Trees and forests haunt our imaginations. We talk about the family tree, the tree of knowledge, the tree of life and still bring in trees at Christmas. Literature and fairy tales treat the forest as a place of mystery and magic, where we might meet magical beings, unicorns, wise hermits, princes under enchantment, Robin Hood, where the magical maiden comes to the aid of the knight on a quest, or a place of threat where we might encounter ogres, where Red Riding Hood meets the wolf and Handsel and Gretel meet the cannibalistic witch, where the overgrown path might take us to the fountain of youth, the witch’s cottage or as in Dante’s Inferno, the path to hell.
The edge of the forest marks the symbolic edge of civilization and the boundary of man’s authority; within it is raw nature, teeming with untamed plant and animal life, hidden from plain view by the shadowed canopy of trees. To enter it is to leave the familiar and cross the threshold into the unknown, a place of challenge and unpredictability. In myth and literature, it is a place where we project our deepest anxieties and fears, where the hero of the tale undergoes tests and initiations before becoming transformed. The forest can be seen as a metaphor for the untamed inner landscape and the unconscious mind, with its labyrinth of tangled and hidden paths.
Here in Europe, we’ve always lived with trees and had a close relationship with them, and in mythology they have been viewed with a mixture of kinship and awe. The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote: “If you come upon a grove of old trees that have lifted their crowns up above and shut out the light of the sky by the darkness of their interlacing boughs, you feel that there is a spirit in the place, so lofty is the wood, so lonely the spot, so wondrous the thick unbroken shade.”
In some mythologies humans were believed to have been created from trees. In Greek myth, Zeus created mankind from ash trees, while in Scandinavian mythology Ask, the first man, originated in the ash tree, and the first woman Embla, from the elm. In India, Buddha was incarnated as a tree spirit forty-three times before receiving enlightenment under a bo tree.
Many people instinctively feel that a tree has a spirit or consciousness. They were widely believed to embody the spirit of a god or goddess, or that of a vegetation or nature spirit. While the lifespan of a man is short, trees can live for many centuries. Deciduous trees are renewed each spring (a symbol of rebirth and renewal), while evergreens remained unchanging, even in the death-time of winter. As symbols of the god, or a god in actuality, trees were associated with fertility. At the festival of Dionysus anyone with a tree in the garden would dress it up to represent the god. At various other harvest and fecundity festivals trees would be decorated with wreaths and otherwise honoured. From this connection of the tree with virility comes our own customs of carrying tree sprigs in a wedding bouquet and such May Day observances such as the leaf-clad Jack in the Green dancer.
The tree itself was a cosmic axis with the roots extending into the underworld of the dead, tapping the ancestral wisdom there, and the branches extending into the realms of the sky gods, with the trunk connecting it to Middle Earth, our realm.
Sticks or wands were [and still are] carried by elders, kings, heralds, and military leaders as a symbol of god given authority, derived from the sacredness of the tree.
The use of sacred groves was widespread in many cultures; they were the places that the Gods could be contacted. They were important features of the religious practices of Celtic, Baltic, Germanic, ancient Greek, Near Eastern, Roman, and Slavic Paganism, and were also used in India, Japan, and West Africa. In the Old Testament, altars were set up in groves or beneath particular oak trees. Both Pliny and Lucan wrote that druids did not meet in stone temples or other constructions, but in sacred groves of trees. Evidence of Celtic groves, or nemeton, has been found in Germany, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Hungary as well as France, England and Northern Ireland. One of the most famous of the many sacred groves in ancient Greece was the oak grove at Dodona, sacred to Zeus, where the god communicated through the whispering of the leaves.
Because of the late coming of Christianity to the Baltic states, sacred groves survived longer there than in other parts of Europe. The last extermination of sacred groves was carried out in the lands of present-day Lithuania after its Christianization in 1387 and Samogitia in 1413. The most famous sacred grove of Northern Europe was at the Temple at Uppsala in Old Uppsala, where every tree was considered sacred. The practice of blót – the sacrificial ritual in Norse paganism – was usually held in sacred groves.
Stories of the gods and spirits of the wood come down to us as folk tales of forest fairies, and there are vast numbers of forest fairies and spirits all over the world. In Croatia, for example, Woodland Maidens are fairy girls, covered in hair. When humans leave food out for them, they will return the favour by cleaning their houses. In Greece, the Sylvans are beautiful but dangerous, sometimes luring travellers to their deaths in the forests. In Hungarian fairy lore, the Forest Girl appears as a naked woman with hair so long that it sweeps the ground. When the forest rustles, it tells of her presence. In Scandinavia and Germany the forest spirits are often wild people covered in moss, or Moss Maidens. Among the southern and western Slavs, the Vile [‘Whirlwind’] dwell in woodlands, and ride about them on horses or on stags, hunting deer with their arrows and herding chamois. Some of the forest Vily are connected with particular trees in the manner of dryads and cannot venture far from them. In Dalmatia, they are described as the troop of Herodias, the witch queen. In Serbia they are called divna ‘the divine’.
