Trees in the conflict of Israel and Palestine

Everything written here is supported by sources I have referenced (check for yourself), as always, so do not treat this as an assault on either side and / or their respective religions. This post is through the lens of the tree, so treat it as such. Moreover, the entire topic is very interesting.

As Israel collides with Palestine, trees are – and always have – been caught up in the melee. Principally, olive and citrus groves, some of which may have been tended to for many centuries by the Palestinians (Temper, 2009), are bulldozed or otherwise uprooted, with little respect for their cultural and historical importance (Allen, 2008; Graham, 2002). As an example, in 1986, when the Israeli military seized Midya, over 3,300 olive trees were uprooted, and a further 2,000 olives were bulldozed in Qattana (Bardenstein, 1999). Some of the trees removed from Qattana were later re-planted within the Jewish sector of West Jerusalem (Lentin, 2000), though by that point the damage (in many an aspect) had certainly been done. Some Israeli residents did protest their planting (out of anger towards the state), by tying ribbons to the trees that contained messages such as “Take me back to Qattana!” (Bardenstein, 1999), whilst others, across the entire conflict, have chained themselves to the olive trees in order to stop the bulldozers from uprooting them (Sfard, 2009), supported Palestinian farmers by helping them harvest from their olive trees and, at times, defending them in the process (Stephan, 2003), provided replacement olive tree for those uprooted (usually by settlers), or helped to retain olive trees within occupied territories for their symbolic meaning of peace (Braverman, 2009) – “extending the olive branch“, per se.

AN olive grove being bulldozed. Source: The Independent.

Below the surface level of removing ‘enemy’ trees, the removal of olive trees has a very political undertone. Olive trees have been held in very high regard by Palestinians for generations (and are regarded by some as holy trees), where they were farmed and thus supported viable economies (Braverman, 2009; Cohen, 1993), and their removal (or ‘capture’, by where groves were encompassed into the territory of Israel) by Israeli forces therefore can also be interpreted as an attack on Palestinian culture and custom (Bardenstein, 1999; Bowman, 2007; Braverman, 2009; Kershner, 2005) – notably when such acts are supported by the Court (Sfard, 2009). In some cases, it may even be Jewish settlers who vandalise or cut down the olive trees (Kershner, 2005), and even when the Israeli army have allowed the Palestinians to harvest their olive crops. In such instances, the Israeli army will generally not intervene (Pigni, 2010).

Such a political (and, to a marked degree, religious) act may be most pertinently discerned when the olive groves (or individual trees) are captured or destroyed during harvesting season, which has indeed occurred in some instances (Batniji et al., 2009). Moreover, the fact that many olive groves have been uprooted (comprising of tens of thousands of individual olive trees – in Qafeen alone, 12,600 olives were uprooted for this reason) for the construction of the Separation Barrier in the West Bank was also a cause of huge upset, for the Palestinians; particularly when their uprooting was coupled with justifications including to construct watchtowers, roads, checkpoints, and other security fences (all of which further hamper daily life and privacy), in addition to the use of the groves for sheltering armed Palestinians (Braverman, 2009). For those groves not uprooted, the Separation Barrier may instead have isolated Palestinian farmers from their olive trees, for much of the year. In Qafeen, over 100,000 olive trees suffered this isolated fate.

Olive trees are removed to facilitate the construction of the Separation Barrier. Source: Haaretz.

Whilst the capture and removal of Palestinian groves has been ongoing, Israel has also been afforesting barren regions of its territory – and for many decades. Spearheaded largely by the Jewish National Fund that was established in 1901 (and since 1961 has been Israel’s exclusive forestry agency), the afforestation program was, at its core, a religious, ecological, and territorial pursuit (Amir & Rechtman, 2006; Bardenstein, 1999; Braverman, 2009; De-Shalit, 1995; Ginsberg, 2000; Stemple, 1998; Tal, 2013), with pine species (including Pinus halepensis) being particular favourites (Osem et al., 2008; Weinstein-Evron & Galili, 1985). In recent decades, the emergence of numerous pests associated with the pine (such as Matsucoccus josephi) has however led to more diverse plantations, with other pine species (including Pinus brutia) and deciduous tree species being selected for use (Braverman, 2009).

In essence, a core reason for this afforestation is because Israel, in the ages gone by, was considered to be covered with forests (even up to the 11th century A.D., in places), though it is suggested that when the Jewish people were in exile those who occupied Israel (from around 722 B.C. – 1948 A.D.) destroyed many of these forests (due to arson, harvesting for fuel, overgrazing, sabotage, and warfare) and thus, upon the return of the Jewish people to Israel, in order to bring Israel back to its former character, forests were (and still are) planted upon the barren slopes (Stemple, 1998; Tal, 2012; Tal, 2013). Braverman (2009) states that the Jewish National Fund has planted over 200,000,000 trees across more than 225,000 acres of claimed land, since its inception. However, according to the Old Testament, in the book of Joshua, even Jewish peoples have been responsible for some of this historic clearance in their Promised Land (Tal, 2013), and for this reason the Jewish National Fund is seeking to restore Israel’s forests of ten thousand years ago – soon after the last glacial ice age. In fact, a great deal of planting, each year, is undertaken in the leading up to – and on the day of – Tu B’shvat (Bardstein, 1999; Zerubavel, 2000).

israel afforestation time contrast
Hiran Forest in 1998 (left) and 2008 (right). Source: KKL-JNF.

After the creation of the Jewish National Fund, though prior to its major afforestation practices towards the middle of the century, the British had, since 1918 (after they had seized southern Palestine), planted up many hundreds of thousands (if not many millions) of saplings (comprising of species including stone pine, tamarisk, terebinth, and oaks) on the hills of Israel (Tal, 2013), and before this (from 1860 onwards) the Turkish Ottoman Empire and settling German Templars had done much the same (Ginsberg, 2006; Liphschitz & Biger, 2004).

In this afforestation project, such planted areas are also oft designated as forest reserves and thereby protected by Israeli law, which Braverman (2009) dubs as “lawfare” against the Palestinians, whose land may have been afforested following seizure. This planting up of forest on occupied lands, of which a sizeable portion was planted over destroyed Palestinian villages in the years after 1948 (an act of camouflage, and for some allegedly the camouflage of war crimes), also makes the land very difficult to reclaim, as the reclaimers must first remove all of the trees (after gaining the permission to clear the perhaps protected forest); in this sense, Palestinians may never be able to occupy such land again, be it for living within or for cultivation. In some cases, Braverman (2009) writes, Palestinians have even retaliated against this afforestation by firing rockets into the planted pine forests or burning the pine forests through arson, with a desire much aligned to Israel’s uprooting of the olive trees (in a sense, a ‘tree for a tree’). In this respect the tree, and specifically the pine, is a tool of war, and thus represents the enemy as a solider would (Boerner, 2011; Braverman, 2008).

On a more philosophical level, the fact that the Jewish National Fund would plant a tree for each newborn from Jerusalem in Jerusalem’s artificially-borne Peace Forest, dedicate the specific tree to the child, and provide the individual with a certificate (including a photo of the tree) that remarks on how it is hoped the tree and child grow together, outlines the innate affinity (or interchangeability) man has with trees (Braverman, 2009); as is detailed before this blog post on earlier ones associated with trees and religion.

Furthermore, the populist and globally crowd-funded nature of a fair portion of the tree planting, supported via financial gifts (complete with material rewards, such as memorial stones) and the use of the ‘Blue Box’ (located in households, schools, and offices), sewed into the fabric of the afforestation project a very emotionally evocative and inclusive aspect to both children and adults of the Jewish faith, even if the donator was geographically separated from Israel (Bar-Gal, 2003; Braverman, 2009; Zerubavel, 2000). Perhaps, this ability for a Jewish person to fund the planting of a tree may dampen their feeling of loss for not living within the Promised Land; in place of their presence, they can fund the planting of a tree, which can be considered a “proxy immigrant” (Braverman, 2009). At a tangent, the returning of the landscape to forest is also important on a cultural level, because the forests were incredibly important for the Jewish peoples’ ancestors; often would children be named after trees, and even Israel itself was sometimes compared to a tree (Zerubavel, 2000; Zerubavel, 2005).


Allen, L. (2008) Getting by the occupation: How violence became normal during the Second Palestinian Intifada. Cultural Anthropology. 23 (3). p453-487.

Amir, S. & Rechtman, O. (2006) The development of forest policy in Israel in the 20th century: implications for the future. Forest Policy and Economics. 8 (1). p35-51.

Bar-Gal, Y. (2003) Propaganda and Zionist Education: The Jewish National Fund, 1924-1947. USA: University of Rochester Press.

Bardenstein, C. (1999) Trees, forests, and the shaping of Palestinian and Israeli collective memory. In Bal, M., Crewe, J., & Spitzer, L. (eds.) Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present. USA: University Press of New England.

Batniji, R., Rabaia, Y., Nguyen–Gillham, V., Giacaman, R., Sarraj, E., Punamaki, R., Saab, H., & Boyce, W. (2009) Health as human security in the occupied Palestinian territory. The Lancet. 373 (9669). p1133-1143.

Boerner, R. (2011) Trees as soldiers in a landscape war. Landscape Ecology. 26 (6). p893-894.

Bowman, G. (2007) Israel’s wall and the logic of encystation: Sovereign exception or wild sovereignty?. Focaal. 50 (1). p127-135.

Braverman, I. (2008) “The Tree Is the Enemy Soldier”: A Sociolegal Making of War Landscapes in the Occupied West Bank. Law & Society Review. 42 (3). p449-482.

Braverman, I. (2009) Planted Flags: Trees, Land, and Law in Israel/Palestine. USA: Cambridge University Press.

Cohen, S. (1993) The politics of planting: Israeli-Palestinian competition for control of land in the Jerusalem periphery. USA: University of Chicago Press.

