Ot sain op
Local sprite, house guardian by Maria Lombide Ezpeleta
The very feel of the forest imparts a sense of wonder and hidden power, of spirits and unseen creatures, and of a time stretching back into the dim past where anything and everything was possible. “The edge of the forest,” writes Carol and Dinah Mack, “is always the boundary between the wild and domesticated, the animal and the human community. It holds its genius loci, which may appear as demonic guardian species of wilderness and wild creatures and attack trespassing hunters, mischievous fairies…and the many huge man-eating species….” This statement may be applied to any forest in the world, for they all seem to be populated with these local spirits and fairies who are not often kind to human intrusion. The Cherokee, according to anthropologist James Mooney, believed that “trees and plants also were alive and could talk in the old days, and had their place in council.” The intelligence of trees and plants, as well as other inanimate objects, were taken for granted by the Cherokee and the other indigenous people around the world.
The Lakota believed in a race of “ugly” small men and women that they referred to as “tree dwellers.” Similar to tales of other fairy folk around the world, the tree dwellers, called Can Otidan, reportedly stayed in the woods and forests and “would lure hunters away and lose them or they would frighten them so that they would lose their senses.” The Can Otidan apparently were more than simple fairy spirits as they were classed in a group referred to as “bad gods.”
Little people referred to as “travel-two” were among the forest spirits in the Nehalem Tillamook (Oregon) world. Called “travel-two” because they always traveled in pairs, these fairy-like creatures were hunters and would often give a human they encountered on their travels the skills to become a good hunter — if they happened to speak to him.
The Coos Indians along Oregon’s southern coast believed that the forests were filled with ghosts and spirits. There were five types of spirits identified as residing in the forest:
Ghosts or spirits that “reentered a corpse and escaped into the forest to do evil things to humans, especially poor people” A “mirror image” of oneself, a doppelganger; if you should see one of these, your life would be shortened
Giant people who live on the fish in the streams; they are neither good nor bad “and do not scare people” A visible spirit or ghost, and The “noisy ones,” the little people usually covered in long hair, who leave tracks along creek banks. These creatures are usually seen only at night and are known to throw rocks at people’s homes.
Other Oregon tribes such as the Alsea and Yaquina believed in longhaired female wood sprites called osun, who could give certain special powers to humans that would enable them to become shamans.
The Russians had their own form of Can Otidan. Called the Leshy, this mysterious creature inhabited the forests (mostly forests of birch trees) and would disappear and reappear with the falling leaves and the sprouting vegetation. Philpot described him as having “human form, with horns, ears, and feet of a goat, his fingers are long claws, and he is covered with rough hair, often of a green colour.” Some have described him as having green, bark-like skin and green hair. They could also change their stature at will, remaining as small as grass stalks or as tall as the tallest tree. Each spring the Leshy would awaken from hibernation and seek out travelers to cause them to become lost in the new and rich growth of vegetation. “He springs from tree to tree, and rocks himself in the branches, screeching and laughing, neighing, lowing, and barking.” The trees and animals of the forest, however, are under his protection. Philpot wrote, “The migrations of squirrels, field-mice, and such small deer are carried out under his guidance.” The animals protected the Leshy as well, as he was prone to drinking and vulnerable to attacks from other woodland spirits. “Uprooted trees, broken branches and other storm damage were a clear indication that leshie had been fighting among themselves,” wrote Michael Kerrigan. The only way to protect yourself from the Leshy while traveling through the forest was to wear your clothing inside out, shoes on the wrong feet, continuously making the sign of the cross or making peace offerings of tobacco and food.
The person who was most in danger from the wrath of the Leshy was the woodcutter. Even though this tree spirit was greatly feared, he could also be summoned — if one dared. According to Porteous, “very young Birches are cut down and placed in a circle with the points towards the center. They then enter the circle and invoke the spirit, which at once appears. Then they step on the stump of one of the cut trees with their face turned towards the east, and bend their heads so that they look between their legs. While in this position they say: ‘Uncle Lieschi, ascend thou, not as a grey wolf, not as an ardent fire, but as resembling myself’. Then the leaves tremble, and the Lieschi arises under a human form, and agrees to give the service for which he has been invoked, provided they promise him their soul.” As in many cultures that were eventually dominated by the Christian Church, the spirits and deities of the Slavs were slowly changed. As Porteous noted above, the Lieschie bargained for the soul of the person in exchange for supernatural aid and thus are cast as acolytes of Satan.
