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 Hansel 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.
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 thought 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.
Different trees were considered to be the most sacred in different cultures. The ancient Chaldeans and Assyrians venerated the pomegranate and the cypress. In Persian mythology, the cypress was the sacred symbol of the god Ahura Mazda. In ancient Greece the goddess Artemis was associated with the cedar, the hazel and the willow, while the laurel was sacred to Apollo while Zeus was associated with the kingly oak. Forests were the home of the tree dwelling dryads and hammadryads. Various nymphs were associated with particular trees such as Rhoea with the pomegranate, Daphne with the laurel and Helike with the willow. In ancient Egypt several deities inhabited the sacred sycamore [Ficus sycomorus] which marked the boundary between this world and the Otherworld.
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.
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. The Arabian Djinn sometimes live in trees, while 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.
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.
There are many legends of the forest fairies called wood woses, green men or wild men. Those who saw them described them as green people, powerful fairies who could sometimes be appealed to for help or had to be placated if they were angered, as their elf bolts or flint arrows were deadly.
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.”
 Thomas K. Hervey, The Book of Christmas, The Folklore Society, 1888