The symbolism of trees

A historical walk across the symbolic meaning of trees

The forests and their trees are one of the most important cultural symbols of humanity (Peretó, 2000). Consequently, most civilisations have appropriated them with care, consideration and respect. They have been included in the collective imagination trying, maybe, to identify the referent, to turn them into a different space, ascribing characteristics and attributes to them other than the primary ones, with no limit other than imagination. The cultural appropriation of trees ranges from the most positive meaning of the exquisite, almost motherly, embrace, to the dreadful location of misfortunes. Between these two extremes, there are many nuances which helped to create very diverse religious rituals in amazing natural cathedrals with supernatural or mystic connections. The trees are the protagonists of initiation rituals and rites of passage during those moments in which human life requires special and unique conditions. Woods have also been the space for contemplative stays to learn about tangible and intangible realities outside oneself.

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An olive branch and an owl, two of the goddess’s attributes, were included in ancient Greek coins, as can be observed in the picture, evidencing the veneration of the Greeks for the tree. / Mètode

Throughout this article, we will analyse the role of trees as symbol and part of our societal imagery at different historical points. The appetiser to a fascinating world of colour and fragrance with one of the most fruitful, long, faithful and intense relationships in the history of humankind: the relationship between nature and culture.

Origins: Mesopotamia

The first symbolic tree in Mediterranean religions is the Tree of Life, the first reference to which we can find in the ancient poem of the hero Gilgamesh. Going even deeper into its origins, we have to go back to the first tales about Gilgamesh, written in Sumerian more than 5,000 years ago. Later, Babylonian tradition compiled a large corpus about Gilgamesh with some of these primitive Sumerian tales in twelve clay tablets.

Despite the fact that tablet number eleven refers to a plant instead of a tree, it is the first document in which life is associated to a plant species, so we think it can be considered the precedent to the Tree of Life. In this chapter, Gilgamesh realises his frailty as a human who will inevitably die. When he clearly achieves this realisation, he decides to look for the only immortal person he knows: Utnapishtim, presented in these stories as «the only human being who survived the flood».

In order to find him, our hero travels to the twin mountains on the eastern limit of the inhabited world and, after many ups and downs, Gilgamesh finds Utnapishtim and asks him he became immortal, because he also wants to achieve this condition to elevate over his own frailty and, especially, over the rest of humans. The man explains that he survived the flood by mere chance, because a god granted him, and only him, that privilege. However, he tells Gilgamesh about a plant at the bottom of the sea, which will not give him eternal life, but has the power of rejuvenation. Let us look at the fragment:

[…]
I will reveal to you, Gilgamesh, a thing that is hidden,
a secret of the gods I will tell you!
There is a plant… like a boxthorn,
whose thorns will prick your hand like a rose.
If your hands reach that plant you will become a young man again.
(Gilgamesh, 2007, p. 86)

Once Gilgamesh discovers the secret, he dives into the sea to find and uproot the plant. When he comes out of the water, he tells Urshanabi the ferryman:

Urshanabi, this plant is a plant against decay 
by which a man can attain his survival.
I will bring it to Uruk-Haven,
and have an old man eat the plant to test it.
The plant’s name is «The Old Man Becomes a Young Man».
Then I will eat it and return to the condition of my youth.
(Gilgamesh, 2007, p. 86)

And he started the way back. But before he arrived to the city of Uruk, he stopped to rest and suffered the following misfortune:

Seeing a spring and how cool its waters were,
Gilgamesh went down and was bathing in the water.
A snake smelled the fragrance of the plant,
silently came up and carried off the plant.
While going back it sloughed off its casing.
(Gilgamesh, 2007, p. 86)

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According to Greek mythology, the olive tree (Olea europaea) has a divine origin. The goddess Athena created the tree for the city of Athens. That is the reason why the city bears her name. / José Plumed

Gilgamesh had to give up his last bit of hope to recover the slightest wisp of youth.

Ancient Mesopotamia was located in a series of lush valleys between deserts. There emerged the first cities, between trees, rivers and deserts. The direct contact with forests and river water developed, according to Barberà (2007), a close relationship between trees and society that has reached our days with all the imaginable variants and formulations. It is not – and was not – only a matter of watering and pruning. Cultural and emotional ties were woven that created the symbolism and importance we can observe in religious, folk and literary texts. 

The trees and forests of Greco-Roman mythology

Cherished, revered and protected by Greeks and Romans, forests and trees were the first places of worship (Gros de Beler, Marmiroli, & Renouf, 2009) and the uniting symbol of the values of natural and human life.

