Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Medical, Legal, Acronyms, Idioms, Wikipedia.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The worship of trees has for generations been a common practice throughout much of Europe. A.J. Huxley makes the point that trees themselves were originally an object of veneration since, to the relatively short-lived human, they appeared immortal. The Old Testament contains references to sacred groves and to setting up altars under trees such as sacred oaks. This reverence for living trees was later shown to the simple erect trunk, sometimes with an altar placed before it. Representation of the trunk as a stone pillar was found in as the standing stones and menhirs in western Europe. A further stage involved placing a mask on the tree or pillar to represent the deity within, or even carving the trunk to look like the god or goddess.

The belief that spirits dwelled in trees was universal. In ancient Egypt these spirits were especially seen in the sacred sycamores (Ficus sycomorus) that existed on the border of a great desert between this world and the next. When the dead soul reached this border, the spirits in the sacred trees would provide food and water for the journey. Such scenes are depicted in the Book of the Dead. Persian mythology also contains references to the tree as a dwelling place for a deity, with the cypress as the sacred symbol of Ahura Mazda.

Trees such as the sequoias of northern California live for two, three, or even four thousand years, so it is no wonder they have been revered. England is dotted with ancient oaks that are hundreds of years old. Sir James Frazer says that nothing could be more natural than the worship of trees, speaking of the remnants of the great forest of Anderida which once covered the entire southwest portion of England, the Ciminian forest of Germany, and the beautiful woods of pine, oak, and other trees in Greece. Sacred groves were common among the ancient Germans, and tree worship, says Frazer, is well attested for all the great European families of Aryan stock. Among the Celts the oak-worship of the Druids is legendary.

Most closely connected with trees were the female spirits known as hamadryads, or dryads. Considered the incarnate souls of trees, especially of oak trees, they were thought to be necessary to the growth and well-being of the tree; by touching the roots, they could cause the tree to fruit. A dryad would only die when the tree died. In some areas the spirit living in a tree was thought to need placating, otherwise it might become hostile. Arabian jinns inhabited trees, as did similar Egyptian monsters. In Scandinavia there is a belief in moss-covered men and women who lived under trees.

Oak, ash, birch, hawthorn, elder, rowan, hazel, and holly trees became especially revered in Britain and other northern temperate countries as protectors from evil. A piece of wood cut from these trees would protect the one who carried it, and a branch kept in the house would protect the home from fire, lightning strikes, and intruders.

Robert Graves called a tree alphabet used by Wiccans and other Pagans a "genuine relic of Druidism." It is used in much the same way as the Runic alphabet, for divination and for secret writings. Each letter of the alphabet is named for a tree or shrub. By stringing a leaf from the particular trees on a string, messages could be spelled out and passed along. Barbara Walker suggests that occasional leaves from nonlettered trees might also be introduced to make the message more cryptic. The tree alphabet is as follows: A—Silver Fir (Ailm) B—Birch (Beth) C—Hazel (Coll) D—Oak (Duir) E—White Poplar (Eadha) F—Alder (Fearn) G—Ivy (Gort) H—Hawthorn (Uath) I—Yew (Idho) L—Rowan (Luis) M—Vine (Muin) N—Ash (Nion) O—Furze (Onn) P—Dwarf Elder (Pethboc) R—Elder (Ruis)

S—Willow (Saille) T—Holly (Tinne) U—Heather (Ur)

Barbara Walker says that the consonantal letters have also been related to the lunar calendar, the pagan feast days, and the agricultural seasons.

Of the trees themselves, the oak represented power. Irish churches were once called dair-thech, meaning "oak-house." The oak represented Diana and her lovers, the Kings of the Wood in Greco-Roman tradition, according to Walker. Few trees have been so widely revered as the oak.

The ash was considered the universal mother. Yggdrasil was the name of the World Ash Tree of Norse mythology, its roots reaching down to the underworld and its branches reaching up to the heavens.

The alder was associated with various pagan deities. Considered the tree of resurrection, it was sacred to the Celtic god Bran, brother of the keeper of the Cauldron of Regeneration. The Romans associated the alder with the Roman-Celtic god Cocidius, a disreputable orgiast.

The hawthorn, also known as the May tree, represented the White Goddess Maia. She was a goddess of both love and death, connecting the tree to both sexuality and destruction. The blossoms of the hawthorn made up the garland that was attached to the tip of the maypole at Beltane celebrations, serving as the yoni to the pole's lingam.

