There’s a tree, some say, at the heart of all the worlds. Its roots wind down into the ashes of the past and its branches reach into future skies. At the centre of a grove at the heart of the first of all forests, this titanic world tree binds the essences of That-Which-Was, That-Which-Is and That-Which-Will-Be together. There are many names for this tree, including Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life and the lotus of Meru. Legends say that mankind was born amid the Forever Trees of the First Forest. Here humanity dwelt for untold aeons until some dark sin or distant shame exiled them from the shade of the great world tree. Perhaps this explains why forests have provided the setting for some of the most enchanting tales in world literature and mythology, from the perilous woods of medieval Romance and the fairy-haunted glades of Shakespeare and Yeats to the talking trees of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the archetypal wilderness of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago sequence. However, Holdstock’s mythagos – living, breathing ‘images of myth’ who dwell in Ryhope Wood, a primeval tract of virgin forest, and other ancient woodlands around the world – are anything but harmless. Even Tolkien, despite his oft-mentioned Green ideology, was famously ambiguous about trees – as illustrated by the actions of Old Man Willow in the Old Forest. This illustrates an equally important point about the way forests are portrayed in mythology. Just as there are shadows in the hearts of men, nature too has its terrors, and the sum of all of them becomes the Dark Wood – the dread within each forest’s core. In folklore there were said to be many ways through the forest – the narrow road beset with thorns and briars that was the path to righteousness; the broad, leavened road that was the path to wickedness; and the bonny, winding road that was the path to fairyland. For this reason, among many others, caution was always advised for those who travelled the deep woods.
In early pagan religions, trees were held sacred; forest groves were perceived as the dwelling place of gods, goddesses and a wide variety of nature spirits. A staunchly animist outlook with a strong reverence for trees and the holiness of nature was particularly entrenched among the peoples in the far north of Europe and in the British Isles. It is therefore not surprising that when the Christian priests of the Dark Ages waged war against older beliefs, these were two of the areas where they focused their efforts, cutting down sacred trees and putting whole groves of woodland to the torch. The Celtic tribes of Britain and Ireland assigned each type of tree magical properties, and the twigs from the tops of the trees were prized by magicians, warriors and healers. Each letter in the Celtic ogham alphabet stood for a tree and its magical associations, while trees were a richly poetic presence in Celtic myths. The Green Man, who may be an incarnation of the horned Celtic forest god Cernunnos, is an architectural motif found carved into the wood and stone of pagan temples and graves across Europe, masked with leaves or disgorging foliage from his mouth. Intriguingly, the stylised Green Man head became incorporated into Christian architecture throughout medieval churches, perhaps because it became linked to Christian resurrection iconography through its association with the seasonal cycle of mythic rebirth and regeneration. Incidentally, although they are much rarer, examples of a primitive female form – the so-called Green Woman – giving birth to a spray of vegetation also exist in some churches, mainly in Ireland, where they are known by the name Sheela-na-gig.
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