Trees and religion – Paganism

See Part II of this series on trees and religions here.

Re-visiting, once again, the European world, one can look back to the pre-Christian religions (including Hellenism and Paganism, the latter of which took many forms) that were common across the continent in the millennia gone by. As already established, the advent of Christianity in the first few centuries Anno Domini led to many sacred trees and groves losing their sanctity – or even losing their landscape presence – though prior to this, as is certainly incredibly clear from numerous historical sources, trees (and particularly certain species) were of marked importance for various European cultures (Cusack, 2011).

Celtic Paganism

Beginning with Celtic Paganism, which, like all forms of Paganism, is polytheistic in nature, there is an unmistakeable reverence of the natural world, and notably trees (Forest, 2014; Haberman, 2013), which were viewed as akin to persons (Hall, 2011), and could be infused with the divinity of deities (usually female, but not always) both major and minor (Cusack, 2011). As a precursor, unfortunately, because Celtic druids (one of the three ‘elite’ classes, who controlled religious and socio-political discourse and practice) did not write much down in the way of their religion and its associated customs, preferring to instead pass-on such knowledge via the spoken word, their worship of trees is told largely by the written accounts of the Romans and Christian priests and missionaries of the time (Cusack, 2011; Macculloch, 1911). Despite this, one can certainly begin to appreciate the value trees held for the Celts, and this begins with the axis mundi, of which the Celts considered a tree (likely the oak) to represent (Cusack, 2011; Forest, 2014).

It was, therefore, probably the oak tree that was the most revered of all tree species – particularly when it was being parasitised by the sacred mistletoe (Viscum album), as in such instances it would be seen as one of their deities’ chosen trees (Altman, 2000). The oak would thus be found abundantly within sacred groves frequented by the druids (used to worship deities such as Baal, who was the god of fire), where ceremonies religious in nature (including – at times very gruesome – human sacrifice), communal gatherings (for the purpose of learning and socialising), and legal discussions would be held (Altman, 2000; Cusack, 2011; de Cleene & Lejeune, 1999; Hooke, 2010; Macculloch, 1911). In fact, this is a common theme amongst all forms of Paganism, as trees usually display their sacredness through ritualistic practice. Other tree species, such as yew (Taxus baccata) were also to be found within the groves, and in many instances these groves of species including oak and yew would also be located near to a river or other water source (Cusack, 2011). Worship, in particular, would not be held indoors, but instead amongst these sacred groves (Monaghan, 2014), where no temple walls would have been built around such sacred locations that were often deep within the woodlands and away from settlements (Hageneder, 2000).

Curiously, the word druid may even translate to ‘oak men‘, as may the druids’ word for sanctuary originate from the Latin word nemus, which translates to mean ‘grove‘ (Haberman, 2013). In turn, this explains the name of the goddess of the sacred groves of the Celts: Nemetona (“goddess of the sacred grove”) (Forest, 2014). In Sanskrit, druid literally translates to ‘tree knowledge‘, where ‘dru‘ means tree and ‘wid‘ means knowledge (Hageneder, 2000). Of course, within these Celtic groves, other deities were worshipped, including Taranis (Cusack, 2011), who – much like other European thunder and storm gods (including Jupiter, Perkūnas, Perun, Thor, and Zeus – some are discussed later) – was represented by the oak tree (Forest, 2014; Gardiner, 2007). Perhaps this associations comes from the fact that lightning strikes can destroy even the strong oak (Davidson, 1988), and that oaks are perhaps more prone to lightning strikes than other European tree species (Cusack, 2011). More primordially, Altman (2000) details that the Celts considered themselves as descendants from trees, with man being of the alder (Alnus glutinosa) and women of the rowan (Sorbus aucuparia). The recognisable fertility of trees to the Celts, by virtue of their abundant fruit crops every year, also led to the onset of spring being celebrated in sacred groves. Such celebrations oft consisted of man and woman having sexual intercourse within a sacred grove, as they saw their fertility as being linked to the fertility of trees.

An oak that has been struck by lightning, within the New Forest.

In Ireland, unlike the Celtic Pagan practices of elsewhere, there do exist more written records, because the Irish Pagans had their own form of alphabet that they inscribed onto stone and wood (particularly that of the yew – Taxus baccata): ogham (Cusack, 2011; Forest, 2014; Hagender, 2000; Macculloch, 1911). In total, the alphabet had 20 characters, of which many have direct associations with a species of tree – including alder, apple, ash, birch, hawthorn, hazel, oak, willow, and yew (de Cleene & Lejeune, 1999; Forest, 2014; Hageneder, 2000). Granted, there are a few instances where the language is used in England, Scotland, and Wales, though it is generally confined to the Irish areas of Cork, Kerry, and Waterford (Cusack, 2011; MacNeill, 1908).

