Religion and folklore

Numerous popular stories throughout the world reflect a firmly rooted belief in an intimate connection between a human being and a tree, plant or flower. Sometimes a man's life depends upon the tree and suffers when it withers or is injured, and we encounter the idea of the external soul, already found in the Egyptian Tale of the Two Brothers of at least 3000 years ago. Here one of the brothers leaves his heart on the top of the flower of the acacia and falls dead when it is cut down. Sometimes, however, the tree is an index, a mysterious token which shows its sympathy with an absent hero by weakening or dying, as the man becomes ill or loses his life. These two features very easily combine, and they agree in representing to us mysterious sympathy between tree and human-life, which, as a matter of fact, frequently manifests itself in recorded beliefs and customs of historical times. Thus, sometimes the new-born child is associated with a newly planted tree with which its life is supposed to be bound up; or, on ceremonial occasions (betrothal, marriage, ascent to the throne), a personal relationship of this kind is instituted by planting trees, upon the fortunes of which the career of the individual depends. Sometimes, moreover, boughs or plants are selected and the individual draws omens of life and death from the fate of his or her choice. Again, a man will put himself into relationship with a tree by depositing upon it something which has been in the closest contact with himself (hair, clothing, etc.). This is not so unusual as might appear; there are numerous examples of the conviction that a sympathetic relationship continues to subsist between things which have once been connected (e.g. a man and his hair), and this may be illustrated especially in magical practices upon material objects which are supposed to affect the former owner. We have to start then with the recognition that the notion of a real inter-connection between human life and trees has never presented any difficulty to primitive minds. Often the tree is famous for oracles. Best known, perhaps, is the oak of Dodona tended by priests who slept on the ground. Forms of the tall oaks of the old Prussians were inhabited by gods who gave responses, and so numerous are the examples that the old Hebrew terebinth of the teacher, and the terebinth of the diviners may reasonably be placed in this category. Important sacred trees are also the object of pilgrimage, one of the most noteworthy being the branch of the Bo tree at Sri Lanka brought thither before the Christian era. The tree-spirits will hold sway over the surrounding forest or dis rict, and the animals in the locality are often sacred and must not be harmed. The custom of transferring disease or sickness from men to trees is well known. Sometimes the hair, nails, clothing, etc. of a sickly person are fixed to a tree, or they are forcibly inserted in a hole in the trunk, or the tree is split and the patient passes through the aperture. Where the tree has been thus injured, its recovery and that of the patient are often associated. Different explanations may be found of such customs which naturally take rather different forms among peoples in different grades. In India, for example, when the patient is supposed to be tormented by a demon, ceremonies are performed to provide it with a tree where it will dwell peacefully without molesting the patient so long as the tree is left unharmed. Such ideas do not enter, of course, when the rite merely removes the illness and selfishly endangers the health of those who may approach the tree. Again, sometimes it is clearly felt that the main personality has been mystically united with some healthy and sturdy tree, and in this case we may often presume that such trees already possessed some peculiar reputation. The custom finds an analogy when hair, nail-clippings, etc. are hung upon a tree for safety, lest they fall into the hands of an enemy who might injure the owner by means of them. Among the Arabs the sacred trees are haunted by angels or by jinn; sacrifices are made, and the sick who sleep beneath them receive prescriptions in their dreams. Here, as frequently elsewhere, it is dangerous to pull a bough. This dread of damaging special trees is familiar: Cato instructed the woodman to sacrifice to the male or female deity before thinning a grove, while in the Homeric poem to Aphrodite the tree nymph is wounded when the tree is injured, and dies when the trunk falls. Early Buddhism decided that trees had neither mind nor feeling and might lawfully be cut; but it recognized that certain spirits might reside in them, such as Nang Takian in Thailand. Propitiation is made before the sacrilegious axe is laid to the holy trees; loss of life or of wealth and the failure of rain are feared should they be wantonly cut; there are even trees which it is dangerous to climb. The Talein of Burma prays to the tree before he cuts it down, and the African woodman will place a fresh sprig upon the tree. Some Ancient Indian tree deities, such as Puliyidaivalaiyamman, the Tamil deity of the tamarind tree, or Kadambariyamman, associated with the kadamba tree were seen as manifestations of a goddess who offers her blessings by giving fruits in abundance.