Another Russian vegetation entity is the “polevoi.” Michael Kerrigan wrote that the polevoi’s body “matched the colour of the local soil, and grass grew in tussocks from his head instead of hair.” The polevoi could be friendly to humans but could signify disaster, as well, should one spot him in the forest.
Tree elves have been said to inhabit the elm, oak, willow, yew, fir, holly, pine, ash, cherry, laurel, nut, apple, birch and cypress trees. Because each of the tree elves is created from the specific tree, it takes on the characteristics of that tree. While all of these species of trees have a resident elf, “the elder,” writes Nancy Arrowsmith, “has without doubt the highest elf population.” The lives of the “elder elves” are tied directly to their trees and so they are very protective of them. According to German folklore one should always ask permission (and be sure to leave an offering!) before cutting or otherwise harming an elder tree. The consequences of not doing so are usually serious and can result in blindness or ill health to the woodsman’s children or cattle.
The appearance of tree elves varies according to the tree from which they originated. The oak elf will appear as a gnarled old man and the birch elf appears as a thin white female.
In England, an Apple Tree Man was said to reside in the oldest apple tree in each orchard. According to Franklin, “He can grant a good harvest for the whole orchard, and other benefits besides. The last of the crop should be left on the ground for him…”
To the Saxons, elves were to be feared. They were “hostile creatures [that] brought disease…as well as nightmare.”
The belief that trees are somehow supernatural beings is apparently universal. Lore from the Ozark Mountains says that agents of the Devil propagated the ironwood tree and that the sassafras tree does not grow from seeds, but rather “somehow sprout from grub worms.” The belief in “Devil Trees” was common in Africa and the Malay Archipelago. However, these trees are receptacles of evil and not sources of evil. Like the holy wells in England and elsewhere, where people tie strips of cloth and ribbon (known as “clooties”) to nearby trees, Devil Trees are also sought out for this purpose. In both cases the purpose is the same, to tie a piece of cloth that belongs to an ill person to the tree so that the disease is transferred from the human to the tree.
In Celtic lands, the gods were worshipped in sacred groves, which removed the need to have temple structures — although a few did exist. The Romans and then the Christians destroyed these groves in their attempts to destroy the fabric of Celtic pagan traditions. However, there is significant evidence that these groves, or rather their descendants, did survive into later ages in the form of “gospel oaks” in Britain and innumerable place names across Europe. Hutton writes that these groves, after Christianization, “kept their place in the sentiments of the tribes even while apparently losing all direct religious connotations.”
Because tree worship and sacred groves were so ingrained in the human mind, the Church fought long and hard to eliminate all aspects of them, passing law after law and levying heavy fines on those who continued to honor the tree. “S. Martin of Tours,” wrote J.A. MacCulloch, “was allowed to destroy a temple, but the people would not permit him to attack a much venerated pine-tree which stood beside it — an excellent example of the way in which the more official paganism fell before Christianity, while the older religion of the soil from which it sprang, could not be entirely eradicated.”
The struggle to defeat and subjugate pagans who worshipped trees, or viewed them as sacred, or who believed that the gods live in certain trees, was not the only battle waged by the early Christians. H.R. Ellis Davidson reminds us, “a number of Christian missionaries…counted the felling of a tree sacred to a heathen god among their achievements in the cause of Christ.” The early Jews also waged this battle. Deuteronomy 12:2-3 depicts God instructing the Hebrew leaders to “utterly destroy all the places, wherein the nations which ye shall possess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every green tree. “And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire…” Because of this, the Hebrews were forbidden to plant any tree near a sacred altar.
In many cultures (among them the Nordic peoples, Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Persians, Indian and Native Americans as well as some African tribes) it was said that humans were created from trees. Porteous noted, “among the South American tribes of Guiana a great creator is acknowledged. They say that all created things came from a branch of a Silk-cotton tree which had been cut down by the Creator, but that the white man had sprung from the chips of a particularly useless tree.”
