Folklore

Faery Trees and Forests #Folklore

I did a post about the enchanted forest a few years ago on my old site, but decided to give it a complete rewrite and new title.

The Lure of Enchanted Forests in Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fiction

Forests can enchant and enthrall if we’re not careful. Folklore, folktales and fairy tales have tried to warn us against the magic of forests since the beginning of time.

And though we are scared when we enter a forest alone, being with someone else makes it a fairy tale… We hope for Disney but we’ll probably get a Grimm fairy tale instead. *sigh*

We all know how that ended.

But scary cannibalistic witches aren’t the only things to be feared in the forest. Creatures abound and even the trees can be alive.

Forests and Trees in Folklore

The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies by Lucy Cooper

Fairy Trees

‘Touch wood’ is the traditional saying to bring luck and banish malevolent forces. Trees feature in the fairy lore and mythology of many cultures around the world. They often symbolise the various planes of existence, with their roots in the earth, or Underworld, their trunks in the human world, and their branches in the heavenly or spiritual realm. Like fairies, trees span multiple realms, and they are powerful symbols of the mysteries of life. The following are just a few of the many trees that feature in a rich tradition of fairy lore: Apple, Ash, Oak, Thorn, Elder, Hazel and Rowan.

Read the full account of these trees in the book.

The trees – even the flowers – are certainly alive and may be more terrifying that you thought.

Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology by Theresa Bane

Dryad

Although originating in the lore of ancient Greece the dryads are well known all throughout the Celtic countries. The Dryads are one of the twelve species of NYMPHS; they are the NYMPHS of the forests and trees, particularly oak trees. They have power to both punish those who abridge the life of the trees under their protection or reward those who actively extend and protect their trees. The life of a dryad is tied to its tree; it is only as long lived as its tree. Ash, oak, and thorn trees are especially important in the Celtic traditions; when these three species of trees are found together they form what is called a FAIRY TRIAD. The trees in these groves are considered sacred to the fairies, more so to the dryads.

Read more in the book.

The Forest in Folklore and Mythology by Alexander Porteous

Forest and Tree Legends

The forest is full of romance, mysterious voices echo in the shadowy glades, filmy forms glide along them, and consequently forests throughout the world have become the theatre of superstition and of miraculous events; while round many of the trees of the forest legend has spread its imaginary lore. A legend connected with the Forest of Dooros in Sligo tells how the Rowan tree was believed to grow in Fairyland or The Land of Promise. This land was one of the chief dwelling-places of the Dedannans or Fairy Host. These had brought some of the scarlet Rowan berries from Fairyland, and in passing through the Wood of Dooros one of them fell to the ground unnoticed or unheeded by the Fairy Host. From this berry a great tree sprang up which had all the virtues of those Rowan or Quicken trees which grow in Fairyland. Its berries tasted of honey, and those who ate them became very cheerful as if they had partaken of wine, and even a centenarian, if he ate three of them, returned to the age of thirty. This tree was guarded by a giant called Sharvan, and no one ventured to approach the wood, so greatly was he dreaded. Consequently, for many miles around the tree the country was practically a wilderness. (Old Celtic Romances, transl. from the Gaelic by P.W. Joyce, LL.D., 1879)

Mythical Denizens of the Forests and Woods

In the early ages the Forests and Woods were imbued with a certain degree of mystery, intensified, no doubt, by the deep and solemn shadows which lay hidden within their depths. They were believed to be peopled with crowds of strange beings endowed with superhuman powers and characters, although partaking of human form. These beings were known under various names, and were of different varieties and with different natures. Some possessed benevolent qualities, seeking to do good to mankind, while others were of a malevolent disposition, ever trying to work harm. Among the former may be mention the Fairies and other genial spirits, and the latter class comprised Demons of every description. There were also Elves, both good and evil, and Witches, generally malignant.

There’s loads more about trees – real and imagined – in the book. Check out my Goodreads review.

The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer [1922]

The Worship of Trees.