An ogham stone. Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Because of this, though also courtesy of sources written by Christians, there is a slightly more detailed understanding of Paganism in Ireland, up to the 8th century Anno Domini. Principally, there were five major sacred trees (known as bile, or the plural biledha) within Ireland, in the Pagan era: Bile Dathi (an ash tree), Bile Tortan (an ash tree), Craeb Uisnig (an ash tree), Eó Mugna (the Oak of Moone), and Eó Rossa (the Yew of Ross) (Cusack, 2011; de Cleene & Lejeune, 1999). These sacred trees were considered as the axis mundi of particular domains, which were ruled over by a king, after the king had been inaugurated beneath the sacred tree (Davidson, 1988; Mac Cana, 2011), and also offered protection and shelter to all those who lived within the respective domains (Hooke, 2010). Beyond the inauguration of a king, a king may also be married to the sovereignty goddess beneath a given sacred tree. In such instances, the goddess represented both the land under the king’s rule, and the quality of leadership the king would display during his rule of such land (Cusack, 2011). More broadly, sacred trees would likely have been situated next to holy wells (Altman, 2000). Certain Irish tribes also named themselves after trees, such as how the Iverni tribe were named after the yew tree (Hageneder, 2000), which represented death and immortality (Hooke, 2010).

Anglo-Saxon Paganism

Alongside Irish Paganism, Anglo-Saxon Paganism developed, and was most prevalent in the late 5th to mid-late 7th centuries Anno Domini, following the decline of Celtic Paganism at the hands of the Roman Empire in Britain, and prior to the mass Christianising of the Anglo-Saxons by 670 A.D. (Cambria, 2015; Cusack, 2011). Again, and certainly unfortunately, much like Celtic Paganism, a great majority of sources available on the stance Anglo-Saxon Pagans held with regards to trees is obtained from Christian literature or pro-Pagan authors. For this reason, and the fact that this form of Paganism did not last for a great length of time, there is sparse literature available on how trees featured within religious practice (Cusack, 2011), and instead attention is drawn to Germanic Paganism, which was the forebear of the Anglo-Saxon strain of Paganism.

However, Anglo-Saxon texts do reveal certain aspects of the Pagan religion and trees, with the Anglo-Saxon god Wōden (Óðinn, in the Norse religion that came later), who hung on the Cosmic Tree in order to try to find the answer to the riddle of death and, in doing so, identified the power of the Runes (for Anglo-Saxons, there were two runic alphabets comprising of 28 letters, of which four had tree names: ash, birch, oak, and yew), being one example (Cusack, 2011; Viladesau, 2006).

On the topic of individuals hanging upon trees, the Anglian myth of the sacrificial king known as Ingui, who married, in spring, a woman who was the manifestation of the goddess of the land, and was killed the following spring by another man and hung upon a tree, is a further reference to trees within Anglo-Saxon Paganism – in particular, the cosmic tree (Cusack, 2011). With regards to the worship of gods and goddesses within sacred groves by the Anglo-Saxons, it is understood that a grove would be a sacred site of solely one deity; as in the case of Thundersley in Essex being the place of worship for the god Thunor (Þórr), the god of the skies and son of Wōden (Cambria, 2015). Beyond the symbolism, the yew (Taxus baccata) and linden (Tilia cordata and Tilia platyphyllos) were important trees within the religion, and tribes met under these trees for festivals and for council (Hageneder, 2000).

A mature large-leaved lime (Tilia platyphyllos) at Minterne Gardens, in Hampshire, UK.

Germanic Paganism

As established above, Anglo-Saxon Paganism had its roots firmly in Germanic Paganism, the religion which the Germanic cultures that migrated to England would have largely practiced up until the end of the 7th century, when Christianity became the predominant religion. Akin to other forms of Paganism, very little was ever documented in written form by those of the faith, and instead texts detailing the religion’s relationship with trees are provided by other cultures – in this case, the Romans, and notably the senator Tacitus (Chadwick, 1900; Cusack, 2011). Two notable sacred trees for the Germanic peoples (both detailed more explicitly later) were the Donar Oak, which was used to worship Thunor, and a tree trunk (pillar monument) known as Irminsul, though by-and-large it was considered, by Tacitus, that tree groves in general were the home of the gods.

A depiction of the Donar Oak. Source: The Golden Assay.

The sacred grove of the Semnones, a Germanic tribe who belonged to the Suebi culture, is regarded by Tacitus as the most prominent of all sacred groves, and in the bounds of this grove the tribe worships their sky god who “rules over all” (suspected to be Tiwaz, otherwise known as Týr), through rituals including bloody human sacrifice (Chadwick, 1900; Cusack, 2011; Davidson, 1988; Tolley, 2013). Wood of the alder (Alnus sp.) would have perhaps been used with these sacrifices (de Cleene & Lejeune, 1999).

Those who entered the sacred grove would also, at all times, have to be bound by a chain, highlighting their inferiority over the highest god, and if individuals were to fall they were required to roll out of the grove on the floor, in place of getting up and walking out (Dunn, 2013). Tolley (2013) also suggests, as does Gummere (1892) more broadly, that the tribe viewed the sacrifice of humans within the grove as representative of man’s origins from the world tree, and therefore also recognised that trees also symbolised death.

