The Religion of Trees
I am a tree worshipper, but it goes beyond holding an ancient Oak or Redwood in awe. I worship the tree, the World Tree. I worship it like a god, and in many cultures the World Tree was considered a god, but its deified versions became so common it was forgotten they were part of the Tree to begin with. I started researching and worshipping trees many years ago at the same time I began woodworking. It wasn’t until an ancient god sat beside me on the bus one day that I started chasing gods and the history of the World Tree. That god was Legba of the Good Tree. My first reaction was “what the hell is an African god doing getting the attention of a pasty white Scots-Irish girl?” But later I learned that was all he was doing – getting my attention so I would pay attention. Today the Tree still whispers recipes for remedies and magical concoctions into my ear for the Tree rules knowledge of herbs – both their medicinal and magical applications. But the Tree no longer wears Legba’s face. The Tree rules the creatures that live in symbiotic relationships with trees – from squirrels, birds, lizards, and snakes to termites, cicadas, and spiders. Larger animals also depend on trees; bears, deer, wild cats, and goats – yes goats can climb trees. Trees are used to build our homes, to build our ships, to make clothing, blankets, baskets, furniture, tools, ropes, amulets, and medicines. Trees are sources of food for human and animals – we feed on their fruits, their seeds, and their blood.
Legba originates from Benin, Africa. The locals view him as a virile black man with goat or bull horns and an erect phallus (sound familiar?). Legba is the lwa of the crossroads through whom all gods, spirits, and mortals must go through to cross and communicate between realms. He guards the gates between worlds. All who wish to speak to spirits must propitiate and ask for Legba’s help first. His symbol is the crossroads—two intersecting lines—and offerings may be left for him there of tobacco, rum, or his favourite meal of roasted chicken and sweet potatoes. Legba is both the World Tree or axis mundi and the poteau mitan or centre post of the peristyle (outdoor temple) in Haitian Voudou. Legba is sexually ambiguous, usually presented as male, but not masculine. He has appeared to me as a flamboyantly gay man before. Legba is a triple-god. One of his other two sides is Legba Ati-Bon or Gran Bois/Bwa who is ruler of the wild forests and the Island below the Waters where the spirits and lwa dwell. Gran Bois is well versed in herbal medicine and communing with wild animals. He is known for and proud of his massive erect phallus. Red and green serpents are especially sacred to him and offerings to this deity are usually hung from a tree. The second is Carrefour, one of the three magician lwa. Carrefour is well known for being a spirit of black magic, charms, enchantment, cursing, and destruction. He is considered to have the appearance of a demon, and when he possesses someone during a ritual, the attendees do not speak to him, fearing he will bring evil spirits into the realm of the living through the doorway he opens between the realms. Both Legba and Carrefour open doors, but working with Legba rather than Carrefour ensures the spirits you commune with are benevolent, but does not guarantee they won’t be mischievous. He is always left offerings and called before all the other lwa and spirits.
I didn’t stop there, I kept chasing the Tree. I followed him into the future and found the Gaulish god Esus. Esus is a tree and each year he must cut himself down with his great axe, only to reborn again in the new year. Esus was associated with bulls and egrets (white herons). He was also a triple god often found along side the other Gaulish gods Teutates and Taranis. Human sacrifices and offerings to Esus were hung in trees.
“In early ritual, human, animal, or arboreal representatives of the god were periodically destroyed to ensure fertility, but when the god became separated from these representatives, the destruction or slaying was regarded as a sacrifice to the god, and myths arose telling how he had once slain the animal. In this case, tree and bull, really identical, would be mythically regarded as destroyed by the god whom they had once represented. If Esus was a god of vegetation, once represented by a tree, this would explain why, as the scholiast on Lucan relates, human sacrifices to Esus were suspended from a tree.”
