Some ancient cultures believed that many spirits and divine beings inhabited the world around them, and that humans could establish a rapport with these beings. This kind of spiritual practice is called animism.
Animism (or folk religion) is a religion that sees a spirit or spiritual force behind every event, and many objects of the physical world carry some spiritual significance. In Europe and Asia, one of the remnants of this ancient religion can be seen in the reverence for or the worship of trees.
Trees are nature’s major processors of solar energy which is vital for our existence. It yields flowers, fruit, wood or medicine and has been worshipped by the Hindus as a matter of gratitude.
Right from Upsala in Sweden, to Lithuania, to Rome, trees and groves of trees have played an important spiritual and religious role. For instance, in Rome, the sacred fig-tree of Romulus was worshiped throughout the age of the Roman empire. If a citizen thought that the tree was drooping, there used to be a lot of hue and cry, and the fellow citizens would run with buckets of water as if they were putting out a fire.
Tree Worship in Christianity
Christmas is certainly incomplete without a Christmas tree. Buying a Christmas tree marks the beginning of the festival. It is under the same tree that gifts pile up! The smell of fir or pine cannot be separated from the amazing taste of mulled wine and mince pies.
Decorating a Christmas tree is a typical family ritual. The tree symbolizes our mastery over a harsh winter forest and the belief of domesticating a wild species. The tree is dolled up in lights and reminds us of the imminence of death as the manger celebrates the birth.
The tree shares an uneasy relationship with a religious festival. The odd wooden angel or the star aside, the tree is certainly separate from the other nativity celebrations. The holly and ivy symbolize the evergreen life and fit the Christianity context correctly.
Hawthorn also has a deep connection with Christianity. The Glastonbury thorn which blooms at Easter and Christmas near Glastonbury Tor stood majestically in the valleys until it was chopped by vandals in 2010. In spite of the trees’ prominence in the Bible, Christians were suspicious of tree worship because of the argument associated with the tree of knowledge in Eden.
Jim Robbins, American author of The Man Who Plants Trees, “Christmas trees are pagan in origin. The question is, why did the pagans worship trees? Many cultures thought trees were antennae for divine energies.”
People of Ireland followed the Brehon law of the forest and had certain rules on how to treat a tree. The wood was considered a sacred place. Although it may sound a little hippyish, studies have revealed that the Sitka spruce trees in Scotland bear traces of exploding supernovae in their trunks. A common idea in mythology that is shared all over the world states that trees are related to the heavens.
For instance, the Celts considered the yew tree sacred and would gather in glades for rituals. When the Christians made their debut, they built churches in the current holy areas to win over the pagans.
With time, new rituals merged with the ancient pre-Christian ones. Oaks were other species of trees that were worshipped extensively.
Similarly, in Britain, in the Victorian era, Prince Albert and Charles Dickens cemented the Christmas tree’s place. They created the image of a happy family gathering at the base of the tree. The idea now neatly fits in today’s economic era. The tree is a type of totem pole to capitalism and invites things to be sold, bought and given.
However, other religions share a less troubled relationship with the trees. In early societies, trees were a source of food, fuel and shelter. Until the mid-19th century, trees were taller than almost every human-made structure. Since they had a longer timescale than the humans, trees became the focal points for spirituality.
Robbins quotes, “They are pieces of eco-technology. They accomplish a whole range of amazing things. They filter water, cool cities, reduce air pollution in urban areas. We are waking up to just how important they are.”
He adds, “And while they might not fit neatly into a Christian tradition, Christmas trees can have a major positive role at Christmas. Provided they have been grown for the purpose; it’s good that trees are brought into the house at this time of year. Having a tree in the living room reminds people of nature – its smells, sights and warmth. Trees are in serious trouble. We need to restore the sense of wonder around them.”
Significance of trees in other religions
Ancient Indian scriptures like the Vedas and Upanishads consider trees as Kalpavriksha (wish-fulfilling) and the Chaityavriksha (protector of living beings) as deities, which indicates that worshipping trees is certainly an ancient practice. The ancient Aryans worshiped nature. They followed several rituals to pay their respects to all living beings which included the plants, trees and the other elements.
The banyan tree holds immense significance to many Asian religions. Banyan tree represents many species of the fig but is more accurate to the Indian banyan. It is considered as a shady place where the traders meet. The epiphytic tree wraps itself around the host tree and plunges its roots to the ground which is considered as a perfect metaphor for the forces beyond human control or the struggle.
The banyan tree is regarded as the resting place of Lord Krishna in Hinduism. It is featured in the Indian epic, Bhagavad Gita where Lord Krishna uses the tree to explain the meaning of life. The banyan is sacred to the Buddhists who regard it as a place of reflection. The Buddhists believe that the Buddha sat under the banyan tree for seven days reflecting, after attaining enlightenment. It is believed that spirits and sprites reside in the winding branches of this tree.
The sacred fig or the Bodhi tree is the one under which the Buddha attained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya in Bihar, north-east India. The site is still considered as the most important Buddhist shrine and is a famous pilgrim destination. Early this year, the site was bombed by terrorists, injuring many monks. Although the original tree was destroyed long time ago, the Bodhi tree on the site is believed to have descended from the first through offspring in Sri Lanka.
The fig tree is also called as the peepul tree in Hinduism. The Hindus associate the roots of the tree with Lord Brahma (the creator of the universe), the trunk of the tree with Lord Vishnu (the protector and preserver), and the leaves of the tree with Lord Shiva (the destroyer).
The sycamore is considered as an ancient sacred tree. In ancient Egypt, this tree was one of the larger and stronger native species which was found on the edge of the desert, the traditional site of the necropolis. As per the Book of the Dead, two sycamore trees marked the point on the horizon where Ra or the sun god rose every morning. In some examples, the trees are personified as suckling the dead with their branches.
Owing to its immense size, long life and unusual shape, the Baobab has been the focus for some of the African societies. Baobab is the national symbol of Madagascar where primitive societies believed that the spirits of the dead lived in its branches. The belief is similar to that of what the banyan tree has in the East. The baobabs were the central meeting and advice points for several communities.
Native American trees
The American tribes are ardent tree worshippers as they are surrounded by vast forests. Robbins reveals, “Near where I live [in Montana], native Americans would come from all over to pay respects to a ponderosa pine tree. They would hang things from its branches – ribbon, meat, tobacco, coins – it looked like a Christmas tree, in some ways. This idea of honoring the tree is common around the world. The more people who honor something, the more sacred it becomes.”
The association between various kinds of trees, plants and flowers with religious practice is a profound and significant one. The practice of tree worship is based on the thought system that every living thing including plants and trees is an individual personality which has to be respected.
featured image:Two Female winged figures before the Sacred Tree, source