Trees - Botanicals

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005


Among the most ancient forms of religion is devotion to sacred trees. In modern usage “tree worship” sounds flat and simplistic; language doesn’t do justice to the concept. Today trees are primarily understood as sources of lumber or as something to be moved out of the way so that the Earth below can be utilized for profit or practicality. In that context “tree worship” may sound primitive and silly.

In order to even begin to understand this concept, one must look at Earth with the wonder-struck eyes of magical perspective. First of all, lose the concept of “one way” directionals. If trees can be perceived as growing out of the ground, they may also be understood to penetrate the ground, as if they were moving downward, not up.

Now imagine: if Earth is a fertile female, what could those big, strong, hard trees possibly be? Genital imagery permeates ancient religion: trees often serve as huge, symbolic male generative organs.

Ritual processionals all over the world, from Japan throughout Asia and Europe, feature trees carried to represent generative energy. Sometimes they’re carved explicitly and very realistically into gigantic phalluses; sometimes tree trunks are left au naturel, no enhancement necessary. On-lookers may reach to touch the passing tree to gain a little of that energy for themselves: for reproductive fertility, for material prosperity, for sexual prowess, and for the magical prevention of erectile dysfunction. That tree serves a lot of people’s diverse magical needs. This phallic tree trunk may be pounded on doors to announce the arrival of the creative, generative spirit.

The most famous surviving phallic tree is the Maypole. A tall, hard, straight tree (often an elm) is ritually prepared, then set up within a dance ground—a magic circle. Young girls dance around it, wrapping it in silk ribbons. (Makes you wonder about that other lavishly ornamented tree, the Christmas Tree, doesn’t it?)

Not all trees were masculine. Smaller, curvaceous trees like the elder or rowan are usually perceived as feminine. Fruit-bearing trees, like figs, date palms or apples, are considered female as well, although nut trees are resolutely male. The Latin classification for walnuts describes them as “Jupiter’s balls” and we’re not talking about baseballs, golf balls or any other round object used in sports.

Some of the oldest religious rites took place in sacred groves. These groves were sacred ground and places of oracular wisdom. Various deities maintained sacred groves of trees that shared their essence. Zeus presided over the oak grove at Dodona. The oracle was interpreted by listening to the wind whispering through the trees. Eventually “whispering” would become the domain of witches.

There is an ancient, ancient, primordial tradition of holy trees. One especially sacred motif was the snake in a tree. The snake curling its body around a tree trunk was sometimes under-stood as the unification of the sexes. Some have suggested that the biblical story of the snake and the tree in the Garden of Eden may be interpreted to mean that the era of that kind of religion was ending. The story is not told without regret; it is accompanied by expulsion from Paradise and foretells enmity between the sexes and between species.

Even after expulsion from Eden, however, tree worship doesn’t end in the Bible. Lady Asherah of the Sea, pre-eminent mother goddess of the Western Semitic people, presided over sacred groves where women went to dance, sing and commune with nature. Trees were carved into the sacred poles named after Asherah and set up in high places as well as within the Jerusalem Temple.

For centuries, the Kings of Judea repeatedly installed, then removed and destroyed these pillars, only to have them installed once again. Although Asherah is frequently painted as a Canaanite goddess, one of the foreign deities the prophets accused the Children of Israel of whoring after, archeological evidence suggests otherwise. Lady Asherah was also an indigenous Hebrew goddess. Her image spent more time in the Jewish temple than outside; every time she was removed, someone eventually replaced her until the destruction of the First Temple. Obviously she was a controversial figure but there’s no way for us to truly understand the controversy because the only surviving writings derive from those opposed to Asherah and devotion to trees. No explanation survives from those who loved her, or at least none has yet been unearthed.

Descriptions of tree-centered spirituality around the world could fill a thousand pages. Norse cosmology describes the World Tree upon which the entire world and all its realms are centered. In Uppsala, Sweden, the city dedicated to Freyr the Elven King, Lord of Generative Fertility, there was an ancient sacred grove where every single individual tree was held sacred. The Druids held their rituals within sacred oak groves. A grove is a sacred perimeter of trees, the space within is demarcated as holy, ritual, magical space. However, much of Earth was once covered with trees.

The forest is the realm of trees and their spirits. It is a place of wild, free, bountiful energy. Cutting down forests may be understood as acts of spiritual warfare against spirits in general (a denial of their existence), against those spirits who preside over forests in particular, and against their devotees. Destruction of rain forests worldwide (as well as other forests) is now attributed to needs of business or “civilization” rather than official religion but may still be understood in the same manner.

This isn’t conjecture: when the missionaries Boniface and Willibrord came to convert the Frisians and Germans in the early eighth century they deliberately destroyed sacred trees. Cutting down groves was understood as a religious act; clearing wilderness makes way for “civilization” and easier administration of authority.

In Europe, forests, the realm of the trees, became refuges for outlaws, witches, pagan hold-outs, and all those who found themselves persecuted by the New Order. When forests became perceived as solely dark and dangerous, witches maintained the forest’s beneficial wisdom and secrets.

The sacredness inherent in a single tree is sometimes sufficient, however.

Image Witches were described as dancing around a tree at their sabbats.

Image A walnut tree in Benevento, Italy is legendary as a witches’ meeting place.

Image According to a Northern legend, when missionaries chopped down a huge holy oak, a small pine arose from its roots. This became the first Christmas tree.

Judaism was never able to suppress devotion to trees: Lady Asherah’s sacred tree survives in the Kabalah’s Tree of Life. Likewise the Christian Church was never able to suppress devotion to trees. Tree traditions survived in the Yule log, Maypoles, Easter egg trees and, most especially, in beautifully garlanded and bedecked Christmas Trees.

Witches became guardians and preservers of tree magic. Trees supply the materials for various magical tools, not least magic wands. The magic wand places the power of the tree directly into the practitioner’s hands, enabling her to focus it as desired. Different types of wood are believed most beneficial for different purposes and styles of magic.

See PLACES: Forest; TOOLS: Brooms, Wands.