IN THE RELIGIOUS history of the Aryan race in Europe the worship of trees has played an important part. Nothing could be more natural. For at the dawn of history Europe was covered with immense primaeval forests, in which the scattered clearings must have appeared like islets in an ocean of green. Down to the first century before our era the Hercynian forest stretched eastward from the Rhine for a distance at once vast and unknown; Germans whom Caesar questioned had travelled for two months through it without reaching the end. Four centuries later it was visited by the Emperor Julian, and the solitude, the gloom, the silence of the forest appear to have made a deep impression on his sensitive nature. He declared that he knew nothing like it in the Roman empire. In our own country the wealds of Kent, Surrey, and Sussex are remnants of the great forest of Anderida, which once clothed the whole of the south-eastern portion of the island. Westward it seems to have stretched till it joined another forest that extended from Hampshire to Devon. In the reign of Henry II. the citizens of London still hunted the wild bull and the boar in the woods of Hampstead. Even under the later Plantagenets the royal forests were sixty-eight in number. In the forest of Arden it was said that down to modern times a squirrel might leap from tree to tree for nearly the whole length of Warwickshire. The excavation of ancient pile-villages in the valley of the Po has shown that long before the rise and probably the foundation of Rome the north of Italy was covered with dense woods of elms, chestnuts, and especially of oaks. Archaeology is here confirmed by history; for classical writers contain many references to Italian forests which have now disappeared. As late as the fourth century before our era Rome was divided from central Etruria by the dreaded Ciminian forest, which Livy compares to the woods of Germany. No merchant, if we may trust the Roman historian, had ever penetrated its pathless solitudes; and it was deemed a most daring feat when a Roman general, after sending two scouts to explore its intricacies, led his army into the forest and, making his way to a ridge of the wooded mountains, looked down on the rich Etrurian fields spread out below. In Greece beautiful woods of pine, oak, and other trees still linger on the slopes of the high Arcadian mountains, still adorn with their verdure the deep gorge through which the Ladon hurries to join the sacred Alpheus, and were still, down to a few years ago, mirrored in the dark blue waters of the lonely lake of Pheneus; but they are mere fragments of the forests which clothed great tracts in antiquity, and which at a more remote epoch may have spanned the Greek peninsula from sea to sea.   

  From an examination of the Teutonic words for “temple” Grimm has made it probable that amongst the Germans the oldest sanctuaries were natural woods. However that may be, tree-worship is well attested for all the great European families of the Aryan stock. Amongst the Celts the oak-worship of the Druids is familiar to every one, and their old word for sanctuary seems to be identical in origin and meaning with the Latin nemus, a grove or woodland glade, which still survives in the name of Nemi. Sacred groves were common among the ancient Germans, and tree-worship is hardly extinct amongst their descendants at the present day. How serious that worship was in former times may be gathered from the ferocious penalty appointed by the old German laws for such as dared to peel the bark of a standing tree. The culprit’s navel was to be cut out and nailed to the part of the tree which he had peeled, and he was to be driven round and round the tree till all his guts were wound about its trunk. The intention of the punishment clearly was to replace the dead bark by a living substitute taken from the culprit; it was a life for a life, the life of a man for the life of a tree. At Upsala, the old religious capital of Sweden, there was a sacred grove in which every tree was regarded as divine. The heathen Slavs worshipped trees and groves. The Lithuanians were not converted to Christianity till towards the close of the fourteenth century, and amongst them at the date of their conversion the worship of trees was prominent. Some of them revered remarkable oaks and other great shady trees, from which they received oracular responses. Some maintained holy groves about their villages or houses, where even to break a twig would have been a sin. They thought that he who cut a bough in such a grove either died suddenly or was crippled in one of his limbs. Proofs of the prevalence of tree-worship in ancient Greece and Italy are abundant. In the sanctuary of Aesculapius at Cos, for example, it was forbidden to cut down the cypress-trees under a penalty of a thousand drachms. But nowhere, perhaps, in the ancient world was this antique form of religion better preserved than in the heart of the great metropolis itself. In the Forum, the busy centre of Roman life, the sacred fig-tree of Romulus was worshipped down to the days of the empire, and the withering of its trunk was enough to spread consternation through the city. Again, on the slope of the Palatine Hill grew a cornel-tree which was esteemed one of the most sacred objects in Rome. Whenever the tree appeared to a passer-by to be drooping, he set up a hue and cry which was echoed by the people in the street, and soon a crowd might be seen running helter-skelter from all sides with buckets of water, as if (says Plutarch) they were hastening to put out a fire.   

  Among the tribes of the Finnish-Ugrian stock in Europe the heathen worship was performed for the most part in sacred groves, which were always enclosed with a fence. Such a grove often consisted merely of a glade or clearing with a few trees dotted about, upon which in former times the skins of the sacrificial victims were hung. The central point of the grove, at least among the tribes of the Volga, was the sacred tree, beside which everything else sank into insignificance. Before it the worshippers assembled and the priest offered his prayers, at its roots the victim was sacrificed, and its boughs sometimes served as a pulpit. No wood might be hewn and no branch broken in the grove, and women were generally forbidden to enter it.   