Beyond the Semnones tribe, the Nahanarvali tribe worshipped a pair of male deities, the Alci, within a sacred grove, where worship was overseen by a transvestite priest (Dowden, 2000). There is however some disagreement about whether the Alci were gods, or instead two tree pillars, as certain researchers suggest that the word translates to wooden icon (Cusack, 2011). Regardless, trees were either the vehicle of worship, or provided the grounds in which worship would take place – or both. Other Germanic tribes paid respect to the mother goddess, Nerthus, in further sacred groves (Dowden, 2000). Again, there are human sacrifices, though far less bloody – slaves assisting in the procession to the sacred grove of Nerthus, and taking part in the subsequent rituals, are simply drowned in the lake found within (Simek, 2014). Generally, the deities worshipped by Germanic tribes within sacred groves were female, and those individuals sacrificed would either be hung in their entirety, or in part, upon a sacred tree within the grove, following death (Gummere, 1892).

The goddess Nerthus, as depicted by the artist Emil Doepler. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Donar Oak, mentioned above, which was located at Geismar (in the region of Hesse) and was used by the locals to worship the thunder god Donar (otherwise known as Thunor, and in Nordic Paganism, Þórr), before meeting its untimely end at the hands of the Christian missionary Saint Boniface, was a very important sacred tree for the Chatti tribe, who preceded the later Hessian tribe (Cusack, 2011; Rhody, 2012). At the site of the oak, human (and animal) sacrifices would be undertaken, as well as other customary rituals, and this ‘barbaric’ series of practices was one driver behind its destruction during the Christianisation of the region (Schrader, 1983). Following its felling by Saint Boniface, a church was built at the location with the wood from the Donar Oak, and the Chatti tribe were said to have immediately converted to Christianity after Donar did not strike down and kill Saint Boniface during the felling process (Cusack, 2011; Rhody, 2014). However, other nearby tribes did not convert, and Saint Boniface was met with ferocity and thus the remainder of his mission was not overly fruitful.

Curiously, in the twelve months following the felling of the oak, a sapling fir tree was noticed as growing in close proximity to where the oak stood, and Saint Boniface took this as an act of God and thus a symbol of the Christian faith (notably the Holy Trinity). From this, German Christians began to keep firs within their properties, at times upside-down, and this may indeed be one of the origins of the Christmas Tree concept (Layser, 2000). As has already been mentioned, though it is nonetheless worth noting once more, great oaks throughout the forests of Germanic Pagan territory were associated with Thunor, which is much akin to how other Pagan cultures (as detailed prior, and also after this point) viewed the oak as being a representation of their respective thunder gods (Cusack, 2011).

A modern-day incarnation of the Christmas Tree. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The second important tree for the Germanic Pagans was the pillar of Irminsul (synonymous with the Nordic Yggdrasil) in the Teutoburg Forest near the River Lippe at Eresburg (now Obermarsberg, Westphalia), which is likened to the axis mundi, or world axis; at this location, Cusack (2011) alleges that there was a “ritual complex”, thereby identifying the site as religiously (and also legally) crucial. This monument, evidently highly sacred to the Pagans in the sense that the pillar represented the worlds spanning from the depths to the heavens (and may have represented the sky god Tiwaz), was felled by Charlemagne (who was, at the time, the king of the Franks) in 772 A.D., as was the temple or sanctuary in which it was situated destroyed at the same time, over the course of three days (Bachrach, 2013; Cusack, 2011; Francis, 2014; Hooke, 2010). The offerings of gold and silver at the sacred site by Pagan visitors, left as a payment for protection by the gods, were also removed by Charlemagne’s troops (Wilson, 2005).

The intent behind this act was to aggressively denounce Paganism and establish a Christian rule over the local people, and following the felling of Irminsul Charlemagne also went on to forbid the worship in and of trees and forests. Failure to comply would result in a financial penalty (Butt, 2002; Cusack, 2011). Unfortunately for Charlemagne, the Germanic peoples did not take kindly to this usurpatious tendency, and for many decades following churches were burned and there were constant skirmishes. Even the church erected by Boniface at the site of the Donar Oak was nearly burned by the Hessians, in 773 A.D. (Cusack, 2011). Eventually, this tension led to greater issues, and wider-scale warfare broke out, until 810 A.D., when tensions calmed after the Pagans had been progressively, and in large numbers, brutally murdered, converted to Christianity, or sent into exile.

The Irminsul, as destroyed by Charlemagne, according to artist Heinrich Leutemann. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Nordic Paganism

A later manifestation of a form of Germanic Paganism, that of the Nordic religion, unquestionably also heavily revolves around the tree. Without any question, the most prominent symbolic feature of the Nordic religion is the tree of judgement and fate: Yggdrasil (Cusack, 2011; Murphy, 2013). This ash tree, or for some even a yew tree, serves as both the axis mundi, through which it supports the depths (Hel / Niflheim), the worldly realm (Midgard), and the heavens (Asgard), and the imago mundi, because it supports the nine worlds (Altman, 2000; Hageneder, 2000; Skoglund, 2012). As a cosmic tree, it came into being, symbolically, after Óðinn and his two brothers killed the giant Ymir and took him to the centre of Ginnungagap. From this location, the worlds manifested, and the roots of the ash begun to drink from the primeval waters of destiny (including from the well of fate or wyrd: Urðr).

