Spiritual significance of trees throughout human history

Trees have filled a major cultural, spiritual and symbolic role throughout our human history.

One of the most pleasant ways to find relief from the hot sun is to park yourself under the cool and protective umbrella of a shade tree – especially after a cooker like we’ve had this summer!

These wonderful and amazing lifeforms have always played a vital role in supporting life on earth, but they’ve also played a major cultural, spiritual and symbolic role throughout our human history too, with plenty of folklore, legends and myths surrounding them.

The original meaning of the word ‘spirit’ was often described as a breath or wind, because a person felt touched or moved by something that couldn’t be seen. But this intangible phenomenon was difficult to describe vocally, so symbols were used instead.

This sense or feeling was common with religion and other forms of spirituality; but it’s also felt through creative processes, love or being in contact with natural environments.

Trees and forests have always been important symbols in mythology and religions in many cultures, which didn’t threaten God’s position as the highest being because he was considered the source and trees the channels.  They have been used to symbolize fundamental values and beliefs relating to life, growth, health, fertility, regeneration, wisdom, enlightenment, steadfastness and strength, and their many branches and leaves originating from a single stem, made a tree a natural symbol of unity that underlies the diversity of all living things.  Evergreens appeared to have a stronger life force than deciduous trees because they retained their foliage through winter, so they represent immortality and eternal life. In ancient Europe, one was placed inside the house during winter solstice as a sign of hope and a continuity of life through the darkest months, which is how Christmas trees came to be.

Large trees have always been powerful symbols of earthly life and the divine because they evoke awe, reverence and wonder.

According to many of the teachings of ancient wisdom, the universe comprises of a spiral or circular movement around a central axis or ‘centre pole,’ often depicted as the Tree of Life or Universal Tree. This symbolic image essentially embodies the notion that all life is interrelated and sacred, and that the universe is a living, evolving organism imbued with divine spirit – rather than a lifeless, clockwork mechanism.

Whether ancient cultures prayed to one god or many, they acknowledged trees as being able to elevate the human consciousness to higher forms of perception, and to receive messages from the higher planes or the deeper self.

In the Jewish tradition, the Tree of Knowledge (of Adam and Eve) imparts knowledge of good and evil (or bad), although the traditional translation is a fixed expression denoting ‘everything.’ In medieval Christianity, Jesus was associated with the holly tree – a word originally derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘holegn’ and the Old High German ‘hulis,’ meaning ‘holy.’. In Hinduism, the Vedas linked trees with Brahma – the immortal, innermost spirit of the universe – and it was under a pipal tree where the Buddha became enlightened. In the Moroccan Islamic tradition, the olive tree is the World Tree – a symbol of the universal human being and of the Prophet, and in Iroquois mythology, the Tree of Light connects the earth and sky and is a great source of power.

There are many legends of tree oracles and places throughout the world of sacred groves and sanctuaries.  Their leaves became the letters of the old alphabets, which enabled man to preserve the ‘word.’ Most terms for learning, knowledge, consciousness and wisdom are derived from words for tree or wood, such as wits, Wicca, witch and wizard.   Wands were made from very specific tree species and because they were known to have almost human powers of perception and preferences, they were carefully matched to their owner’s personalities and considered dangerous and destructive in the wrong hands.

So next time you’re under a shade tree, you might be getting a little more than relief from the sunshine, because that tree may be shining a little wisdom and enlightenment on you!