The Religion of Trees

Old Mother Cedar

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.

Blackthorn full of ripening sloe plums

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.

Walking among Gods

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.

Fern and moss-covered Big Leaf Maple

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 World Tree Drumsand 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

Further Reading:

“On Circle Casting and the World Tree” by Sarah Lawless

Comments

19 Responses to “The Religion of Trees”

  1. Nix says:

    So so beautiful. It is intense how quickly the trees can change your perception and energy.

    Beautiful, Sarah!

  2. Rain says:

    I have always felt a strong connection to trees. I can see them breathing, hear them whispering, and feel their energy like no one else I know. My energy has been calling on me to search and learn more, open my self, and let them in. Thank you so much for this.

  3. Nikkie says:

    I love trees. I always have. Since I was a little girl growing up on a big farm with 4 brothers, I chose to spend my time in the trees. We had a huge Poplar forest on our farm and they spoke to me, they did!! Now I live near the amazing Knysna Indigenous Forest and the Trees call me and I have to obey! Thank you Sarah…once again I understand so much more!

  4. nellie says:

    Famtastic post. My own love affair with trees is ongoing and you’ve pointed out a few roads for me to travel :)
    I’ve just started reading ‘comparitive mythology’ ^-^

    • Bring a dictionary when you read it – Puhvel had a bad habit of using antiquated and superfluous words where one simple one would do!

      I’d also recommend Puhvel’s Comparative Mythology to Valiel as he wrote more on Esus than I’ve seen anywhere else.

  5. Valiel says:

    For the Gods’ sake…. I’ve been troubled by Esus for two years now, without being able to put together my feelings and knowledge… You really got something there. Thank you so much.

  6. Seillean says:

    Sarah, you have a knack for posting things that are always congruent with the issues I’m dealing with in my own practice at any given moment! This is very pertinent and helpful to me right now. There’s lots of threads to pull here (I like to pull on threads!).

    I also wanted to say that I appreciate how you leave enough hints and trails and breadcrumbs for the curious seeker to get started with but still leave enough unsaid for one to figure it out themselves and discover the true mysteries on their own. It’s a delicate balance but you walk it beautifully. Thank you.

    • Thank you for your eloquent reply Rick! I’ve noticed of late certain witches all seem to think along the same lines at the same time… Coincidence? Well, I don’t believe in coincidences… I was “urged” in the middle of the night to write this post. When I woke up I remembered and did so.

      • On the subject of coincidences, last Sunday we did a ritual to make a tree I had been guided to into our tribal tree. Last Saturday the book I ordered (the H. R. Ellis Davidson one you mention) arrived at the library.

  7. Melissa says:

    Thank you. Seriously. It seem like you answer the questions in my head. I want to know more about how african gatekeeper gods function and not only do you answer my unspoken question, but you tie it back in so beautifully to everything that is most important to me. You should write a book. Maybe a couple. I would buy them in a heartbeat.

  8. Thank you all so much for your comments. I wasn’t sure how this post was going to be met. One of those times you look up from the keyboard and not realize quite what you wrote… darn automatic writing. I’m so happy to know I’m not the only tree worshipper.

    I almost forgot tree coffins and burials so I snuck them in near the end. I think the ancients burying their dead in trees says a lot.

    Slainte,
    Sarah

  9. Jemma says:

    They have such a special energy. They are a real natural living treasure that most people do not appreciate.

    Is it possible that only certain people have an affinity with trees?

    Different trees definately have different personalities and trees are very wise. You can definately communicate with trees but its more of a necessity of clearing your mind and emptying it of thoughts. Trees find people very noisy thinkers. If you clear your mind and make contact with a tree (Like touching or hugging it) you will definately be rewarded by it communicating with you.

  10. Kim says:

    Here are some interesting titles for thought. The Magic Circle-By Katherine Neville. Fiction-has some great parts about the world tree and the axis mundi in it. The Eight-also by Katherine Neville-mostly about the number 8 -but magically speaking it ties in with the world tree and the axis mundi. The trilogy Prospero’s Children-by Jan Siegel has the world tree in the second book of the series but the first book is what makes the entire series understandable. It is sad though-after reading the last book the main character decides she doesn’t believe being a witch is worth the price. I love the series though because it doesn’t have a happy ending and it makes you think long and hard about any path you are on. In the Grigori trilogy by Storm Constantine-there is a very graphic sex part involving a tree that I don’t think i’ll ever get out of my mind-not because it was so sexy but because in the context of the storyline it was brillaint and really made one think. For non-fiction Jesus as a Pagan God-freke is one of the authors. They do wonderful research and each chapter they give you the sources for where they got their information. It basically compares Jesus to Osiris and other Gods.

  11. hexenkunst says:

    hi,
    i think you will love the book the rotting goddess-
    the author has the theory that hekate was a world tree,
    like legba in voodoo- and i experienced her like this, not only the gate keeper between the worlds, but she is the world tree.

    here is a link to the pdf- if you are interested in it:
    http://www.invisiblebooks.com/Junk12.27.06.pdf

    liebe grüße aus deutschland
    dawn

  12. hexenkunst says:

    ps: the rotting goddess pdf starts around page 77, before that there are other writings of the author.

  13. Ariel says:

    this is a beautiful post. so much great information and so incredibly interesting. thank you for sharing.

  14. Great post! Gran Bwa is such a happy and sweet spirit! Legba usually appears to me as a older man and sometimes young.