In the shamanic cultures human beings and trees
were inseparable aspects of cosmic reality.
FROM AN AEROPLANE on a clear day, the lush green landscape of England looks like a patchwork of farm fields, with scattered settlements connected by ribbon roads, and punctuated by great towns and cities. But 2,000 years ago, if we could make the same airborne survey, the land would appear radically different. In that time, before the centuries of forest-clearing for agriculture and building, great woodlands covered the island, broken only by tracts of open heath and moorland and hilltops ridged with scrub cover. Scattered within this forest landscape, a few hundred thousand of our "native" ancestors lived in small tribal societies from a few hundred to a few thousand people, with chieftains, medicine people, shamans, warriors, hunters and farmers; all the features that we are today used to seeing in the extended family tribal cultures of surviving indigenous peoples. The same scene was repeated all over western and northern Europe into Scandinavia.
The tree shadows of the old world still fall across today's landscape, for many of the names of these early forests survive. In the middle of Britain, for example, forests called Dean, Morfe and Kinver each covered scores of square miles, and dense stands of oak and ash formed the forest called Sherwood. Hornbeam, thorn, oak and ash thrived in much of south-east Britain, where the great forest of Andred was described by an annalist writing in the year 892 as "thirty miles wide and stretching 120 miles from east to west". On the small island of Britain, forests of this extent dominated the landscape.
The indigenous Europeans had to respect the imperatives of the forces of nature. They lived natural, free, fresh lives, but also died from the effects of famine and hard winters. Such an intimate interweaving of fates, in which the state of the environment had such a direct impact on human well being, meant one thing for certain: the tribespeople observed, attuned, grew to know their landscape in all its nuances, intimacies and moods. Their lives depended on being able to enter into the very psyche of the environment. From this necessarily acute and deep awareness of the living connection between the human and the environment our ancestors created the cosmologies, myths, wisdom stories and shamanic practices of Wyrd.
Today the word "weird" means strange, unexplainable, odd. Something that is weird is beyond the scope of normal understanding. But in the ancient cultures of Europe, the word had a very different status. The original, archaic form meant in Anglo-Saxon "destiny", but also "power", or "magic" or "prophetic knowledge". "Wyrd" was still the "unexplainable", but the Unexplainable was the Sacred, the very grounding of existence, the force which underlay all of life. And one way in which it manifested was in trees, which were regarded as sacred by the peoples of ancient Europe.
One of the ways in which we know about the indigenous practices of "native" Europeans is through religious conflict. In the fifth century, when the occupying military forces were withdrawn from Britain, the early Christian influence faded, and the indigenous peoples made no pretence of giving up their complex and sophisticated native spirituality. But then, in the seventh century, Rome sent missionaries to bring Christianity to this island of "wild natives". Ironically, these, who brought the "new religion" to the wooded landscapes of western Europe, are among the most important of our sources of information about the indigenous peoples and how they lived.
The Christian authorities who, with the backing of Rome, converted some of the tribal chieftains (some genuine conversions and some largely for trading military and political advantages), preached against and sometimes outlawed the indigenous spiritual practices. Written records of the laws and sermons form timeless documentation of the comprehensive activities of our ancestors in engaging with the landscape of which they were a part.
The early Christian view was very different, even as late as the end of the first millennium, and reflected the notion of human dominion over nature. Wulfstan was Archbishop of York from 1002 to 1023 AD. He composed a large body of directives which railed against the sacred nature view of the indigenous peoples of ancient north-western Europe, saying deprecatingly of the indigenous shamans that "'. . . they might have readily discerned, if they had the power of reason, that he is the true God who created all things for the enjoyment and use of us men, which he granted mankind because of his great goodness.
In contrast, the indigenous pre Christian tribes of Europe saw the natural world as breathing a special kind of life force, a spiritual power, and trees featured prominently in this sacred view of nature.
Communicating with the Life Force of the natural landscape, divining the pattern of future events and performing healing incantations were forbidden by the Christian church. Edgar, one of the first Churchmen to hold high political office in England, urged the priesthood to stamp out the indigenous spiritual practices: to "forbid well-worshipping and necromancies, and divinations and incantations and with sacred circles - and with elders and also with other tree --"
Today, a thousand years after Edgar's missive to "zealously extinguish" every act of indigenous practice, his list provides a clear idea of the specific ways in which our ancestors related to the features of the landscape, and by implication the general principles which underlay those practices.
They believed that waters be regarded as sacred, that areas of wildland be set aside as sanctuaries for ceremony, that trees are containers of sacred power.