The willow, sacred to the Celtic Goddess Arianrhod, was said to beget ser- pents. Witches would go to a willow tree to forswear God, according to the medieval clerics. Willow wands were popluar for water witching and other forms of divining.

The rowan, or mountain ash, was sacred to Bride. It was used in breaking curses and was the preferred wood for vampire-killing stakes!

The holly was dedicated to Cu Chulainn and to the Celtic Goddess Holle, or Hel. Holle was the universal mother, patron of newborn children. Planting holly trees around a house was believed to protect the home from evil.

The walnut harbored female spirits that would make indecent propositions to passers-by. Walnut shells were associated with female genitalia. Witches were said to sail walnut shells like miniature boats.

The three most magical trees were the oak, ash, and thorn. By holding leaves from these three, and pronouncing certain secret words, it was thought possible to summon the god Woden to aid you. Believers handed down the secret words from woman to man and man to woman, alternating sexes, in the same manner in which the mysteries are taught in Wicca.

Walker, Barbara G.: The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. HarperSanFrancisco, 1988.


Birnam wood
apparently comes to Dunsinane, fulfilling a prophecy misinterpreted by Macbeth. [Br. Drama: Shakespeare Macbeth]
tree of perfect knowledge under which Gautama attained enlightenment and so became the Buddha. [Buddhism: Benét, 124]
Charter Oak
ancient white oak where the Connecticut charter was secreted in 1687 to avoid its seizure by the royal governor. [Am. Hist.: NCE, 515]
Chestnuts, The
tree apartment, home of Owl. [Br. Lit.: A. A. Milne Winnie-the-Pooh]
conducted their rites in oak groves and venerated the oak and the mistletoe. [Celtic Relig.: Benét, 289]
treelike creatures who shelter and defend the friends of Frodo. [Br. Lit.: J. R. R. Tolkien Lord of the Rings]
laurel tree
sacred to Apollo; a wreath of laurel, or bay, protected the wearer from thunderstorms. [Roman Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 81]
considered more likely to be struck by lightning, sacred to the god of thunder and venerated by the Druids. [Br. Legend: Brewer Dictionary, 652]
juice contains a poison used for tipping arrows; its vapor was believed capable of killing all who came within miles. [Eur. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 926]
symbol of immortality; hence, planted in churchyards and near Druid temples. [Br. Legend: Brewer Dictionary, 967]
the great ash tree that supported the universe, having sprung from the body of the giant Ymir. [Norse Myth.: Benét, 111]
References in classic literature ?
Were I but such a high tree as the others are," sighed he.
Neither the sunbeams, nor the birds, nor the red clouds which morning and evening sailed above him, gave the little Tree any pleasure.
In the meantime I had been straining my eyes to catch a glimpse of Perry, but nowhere about could I see him, although the clump of trees in which he had first taken refuge was in full view.
He had been thinking what was best to be done, and now he asked the Woodman to chop away the end of the tree that rested on their side of the ditch.
By degrees as the river narrowed, and the high sandbanks fell to level ground thickly grown with trees, the sounds of the forest could be heard.
I remember that once, on an uninhabited island of the Gallipagos, a bird alighted on my outstretched arm, while its mate chirped from an adjoining tree.
We caught occasional glimpses of her from day to day, and came to look for her when we travelled back and forth between our tree and the mouth of the slough.
Dorothy turned quickly around, and saw coming out of a path that led from between the trees the most peculiar person her eyes had ever beheld.
After this I had the beautiful fruit of these trees carefully guarded by my most faithful servants; but every year, on this very night, the fruit was plucked and stolen by an invisible hand, and next morning not a single apple remained on the trees.
I never put my axe into a stunty tree, or one that hasn’t a good, fresh-looking bark: for trees have disorders, like creatur’s; and where’s the policy of taking a tree that’s sickly, any more than you’d choose a foundered horse to ride post, or an over heated ox to do your logging?
He had hoped to fly, keeping not far from the ground so that nothing unwonted should escape his eyes; but in that fitful light to have flown low would have meant trailing his shadow through the trees, thus disturbing birds and acquainting a watchful foe that he was astir.
As the shadow of a rose in a mirror of silver, as the shadow of a rose in a water-pool, so was the rose that blossomed on the topmost spray of the Tree.