Forests can enchant and enthrall if we’re not careful. Folklore, folktales and fairy tales have tried to warn us against the magic of forests since the beginning of time.
And though we are scared when we enter a forest alone, being with someone else makes it a fairy tale… We hope for Disney but we’ll probably get a Grimm fairy tale instead. *sigh*
We all know how that ended.
But scary cannibalistic witches aren’t the only things to be feared in the forest. Creatures abound and even the trees can be alive.
‘Touch wood’ is the traditional saying to bring luck and banish malevolent forces. Trees feature in the fairy lore and mythology of many cultures around the world. They often symbolise the various planes of existence, with their roots in the earth, or Underworld, their trunks in the human world, and their branches in the heavenly or spiritual realm. Like fairies, trees span multiple realms, and they are powerful symbols of the mysteries of life. The following are just a few of the many trees that feature in a rich tradition of fairy lore: Apple, Ash, Oak, Thorn, Elder, Hazel and Rowan.”
– Read the full account of these trees in The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies by Lucy Cooper.
The trees – even the flowers – are certainly alive and may be more terrifying that you thought.
As H.J. Rose states, all the names for various classes of nymphs are plural feminine adjectives agreeing with the substantive nymphai, and there was no single classification that could be seen as canonical and exhaustive. Thus the classes of nymphs tend to overlap, which complicates the task of precise classification. Rose mentions dryads and hamadryads as nymphs of trees generally, meliai as nymphs of ash trees, Daphnaeae as nymphs of laurel trees, Anthousai as nymphs of flowers, Hyleoroi nymphs as watchers of woods, and Kissiae as nymphs of ivy.
The Nymphai (or Nymphs in English) were minor nature goddesses which populated the cosmos. Although they were ranked below the gods, they were still invited to attend the assemblies of the gods on Olympus.
The Nymphai presided over various natural phenomena: from springs, to clouds, trees, caverns, meadows, and beaches. They were responsible chiefly for the care of the plants and animals of their domain, and as such were closely associated with the prime gods of nature such as Hermes, Dionysus, Artemis, Poseidon and Demeter.
DRYADES, THE The nymphs of trees and forests. Some of them had their life force bound to that of a specific tree, usually the loftiest in a forest, or one in a sacred grove of the gods. Dryads of mountain pines were known as Oreiades, those of ash-trees were called Meliai, Hamadryades were of the oaks, and Meliades of fruit-trees.
HAMADRYADES, THE Oak-tree Dryads whose life force was bound to that of a particular tree.
Nymphs have always been integral to the processes of nature and are readily perceived by the very young and the pure of heart. In ancient Greece, Nymphs were not a common sight but that did not inhibit the belief in their reality or the unwavering devotion of their worshipers. The natural world is fraught with ‘strangeness’ and Nymphs have made significant contributions to our perceptions and misperceptions of how the ‘real’ world works.
You are surely familiar with the expression, “Knock on wood.” Someone will say something like, “I’m sure the weather will be perfect for my vacation” and then realize that they might have jinxed themselves by saying that. They will then say “Knock on wood” as they rap their knuckles lightly on something made of wood … that combination of word and deed will call forth a Nymph from the wood to act as a protector.
Nature is truly alive and that vitality can take many forms … Nymphs are simply an expression of the life-force that resides in trees, lakes and even the air we breathe.
Trees have featured in Irish history and folklore since earliest times, from the letters of the ancient Ogham alphabet, to the protection trees under the Brehon laws, to the belief in the sacred and magical properties of certain native tree species. This section provides a brief introduction to the many aspects of trees associated with Irish folklore and tradition.
Many place names in Ireland are derived from the Irish names for trees and woods. (See the place names here.) http://www.forestryfocus.ie/social-environmental-aspects/cultural-heritage/trees-and-folklore/trees-in-irish-place-names/
The myth of the Alphabet of Trees.
No discussion of trees in Irish folklore and history would be complete without mention of the letters in the Ogham alphabet. This alphabet is the ancient Irish alphabet, many examples of which are still to be found on standing stones across the whole of the island. These inscriptions mainly date from the 3rd to the 5th century AD.
