A modern earthbound spirituality seeks to rekindle the relationship between man and nature that was obliterated by the emergence of industrial and later technological society. People of older civilizations encountered the forces of nature in every aspect of their daily life and they interpreted this experience religiously.
Trees became powerful spiritual symbols in many ancient cultures. In Genesis, two trees make up the spiritual centers of the Garden of Eden. The forbidden fruits of the tree of knowledge offered divine understanding of good and evil, while the tree of life granted immortality. The myth of how the serpent tricks Eve into offering Adam to eat from the tree of knowledge contains many layers of meaning. By obtaining knowledge, man came one step closer to God. This thirst for knowledge, for power, disrupted creation to the point where the world became flooded with sin and man was driven out of Paradise. Knowledge and power are two sides of the same coin. The myth of the fall of man can therefore be read as a warning: the power of knowledge tempts man to think of himself as God, and the banishment from Paradise reminds him that he is not the creator. The tree of life became an integral part of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystery tradition, and spiritual trees similar to those of the biblical tradition are found in the religious world of ancient Mesopotamia.
In Norse and Celtic mythology the structure of the universe is contained within a giant world tree. Among the druids, this cosmic tree was thought of as an oak, and the word druid translates to “oak-knower”. He who knows the secrets of the oak understands the deeper spiritual nature of the universe. In Asatru, the world tree is an ash, Yggdrasil. Odin, king and shaman of the Germanic gods, hung himself upon this tree for nine days and nine nights to receive the magic knowledge of the runic alphabet. According to a myth found in the Poetic Edda, the first humans, Ask (Ash) and Embla (Elm), were created from hollow tree trunks.
Trees seem to have had an unparalleled magical importance in the Celtic mystery tradition. The written language of the Celts, Ogham, is often referred to as the “tree alphabet”. The individual letters/sigils of this alphabet were called fedas, meaning “trees” or nin, “forking branches” and every feda is associated with a specific tree or plant. The exact uses of this alphabet is unknown, perhaps it was simply used for writing primitive Irish, or maybe it was a cryptic magical language used by druid priests. It could very well have been both, much like the Germanic runes. One scholar from late antiquity poetically described the Ogham alphabet as a tree that needs to be climbed. Here, the tree becomes an allegory for the pursuit of knowledge, much like the image of a ladder in alchemy.
Working with trees
The Christmas tree is an example of how trees are still used in holiday ritual. The act of bringing an evergreen tree inside the home and ornate it with fruits, nuts, and lights (which were the original ornaments) stem from pagan times, when such a tree represented the promise that the sun would return. Because they never lose their leaves, evergreens such as fir and pine are symbols of nature’s perseverance. These trees reassure us that the wheel of the year keeps turning; that nature will triumph over the death of winter.
I am blessed to have a mighty wall of mature cedars framing my entire backyard so that I can enjoy green nature all year around. Take some time to notice and meditate on the trees in your surroundings. Figure out what species they belong too, and learn about their uses: what are their medicinal and magic properties? Are they good for building furniture or houses? Learning more about trees in your area is a wonderful way to create a real and meaningful relationship with nature. Experiencing trees is not merely an intellectual task, of course. To alert all the senses you should go for walks in nature and smell and touch the trees you encounter. Collecting fallen branches for crafts and decor projects, woodworking, planting and caring for trees are other joyful ways of cultivating relationship with trees.
Pauline Campanelli, Ancient Ways, Reclaiming Pagan Traditions (1991, 2014)
Danu Forest, Celtic Tree Magic, Ogham Lore and Druid Mysteries (2019)
Daniel Mccoy, The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion
Christopher Penczack, The Temple of Shamanic Witchcraft: Shadows, Spirits and the Healing Journey (2005)