Acting as the sacred tree of the Norsemen, Yggdrasil held the important position of being the symbol that connected humans with their gods (Cusack, 2011). It is also upon Yggdrasil that Óðinn hangs himself for nine days and nine nights (it is suggested that this may represent one day for each of the nine worlds that Yggdrasil unites), seeking the power of the runes (to see into the future and to understand the universe), which are thought to have been provided to him by the Norns (the three sisters, or weavers of destiny – of past, present, and future – situated under the ash: Skuld, Verðandi, and Urðr) (Altman, 2000; Hayman, 2003; Murphy, 2013; Skoglund, 2012; Tauring, 2007). These runes were eventually passed down to the humans via Þórr (Cusack, 2011). This hanging of himself upon the tree has distinct parallels with ancient Indo-European beliefs, and draws Yggdrasil into the idea of a tree representing a human; a human that, in turn, represents the world: the imago mundi (Cusack, 2011; Haberman, 2013).

The three Norns. Source: Germanic Mythology.

However, it is not Óðinn but his more extensively-revered son Þórr, as Cusack (2011) explains, who is the thunder (sky) god, and who therefore holds the most ‘important’ association with Yggdrasil as the axis mundi; this common association between sky gods and the world tree has been ever-present throughout Indo-European literature. Þórr’s role is – in relation to the axis mundi – the maintenance of the cosmos, through upholding its laws. He was even considered to have held court at the site of Yggdrasil (Andrén, 2014).

Unsurprisingly, such an association led to Norsemen worshipping Þórr within sacred groves, which would have comprised of oaks most notably, because of the genus’ association with the thunder god (Cerveny, 1994; Chadwick, 1900; Gardiner, 2007). One such grove in Uppsala, Sweden, at nine year intervals (relevant to the nine Worlds), would host all of the provinces of Sweden, kings and all. In this grove, as was customary of other Pagan cultures across Europe, rituals involving human and animal sacrifice would occur (nine male specimens of each living create would be sacrificed), and often would the corpses hang from the trees after their bloody death (Cusack, 2011; Orton, 2005). The trees upon which such bodies were hung, and upon whose bark the blood was spilled, were markedly sacred, because of their link to bodily putrefaction. It is thought that this male sacrifice is associated with the death of Ymir and the birth of the world (and not Yggdrasil), thereby meaning the rituals within the grove were a re-enactment of death and renewal (Cusack, 2011). Occasions where groves may have contained physical embodiments of Yggdrasil were when huge evergreen trees were found close by to wells, which mirrors the all-encompassing nature of Yggdrasil and the wells its roots drink from.

Artist Johan Ludwig Lund depicting a Nordic sacrifice to an idol of Þórr. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Norse god Heimdallr, however, is also linked to Yggdrasil, and perhaps more so than Þórr – principally because Heimdallr may perhaps translate directly to mean ‘World Tree‘ (Andrén, 2014). Heimdallr, as the watchmen of the Nordic gods in Asgard and the son of nine Mothers, is likened to a guardian tree, and in fact is representative of the axis mundi, by linking Niflheim, Midgard, and Asgard. The trunk of Heimdallr, or the World Tree, is too symbolic from the perspective of the creation myth, by where Óðinn (and his brothers) created humans from two logs that washed ashore from the sea – one of both an ash and an elm (Cusack, 2011; Hall, 2011). In this sense, one can observe yet further associations between man and the tree, as it is considered that man originated from the tree.

Indeed, this portrayal of Heimdallr as the axis mundi also aligns with the Nordic myth of Yggdrasil falling during Ragnarök (‘Fate of the Gods‘), which begins upon the sounding of the Gjallarhorn by Hemdallr; such end-times are woven into the fate (wyrd) of Yggdrasil by the three Norse sisters Skuld, Verðandi, and Urðr, who reside beneath the tree (Cusack, 2011). It is only those two individuals, the last man and woman of the world at Ragnarök, who took shelter in the trunk of Hemdallr at the onset of the fimbulvetr (‘great winter‘), who would go on to bring about a second age for humanity. Put simply, this signifies that man’s birth (and also protection) stems from the tree; much as it did from the log of the ash and elm (Murphy, 2013).

Akin to the peach tree in Taoist writings, located in the garden of the home of Lady Queen of the West, which grants immortality to those who consume its fruit, one can observe a similar association between the apple tree and the Nordic gods. Iðunn, the wife of the god Bragi and goddess of fertility, was said to have in her possession an apple tree whose fruit could provide immortality. Therefore, it is considered that the gods all consumed the apples, in order to fend off the haunts of old age (Lechler, 1937; Jagendorf, 1962). The god Loki, after being forced (by the giant Þjazi) to weaken the Nordic gods, stole this apple tree (and also Iðunn), until such time when the affected gods pooled together their diminishing powers and forced Loki to return both the tree and Iðunn, thereby placating the grip of death and restoring order (Daniels & Stevans, 2003; de Cleene & Lejeune, 1999). Whether this meant that apple trees were cultivated by the Nordic peoples is not established, though the ancestors of the Germanic Pagans certainly did, in the few centuries preceding the first year Anno Domini (Lechler, 1937). What is more certain is that the apple bestowed immortality across many faiths the world over – not just in Nordic Paganism (de Cleene & Lejeune, 1999).

