Trees and religion: Worldwide indigenous religions

See Part VII of this series here.

Beyond European Paganism (which was covered recently here), there exist, as detailed by Hall (2011), many other indigenous animistic religions that share similar outlooks on trees, across the entire world. Much like with Paganism however, there is distinct variation between cultures within specific geographical regions, thereby meaning that specific tribes or peoples will hold differing views upon trees when compared to other tribes or peoples, in spite of both potentially even being from the same indigenous religion.


For example, Australian Aborigines view all autonomous life (‘Dreaming beings’) as coming from the earth (which is in itself, alive), and therefore all life shares identical ancestry or ontology (complete with their spirit ancestors) (Clarke, 2011). This means, for the Aborigines, that life is a series of heterarchical relationships, in place of a hierarchical system found in monotheistic religions. Trees are certainly within this belief framework, and are subsequently – alongside all other Dreaming beings – the kin of humans. Such an ancestral affinity with trees manifests itself in the religious mythology associated with certain Aboriginal peoples, with one such example being that of the Adnyamathanha of Southern Australia. In this tale, a man and woman, upon being startled by something in the wilderness, morphed into the wild orange (Capparis mitchellii). Tales from the Gunwinggu tribe echo such a metamorphosis, in which humans are also transformed into trees. For instance, a couple, upon leaving their camp after a quarrel with their families, turned into pandanus trees (Pandanus spp.). Similarly, whilst not associated directly with trees, an old man from South Goulburn Island was so immobile that he turned into a yam (Dioscorea spp.) (Hall, 2011).

The wild orange (or ‘native orange’). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

At a slight tangent, for the Yanyuwa people of Northern Australia, the spirit ancestor Tiger Shark scattered seeds of the cycad palm (including Cycas angulata) across their lands, again outlining a spiritual affinity between man and trees (David et al., 2006; Hall, 2011). In fact, the Yanyuwa people will assign a particular plant for each tribe (or clan), and such a plant signifies the clan’s ancestry (or kinship with nature) and thus becomes their totem. This ‘sacred’ plant, specific to each individual clan, is then not consumed by the clan, and in instead nurtured and allowed to flourish as a species (Spencer & Gillen, 1899). A notable example of this ancestral plant heritage is between the kurrajong tree (Brachychiton paradoxus) and the Yarralin clan, which sees the tree adopt a maternal position within the spiritual aspects of the clan’s existence. Peoples of the Yarralin also have connections to trees on the masculine level however, by where the birth of a son is mirrored with the birth of a tree, which signals the continuation of the patrilline (Rose, 1992). The Wuyaliya clan in Yanyuwa country also consider themselves to have descended from a tree: the grey mangrove (Avicennia marina). All such accounts detailed outline the close link between man and trees, and – on the broader scale – plant life. However, in spite of such a close bond, it is still accepted that trees must be used for the benefit of man, though in a respectful manner that means, if a tree is harvested for its materials, it is not unnecessarily killed (Hall, 2011).

Nearby in New Zealand, the religion of the Māori peoples can also be detailed in a similar vein, with regards to the kinship or ancestry (whakapapa) of man and plants. Notably, in the Māori creation tale, where a tree was said to have existed within the void of the coming cosmos (which was created from the energy of its ripening buds), Ranginui (the Sky Father) and Papatūānuku (the Earth Mother) had an abundance of children, which were the progenitors of most – if not all – things of the earth, including plants, humans, rocks, and the seas (Altman, 2000; Hall, 2011). In this sense, the Māori religion teaches that man operates within the bounds of nature; of which all belongs to the earth, and not man. Specifically, the god of the forests, known as Tāne, created all trees (which initially resembled humans, though later turned into actual trees – this relates to the kinship between man and trees), and therefore sacred groves for the Māori were dedicated to Tāne; of which the kauri (Agathis australis) would be particularly sacred (Altman, 2000). Within these groves, and perhaps beyond, the bones of the dead would be buried within tree hollows, so that the spirit of the deceased could occupy (haunt) the tree, which would then become sacred (Altman, 2000; Clark, 1896; Taylor, 1870).

This enormous Kauri tree is the embodiment of the forest god and is dubbed ‘Tane Mahuta’. Source: Foot Prints Waipoua.

