Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe
From the earliest times, trees
have been the focus of religious life for many peoples around the world.
the largest plant on earth, the tree has been a major source of stimulation
to the mythic imagination. Trees have been invested in all cultures with a
dignity unique to their own nature, and tree cults, in which a single tree
or a grove of trees is worshipped, have flourished at different times almost
everywhere. Even today there are sacred woods in India and Japan, just as
there were in pre-Christian Europe. An elaborate mythology of trees exists
across a broad range of ancient cultures.
There is little evidence in the archaeological record of tree worship in the
prehistoric world, though the existence of totems carved from wood that may
have held a sacred significance is suggested by the pole topped with a
bird's body and head which appears next to the bird-headed, ithyphallic male
figure in the so-called well scene
In the early historical period, however, there is considerable evidence that
trees held a special significance in the cultures of the ancient world. In
Ancient Egypt, several types of trees appear in Egyptian mythology and art,
although the hieroglyph written to signify tree appears to represent the
sycamore (nehet) in particular. The sycamore carried special mythical
significance. According to the Book of Dead, twin sycamores stood at the
eastern gate of heaven from which the sun god Re emerged each morning. The
sycamore was also regarded as a manifestation of the goddesses Nut, Isis,
and especially of Hathor, who was given the epithet Lady of the Sycamore.
Sycamores were often planted near tombs, and burial in coffins made of
sycamore wood returned the dead person to the womb of the mother tree
The ished, which may be identified as the Persea, a fruit-bearing deciduous
tree (and which, incidentally, Pausanias [ V, 14. 4]
describes as a tree that loves no water but the water of the Nile) had a
solar significance. Another tree, the willow (tcheret) was sacred to
it was the willow which sheltered his body after he was killed. Many towns
in Egypt with tombs in which a part of the dismembered Osiris was believed
to be buried had groves of willows associated with them.
The terraces of the Funerary Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-bahari (c. 1480
BCE) were planted with myrrh trees [1. the Temple of Hatshepsut]. While the
inner sanctuary is located inside the cliff, the
temple's outer sanctuary of terraced gardens recreated the Paradise of Amon, an earthly palace for the Sun-god in imitation of the myrrh terraces of
Punt, which was the legendary homeland of the gods. A special expedition to
Punt -- probably at the southern end of the Red Sea -- was organized by Hatshepsut's architect and councillor, Senmut, to get the myrrh trees.
Besides the terraced gardens of myrrh trees, two sacred Persea trees stood
before the now vanished portal in the wall of the entrance forecourt, while
palm trees were planted inside the first court (Earl Baldwin Smith).
In perhaps a similar fashion, it is believed the ramped terraces of the
Mesopotamian ziggurats were also planted with
trees, and sacred trees were the principal feature of the so-called Hanging
Gardens of Babylon, one of the wonders of the ancient world.
In the desert environments of Ancient Egypt and Ancient Mesopotamia trees,
and especially fruit trees, assumed a special importance. The head dress
worn by one of the women buried in the tomb of Queen Pu'abi at the Sumerian
site of Ur (c. 2500 BC) includes in the elaborate decoration clusters of
gold pomegranates, three fruits hanging together shielded by their leaves,
together with the branches of some other tree with golden stems and fruit or
pods of gold and carnelian. (P. R. S. Moorey)
In Egypt, the evergreen date palm was a sacred tree, and a palm branch was
the symbol of the god Heh, the personification of eternity. For later
cultures, the palm branch also served as an emblem of fecundity and victory.
For Christians, the palm branch is a symbol of Christ's victory over death.
It also signified immortality and divine blessings and is often seen as an
attribute of Christian martyrs. It also denotes particular Christian saints
such Paul the Hermit and Christopher, as well as the Archangel Michael. The
palm tree is also a symbol of the garden of paradise.
Trees also figure prominently in the culture and mythology of Ancient
Greece. Pausanias describes the sacred groves of Aesculapius at Epidaurus (II, 27. 1), of Argus in Laconia (III, 4. 1), and a
sacred grove of plane-trees at Lerna (II, 38, 1, 2, 8). In the land of
Colophon in Ionia was a grove of ash-trees sacred to Apollo (VII, 5. 10),
and a sacred grove at Lycosura included an olive-tree and an evergreen oak
growing from the same root (VIII, 37. 10). Perhaps the most famous grove, of
plane-trees, was that
sacred to Zeus, known as the Altis,
at Olympia (V, 27.
The oak tree was also sacred to Zeus, especially the tree at the
of Zeus in Dodona which also served as an oracle; it would seem the rustling
of the leaves was regarded as the voice of Zeus and the sounds interpreted
by priestesses. The oak was also sacred to Pan (Pausanias),
while the myrtle-tree was sacred to Aphrodite. In the Pandrosium near the
temple known as the Erechtheum (421-405 BCE) on the Athenian Acropolis,
besides many other signs and remains of Athens' mythical past -- a
salt-water well and a mark in the shape of
Poseidon's trident in a rock -- could also be seen a
living olive tree sacred to the goddess Athena.
