, Meiggs (1982) alleges that, in accordance with the translation of historical texts by certain individuals, the tamarisk was also used in the construction and decoration of the Temple of Solomon, as was it used in the construction of storage facilities in Beersheba, which is incidentally the same city as where Abraham planted a tamarisk.
The walnut (Juglans regia) and the willow (Salix acmophylla and Salix alba) are the last two tree genera to feature within the Bible. The former, the walnut, is referred to only once, in Song of Songs 6:11, where it is a symbol of fertility (Musselman, 2007). The latter, the willow, is mentioned a few times, though generally in relation only to its presence along watercourses and for its large size, under which individuals could shelter from the sun (Evans, 2014; Launer, 2005; Musselman, 2007).
Away from trees mentioned within the Bible, a particularly sacred tree for the Christians is located upon Wearyall Hill, Glastonbury, UK. This tree, a common hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna ‘Biflora’) that flowers twice per year (in Spring and around the time of Christmas), supposedly grew as a result of Joseph of Arimathea (who came to England, in order to spread the word of Christianity) thrusting his staff, brought to the UK from the Holy Lands, into the ground upon the Hill (Bowman, 2004; Brown, 1946; Cusack, 2011). The spot in which Joseph thrust his staff is meant to therefore be the place where the Christian Church started, in England (Hollow, 1971). Curiously, de Cleene & Lejeune (1999) suggest that thorny trees repelled demons and the devil by virtue of their thorns, and thus this might potentially be an explanation as to why this tree was a hawthorn.
Particularly during the Middle Ages, the site was a very popular pilgrimage spot, though became out-of-favour during the Protestant Reformation and was cut down by English parliamentary soldiers during the Civil War of the 1640s and 1650s (Cusack, 2011; Walsham, 2004). From then on, further specimens of the tree have been grown from cuttings taken from that original tree, and as of 1929, each December, the history of this tree is celebrated in the Holy Thorn Ceremony (Bowman, 2004; Bowman, 2006). In recent years, the tree has suffered from many instances of vandalism, and cuttings are therefore still taken and propagated from the tree in an attempt to continue its existence (Cusack, 2011).
Augustine’s Oak, whilst not a sacred tree per se, is also a tree that is important to Christians. Under this oak did the Roman missionary Augustine meet with Christian leaders from across Wales and England, in an attempt to convert the British Saxons of the time away from their heathen faith and towards the Christian god (Cusack, 2011; Higham, 1997). Unfortunately, these leaders did not accept Augustine’s request for a combined approach towards the evangelisation of the faith, though the meeting under such a grand oak tree nonetheless outlines the importance trees held as landscape features fit for critical religious and political discourse.
The followers of Christianity have also been responsible for the loss of sacred trees, and most notably those of competing religions (Hamilton, 2002). For example, St. Martin, the Bishop of Tours, during the 14th century, cut down the sacred tree (a pine) within a heathen temple. Similarly, St. Boniface, between 722-724 A.D., during efforts to convert Germanic tribes who practiced Paganism, felled a large and very sacred oak tree (Donar’s Oak), which was considered to be of great importance to the tribe (Hooke, 2012). Christianity has also assumed (‘Christianised’) select sacred trees of other religions (Bintley, 2015; Kizos, 2014), and notably those of pagan significance (Altman, 2000; Bintley & Shapland, 2013; Cusack, 2013; Hamilton, 2002). Generally speaking, these assumed trees would then not have been celebrated (Haberman, 2013), and instead a saint or prophet might have replaced the worship of the tree or sacred grove (Dafni, 2007b; de Cleene & Lejeune, 1999; Ellen, 2016; Ormsby, 2013), though some trees may have retained their spiritual (and also practical) value – even if within the grounds of a church (Cusack, 2011; Kizos, 2014).
It was usually only when the Christian sites were destroyed, however, that these once sacred places regained their natural sanctity (Cusack, 2011; Valk, 2009); or, in rebellion to Christianity, new pagan religions arose that created new sacred groves as worship sites (Jonuks, 2007). At times, Christians were even barred from the sacred sites of other religions, to so safeguard the sites from ‘pollution’ (Vaitkevičius, 2009). In certain instances, Christians would also celebrate Mass in forests seen as sacred by other religions and cultures, in an attempt to demonstrate the superiority of their god (Juhé-Beaulaton & Roussel 2003). Non-sacred forests utilised by other American and European cultures, upon the arrival of the Christians, would also be partially or fully cleared, both for agricultural (including pasturing) purposes, and because the clearance was associated with taming the feral and disordered land of the heathens that previously owned and frequented it (Bieling & Plieninger, 2003). Curiously, changing outlooks within Christianity have even led to sacred trees of the religion being targeted, such as how the The Holy Thorn of Glastonbury (as detailed above) was initially, alongside the natural world (on a broader scale), “desacralised”, following the Reformation, in the UK (Walsham, 2004).
Beyond the destruction and adoption of trees that were considered sacred to other religions and cultures, it is possible that Asherah, the fertility goddess that featured within the Hebrew Bible, and potentially therefore the Old Testament, was removed from biblical texts (Hooke, 2012). Asherah was oft depicted as a sacred tree (or pole) by the Canaanites (and was worshipped by some of the Ancient Semitic religions from the Levant) (Dever, 1984; Stuckey, 2005), and such trees and poles would reside within their sacred grounds atop mountains and in other high places (Lechler, 1937; Na’aman & Lissovsky, 2008). There are also suggestions that Asherah was, in fact, a tree – a tree that was planted alongside a sacred altar to God (Hadley, 2000); at times, there may have been sacred groves of these trees (Pearce, 1982; von Feldt, 2014). Such sacred groves are, in fact, largely alien to the Christian faith (Dafni, 2006; Dafni, 2007a; Decher, 1997), given that their connotations with the heathens (the Celtic druids, largely) (Hamilton, 2002; Swamy et al., 2003) lead to their destruction and spiritual abandonment (Bhagwat & Rutte, 2006; Cusack, 2011; Gadgil, 1993), and this process has continued through to the present time (Ormsby, 2011). Because Asherah had pagan origins, and the fertility associations were problematic (in part because of the poles were acting as gathering points for ‘sacred prostitutes’, and because fertility cults of Asherah would frequent the houses of prostitutes), this goddess may therefore have been removed from biblical literature (Ardakani et al., 2015; Dever, 1984; Ramshaw, 1989).
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