De‐Shalit, A. (1995) From the political to the objective: the dialectics of Zionism and the environment. Environmental Politics. 4 (1). p70-87.

Ginsberg, P. (2000) Afforestation in Israel: a source of social goods and services. Journal of Forestry. 98 (3). p32-36.

Ginsberg, P. (2006) Restoring biodiversity to pine afforestations in Israel. Journal for Nature Conservation. 14 (3). p207-216.

Graham, S. (2002) Bulldozers and bombs: the latest Palestinian–Israeli conflict as asymmetric urbicide. Antipode. 34 (4). p642-649.

Kershner, I. (2005) Barrier: the seam of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. USA: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lentin, R. (2000) Israel and the Daughters of the Shoah: Reoccupying the Territories of Silence. USA: Berghahn Books.

Liphschitz, N. & Biger, G. (2004) Green Dress for a Country – Afforestation in Eretz Israel: The first hundred years 1850-1950. Israel: KKL.

Osem, Y., Ginsberg, P., Tauber, I., Atzmon, N., & Perevolotsky, A. (2008) Sustainable management of Mediterranean planted coniferous forests: an Israeli definition. Journal of Forestry. 106 (1). p38-46.

Pigni, A. (2010) A first-person account of using mindfulness as a therapeutic tool in the Palestinian Territories. Journal of Child and Family Studies. 19 (2). p152-156.

Sfard, M. (2009) The Price of Internal Legal Opposition to Human Rights Abuses. Journal of Human Rights Practice. 1 (1). p37-50.

Stemple, J. (1998) Viewpoint: a brief review of afforestation efforts in Israel. Rangelands. 20 (2). p15-18.

Stephan, M. (2003) People power in the Holy Land: How popular nonviolent struggle can transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Journal of Public and International Affairs. 14 (Spring). p164-183.

Tal, A. (2012) Israel’s New Bible of Forestry and the Pursuit of Sustainable Dryland Afforestation. Geography Research Forum. 32 (1). p149-167.

Tal, A. (2013) All the Trees of the Forest: Israel’s Woodlands from the Bible to the Present. USA: Yale University Press.

Temper, L. (2009) Creating facts on the ground: Agriculture in Israel and Palestine (1882-2000). Historia Agraria. 48 (1). p75-110.

Weinstein-Evron, M. & Galili, E. (1985) Prehistory and paleoenvironments of submerged sites along the Carmel coast of Israel. Paleorient. 11 (1). p37-52.

Zerubavel, Y. (2000) The Forests as a National Icon: Literature, Politics, and the Archeology of Memory. In Elon, A., Hyman, N., & Waskow, A. (eds.) Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology. USA: The Jewish Publication Society.

Zerubavel, Y. (2005) The forest as a national icon: literature, politics, and the archaeology of memory. Israel Studies. 1 (1). p60-99.

Trees in the conflict of Israel and Palestine

A history of state forestry in Java, Indonesia

See part III of this series on state forestry in France here.

This phenomenon of the environmental and social misunderstandings of the peasantry and their forests can be further observed in Indonesia, and specifically upon the island of Java. This is because Indonesian state forestry practices began in Java with the State Forestry Corporation of Java in the 1870s, initiated by the Dutch colonial government, and emanated outward from the island into Indonesia more broadly.

The natural forests of Java have historically been a mix of a variety of tree species, including Altingia excelsa, Elaeocarpus macrocerus, Pinus merkusii, Tectona grandis, and Toona sureni. These forests have been the home of many millions of villagers, with their livelihoods being critically dependant upon the longevity and thus careful management of the forests and surrounding areas. Activities undertaken were rather similar to those undertaken in Uttarakhand, and in relation to construction teak (Tectona grandis) was the most favoured tree. Owned – pre-colonially – by Javanese kings and other elite individuals, villagers were permitted to use these forests under their decree, and often would there be a fair but entirely manageable (financial and free-labour) levy imposed on the villagers to maintain the functioning of the Javanese domains. However, because of the nature of forest communities, which were generally-speaking somewhat isolated from the king or other sovereign, villagers had a certain amount of freedom to ignore particular rules and regulations associated with their contract with the forest owner, though this of course varied with the extent of isolation – not that there were many limitations on how villagers could utilise the forest anyway, with only sparing and well-guarded royal forests and sacred groves being protected.

As far back at 1596, the Dutch, who would go on to rule Java from 1796, placed as important value on Javanese timber – notably teak. Javanese villagers, initially employed by the king or regional sultan under contract from the Dutch, though after 1743 generally directly employed by the Dutch, would harvest this timber, and sell it for purposes including ship building. Similar trade relations were also established with the Chinese. Subsequently, an informal ‘state’ forestry practice had actually begun centuries prior to the creation of the true state forestry department in 1865 (and the associated forest laws written between 1860-1934). However, the pre-colonial rule of Java was, as has been detailed, a relatively passive one, with villagers having a good degree of autonomy over their lives and forests. It was only when state forestry came into being, primarily for the cultivation of teak, that this began to drastically change, as the Dutch government sought to control and limit the relationship villagers had with their forests for the purposes of financial profit.

Notably, the tactics employed by the Dutch went about to usurp the villager and their relationship with the forest. In this sense, villagers had very little influence into the creation of teak plantations and felling operations, despite such operations having a sometimes quite drastic impact upon their livelihoods. One notable impact upon villagers, beyond the loss of forest cover, was their rapidly declining population of buffalo, for the buffalo were drafted by the Dutch to transport felled timber from the site of felling to the river or coast. Some of the largest teak trees, for example, required 80 buffalo to transport, and en route it was not uncommon for 10 of these buffalo to die. Because buffalo were used by villagers for cultivating land for agriculture, their population reduction had very real consequences for local food production.

An image, of unknown date, depicting two Indonesian workers felling a tree for its timber. Source: FAO.

By the same token, the environmental destruction associated with cleared forest areas, or even sparsely-forested areas after select trees were felled, had adverse impacts upon the lives of the villagers, and this occurred both before and after the onset of state forestry. The forest laws passed, notably those from 1860-1875, also saw large portions of land come under state ownership, which directly opposed cultural norms associated with villagers, in essence, owning the land surrounding their villages. These now state-owned areas were also policed, with quite harsh punishments for seemingly meagre ‘crimes’, which only became crimes – having once been customary villager rights – after the state itself detailed them as so under forest law. For instance, 45,000 people were arrested in 1905 for forest crimes, with most being for stealing wood – wood that was some decades earlier free to take.

Such changing of land ownership also limited the ability for villagers to farm in the surrounding landscape (by 1940, 3,057,200 hectares of land were state-owned), as did it hinder their ability to migrate to flee oppression and other undesirable circumstances, including excessive population growth and poor financial standing. However, with regards to farming, recently felled areas could be temporarily farmed (known as tumpang sari) by villagers with the permission of the state, for a period of between 1-3 years on average – the palette of crops was however limited to ones that would not have adverse impacts upon the trees regenerating within the area (usually teak or pine), either naturally or far more routinely artificially (from planted seed). Of course, this did mean that some villagers had to constantly follow the path of the forestry operations, in order to sustain their way of life; as did it sometimes require villagers to adhere to the demand of corrupt forest officials, who oversaw the allocation of tumpang sari land. Ultimately, the increasing levels of bureaucracy were alien to villagers, who were unaccustomed to such a myriad of regulations surrounding the use of forests.

A photo of a forester in central Java, taken between 1900-1940. Source: Wikimedia.

Such a situation was unfortunately only further exacerbated in World War II, when the Japanese took control of Java in 1942-1945 (Peluso, 1992). In this period state forestry operations, spearheaded by the Japanese Forest Service of Java, doubled in timber output compared to under the Dutch, and a ‘scorched earth’ policy by Dutch foresters and ransacking by Javanese villagers led to the forests deteriorating in quality quite massively in only three years – the effects are still observable today, in the landscape. Then, following Indonesian independence in 1949 (after four years of sometimes violent revolution), the new state only served to continue with state forestry operations (under the banner of the State Forestry Corporation), all whilst using the old Dutch laws (mostly almost verbatim – notably forest boundaries) and some of their foresters, albeit with recalibrated intentions that ‘better’ (a potentially malleable term, in this situation) served the nation’s populace.

In light of this, protest was certainly common from the late 1800s onward, and specifically from 1942-1966. The form a given protest took would however vary, with particular protests being non-violent (migration and ignoring the forest laws) and others certainly more violent (acts of crime, arson, and – more broadly – rebellion). Within the umbrella of protest, there are certain movements that deserve notable attention, however. One pertinent example is what was known as the Samin Movement, which was a social movement borne in 1890 but gained most notable momentum by 1907 when over 3,000 village families had adopted the ethos of the movement. This form of protest, founded by the peasant Surontiko Samin, was non-violent in approach and involved protesters purposely ignoring the instruction of state forest officials, for the purpose of safeguarding traditional customs of the Javanese villagers. However, because of the state’s pursuance of dissenting villagers, certain villager leaders did not support the movement, for fear of retribution if they did indeed show support. Therefore, some Saminists were exiled from their villagers, or excluded from communal practices.

A large teak (Tectona grandis) that the Samin Movement encouraged native Javans to utilise for their own needs, in place of supporting the Dutch forestry efforts. Source: Wikimedia.

Some decades later, during the second half of the 1940s (after the demise of the Japanese colonial government and at the inception of revolution, which itself ended in 1949), protests began to significantly rise in frequency and became far more organised, due to the adoption of a stance on forest politics by many political organisations. For example, in 1948, the Indonesian Communist Party and People’s Democratic Front attacked buildings and structures owned by the Forest Service, after it failed to amend forest policy in a manner that would more extensively benefit local people. These attacks caused rather extensive damage, and some main routes to transport timber were rendered impassable after bridges were destroyed. Two years prior, approximately 220,000 hectares of state-owned forest in Java was damaged (or destroyed) by protesting groups and individuals, and a further 110,000 hectares occupied by villagers and taken over or stripped for timber and firewood.