To this day in Britain and Ireland, some special trees, especially those near holy wells and springs, are hung with gifts or rags to solicit blessings or healing from their spirits.
In Britain some of the ancient nature spirits and gods passed into lore as woodland fairies, often given the name of Hob or Robin. Robin Goodfellow is a mischievous English fairy who loves to play tricks on mortals, perhaps rushing between their feet as a hare, transforming himself into a horse and carrying them away, or appearing as a will o’the wisp. He sometimes leads people astray and a term for being lost is ‘Robin Goodfellow has been with you tonight’. Faith in Robin Goodfellow amongst the ordinary people was once absolute, though Reginald Scot wrote in 1584 that belief in him was less strong than it had been. However, he was to become to be a popular figure in ballads and mummers plays for many years afterwards, appearing wearing calfskin and carrying a broom or flail, with ruddy hands and face. He has the head of a handsome youth and like many other fairies, the body or legs of a goat, reminding us of the Greek god of wild places, Pan. Like Pan he has a lusty nature, small horns on his head, and carries musical pipes. It may be that he is the fairy remnant of an ancient horned god. He is never seen between Halloween and the vernal equinox and is usually accompanied by a variety of animals.
He was commonly seen with a bow and arrows, and these are associated with many fairies such as Puck, Spriggans, the Vile, the American Baykok, the Cambodian Präy and the German Pilwiz, to name but a few. When Stone Age flint arrowheads were found they were often called fairy arrows or elf bolts and attributed to fairy manufacture. Welsh legends tell of people being found dead in the forest shot with numerous tiny arrows. Fairy archers were much feared in Scotland and according to an old poem “We dare not go a-hunting/ For fear of little men! ” Anyone who went near the fairy mounds was likely to be struck with a fairy arrow. Attack by an evil spirit must have seemed the only explanation for the sudden one-sided paralysis of a stroke.
This association of arrows and the spirit world is very ancient. Supernatural or divine bowmen appear in many mythologies. In Indian legend there is the god Rama, while in classical myth the arrows of Eros are tipped with gold to cause love and lead to extinguish passion. They never miss their mark. In the Bible we read of the mighty hunter Nimrod. The Persian god Mithras was a divine archer who shot an arrow into a rock from which water then sprang. Apollo is the Greek god of the sun with attributes of bow and lyre. The only straight thing in nature is the shaft of sunlight piercing the clouds – these shafts are spoken of as the ‘fiery arrows of the sun’ or ‘darts of the sun’. Apollo’s sister is the moon goddess Artemis. She too has a bow and arrows. Her bow is the crescent of the moon and her arrows the shafts of moonbeams. Like many moon goddesses she is the patroness of the hunt, sudden death, and the wild goddess of the woods who brings prosperity to those who honour her. Her name is found as a component of many fairy names. Our ancestors were hunter-gatherers prowling through the dark forests in search of game. To them, the bow was important, and the sound of the bowstring is often considered magical, attracting game. It is the precursor of such musical instruments such as the harp or lyre. The bowshot was a unit of length used to define boundaries and limits. It is also straight and straight lines were considered sacred.
It is possible that in the stories of forest spirits such as Robin Goodfellow we have the origins of the tales of Robin Hood. Consider the fact that he is an outsider, his name, his green clothing, his forest home, and his deadly arrows – perhaps he was the nature god of the ordinary people who could seek him in the forest. A depiction of Robin and his men at the fourteenth century chapter house at Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire shows them as twelve green men merging with various sacred plants such as hawthorn, and ivy.
There are several hooded fairies, including Carl Hood, Grim and the Romano-Celtic Genii Cucullati [‘Hooded Spirits’]. Images of triads of hooded and cloaked dwarfs or giants appear all over Celtic Europe during the Roman period carrying eggs or displaying phalluses, obviously marking them as fertility spirits. An obvious association is the ‘hood’ of the phallus, the foreskin. This is further compounded by the fact that ‘Robin’ [as in Robin Hood] was once a nickname for the phallus. Another explanation might be that the hood conceals the identity of the supernatural being so that it might go amongst mankind undetected. Odin was called Grim meaning ‘hooded’ or ‘disguised’ as the god was often known to go among mortals in this aspect. For humans wearing a hood, mask or disguise may have a sacred or ritual purpose, relinquishing the old identity with the old clothes.