  But it is necessary to examine in some detail the notions on which the worship of trees and plants is based. To the savage the world in general is animate, and trees and plants are no exception to the rule. He thinks that they have souls like his own, and he treats them accordingly. “They say,” writes the ancient vegetarian Porphyry, “that primitive men led an unhappy life, for their superstition did not stop at animals but extended even to plants. For why should the slaughter of an ox or a sheep be a greater wrong than the felling of a fir or an oak, seeing that a soul is implanted in these trees also?” Similarly, the Hidatsa Indians of North America believe that every natural object has its spirit, or to speak more properly, its shade. To these shades some consideration or respect is due, but not equally to all. For example, the shade of the cottonwood, the greatest tree in the valley of the Upper Missouri, is supposed to possess an intelligence which, if properly approached, may help the Indians in certain undertakings; but the shades of shrubs and grasses are of little account. When the Missouri, swollen by a freshet in spring, carries away part of its banks and sweeps some tall tree into its current, it is said that the spirit of the tree cries, while the roots still cling to the land and until the trunk falls with a splash into the stream. Formerly the Indians considered it wrong to fell one of these giants, and when large logs were needed they made use only of trees which had fallen of themselves. Till lately some of the more credulous old men declared that many of the misfortunes of their people were caused by this modern disregard for the rights of the living cottonwood. The Iroquois believed that each species of tree, shrub, plant, and herb had its own spirit, and to these spirits it was their custom to return thanks. The Wanika of Eastern Africa fancy that every tree, and especially every coco-nut tree, has its spirit; “the destruction of a cocoa-nut tree is regarded as equivalent to matricide, because that tree gives them life and nourishment, as a mother does her child.” Siamese monks, believing that there are souls everywhere, and that to destroy anything whatever is forcibly to dispossess a soul, will not break a branch of a tree, “as they will not break the arm of an innocent person.” These monks, of course, are Buddhists. But Buddhist animism is not a philosophical theory. It is simply a common savage dogma incorporated in the system of an historical religion. To suppose, with Benfey and others, that the theories of animism and transmigration current among rude peoples of Asia are derived from Buddhism, is to reverse the facts.   

  Sometimes it is only particular sorts of trees that are supposed to be tenanted by spirits. At Grbalj in Dalmatia it is said that among great beeches, oaks, and other trees there are some that are endowed with shades or souls, and whoever fells one of them must die on the spot, or at least live an invalid for the rest of his days. If a woodman fears that a tree which he has felled is one of this sort, he must cut off the head of a live hen on the stump of the tree with the very same axe with which he cut down the tree. This will protect him from all harm, even if the tree be one of the animated kind. The silk-cotton trees, which rear their enormous trunks to a stupendous height, far out-topping all the other trees of the forest, are regarded with reverence throughout West Africa, from the Senegal to the Niger, and are believed to be the abode of a god or spirit. Among the Ewespeaking peoples of the Slave Coast the indwelling god of this giant of the forest goes by the name of Huntin. Trees in which he specially dwells—for it is not every silk-cotton tree that he thus honours—are surrounded by a girdle of palm-leaves; and sacrifices of fowls, and occasionally of human beings, are fastened to the trunk or laid against the foot of the tree. A tree distinguished by a girdle of palm-leaves may not be cut down or injured in any way; and even silk-cotton trees which are not supposed to be animated by Huntin may not be felled unless the woodman first offers a sacrifice of fowls and palm-oil to purge himself of the proposed sacrilege. To omit the sacrifice is an offence which may be punished with death. Among the Kangra mountains of the Punjaub a girl used to be annually sacrificed to an old cedar-tree, the families of the village taking it in turn to supply the victim. The tree was cut down not very many years ago.   

  If trees are animate, they are necessarily sensitive and the cutting of them down becomes a delicate surgical operation, which must be performed with as tender a regard as possible for the feelings of the sufferers, who otherwise may turn and rend the careless or bungling operator. When an oak is being felled “it gives a kind of shriekes or groanes, that may be heard a mile off, as if it were the genius of the oake lamenting. E. Wyld, Esq., hath heard it severall times.” The Ojebways “very seldom cut down green or living trees, from the idea that it puts them to pain, and some of their medicine-men profess to have heard the wailing of the trees under the axe.” Trees that bleed and utter cries of pain or indignation when they are hacked or burned occur very often in Chinese books, even in Standard Histories. Old peasants in some parts of Austria still believe that forest-trees are animate, and will not allow an incision to be made in the bark without special cause; they have heard from their fathers that the tree feels the cut not less than a wounded man his hurt. In felling a tree they beg its pardon. It is said that in the Upper Palatinate also old woodmen still secretly ask a fine, sound tree to forgive them before they cut it down. So in Jarkino the woodman craves pardon of the tree he fells. Before the Ilocanes of Luzon cut down trees in the virgin forest or on the mountains, they recite some verses to the following effect: “Be not uneasy, my friend, though we fell what we have been ordered to fell.” This they do in order not to draw down on themselves the hatred of the spirits who live in the trees, and who are apt to avenge themselves by visiting with grievous sickness such as injure them wantonly. The Basoga of Central Africa think that, when a tree is cut down, the angry spirit which inhabits it may cause the death of the chief and his family. To prevent this disaster they consult a medicine-man before they fell a tree. If the man of skill gives leave to proceed, the woodman first offers a fowl and a goat to the tree; then as soon as he has given the first blow with the axe, he applies his mouth to the cut and sucks some of the sap. In this way he forms a brotherhood with the tree, just as two men become blood-brothers by sucking each other’s blood. After that he can cut down his tree-brother with impunity.   