What is interesting is that trees figured largely in the naming of the Ogham letters. Originally eight letters were named after trees -birch, alder, willow, oak, hazel, pine, ash and yew. Their selection gives us clues as to the importance of these trees in early Irish society. Scholars in the Middle Ages built on the prominence of tree names in the alphabet and read other tree names into the remaining letters, resulting in a tree alphabet.
The Ogham tree alphabet became so bound up in Irish tree folklore that, even though many of the tree/letter associations were the fabrication of medieval scholars, no treatment of the mythology of trees in Ireland would be complete without mentioning it. (To see all the interesting facts about this alphabet, go here.)
The oak is known in Scotland as the ‘grief tree’ or the ‘gallows tree’. The tree was normally planted on high ground by highland chieftains, so that the public could see it from a distance. The reason for this was that the chieftains would hang their enemies or any deserter from it. Many such locations can still be found, not just in Scotland, but all across England and Wales. The high ground became known as ‘gallows hill’.
Adorning the hair with individual twigs made of hazel (or ‘wishing caps’, as they were called) is a custom followed in many countries. It is thought that any wish made while wearing a wishing cap, would be fulfilled.
It was thought that a hazelnut kept in the pocket wards off rheumatism and lumbago. The liquid from hazel catkins was used as an olive-coloured pigment in paint.
According to Irish tradition the elder (or the ‘bour-tree’, as it is sometimes called in the north of Ireland) is considered to be an evil tree. “It is a bad thing to give a man a scelp of that. If you do his hand will grow out of his grave.” Elder wood is said to be cursed. Superstition says that you must never put elder on a fire, because you’ll see the devil in the flame. It is also believed that elder wood should not be used to make boats or infant cradles, as the wood is so fragile that the fairies could easily steal the baby and substitute it with a changeling.
The elder was traditionally known in Germany as the ‘elsbeer tree’ or ‘dragon tree’. Hanging branches of this tree in houses or in any buildings belonging to a family on ‘walpurgis night’ was seen as protection against the darker forces out at play, particularly witches.
Rowan is reputed to stop the dead from rising, to help to speed the hound, to prevent fire charming when hung in the house, and to generally protect the home, milk and the dairy. A protector against evil, its red berries are the best deterrent from the devil. As such, a rowan should always be planted next to a house.
Rowan was known as ‘the druid’s tree’ throughout Europe. They will grow in all soils and in awkward and difficult places such as craggy rocks and mountainsides.
In the north of England, it was thought that by placing an ash leaf in the left shoe, a woman would meet her future spouse immediately. A traditional verse reveals that ash, together with oak, was regarded as having the power to reveal weather information:
“If the ash leaf appears before the oak,
Then there’ll be a very great soak.
But if the oak comes before the ash,
Then expect a very small splash.”
Traditionally, no one cuts the lone hawthorn tree as this is the meeting places of the fairies. Indeed, many roads have been diverted to avoid cutting one down.
The flowers of the hawthorn were highly prized, and at one time, were exported around the world. The flowering of the hawthorn tree is often taken as a sign that winter is over and spring is underway. Hence, the tree has been viewed as an indicator of changes in the seasons, or a weather omen.
Forest and tree symbolism in folklore
Trees and forests, probably because of their great size and sometimes longevity, vividly affected the imagination of preliterate societies. They were alive like human beings and animals, but did not move from place to place; like mountains and stones they seemed immobile, but at the same time could change and sway. Dense forests may have seemed mysterious. Even lone trees, particularly in a barren spot, may have appeared miraculous if they provided food for a starving wanderer. Trees were seen and touched by the earliest humans; utilized for food, fuel, shelter, clothing, fences and barriers, lances and spears; and burned, cut or transformed into numerous objects. Their shadows provided cover, camouflage and hiding places for persons on either side of the law. Over time, forests and individual species of trees have come to represent different concepts in the imaginations of populations living in various geographical locations. Whether trees were numerous or scarce in a given locality influenced how they were perceived and dealt with in legends, mythologies and cultures.
This article touches on some of the symbolic meanings acquired by trees and forests through the centuries of human existence. It is intended as a general exploration of a vast subject – a toe in the water, or more aptly, sending out roots – and does not pretend to be comprehensive, historically or geographically.