The colour green is very much associated with fairies. They are often described as wearing green clothes, coats and caps – some even have green skin. In Ireland green is so much the fairy colour that it is unlucky for humans to wear it, while in Scotland any woman dressed in green is sure to be a fairy. The fairies most associated with green are the nature spirits, woodland fairies, and those solitary fairies dwelling in the wild. Green of course, is the colour of growing things. After the cold, death-time of winter the spring returns with a flurry of fresh green growth. It is therefore a symbol of regeneration, the spirit of vegetation, hope, beauty, harmony and eternal life.
Ancient religion was largely concerned with agriculture and fertility, with entreating the gods and nature spirits to provide the corn. In Britain this spirit of vegetation is still portrayed on May Day by the Green Man, Jack in the Bush, or Jack in the Green, in the guise of a mummer clad in green leaves and fresh boughs. He also occurs on numerous pub signs and church carvings. May Day is also connected with Robin Hood; in fact, in England it was once called ‘Robin Hood’s Day’. In Germany the May King is concealed in a frame and covered with birch boughs and flowers. In parts of Russia and Balkans, the Green Man is called Green George, who masquerades as a tree. He was ducked in a pond to make sure enough rain would fall in the summer. Green is also connected with water as the bringer of life. In Muslim lore, the Green Man is Khidr who drank from the fountain of life and turned green. He now lives alone, travelling the world and protecting sailors.
The Green Man has foliage for hair and either a leafy beard or with leaves growing out of his mouth and nose; sometimes he has horns on his head. The French called him tete de feuilles (head of leaves) and the Germans called him blattmaske (leaf mask). No one really knows the purpose of the Green Man in churches, and theories have extended from Pagans smuggling their old deities onto church premises to illustrations of the threatening character of the natural world which could only be redeemed by Christianity.
A huge number of nature spirits across the world are described as or partly or completely covered in hair and they are often horned with something of the animal about them. Wild men are often carved into church buildings, much like the foliate heads known as Green Men to which they are certainly related. We find the wildman in the Arthurian Yuletide tale of the Green Knight, a mixture of Pagan ritual and the teachings of medieval Christianity. The Green Knight has long green hair which covers his back, a green beard, and carries a holly club in one hand. He is beheaded but comes back to life, and through his sacrifice demonstrates that life still goes on. The wildman or woodwose was a common character at various festivities in mediaeval England from May Day to Yule. At Midsummer pageants and parades the frightening and comical woodwoses were commonly dressed in ivy and carried oak clubs. At the Scottish court at Yuletide, the Abbot of Unreason was attended by men dressed in “branches of pine, yew, oak, fern, boxwood, or flowering heath”.  Henry VIII held Yuletide festivities in 1515 with a play in which eight wild men, in green moss and with ugly weapons, fought eight knights.
For Christians, the Wildman was a dangerous and despised figure, a rebellious force that threatened the values of orderly society; he represented the anarchy of untamed Nature as opposed to rationalised Christian civilisation. He dwelt in the dark forests and wild woods, hidden by the trees from the light of heaven, which were still haunted by the ancient spirits of the Old Gods. He was raw nature, the shamanistic feral god of beasts and vegetation whose annual death and resurrection had to be acknowledged.
The forest has always been considered a spirit-haunted place of mystery and magic. It is a place of trial, danger, initiation and transformation, a place where outcasts have found refuge, where knights have quested for adventure, poets found inspiration and mystics have received enlightenment and encountered their gods. Myths tell us that those who stayed at home in civilised and ordered safety experienced none of these things – never challenged themselves, never followed the labyrinthine forests paths to its enchanted heart or discovered the Grail. To achieve anything new or worthwhile we have to leave the safe and well trodden path.
We have always had a relationship with trees, both a practical one where we utilise the wood for fires, for fences, for dwellings and one where we appreciate them for their beauty which has inspired great art, music and poetry.
Moreover, we have a relationship with forests as sacred places. Forest and tree mythology has embodied out concepts of safety and adventure, wildness and civilisation, salvation and damnation, of birth and death, of decay and regeneration.
Nearly everyone feels the need to be in contact with the natural world, to see, hear, touch and exist within it. Each of us feels a sense of quiet awe when we enter a forest. In its dappled shade, our overburdened minds relax, and we become more simply ourselves. For each of us the forest can be a temple where we can renew ourselves, physically, mentally and spiritually.
As the Buddha said “(the forest is) a peculiar organism of unlimited kindness and benevolence that makes no demands for its sustenance and extends generously the products of its life activity; it affords protection to all beings, offering shade even to the axe man who destroys it.”
© Anna Franklin, 2021
Photo by Paul Mason
 Thomas K. Hervey, The Book of Christmas, The Folklore Society, 1888