In Norse mythology three Creator Gods walked on a seashore, where, according to Davidson, “they found two trees, driftwood washed ashore, breathed vitality and spirit into them, and gave them movement, so that the first man and woman came to life.”
The belief that humans came from trees is also widespread in Africa. John S. Mbiti wrote, “The Herero tell that God caused the first human beings, a man and his wife, to come from the mythical ‘tree of life’ which is said to be situated in the underworld.” Similar stories were common throughout Africa from Angola to Zambezi, the Congo and Sudan.
The stories that predominate, however, are those of the nature spirits, gods and goddesses that inhabit the tree. Frequent discussions were held in the days of early Buddhism as to whether trees had souls. It was decided then that trees do not have souls but that they may be inhabited by wood spirits that, at times, may speak through the trees. Other people, however, such as the Tahitians and Greeks, did believe that each tree had a soul and an intellect of its own.
For some reason most tree-spirits are ambivalent at best and demonic at worst. Stories abound of tree-spirits that take savage revenge on those that dare to cut trees down. Indian legend says the Banyan tree is inhabited by spirits that will “wring the necks of all persons who approached their tree during the night.” The guardian spirit of the Brazilian rainforest is Corupira, who is not evil but will disorient those who are intent on harming the trees and the forest animals — much like Pan.
However, other tree and forest spirits exhibit traits of kindness towards humans. Some forest spirits were said to protect hunters and fishers, and in fact leading game to them. It was to these spirit-gods that the forests were dedicated and sacrifices made. In other cultures, tree spirits provided the rains and sun that made crops grow.
The Mesquakie, known as the Fox Indians of Iowa, believed that the spirits of their ancestors lived within the trees. It was said, “the murmur of the trees when the wind passes through is but the voices of our grandparents.” The Fox felt that all wood was sacred and that objects made from wood “were thought to contain the very essence of a tree’s spiritual substance.”
Belief in nature spirits, frequently described as miniature people but not necessarily the same as fairies, is common throughout most third world societies, providing a sense of linkage and connection with nature that the more “developed” and “western” societies have lost. The Gururumba, a New Guinea people, believe in nature spirits, some of whom live in the forests and others in the reeds along the riverbanks. Other than the location of territory, there is little difference between the two. The Gururumba say that these spirits are seldom seen because, even though they reside in our world, in our reality, they appear as mist or smoke. They are also always male. While generally ambivalent to the humans who live in the area, the spirits will attack anyone who stumbles into their territory. Ethnologist Philip L. Newman, who researched the Gururumba, writes that “each spirit has its own dwelling place — a certain clump of reeds, a particular configuration of boulders along the river, or the exposed roots of some tree. Anyone wandering into one of these sanctuaries is attacked by the spirit which may cause him illness or even death.”
The Gururumba have created a cooperative arrangement with many of the nature spirits by providing a small dome-shaped house (about two feet in diameter) in an enclosure in the family garden. The Gururumba provide housing, food and information to the nature spirit in exchange for the spirit’s protection of the garden and care for the Gururumba’s pig herds.
Tree spirits are also commonly believed in throughout Africa. The Ashanti reportedly believe that certain nature spirits are present that animate trees, stones and other “inanimate” objects as well as animals, rivers and charms. The powers of these spirits are great and respected. John Mbiti reports in his book African Religions and Philosophy an incident that took place in Ghana in the 1960s. During the construction of a new harbor at Tema, equipment was repeatedly stolen and a company investigator, and Englishman, was sent to look into it. After his investigation was over, one of the European supervisors mentioned to him that a lone tree was causing him a great deal of trouble. All the other trees in the area had been cleared but this one, which was relatively small; it remained in place as all the heavy equipment stalled when approaching the tree. One of the African foremen said that the tree was magic and could not be removed unless the tree spirit could be persuaded to move on to another tree. A shaman was called in, who sacrificed three sheep and poured three bottled of gin onto the roots of the tree as an offering. Evidently, the ritual worked; soon, the machinery could be started. In fact, a few of the workers simply walked up to the tree and were able to pull it up out of the earth by hand.