Alongside such protests, the Indonesian Forest Workers’ Union and Indonesian Peasants’ Front would support the villagers, in hope of returning Java’s forests to the people. In the few years following 1962, the Indonesian Forest Workers’ Union was most effective is achieving this aim of returning the state-owned forests to villagers; perhaps because nearly 25% (or 5,654,974 individuals) of the adult Indonesian peasantry were members. Granted, organisations did exist that were distinctly anti-communist, such as the Islamic Workers’ Union, who in fact battled with the Indonesian Communist Party over issues relating to state forestry. In the years immediately after 1964, the Islamic Workers’ Union was known to lead communist supporters into the forests of Java, shoot them, and then bury them in mass graves within the forest.

Following on from law changes in 1967, such protests generally begun to adopt a more clandestine approach. Because of the increasing militarisation of the forest service, notably with regards to its four different police forces, villagers were more fearful of reprisal if caught disobeying forest law. Stands comprised largely – or exclusively – of teak were most ferociously guarded. Granted, villagers did sometimes attack the armed police forces, and notably when the police forces were caught undertaking clandestine operations themselves, and also burned the state-owned forests of teak and pine (principally Pinus merkusii). At this time, the forest service also became more centralised, which further alienated a forest service from the villagers that, despite its now Indonesian-run state, reflected distinctly its Dutch ancestral roots, and diametrically opposed the traditional Javanese agrarian lifestyle. As a consequence of villager exclusion, the quality of the Javanese forests progressively declined over the decades because villagers had to resort to ‘theft’ to obtain what they could once gain on a subsistence basis (or to support black market demands for teak, in order to supplement the limited wages they would gain by working for the State Forestry Corporation on an ad hoc basis), which has contributed to sometimes quite severe environmental degradation. Such issues are still pertinent today.

Principal source

Peluso, N. (1992) Rich Forests, Poor People: Resource Control and Resistance in Java. USA: University of California Press.

Additional sources

Benda, H. & Castles, L. (1969) The Samin Movement. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-en Volkenkunde. 125 (2). p207-240.

Boomgaard, P. (1992) Forest management and exploitation in colonial Java, 1677-1897. Forest & Conservation History. 36 (1). p4-14.

Colchester, M. (2006) Justice in the forest: rural livelihoods and forest law enforcement. Indonesia: CIFOR.

Galudra, G. & Sirait, M. (2009) A discourse on Dutch colonial forest policy and science in Indonesia at the beginning of the 20th century. International Forestry Review. 11 (4). p524-533.

Honna, J. (2010) The legacy of the New Order military in local politics: West, Central and East Java. In Aspinall, E. & Fealy, G. (eds.) Soeharto’s New Order and its Legacy. Australia: The Australian National University.

Korver, A. (1976) The Samin movement and millenarism. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-en Volkenkunde. 132 (2-3). p249-266.

Lindayati, R. (2002) Ideas and institutions in social forestry policy. In COlfer, C. & Resosudarmo, I. (eds.) Which Way Forward?: People, Forests, and Policymaking in Indonesia. USA: Resources for the Future.

Lounela, A. (2012) Contesting State Forests in Post-Suharto Indonesia: Authority Formation, State Forest Land Dispute, and Power in Upland Central Java, Indonesia. Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies. 5 (2). p208-228.

Maring, P., (2015) Culture of control versus the culture of resistance in the case of control of forest. Makara Hubs-Asia. 19 (1). p27-38.

Peluso, N. (1991) The history of state forest management in colonial Java. Forest & Conservation History. 35 (2). p65-75.

Peluso, N. (1993) ‘Traditions’ of forest control in Java: Implications for social forestry and sustainability. Global Ecology and Biogeography Letters. 3 (4-6). p138-157.

Smiet, A. (1990) Forest ecology on Java: conversion and usage in a historical perspective. Journal of Tropical Forest Science. 2 (4). p286-302.

Vandergeest, P. & Peluso, N. (2006) Empires of forestry: Professional forestry and state power in Southeast Asia, Part 1. Environment and History. 12 (1). p31-64.

A history of state forestry in Java, Indonesia

A history of state forestry in Burma

The politically-fuelled backlash against commercial forestry efforts by governments (often initiated in the past by Western colonial governments) is an interesting aspect of how trees can wander into the realm of politics. Traditionally, forests have been at the centre of many human civilisations over the millennia, enabling forward progression through the sustainable utilisation of forest resources (for construction, fire, husbandry, and so on) under the jurisdiction of the local community (or communities). In this sense, there is a marked link between traditional man and the forest. Subsequently, the intervention of governments in order to commercialise forest management practices so to increase state revenue – originating in Germany, when the University of Freiburg was the first university to offer a formalised education on forestry practice in 1787 – has routinely been met with backlash in many regions of the world, as this usurpatious shift in forest management directly challenges cultural identity. Over the next few blog posts, a few rather lengthy case studies (written over the past six months) will outline how state forestry has brilliantly collided with historic custom and agrarian lifestyles. I truly hope you enjoy them, and if you want a list of all state forestry books I know of (I have a good dozen, from memory) please just ask!

State forestry in Burma (Myanmar)

Prior to Burma becoming a British colony in 1824, the Burmese monarchy had – in spite of the portrayal by the British – a sound forest management regime in place. Principally, because of Burma’s desirable forests of teak (Tectona grandis), which is a timber that is well-suited for the construction of naval vessels, and also buildings, there had been both internal and external demand for such timber for centuries. As a consequence, there was much potential profit involved for the monarchy, and therefore the harvesting and transportation of felled teak was carefully regulated – particularly when such harvesting was for-profit purposes; for the rural forest peasant, regulations were not necessarily as applicable, because of the subsistence use of the timber and the isolation of rural settlements from the (literally) centralised governance of the monarchy. Additionally, in the uncommon instances where the monarchy did seek to enforce forest regulations upon the peasants, such enforcement was met with backlash. Therefore, before the entrance of the British, rural Burmese peasants suffered little intervention from any form of large governing body, and the teak forests were managed with – at least to a degree – their long-term conservation in mind.

Upon the arrival of British rule however, such state-peasant dynamics altered – albeit, not too drastically to begin with. When the British gained control of the region of Tenasserim in 1824, because of the large scale deforestation of Great Britain, the fact that teak was a better timber for naval uses than oak (Quercus robur), the waning importation of oak timber from the Balkans, and the concept of deforestation being synonymous with industrial progression, the British undertook – and also permitted – large-scale deforestation of Tenasserim’s teak forests. Dubbed laissez-faire forestry, felling operations were not at all rational and were in fact quite frenetic, and therefore by 1856 Tenasserim’s teak forests had been irreparably damaged; notably by private organisations who regularly escaped the ineffective enforcement of the basic forest regulations put in place by the British. Such a laissez-faire approach had little impact upon the native peasantry, as they were free to undertake their practices as they did under the rule of the monarchy. In fact, many peasants benefited from this approach economically, as locals were employed to harvest timber, transport it, and also enforce basic forest rules.

A British force arrives in Burma on 28th November 1885, following the third Anglo-Burmese War. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

However, in 1852, having learned from the grave mistake that now plagued the teak forests of Tenasserim, when the British secured the southern province of Pegu, they swiftly moved to enforce much stricter rules upon the management of forests. Spearheaded by Lord Dalhouise, in 1853 all teak forests were declared the property of the state, and extraction of teak was forbidden without explicit permission. Soon after, in 1855, Dalhouise wrote the document entitled Minute of Forest Policy of 1855, and appointed Dietrich Brandis as Forest Superintendent, who formed The Burma Forest Department one year later in 1856. At its core, this new organisation would oversee man’s interaction with Burma’s forests (a panoptic pursuit), and employ the more rational and scientific approach to forestry that had been developed in Germany and France some decades before, with the purpose of significant economic gain from harvesting teak and other tree species. Also at the core of this alteration in direction was the observed wastefulness of the peasantry, in the eyes of the British. Evidently, according to the British, Burmese peasants could not be responsible for managing their forests, as they openly used it inefficiently, or destroyed it unnecessarily.

Whilst the new Forest Department lacked much authority in the years immediately following its inception, by the mid 1860s it grew in potency and by 1885 had tripled in size from its size of 1861. During this development period, the department began to significantly erode the traditional rights of the Burmese peasantry, and from multiple angles. With regards to the practice of shifting cultivation, which saw a peasant farmer routinely clearing new patches of teak forest for cultivation and using the burned remains of the teak as fertiliser, because of its direct impact upon the efficacy of teak harvesting by the state, and its alleged antithetical positioning compared to scientific forestry, the practice was essentially outlawed from 1856 – it was seen as not being an intrinsic right, with only settled agricultural practices being a right as defined by the state.

Subsequently, peasants undertaking such a form of cultivation protested in two ways: through avoidance and resistance. For example, peasants would flee Pegu permanently, or only temporarily after clearing an area for cultivation and crossing the border to Siam when forest officials were in the area, as would they clear teak and entirely destroy evidence of teak ever being there. More boldly, they may simply plead ignorance to forest regulations, if questioned. Such a state of affairs led to, in 1869, the state adopting what was known as taungya forestry, which allowed peasants to clear land for cultivation and, upon such clearance, cultivate their crops within an area of teak that had been planted at the same time. Then, after a period of some years, as the teak regenerated, the cultivators would move on to another forest patch and undertake the same operations.

Modern-day shifting cultivation in Burma, showing how segments of forest have been cleared for agriculture. Source: Burmalink.

The peasants who did not practice shifting cultivation were also impacted by such state regulations in Pegu. Whilst such regulations did not initially impact the general populace, both because only teak extraction was regulated and the Forest Department lacked man power and expertise, by 1875 the state’s classification of other tree species (a total of 14 other species, including Dipterocarpus tuberculatus, Lagerstroemia speciosa, Pterocarpus macrocarpus, Senegalia catechu, and Xylia xylocarpa) as protected from unlicensed felling led to unrest amongst the peasantry.