  But the spirits of vegetation are not always treated with deference and respect. If fair words and kind treatment do not move them, stronger measures are sometimes resorted to. The durian-tree of the East Indies, whose smooth stem often shoots up to a height of eighty or ninety feet without sending out a branch, bears a fruit of the most delicious flavour and the most disgusting stench. The Malays cultivate the tree for the sake of its fruit, and have been known to resort to a peculiar ceremony for the purpose of stimulating its fertility. Near Jugra in Selangor there is a small grove of durian-trees, and on a specially chosen day the villagers used to assemble in it. Thereupon one of the local sorcerers would take a hatchet and deliver several shrewd blows on the trunk of the most barren of the trees, saying, “Will you now bear fruit or not? If you do not, I shall fell you.” To this the tree replied through the mouth of another man who had climbed a mangostin-tree hard by (the durian-tree being unclimbable), “Yes, I will now bear fruit; I beg of you not to fell me.” So in Japan to make trees bear fruit two men go into an orchard. One of them climbs up a tree and the other stands at the foot with an axe. The man with the axe asks the tree whether it will yield a good crop next year and threatens to cut it down if it does not. To this the man among the branches replies on behalf of the tree that it will bear abundantly. Odd as this mode of horticulture may seem to us, it has its exact parallels in Europe. On Christmas Eve many a South Slavonian and Bulgarian peasant swings an axe threateningly against a barren fruit-tree, while another man standing by intercedes for the menaced tree, saying, “Do not cut it down; it will soon bear fruit.” Thrice the axe is swung, and thrice the impending blow is arrested at the entreaty of the intercessor. After that the frightened tree will certainly bear fruit next year.   

  The conception of trees and plants as animated beings naturally results in treating them as male and female, who can be married to each other in a real, and not merely a figurative or poetical, sense of the word. The notion is not purely fanciful, for plants like animals have their sexes and reproduce their kind by the union of the male and female elements. But whereas in all the higher animals the organs of the two sexes are regularly separated between different individuals, in most plants they exist together in every individual of the species. This rule, however, is by no means universal, and in many species the male plant is distinct from the female. The distinction appears to have been observed by some savages, for we are told that the Maoris “are acquainted with the sex of trees, etc., and have distinct names for the male and female of some trees.” The ancients knew the difference between the male and the female date-palm, and fertilised them artificially by shaking the pollen of the male tree over the flowers of the female. The fertilisation took place in spring. Among the heathen of Harran the month during which the palms were fertilised bore the name of the Date Month, and at this time they celebrated the marriage festival of all the gods and goddesses. Different from this true and fruitful marriage of the palm are the false and barren marriages of plants which play a part in Hindoo superstition. For example, if a Hindoo has planted a grove of mangos, neither he nor his wife may taste of the fruit until he has formally married one of the trees, as a bridegroom, to a tree of a different sort, commonly a tamarind-tree, which grows near it in the grove. If there is no tamarind to act as bride, a jasmine will serve the turn. The expenses of such a marriage are often considerable, for the more Brahmans are feasted at it, the greater the glory of the owner of the grove. A family has been known to sell its golden and silver trinkets, and to borrow all the money they could in order to marry a mango-tree to a jasmine with due pomp and ceremony. On Christmas Eve German peasants used to tie fruit-trees together with straw ropes to make them bear fruit, saying that the trees were thus married.   

  In the Moluccas, when the clove-trees are in blossom, they are treated like pregnant women. No noise may be made near them; no light or fire may be carried past them at night; no one may approach them with his hat on, all must uncover in their presence. These precautions are observed lest the tree should be alarmed and bear no fruit, or should drop its fruit too soon, like the untimely delivery of a woman who has been frightened in her pregnancy. So in the East the growing rice-crop is often treated with the same considerate regard as a breeding woman. Thus in Amboyna, when the rice is in bloom, the people say that it is pregnant and fire no guns and make no other noises near the field, for fear lest, if the rice were thus disturbed, it would miscarry, and the crop would be all straw and no grain.   

  Sometimes it is the souls of the dead which are believed to animate trees. The Dieri tribe of Central Australia regard as very sacred certain trees which are supposed to be their fathers transformed; hence they speak with reverence of these trees, and are careful that they shall not be cut down or burned. If the settlers require them to hew down the trees, they earnestly protest against it, asserting that were they to do so they would have no luck, and might be punished for not protecting their ancestors. Some of the Philippine Islanders believe that the souls of their ancestors are in certain trees, which they therefore spare. If they are obliged to fell one of these trees, they excuse themselves to it by saying that it was the priest who made them do it. The spirits take up their abode, by preference, in tall and stately trees with great spreading branches. When the wind rustles the leaves, the natives fancy it is the voice of the spirit; and they never pass near one of these trees without bowing respectfully, and asking pardon of the spirit for disturbing his repose. Among the Ignorrotes, every village has its sacred tree, in which the souls of the dead forefathers of the hamlet reside. Offerings are made to the tree, and any injury done to it is believed to entail some misfortune on the village. Were the tree cut down, the village and all its inhabitants would inevitably perish. 