John Bauer’s depiction of Loki leading away the goddess, with her apples. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Baltic & Slavic Paganism

Additional forms of Paganism from other regions of Europe, such as the Baltic and Slavic regions, have their own ties with trees. These ties are hugely similar to the aforementioned forms of European Paganism, and particularly with regards to the World Tree and also respective thunder gods being linked with oak trees. For example, Perkūnas and Perun, from the Baltic and Slavic regions respectively, are associated with the oak, and thus sacred groves dedicated to them would certainly have contained oak trees (Chadwick, 1900). Such groves, at least for the Slavs, would have been ‘managed’ by a great hierarchy of priests (Altman, 2000).

For the Slavic people, the oak may also sometimes have featured within shrines to the god Radegast, or have been used for religious activities as the religion dwindled following the Christianisation of Europe (Thompson, 1916). These oaks (and those beyond), and additionally mature beech trees (Fagus sylvatica), were also understood to have been imbued with souls in Slavic cultures, whilst for the Baltic Pagans the ash (Fraxinus excelsior), lime (Tilia cordata) and oak (Quercus robur) were considered particularly sacred, by virtue of their large mature size (Altman, 2000) – the lime was generally revered by the females so that the tree could bring fertility and good fortune to their homes, whilst the oak was a masculine tree worshipped by the men (de Cleene & Lejeune, 1999). Furthermore, the island of Rügen, which to the indigenous Slavs was sacred to their god Rugevit, also contained his sacred rowan trees (Sorbus aucuparia), which graced the island is seeming abundance (Jones & Pennick, 1995). Furthermore, and unsurprisingly, much like other areas of Pagan Europe during the Christianisation period, sacred groves of the Slavs were destroyed. One example of such desecration was when bishop Wigbert of Merseberg cut down a sacred grove during the first few years of the 11th century (Zaroff, 2001). In recent times, the emergence of Neo-Paganism has actually led to some groves within Slavic countries regaining their once central position within the Slavic culture (Shnirelman, 2002).

Ancient Greek religion

The religion of Ancient Greece, albeit geographically and temporally disjointed and spanning over perhaps many millennia and peoples, is a further form of polytheism that has some very interesting links with the arboreal world – both physically and symbolically. Many centuries prior to the more well-known period of Ancient Greece that graced the world with philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, there did exist two Greek civilisations that thrived (up until 1,100 B.C.): the Minoan (3500 B.C. – 1450 B.C.) and Mycenaean (1600 B.C. – 1100 B.C.) civilisations (Cusack, 2011). The latter, in particular, is considered to have influenced the more contemporary religion in Ancient Greece, and there does exist a small wealth of information – courtesy largely of the work of Evans (1901) – relating to trees within the religion of the Mycenae. There do, nonetheless, also exist sources that detail – albeit to a lesser degree – how trees featured within the earlier religion of the Minoans (Cusack, 2011; Goodison, 2009).

With regards to trees in the Mycenaean civilisation, Evans (1901) notes that there was in fact a dualism of the sacred tree and the sacred pillar, from which the latter could be made from the former; even after the death of the original sacred tree. Such sacred trees may have been represented in the form of a variety of different tree species including: cypress (Cupressus sp.), fig (Ficus carica)., palm (Phoenix theophrasti), pine (Pinus sp.), and plane (Platanus orientalis). The latter, in particular, was considered to have been linked with Zeus (‘The God of the Double Axe‘), as in the plane did he form union with the goddess Europa. The fig, on the other hand, was considered a gift from the goddess of agriculture known as Demeter (Evans, 1901; Hageneder, 2005).

A Minoan labrys, or double-axe. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Such trees, because of their sanctity, would have been present within and around shrines to various gods and (principally) goddesses within the civilisation’s geographical area (notably rural locations), in the form of individual specimens or groves. Where single trees occupied a sacred site, it is very likely – if not a certainty – that the tree was the physical representation of the deity being revered, and therefore the imago mundi (Evans, 1901). Thus, it is not surprising that there did exist groves of plane trees in which Zeus could be worshipped, as were there olive groves where Demeter could be worshipped (such as at Eleusis). In fact, the fig has associations with many Mycenaean deities beyond Demeter, including Dionysus, who is worshipped in the form of a fig tree (Hageneder, 2005; James, 1966), and also Gaia, where a fig tree did immediately grow after she protected her son from the thunderbolts of Zeus. The second symbolic reference to the fig may have arisen because of the fig tree’s warding of lightning (Evans, 1901).

For the earlier Minoan civilisation, as detailed, there is also a small (but growing) degree of evidence available for understanding how their religion was associated with trees. A principal reason for the current lack of understanding is because their means of transcribing information, known as Linear A and Linear B, are still largely untranslated – notably with regards to Linear A (Farrar, 2016). However, it can be confidently asserted that there was, at the least, a sacred tree that was associated with an unnamed goddess considered to be (one of, or an early amalgamation of all) Athene, Artemis, Eileithyia, or Hera (Cusack, 2011; Farrar, 2016) – this sacred tree would have been enclosed, as a sacred site (potentially a grove), within a walled or otherwise demarcated area, and would likely have been an olive (Olea europaea), fig (Ficus carica), or palm (Phoenix theophrasti) (Cusack, 2011; Farrar, 2016); though perhaps also an oak (Quercus sp.) (Castleden, 1990) or terebinth (Pistacia terebinthus) (Farrar, 2016).

