Trees, throughout the ages, have been given deep and sacred meanings in many of the world’s mythologies, TREE LORE features in all aspects of culture. The banyan tree has the ability to support its ever growing branches by adventitious roots, which hang down and act as props over an ever widening circle- regarded as a symbol of a long life in Hindu culture.

In this Article

” Thus, though tradition may have but one root, it grows, like a banyan, into a whole overarching: labyrinth of trees.”

~ Carlyle, as quoted by Miller M.
Morgantown Tree, 2013 temporary crochet installation by textile artist Carol Humme.

The variety of cultural values and symbolic functions ascribed to trees are as numerous and diverse as the communities and cultures of earth. Phycolumnssically and mystically forests and trees have defined the environment of communities throughout time. From the mythical concepts of paradise and damnation through trees, to the romantic and physical aspects, artists and scientists alike have been inspired by trees and forests throughout history. Today, tangibly and intangibly, they feature in all aspects of culture.

  • Trees provide the venue for religious, social, and healing ceremonies, they are places of worship and veneration
  • may house the spirits of ancestors as well as those of the newborn
  • Woods are viewed in both positive and negative lights as sources of evil as well as power and munificence,
  • as providers for, and hindrances to development.

Sensory processes contribute to creating our identity – they give meaning to reality and it is through them that we interpret the world: since perception is subject in part to cultural and social influences, our interpretation of the world is also pieced together from sensory mindsets modeled by our socio – cultural context. According to Le Breton (2007):

“There is the forest of the mushroom picker, the rambler, the forest of the fugitive […] the forest of lovers
[…]. A thousand forests in the same forest, a thousand truths about the same mystery […]. There is no
single truth about the forest, but a multitude of perceptions based on perspectives, expectations and different social and cultural backgrounds”.

Le Breton

Public domain, edited.

People has sought to divine meaning from the natural world, often by explaining its origins through mythology and folktales. Advances in agriculture and horticulture had an obvious impact on human development, but to study the mythology of a plant in addition to its taxonomy, characteristics, and habitat can bring about enriched layers of understanding.

Information on the cultural significance of woods can be gleaned from

  • ethnobotanical,
  • geographic,
  • ethnomedical,
  • historical,
  • linguistic,
  • anthropological and
  • folkloristic studies.

Such studies generally focus on a particular community or ethnic group. The literature does however provide invaluable insight into peoples’ views regarding forests and is a never ending source of Tree Lore.

Tree Lore

Frazers proposal that human belief developed directly from elemental magic to scientific method is a poignant and encouraging reminder of our own potential for inquiry and evolution. The study of human ritual and its links to natural history carries awareness of how we are woven into nature.

Tree Lore is about the meaning of trees (traditional customs, stories, beliefs, myths, instructions, songs, art forms, rituals, recipes, and practices) and the lore has for millennia informed the people in how to be human in a natural world. Lore comes from the same root word as learn. It includes both knowledge and know-how, passed down from the ancestors. Special trees occupy a respected, ceremonial position.

At a time when history and legend were one and the same, forests were mysterious places, where heroes can lose their way, face unexpected challenges, and stumble on hidden secrets.

Part of the age-old magic of forests lies in the ideas that people have had about trees. They have been, and remain, universal symbols, totems, and icons and play a prominent role in mythology and legends from around the world.

Trees appear as a link between worlds, as sources of life and wisdom, and as the physical forms of mythical beings. They feature in stories as abodes of gods, places of prayer, homes of spirits, and subjects of taboos. So are

”…trees often depicted as gods and goddesses, which, in turn, are often depicted as trees”

Wassink writes in his, Man-wood relationship (1974), quoted by Coder K.
Apsaras – Temple Sculpture from Belur, Karnataka, India. From left Dwibhuja Sharade; Padanguleeyadhare; Surasundari with mirror; Nagna Sundari; Shukha Mayuri. Source.