North America

On the other side of the world, the religions of the indigenous peoples of North America are also worthy of note. In Alaska, for instance, the Koyukon people consider animals and plants to have formed from humans after a global flood, in the distant past. For the Koyukon, the god Raven was responsible for much a metamorphosis. Geographically nearby, the Tlingit people considered Raven to have formed people from leaves, again signifying the mortal kinship man has with the tree (Hall, 2011; Kan, 2016). This birth from trees can also be found in Tsimshian mythology, where it is understood that man was born from the elder (Sambucus spp.) (Hall, 2011). For the Koyukon, certain plants and trees were also seen to be possessed by spirits; albeit ‘lesser’ spirits, when compared to those of animals and humans, with humans actually possessing souls that are immortal. For trees, there is also the belief that they are aware of their surroundings, and thus a forest is rife with communication between the individual trees. Such a belief may indeed contribute to the Koyukon stance of yielding to nature and acting in a moral manner, in place of seeking to abuse and dominate nature for gain (Kuwabong, 2004; Looker, 2013).

Further inland in North America, the Ojibwa, who occupied what is generally now considered to be Canada, saw trees (and other parts of the natural world) as possessing personhood. Granted, such personhood does not equate them to humans, but instead means that they have a desire to continue living, and thus this desire must be respected through responsible interaction with nature (Haberman, 2013; Hall, 2011). Additionally, the Ojibwa had a close connection with the cedar (perhaps the Juniperus virginiana, Thuja occidentalis, or Thuja plicata), which was their axis mundi. Such an association meant that the cedar features on the ritual drums of many Ojibwa shamans, as it was believed that this would help channel the spirits (Pratt, 2007). Within Canada, the Nuxálk people also saw trees and having personhood, and in fact considered trees and humans to once have been able to communicate. In the present day, whilst humans have lost this ability to directly speak to trees (instead communication must come via prayer), the Nuxálk still view trees as being able to understand human speech and, in their own way (including through dreams), still communicate with humans (Hall, 2011).

The Oglála, who were one of the seven tribes of the Lakȟóta people, provide a further example of kinship between man and tree within the indigenous cultures of North America. Through the Sacred Hoop, all persons (possessing sentience) are connected, and these persons constitute the archetypal living organisms (humans, plants, animals, fungi, etc) and also the non-living aspects of nature (including the earth, sun, and sky – known as Wakan). For the Oglála, it is the Wakan that occupy the highest position within their world view, followed by non-human organisms. Therefore, humans actually rank last, and this is because humans are the least connected to the world around them – plants and animals hold a far more intricate relationship with the earth, sky, and sun, when compared to humans, who rely wholly on non-human persons for existence (Hall, 2011). Subsequently, the Oglála consider it mandatory to harmonise with the natural world, and thus their relationship with trees is one of co-existence.

Akin to many other indigenous religions, the Oglála will also use trees within sacred rituals associated, including those associated with death, protection, and gaining knowledge (Powers, 1975). The cottonwood (presumably Populus deltoides) was a notably important tree for the Oglála, for it was hunted, harvested, and then used as the centre point for the prayer ritual known as the (rather macabre) Sun Dance, which took place on the full moon during June or July (Cain, 2007; Powers, 1986; Steinmetz, 1990). In this respect, the cottonwood can be likened to the axis mundi, for it was considered the centre of the universe during the ritual (Brown, 1989). The cottonwood was also said to, in even the lightest of wind, be heard saying prayer to the Great Spirit (Langenberg, 2013). This association perhaps gives credence to its religious importance, for the Oglála, given that all beings are to pray to the Great Spirit.

A cottonwood selectively chosen for the Sun Dance. Source: Slate.

People from the tribes of the Iroquois, a further indigenous culture found in North America, the tree was also the axis mundi. Considered to have been either the balsam fir (Abies balsamea), the pine (Pinus spp. – potentially synonymous with the balsam fir) or the elm (Ulmus americana), this cosmic tree was located within the ‘sky dome‘ (akin to the firmament) and found at the centre of the world (Altman, 2000; Herrick, 1995). The tree’s roots penetrated into the shell of the Great Turtle, upon whose back the earth was supported, and its branches held up the sun and moon (Romain, 2009). This Great Turtle emerged from the primeval waters after being brought up by the Earth Diver toad (Werness, 2004), which again demonstrates the link between the axis mundi and primeval waters.


In the Mayan culture of Mesoamerica, which dates back to at least 2000 B.C., trees were certainly well-regarded – the ceiba (including Ceiba pentandra and Ceiba aesculifolia), in particular. The ceiba provided the Mayans with an array of products, including: (1) the wood that was harvested to construct canoes; (2) the fruit pods, when young, that could be consumed, and promoted weight gain; (3) the mature fruit pods, which contained a silk-like substance that could be spun into cloth; (4) the seeds, within the fruit pods, which could be used, after being boiled, for the oil they produced for both cooking and lighting; (5) the bark, which had medicinal values in treating ulcerations, haemorrhoids (piles), and gonorrhoea, and could help expel placentas; (6) the leaves that could be used to treat rashes, swellings, and burns, and; (7) the roots, which were utilised as a diuretic (Anderson, 2003; Leonti et al., 2003; Stuart, 1988; Zidar & Elisens, 2009). In drier regions, the ceiba was also found in locations where there was an underground (but near-surface) water supply, and therefore its presence could also aid with locating water sources. When ceibas were found in such locations, settlements were usually built around the ceibas, thereby meaning the ceibas occupied the centre point of the settlement (Anderson, 2003). This trend of ceibas being central, within the main plaza, still continues to this day (Christenson, 1997; Lara-Alecio et al., 2001).

