The whole of nature is sacred, but is sectioned into kingdoms, parts, biomes, and ecosystems that are honored as part of the greater whole. The ancient gods are typically associated with one or more of these parts. Sometimes they are honored entire bioregions and other times a very peculiar tree. Neo pagans typically refer to this phenomenon simply as an “association.” Dionysus is “associated” with the grapevine, Diana is “associated” with the forest, Belenos is “associated” with the sun.
As I’ve grown in my own spiritual quest, this language has increasingly irritated me. Why? Well, it’s simply unsatisfactory. I’m left with far too many questions!
- When a sacred feature is “associated” with a god/dess, how do reconstructionist neo pagans determine whether it is to be given as an offering or left alone in the natural world?
- When is a natural entity or formation – such as a tree, a meadow, or a mountain – seen as an embodiment of the god/dess themself?
- When a location, flora, or fauna is associated with multiple gods within a culture or pantheon, what connection is illustrated by a common association?
I firmly believe that gods and goddesses, whether seen as deity, idol, archetype, or sacred psychology, speak through the natural world. Joseph Campbell wrote extensively on whether this clairaudience with divinity is a common, shared construct created by homo sapiens. Many others see the gods as autonomous spirits living in other dimensions or planes of reality. Whatever they are (or aren’t), their presence in nature’s phenomena is indisputable.
But what about trees?
In my yard, there are pear, apple, and cherry trees. There’s also an abundant grapevine with an aggressive need to encircle the front garden. Each of these trees are subtle, distinct individuals. I’m able to meditate with them individually and seek their medicine.
Yet they each are able to offer counsel, wisdom, and insight in alignment with the gods. Through the kindness of the grapevine, I am able to speak gratitude to Dionysus and have my message delivered. I’m able to sit below the dark branches and draw guidance directly from Asherah.
While it is my personal experience that trees have unique souls, they aren’t indifferent to the gods to which they are associated. I am able to approach a trio of birch trees in a marsh and speak with them, but I am also able to rely on their support to reach Arianrhod. It’s almost as if they are portals, messengers, or ambassadors, yet this role isn’t their primary purpose. It’s simply an aspect of their interconnection with the wider bioregion and, thus, the gods of nature.
Reading about the Greek nymphs helped me illustrate this observation. The dryads and hamadryads are spoken of as a collective with autonomy, yet every now and then an individual dryad is named and features prominently in a myth. Many dryads, along with Pan, resided in Arcadia. As people, heroes, or other gods pass through, there may be a romantic entanglement with a dryad. The dryads may act on behalf of the gods. They are individual beings, living full lives, yet are intimately tied to their ecosystem, bioregion, and god/dess.
In the same way that trees give freely to humans, from fruit to timber to shade, so too do the gods of nature. We are held and supported by natural systems and have learned to thrive according to them. Trees have done the same, in bioregions from the scorching desert of Set to the far north of Skadi. With their roots in the underworld and branches reaching for the heavens, they mirror our own spiritual striving. Their long lifespans bear witness to our generations. Trees have souls. Perhaps they aren’t always as dynamic and personified as the nymphs of Greek lore. Indeed, some cultures recognize the souls of trees as demonic – particularly in the case of trees which no longer bear fruit. Malevolent, neutral, or benevolent, the connection between a tree and the “Beingness” of a supernatural entity is near universal.
Trees offer a depth of their own wisdom and medicine. Through this, they can offer us connection and communication with the gods to whom they are sacred.