Indian Apsaras अप्सरा or Salabhanjika has roots in Sanskrit, meaning breaking a branch of a sala tree (Shorea robusta). Some are said to inhabit sacred Fig trees in which their symbols and lutes resound.

The Apsaras, are famous for their grace and beauty and common in Indian temple sculpture. They are female spirits, damsels and celestial beings in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist culture. Apsaras have been found in sacred spaces of India, Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia.

Greek mythology & trees

People believed that they were created from trees or turned into them. Greek mythology tells that humanity was created from an ash tree. Goddess Aphrodite is connected to trees. Five transformations of humans into trees are described in Ovid’s poem,

  • Daphne (Met. 1.548–56),
  • the Heliades (2.346–66),
  • Dryope (9.349–93),
  • Myrrha (10.489–502), and the
  • Thracian women (11.67–84)
Old Philemon and Old Baucis. Arthur Rackham.From a “A Wonder Book” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. London: Hodder & Stoughton, (1922). Public domain, edited.

They can be seen to evolve into laurel, poplar, lotus, myrrh, and oak trees, respectively.

OvidsMetamorphoses” mention a romantic story of Philemon and his wife Baucis who wished to be turned into trees, after their death.

…They told the fortune of the place, Philemon old and poore Saw Baucis floorish greene with leaves, and Baucis saw likewyse Philemon braunching out in boughes and twigs before hir eyes.
And as the Bark did overgrow the heades of both, eche spake To other whyle they myght. At last they eche of them did take Theyr leave of other bothe at once, and therewithall the bark Did hyde theyr faces both at once. The Phrygians in that park Doo at this present day still shew the trees that shaped were Of theyr two bodies, growing yit togither joyntly there…

~ Ovid. Met. 8.612.

Similarly in Orissa, India, a Tree marriage is performed between the Vata (Ficus bengalensis) which is considered as the male and the Aswattha (अश्वत्थ or Sacred fig or Ficus religiosa), which is considered as the female tree. Both plants are frequently planted together, so as to mix their foliage and stems, their growing together is regarded as an emblem of marriage.

Tree of life

The continuing significance of trees in a variety of religious traditions, both historical and current, help define a common heritage and culture, so the Tree of Life prominent in holy books, writings, and records of religions: the Bible, the Koran, and various Amerindian cultures (Aztecs, Incas and Mayas), Buddhist, Hindu, and Hebraic writings, just to name a few.

” In the Judaic faith this was the tree in the garden of Eden; the Scandinavians made it an ash, Yggdrasil; Christians usually specify the tree as an apple, Hindus as a soma, Persians as a homa, Cambodians as a talok; this early tree is the vine of Bacchus, the snake-entwined caduceus of Mercury, the twining creeper of the Eddas, the bohidruma of Buddha, the fig of Isaiah, the tree of Aesculapius with the serpent around his trunk.”

~ Skinner C. M.

Tree of enlightenment

Prince Siddhartha sat in meditation under a fig tree and found enlightenment there. The tree since then is known as the Bo or the Bodhi tree. Siddhartha came to be known as the Buddha.

The tree of enlightenment, or Maha Bodhi Tree planted in Sri Lanka in BC 228 is still alive and the seedlings are planted in many Buddhist temples around earth.

Bodhi tree, worship- as seen in early Buddhist Stupa in Sanchi dated from 300 BCE.
Bodhi tree, worship- as seen in early Buddhist Stupa in Sanchi dated from 300 BCE.

Norse mythology: Yggdrasil

Legends speak of a Tree of Life, which grows above the ground and gives life to gods or humans, or/and of a World Tree, which is linked with a “center” of the earth, evoking images of such ancient and majestic trees. Such as sacred figs, pines, oaks, olives, cypresses, yews and sequoias, being among the most massive and longest-living organisms in the world.