  In Corea the souls of people who die of the plague or by the roadside, and of women who expire in childbirth, invariably take up their abode in trees. To such spirits offerings of cake, wine, and pork are made on heaps of stones piled under the trees. In China it has been customary from time immemorial to plant trees on graves in order thereby to strengthen the soul of the deceased and thus to save his body from corruption; and as the evergreen cypress and pine are deemed to be fuller of vitality than other trees, they have been chosen by preference for this purpose. Hence the trees that grow on graves are sometimes identified with the souls of the departed. Among the Miao-Kia, an aboriginal race of Southern and Western China, a sacred tree stands at the entrance of every village, and the inhabitants believe that it is tenanted by the soul of their first ancestor and that it rules their destiny. Sometimes there is a sacred grove near a village, where the trees are suffered to rot and die on the spot. Their fallen branches cumber the ground, and no one may remove them unless he has first asked leave of the spirit of the tree and offered him a sacrifice. Among the Maraves of Southern Africa the burial-ground is always regarded as a holy place where neither a tree may be felled nor a beast killed, because everything there is supposed to be tenanted by the souls of the dead. 

  In most, if not all, of these cases the spirit is viewed as incorporate in the tree; it animates the tree and must suffer and die with it. But, according to another and probably later opinion, the tree is not the body, but merely the abode of the tree-spirit, which can quit it and return to it at pleasure. The inhabitants of Siaoo, an East Indian island, believe in certain sylvan spirits who dwell in forests or in great solitary trees. At full moon the spirit comes forth from his lurking-place and roams about. He has a big head, very long arms and legs, and a ponderous body. In order to propitiate the wood-spirits people bring offerings of food, fowls, goats, and so forth to the places which they are supposed to haunt. The people of Nias think that, when a tree dies, its liberated spirit becomes a demon, which can kill a coco-nut palm by merely lighting on its branches, and can cause the death of all the children in a house by perching on one of the posts that support it. Further, they are of opinion that certain trees are at all times inhabited by roving demons who, if the trees were damaged, would be set free to go about on errands of mischief. Hence the people respect these trees, and are careful not to cut them down. 

  Not a few ceremonies observed at cutting down haunted trees are based on the belief that the spirits have it in their power to quit the trees at pleasure or in case of need. Thus when the Pelew Islanders are felling a tree, they conjure the spirit of the tree to leave it and settle on another. The wily negro of the Slave Coast, who wishes to fell an ashorin tree, but knows that he cannot do it so long as the spirit remains in the tree, places a little palm-oil on the ground as a bait, and then, when the unsuspecting spirit has quitted the tree to partake of this dainty, hastens to cut down its late abode. When the Toboongkoos of Celebes are about to clear a piece of forest in order to plant rice, they build a tiny house and furnish it with tiny clothes and some food and gold. Then they call together all the spirits of the wood, offer them the little house with its contents, and beseech them to quit the spot. After that they may safely cut down the wood without fearing to wound themselves in so doing. Before the Tomori, another tribe of Celebes, fell a tall tree they lay a quid of betel at its foot, and invite the spirit who dwells in the tree to change his lodging; moreover, they set a little ladder against the trunk to enable him to descend with safety and comfort. The Mandelings of Sumatra endeavour to lay the blame of all such misdeeds at the door of the Dutch authorities. Thus when a man is cutting a road through a forest and has to fell a tall tree which blocks the way, he will not begin to ply his axe until he has said: “Spirit who lodgest in this tree, take it not ill that I cut down thy dwelling, for it is done at no wish of mine but by order of the Controller.” And when he wishes to clear a piece of forest-land for cultivation, it is necessary that he should come to a satisfactory understanding with the woodland spirits who live there before he lays low their leafy dwellings. For this purpose he goes to the middle of the plot of ground, stoops down, and pretends to pick up a letter. Then unfolding a bit of paper he reads aloud an imaginary letter from the Dutch Government, in which he is strictly enjoined to set about clearing the land without delay. Having done so, he says: “You hear that, spirits. I must begin clearing at once, or I shall be hanged.” 

  Even when a tree has been felled, sawn into planks, and used to build a house, it is possible that the woodland spirit may still be lurking in the timber, and accordingly some people seek to propitiate him before or after they occupy the new house. Hence, when a new dwelling is ready the Toradjas of Celebes kill a goat, a pig, or a buffalo, and smear all the woodwork with its blood. If the building is a lobo or spirit-house, a fowl or a dog is killed on the ridge of the roof, and its blood allowed to flow down on both sides. The ruder Tonapoo in such a case sacrifice a human being on the roof. This sacrifice on the roof of a lobo or temple serves the same purpose as the smearing of blood on the woodwork of an ordinary house. The intention is to propitiate the forest-spirits who may still be in the timber; they are thus put in good humour and will do the inmates of the house no harm. For a like reason people in Celebes and the Moluccas are much afraid of planting a post upside down at the building of a house; for the forest-spirit, who might still be in the timber, would very naturally resent the indignity and visit the inmates with sickness. The Kayans of Borneo are of opinion that tree-spirits stand very stiffly on the point of honour and visit men with their displeasure for any injury done to them. Hence after building a house, whereby they have been forced to ill-treat many trees, these people observe a period of penance for a year during which they must abstain from many things, such as the killing of bears, tiger-cats, and serpents. 

The Religion of the Ancient Celts by J. A. MacCulloch [1911]

TREE AND PLANT WORSHIP.

