Thoughts on the Symbolism of Trees

Thoughts and reflections on the relationship between Trees and People

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The assertion that humans evolved within the forest environment is probably true, especially from a Darwinian perspective, after all, apes and trees do go together, do they not? I have heard it said that the forest edge rather than the deeper recesses of the forest itself was our ancestral nursery. Whatever the truth may be, and it is unlikely we will ever know for certain; be it depth or edge, trees have played a central role in our lives from the very beginning of our existence.

The tree provides us with food, warmth, building material, medicines, energy, shelter and much much more, and has done so for countless millennia. Yet, until recent times, we were completely ignorant of how absolutely dependent we are upon trees for our existence. The very air we breathe gives us life. Why, because it is the bearer of oxygen, that precious gas generated by trees et al, without which we would survive no more than a few minutes. At the same time trees not only supply us with copious amounts of food but they also lock up immense quantities of carbon; so, chopping them down without thought for their replacement is not a smart move – but, lemming-like, we do, driven by some deep-rooted need, but for what…? 

We now know that the production of oxygen takes place through photosynthesis, which is the conversion of light into food, and without it most life-forms, humankind included, could not exist. In this process carbon dioxide and water are used to produce organic compounds, particularly sugars, using the energy from sunlight. This process takes place predominantly in plants and algae, but also in some species of bacteria; all of which, it is said, release oxygen as a bye-product; a strange term for an essential component that is central to most organic life-forms on this earth! 

Whether we see photosynthesis as science or divine beneficence, it is now acknowledged as the most important process on our world and it is easy to see why. The ability of plants to use sunlight to turn carbon dioxide and water into sugar and oxygen forms the basis of all food chains in nature, and one of the key vehicles of this process is the tree, for each individual tree provides a vast area of leaf surface that is full of the molecule chlorophyll, a unique molecule that can absorb sunlight and convert it into the chemical energy we call sugar, and the precious gas we call oxygen. Furthermore, the fresh water we drink and take so much for granted would be a scarce commodity without the presence of woodland, which plays a crucial role in triggering rainfall, and subsequently in storing the fresh water that falls as such. Arguably, the relationship between trees and all carbon-based life-forms is symbiotic, although it may be more true to say that the tree is not so much a partner as a surrogate parent assisting in the nurture of very special children.

In some circles it is acknowledged that Nature’s ultimate objective is the creation of mature woodland; an undertaking requiring thousands of years to realise.  It is a view that I feel is right, even if it is not an established fact. In the forest, which plainly is Nature’s workshop, light is converted with quiet efficiency into the many forms and materials that are used by Nature. This is particularly so through the alchemy, and I can imagine no better word to describe it, of photosynthesis where each tree receives light and transforms it into a ‘manna from heaven’ that sustains multitudes of life-forms, which are themselves, patently, light in transition. It seems, then, only natural that the forest should evolve slowly and gracefully, after all, as creatures of light made in the image of God, the absolute source of light, we humans are also seeking to fulfil the divine potential that resides in light, and our evolution is evidently just as time consuming. 

Paradoxically, given that we are indeed creatures of light sustained by light, it difficult to comprehend how the urban environment as we know it could have been designed and created by a creature such as man, a creature formed and shaped in and by the forest – yet it has! It is even more difficult to understand how man could develop a culture so firmly attached to technologies of destruction to facilitate its experience. Consider for example the burning of fossil fuels; the petro-chemical engine; the smashing of atoms in atomic power stations; mono-cropping; factory farming; the creation of chemical toxins that destroy the atmosphere – the list is frighteningly long – and rather than living in harmony and concord on the world, the relationship between humanity and Nature is one of thesis/antithesis destined for a destructive climax. 

Nevertheless, there may yet be a more positive destiny awaiting us, for if we are not Nature’s children, we are undoubtedly a close relative; being made of the same stuff – Light. Thus, one can only pray that this destructive process is a phase in the evolution of an immature humanity, a phase that hopefully will pass; a kind of juvenile delinquency if you will, and perhaps as we mature our understanding will grow, and we will come to appreciate the exquisite economy, prudence, and patience of Nature, as did our ancestors, who in their appreciation invested trees not only with respect but with reverence. A respect and reverence that is patently obvious in the mythology and folklore that we have inherited from them, and in which, the forest and its trees figure prominently. Even though in some instances these ancient myths reach us, after the lapse of ages, in distorted and grotesque forms, they are worthy of preservation, not simply as curiosities of folklore, but as emblems or symbols of our place in this world. 

In one form or another, within the myths and legends of our ancestors, there are to be found records of majestic cosmic trees that existed when the elements of creation were still chaotic, and whose branches overshadowed the universe. In India the notion of a primordial cosmogonic tree, as vast as the world itself, and the generator thereof, is widespread. According to the Vedic tradition, the mystical world-tree is understood to be the God Brahma himself, with all the other gods being the branches thereof.