The Norse World Tree is a colossal tree that supports creation, reaches into the heavens with its branches, while its roots make up the underworld and the trunk is like the earth’s axis. It is found in Scandinavian, Slavic, Siberian, North and Meso-American mythology. The Scandinavian Yggdrasil of Norse mythology conceptualized their universe as follows:

Three roots there are that three ways run
Neath the ash-tree Yggdrasil;
Neath the first lives Hel,
neath the second the frost-giants,
Neath the last are the lands of men.

~ Poetic Edda, Grimnismol
Yggdarasil. ©

Based in the underworld, adamantine roots twining about three deep springs, the tree unites the nine true worlds. At the crown of the tree stoops an eagle, and four stags feed on its highest boughs. Goats with mad slit eyes crop its leaves and prune its twigs. Beneath the great tree a wyrm, a dragon, gnaws the gnarled roots, and a squirrel runs up and down, bearing contention between the dragon and the sharp-eyed eagle.

The tree existed before the gods. At the end of the world, when the gods and giants contend, and slay one another until none is left, then the last man and woman will take refuge in the tree. When the worlds begin again, they will be the first man and woman, left standing by the world tree.

Norse mythology has more than three Norns, but only three live at the well – Urdr (fate), Verdandi (happening or present) and Skuld (debt or future). They spin threads of life, cut prophetic runes into wooden poles and measure the destinies of people and gods.

The Mayan world tree

MEXICO: TREELORE - On the historical and mythical origins of cacao in Mesoamerica
In this detail from a Classic Maya vase, the head of the Maize God is suspended in a cacao tree. Drawing by Karl Taube from Mary Miller and Karl Taube, Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico, London, 1993.

Cross culturally, trees supply a rich collection of metaphorical meanings appropriate to generational descent, and in Maya ideology they evidently constitute a bridge between death and rebirth representing the agrarian cycle of planting and harvesting maize. It is the Maize God’s manifestation as a cacao tree that allows him to pass on his seed and to eventually triumph through the heroic deeds of his offspring.

Before this, the cacao tree belonged to the realm of the Underworld lords, where it grew from the body of the sacrificed god of maize, who was defeated by the lords of the Underworld in an earlier era.

Interpretations of the Popol Vuh, the Maya creation story, cacao is named as one of many food items, including maize, which emerge from the “Mountain of Sustenance” prior to the creation of humankind. Many of these Popol Vuh narratives are present in Chichén Itzá. Iconographic images from Classic period ceramics and stoneware also reveal a significant and continuing connection between cacao and maize as a world Tree.

Sacred fig trees

Known as the Tree of Life or World Tree, Kalpavriksha कल्पवृक्ष is present in Hindu and Jain cosmology and Buddhism. The birth of the kalpavriksha happened during the samudra manthan or churning of the ocean. The tree provides fulfillment of wishes and material gains.

In India, the sacred kalpavriksha refers to both the ficus varieties (religiosa and bengalensis), the Pipal and Banyan trees.

Kalpavriksha is also identified with many other trees such as:

  • Parijata – Erythrina variegata,
  • Coconut palm – Cocos nucifera,
  • Mahua or Mowra Butter Tree – Madhuca longifolia,
  • Mimosa cineraria – Prosopis cineraria,
  • Indian butter tree – Bassia or Diploknema butyracea,
  • Banana – Musa, not a tree, but a berry and
  • mulberry tree – Morus nigra tree.

All these trees are known to have medicinal properties, besides other uses in daily lives. The Ethnobotany of the Banyan and the Bodhi tree shows, that they have been used to treat various diseases of the skin and blood, digestive, reproductive, respiratory and other body systems. All parts of the Bodhi Tree have been used as a medicine for their cooling and healing properties, as part of the Ayurvedic healing system.

