There has long been a tendency by cultures to worship and mythologize the trees in their surroundings. Trees have been given deep and sacred meanings; their birth, growth and death, the elasticity of their branches, their sensitivity to annual decay and their revival have all been interpreted as powerful symbols.
To some cultures, trees are recognized as a symbol of life, regeneration or even resurrection, while others view the tree as a symbol of sacred knowledge. Even primitive humans revered the power of the tree while taking from it byproducts for heat, shelter, food, clothing and weapons. In early cultures including the Greco-Roman, Celt and Teuton, trees factored heavily into their mythology and some believed that the Gods themselves actually turned into trees. Various Pagan belief systems viewed the tree as having magical properties – since its roots extended beneath the Earth; there was much room for interpretations of the mystical variety.
To Pagans, the tree actually served up a host of contradictions as it reached down into the darkness of the Underworld as well as up into the Heavens, bearing fruit and greenery. In some Pagan cultures, the trunk was believed to be a portal between the two worlds and birds, which nested in the branches, were thought to be messengers to the gods. Furthermore, trees were used to trap evil spirits and they were planted on the graves of those believed to be practitioners of witchcraft and dark magic in order to keep their spirits from returning.
Beneath the Banyan
In many cultures throughout history, specific varietals of trees carried specific meanings. Perhaps no tree has been imbued with more significance than the Banyan Tree in India.
The Banyan Tree, also known as the Vat or Bargad, is among the most venerated trees in India. For centuries, it has been likened to the shelter that God provides for his devotees.
In India, the Banyan Tree has been ascribed its own personality – one that suggests it is a kind and generous ruler that nourishes all. The motif of its large and beautiful leaves is commonly recreated in rituals of worship. The Banyan Tree is mentioned in many ancient Indian texts and scriptures, representing the divine creator and symbolizing longevity. In Hindu mythology, the tree is believed to provide the fulfillment of wishes and provide material gains. According to the Agni Purana, one of the 18 Mahapuranas, a genre of Hindu religious texts, the Banyan Tree is symbolic of fertility and can provide help to those who want children. As such, the tree and its leaves are never cut and only in the time of famine is it used for food.
Walk along the grounds of Hindu temples in India and there is a good chance you will spot a Banyan Tree that has been deliberately planted. You can also find stories of the tree commonly retold in homes, schools and temples. One famous story in the Puranas has a woman named Savitri, whose husband died as he was worshiping under a Banyan tree, venturing into the realm of the dead to find him. As the story of a woman of great determination, Savitri meets Yama, the Lord of Death, and wins her husband’s life back. The story is meant to idealize womanhood in India and to this day on the full moon night in the month of June, Indian women fast and gather around Banyan Trees, praying for the long and healthy lives of their husbands.
In other cultures, the meaning and significance of trees range from the downright fascinating to the deliciously obscure.
Rainmaking, Rag Tying & More
In the region of Western Galilee in Israel, the villagers of Kaukab Abu al Heija had a ceremony (the last one held in 1953) that was so famous that people from villages all over the region would come to participate – this was the rainmaking ceremony.
The rainmaking ceremony involved delegates from each village bringing special flags, each assigned a specific purpose, and venturing from the sacred shrine of Sheikh Sa’eed to Mt. Atzmon. Along the way, the delegates stopped at a sacred tree, a Christ Thorn Jujube Tree (now extinct), where they would place the flags that were designated for the purposes of rainmaking. The Christ Thorn wasn’t the only tree at which they stopped – they would then proceed to an impressive Oak Tree and pray for rain. From there they would return to the village of Kaukab Abu al Heija, making sure to stay on a special route, and by many accounts, it would then begin to rain. In other cultures, including many in the Muslim world, tying rags to sacred trees was a regular practice that served as a worshipper’s connection with the object being worshipped. Other reasons for tying rags to trees included breaking an existing oath, marking the path to a blessed tree, asking for permission to pick fruit or simply to leave garments for the less fortunate. Stones also played a role in tree worship and were placed under trees for reasons including a woman’s yearning for a child or a peasant’s desire for rain, or health for his horse.
Though tree worship still takes place in a few cultures today, unfortunately we live in a time where respect for objects of nature is at an all time low.
Worship or Destruction?
Trees are poems that earth writes upon the sky. We fell them down and turn them into paper, that we may record our emptiness. – Kahlil Gibran
It would seem that these days, we not only have lost the mindset of respecting trees, let alone worshipping them, but we have actually set out to harm them and ultimately eradicate them from our planet. We only need to look at logging, agriculture, mining and other destructive industries to see that trees are no longer viewed as special objects in nature. Our ancestors, through their respect for the planet on which we live, displayed a degree of wisdom that we simply don’t have. A change in mindset is needed, otherwise we will lose our trees and with them we will lose beauty, shade, oxygen and infinite other benefits that are necessary to our existence.