FORESTS, TREES AND THE DIVINE
There is some speculation that trees struck by lightning and consumed in the resulting fire, observed by prehistoric societies, may have given rise to the idea that the divinities inhabited the heavens as well as the earth (Brosse, 1989; Harrison, 1992). It has been speculated that in the early Mediterranean civilizations, early forest clearings were “religious actions” because primitive people needed to see the sky better in order to read the divine signs sent down to humans from an abstract “above” that was identified with the sky (Harrison, 1992). Thus cutting down trees may not only have been carried out to make clearings for settlements and agriculture; it may also have been considered a necessary gesture in order for humans to know their gods. Through the spread of Greek culture, the Roman empire, and the revival of Greek thought in the Renaissance, an association of trees with spiritual and intellectual “shadow” and their cutting down with “enlightenment” may have made its way into the collective unconscious throughout Europe.
Deciduous forests and their seasonal cycles of falling and growing leaves, or new growth sprouting from the base of burnt or cut trunks, may have induced people to regard trees as symbols for an eternal and indestructible life force.
Trees and forests thus took on symbolic divine characteristics, or were seen to represent superlative forces such as courage, endurance or immortality. They were the means of communication between worlds. Some societies made them into magical totems. Sometimes a particular tree was considered to be sacred because of association with a holy individual, saint or prophet. Trees have frequently held great religious significance, for example the tree under which the Buddha received enlightenment and the tree used for the crucifixion of Jesus. As a result they often featured in religious rituals, and still do today. Examples include trees upon which prayers or offerings are hung in many different cultures, and the Christmas tree, a custom whose present form evolved in Europe in the nineteenth century.
In the Shinto religion of Japan, which sanctifies nature, the sakaki (Cleyera japonica) is especially sacred. The sakaki had a significant role in the Japanese creation story; gods dug up a 500-branched sakaki tree from the heavenly Mount Kaga; on its upper branches they hung an eight-foot string of 500 jewels, on its middle branches an eight-foot long mirror, and on its lower branches white and blue offerings. The goddess Amaterasu saw her reflection in the mirror hanging from the sakaki and was drawn from her cave, restoring light to the heavens and the earth. Today, in imitation of the myth, mirrors are hung in sakaki trees at Shinto shrines. The sakaki is represented as the sacred central post of the shrine to Amaterasu (Wehner, 2002).
The tradition of the sacred grove, often associated with secrecy and initiation rites, was widespread in many cultures. Groups of trees, or portions of natural or planted forest, were considered to be separate from the rest and untouchable. Many of these groves retain their significance to the present day: the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) includes several groves and forests recognized for their spiritual as well as ecological values as sacred or holy. Examples include the Central Eastern Rainforest Reserves in Queensland, Australia, containing geographical features considered as sacred by the Aborigines; the Horsh Arz el-Rab (Forest of the Cedars of God) in Lebanon (see Box on p. 50); the forests of Mount Kenya in Kenya, held as holy by the inhabitants; and a sacred grove still used by priests in rice ceremonies in the mountain rice terraces of Luzon, the Philippines.
– You can read the rest of this great article by Judith Crews here. You’d be surprised by what you’ll find out about forests in folklore.
I found a great blogpost about books featuring the folklore of trees.
Probably one of the first things most people envision when they think of fairy tales, myths or even ancient legends is a deep, dark forest.
Irish Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore by Niall Mac Coitir
In ancient Ireland, mythology and folklore were part of the general knowledge about each tree. This books gathers together the myths, legends, and folklore associated with the native Irish trees. The folklore has two main themes: the tree as a marker of important places such as royal site or holy well, and the role of different trees as source of magical power in folk customs and superstitions. Many themes are common to different trees, such as fertility, magical power, and the tree as a link between this world and the spiritual. Along with beautiful watercolors illustrating the different kinds of trees, the book features an Ogham tree calendar based on the early Irish alphabet and the ancient Celts’ lunar calendar that links the trees to the different months of that calendar.
The Forest in Folklore and Mythology by Alexander Porteous
This book is the one I credit with introducing me to forests in myth and legend. The book contains several stories, myths and legends about forests, sacred groves and even specific trees. The stories are summarized into brief, short paragraphs to give you a taste of the tale but there are well documented sources for all of them so it is easy to look up the full length legend if you are so inclined. The author also breaks off and talks about a forest’s magical denizens as well such as sprites, fairies or even witches. The book is not organized in any way so you go from one fairy tale, myth or legend to the next without much cohesiveness. It is a fascinating read though and a great way to be introduced to several stories about the forests of the world all at once.