The gods of vegetation, discussed in another chapter, were all originally tree spirits who are credited with giving the gift of agriculture to humankind as well as the arts and other learning that create civilization. They were also closely connected with death and the underworld.
The sycamore fig tree located in many desert areas of Egypt is said to be inhabited by goddesses. “These goddesses or spirits,” Porteous noted, “sometimes manifest themselves, and…the head, or even the whole body, would emerge from the trunk of the tree, after a time re-entering it, being reabsorbed, or, as the Egyptian expression has it, the trunk ate it again.” The goddesses said to reside in the sycamore are Hathor (given the epithet “Lady of the Sycamore”), Nut, Selkit, and Isis. While certain male gods were also associated with trees (such as Osiris with the willow, Horus with the acacia and Wepwawet with the tamarisk), only these few goddesses were so closely associated with sacred trees. Like the carvings of females rising from vegetation found in contemporary architecture, these goddesses were most often shown as a “composite of the upper body of the goddess rising from the trunk at the center of a tree.” In the Egyptian world, the maternal deities were the tree goddesses, offering food to the deceased or, in the case of a mural in the tomb of Tuthmosis III, nursed by Isis in the form of a sycamore tree. Dryads, or tree goddesses in India, are often depicted giving the trunk of a tree a little kick. The reason for this, according to Heinrich Zimmer, is found in a formula derived “from a ritual of fecundation. According to an ageless belief, nature requires to be stimulated by man; the procreative forces have to be aroused, by magic means, from semi-dormancy.” This ritual formula continues to be used in contemporary Indian culture. Zimmer adds, “There is in India a certain tree (aśoka) which is supposed not to put forth blossoms unless touched and kicked by a girl or young woman. Girls and young women,” Zimmer wrote, “are regarded as human embodiments of the maternal energy of nature. They are diminutive doubles of the Great Mother of all life, vessels of fertility, life in full sap, potential sources of new offspring. By touching and kicking the tree they transfer into it their potency, and enable it to bring forth blossom and fruit.” The Persians as well, according to J.H. Philpot, “venerated trees as the dwelling-place of the deity, as the haunts of good and evil spirits, and as the habitations in which the souls of heroes and the virtuous dead continued their existence.”
In ancient Crete, the Great Mother goddess was also known as the Lady of Trees and Doves — representing birth and fertility. In her early form the Great Mother of Crete, the Earth Mother, was rather vague — she was an ancient Neolithic goddess. In time, she became Demeter, goddess of animals, crops and forests.
The gods and goddesses also lived within the trees of old Hawaii. The goddess of the ohia-lehua forest is one of these. The flower of the ohia tree is considered sacred and to pick it is forbidden unless proper invocations are said. One of the sacred ohia trees located in a cave of the god Ku-ka-ohia-laka is regarded as the body of this forefather-god. The Hawaiian wind god, Makani-keoe, is another tree deity. Also known as a “love god,” he is able to transform himself into a tree at will. An amulet made from such a tree is a powerful love charm but causes visions and voices to be heard by the one who obtains it.
Sacred groves in Germany were the homes of the gods as well. At Romove, the chief sacred grove, a holy oak figured in religious ceremonies and images of the gods were placed in its trunk. The Prussians who remained pagan long after the rest of Germany had converted to Christianity used these groves into the 16th century. Davidson notes “writers who visited them described sacred woods in which they made sacrifices and sacred springs which Christians were not allowed to approach.” The god worshipped in the Prussian groves was Perkuno — the thunder god. Sacred groves dedicated to Perkuno were still utilized in Lithuania and Estonia into the 18th century. As Frazer wote, Perkuno “presents a close resemblance to Zeus and Jupiter, since he was the god of the oak, the thunder, and the rain.” Every Dying God, such as Osiris, Adonis, Attis, Dionysus and Jesus, died on a tree. Medieval Christian carvings of the Tree of the Living and the Dead (fruit of good and evil on opposite sides) depict Jesus as the trunk of the tree.
Gautama Buddha is said to have been a tree spirit “no less than forty-three times” in past incarnations.
By Gary R. Varner