A fragment of Linear A carving from the Minoan period. Source: About Education.

Within this sacred site, ceremonies would have been held and tree worship would undoubtedly have occurred, and the ceremonies would have consisted of activities including dances, the shaking of trees, sacrifice, and lamentation and mourning (de Cleene & Lejeune, 1999; Marinatos, 2010; Nilsson, 1950). Touching specifically upon the concept of tree shaking, it is considered to have been a manner in which the tree shaker (understood to always have been a male) could enable those within the sacred site to connect with the goddess (through vision and summoning her presence), and sometimes in a state of somewhat orgiastic “religious frenzy” (Galanakis, 2005; Marinatos, 2004). Because the central sacred tree of the site would also – as Cusack (2011) and Meagher (1995) remark – have represented the goddess and thus would have been directly revered, the Minoans considered the tree an imago mundi. It is unclear whether the central tree was the one that would be shaken by the male worshippers. Evidence also exists of trees within these sacred sites being protected by constructed guards, in a fashion very much akin to modern day tree protection systems (Farrar, 2016).

Following the collapse of the Mycenaean and Minoan civilisations, there was a period that spanned across many centuries, akin to the slightly more contemporary Dark Ages of Europe. At the uprising of a more advanced Greek (Hellenic) civilisation once again however (from the 8th century B.C.), one can observe how these older Mycenaean and Minoan traditions had persisted (Farrar, 2016). Granted, the more ‘rustic’ and minimalist sacred spaces of the older civilisations were sometimes replaced with far more lavish and anthropocentric shrines and temples, complete with gardens, dedicated to their specific gods and goddesses (Farrar, 2016).

For the sake of intrigue, in cases where temples were erected, the timber of tree species including cedar (Cedrus libani), cypress (Cupressus sp.), elm (Ulmus sp.), hackberry (Celtis australis), oak (Quercus sp.), olive (Olea europaea), and pine (Pinus sp.) were used (Rackham, 2001). However, the core tenets of worship remained similar, therefore meaning the worship of deities such as Zeus persisted, and took place amongst groves of oak, such as at Dodona (Altman, 2000; Evans, 1901; Hooke, 2012). In this location, it was said that a particularly sacred oak – amongst a larger forest of sacred oak – spoke directly from Zeus (through the rustling of its leaves, and from the running spring waters emanating from around the roots – this stream was the source of Divine Life, of which the oak is a repository of the divine water), and a bronze statue did exist within, adorned with a crown of oak leaves and acorns, of Zeus (Altman, 2000; Cook, 1903). Twin pillars in the heart of the oak woods that dressed Mount Lykaion were also a site of worship to Zeus (Evans, 1901), and there were undoubtedly many other additional locations for these sacred oak groves (Rackham, 2001). The beech (Fagus sylvatica) was also linked with Zeus (Altman, 2000).

A particular reconstructed depiction of the oak at Dodona. Source: Ancient Greece.

As was the case in the more historic Mycenaean era, the plane also retained its associations with Zeus, and particularly upon the island of Crete (Evans, 1901). Upon this island, a sacred cave sanctuary of Zeus on Mount Ida was also graced with a grove at its entrance, and in this instance the grove comprised of black poplar (Populus nigra). These black poplar not only represented the “chthonic transition” between the mortal realm and that of the gods, but were also home to the mother goddess and her followers (Bonnechere, 2007; Evans, 1901).

There were, of course, deities other than Zeus worshipped within groves consisting of various tree species, including Apollo, Artemis, Athene, Persephone, Poseidon, and Trophonios, and the groves were typically, if not exclusively, publicly-accessible (Altman, 2000; Bonnechere, 2007; de Cleene & Lejeune, 1999; Thommen, 2015). Such public accessibility eventually led to these sacred groves also becoming places of learning and athletics (including gymnasiums) – these practices were often overseen by the elite (Thommen, 2015). In some instances, these sacred groves would also have been artificially planted. For example, as noted by Rackham (2015), the grove of cypresses at Nemea was not a natural grove. However, sacred groves would have sometimes been far more secluded, in order to create the necessary conditions for religious awe and reverence (Wright, 1921).

An aerial view of what remains of the sacred site at Nemea. Source: Eagles and Dragons Publishing.

With regards to the tree species associated with Greek deities and religious figures beyond Zeus, the list is certainly not small. For example, Aphrodite’s sacred trees were the apple (Malus sp.), myrtle (Myrtus communis), and tamarisk (Tamarix sp.), whilst Athene was associated with the olive, having brought the olive (Olea europaea) up from the earth following Poseidon’s flooding of the Acropolis, and – as detailed in Homer’s Odyssey as the earliest sacred grove referenced in Greek literature – the poplar (Populus sp.). Daphne, who was not a goddess but a nymph, in order to evade Apollo, morphed into a laurel tree (Laurus nobilis) – the laurel was also attributed to Apollo, because of his love for the tree, in response to Daphne transforming into the laurel. The cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) is also a genus with links to Apollo, for Apollo turned the young Kyparissos into a cypress tree after he begged to be able to mourn the loss of his pet stag (that Kyparissos had inadvertently killed) for eternity.