 Pipal tree temple of Bodh Gaya depicted in Sanchi Stupa 1 Eastern Gateway
Pipal tree temple of Bodh Gaya depicted in Sanchi Stupa 1 Eastern Gateway

Ashwattha – Pipal tree

The holy fig tree pushes away, all sins earned,
In several hundred births, and Oh king of trees,
Please grant me all different types of wealth.

Ashvatta Vruksha Stotram

The Ashwattha tree is synonymous with India, and is symbolic of it’s ancient culture and traditions. The fig trees are the most commonly found trees in India, and still worshipped. The tree is a symbol of fertility and is worshiped by women for the grant of a child. Women worship the tree by going around it, wrap cotton yarn round its trunk and water its roots. Aswattha is described as “Tree of knowledge”, “Tree of life”, ”Tree of Eternal Life” and “Tree of Creation”. Felling of this tree, by some Hindus, is considered bad luck. Hindus associate the tree with the three main gods: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

According to Bhagvad Gita, Krisna is:

“I am Asvattha (Pipal) among the trees. It is believed that spirits delight to sit on the branches of these trees and listen to the rustling of the leaves.”

This tree is sometimes adorned with a sacred thread, and thought as to be Lord Brahma, most of the Hindus ceremonies and rituals of investiture are performed over it. The mysterious rustling of the quavering leaves is one cause of the superstitious wonder, due to which the tree is respected.

The Ficus bengalensis, Banyan or Vata is the Indian national tree.

In Nepal, trees can also help against toothache, there is a tree in Kathmandu, where you can pray to Danteshwori Devi, the Goddess alleviating toothache, if it does not help fast enough, you can visit the dental clinics nearby.

Unicorns emerging from a tree trunk. Mohenjo-daro
Public domain, edited.
A seal from Mohenjo-daro found by Wheeler in the 1920's. 
From his 1931 text: "The plant on the [seal] has been 
identified as a pipal tree, which in India is the Tree of 
Creation. The arrangement is very conventional and from 
the lower part of  the stem spring two heads similar to 
those of the so-called unicorn."

Next time when you see a fig tree, take a moment off to remember that you are looking at a tree that has been venerated right from the beginning of Indus civilization, 2500–3000 BC

A long journey that is continuing in the form of little shrines that are still extant under roadside ficus trees.

Ficus with Shiva, Nandi, Hanuman in Dwarka, Gujarat.
Ficus Benghalensis with Shivalingha, Ganesha, Nandi, Hanuman and trident in Dwarka, Gujarat.

The Tree of Life and the World Tree is probably the most ancient human myth, and is possibly a universal one.

“How serious that worship was in former times may be gathered from the ferocious penalty appointed by the old German laws for such as dared to peel the bark of a standing tree.

The culprit’s navel was to be cut out and nailed to the part of the tree which he had peeled, and he was to be driven round and round the tree till all his guts were wound about its trunk.

The intention of the punishment clearly was to replace the dead bark by a living substitute taken from the culprit; it was a life for a life, the life of a man for the life of a tree.”

~ Frazer J.G.

Along with their historical or cultural significance, trees are loved because of their special appearance, the rare fungi, plants and creatures they support and shelter.

There are several types of chlorophyll, but all share the chlorin magnesium ligand which forms the right side of this diagram.
Public domain, edited.

This green giants, produce the oxygen we breath, in their microscopical chloroplasts, structures within the cells of plants (and green algae) that is the site of photosynthesis, the process by which light energy is converted to chemical energy, resulting in the production of oxygen and energy-rich organic compounds.

Trees have influenced humanity and the world about us. They are intimately linked with ancestry and cultural heritage. Trees are a source of much deeper meaning and wisdom than we can easily understand.

Perhaps because the majority of Earth’s terrestrial biomass is represented by trees, or is it the secret life of trees, when its mystical inhabitants dwell among them. Or just mythical folklore that enchants its forest!

Just imagine if trees could speak.

We collect #treelore on twitter & instagram – connect.

~ ○ ~

Keep exploring:

Works Cited & Multimedia Sources