Further details are revealed by the proclamations of St. Eligius who, in about AD 640, ordered that "no Christian place lights at the temples or at the stones, or at fountains and springs, or at trees, or at places where three ways meet . . . Let no one presume to purify by sacrifice, or to enchant herbs, or to make flocks pass through a hollow tree or an aperture in the earth; for by so doing he seems to consecrate them to the devil." And we know that sacred bonds and vows were carried out at such places, for an early Christian penitential says "No one shall go to trees, or wells, or stones, or enclosures, or anywhere else except to God's church, and there make vows or release himself from them." The "enclosures" were circles of trees or stones, in which a natural shrine was kept.
Nature in general, and trees in particular, were accorded a state of reverence and healing vitality. We get a clear picture of the role of trees in the sacred life of the people of ancient Europe in the tribal literature dealing with mystical states of consciousness.
"I know that I hung on the windswept tree. .
The wisest know not from whence
spring the roots of that ancient tree."
These lines, from the ancient Scandinavian Poetic Edda, refer to the archetypal journey into shamanic knowledge undertaken by the god Odin. This literature was an elaborated form of belief systems common to indigenous peoples all over western and northern Europe. Such images as Odin's journey on the World Tree echo an apparently universal experience of shamans in all cultures and all times.
The sacred process was framed within the material world. Shamanic inspiration is the sacralization of the familiar, not an escape into some "other" reality. Seeing the familiar with new eyes is the gift of the shamanic journey. So the shaman climbed a "real" tree in order to undergo a journey. The tree formed a ladder to other worlds, other realms, other states, and climbing it physically was a metaphor for the journey from one realm into another. Of course, all archetypes, the World Tree included, yield images of a deeper level of reality. They do not "stand for something", like a logo of a company. Their meaning is within the image itself.
In shamanic cultures physical landscape transformed into a spirit landscape. Odin's visions created, represented, illustrated, reflected the structure of the cosmos. He was not "there" at the beginning of creation, but rather discovered and articulated the structure of "everything" as a result of the visions he achieved in his shamanic journeying.
In the myth Odin climbed into a sacred tree and stayed in the tree for nine days and nights with no food and water. Under these conditions of intense focus he entered states of consciousness in which the tree changed into an enormous white, eight-legged horse, on which Odin rode through the sky.
During his visionary experience, the tree appeared in Odin's vision as a giant ash tree so vast that its branches spread out over the whole world and reached up over heaven. This massive construction served as the axis of the cosmos, and everything else was constructed around it. Featured around the tree was the universe, a tricentric structure, like three gigantic discs set one above the other with a space in between each. The top disc is conceived of as the Upperworld, the middle one is called Middle World, and the bottom one is the Lowerworld. Structured among these three realms were nine worlds, nine domains of knowledge, each with a particular ambience and energy.
This is the wondrous vision that Odin experienced during his initiation; he saw it, and he created it, in a tree. Clearly, from the laws and sermons of the Christian authorities, we can see that the image of the tree was central to the ways in which the peoples of ancient Europe attuned to their environment. But it was more than that. We can see from the experience of Odin that the image of the tree was the template within which all of the sacred world could be apprehended. The tree was the framework within which one "flew" to these Otherworlds. And since the exploration of sacred space was also a quest into the nature of human consciousness, the tree was regarded as an image of the ways in which we, humans, are constructed psychically. It was a natural model for our deepest wisdom, our highest aspirations.
The issues that face us today demand, of course, a more sophisticated analysis than allowed by a simple romanticizing of the charms of a "natural" environment. But the answers to this need to be sought within our inner worlds as much as in the external world. What we can learn from the Wisdom of the Wyrd is the essence of the deeper aspects of the relationship between people and nature which our forebears experienced. Their connection with the natural world was not one of separation and a sought-after reconciliation; it was a seamless apprehension of an "external" environment that was also "internal". Human beings and trees were inseparable aspects of Wyrd.
Dr. Brian Bates is Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Director of the Shaman Research Programme at the University of Sussex.
His new book The Wisdom of the Wyrd: Teachings for Today From Our Ancient Past is published by Rider.
Originally placed on the Web by "Resurgence Magazine"
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The Tree of Life in the Cabala: As related to the Yoga Chakra system
Tree Legends/Myths: Wisdom Tales of Indignous People
Yoga as a Grounded Earth Based Spiritual Practice -- Incorporating the Profound Long Body (the Great Integrity that Embodies Spirit): (includes the poem "Two Trees" by W.B. Yeats).
Energy and Chakra Healing (based on Chinese, yogic, Huna, and shamanistic assumptions)