THE Celts had their own cult of trees, but they adopted local cults–Ligurian, Iberian, and others. The Fagus Deus (the divine beech), the Sex arbor or Sex arbores of Pyrenean inscriptions, and an anonymous god represented by a conifer on an altar at Toulouse, probably point to local Ligurian tree cults continued by the Celts into Roman times. Forests were also personified or ruled by a single goddess, like Dea Arduinna of the Ardennes and Dea Abnoba of the Black Forest. But more primitive ideas prevailed, like that which assigned a whole class of tree-divinities to a forest, e.g. the Fatæ Dervones, spirits of the oak-woods of Northern Italy. Groups of trees like Sex arbores were venerated, perhaps for their height, isolation, or some other peculiarity.

The Celts made their sacred places in dark groves, the trees being hung with offerings or with the heads of victims. Human sacrifices were hung or impaled on trees, e.g. by the warriors of Boudicca. These, like the offerings still placed by the folk on sacred trees, were attached to them because the trees were the abode of spirits or divinities who in many cases had power over vegetation.

Pliny said of the Celts: They esteem nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree on which it grows. But apart from this they choose oak-woods for their sacred groves, and perform no sacred rite without using oak branches.” Maximus of Tyre also speaks of the Celtic (? German) image of Zeus as a lofty oak, and an old Irish glossary gives daur, “oak,” as an early Irish name for “god,” and glosses it by dia, “god.” The sacred need-fire may have been obtained by friction from oak-wood, and it is because of the old sacredness of the oak that a piece of its wood is still used as a talisman in Brittany. Other Aryan folk besides the Celts regarded the oak as the symbol of a high god, of the sun or the sky, but probably this was not its earliest significance. Oak forests were once more extensive over Europe than they are now, and the old tradition that men once lived on acorns has been shown to be well-founded by the witness of archæological finds, e.g. in Northern Italy. A people living in an oak region and subsisting in part on acorns might easily take the oak as a representative of the spirit of vegetation or growth. It was long-lived, its foliage was a protection, it supplied food, its wood was used as fuel, and it was thus clearly the friend of man. For these reasons, and because it was the most abiding and living thing men knew, it became the embodiment of the spirits of life and growth. Folk-lore survivals show that the spirit of vegetation in the shape of his representative was annually slain while yet in full vigour, that his life might benefit all things and be passed on undiminished to his successor. Hence the oak or a human being representing the spirit of vegetation, or both together, were burned in the Midsummer fires. How, then, did the oak come to symbolise a god equated with Zeus. Though the equation may be worthless, it is possible that the connection lay in the fact that Zeus and Juppiter had agricultural functions, or that, when the equation was made, the earlier spirit of vegetation had become a divinity with functions resembling those of Zeus. The fires were kindled to recruit the sun’s life; they were fed with oak-wood, and in them an oak or a human victim representing the spirit embodied in the oak was burned. Hence it may have been thought that the sun was strengthened by the fire residing in the sacred oak; it was thus “the original storehouse or reservoir of the fire which was from time to time drawn out to feed the sun.” The oak thus became the symbol of a bright god also connected with growth. But, to judge by folk survivals, the older conception still remained potent, and tree or human victim affected for good all vegetable growth as well as man’s life, while at the same time the fire strengthened the sun.

Dr. Evans argues that “the original holy object within the central triliths of Stonehenge was a sacred tree,” an oak, image of the Celtic Zeus. The tree and the stones, once associated with ancestor worship, had become symbols of “a more celestial Spirit or Spirits than those of departed human beings.” But Stonehenge has now been proved to have been in existence before the arrival of the Celts, hence such a cult must have been pre-Celtic, though it may quite well have been adopted by the Celts. Whether this hypothetical cult was practised by a tribe, a group of tribes, or by the whole people, must remain obscure, and, indeed, it may well be questioned whether Stonehenge was ever more than the scene of some ancestral rites.

Other trees–the yew, the cypress, the alder, and the ash, were venerated, to judge by what Lucan relates of the sacred grove at Marseilles. The Irish Druids attributed special virtues to the hazel, rowan, and yew, the wood of which was used in magical ceremonies described in Irish texts. Fires of rowan were lit by the Druids of rival armies, and incantations said over them in order to discomfit the opposing host, and the wood of all these trees is still believed to be efficacious against fairies and witches.

The Irish bile was a sacred tree, of great age, growing over a holy well or fort. Five of them are described in the Dindsenchas, and one was an oak, which not only yielded acorns, but nuts and apples. The mythic trees of Elysium had the same varied fruitage, and the reason in both cases is perhaps the fact that when the cultivated apple took the place of acorns and nuts as a food staple, words signifying “nut” or “acorn” were transferred to the apple. A myth of trees on which all these fruits grew might then easily arise. Another Irish bile was a yew described in a poem as “a firm strong god,” while such phrases in this poem as “word-pure man,” “judgment of origin,” “spell of knowledge,” may have some reference to the custom of writing divinations in ogham on rods of yew. The other bile were ash-trees, and from one of them the Fir Bile, “men of the tree,” were named–perhaps a totem-clan. The lives of kings and chiefs appear to have been connected with these trees, probably as representatives of the spirit of vegetation embodied in the tree, and under their shadow they were inaugurated. But as a substitute for the king was slain, so doubtless these pre-eminent sacred trees were too sacred, too much charged with supernatural force, to be cut down and burned, and the yearly ritual would be performed with another tree. But in time of feud one tribe gloried in destroying the bile of another; and even in the tenth century, when the bile maighe Adair was destroyed by Maeloeohlen the act was regarded with horror. “But, O reader, this deed did not pass unpunished.” Of another bile, that of Borrisokane, it was said that any house in which a fragment of it was burned would itself be destroyed by fire. 2