A huge ceiba in Puerto Rico known as ‘La Gran Ceiba de Vieques‘. Source: Parque la Ceiba de Vieques.

For these reasons, the ceiba became sacred by 300-900 A.D., and was known by the Mayans as the ‘yaxché‘ (‘the first blue-green tree‘) – ‘blue-green‘, which translates from the Mayan word ‘yax‘, was the most important colour of the Mayans, and therefore it is of little surprise why the ceiba was known as the yaxché. For the Mayans, the tree therefore possessed many character traits, which had spiritual and iconic associations. For instance, ceibas, and particularly large ones, symbolised great power (political and religious, in particular), and therefore possessed a very distinct masculine energy. However, simultaneously, the ceibas had a maternal (feminine) aspect, because some Mayan tribes considered themselves descendants of the ceiba. Moreover, the ceiba was considered to be the tree that cared for deceased children, by providing them with milk from its fruits, which had similarities with female breasts (Altman, 2000; Anderson, 2003). The soul, known in the Mayan language as ‘sak nik’ nal‘, which translates to ‘white flower thing‘, relates to the ceiba’s flower, and is therefore another more feminine side that the ceiba possesses, within Mayan culture (Christenson, 1997). It was believed that, prior to birth, a human soul was borne upon the ceiba. More primordially, prior to the birth of the world, the Tz’utujil people (who were part of the Mayan civilisation) believed that there existed only a tree (god), from which all life sprang, after the tree became pregnant with potential life and set flower and – subsequently – fruit (Haberman, 2013).

Means of worship to the tree included the construction of ‘tree stones’ (known as steale), which represented the Mayan ‘world tree’, where central to four Bacabs that held up the sky from the four corners of the world, a ceiba tree (the axis mundi) was found (Mathews & Garbler, 2004). This ceiba’s branches supported the heavens (where human souls were borne), its trunk supported the terrestrial world, whilst its roots stretched down into Xibalba (the underworld) (Altman, 2000; Christenson, 1997; Haberman, 2013; Lara-Alecio et al., 2001; Nakabeppu, 2014; Zidar & Elisens, 2009). In some instances, a wooden cross, coloured blue-green, was also worshipped, as this blue-green cross represented the ceiba (yaxché). Interestingly, once the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s, the green cross’ similarities to the Catholic crucifix enabled for the easier conversion of Mayans to Catholicism (Anderson, 2003). For this reason, ceibas can oft be found situated with churchyards. The spined trunks of ceibas also featured upon burial urns and incense burners, which were constructed by the Mayans. The flower of the ceiba also frequented Mayan ceramics (Zidar & Elisens, 2009).

The ceiba cross. Source: Travelblog.

Similar to the Mayans, the Aztecs, during their 13th to 16th century existence, also held the ceiba in high regard. Known locally as ‘pochotl‘, the ceiba had strong associations with travelling Aztec traders (known as ‘pochteca‘), who journeyed across middle America to buy and sell goods. The linguistic similarities between the name for the ceiba tree and the traders is not surprising, as ceibas were found along most trade routes and in most trading centres: rivers (along the banks), roadways (adjacent to the highways, where tall ceibas would also act as landmarks), and marketplaces (where they would provide shade for the traders and public) (Anderson, 2003).

Another similarity, in the linguistic sense, is between the ceiba (‘pochotl‘) and the demi-god Pochuta. This demi-god, who was depicted as being rather bulky or “corpulent”, was responsible for leading people away, to safety, from the dangers of the gods of hurricanes and earthquakes, and therefore the ceiba may also have connections to being a protector of people (Anderson, 2003). Aztec shamans would also conduct their ceremonies and rituals under the shade of the ceiba tree. Akin to the Mayan axis mundi, the ceiba was likely to also have been the Aztec axis mundi. This central tree of their religion – the Tree of the Centre – supported the cosmos, and was connected to the kingdom of the fire deity Xiuhtecuhtli and also with the rain deity Tlaloc. The four other trees surrounding this core tree, found at all four corners of the world, further aided with the organisation of the cosmos (Altman, 2000). The deities Quetzalcoatl and Macuiltochtli also held associations with the axis mundi.

