The Sacred Symbology of Trees
It is difficult to imagine a more perfect symbol than the tree. This may seem a bit odd at first glance, especially in comparison with other such powerful symbols as the pentacle, the cross, Thor’s hammer, etc. On both a physical and spiritual level, however, the tree provides a symbol that speaks to any and all earth-based religions in a powerful and meaningful way. The best way to begin is by noticing the appearance of the tree in various world religions and mythologies.
Trees have been sacred for as long as we have had the written word and probably long before that. The sorcerer of Trois Ferrois was depicted next to a tree and is one of the oldest known glyphs of in mythico-religious iconography.
The Hebrew Goddess, Asherah, who was later known as Ishtar, Astarte, or Inanna, had as her sacred symbol the tree groves. The druids long held trees, especially the oak, ash, and yew, to be sacred and divine symbols and their bardic schools were located within the heart of the forests.
In the dying/resurrecting God myths, the tree plays a prominent role. Christ was sacrificed on a cross made from a tree, Odin hung himself from Yggdrasil to gain the secret of the runes, and Osiris’ maimed body was recovered by Isis from the root of a tree and later resurrected. The most ancient cross-cultural symbolic representation of the universe’s construction is the world tree.
For instance, the Norse considered Yggdrasil, a giant Ash, to be the central structure of their various worlds and, in essence, it contained all of the worlds within it. Other examples of trees featured in mythology are the Bodhi tree in Buddhism and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Judaism.
In folk religion and folklore, trees are often said to be the homes of tree spirits. The tree plays a central role in world mythology and religious iconography, but why would its inclusion be of such importance to religions with such widely different belief systems?
The tree is powerful for human beings because it mirrors, symbolically, the way we should be living our own lives. First of all, the tree is rooted to the earth; it is grounded. Just as the Muladhara chakra at the base of the spine, grounds all of our spiritual energy, so the tree is grounded to the earth.
Grounding is as important as reach enlightenment. If we are always trying to spiritual and focused on the heavens, we will not be able to care for our physical needs. As pagans, we celebrate our physical life so grounding is especially important and almost sacred to us.
The tree is rooted in the earth, but it grows upward and its branches constantly stretch out and reach towards the heavens (for sunlight) . Just as it is important for us to be grounded, it is equally important to strive towards something greater than our physical selves, or at least to have recognition of it.
Pagans meditate, pray, celebrate the sabbats and commune with their Gods. All of these actions move away from the strictly physical and open us up to the spiritual. Thus the tree is grounded in the earth, but reaches towards heaven. Like the trees, we should be rooted in reality, but striving towards the spiritual until we unite the two in the dance of life, symbolically represented by Shiva’s dancing form.
The tree, like the pentacle, also represents the elements of the world in which we live. The pentacle has four points representing earth, air, fire, and water while the fifth point represents the spirit that binds them all. The tree also symbolizes these qualities. The roots of the tree draw up the water from the deep earth for nourishment. The tree is rooted in the earth and the soil provides nutrients for its continued development and growth.
The tree takes the carbon dioxide exhaled by humans and uses it to assist with its energy requirements. It is interesting to note that the tree exhales, as it were, oxygen. Thus we live with the trees in a symbiotic relationship proving the tree with the carbon dioxide it needs, while they provide us with the oxygen we need. Finally, the tree uses the sunlight for photosynthesis to create its own food via internal chemical reactions (fire) . As discusses earlier, the model of the tree being grounded, but reaching for the heavens is a symbol of spirit. Thus, the tree shares the major symbologies of the pentacle.
The tree is also symbolic of the cycle of death and rebirth. Some trees follow the natural cycles of the seasons. They blossom in spring and thrive in the summer. The light of the God brings them renewal and life. The leaves begin to change and the trees symbolically begin to die in the fall and meet their death in the winter when the light of the God resides in the womb of the mother. This cycle repeats itself every year and we can see in the trees the truth of our being. On the other hand, some trees are deciduous and thrive the entire year and this, too, is symbolic. Our true selves, the essence or soul, never dies, but lives on after death in a different form. So while certain trees provide a reminder of physical death and rebirth, other trees serve as a reminder of the eternity of our spirit. In many of the world mythologies, the tree is central to the dying/resurrecting myth of the Gods, such as Odin, Osiris, and Christ.
In summary, the tree provides a near perfect symbol for the pagan. It is a reminder to be both earthly and spiritual, it is reflective of the elements that created and sustain life, and it is a symbol of death and rebirth. While the pentacle and other such symbols may be as equally powerful in their own way, the tree is something we see every day and they as diverse as the people who see them. We have fat, skinny, tall, short, green, and variegated trees reflecting the diversity inherent in our world.
The next time you see a tree, stop and spend a moment with it. Look at its roots and its mighty branches. Sit beneath its canopy and listen to its story for it is a story of magick and hope.