~ John Arnott MacCulloch, 1911
Esus sounds so much like Jesus who is so much like Dionysus, who is so much like Osiris, the great fertile pillar or djed of ancient Egypt. As the poteau mitan of the Haitian temple is Legba’s spine so too are the great djeds of Egypt Osiris’ spine. But trees aren’t so common in Egypt and Osiris’ backbones were often pillars of stone. The word for a stone pillar in the ancient Greek tongue is herme or herma. It referred to stone pillars with four sides found at crossroads, borders, and sometimes doorways. Hermai were usually topped with the head of an older bearded man and carved with an erect phallus. For good luck people would rub olive oil on their hands and stroke the phallus. Then comes the new Olympian god Hermes – guardian of crossroads and boundaries, guide of the souls of the dead, and messenger of mortal and god alike.
But he couldn’t just have appeared, come from nothing. Hermes, the pillar of Greece, is so very much like Prometheus the ancient Titan believed to be the father of our race. Prometheus who created us with his hands and gifted us fire and cunning against the desires of the other gods. For favouring us with a divine gift he was punished. A great wooden pillar was struck through his body, some say on and some say under a mountain, and to it he was chained for thousands of years in punishment for aiding us… perhaps even for making us. Every day an eagle would pluck out his liver and every day it would grow back to be eaten again. But even in anguish he was still friend to our race gifting us with the knowledge of sacred plants. It is said Mandrake sprung up from his blood spilled on the ground, and perhaps the other Solanaceae as well. In the Argonautica it is told that he taught Medea, the witch of Hekate, how to brew ointments and prepare these herbs. Prometheus was messenger of the Titan gods and also their resident trickster which his epithets reflect. What if Prometheus was the wooden pillar, a tree, and the mountain was the World Mountain – the axis of the Earth? Then Prometheus would be both the Earth’s axis and the World Tree and thus able to communicate with anyone anywhere on Earth even simultaneously.
In my search I found wooden pillars used as temples and also carved into the likeness of gods by the Scandinavians and Slavs, and ancient rings of wooden pillars have been excavated in the United Kingdom. I read the ancient Brehon laws protecting sacred trees in Ireland and the expensive and grisly punishments for those who harmed them.This led me to other excavations, this time of great treetrunk coffins found in Scotland, England, Germany, Eastern Europe, Asia, and even a cypress treetrunk coffin found in Egypt just like in the myth of Osiris’ death. Anthropologists postulate that the ancients once believed one’s soul could travel to the otherworld only if one’s body was buried in a tree. As little as a century ago here in Canada, it was common for Northwest Native tribes to bury their dead in trees. Some in treetrunk coffins, some in hollowed-out canoes, and some at the foot of a tree they were close with in life. There are tribes in South America who mummify their dead and hang them in trees. I read of the cult of Odin, the trickster who hung himself on a tree for knowledge and whose sacrifices were also hung from trees like those of Esus. I followed the tree, the pillar, back into time when trees were not cut down and reshaped. When the most that was done to them was a face carved into their living flesh or Druids grafting arms high upon the trunk of an Oak mimicking our human form as well as the images painted onto a shaman’s frame drum. A time when strips of wood were taken from living trees to make a drum, it being bad luck for the drummer if the tree died. This was a time of pre-shamanism when the gods were anthropomorphic beings with branches of flowers and leaves growing from their horned heads. The gods of trees are the oldest gods. They created us, we are their children; the children of trees. Bark and skin, wood and bones, pith and marrow, sap and blood, leaves and lungs… My God is the phallic axis of the world and my Goddess is the round earth the World Tree is struck through; the tree and navel, the tree and the cave, the tree and the well, the stang and the cauldron. That, my friends, is how a god from Africa led me back to my own roots and my own culture to find the balance between the old world and the new. And now I carve, grow and wildcraft healing and poisonous plants, and visit the Old Ones often in their wild wood. Their animal and insect messengers come to me often and I use stang, staff, and wand to commune with the spirits of the three realms. I follow the religion of Trees and my witchcraft is that of the wild wood.
Follow the path I stumbled onto:
- Comparative Mythology by Jaan Puhvel
- Deer Goddess of Ancient Siberia by Esther Jacobson
- Gods of the Greeks by Karl Kerenyi
- Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe by H.R. Ellis Davidson
- Secrets of Voodoo by Milo Rigaud
- The Forest in Folklore and Mythology by Alexander Porteous