In essence, not only did this now marked limitation on timber harvesting conflict with the traditional Buddhist way of life, which saw timber used for construction felled only under specific auspicious circumstances, but it also limited their ability to use the forest both as a source of income and for subsistence purposes. Granted, the state did permit peasants to use the forest for reasons to do with subsistence, but such an exclusion from the forests of Pegu at large resulted, unsurprisingly, in backlash. Forms of such backlash from the peasants included illicitly felling trees for their timber, harvesting trees and selling them on the black market to native timber traders, resorting to felling only those trees not protected by the state (which took place to quite significant levels, in some instances), and destroying the property of the Forest Department.

As the Forest Department grew, it also adopted an ever-increasing scientific approach to forestry; this translated over into those employed by the department. Originally, the aim had been for the department to employ local people, though the lack of expertise and associated shortcomings in forest enforcement led quickly to attention being diverted to Europe – notably Germany and France, where forestry was being taught quite rigorously. Therefore, as the department grew in size from 1861 to 1885, whilst local foresters were still locals employed by the state, the higher paid forest conservators and other officials were not native Burmese individuals, which led to unrest even within the Forest Department. In essence, the Burmese foresters were unhappy at the evident glass ceiling within the organisation, and this resulted in the foresters defrauding the Forest Department and falsifying reports.

Come 1881, the state had passed the Burma Forest Act. This new piece of legislation enabled the colonial government to more readily establish ownership of forest lands, and to denote forest reserves where it was deemed pertinent to do so – in essence, the Act allowed for a more extensive and effective state consolidation of Burma’s forests. In Pegu, this led to most of teak forest being classified as a reserve, by 1990. Further north in Upper Burma, which came under British rule following the 1884-86 Anglo-Burmese War, reserves were similarly established (in a bid to standardise forestry practice in Burma), and come 1900 a total of 51% of teak forest area was classed as reserve. Other species of tree, such as Senegalia catechu, which was harvested for its water exudes used for tanning and dyeing, were also protected through the designation of forest reserves.

Unquestionably, because these reserves prohibited traditional practice, such as grazing, shifting cultivation, burning, and the harvesting of timber and collection of firewood, this pursuit of forest brought with it civil unrest amongst the peasantry reliant upon the forest. By-and-large, both the intentional burning of reserves, and then subsequent refusal to co-operate with the extinguishing efforts, were the methods of protest adopted. Furthermore, because Upper Burma had already experienced forest management prior to British rule, the contractors and rulers undertaking forestry operations at the time of a change in the ruling elite – namely the powerful Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation Limited (BBTLC) – were uneasy at the desire for the British to remove their rights to harvest timber (notably teak), and therefore after much pressure it was decided that, at least for the BBTLC, private operations could continue under state supervision. Rulers, including the Sawbwas of the Shah region, were marginalised, and thus lost access to their extensive forests.

Cleared compartments like this would have become far less frequent across Burmese forests. Source: East by Southeast.

As the 19th century approached its close, the Forest Department had gained power over much of Burma’s forests – almost all forests had been inventoried. Therefore, when the Burma Forest Act of 1902 was passed, it came as little surprise that the state had begun to further pursue control over forests. Based heavily on the principles of scientific forestry being applied only in exiting forest reserves, allowing those non-reserved area to be maintain by the peasantry at their own discretion, the Forest Department opted to principally use five different European contractors – including BBTLC, though no longer with a monopoly – for forestry operations, on fifteen-year leases. In this sense, the Forest Department would oversee a return to privatisation of forestry, much how it had been prior to 1856.

Unfortunately, by 1909, native contractors accounted for only 23% of the total output from state forestry operations, because of the more favourable stance the European contractors were seen in when it came to issuing leases for forestry operations (mainly because they were larger companies, meaning the Forest Department didn’t need to oversee so many contractors), which led to much animosity between Burmese contractors and the state – this was further exacerbated by 1924, when native contractors were responsible for only 5% of output. Compiled with the almost entire outlawing on shifting cultivation by the 1920s, because of its perceived associations with soil erosion, flooding, and a poor teak crop, and the designation of lowland forests as reserves because of their declining extent within the plains of Burma (agricultural production had increased so markedly – from 800,000 acres in 1982 to 6,000,000 acres in 1906), the situation during the this period led to much protest – namely the illegal extraction of timber, and illegal grazing of cattle. In some cases, 90% of all recorded crime came from the lowlands, where the demands on what little forest remained conflicted with the state’s classification of these forests as protected reserves.

The plight of those in the plains was also picked up by nationalist political movement, such as the General Council of Sangha Sammeggi, who supported local nationalist organisations known as wunthanu athin. These local movements aired the grievances of the plains peasantry, with regards to their inaccessible forest reserves, and their affiliations with national movements gave local voices a national audience. In turn, by the 1920s, nationalist politicians and the middle class were in support of the peasantry in the plains.

In response to this demand for forests to provide the peasantry with what they require, the state came to recognise that commercial forestry operations in reserves could not constitute the exclusive use of the reserved forests of Burma – notably in the lowlands. Therefore, in 1923, after the British colonial government provided the Burmese with partial rule of their country during 1921 and the Whyte Committee subsequently assessed the situation with Burmese forests at length, the Forest Department was handed over to the Burmese, and by 1930 the post of Forest Secretary was filled by a native individual. Thus began the process of ‘Burmanisation’ within the Forestry Department.

However, the actual amount of influence the Burmese had on the Department was slim, at this time – decisions relating to leases to forestry contractors were made in London, and only British officials had the power of appointing new people to the Department. As a consequence, unrest persisted, and forest crimes peaked during the mid 1930s. Come 1937, at the enacting of the Government of Burma Act of 1935, the power of the Burmese to regulate the use of their own forests was accentuated however, though this did not curb protest completely and in 1940 the Forest Department even began a propaganda campaign detailing the benefits of forest conservation through reserves.

A few years later in 1942, such power granted in the 1935 Act was further augmented after the Japanese acquired Burma during World War II and aided with integrating Burmese individuals into the Forest Department under the absence of the British. Having granted them ‘independence’ soon after, upon the return of the British after the end of the war 1945, the state was unable to implement scientific forestry again because of the huge amount of ‘lawlessness’ (relating to what was deemed a forest crime under British rule) in the forests. Notably, many forest reserves in the planes were cleared to make way for agriculture, during this three year period, though more broadly enforcing forest law effectively was simply not feasible; in part, because the Japanese simply ‘looted’ the forests of their timber to fund the war effort – an act which the peasantry mirrored all too zealously, in some scenarios. Curiously, even the Burmese who worked in the Forest Department during this time tried to enforce forest laws, and even sought to ensure that forests were managed as they were prior to the war’s impact on Burma.

The Burmese forests being used as a battleground during World War II. Source: Ibiblio.

After 1948 independence, which marked the conclusion of the period of Burmanisation, forest protests continued; albeit under a different political catalyst. Initially, until 1953, because of significant civil unrest across Burma, the Forestry Department had no forests to maintain – all were in the hands of insurgent groups, and only under armed guard could forest officials practice even the most basic of forestry tasks. Therefore, during this period the Department sought to instead simply plan its approach of once again employing scientific forestry as the core means of forest management following the calming of unrest, after the now entirely Burmese Forestry Department determined the scientific approach introduced by the British was in fact highly beneficial for the state. Soon after in 1954, having witnessed the persistent deforestation of Burma’s forests during this period of unrest (and before), the government sought to – with help from the Forestry Department – reforest 200,000 acres of forest in the more politically stable plains of Pegu.

During the following years, plantations were therefore created with help from willing locals; of which 4,000 were full-time employees and 20,000 part-time employees. In this sense, state forestry provided many local peasants with employment, during a time of political tumult, though such employment was often both mandatory and unpaid. Furthermore, shifting cultivation was once again outlawed in Pegu, with fixed agricultural practices being promoted in its place. In remote hilly areas this enforcement was not successful however, as insurgents resisted the will of the Forestry Department. It wasn’t until 1975, when the Burmese army cleared these hills of insurgents, that the hill forests were regained by the Forest Department, and scientific forestry could once again be practiced and shifting cultivation more effectively prohibited.

Evidently, the hills of Burma were of a different political climate entirely. Owned by insurgent groups, these areas were largely off-limits to the Forest Department, and only at the hands of the army cold they be regained. Because forests were highly valuable assets, notably in terms of their consistent provision of revenue, they were fiercely protected by insurgent groups, and in some respects these groups acted akin to the Forest Department – peasants were taxed for using the forest, and timber was sold to sustain the existence of these groups. For instance, the Karen National Union of Kawthoolei used the forests within the region as their main source of income from the 1960s, and the Kawthoolei Forestry Department created by the Union rivalled the state’s Forest Department, who themselves expanded within the region from a mere handful of staff in the 1950s to 463 during the early 1990s. The battle in this case was for territory, and the territory was the forest.

Following the violent military coup of 1988, spearheaded by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which overthrew the socialist government of the time, the forestry agenda again altered. The desire for short-term profit, because of Burma’s dire financial situation (which had largely persisted from 1948), meant that large-scale forestry operations were politically necessary for SLORC, who swiftly agreed a deal with neighbouring Thailand to log the Thai-Burmese border forests. For Thailand, this deal was also of marked benefit, because in 1988 the state banned all logging within the country after its forests had suffered massive losses at the hands of loggers over the preceding decades. The contractors for such logging activities were all Thai in origin, and therefore Burmese contractors lost out on any potential income from this venture. However, come the close of 1993, because of the sheer extent of illegal activities committed by the Thai loggers, the agreement was suspended and logging halted. Curiously, where Burmese loggers had been given contracts by SLORC and the Forest Department elsewhere in Burma around the same time, illegal logging was also an issue and this led to such agreements also being terminated by 1994. Compiled with the continued encroachment upon Burma’s forests by the peasantry who still sought to ignore forest law, Burma’s forests were still under threat.