Myths of the Sacred Tree by Moyra Caldecott
Protecting the earth is a universal theme and it is one that is brought to light in this next book in a very interesting way. In Myths of the Sacred Tree the author highlights myths from all over the world that celebrate the sacredness of nature, often in the form of a single divine tree. There are several page long (but often still truncated) summaries of the myth or legend in question accompanied by commentary picking out the threads that unite all of these stories into a cohesive, world-wide, centuries-old message about the preservation of nature. These myths either show nature being saved, nature being brought back from destruction or nature striking back in self-defense in stories from all over the world.
A Contemplation Upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth and Literature by Bobby J. Ward
My last selection focuses on flowers instead of trees but it’s a worthwhile side trip. The author lists 80 different types of flowers and talks about the various names each has had throughout history, its role in historical events and its practical uses. Each essay also includes name origins, symbolism, its meaning in the language of flowers and most importantly its magical or mythical stories and legends. Probably the best part of this book for a reader like myself are all the quotes and references in poems, literature and mythic writing throughout history. The author quotes work from ancient Greece straight through until Shakespeare and showcases each flower’s literary impact alongside its historical one.
Forests in Folklore
In literature, an enchanted forest is a forest under, or containing, enchantments. Such forests are described in the oldest folklore from regions where forests are common, and occur throughout the centuries to modern works of fantasy. They represent places unknown to the characters, and situations of liminality and transformation.
The forest can feature as a place of threatening danger, or one of refuge, or a chance at adventure.
The forest as a place of magic and danger is found among folklore wherever the natural state of wild land is forest: a forest is a location beyond which people normally travel, where strange things might occur, and strange people might live, the home of monsters, witches and fairies. Peasants who seldom if ever traveled far from their villages could not conclusively say that it was impossible that an ogre could live an hour away. Hence, in fairy tales, Hansel and Gretel found a cannibalistic witch in the forest; Vasilissa the Beautiful encountered Baba Yaga herself; Molly Whuppie and her sisters ran into a giant. It was in a forest that the king of The Grateful Prince lost his way, and rashly promised his child for aid, where the heroines, and their wicked stepsisters, of The Three Little Men in the Wood and The Enchanted Wreath met magical tests, and where Brother and Sister found the streams that their evil stepmother had enchanted. In Beauty and the Beast, Belle’s father is lost in the forest when he finds the Beast’s castle. The evil cat-spirits of Schippeitaro live in the forest.
Indeed, in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the hero always goes into the forest. It is not itself enchanted, but it contains enchantments and, being outside normal human experience, acts as a place of transformation. The German fairy tale has an unusual tendency to take place in the forest; even such neighboring countries as France or Italy are less like to have fairy tales situated in the forest.
Even in folklore, forests can also be places of magical refuge. Snow White found refuge with dwarfs from her stepmother, The Girl Without Hands found a hut to stay in when she had been slandered to her husband,and Genevieve of Brabant found not only a refuge from slander but a doe magically came to her aid. Even Brother and Sister hid in the forest after their stepmother turned the brother into a deer.
At other times, the marvels they meet are beneficial. In the forest, the hero of a fairy tale can meet and have mercy on talking animals that aid him. The king in many variants of the ballad The Famous Flower of Serving-Men finds an enchanted hind that leads him astray uncanny, but it brings him to a talking bird that reveals to him a murder and that a servant of his is actually a woman, whom the king then marries. It is in the forest that the dwarf of Rumpelstiltskin and the fairy of Whuppity Stoorie reveal their true names and therefore the heroines of those tales have a way to free themselves. In Schippeitaro, the cats reveal their fear of the dog Schippeitaro when the hero of the tale spends the night in the forest.
The creatures of the forest need not be magical to have much the same effect; Robin Hood, living in the greenwood, has affinities to the enchanted forest. Even in fairy tales, robbers may serve the roles of magical beings; in an Italian variant of Snow White, Bella Venezia, the heroine takes refuge not with dwarfs but with robbers.