Furthermore, the box (Buxus sempervirens), as a symbol of immortality and mourning, was tied to the god of the underworld known as Hades, as was the plane (Platanus orientalis) also used to mark where Hades entered the underworld. Hecate’s sacred tree was the yew (Taxus baccata) as a result of the yew also symbolising death and immortality, much like the box. Additionally, Persephone had ties with the pomegranate (Punica granatum), white poplar (Populus alba) and oriental plane (Platanus orientalis), and Poseidon was linked with the pine (Pinus maritima and Pinus pinea), because of the genus’ timber being used for boats and rafts. Priapus, the misshapen child (an over-sized phallus) of Aphrodite and Dionysus, whilst not necessarily associated with a specific tree, was considered the guardian of orchards, thereby connecting him to fruit trees of the genera Malus and Pyrus, and the European olive (Olea europaea), fig (Ficus carica), and pomegranate (Punica granatum) (Altman, 2000; Cusack, 2011; de Cleene & Lejeune, 1999; Farrar, 2016; Hageneder, 2005). Of course, this list is not extensive, and only delicately excavates the surface with regards to how different tree species had various religious associations.

At the revival of the Greek civilisation, one can also observe how the sacred tree as the imago mundi had persisted. In the cosmogeny produced by Pherecydes of Syros during the sixth century B.C., which detailed his outlook on how the cosmos came into existence, it can be seen how the tree as the imago mundi is the culmination of the creation story. In the account of creation, Pherecydes of Syros writes that Zas (a craftsman deity, who later became Zeus) married Chthonie (a goddess represented by a winged oak tree), and crafted her a robe as a gift. When Chthonie donned the robe, which upon it was a detailed image of earthly features, she was transformed into the earth and became known as the goddess Ge (Gaia). This transformation of the female winged oak into the earth, it is suggested, signifies how this particular oak (and more generally the tree) became the imago mundi, through the creation of the world by Zas (Cusack, 2011; James, 1966).

Interestingly, this birth of the world from a feminine identity differs from the Indo-European masculine origins of the earth (James, 1966). However, this creation myth did not gain any notable amount of traction within Greek culture following its writing – perhaps, in part, because it lacked prior reference points within the Greek world view (West, 2007) – and instead the Greeks transitioned towards a general deification of nature through Gaia. For instance, woodlands were seen as being home to an abundance of wood nymphs (dryads; or hamadryads) and satyrs, and sacred sites would usually be located within the natural landscape (Cusack, 2011). Of course, such sites would still likely have contained sacred trees that were representative of the world (as a microcosm), and therefore could still be classed as the imago mundi. Conversely, such as with the shrine to Zeus at Dodona, there is scope to suggest the shrine serves as the axis mundi (Cusack, 2011).

A mosaic, found at Pompeii, of the deity Pan and a hamadryad. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Whilst on the topic of Ancient Greece, it is also necessary to turn attention towards the Classical Greek (fifth and fourth century B.C.) and Hellenistic Greek (fourth century to first century B.C.) periods that arose at the advent of what is now considered Western philosophy (Farrar, 2016). These periods are important because they were – at least in part – responsible for the shaping of some of the later monotheistic religions, and have certainly had a lasting effect on the Western man’s understanding of the position that plants occupy on the moral and sentient continuum.

Operating chronologically, and using Hall (2011) for exclusive reference (unless otherwise detailed), the earlier Archaic period that pre-dated the Classical era, which saw the rise of philosophers such as Anaximenes, Empedocles, Thales, and Xenophanes, had led to the establishment (through the incorporation of existing religious doctrine) of all beings coming from God. This meant that, on the rawest of levels, man and plants (including trees) shared a divine origin, though this origin did see man and animal take benefit from the plant life through the consumption of plants. However, it was important that the origin of all life was recognised as being from the divine, and therefore it was not considered justifiable to be excessively violent towards plants – non-violence was encouraged, with only the necessary amount of suffering being inflicted to plant life. Granted, for Xenophanes, who lived during the later period of the Archaic era, this kinship was questioned, and from this point onwards an ever-more dualistic approach to man and plant philosophy manifested.

Subsequently, at the emergence of Plato in the Classical period, and notably after his writings in the publication entitled Timaeus, this dualism became markedly distinct. Plato distinguished between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ forms of being, with the ‘lower’ lacking intelligence and rationality. In this ‘lower’ ranking were plants, whilst the essence of ‘higher’ beings (humans and animals) were eternal and unchanging. Therefore, plants existed, whether overtly stated or not, to serve humans and animals, and their positioning on the hierarchy being lower enabled them to become subjects of unrestrained violence. Hall (2011) alleges that such a positioning by Plato of plants was to rationalise why not all beings are deserving of equal respect – a rationalisation that would have numerous desirable political impacts, such as with the treatment of slaves and the use (without moral dilemmas) of plant materials for humans. Aristotle, a student of Plato, continued this line of thought, and in his work on souls determined that plants possessed the lowest form of soil: the nutritive soul. This meant that, like Plato had taught, plants lacked awareness and mentality.