At this time, the SLORC government also passed the Forest Law of 1992, which supported the incorporation of social issues into forest management, in addition to broader conversation aims – this new Law was supplemented with the National Forest Policy written by the Forest Department in 1994, which echoed the sentiments of the 1992 Law. However, forest conservation was still the prevailing issue, as was the need for the forest to provide revenue for the state, the Law thus allowed the state to begin doubling the number of forest reserves in the more remote regions of Burma, which had recently been relinquished of insurgent groups and their rule. This aim was supported through the state at the time signing Burma up to various organisations promoting forest conservation, including the International Tropical Timber Organisation. Subsequently, taungya forestry, and shifting cultivation in general, was once again to be outlawed, because it directly conflicted with the aims of rational and scientific forestry, thereby igniting peasant-state tensions for another time. Similarly, the use of forests beyond cultivation was to also be controlled, signalling to any outsider that state forestry and peasant use of the forest are at two ends of a political spectrum associated with resource access and control.

More recent years have in fact seen further bans of forestry within Burma, and to this date the state has banned logging in some areas for the benefit of the forests. In addition, the Burmese Army has set fire to plantations owned by small communities after the communities failed to provide forced labour. This details how the forest is still critical, to this day, and that an attack on the forest is an attack on the community.

This scene might not be so common in some areas of Burma, in 2016/17! Source: Environmental Investigation Agency.

Source: Bryant, R. (1997) The Political Ecology of Forestry in Burma. UK: Hurst & Company.

A history of state forestry in Burma

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).


Altman, N. (2000) Sacred Trees: Spirituality, Wisdom & Well-Being. USA: Sterling Publishing.

Anderson, K. (2003) Nature, culture, & big old trees: live oaks and ceibas in the landscapes of Louisiana and Guatemala. USA: University of Texas Press.

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Dudley, N., Bhagwat, S., Higgins-Zogib, L., Lassen, B., Verschuuren, B., & Wild, R. (2010) Conservation of Biodiversity in Sacred Natural Sites in Asia and Africa: A Review of the Scientific Literature. In Veschuuren, B., McNeely, J., Oviedo, G., & Wild, R. (eds.) Sacred Natural Sites: Conserving Nature and Culture. UK: Earthscan.

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Trees and religion: Worldwide indigenous religions

Trees and religion: Taoism

See part VI of this series here.

Taoism, which is popular in China (and other parts of Asia), is another religion that has a discernible stance on trees. Within the religious texts, numerous rules relate to how man must associate with nature, and they include: do not hurt trees, do not burn the forests, and do not fell trees without reason. The stance behind such rationales is that trees (as well as plants in general) are considered living beings, and therefore must be respected (Zhihua, 2012).

With regards to the important trees, or tree species, within Taoism, one can certainly identify the peach (Prunus sp. – multiple species) as occupying a high rank. This is because it is said that the eight immortals (not gods) within Taoist doctrines frequented banquets hosted by the Queen Mother of the West (‘Xiwangmu‘) in the Kunlun mountains. The abode of the Queen was home to the Peach Tree of Immortality (the Tree of Life) that blossomed every 3,000 years, and that is where the eight immortals sustained their immortality, having eaten the fruit of the Tree during a particular banquet (Cooper, 2010; Faust & Timon, 1995; Little & Eichman, 2000; Wong, 2011). The (carved) stones and skin of peach fruit are also used to make talismans, as are they used to aid in the process of conducting an incantation, whilst the wood of the peach also has religious importance, where it is used to construct ritual instruments that ward off demons (Zhihua, 2012). Symbolically, the peach also holds importance, where it is the tree that represents youth, marriage, wealth, and longevity (Cooper, 2010).

The Queen Mother of the West, depicted next to deer and almost certainly a peach tree in blossom. Source: Hero’s Journey.

Beyond merely the peach tree, many other trees are considered important within the religion. Because Taoists subscribe to the concept of yin-yang, by where everything must be balanced equally between yin (including the feminine) and yang (including the masculine), the use of trees is important when it comes to landscaping; such balance equalises the artificial and the natural (Fowler, 2005). Therefore, in the gardens made by Taoists, trees feature markedly in order to provide the yin. However, there exist some trees possess distinctly high yin-yang qualities, such as the pine (Pinus spp.) and the willow (Salix spp.), and therefore their presence within Taoist gardens was generally crucial (Cooper, 2010).

Almonds, cherries, peaches, and plums (Prunus spp.) also featured heavily within the gardens, because of their yin-yang balance, attractive, blossom and symbolic importance (which was explained earlier, with regards to the peach). For example, the almond symbolises watchfulness and adversity, whilst the cherry provides purity (yin) and nobility (yang), and the plum strength and longevity (Cooper, 1977). These yang traits of watchfulness, adversity, strength, and longevity, are offset with the beauty of the spring blossom of the almond and plum, which is an evidently yin characteristic.


Cooper, J. (1977) The symbolism of the Taoist garden. Studies in Comparative Religion. 11 (4). p224-234.

Cooper, J. (2010) An Illustrated Introduction to Taoism: The Wisdom of the Sages. China: World Wisdom, Inc.

Faust, M. & Timon, B. (1995) Origin and Dissemination of Peach. In Janick, J. (ed.) Horticultural Reviews, Volume 17. USA: John Wiley & Sons.

Fowler, J. (2005) An Introduction to the Philosophy and Religion of Taoism: Pathways to Immortality. UK: Sussex Academic Press.

Little, S. & Eichman, S. (2000) Taoism and the Arts of China. Belgium: The Art Institute of Chicago.

Wong, E. (2011) Taoism: An Essential Guide. USA: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Zhihua, Y. (2012) Taoist Philosophy on Environmental Protection. In Mou, Z. (ed.) Taoism. The Netherlands: BRILL.

Trees and religion: Taoism

Trees and religion: Jainism

See part V of this series here.

Jainism, a religion from the Indian region, is also worthy of note within this series, despite being one of the smaller major world religions. Its origins are debated, as to whether the ancient Vedic religion pre-dated it or not (Shah, 1998), though such origins are clearly beyond the scope of this post. Therefore, with specific focus on the stance Jainism takes on the natural world, and specifically trees, one can observe that the stance adopted is one of marked non-violence (ahimsa) – greater than that of both Buddhism and Hinduism, in fact (Altman, 2000; Hall, 2011). The rationale behind this assessment – provided originally by Mahavira (the eminent ‘teacher’ of Jainism) – of plant life is that, because plants are able to respire, metabolise, reproduce, and die, they are living. In turn, plants are considered to possess independent life souls, which are encased within their physical structure (Arumugam, 2014; Tobias, 1991). Trees may even have multiple souls (Fynes, 1996). Such souls can be reborn into the body of an animal, and even a human – the reincarnation process is not limited to humans and animals (Hall, 2011). However, a soul can only be liberated following an existence in the human form.

Jain literature does however indicate that plants are not necessarily intelligent (though they can feel karmic emotions, such as anger, passion, and pride), and thus the acquisition of resources for life processes is perhaps only a survival instinct (Hall, 2011). Regardless, because the religion adopts the outlook of not harming living beings, plants (including trees) are not to be unjustly harmed. Fruits and other materials can, of course, be harvested from trees (Jainas are vegetarians), though the trees themselves cannot be uprooted, as this kills them (Altman, 2000; Sims, 2016). Unlike both Buddhism and Hinduism, Jainism also has no God – worship is considered something that interferes, and runs counter to, nature. Instead, as Tobias (1993) and Long (2009) write, Jainas revere. Trees are not excluded, in this regard. Mahavira speaks of trees as having inherent beauty, and instead of seeing them as suitable for their timber that can be used to construct buildings and other objects, they should be seen as “noble, high, round, with many branches, beautiful and magnificent” (Chapple, 2001).

Within the Jain religion, the following trees are considered to be of great importance: the acacia (Vachellia nilotica), bel (Aegle marmelos), bodhi tree or pipal (Ficus religiosa) and other figs (Ficus spp.), kadam (Neolamarckia cadamba), mango (Mangifera indica), tamarind (Tamarindus indica), and teak (Tectona grandis), amongst others (Begum & Barua, 2012; Chandrakanth & Romm, 1991; Chapple, 2002). With regards to the bel (Aegle marmelos), it it understood that the 23rd Jain teacher (the one before the eminent Mahavira) gained enlightenment under the tree (Ariharan & Nagendra Prasad, 2013). The pipal (Ficus religiosa), another highly-regarded tree, may act as a symbol of the Jain religion (Choudhury, 2012). Such aforementioned tree species, in addition to others not mentioned, may therefore reside within and around Jain temples (Kiernan, 2015; Lal et al., 2014).

The Ranakpur Jain Temple, which sits amongst wooded hillside. Source: Pilgrimaide.

In some instances, Jainas may also partake in the planting of trees (notably on degraded land), and perhaps most notably of the tree species seen as worthy of particular reverence. However, Jain monks and nuns may refrain from planting trees, as in disturbing the soil to plant a tree they may kill various soil micro-organisms, which goes against the non-violence aspect of the religion (Altman, 2000; Arumugam, 2014; Kiernan, 2015). On a similar level, monks and nuns will have a very strict vegetarian diet, because their holy scriptures forbid the consumption of raw plants. Of course, this means such individuals cannot even eat fruit, and as this is not wholly practical, there are deviations from the rule (Hall, 2011). Nonetheless, it does demonstrate exactly how highly Jains regard plants.


Altman, N. (2000) Sacred Trees: Spirituality, Wisdom & Well-Being. USA: Sterling Publishing.

Ariharan, V. & Nagendra Prasad, P. (2013) Mahavilva-a sacred tree with immense medicinal secrets: a mini review. Rasayan Journal of Chemistry. 6 (4). p342-352.