Both Mayans and Aztecs, as well as other Mesoamerican civilisations that existed prior to the 16th century, also had strong links with the Panamanian rubber tree (Castilla elastica). In order to make rubber (for producing bouncing rubber balls to be used in ceremonial games, hollow figurines, and other objects), these civilisations, as early as 2000 B.C., mixed latex harvested from the tree with juice of the morning glory vine (Ipomoea alba). Prior to this (and of course, after), latex would have been used as-harvested from the Panamanian rubber tree, for its adhesive properties (Backhaus, 1998; Hosler et al., 1999; Tarkanian & Hosler, 2011). The Aztecs also combined liquid from the bark of Castilla elastica with cacao (chocolate), as they considered it to be a drink that could cure infections (Dillinger et al., 2000). The copal tree (Protium copal, and more largely the genus Bursera) was also utilised by the Aztecs, as well as the Mayans and other Mesoamerican civilisations, for its resin. This resin could be used during ceremonies where it was burned as an incense, or alternatively used to make objects, such as knife handles and religious figurines (Lucero-Gómez et al., 2014; Vandenabeele et al., 2003).

Latex from the rubber tree. Source: La Selva.

South America

Further down towards and into South America, the indigenous Mapuche Pewenche people of Chile and Argentina hold the monkey puzzle (Araucaria araucana) as sacred, as a consequence of their sky deity being associated with the tree (Altman, 2000) and the tree providing them with protection (Redden, 2013) – notably women and children (Altman, 2000). Their view of the monkey puzzle as sacred is, in fact, so significant that their name literally translates to ‘people of the monkey puzzle tree‘ (Asselin, 2015). Subsequently, the tree is actively conserved by the Mapuche Pewenche, who hold a very detailed understanding of the ecology of the monkey puzzle.

A duo of monkey puzzles in the Patagonian mountains. Source: Land of Winds.

With regards to tree spirits, the Calchaquí people worshipped the spirits of local trees, whilst the Shipibo-Conibo people saw each individual tree as possessing a spirit. Therefore, if a tree was felled by human activity, it was seen as an offence against the tree spirit. Particular indigenous religions of South America also detail how man and woman were born from trees, thereby drawing in trees – and tree products – into creation myths. For example, the tribes of Guyana believe that, following a great flood, the last two human survivors (one man and one woman) re-populated the earth by throwing fruits of the moriche palm (Mauritia flexuosa) over their shoulders. Upon these fruits striking the ground, those thrown by the man became men, and those thrown by the woman became women (Altman, 2000).


Across Africa, indigenous religions can also be observed to associate quite intricately with trees. For instance, tribes throughout modern day Burkina Faso would have worshipped their gods within sacred groves 90-120 trees strong, which were comprised of the species known as the African teak (Milicia excelsa), bark cloth tree (Antiaris toxicaria), and silk cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra) (Altman, 2000). More expansively, remnants of once much greater forests in Burkina Faso were – and still are – considered sacred, perhaps in part because of their evident fragility in the wake of deforestation practices (Dudley et al., 2010).

A similar phenomenon was be observed in Ghana, where over 1,900 sacred groves and forest patches exist, and are sacred because of their cultural importance – in these locations, deities are revered and the dead are buried (Ormsby, 2012). Tribes in the region that is Kenya also considered forests sacred, and notably those found upon Mount Kenya, which was itself seen to be the abode of their deities. In these sacred forests, prayer and other religious rituals (such as sacrifice) would have been undertaken (Nyangila, 2012), to bring good fortunes and good health to the worshippers and their tribes. In arid desert regions of Africa, sacred trees may even have been those that provided shade for humans and their livestock – as was the case with the Nuer people. For the Nuer, the shade is in fact understood as the manifestation of a spirit being, and particularly so if the tree casting the shade was grown from a cutting taken from a sacred tree (Altman, 2000). The Gaanwar clan of the Nuer people also saw themselves as descending from heaven through the grey-leaved saucer berry (Cordia sinensis), which sat close by to a tamarind (Tamarindus indica).


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Trees and religion: Worldwide indigenous religions

2 thoughts on “Trees and religion: Worldwide indigenous religions

  1. Sergio says:

    Congratulations to all those who write this amaizing document. I am doing a cacao tree research do in México this tree are considering a holy tree and their fruits a Gods food.

    Regards from Colima, México


  2. I think it is important that you not refer to cultures and peoples in past tense, as if they are extinct or the belief and related activities are no longer practice or regarded. Particularly with the Oglala, this is untrue, with their continued regard and use of the cottonwood. It is called Ceremony, in English, by the People. Using their terms and descriptions for their practices is a sign of respect, not only academic knowledge of belief.


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