Tag Archives: shamanic tree worship

Sacred “Garden” trees of Norway and Sweden

When I was doing research about trees in Norway I found this interesting paper by Douglas Fore Holmes about “sacred trees of Norway and Sweden: a friliftsliv quest” and was of course immediately intrigued. His abstract was very promising:

What began as a curiosity about the traditions and folklore related to trees planted in the center of many farms in Norway, “Tuntre“, and Sweden, “Vårdträd“, led me to a recognition of a tradition that can still be observed in the cultural landscape today. The tradition can be traced as far back as the Viking period, and directly linked to the mythology of the World Tree, Yggdrasil. I have been studying these traditions as they relate to the field of environmental education as an example of mythopoetic stories and folklore that influence moral and ethical regard for nature.

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As I am not a native speaker, and the author is, it does not make sense to rephrase him, so I copy pasted some interesting paragraphs and comment at it:

A special tradition that is shared by many Scandinavians is the planting or the knowing of a special tree in Swedish called a „Vårdträd‟, and in Norwegian a „Tuntre‟; a sacred tree planted in the center of the yard on a family farm that reflects an intimacy with place. The caring for the tree demonstrates respect for ancestors‟ spirits that were/are believed to reside in the tree, and is a moral reminder of caring for the farm or place where one lives. One Norwegian told me that the „tuntre‟ provided a direct connection with the nature spirits that lived underground at his farm.

According to this paper, not many Scandinavians are aware. However, during my stays in Norway, my friend shared stories he heard from farmers who are visited by the “underground people”. I can imagine that in such a forested country where there are places you do not meet anyone but shadows you start to believe in spirits.

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A view from a window was very mesmerizing. We stayed in a cabin in a very remote forest in Norway, which was also called “troll forest” 

Even until the late 19th century, these trees are so holy that no one dares to break or cut so much as a leaf; and to injure or damage them results in misfortune and illness. A long held belief-system tells us that earth spirits and guardian spirits resided in these trees.

For me it is so interesting to hear similar stories in Thailand, like for example about banana tree spirits and the red fanta offerings to tree spirits, and Japan with its mischievous tree trolls , while these cultures were so far from Scandinavia. It seems that many cultures share some roots 😉

The World Tree

The original sources of the „tuntre‟ or „vårdträd‟, appear to have been the holy groves where pagans worshiped to the Norse gods. Saplings from the groves were transplanted to the center of the village or the farm and grew into „boträd‟ on the grave of the original farmer.

This practice can also be connected with Yggdrasil, the ash tree in the old Norwegian mythology. In one of my previous posts I wrote about it: Norwegian Easter: time for ash and crime

Lonely deciduous trees

Deciduous trees are generally planted as the „tuntre‟ or „vårdträd‟, possibly to reflect the cycles of the seasons and of life and death and the return of life in the spring. Long-lived deciduous trees like oak, ash, linden, maple, and elm are common varieties used, while birch and mountain ash replace the more southerly varieties as one gains elevation or latitude.

Actually, next month my Norwegian friend and I will visit Hokkaido, the deep north of Japan, and I am also reading about the phenomenon of lonely trees along the famous Patchwork Road, and how full buses of Japanese tourists stop to take photographs of these lonely trees, often in the middle of the trees. And they are also populars and oaks. Next month I will for sure write about these lonely trees and why they can feel so sacred, for Japanese, for Norwegians, or even for an urbanized Belgian as me.

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Sneak peak of an instagram post next month for my account @wereldwoude-verhalen (only in Dutch/Flemish). 

Environmental education and knowledge

Lastly, the author of this paper , the author wanted to answer questions like:

  • How does the mythology and folklore of a culture influence their perception of place?
  • How does ecological knowledge of a landscape compare with „kjennskap‟, or what is sacred in a landscape?

Kjennskap refers to the “the more intimate ways of knowing that require time, experience, and generational wisdom – „kjennskap‟, that different way of knowing compared with factual knowledge – „kunnskap‟.” He describes the wood carver’s way of knowing. I imagine my friend who is now spending time in pottery and how it will take her years of training and practice to make a bowl. Also in Japan, they really admire craftsmen, and sometimes I wished I had more time to dedicate myself, discipline myself, to become a master in a craft like woodcarving or woodblock printing. It have a lot of admiration too for this kind of knowledge, more than for academic or so called scientific knowledge.

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Knowing your home through its Trees

In this paper, the author also refers to the importance of knowing your home. He believes if people attach more to the environmental knowledge about home, and the knowledge of plants that ripen during different seasons providing a steady source of food, or the location of secret water, or where the wind brings cooling in very hot summers, … that we can be more resilient for the societal and environmental changes. In Japan, I visit and study the country side, and how the depopulation also leads to loss of local/tacit knowledge. Newcomers with post-materials values try to unearth this tacit knowledge, but first they have to gain the trust of the elderly who stayed behind.

