Friday, 21 December 2012

The Mythic Significance of Trees

The Garden of the Hesperides by Edward Burne-Jones

World-spanning, life-giving or destructive, bearing golden apples of life or the knowledge of good and evil - trees have immense presence in mythology, religion and story. 

All across the world, from the earliest epochs of recorded history, they have stood as religious emblems, or been worshiped as gods themselves. And it's not difficult to discern why. 

Who cannot help but feel small beside such a giant?

Anyone who has stood beneath a tall and verdant tree, looked up into the green vastness of its branches, listened to the whispering of thousands of leaves cannot but feel a sense of awe - standing so small beside something so huge and long-lived. Beside the transience of human lives, these living statues which endure for hundreds if not thousands of years are monolithic. 

The bright autumn foliage of maple flames bravely against the chill of approaching winter. 

But trees are not dead and grey as statues of stone. They are alive and vital - they leaf and bear fruit - they grow inexorably; thrash frantically against storms. With brilliant colours they blaze in the dying of the year. They sing - wind soughing through branches as through an Aeolian harp.

Spring, summer, autumn, winter: in all seasons, a tree is awe-inspiring.

From seed-time trees possess immense power - defying gravity with thin, translucent stems, pushing through soil toward the sun. Within the tiny seed - the energy to fuel the plant until it can put forth its first set of delicate leaves to catch sunlight. And each leaf - so slight and wafer-thin - is filled with a transformative power to transmute the life-giving warmth of the sun into starch to feed the plant. As a sapling, a young tree is a fierce competitor for resources, space and light. Full-grown, it is magnificent, whether a towering sequoia or a squat baobab.

Yggdrasil, the world tree of Norse mythology was thought to connect the earthy and unearthly realms . 

Trees have creative force, supporting and sustaining life. Roosting birds make their home in the branches - fungi and lichen establish colonies on the trunk, squirrels nest in the hollows and innumerable insects swarm over and around it. With their proud crowns reaching the sky and roots firm-gripping the earth - they connect the physical and immaterial worlds. Thus it is not difficult to see how early peoples all over the globe chose a tree to represent the universe - the World Tree which connects life and death, reality and spirituality. Trees appear in almost all religions - symbolising fertility, immortality, interconnectedness, wholeness or even appearing as gods themselves.

Ankor Wat's magnificent stone temples are slowly destroyed by the roots of the strangler fig 

Trees can also be destructive - as the decaying city of Ankor Wat displays, their roots have the strength to split stone and consume human edifice. A falling tree branch can kill or severely maim. Thus our awe and reverence for trees is touched by fear. And thus the roots of Yggdrasil reach the underworld.

Grove of Crypotomera japonica, a hallowed tree to the believers of Shinto in Japan. 

Collectively, trees have the ability to transform space - exuding oxygen and water as a result of photosynthesis and transpiration - thus affecting the climate. But though the early humans did not know the scientific significance of trees to the global environment - they understood the power of the forest. Woods and groves are uncertain places - realms of living pillars, many ancient with the years of human generations. Light and shadow intermingle, creating a shifting, flickering border between the real and unreal - the earthly and divine. In recognition of the haunted, hallowed spaces that are created by forests, sacred groves were maintained and used by various religions. To the Ancient Greeks and Romans the groves were the sites of godly shrines. The Norse pagans of Scandinavia used the groves as sites of sacrifice.  Druids met in the groves of Albion, and in Japan they were the sites of Shinto reverence and ritual. 

The image of "golden apples of the sun" is a recurring one in myth and fairy-tale. 

In human consciousness trees are the sentinels at the gates of mystery. Although tree-worship has all but vanished, and deforestation continues to ravage some of the most beautiful and vital forests of the earth, trees continue to have a mythic power - which manifests itself in the modern myth-mediums of story, art and film. A few examples can be seen below:

The Trees of Valinor were sung into being to provide light to the universe, after the great cosmic Lamps were shattered . 

In crafting his fantasy world of Middle Earth, J.R.R. Tolkien created a whole mythological fabric upon which to embroider, like some glorious tapestry, his tales of wonder and heroism. In his creation myth, recounted in The Silmarillion the sun and moon are the flower and fruit of the twin trees of Valinor, silver Telperion and golden Laurelin. These glorious trees were sung into being by Yavanna, Queen of the Earth, who was also responsible for the creation of the Ents, sentient and wise tree-folk of The Lord of the Rings. The Trees of Valinor represent night and day, male and female, fertility and above all, life-giving light. Though they are killed by Melkor, their last light is caught in the peerless jewels called the Silmarils, which in turn drive much of the later mythology of Middle Earth.

Tolkien clearly felt trees to be of deep spiritual and symbolic significance, as they are a recurring motif in his stories - in the Lord of the Rings alone there is the Party Tree (centre of community life in Hobbiton), the aforementioned tree-folk the Ents, the arboreal elven city in the forest of Lothlorien and the White Tree of Gondor (a descendant of Telperion). 

Digory plucks an apple of immortality for Narnia, then ponders the merits of stealing a second... 

Tolkien's friend and colleague C.S. Lewis, creator of the Chronicles of Narnia also made trees a significant element in his Narnian creation-myth The Magician's Nephew. In order to protect Narnia from future harm, an apple must be plucked from a mysterious "Place", an orchard on a green hill and planted in the vital soil of young Narnia. These apple trees have similarities to the Tree of Life (as their fruit bestows eternal life on the taster), as well as the biblical Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (as transgression of the law "Take of my fruit for others" results in immortal misery). The Tree of Protection is another light-giving apple tree (clearly a powerful mythic image at work), but one with "silver apples like stars". Wood from its earthly descendants is fashioned into the eponymous Wardrobe of Lewis' most famous book.

In an interesting (though less cosmic) parallel to Tolkien's Trees of the Valinor, Lewis' world also contains a pair of trees, one pure gold, the other silver (grown from fallen coins from a miser's pocket). These are fashioned into the crowns of the first King and Queen of Narnia.      

The Tree of Souls is the spiritual centre of Pandora.

In James Cameron's 2009 film Avatar the indigenous people of the forest-moon Pandora, the Na'vi follow an anamistic religion, feeling a deep spiritual connection with "Eywa", the mother-goddess of the moon, and through her, with all life on their world. The "Tree of Souls" represents a tangible link between Eywa and the Na'vi - it is the beautiful, shining heart of the forest and the Na'vi culture.

Our ancestors called it Yggdrasil, and we call it the Universe, but Thor comes from a place where they're one and the same.. 

In the 2011 movie Thor the World Tree of Norse mythology, Yggdrasil is revealed as the structure of the universe - a "tree" of swirling nebulae and stars that links the "Nine Realms".

In conclusion, there is something undeniable and enduring about the power of trees - as sources and symbols of life, as totemic watchers, as ladders between here and the beyond - undoubtedly, they have a deep-rooted and mythic significance in our collective consciousness. 

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