Among the many sacred trees of India, four principal trees stand out. The first is G’ambu, which stands on the summit of Mount Meru; the other three being Ghanta, Kadamba and Ambala. These four great trees, along with four colossal elephants, represent the cardinal points, and are believed to support and uphold the world. However, the tree most widely worshipped in India is the Ficus Religiosa, the Bo or Bodhi tree, or the tree of the Buddha, also called the Peepul, Pipal, Pippala or Ashvattha.

This tree is sacred to Vishnu. It is said that when Brahma appointed rulers over beasts, birds and plants, this holy Fig tree, the Ashvattha, became the sovereign over all trees. Another tree, the Banyan (Ficus (benghalensis) indica), the national tree of India, shares with the Ashvattha the distinction of being one of the most sacred trees in India.

The Indian cosmogonic tree is the symbol not only of vegetation, but of universal life, and immortality. In the Vedic writings it is given various names, such as: Ilpa, Kalpadruma, Kalpaka-taru, and Kalpavriksha, on the fruits of which latter tree the first people were sustained. In its role of the Tree of Paradise, it is called Pârijâta; and as the ambrosial tree – the tree yielding immortal food – it is known as Amrita and Soma.

This celestial tree is described as the Pippala (Peepul), and is alluded to as being in turns visited by two beautiful birds – the one, said to be the moon, feeding itself on the fruit thereon; the other, typifying the sun, hovering and singing melodiously. Under the name of Ilpa (the Jamboa, or Rose-apple) the cosmogonic tree is described as growing in the midst of the lake Ara in Brahma’s world, beyond the river that never grows old, from whence are procured the waters of eternal youth. Brahma imparts to it his own perfume, and from it obtains the sap of vitality. To its branches the dead cling and climb, in order that they may enter the regions of immortality.

As the Soma, the world-tree is in Indian mysticism a manifestation of the great Soma, god of the moon and king of all trees and vegetation. The Soma-tree furnishes the divine ambrosia or essence of immortality to the gods. Hence this mystic tree, from the foliage of which drops the life-giving Soma, is sometimes characterised as the Hindu Moon-Tree. This ambrosial tree, besides providing the precious Soma, bears the fruit and seed of every kind known in the world.

In Scandinavian mythology there is a mythical tree called Yggdrasil, it is a vast cosmic tree that holds together heaven, earth, and the underworld. Nine worlds are believed to be contained within it. Its trunk rises though the centre of the earth, emerging from the summit of the sacred mountain of Asgard, the home of the gods. At its roots is a fountain of sacred water that has the powers of purification and regeneration. It has three main roots, beneath the first is to be found the realm of the Frost Giants, beneath the second the realm of Man, and beneath the third the realm of Hell. Its branches spread over the whole world, and even reach above the heavenly realm of Asgard, whilst its roots penetrate to the very depths of the underworld. According to The Prose or younger Edda the chief and most holy seat of the gods is located by the ash Yggdrasil; where the gods meet in council every day. It is the greatest and best of all trees; its branches spread all over the world and reach above heaven. The branches are thought to be the celestial regions; their leaves, the clouds and their buds or fruits, the stars.

Perched upon the uppermost branch is Vithofnir, a fabulous golden cockerel; the ever watchful guardian of the tree. Another legend speaks of a wise eagle perched at the top of the tree, between whose eyes sits a hawk called Vedfolner. The eagle symbolises the air, the hawk the wind-still æther. Four harts run across the branches of the tree, and bite the buds: these are said to be the four cardinal winds (or elements). A squirrel by the name of Ratatosk runs up and down the Ash causing strife between the eagle and a great dragon called Nidhögg. This dragon is constantly gnawing at the roots of the tree. Beneath the shade of this tree the gods assemble every day in council.

The first of the three roots is in heaven with the gods (the Asa); beneath which lies the sacred fountain or well of Urd. In this fountain swim two swans who are said to typify the sun and moon. Near this fountain dwell the Norns – three divine maidens, Urd, Verdani and Skuld, who were born of the race of the gods. Every day the Norns sprinkle Yggdrasil with water from the spring of Urd and anoint it with the clay that is found around the well, in order that its branches may not rot and wither away. This water is so holy that everything places in the spring becomes as white as the film within an egg-shell. They also care for the swans which swim upon its mirror-like surface and it is from this pair of birds that all swans are descended. It is said that at times the Norns clothe themselves with swan plumage to visit earth, or even upon occasion to take the form of mermaids, giving wisdom and foreknowledge to humans. It is said that these three shape the fate of humanity, but there are many other Norns who shape the fate of each and every child. Each child’s fate being determined by the nature and disposition of the Norm they have attracted. There are other Norns of other races, some of them of the race of Elves and others of the race of Dwarves.

 The second root is to be found in the realm of the Frost-giants; where may be found the well of the giant Mimir, in which all of the wisdom and knowledge of the world are concealed. Mimir, the owner of this well, is full of wisdom because he continually drinks of its waters. One day Odin, in search of wisdom, begged a draught of water from the Mimer’s well, which he obtained, but was obliged to leave one of his eyes as a pledge for it. It is said that Mimir drinks the waters of wisdom from the Gjallar Horn, which is the great horn that will be sounded at the end of the world to awaken the gods, calling them together to engage in battle with the oncoming forces of chaos.