Following on from Aristotle came Theophrastus. Having originally learned from Plato before his death, Theophrastus then was taken under the wing of Aristotle. Unlike his predecessors however, Theophrastus divorced himself from the zoocentric approach to studying plant life, and his works on botanical matters led him to become known as the ‘father of botany’. In his research, which was far more empirical than Aristotle’s, Theophrastus identified that plants live for themselves and not for humans (see Historia Plantarum), therefore removing them from the lowly position they previously occupied. His work also enabled him to recognise that plants were able to perceive and sense, and these traits made them sensory beings. It was even remarked that trees had preferences and sought enjoyment, by selectively choosing environments that they would grow most optimally in. This ability for trees (and plants, more broadly) to sense and enjoy also meant, according to Theophrastus, that they could suffer, and subsequently they would fall into the realm of moral consideration with regards to their use by humans. Granted, he did suggest that the cultivation of trees and other crops is not necessarily a bad thing, as whilst the plants are removed from their natural environment, they are provided with water and nutrients aplenty, which they would otherwise have to aggressively compete for. Unfortunately, this Theophrastan view of the plant world was not adopted by the mainstream, and thus the zoocentric Aristotelean view became pervasive.

The cover of the 1644 edition of Historia Plantarum. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Ancient Roman religion

At around the same time that the Archaic Greek period began, Italy saw the emergence of a new civilisation: Rome. Widely renowned for their eventual domination of much of Europe, and the subsequent Christianisation of their lands, the initial polytheistic religion (that took influence from many neighbouring religions, and particularly that of the Greeks), unsurprisingly and in much the same way to the religion of Ancient Greece, had an array of associations with trees (Cusack, 2011).

However, in spite of this deliberate emulation of the Ancient Greeks’ religion, the religion of Ancient Rome lacked any extensive depth, and therefore did not possess the mythological context that supported the intricacies of the influencing Ancient Greek religion with regards to trees. As a consequence, there is little to no evidence of the tree being the imago mundi, and only a limited amount of evidence for the tree as the axis mundi. The latter largely comes in the form of pillars (adorned with carvings of oak leaves), found mostly in the Rhineland and eastern Gaul, used to worship Jupiter (the Roman equivalent of Zeus) and to commemorate the death of Romulus (Cusack, 2011). Temples of Jupiter may also have been built on sites where sacred oak did reside, and where groves did exist they were sacred to Diana (Dowden, 2000).

Because of how the religion of Ancient Rome developed, it is not at all surprising that the associations Roman deities had with trees generally mirrored the associations from the religion of Ancient Greece. As ascertained above, the oak was tied with Jupiter, who was the Roman equivalent of the Greek deity Zeus. Beyond this however, one can observe how the consort of Jupiter, a female deity known as Juno, also had links with the oak, by wearing a crown made from its leaves (Cusack, 2011). Her equivalent in Ancient Greece, known as Hera, was also considered (in some sources) to be linked with the oak, as outlined by Castleden (1990). The goddess Minerva, synonymous with Athene of the Ancient Greeks, was therefore unsurprisingly connected to the olive (Olea europaea), as was Venus (synonymous with Aphrodite) linked with the myrtle (Myrtus communis) (Altman, 2000; Hall, 2011). Pomona, the goddess of fruit and who is considered to be similar to the Greek goddess Demeter, is also intertwined with trees, by sheer virtue of her role within the Roman pantheon (de Cleene & Lejeune, 1999).

Beyond the similarity between Greek and Roman Pagan deities, the Roman branch of Paganism offers further evidence of its use of trees in the symbolic sense. One pertinent example of the symbolic value of trees is how the fig (Ficus sp.) at Palatine Hill was associated with the milk goddess Rumina (ficus Ruminalis), because of the fig’s sap being markedly similar to breast milk. Under this tree did the twins Romulus and Remus, who were born from the god Mars and abandoned by their mother (only to then be saved through a series of events), suckle from a she-wolf. Some years later, Romulus went on to found the city of Rome, and thus the beginning of the Roman Empire was at his hands, and the fig on Palatine Hill became known as the ficus Romularis. At his death this hill became his burial place, and thus the fig – now acting as a sacred tree pillar (influenced by the Ancient Greek pillar cult of Mycenae) – became an axis mundi (Cusack, 2011).


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Trees and religion – Paganism

Trees and religion – Christianity

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.

A mature Ziziphus spina-christi. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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).

Óðinn hanging upon Yggdrasil, which shares similarities to the crucifixion of Christ. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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).

Aaron’s rod after having broken its buds, and thus coming into leaf. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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).

Gustave Doré’s depiction of the felling of timber that was destined for the construction of Solomon’s temple. Source: The University of Adelaide.

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.

The Barren Fig, as depicted by the Dutch artist Jan Luyken. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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.

A grove of mature olive trees. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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).

The vibrant innards of a pomegranate. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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 leafless tamarisk (Tamarix aphylla). Source: Arizona State University.

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).

One of the instances of vandalism to the Glastonbury thorn. Source: Daily Mail.

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).

An engraving (by the artist Bernhard Rode) of St. Boniface that depicts him felling the sacred oak. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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).

Small statuettes or icons of Asherah. Source: Doves & Serpents.


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Trees and religion – Christianity