As scientists we can propose solutions, but through my own experience in transdisciplinary research -where academic and non-academic people co-design research and co-produce knowledge and solutions- I value a lot the knowledge that locals have about their “home”. I can also agree with the author that being aware for sacred or guardian trees can connect people to the knowledge and signatures written in the nature, and can inspire them to take care of them and the environmental surroundings.

Therefore I like to share a Norwegian poem by Tarjei Vesaas.  

 

What is Home?

Talk of what Home is – snow and fir forest is Home.

From the first moment they are ours. 

Before anyone has told us that it is snow and fir forests.

They have a place in us, and since then they are there,

always, always. Come home. Go in there bending branches –

Go on till you know what it means to belong.

As an environmental educator I think about to design a semester project to students to identify a guardian or holy tree in their home, and dig in the history behind it. We can learn so much about our homes through the history of the nearby trees.

Norway Spruce, a story about Shaman Claus, mushrooms and fire

Two weeks ago I attended a Christmas Quiz where I learned that the  Trafalgar Square Christmas tree is a Christmas tree donated to the people of Britain by the city of Oslo in Norway each year since 1947 (as a gratitude for their support during the Second World War). According to wikipedia, it is typically a 50- to 60-year-old Norway spruce, generally over 20 metres tall. The tree is cut in Norway sometime in November during a ceremony attended by the British Ambassador to Norway, Mayor of Oslo, and Lord Mayor of Westminster. One week later I embarked on a journey to the far north, and saw so many spruces in the wild. I also bought a book along the trip, that I read when I was 10 years, and 20 years, and as I am almost turning 30 years old, it was time to repeat the “tradition”. As the north of Norway does not see daylight between November 21st and January 21st, it seemed the right time and place to remind me again from where the idea of the “christmas tree” and also Santa Claus really comes from.

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It all started with Fire

When I did know that Santa Claus, or the Dutch version “Sinterklaas” were not real, my father gave me a book “The Secret of Sinterklaas”. I learned that it was all about fire and trees, and about that we, as humans, try to control nature, but actually will never succeed to control it, as we are not above nature, but part of it. In Japan, Thailand and other countries you see still a lot of tree worshipping, but actually in north and west Europe people still do tree worshipping, but they do not know. Before the 8th century, people in northern and west Europe would burn trees in this time to remind themselves to the sacred gift of fire that our ancestors received ten thousands year ago. The oldest myths in many cultures are about that phase in history where mankind started to use fire, because that was the beginning of the exponential technological progress. By burning trees we remind ourselves humbly to the power of nature. It is a time of the year where we should look in ourselves by gazing at bonfires or candlelight. As Thoreau wrote, electricity kills darkness, but candlelight illuminates it.

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Later, the Roman Catholic Church colonised this practice into a christian one and decided Jesus was born in this time. Before that happened, our ancestors called this period  “Joeltijd”. “Joel” is Dutch for “celebrating”. In other languages people would say Yule or Yulda. It is the time for people coming together; eating, drinking, making babies etc. Many taboos would be broken in these days.  However, in the times of inquisition and witch hunts, any form of pagan practice was hidden. Only after the power of the Church weakened during Napoleon’s reign, the christmas tree was re-introduced, and with the invention of lightbulbs in the 19th century we got the tree we know today.

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Shaman Claus and mushrooms

Another story that I read was about mushrooms. The shamans of the old religions of North and West Europe used Amanita muscaria, also known as the Fly Agaric mushroom, or the the Alice in Wonderland mushroom, or as the house of leprechauns we see in western fairytales.  It was held very sacred by these ancient people, and was used by the shaman and others for ceremonial and spiritual purposes.  They only grow beneath certain types of evergreen trees, and I assume that they also grow under Norwegian Spruces. However, I also heard they were originally from North-America and cultivated in Norway for Christmas, but then I read at the blog of Tree Spirit Wisdom that “In Sweden, scientists have found a living Norway spruce named Old Tjikko, dated to be 9,550 years old. It has achieved this age through self-control and by cloning itself thus regenerating new trunks, branches and roots in the same space.” So, I think my assumption can be right.

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These mushrooms and evergreen trees form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the tree, the exchange of which allows them to grow.  One of the reported ancient beliefs was that the mushroom was actually the fruit of the tree. These mushrooms can have different colours: from brightly red and white to golden orange and yellow, which reminds me to… the christmas decorations of the christmas tree.

Tree of Birth, the Tree of Not Giving Up

In Greek mythology, the Spruce tree was dedicated to Artemis, the Goddess of the Moon, Hunting, Nature and protector of women. The Greeks suggested that the enduring Spruce tree represented constant, eternal life and was labelled ‘The Tree of Birth’; its scented evergreen needles signifying resilience and strength. This is the reason the tree is so associated with Artemis – as renewal, resilience and resurgence are all qualities which this goddess prized above all others. It’s also no wonder that the spruce is our Christmas tree, as Christians celebrate also the birth of Jesus Christ. As the tree is known for its resilience and renewal, it reminds us that perseverance and patience leads us higher. Sometimes we have to overcome darker periods because these dark times gives us a lot of knowledge and tools. We should not give up! While I was freezing in the dayless days in the Far North, looking for the northern lights, I tapped into the energy of the spruce and also told myself “Be Like a Spruce!”

