Trees and their place in mythology are a subject dear to my youthful heart. The summer heat has many people fleeing to higher ground on the weekends where conifers (cone-bearing trees) grow and I thought it would be nice to share with you some of the roles they have played in ancient cultures.
An ancient Greek legend tells of the forests and glades of Greece that were home to nymphs and dryiads and of many minor male gods including Pan. Among the nymphs was Pitys, whose duty was to tend pine trees. She had a lover, Boreas, god of the north wind. Boreas was a towering, burly fellow, quite different from the flute playing Pan. Pitys flirted with both Pan and Boreas and one day, Boreas asked Pitys what was going on between her and Pan. Her reply was not to Boreas’ liking and during the quarrel that followed, Boreas grabbed Pitys and tossed her against a rocky ledge. Instantly she was turned into a pine tree. The resin droplets seen on the wounded limbs of a pine tree are said to be teardrops shed by Pitys when she thinks of that fateful day (Mirov and Hasbrouck 1976).
In ancient Rome, the pine was considered the emblem of virginity and the chaste Diana was crowned with a chaplet of pine. Because pine was so important and sacred, the Roman poet Ovid referred to pine branches as cut from arbore pura, a pristine tree. The pole of Bacchus is described by Roman writers as an inflammable and fragrant pine pole (Mirov and Hasbrouck 1976).
In China, cedars are called the “trees of faithful lovers” – a theme seen in many cultures – because of a legend about a king who sent a good man to prison in order to court his beautiful wife. The imprisoned man died of grief and his wife killed herself. Although their bodies were buried far apart from each other at the king’s command, cedar trees grew from each grave, attained vast heights and lovingly interlaced their branches and roots (Maheshwari and Chhaya Biswas 1970).
The indigenous cultures of the Pacific Coast of North America believed that the Pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia, could impart its strength to the people and was traditionally used where strength was required. Young men of the Swinomish tribe rubbed their bodies with smooth yew sticks to gain strength. The people of the Chehalis tribe would crush the foliage of Pacific yew in a bath for old people and children to make them sweat and improve their health (Gunther 1973).
Pines have been believed to possess supernatural powers. The anonymous author of Cultus Arborum wrote:
“The pine was supposed by some to be inhabited by wind spirits, like Ariel, owing to the whispering noises proceeding from it in the breeze. The legend was that it was the mistress of Boreas and Pan, an idea acceptable to Germans in the consequence of its holes and knots, which were believed to be the means of ingress and egress for the spirits. It is told that a beautiful woman of Smäland, who was really an elf, left her family through a knothole in the wooden house wall. “Frau Fichte (spruce),” the pine of Silesia, is believed to possess great healing powers, and its boughs are carried about by the children on Mid-Lent Sunday, adorned with coloured papers and spangles. It is also carried with songs and rejoicing to the doors of stables where it is suspended in the belief that it will preserve the animals from harm.“
And, in Mexico and Central America, pines were worshiped by indigenous people long before the Spanish conquest. The Aztecs considered Pinus teocote to be the pine of the gods and burning its fragrant resin as an offering in the temples was the privilege of priests and kings. In Guatemala, some Mayan people avoided the killing or harming of pines because they are considered living beings (Mirov and Hasbrouck 1976).
Marie Stadther’s life in Coachella Valley was void of trees. In 2001, she packed up and headed north. After a drive through the majestic redwoods, she arrived in Redding, where she immersed herself in horticulture as owner of her own landscaping company and as assistant to an arborist. She is now the lead gardener for Turtle Bay’s McConnell Arboretum and Botanical Gardens. Her love of trees is a way of life, and she shares that passion with the community. Send the Tree Goddess your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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