Let us consider the mythological value of some of the main Mediterranean trees. We will do this by grouping them according to their mythological origin. From this point of view, there are two clearly organised groups.

The first group is constituted by trees consecrated to Olympus gods, and the second is formed by trees that are the result of the metamorphosis of people, product of divine intervention.

«The gods of Olympus decided to name the city Athens and an olive tree was planted on the Acropolis, next the the Parthenon. Since then, the tree spread across the fields of Greece honouring the goddess»

We can see that the olive tree (Olea europaea) was sacralised due to its divine origin. According to Greek mythology (Graves, 1985), the first king of Athens hesitated when naming the city. Athena and Poseidon fought for the name they preferred; none of the two gave in. Thus, the Olympic gods decided who offered the best present to humanity would win. Poseidon created the horse and Athena, the olive tree. The gods of Olympus decided for Athena: the city was named Athens and Athena’s olive tree was planted on the Acropolis, next the the Parthenon. Since then, the tree spread across the fields of Greece honouring the goddess. Another example of the Greeks’ veneration of olive trees is that an olive branch and an owl, two of Athena’s symbols, were included in the coins of ancient Greece. Another fact regarding the olive tree as a sacred tree was that olive oil was used to anoint kings and athletes and that dense olive branches symbolised abundance, glory and peace; consequently, they were used to crown the winners of games and wars, who accepted it as an extraordinary honour.

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Detail of Bernini’s marble sculpture Apollo and Daphne (1622-1625), in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, representing the transformation of the nymph. / Mètode

Mythological tales are an explosion of many of the desires, passions, envies and fighting of humans, but the protagonists are gods who often fight for prizes that can make our contemporaries smile.

Regarding the second group of trees, what they have in common is the fact that they are the result of metamorphosis; that is, of the transformation of people into trees. An example of this is laurel (Laurus nobilis), the tree dedicated to Apollo. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Apollo’s first love was Daphne, a tree nymph. The cunning Eros shot two arrows, one to reject love and the other to make it sprout. The first one hit Daphne, the second hit Apollo, and conflict ensued. Apollo, madly in love, chased Daphne, and she earnestly cried for the god of Peneus river, who took pity on her and turned her into a laurel tree. When Apollo opened his arms to embrace her, he was desolated to find the trunk of a laurel tree. Apollo then claimed that laurel would always be his tree. Therefore, laurel crowned the forehead of inspired poets, of winners, of outstanding people…

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A laurel in the temple of Apollo in Delphi. / José Plumed

Tree veneration in indigenous villages

In The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, written in 1890 by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941) and translated to a large number of languages (Frazer, 1951), we find many examples of tree veneration and worship from around the world. Here are some examples. The indigenous people from Siau island, in Indonesia, believed the tree spirits could wander around the villages. The inhabitants offered their most precious possessions, especially food, to keep them from doing evil. In Africa, some tribes believed every tree had a spirit. For example, the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) was seen as the nurturing mother and chopping it down was seen as matricide. We must note here that, despite looking like one, coconut palms are not technically trees. Frazer explains other examples of tree veneration, such as ornamental offerings stuck to the trunk with a palm-leaves belt, sacrificing birds at its foot…

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In Germanic mythology, the ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior) was the cosmic tree. It was considered the largest and best of all trees, unique, grand and strong. / Jean-Pol Grandmont

The psychoanalyst and scholar of botany-religion relations Jaques Brosse (1922-2008) published Mythologie des arbres in 1968. There are many other examples in the book of the role of trees in the mythology of many cultures (Brosse, 1989). See, for instance, the Yggdrasil ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior). It was the cosmic tree of Germanic mythology. The tree is described in a twelfth-century text as the largest and best of all trees, unique, grand and strong. The text stated that its robust roots kept it upright and connected it to the underworld. Its trunk elevated it over the ground and its leafy boughs covered half the world. A spring at its foot gave the eternal life. And the river coming from it supplied all of the land. A group of wonderful mythological animals lived around its roots, trunk and branches: the serpent Nidhogg, the golden eagle who watched it, the goat Heidrun, whose milk fed Odin’s warriors…