Arumugam, D. (2014) The perspective of environmental protection in Jainism: special reference to the concept of Parasparopagraho Jivanam. Global Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies. 3 (1). p25-45.

Begum, S. & Barua, I. (2012) Ficus species and its significance. International Journal of Computer Applications in Engineering Sciences. 2 (3). p273-75.

Chandrakanth, M. & Romm, J. (1991) Sacred forests, secular forest policies and people’s actions. Natural Resources Journal. 31. p741-756.

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Chapple, C. (2002) Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life. USA: Harvard University Press.

Choudhury, J. (2012) Tree worship tradition in India and origin of Jagannath cult. Odisha Review. June 2012. p55-57.

Fynes, R. (1996) Plant Souls in Jainism and Manichaeism The Case for Cultural Transmission. East and West. 46 (1-2). p21-44.

Hall, M. (2011) Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. USA: Suny Press.

Kiernan, K. (2015) Landforms as sacred places: implications for geodiversity and geoheritage. Geoheritage. 7 (2). p177-193.

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Long, J. (2009) The Paradoxes of Radical Asceticism: Jainism as a Therapeutic Paradigm. In Derfer, G., Wang, Z., & Weber, M. (eds.) The Roar of Awakening: A Whiteheadian Dialogue Between Western Psychotherapies and Eastern Worldviews. Germany: Ontos.

Shah, N. (1998) Jainism: The World of Conquerors, Volume 1. UK: Sussex Academic Press.

Sims, L. (2016) Jainism and Nonviolence: From Mahavira to Modern Times. The Downtown Review. 2 (1). p1-8.

Tobias, M. (1991) Life Force: The World of Jainism. USA: Jain Publishing Company.

Tobias, M. (1993) Jainism and Ecology. In Tucker, M. & Grimm, J. (eds.) Worldviews and Ecology: Religion, Philosophy and the Environment. USA: Bucknell Press.

Trees and religion: Jainism

Trees and religion: Hinduism

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

Hinduism, which also arose from the ancient Vedic religion, also placed marked value upon trees (and plants, in general). With regards to the philosophical outlook on plant life, in contrast with Buddhism, there is a clearer and prevailing view of plants being taken into moral consideration. Granted, it must be stressed, prior to further explanation, that Hinduism itself has at least six different offshoots that have distinct differences between one another, and therefore it is the core texts that are generally referred to (Hall, 2011). This clearer view on plant life is because Hinduism generally considers all beings as being connected via Brahman, and as a consequence plants possess consciousness and are therefore sentient (Framarin, 2014b), and trees are even self aware according to the Yogavasistha (Hall, 2011). Consequently, plants are part of the cycle of death and rebirth, known as samsara. Whether this is sentience in the human sense, or simply because plants are alive, is however questioned by in another text by Framarin (2014a). However, one can observe how trees, in particular, were considered to be able to experience happiness and sorrow, as detailed in the ancient Puranas (Dwivedi, 1990).

Regardless of exact outlook, the fact that Hinduism recognises plants as at least living beings has implications towards their attitude towards plants, which is one of non-violence. Despite this, in the case of whether a plant must be sacrificed to save a human, it is considered that humans have greater moral standing, by virtue of their heightened sentience and their mobility (Hall, 2011). This outlook may however only be more recent, as more historic Hindu texts suggest that all life is of equal sanctity and must be safeguarded (unless there is adequate justification to do otherwise), because only God has dominion over all life (Dwivedi, 1990). In light of the aforementioned, it is of little surprise that conservation issues are becoming more pertinent within Hindu cultures, and particularly within the middle-upper class societies that can afford to care (Tomalin, 2004).

The medicinal deity Dhanvantari is associated with the neem tree. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

With specific reference to trees, it is not surprising that it is the religiously- and economically- important trees that are most actively associated with the religion and culture. To begin, it is however necessary to recognise that Hindus consider all trees to have a tree deity, which can be worshipped and provided with offerings including water and sacred threads. These tree deities do lead trees to adopt a position of significant religious importance (Dwivedi, 1990), though nonetheless, some trees will hold particularly acute religious importance; and notably those that have direct associations with principal deities. For example, Shitala (the goddess of poxes) is considered to reside within a neem tree (Azadirachta indica) – perhaps because neem has been used to treat an array of poxes and other illnesses for many centuries (Edwardes, 1922; Norten & Pütz, 2000) – and as a result the neem tree is considered sacred (Hall, 2011). The medicinal god Dhanvantari also has associations with the tree. In fact, the neem may even be of divine origin, as the Hindu demigod Garuda was thought to have spilled a few drops of the elixir of immortality onto the tree, on his way to Heaven with the elixir (Puri, 1999). Neem leaves may also be used to ward off evil spirits, immediately after childbirth (Edwardes, 1922).

Leaves of the neem tree are used for their medicinal value. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The goddess of fortune and prosperity, Lakshmi, is also found to reside within a tree – the sacred fig, or pipal (Ficus religiosa) (Hall, 2011). In fact, the three principal gods in Hinduism, Brahma, Shiva, and Vishu, all have associations with the pipal, and is subsequently worshipped every Saturday during the fifth Hindu month of Shraavana (de Cleene & Lejeune, 1999; Edwardes, 1922), and perhaps even every morning throughout the year (Chandrakanth & Romm, 1991). The gular (Ficus racemosa) also has associations to all three of these gods: the roots Brahma, the bark Vishnu, and the branches Shiva (Krishna & Amirthalingam, 2009). Vishu is also associated with the banyan (Ficus benghalensis) and sometimes wholly portrayed as the gular (Ficus racemosa) (Chandrakanth & Romm, 1991), whilst Shiva has associations with the bel (Aegle marmelos), where leaves are used to worship Shiva, in order to gain redemption from a sinful act (Jagetia et al., 2005; Niroula & Singh, 2015), and also maulsari (Mimusops elengi).

Rudra, who pre-dated Shiva and was a storm god, and who is now seen as perhaps interchangeable with Shiva, is also linked with the rudraksha tree (Elaeocarpus ganitrus). For this reason, those who worship Shiva will often adorn themselves with rosaries made with seeds of the rudraksha tree, during meditation (Chandrakanth & Romm, 1991; Garg et al., 2013; Naresh et al., 2013). Temples dedicated to Shiva will also be surrounded by five species of sacred tree, as detailed in the Puranas: the amala (Phyllanthus emblica), banyan (Ficus benghalensis), bel (Aegle marmelos), neem (Azadirachta indica), and pipal (Ficus religiosa) (Haberman, 2013). The avatar Dattatreya, who is considered to comprise all three gods Brahma, Shiva, and Vishu, is associated with the gular (Ficus racemosa), and this is not surprising as all three deities, individually, have links with this tree (Chandrakanth & Romm, 1991).

A Hindu woman worshipping the pipal (peepal) tree. Source: Hindutva.

Krishna, another important Hindu deity, has many associations with the kadam (Neolamarckia cadamba), and was, for example, understood to have greatly enjoyed its presence (Haberman, 2013). It is also a tree that Krisha grew up around, and into where he climbed after stealing the clothes of some very beautiful cowherd girls (Krishna & Amirthalingam, 2009). The banyan (Ficus benghalensis) was also said to have been linked to Krishna, by virtue of the fact it was the tree that was said to have saved his life during the world flood (Altman, 2000). Such aforementioned trees may also themselves be worshipped, for the god(s) that they represent (as the gods, according to the Puranas, could adopt the form of a tree), and this would be the case in particular when in rural and forested areas of India. In these instances, the trees may even have been caged, so to protect them from damage (Haberman, 2013).

Persisting with the religious aspects of trees within Hinduism, one can also observe how the planting of trees – particularly groves – is a highly important act worthy of marked religious merit (Coward, 2003; Edwardes, 1922; Haberman, 2013). At times, these groves may be planted in patterns that accord to the cosmic alignment of the stars, planets, and the Zodiac, as understood in Hinduism; as may temple forests, which frequent the Indian landscape serve multiple spiritual and religious purposes (Chandrakanth & Romm, 1991; Chandrakanth et al., 1990). These groves may also be more simple plantations, as is the case in eastern Kumaun, where the deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara) has been abundantly planted beyond its natural range (Guha, 2000). Established groves within forests, such those of mangrove (Rhiziophora spp.) in Bangladesh, are also a site for prayer once per year, for Hindus of the lower castes (Khan et al., 2008). Where these sacred groves have been assumed from pre-dating cultures, unlike with Christianity, and to a slightly lesser degree Islam, their spiritual importance is conserved and the groves remain as places of worship (Ormsby & Bhagwat, 2010).

Trees may also be formally married to one another, in some instances. In fact, the creation of groves and the marriage of the trees within the groves to one another (some years later) is considered a particularly important custom within the Hindu religion, and cases of individual mango trees (Mangifera indica) being married to individual tamarind trees (Tamarindus indica) are documented (Edwardes, 1922). Neem (Azadirachta indica) and pipal (Ficus religiosa) trees may also be planted so close together that they essentially grow ‘as one’. This ‘marriage’ of the two tree species is considered to represent the bonding of male (pipal) and female (neem), and if the unified trees are circumambulated after bath in the morning then they are said to cure sterility (Chandrakanth et al., 1990; Haberman, 2013). In some cases, these marriage ceremonies are incredibly grand (and thus expensive), such as when a neem and pipal tree were married in the Indian town of Palakkad – the neem was four years younger than the pipal, and was adorned with traditional wedding items. In this case, a Hindu priest was employed to undertake the ceremony, whilst an astrologer was employed to select the correct (appropriate) date (Haberman, 2013).

A pipal and neem tree that have been married to one another. Source: In India.