Tribal and personal names point to belief in descent from tree gods or spirits and perhaps to totemism. The Eburones were the yew-tree tribe (eburos); the Bituriges perhaps had the mistletoe for their symbol, and their surname Vivisci implies that they were called “Mistletoe men.” If bile (tree) is connected with the name Bile, that of the ancestor of the Milesians, this may point to some myth of descent from a sacred tree, as in the case of the Fir Bile, or “men of the tree.” Other names like Guidgen (Viduo-genos, “son of the tree”), Dergen (Dervo-genos, “son of the oak”), Guerngen (Verno-genos, “son of the alder”), imply filiation to a tree. Though these names became conventional, they express what had once been a living belief. Names borrowed directly from trees are also found–Eburos or Ebur, “yew,” Derua or Deruacus, “oak,” etc.

The veneration of trees growing beside burial mounds or megalithic monuments was probably a pre-Celtic cult continued by the Celts. The tree embodied the ghost of the person buried under it, but such a ghost could then hardly be differentiated from a tree spirit or divinity. Even now in Celtic districts extreme veneration exists for trees growing in cemeteries and in other places. It is dangerous to cut them down or to pluck a leaf or branch from them, while in Breton churchyards the yew is thought to spread a root to the mouth of each corpse. The story of the grave of Cyperissa, daughter of a Celtic king in the Danube region, from which first sprang the “mournful cypress,” is connected with universal legends of trees growing from the graves of lovers until their branches intertwine. These embody the belief that the spirit of the dead is in the tree, which was thus in all likelihood the object of a cult. Instances of these legends occur in Celtic story. Yew-stakes driven through the bodies of Naisi and Deirdre to keep them apart, became yew-trees the tops of which embraced over Armagh Cathedral. A yew sprang from the grave of Bailé Mac Buain, and an apple-tree from that of his lover Aillinn, and the top of each had the form of their heads. The identification of tree and ghost is here complete.

The elder, rowan, and thorn are still planted round houses to keep off witches, or sprigs of rowan are placed over doorways–a survival from the time when they were believed to be tenanted by a beneficent spirit hostile to evil influences. In Ireland and the Isle of Man the thorn is thought to be the resort of fairies, and they, Eke the woodland fairies or “wood men” are probably representatives of the older tree spirits and gods of groves and forests.

Tree-worship was rooted in the oldest nature worship, and the Church had the utmost difficulty in suppressing it. Councils fulminated against the cult of trees, against offerings to them or the placing of lights before them and before wells or stones, and against the belief that certain trees were too sacred to be cut down or burned. Heavy fines were levied against those who practised these rites, yet still they continued. Amator, Bishop of Auxerre, tried to stop the worship of a large pear-tree standing in the centre of the town and on which the semi-Christian inhabitants hung animals’ heads with much ribaldry. At last S. Germanus destroyed it, but at the risk of his life. S. Martin of Tours was allowed to destroy a temple, but the people would not permit him to attack a much venerated pine-tree which stood beside it–an excellent example of the way in which the more official paganism fell before Christianity, while the older religion of the soil, from which it sprang, could not be entirely eradicated. The Church often effected a compromise. Images of the gods affixed to trees were replaced by those of the Virgin, but with curious results. Legends arose telling how the faithful had been led to such trees and there discovered the image of the Madonna miraculously placed among the branches. These are analogous to the legends of the discovery of images of the Virgin in the earth, such images being really those of the Matres.

Representations of sacred trees are occasionally met with on coins, altars, and ex votos. If the interpretation be correct which sees a representation of part of the Cúchulainn legend on the Paris and Trèves altars, the trees figured there would not necessarily be sacred. But otherwise they may depict sacred trees.