In several Greek myths, women and men are frequently transformed into trees:
Atys into a pine tree, Smilax into a yew, and Daphne into the laurel, which
was sacred to Apollo.
In numerous cases the spirit of trees is personified, usually in female
form. In Ancient Greece, the Alseids were nymphs associated with groves (alsos,
grove), while the Dryads were forest nymphs who guarded the trees. Sometimes
armed with an axe, Dryads would punish anyone harming the trees. Crowned
with oak-leaves, they would dance around the sacred oaks. The Hamadryads
were even more closely associated with trees, forming an integral part of
them. In India, tree nymphs appear in the form of the voluptuous Vrikshaka.
In Ancient Rome, a fig-tree sacred to Romulus grew near the Forum, and a
sacred cornel-tree grew of the slope of the Palatine Hill. Sacred groves
were also found in the city of Rome. In Book 8 of The Aeneid, Virgil relates
Next after this he shows the spacious grove
Which fiery Romulus the Refuge named,
And 'neath its cool cliff called the Lupercal
By Arcad custom of Lycaean Pan,
Points too to sacred Argiletum's grove
[and on the Capitoline Hill...]
The place with its dread sanctity was wont
To awe the frightened rustics; even then
They trembled at its wood and at its rock
This grove, said he, this hill with leafy crest
A god inhabits -- who that god may be,
Is all in doubt; Arcadians believe
That they themselves Jove oftentimes have seen...
According to the Roman authors Lucan and Pomponius Mela, the Celts of Gaul
worshipped in groves of trees, a practice which Tacitus and Dio Cassius say
was also found among the Celts in Britain. The Romans used the Celtic word
nemeton for these sacred groves. A sacred oak grove in Galatia (Asia Minor),
for example, was called Drunemeton (Strabo, Geographica, XII, 5, 1). The
word was also incorporated into many of the names of towns and forts, such
as Vernemeton near Leicester in England.
The names of certain Celtic tribes in Gaul reflect the veneration of trees,
such as Euburones (the Yew tribe), and the Lemovices (the people of the
elm). A tree trunk or a whole tree was frequently included among the votive
offerings placed in ritual pits or shafts dug into the ground. Others shafts
had a wooden pole placed at the bottom. The Celts believed trees to be
sources of sacred wisdom, and the hazel in particular was associated with
wisdom by the Druids.
Perhaps not surprisingly, trees appear at the foundations of many of the
world's religions. Because of their relative rarity in the Near East, trees
are regarded in the Bible as something almost sacred and are used to
symbolize longevity, strength, and pride. Elements of pagan tree cults and
worship have survived into Judeo-Christian theology. In Genesis, two trees
-- the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil -- grow at
the centre of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:9). Scriptural and apocryphal
traditions regarding the Tree of Life later merge in Christianity with the
cult of the cross to produce the Tree of the
Cross. The fantastic Story of the True Cross identifies the wood used for
the cross in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ as being ultimately from the
Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. Other stories
claim that Adam was buried at Jerusalem and three trees grew out of his
mouth to mark the centre of the earth (F. Kampers).
In the Old Testament, trees are also associated with the ancient Canaanite
religion devoted to the mother goddess Asherah which the Israelites, intent
on establishing their monotheistic cult of Yahweh, sought to suppress and
replace. The cult Asherah and her consort Baal was evidently celebrated in
high places, on the tops of hills and mountains,
where altars dedicated to Baal and carved wooden poles or statues of
(or the Asherahs; in the past Asherah has also been translated as grove, or
wood, or tree) were evidently located. In Deuteronomy 12:2, the
Israelites are directed
"to destroy all the places, wherein the nations whom you
shall dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains and upon the
hills and under every green tree; you shall tear down their altars, and dash
in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire."
In Ancient Assyria, contemporary with the ziggurats, trees, fruit trees
especially, were associated with fertility. The significance of trees in
Ancient Assyria is shown in the numerous reliefs of winged deities watering
or protecting sacred trees. Sacred trees, or trees of life, were associated
in Ancient Assyria with the worship of the god Enlil.
Some trees become sacred through what may have occurred in their proximity.
It was under a pipal tree that Siddhartha Gautama (born 566 BCE) meditated
until he attained enlightenment (Nirvana) and became the Buddha. The
Bodhi or Bo (Enlightenment) tree is now the centre of a major Buddhist sacred
shrine known as Bodh Gaya.