A variety of tree species have also historically been worshipped by individual tribes of the Hindu religion, across India. Specific tribes will attribute a specific group of tree species to their ancestry, including the banyan (Ficus benghalensis), kadam (Neolamarckia cadamba), mango (Mangifera indica), and shami (Prosopis cineraria), and the marriage of individual tribe members to those of different tribes can only occur if the two tribes do not share ancestral tree species (Edwardes, 1922). The trees sacred to the tribes will also usually not be cut down or damaged, and instead revered and protected.

The theme of trees and marriage in fact extends even further, when it can occur between a man (or woman) and a particular tree (of the opposite gender) (Haberman, 2013). This is usually a practice that occurs after an individual has been married twice already, as a third marriage is seen as inauspicious (and is also illegal in the Punjab). Therefore, instead of marrying a human for the third time, a Punjabi individual is married to a babel tree (Vachellia nilotica), and afterwards married to another human (for the fourth marriage). In the city of Chennai, a similar custom can be observed, and instead an individual is married to a serut tree (Streblus asper), that is then unfortunately felled, paving the way for a fourth marriage (Edwardes, 1922; Haberman, 2013).

Hindu brides may also, prior to marriage, assuming they were born under “inauspicious planets”, be married to a tree (which rids her of any ill-omens that may harm her husband), and then to the groom. Conversely, if a groom is found to have been born under very well-aligned planets, the marriage between him and his bride is sometimes compared to the bride marrying a fig tree (Ficus religiosa). The general idea behind why this marriage between a woman and a tree occurs may be, again according to Edwardes (1922), to “avert the curse of widowhood”, because the tree (groom) is always alive (hopefully!). It may also be to pass-off any bad luck onto the tree, which is, of course, not necessarily that good for the tree! On a more philosophical level, it also keeps alive man’s kinship with nature, which is important within Hinduism (Haberman, 2013). Hindu women, each year, will also fast and worship both the goddess Savitri and the banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis), in order to ensure their husband and sons have long and married lives (Wadley, 1980).

This pipal tree was married to a woman, and has been suitably ‘dressed’ for the occasion. Source: Homegrown.

On a more cultural level, numerous traditions can be observed with regards to the consumption or utilisation of certain trees, in accordance with particular calendar months. For example, in West Bengal, certain Hindu tribes do not consume fruits of the genus Zizyphus until after January’s full moon, nor do they eat mango (Mangifera indica) until after the Baruni ceremony in late March, or the fruits of the drumstick tree (Moringa oleifera) until after the Charak festival in April. Other tribes refrain from harvesting the sal (Shorea robusta) until after the Salui festival in March to April, and the fruits of the karam (Haldina cordifolia) until after the Karam festival in August to September (Deb & Malhotra, 2001). It is most likely that these harvesting limitations are due to economic reasons, so that the trees are not adversely impacted prior to the time in which they provide the most value. Within other Hindu rituals and customs, there is also the overt declaration that trees that have been struck by lightning, display dieback in the periphery of the crown, contain many bird nests, or grow upon a sacred site, are unfit for use in the timber trade to make bedsteads, as they are wholly certain to bring ill health – and possibly death – to an individual (Edwardes, 1922).

On a symbolic level, within the Bhagavad Gita, which is a Hindu text, the upside-down tree mentioned by Krishna also has importance within the religion (Arapura, 1975). This tree’s roots are up in the skies, whilst its foliage is down upon the earth, and this is said to symbolise man’s origins (or roots) from divinity and consciousness (de Cleene & Lejeune, 1999). The suspended roots displays these origins of man, whilst the branches upon the earth detail the workings of the mind, which is vastly complex in composition and function. The leaves, which are attached to the branches, symbolise emotions and thoughts that man will experience, and their temporary nature, as these leaves are eventually shed and re-grown. However, these leaves also need the water and nutrients from the roots, which connects man back to divinity and consciousness (the roots in the sky – the spiritual world), from where the mind should be based and build from, in spite of the temptation to base conscious existence upon emotion and the material world (the leaves) (Prabhupada, 1989).


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Edwardes, S. (1922) Tree-Worship in India. Empire Forestry Journal. 1 (1). p78-86.

Framarin, C. (2014a) Ātman, Identity, and Emanation: Arguments for a Hindu Environmental Ethic. In Callicott, J. & McRae, J. (eds.) Environmental Philosophy in Asian Traditions of Thought. USA: State University of New York Press.

Framarin, C. (2014b) Hinduism and Environmental Ethics: Law, Literature, and Philosophy. UK: Routledge.

Guha, R. (2000) The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya. USA: Oxford University Press.

Haberman, D. (2013) People Trees: Worship of Trees in Northern India. USA: Oxford University Press.

Hall, M. (2011) Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. USA: Suny Press.

Jagetia, G., Venkatesh, P., & Baliga, M. (2005) Aegle marmelos (L.) Correa inhibits the proliferation of transplanted Ehrlich ascites carcinoma in mice. Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin. 28 (1). p58-64.

Khan, M., Khumbongmayum, A., & Tripathi, R. (2008) The sacred groves and their significance in conserving biodiversity an overview. International Journal of Ecology and Environmental Sciences. 34 (3). p277-291.

Krishna, N. & Amirthalingam, M. (2009) Sacred Plants of India. India: Penguin Books.

Naresh, K., Mukesh, D., & Vivek, A. (2013) Rudrakha: A Review on Mythological, Spiritual and Medicinal Importance. Global Journal of Research on Medicinal Plants & Indigenous Medicine. 2 (1). p65-72.

Niroula, G. & Singh, N. (2015) Religion and Conservation: A Review of Use and Protection of Sacred Plants and Animals in Nepal. Journal of Institute of Science and Technology. 20 (2). p61-66.

Norten, E. & Pütz, J. (2000) Neem: India’s Miraculous Healing Plant. Canada: Healing Arts Press.

Ormsby, A. & Bhagwat, S. (2010) Sacred forests of India: a strong tradition of community-based natural resource management. Environmental Conservation. 37 (3). p320-326.

Prabhupada, A. (1989) Bhagavad-Gita as it is. USA: Bhaktivendata Book Trust International.

Puri, H. (1999) Neem: The Divine Tree Azadirachta indica. The Netherlands: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Tomalin, E. (2004) Bio-divinity and biodiversity: Perspectives on religion and environmental conservation in India. Numen. 51 (3). p265-295.

Wadley, S. (1980) Hindu women’s family and household rites in a North Indian village. In Falk, N. & Gross, R. (eds.) Unspoken Worlds: women’s religious lives in non-western cultures. USA: Harper and Row.

Trees and religion: Hinduism

Trees and religion – Ancient Mesopotamia

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

As elucidated to previously (in the section on Christianity) in brief with regards to the goddess Asherah and the Canaanites, other cultures of the geographical region (encompassing the Levant, and the surrounding areas) that spawned the more contemporary religions that are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, also had their associations with trees – associations that were much more direct, in terms of reverence.

For example, in the polytheistic Mesopotamian religions that spanned the Akkadian, Assyrian, and Babylonian empires, the goddess Ishtar, who was the goddess of fertility, was sometimes depicted alongside a sacred tree (Stuckey, 2002; Weinfeld, 1996). Inanna, the goddess of fertility in the earlier Sumerian empire, was also sometimes depicted alongside a sacred tree (Orrelle & Horwitz, 2016). This sacred tree was, in certain instances, palm-like (Stuckey, 2002; Orrelle & Horwitz, 2016). Perhaps, though by no means conclusively, like in the later monotheistic religions, Giovino (2007) writes, on the back of previous research, that this was the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera). This is supported by Altman (2000), with regards to the Assyrian cosmic tree being the date palm. The sacred tree of the Mesopotamian religions would also, in some instances, bear the fruit of the pomegranate (Punica granatum) (Parpola, 1993), as would it sometimes be used, by the Assyrians, to depict the generational family tree of their Gods (ranging from the upper tier of Aššur and Anu, to the middle and lower tiers of gods including Ishtar, Marduk, and Nergal). For the Babylonians, the Tree of Truth (synonymous with the Tree of Knowledge) and Tree of Life were also said to guard the eastern gate of the heavens (Altman, 2000).

The Assyrian Tree of Life. Source: Samizdat.

With reference to the cosmic tree (axis mundi) of the region’s religions, one can identify the outskirts of the city of Eridu, near to the delta of the Euphrates River, being host to the sacred tree of the Babylonians. As will be detailed later for other religions and their sacred trees, the river plays an important role in the location of the sacred tree, as the abyssal waters here were host to Ea (the god of life), and from this water did the earth become fertilised with life (Altman, 2000). In this sense, not only is the cosmic tree imbued with divine life, but from the roots of the this tree does all life obtain its support.

This cosmic tree also was the residence of the Babylonian’s primal mother goddess. For the earlier Sumerians, the cosmic tree, known as the huluppu (according to some sources this was a weeping willow – perhaps Salix babylonica), connected the underworld (Ereshkigal), the mortal realm (Enlil), and the heavenly realm (An), and was subsequently a symbol of life and renewal amongst the priest class (Altman, 2000; Kramer, 1972). Similarly, the tree was found on the banks of the Euphrates River, until being taken by Inanna to the city of Erech and planted in her garden. Here, Inanna hoped that it would grow tall so she could construct a throne from it, but it did not yield any new growth and it thus stood dead up until its demise at the hands of Gilgamesh and other inhabitants of the city (Kramer, 2010). After being felled, its timber was used to create an array of material goods.

Small statues of Asherah, the goddess of fertility in other ancient Semitic religions (as previously ascertained), have also been found in relative abundance, within the region. These statues, complete with upper body features including breasts and a head, are adjoined to a lower body that resembles a tree trunk (von Feldt, 2014). In the Ugaritic religion, there are similar depictions of deities and trees, with some artefacts showing trees emanating from the pubic region (or region between the navel and pubic area) of goddesses (including Athirat – known as Asherah, in later times), signifying again a divine association or similarity (in the conceptual sense) between trees and the mother goddess (Hadley, 2000; Sugimoto, 2012; Stuckey, 2002; Orrelle & Horwitz, 2016; Vidal, 2004; von Feldt, 2014).