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Spruce Beer from Native America

Spruce trees are mythologically important plants among Southwestern tribes, where they are symbols of the sky and directional guardians of the north. According to Hopi myth, the spruce tree was once a medicine man, Salavi, who transformed himself into a tree. Besides, Spruce “beer” was first brewed by the indigenous peoples of northern Europe and North America as a medicinal beverage. Depending on the time of year and the type of spruce, the flavour varied. By the 1700s, alcoholic spruce beer was common in colonial America and eastern Canada.

Use of Spruce

Not only the mushroom has special properties. They are known for their resins. Resin incenses are typically the dried sap from trees. According to the blog of Druid Garden, “Norway Spruce is another tree that produces a good amount of incense.  I have found that not all Norway Spruces smell the same.  They all have a skunky/musky smell, which can be pleasant but very different than the pines.”

According to Mercola, “Spruce oil is frequently added in soap, air fresheners and household cleaner formulations to lend its fresh scent and act as a disinfecting agent. Because of its pleasant earthy scent, its calming effects and its ability to ease anxiety and stress, spruce oil is also a favourite in meditation rituals like grounding. ”

And talking about patience

Several authors who I adore, like Elif Shafak, Margaret Atwood, Han Kang, David Mitchell and Sjón (ok, the last one I do not know) buried their next book for almost 100 years in Norwegian forest, as part of Katie Paterson’s Future Library project. According to the Guardian, “Starting in 2014, Paterson has asked a writer a year to contribute a book to her public artwork. Riffing on themes of imagination and time, each work has been seen only by its author and will be printed in 2114, when a patch of 1,000 Norwegian spruce trees planted in 2014 in the forest that surrounds Oslo will be cut down to provide the paper for the texts.” I think using a spruce, the tree of resilience and renewal, was no coincidence…

Please share in comments what you know about the Norwegian spruce – or the Christmas Tree.

Vitamin Ginkgo for your November Depression

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Some weeks ago I suffered a November depression or Autumn Flu, which happens to many people who live in countries with four seasons, like the Netherlands, Belgium and Japan, when days become darker. Also other friends told me that November is the month they feel down and need to take more vitamins. Last year’s November felt also depressive, when I recall my diary notes. But the year before in Thailand I was fine, partly because there are no seasons like in Japan. And in the end of October and early November I felt I was struggling again and in a bit of a self-destructive mood.

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I feel fine when I walk outside in sun, or am with close friends with who I feel comfortable, but mostly I felt annoyed, sad and even frustrated. I was not creative. The best advise is to take distance of social media channels, because seeing the filtered “happy stories of others” make you wonder why you were not invited, or sleeping without curtains, doing walks in sunlight and nature and taking extra vitamins. I believe nature gave also a good medicine to deal with it: the colorful autumn forest. So, in the last weeks, every day I was free, I was exploring the outdoor of Nagano or Gifu, the prefectures close to Nagoya. One day I went to a Reishoji to greet a 80 year old female ginkgo tree. Most of the pictures of this blog are taken there.

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I really love the ginkgo trees. Watching them freezes time and I really feel in the presence when I observe a ginkgo. Nowadays, their golden fan-shaped leafs make even dull days in Nagoya beautiful. The  Ginkgo biloba, commonly known as ginkgo is quite a loner, because it is the only living species in its family tree (did you see what I did there?). All the others are extinct.

They are perfect urban trees, because they can tolerate pollution and confined soil spaces. They come from China, but they are also widely planted in Japan, because of Buddhism. It is also the official tree of Tokyo and six ginkgo trees were among the few living things that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

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What gives the yellow color? Leaves are, I read in the book “Around the world in 80 trees“, chemical factories that conjure sugars out of carbon dioxide and water, using sunlight, with the help of chlorophyll, which is bright green. When the trees slow down in autumn, they recycle everything that could be useful the next year. As chlorophyll is broken down and reabsorbed, the leaves’ green colouring disappears and reveal the yellow xantophylls or orangery carotenes which always have been there to mop up leftovers. The climate in Japan makes the colors more bright than in Europe.

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Lastly, the gingko has many medical benefits. On the internet you can read about many benefits, which focus mostly on blood circulation and brain issues. In China, the gingko -or Yinxing – is studied for a long time. It represents the sacred concept of yin and yang, as there are male and female trees. In addition, it is also a symbol of longevity and survival. Some survival trees from the atom bombs were gingkoes. Most gingkoes grow to an imposing height and width during their lifetime, often living for several millennia. At the website of Classical Chinese Medicine, I read that “many Daoist temple courtyards feature ancient gingko trees that are thousands of years old, and one particular tree is said to be about 10.000 years old. As a mysterious, long-living tree with roots in great antiquity the gingko was an ideal candidate for the practice of shamanic tree worship, and Daoist shamans would engrave their magical spells and seals  on old growth gingko wood in order to communicate with the spirit world.”

What do you know about gingkoes?