For the ancient Celts, the Yew tree was a symbol of
immortality, and holy trees elsewhere functioned as symbols of renewal (Brosse). A tree scarred by lightning was identified as a tree of life,
and, according to Pliny the Celtic Druids believed that
mistletoe grew in places which had been struck by lightning.
performed rituals and ceremonies in groves of sacred oak trees, and believed
that the interior of the oak was the abode of the dead. In India, it is
believed that the Brahma Daitya, the ghosts of brahmans, live in the fig
trees, the pipal (ficus religiosa), or the banyan (ficus indica), awaiting
liberation or reincarnation. Among the eight or so species of tree
considered sacred in India, these two varieties of fig are the most highly
The identification of sacred trees as symbols of renewal is widespread. In
China, the Tree of Life, the Kien-Luen, grows on the slopes of Kuen-Luen,
while the Moslem Lote tree marks the boundary between the human and the
divine. From the four boughs of the Buddhist Tree of Wisdom flow the rivers
of life. The great ash tree Yggdrasil of Nordic myth connects with its roots
and boughs the underworld and heaven.
In Japan, trees such as the cryptomeria are venerated at Shinto shrines.
Especially sacred is the sakaki, a branch from which stuck upright in the
ground is represented by the shin-no-mihashira, or sacred central post, over
and around which the wooden Shrines at Ise are built. The shin-no-mihashira
is both the sakaki branch and the pillar confirmed in the nethermost ground,
like the heaven-tree in many Japanese legends.
Sacred forests still exist in India and in Bali, Indonesia. The holy forests
in Bali are annexed to temples that may or may not be enclosed in it, such
as the Holy Forest at Sangeh (Vannucci). The general
feeling of respect and veneration for trees in India has produced a great
variety of tree myths and traditions.
One of the Five Trees in Indra's paradise (svarga-loka), which is located at
the centre of the earth, is the mythic abundance-granting kalpa-vriksha. An
image of the kalpa-vriksha carved in sandstone in Besnagar in Central India
may originally have stood as an emblem capital on top of a monolithic pillar
or stambha, possibly one of the 36 or so pillars erected by the Buddhist
emperor Asoka (268-232 BC). The pillars has been interpreted as replicas of
the axis mundi (John Irwin). The stone kalpa-vriksha
capping the pillar may therefore be identified as the Cosmic Tree or
world-tree, an emblematic variation of the symbolism of the stambha as
axis mundi (Jan Pieper).
Single pillars made of tree trunks called Irmensul ('giant column')
representing the 'tree of the universe' were set up on hilltops by some
German tribes. A highly venerated Irmensul in what is now Westphalia was cut
down by the christianizing Charlemagne in 772.
With the encouragement of Pope Saint Gregory the Great in the 6th century
CE, a common practice among proselytizing Christians was to graft Christian
theology onto pre-existing pagan rites and sacred places (Flint). In the case of pagan tree cults, this may initially involve
the destruction of the sacred grove or the cutting down of a sacred tree.
However, it would appear that frequently a church would be built on the same
site, thereby co-opting it in the service of Christian conversion.
process effectively christianized the sacred powers or energies of the
original site. Examples of this include the medieval Gothic cathedral of Chartres, which was built on a site which was once sacred to the Celtic
Druids (acorns, oak twigs, and tree idols in the sculptural decorations on
the South Portal of the cathedral may allude to the original Druidic oak
grove. (Anderson)). And before the Druids, during
the Neolithic period, the same site may have been a sacred burial mound.
Trees and Architecture
The Egyptian temple was conceived essentially as a stone model of the
creation landscape. The orders of columns, however, were designed not as
direct representations of plant life (the palm, lotus, and papyrus bundle),
but as stone reproductions of idealized landscape features.
Egyptian palm-leaf capital
The classical column as a tree trunk
The palmiform column, for example, which appears already fully developed by
the 5th Dynasty (2465 - 2323 BCE) and used constantly for the next 2000
years, shows the palm tree as a circular column as if it were the trunk of a
palm tree with the topmost section ornamented with palm leaves shown as if
tied with a thong around the column.
A famous passage in Vitruvius describes
the origin of columns in Greek and Roman architecture as derived from tree trunks, a not entirely fanciful
explanation given both the tree-like tapering of the classical column (even
the flutes may be stylized representations of ribbed tree bark), and the
belief that stone temples in ancient Greece were based upon earlier types
made of wood. It is known for a fact that the Temple of Hera at Olympia
originally had columns of oak, two of which (the others having having been
replaced by stone columns as they wore out) were still in place when Pausanias visited Olympia in the 2nd century
BC (Pausanias, V, 16. 1).
A similar architectural tradition identifies the origin of Gothic pointed
arches and vaults in the interlacing of tree branches, and likens the view
down the nave of a Gothic cathedral to a path through a wood of tall
The suggestion can be made that the arches and vaulting
of Chartres Cathedral may deliberately resemble the path to the sacred grove
that stood on the original site, with the crossing of the church
symbolizing, or perhaps actually located at, the central clearing in the
grove where Druidic rituals formerly took place.