Of the sacred trees, evergreens rank high as symbols of everlasting life. In Egyptian art, a pine is often depicted between the dead and rising Osiris, and pine cones appear on his monuments.
The pine was sacred to Attis, vegetation god and lover of the Phrygian Nature goddess, Cybele. It was on a pine that Attis was castrated, died and was resurrected.
The Corinthians were enjoined to worship the pine “equally with the god” Dionysus, who, in some images, carries a wand tipped with a pine cone. Among certain African clans, evergreens are cut by unmarried men who rock the holy tree and sing lullabies to it. In the Celtic Book of Taliesin‘s “Battle of the Trees,” the pine is described as courtly. It was considered a “chieftain tree” by the Celts, who used its timber to make puncheons.
Many cultures have a World Tree, a powerful axis binding the Earth to the cosmos and through which immortality is bestowed. In India, a fourth or fifth generation of the Bodhi Tree, Ficus religiosa, where the Buddha sat for forty-nine days and experienced his awakening, is still preserved at Mahabodi Temple in Bodhgaya.
Yggdrasil, the World Ash Tree upon which the Norse god Odin hung seeking wisdom, continues working its magic in, among other places, the twelfth trump of the Tarot, the Hanged Man.
In Greece, the World Tree was the olive. (Today, Palestinians must think of their ancient olives as World Trees, symbols of their relationship to the land, now threatened.) In Mesoamerica, it was the ceiba, which held aloft the four corners of Heaven.
Tree worship was once common around the globe (and it is still alive at my house). The earliest worship in Egypt may have been of the tree goddess, who lived in the dense sycamore groves. Trees were divine and each had a soul. Where trees scarcely grow — or are clear-cut — poles often substitute: elaborately carved totem poles or poles hung with banners, ribbons or prayer flags, perhaps metaphors for the leaves and boughs that mediate between Heaven and Earth. At ancient festivals, worshippers danced around trees to honor them, sing them into being, telegraphed with pounding feet, messages of love and obeisance.
Sacred groves have been composed of olive, cedar, poplar, sycamore, pine, almost any tree at all. Mine is a small, dense stand of plums. Oak worship, practiced by the Celts, led to the great French cathedral at Chartres, built on the site of the sacred oak grove. Throughout Europe, the process of conversion from paganism to Christianity included the destruction of holy trees. Yet in England, folk still visit the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, which offered sanctuary (an important function of churches during the warring Middle Ages) to Robin Hood, the Anglo-Saxon Green Man-cum-John-Dillinger of his day. The oak is thought to be between 800 and 1,000 years old.
Sacred groves — and think of the numbers of towns whose names include the word grove — are also found in the United States, sites of revivals, camp meetings, places of soul-stirring religious experiences. Many were taken from Native Americans who revered the groves before the European invasion. Comfort apparently being next to godliness, the newcomers often cut the grove trees to make benches for worshipers. It is too bad — and it is dangerous — when human rather than natural action sanctifies a place.
Trees are shelter for body and soul, yet their longevity and strength seem also to threaten our notions of ourselves as masterful and masters of the Earth.