The danger of the folkloric forest is an opportunity for the heroes of legend. Among the oldest of all recorded tales, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh recounts how the heroes Gilgamesh and Enkidu traveled to the Cedar Forest to fight the monsters there and be the first to cut down its trees.
Romans referred to the Hercynian Forest, in Germania, as an enchanted place; though most references in their works are to geography, Julius Caesar mentioned unicorns said to live there, and Pliny the Elder, birds with feathers that glowed.
The forest is often filled with magical animals, plants, maybe even magical rocks and creeks.
The vegetation consists of trees that talk or with branches that will push people off their horses, thorny bushes which will open to let people in but close and leave people stuck inside, and other plants that move, or turn into animals at night, or the like.
Perhaps there will even be creeks which will turn unwary travelers into frogs if drunk from.
Forests in modern literature:
In the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling, the Forbidden Forest is filled with enchantments, magical creatures and danger. It is off-limits to students, though Harry and his friends frequently enter this mysterious place to find answers.
In the Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa, the Wyldwood is a mysterious place between other Fey Realms where trees grow as houses for the Fey living there or as Dryads (and other tree nymphs).
In the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C Wrede the forest is filled with dragons, wizards, witches and all manner of magical creatures – and it’s alive. The king of the forest can make anything move in the forest with the power of his sword…
Who can forget the scary forests found in Middle-Earth? From showing the ancientness of the world through Mirkwood and the Old Forest to the forest coming alive through the Ents. The enchanted forest stays a place that is unknown to the characters and where strange dangers lurk.
There are other books where the characters find refuge and answers in the forest, but these came to mind immediately as they continue the tradition of the forest as a place of wild things and danger. (And check it out: they all come in boxed sets…)
When you look at the phenomenal forests that you can find in the world, it is no wonder that myths, legends and folktales about them abound.
Just look at the woods and forests that have supported stories for centuries – like the Sherwood Forest.
The undisputed superstar of English woods, Sherwood Forest has dined out for centuries on its role as the sanctuary of everyone’s favourite wealth-redistributor. Most of us have fantasised about being Robin Hood (or perhaps Maid Marian) at one time or another, and in Sherwood, with its 1,000-odd veteran oak trees, it’s just that little bit easier to imagine oneself in green (or velvet). This is especially so on visiting the 800-year-old Major oak, whose hollow trunk could easily have sheltered the lofty Little John. Now a national nature reserve on account of its unique blend of old wood and heathland, Sherwood plays host to some of Europe’s rarest invertebrates, providing a nourishing meal for tree pipits, woodlarks and the like. Would-be outlaws, meanwhile, are sure to go all a-quiver at the Robin Hood festival (10-14 August).
Or the mysterious forests that look exactly like something you’d expect from a dark fairy tale… From the Black Forest in Germany to the Aokigahara forest (the sea of trees) in Japan.
Black Forest, Germany
The name itself sounds mysterious, and that’s because the Black Forest in Germany is well-known as the home of lots of myths and legends. From ghosts and nymphs to foreboding dark pathways into the woods, the Black Forest conjures an image of fairy tales and horror.
You can see more of these marvellous forests on my Pinterest board dedicated to the subject.
Of course forests feature in my writing. I love trees. While busy with stories in the Labyrinth, I thought it would be awesome if one consisted of trees – even though the Labyrinth is underground. And as Daphne finds out, the Verdure Labyrinth is much more than it seems.
“The woods was alive. And it didn’t want her there. She understood: she was from the Onyx Labyrinth and not from this one. The woods could feel it.
Bushes scratched, pushed, pulled and squeezed her out of one tunnel made of twisted trees and plants to the next. The trees trembled. She could scarcely breathe. All these foreign plants were scaring her in a way that the rest of the Labyrinth never did.”
– Fleeing From Grey, Tales of the Onyx Labyrinth, Ronel Janse van Vuuren
Do you have a favourite enchanted forest? What are your feelings towards forests in general? Do you like a story with a forest or two in it? Any folklore of forests you’d like to share?
Sign up for my newsletter and receive a free ebook. I won’t share your information and I’ll only email you once a month with updates on new releases, special offers, and a bit of news.