The third is in Niftheim - the lowest region of the Norse underworld, a cold and cheerless place of ice and mist. Under it is the well Hvergelmer - the ‘roaring kettle’ or cauldron – the abode of the great dragon Nidhogg who gnaws at the root of Yggdrasil from below seeking to destroy it. It is said that Nidhogg feeds on the corpses of humanity. Yet all is not as hopeless as it may seem, indeed, there is a golden germ of potential residing in the realm of Hel, because in a secret grove deep in its dreary realms rests therein certain sinless beings, who will re-people the world after the prophesised last catastrophe – the twilight of the gods – has taken place.

The world-tree of the ancient religion of Persia is called the Haoma. The ancient Chaldeans and Assyrians believed that in the forest of Eridhu a great tree grew. Its seat was the centre of the earth and its roots of white crystal stretched towards the deep, whilst its foliage, which encompassed the heavens, was the residence of the primeval mother Zikum, and the tree in which Tammuz, the Chaldean Adonis, hid himself. There are said to be two Haoma’s, the earthly or Yellow Haoma, which is the king of healing plants, and the White Haoma, the Gaokerena of the Zendavesta. This Haoma, the sacred plant of the Zoroastrians, provides the primal drink of immortality. It is the first of all trees, planted in heaven by Ormuzd, in the fountain of life, near another tree called the “inviolable,” which bears the seeds of every kind of vegetable life. Both these trees are situated in a lake called Vouru Kasha, and are guarded by ten fish, who keep a ceaseless watch upon a lizard, (some say a dragon), sent by the evil Ahriman, to destroy the sacred Tree.

The “inviolable” tree is also known as the eagle’s tree. The eagle perches on its top. The moment he rises from the tree, a thousand branches shoot forth; when he settles again he breaks a thousand branches, and causes their seeds to fall. Another bird, his constant companion, picks up these seeds and carries them to where Tistar, the god of rain, draws water to pour upon the earth with the seeds it contains. These two trees – the Haoma and the “inviolable” – would seem originally to have been one.  The lizard sent by Ahriman to destroy the Haoma is known to the Indians as a dragon, the spoiler of harvests, and the ravisher of the Apas, or brides of the gods.

Mardan Farruckh, a Zoroastrian author and philosopher of the ninth century, described his religion thus; ‘Ormuzd created the religion which is omniscience like a mighty tree with one trunk, two great boughs, three branches, four off-branches, and five roots. The One trunk is the mean, the two great boughs are action and abstention, the three branches are good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. The four off-branches are the four religious castes by which both the religion and the secular life are maintained, namely, the priesthood, the warrior, the husbandman, and the artisan. The five roots are the five degrees in the government hierarchy whose names in religion are: Householder; Village Headman; Tribal Chieftain; Provincial Governor; High Priest. Over and above these is another, the Chief of all Chiefs that is the King of Kings, the Governor of the whole world.’

In all the above there is concealed, to a lesser or greater extent, mysteries veiled in metaphor and allegory, in symbol and emblem, concerning the unspeakable yet knowable secret life of the soul. But in secular terms we, being reasonable creatures, like to think of ourselves as growing in understanding, and pride ourselves on our increasing (evolving?) ability to manipulate the world. But are we really growing in understanding? Perhaps! But then again, perhaps not! The evidence, particularly in material terms is against us; that we are fast destroying a limited resource – our world – doesn’t say much for an evolving understanding, but it does suggest the extent of our greed and ignorance. The world may be self-renewing but we do need to give Nature the time to renew itself, but we don’t, do we?

However, in spiritual terms human existence stands in a better and more hopeful light; for the seeds of life, embodied in the simplest proton of light, will unfold and Nature, as an expression of the Holy Spirit, will provide the means and opportunities for this to occur. In metaphysical terms it is clear that the Holy Spirit works unceasingly to develop the divine potential residing within every soul, and will, in much the same way as Nature, provide the means and opportunities for the soul’s development. 

Our ancestors, not all of whom were ignorant savages, often described the soul of humanity as a tree whose roots were planted in the depths of the earth, and whose trunk reached up through the world of experience where they were crowned with a canopy that embraced the starry heavens. Thus humankind was often portrayed as a creature impelled by necessity to rise above the influence of the natural world and human biology signified by the roots; to rise above human psychology signified by the trunk; and to rise above the psychic world signified by the canopy, finally entering the spiritual world symbolised by the starry skies.

It is clear that many of the great quests and adventures that form the mainstay of ancient folklore and mythology, describe in a veiled manner significant aspects of mankind’s great need to transcend the natural world; describing not only the past but pointing towards our very own future. Thus, in the symbolism of the tree I see profound spiritual truths concerning the meaning and purpose of our existence and am reassured that in so much as our ancestors were able to perceive and express their understanding of these self-same truths, then we, and hopefully our descendants, will also, soon arrive at the same. I like trees, they are our friends and we should treat them with more respect!

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