The Garden of Eden

We move now to the symbolism of the trees in Genesis. This book from the Bible shows two different creation myths. The first, that of the priestly school, narrates the creation of the world in seven days. The second, by the Jahwist school, explains the creation of humans and places them in paradise, in the Garden of Eden. In the first tale, the tree appears with the rest of vegetation and, essentially, as producer of fruits: «And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.» (Gn 1,11). Genesis offers an anthropocentric view of the world (Gordi, 2011) and nature, as every animal and plant is put at the disposal of humans: «And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.» (Gn 1,29). According to this first tale, the whole creation is good and beautiful. God placed humankind at the top of creation and gave them power over it, using the terms «subdue» and «dominion». The second tale locates the creation of humans within the Garden of Eden, where: «out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.» (Gn 2,9). There are important differences between this and the first tale: the first one is that it mentions that the trees were pleasant, that is to say, the aesthetic function is present in the garden. The second is that two symbolic trees are mentioned: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

«The Garden of Eden was full of symbolism, as it kept within, as we mentioned above, the two great symbolic trees of Christianity: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil»

Eden (Serra, 2012) is a hebrew word meaning “delight”. Later, Greeks would translate it as Paredisos or “enclosed garden”, which would turn into the hortus conclusus of the Middle Ages. Therefore, the Garden of Eden is primarily conceived as the garden of delight or paradise.

Secondly, the garden was created by God to be shared happily with the man and the woman. This coexistence space was filled with a variety of trees, especially fruit trees, and a river was born there which irrigated the entire space. The main three attributes of the garden were: the shade of the trees, the fruit and the water.

On the other hand, the Garden of Eden was full of symbolism, as it kept within, as we mentioned above, the two great symbolic trees of Christianity: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which gave the forbidden fruit, associated over time with the apple, maybe because the Latin genus of the fruit is Malus. But the bible does not mention any particular fruit. The result is that the garden turns into a space to live happily with the creator. However, it is also the field for the first great spiritual battle, because God asked for obedience and loyalty and, consequently, for a life of restraint and rejection of the chant of the serpent, who tries to tempt them with the forbidden fruit.

«Woods and trees have always been economic and environmental resources for society, but also a space for emotional, cultural and spiritual contact»

An ancient relationship

Woods and trees have always been economic and environmental resources for society, but also a space for emotional, cultural and spiritual contact and, evidently, a place for artistic inspiration. We tried to prove with this document the fact that the ties between trees and people go back thousands of years and have been kept in many cultures in religious rites, folk tradition or literature. Therefore, trees and forests have become part of our society’s imagery, sometimes symbolising the lost garden, unattainable and primitive nature, refuge for bandits, persecuted, lovers or dreamers (Calvino, 1990). Although the woods were humankind’s first home and temple, urban society has severed many of the ancestral ties with nature, but tradition and literature kept forest imagery part of our own home (Paci, 2011).

References
Barberà, G. (2007). Tuttifrutti. Viaggio tra gli alberi da frutto mediterranei fra scienza e lettteratura. Milan: Oscar Mondadori.
Brosse, J. (1989). Mythologie des arbres. Paris: Édition Plon.
Calvino, I. (1990). El baró rampant. Barcelona: Edicions 62.
Frazer, J. G. (1951). La rama dorada: Magia y religión. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica.
Gilgamesh (2007). El poema de Gilgamesh segons els manuscrits en llengua accàdia dels mil·lennis II i I a.C. (Ll. Feliu, & A. Millet, Eds. and Trad.). Barcelona: Servei de Publicacions de la UAB and Publicacions de l'Abadia de Montserrat.
Gordi, J. (2011). Els arbres mediterranis. Un recorregut pels seus valors culturals i espirituals. Girona: Documenta Universitària.
Graves, R. (1985). Los mitos griegos. Madrid: Alianza Editorial.
Gros de Beler, A., Marmiroli, B., & Renouf, A. (2009). Jardins et paysages de l'Antiquite. Arles: Ed. Actes – sud.
Paci, M. (2011). Le foreste della mente. Quello che ci insegnano e quello che ci fanno immaginare. Lungavilla: Edizione Altravista.
Peretó, J. (2000). Tan bell i sempre esponerós. Realitat i metàfora de l'arbre de la vida. Discurs de recepció de Juli Peretó com membre numerari de la Secció de Ciències Biològiques llegit el 13 de novembre de 2000. Barcelona: Institut d'Estudis Catalans / Secció de Ciències Biològiques.
Serra, V. (2012). El jardín del Edén, un paraíso en la Tierra. Estudios Franciscanos, 113, 303–317.

© Mètode 2015 - 86. Online only. Word of Science - Summer 2015
Tenured professor at the Department of Geography of the University of Girona (Spain).
Philologist, Mataró (Spain).
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