The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was a prominent and lengthy poem of the cultures and religions of the Ancient Mesopotamian world, provides further reference to trees within the Mesopotamian region and its respective religions. In this poem, which does vary somewhat between the different Mesopotamian cultures (notably with regards to how Gilgamesh intends to establish his name in history and achieve immortality, after reaching the sacred forest), Gilgamesh and Enkidu task themselves with slaying Humbaba, the guardian of the near boundless primeval sacred cedar (Cedrus libani) forest as divinely appointed by Enlil (and where the gods and goddesses did reside – notably the goddess Ishtar), after Humbaba became enraged at the pair when Gilgamesh and Enkidu attempted to fell the sacred cedar that Humbaba embodied – in addition to other cedars within the forest (Cusack, 2011; Heidel, 1949; Lechler, 1937; Tigay, 1982). Humbaba exclaimed, in particular, that the sacred cedars were being desecrated and murdered by the pair (Kovacs, 1985; Shaffer, 1983).

Throughout the pair’s travel to the forest, and within it, the solar deity Shamash (Utu) aids them – albeit not initially – by appearing to Gilgamesh in his dreams (which Enkidu interprets), after Gilgamesh prays to Shamash every day for safe travels (which are granted) (Bilić, 2007; George, 2003; Harrison, 1992). Following the successful slaying of Humbaba (again made possible by Shamash), Gilgamesh and Enkidu proceeded to fell the cedars en masse, and use the timber for construction purposes within the largely treeless Mesopotamian region, including for the main door for the Temple of Enlil in Nippur (Harrison, 1992; Kovacs, 1985). Enlil was reportedly enraged by this act of killing Humbaba and felling the cedars, at least in the Sumerian version, and thus condemned Enkidu for the remainder of his life (Tigay, 1982).

The pair take battle with Humbaba. Source: Black Gate.

Whether or not the cedars themselves are any sort of main aspect of the Epic of Gilgamesh is questionable, though at the very least one can ascertain that the cedar forest was associated strongly with the gods, both because that was their home, and the fact that Enlil appointed a guardian to protect the cedar forest from the haunts of man. This guardian, according to Shaffer (1983), may have even potentially obtained its power from the cedars. Furthermore, the Old Babylonian Akkadian stone fragment of the tale cites the felling of the cedars as equating to that of murder, which suggests that the cedars were held in high regard. Such a high value of the cedar of Lebanon certainly extended to other religions of the world, as noted in earlier sections of this series.


Altman, N. (2000) Sacred Trees: Spirituality, Wisdom & Well-Being. USA: Sterling Publishing.

Bilić, T. (2007) A Note on the Celestial Orientation: Was Gilgamesh Guided to the Cedar Forest by the Pleiades?. The Journal of the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb. 40 (1). p11-14.

Cusack, C. (2011) The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations. UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

George, A. (2003) The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts – Volume II. USA: Oxford University Press.

Giovino, M. (2007) The Assyrian Sacred Tree: A History of Interpretations. Switzerland: Academic Press.

Hadley, J. (2000) The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Harrison, R. (1992) Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. USA: The University of Chicago Press.

Heidel, A. (1949) The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels. 2nd ed. USA: The University of Chicago Press.

Kovacs, M. (1985) The Epic of Gilgamesh. USA: Stanford University Press.

Kramer, S. (1972) Sumerian Mythology: A Study of Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the Third Millennium B.C.. USA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Kramer, S. (2010) The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character. USA: The University of Chicago Press.

Lechler, G. (1937) The tree of life in Indo-European and Islamic cultures. Ars Islamica. 4 (1). p369-419.

Orrelle, E. & Horwitz, L. (2016) The pre-iconography, iconography and iconology of a sixth to fifth millennium BC Near Eastern incised bone. Time and Mind. 9 (1). p3-42.

Parpola, S. (1993) The Assyrian Tree of Life: Tracing the Origins of Jewish Monotheism and Greek Philosophy. Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 52 (3). p161-208.

Shaffer, A. (1983) Gilgamesh, the Cedar Forest and Mesopotamian History. Journal of the American Oriental Society. 103 (1). p307-313.

Stuckey, J. (2002) The great goddesses of the Levant. Bulletin of the Canadian Society for Mesopotamian Studies. 37 (1). p27-48.

Sugimoto, D. (2012) “Tree of Life” Decoration on Iron Age Pottery from the Southern Levant. Orient. 47 (1). p125-146.

Tigay, J. (1982) The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic. USA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Vidal, J. (2004) The Sacred Landscape of the Kingdom Of Ugarit. Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions. 4 (1). p143-153.

von Feldt, A. (2014) Does God Have a Wife?. The FARMS Review. 19 (1). p81-118.

Weinfeld, M. (1996) Feminine features in the imagery of God in Israel: the sacred marriage and the sacred tree. Vetus Testamentum. 46 (1). p515-529.

Trees and religion – Ancient Mesopotamia

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 – Islam

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

Another monotheistic religion, that of Islam, is also seen as having been destructive, in the arboreal sense. For largely the same reasons as those stated above with regards to Christianity, sacred groves and sacred trees were sometimes cut down, or their sanctity lost, upon acquisition of the land by the faith of Islam (Campbell, 2005; Dafni, 2006; Wessing, 1999). Despite this, the holy texts do state that trees should be both protected and planted, though the reasons behind such a stance largely involve the benefit their retention has for humans, and notably in the economic (Kula, 2001; Mangunjaya & McKay, 2012), social (Khan et al., 2008), and religious (trees may exist around sacred tombs, and are protected as a result) sense (Deil et al., 2005; Khan et al., 2008; Swamy et al., 2003). This does not make the trees themselves sacred, however – some Islamic scholars have stated that it is in fact impossible for trees to be sacred (Dafni, 2011), and trees and forests were still cleared during conquest in an attempt to ‘restart’ the cultural history of the land (Wessing, 1999).

Groves of trees, nonetheless, are very important in rural areas, across the Islamic world, where they may serve as cemetery grounds, as places where male circumcision takes place, as sites that can provide blessing, and where other religious ceremonies are undertaken (Ben-Ami, 1998; Dafni, 2007; Lebbie & Freudenberger, 1996). The cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani), in this regard, is considered a particularly important tree (Musselman, 2007); as are the cypress (Cupressus sempervirens), olive (Olea europaea var. oleaster), date palm (Phoenix dactylifera), and fig (Ficus spp.), which feature prominently within Muslim graveyards (Dafni et al., 2006), and it is said that Allah himself blessed the olive and fig trees (Braverman, 2009). Subsequently, de Cleene & Lejeune (1999) allege that the olive was the axis mundi of the Islamic faith. A reason for why rural areas retain sacred groves of trees may be because pre-Islamic (traditional) beliefs and customs persisted following conversion – the same applies to Christianity, also (Blench, 2004; Dafni, 2011). However, even in rural areas, visiting sites of sacred trees can still be forbidden (Dafni, 2011).

The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera). Source: Islam and Evolution.

In more recent decades, criticism of the world’s environmental issues have been raised by some individuals of the Islamic faith, who state that the lack of faith in the secular West has led to the downgrading of morality and the upgrading of consumerism and disposability. Therefore, the West is home to a growing number of Muslims that support pro-environmental projects (Gillat-Ray & Bryant, 2011). Granted, certain authors have suggested that this critique of Western culture has a more nefarious undertone, as the two cultures collide more broadly (Erdur, 1997). Such issues do not escape the haunts of the Islamic world however, as certain countries that practice the faith have also experienced similar adverse environmental circumstances (Kula, 2001; Mangunjaya & McKay, 2012; Rice, 2006; Wersal, 1995), and a drive back towards religiosity is therefore being sought to return the faith to its more protective stance (Mangunjaya, 2011; Rice, 2006).

Much like in the Bible, trees also feature within the holy texts of the Islamic faith – albeit to a lesser degree, in terms of the diversity of species mentioned, and the frequency of their mentions (Khafagi et al., 2006; Musselman, 2007). The acacia (Vachellia seyal), for example, is considered to be a tree in which followers of Islam relaxed underneath in the Quran, after God rewarded them with the trees’ presence. Similarly, allegiance to God was sworn under the acacia (Musselman, 2007). Date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) is however the most abundantly-referenced (a total of ten to twenty times) tree species in the Quran, with its valuable fruit crop being its prized asset (Musselman, 2007). Moreover, its much wider range of possible uses as stated in the Quran, such as using its foliage for roof covering, means it was (and is) a very well-utilised tree (Farooqi, 2011).

Vachellia seyal within the Egyptian desert. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Other tree species or genera mentioned in the Quran include the fig (Ficus carica), olive (Olea europaea var. oleaster), pomegranate (Punica granatum), and tamarisk (Tamarix aphylla), and it is usually the fruits of such trees that are referenced to (Khafagi et al., 2006; Ranjbar et al., 2013) – be it in the practical sense (fruit products), symbolic sense, social sense (giving fruits, such as the pomegranate, to those in need), or religious sense (Farooqi, 2011). In the case of the olive, the Quran remarks on its medicinal value, and suggests that olive oil be consumed orally (Farooqi, 2011; Ranjbar et al., 2013). Medicinal values of other tree species are similarly noted within the Quran, too (Farhangi et al., 2014; Farooqi, 2011; Marwat et al., 2009; Muhammad, 2014), and additional species of tree and their associated medicinal values are addressed, alongside the aforementioned tree species, within some of the Hadiths (Ahmad et al., 2009; Marwat et al., 2009). One Hadith (by Abu Nu’aim, a medieval scholar) also remarks that there is no pomegranate that does not possess at least a single seed from the pomegranates of the (holy) Garden (Farooqi, 2011).


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Trees and religion – Islam