We now turn to Pliny’s account of the mistletoe rite. The Druids held nothing more sacred than this plant and the tree on which it grew, probably an oak. Of it groves were formed, while branches of the oak were used in all religious rites. Everything growing on the oak had been sent from heaven, and the presence of the mistletoe showed that God had selected the tree for especial favour. Rare as it was, when found the mistletoe was the object of a careful ritual. On the sixth day of the moon it was culled. Preparations for a sacrifice and feast were made beneath the tree, and two white bulls whose horns had never been bound were brought there. A Druid, clad, in white, ascended the tree and cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle. As it fell it was caught in a white cloth; the bulls were then sacrificed, and prayer was made that God would make His gift prosperous to those on whom He had bestowed it. The mistletoe was called “the universal healer,” and a potion made from it caused barren animals to be fruitful. It was also a remedy against all poisons. We can hardly believe that such an elaborate ritual merely led up to the medico-magical use of the mistletoe. Possibly, of course, the rite was an attenuated survival of something which had once been more important, but it is more likely that Pliny gives only a few picturesque details and passes by the rationale of the ritual. He does not tell us who the “God” of whom he speaks was, perhaps the sun-god or the god of vegetation. As to the “gift,” it was probably in his mind the mistletoe, but it may quite well have meant the gift of growth in field and fold. The tree was perhaps cut down and burned; the oxen may have been incarnations of a god of vegetation, as the tree also may have been. We need not here repeat the meaning which has been given to the ritual, but it may be added that if this meaning is correct, the rite probably took place at the time of the Midsummer festival, a festival of growth and fertility. Mistletoe is still gathered on Midsummer eve and used as an antidote to poisons or for the cure of wounds. Its Druidic name is still preserved in Celtic speech in words signifying “all-healer,” while it is also called sùgh an daraich, “sap of the oak,” and Druidh lus, “Druid’s weed.” 

Pliny describes other Celtic herbs of grace. Selago was culled without use of iron after a sacrifice of bread and wine–probably to the spirit of the plant. The person gathering it wore a white robe, and went with unshod feet after washing them. According to the Druids, Selago preserved one from accident, and its smoke when burned healed maladies of the eye.  Samolus was placed in drinking troughs as a remedy against disease in cattle. It was culled by a person fasting, with the left hand; it must be wholly uprooted, and the gatherer must not look behind him. Vervain was gathered at sunrise after a sacrifice to the earth as an expiation–perhaps because its surface was about to be disturbed. When it was rubbed on the body all wishes were gratified; it dispelled fevers and other maladies; it was an antidote against serpents; and it conciliated hearts. A branch of the dried herb used to asperge a banquet-hall made the guests more convivial. 

The ritual used in gathering these plants–silence, various tabus, ritual purity, sacrifice–is found wherever plants are culled whose virtue lies in this that they are possessed by a spirit. Other plants are still used as charms by modern Celtic peasants, and, in some cases, the ritual of gathering them resembles that described by Pliny. In Irish sagas plants have magical powers. “Fairy herbs” placed in a bath restored beauty to women bathing therein. During the Táin Cúchulainn’s wounds were healed with “balsams and healing herbs of fairy potency,” and Diancecht used similar herbs to restore the dead at the battle of Mag-tured.

Forests in Modern Literature

Harry Potter

In the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling, the Forbidden Forest is filled with enchantments, magical creatures and danger. It is off-limits to students, though Harry and his friends frequently enter this mysterious place to find answers.

Iron Fey

In the Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa, the Wyldwood is a mysterious place between other Fey Realms where trees grow as houses for the Fey living there or as Dryads (and other tree nymphs).

Enchanted Forest Chronicles

In the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C Wrede the forest is filled with dragons, wizards, witches and all manner of magical creatures – and it’s alive. The king of the forest can make anything move in the forest with the power of his sword…

The Lord of the Rings

Who can forget the scary forests found in Middle-Earth? From showing the ancientness of the world through Mirkwood and the Old Forest to the forest coming alive through the Ents. The enchanted forest stays a place that is unknown to the characters and where strange dangers lurk.

There are other books where the characters find refuge and answers in the forest, but these came to mind immediately as they continue the tradition of the forest as a place of wild things and danger.

Further Reading

Enchanting Forests from Around the World

When you look at the phenomenal forests that you can find in the world, it is no wonder that myths, legends and folktales about them abound.

Just look at the woods and forests that have supported stories for centuries – like the Sherwood Forest. 

Or the mysterious forests that look exactly like something you’d expect from a dark fairy tale… From the Black Forest in Germany to the Aokigahara forest (the sea of trees) in Japan. 

Forests and Trees in My Writing

Of course forests feature in my writing. I love trees. I even have a “forest” of my own. Check it out on Instagram.

Obviously, this is a place in the wilderness…

The Wild Wood

The Wild Wood was formed after the Rift that tore Faerie to pieces.
It is a place neither in the Mortal Realm nor Faerie, yet is filled with magic and wonder. Wild Fae live there – they have changed over time in ways that other Fae hadn’t.
It is the easiest way to travel between Realms – but it is extremely dangerous. Wild Magic runs through the Wild Wood. But if you can find a copse of trees that connect to the Wild Wood, you can safely travel to where you need to go – especially if travelling out in the open is too dangerous.

Caledonian Forest

Home of the Dragon of the Caledonian Forest who hoards books and is an advisor to many druids and halflings who seek his help – in exchange for books, of course.
The forest is old, dangerous and very much alive. For the most part it is filled with oaks, birch, rowan, aspen, juniper, other hardy trees and ferns, mosses and lichens.
Caution: only go there with a Cù Sìth as your guide.

I tried. My drawing skills aren’t a match for my imagination yet.

Get it here.

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