Since ancient times, civilizations have considered trees and nature sacred. A Bulgarian saying goes “There is a sacred forest but no sacred field.” Fields were where the people toiled so they could survive. It was a part of their everyday lives. But the forest was the mystical, the unknown. To venture there purposefully was to seek a spiritual awakening.
Whenever I drive through the countryside in the New England area in autumn, I can appreciate why trees have inspired awe. The hillsides are awash with a multitude of colors, God’s patchwork quilt placed lovingly upon the land. Or simply walking in the midst of a forest gives me a sense of peace and security.
Trees rise high above the land, spreading their branches to the sky and digging their roots deep into the ground. Some species, like oak, ash, and walnut, are bestowed with the title of “World Tree,” an honor making them like a supreme god among trees. This deeply venerated tree was seen as a force of strength and protection.
The three parts of the tree symbolize the nature of the universe. The crown represents the heavens and all its inhabitants: birds, as well as divine spirits. The trunk signifies Earth, the home of men, animals, and preternatural creatures like nymphs and fairies. And roots represent the underworld, the realm of the dead and creatures like snakes, fish, and dragons, which may embody demons or other beings of darkness. Since the world tree sat at the boundary of all three realms, it was seen as the means to traverse from one to the other.
World trees and other age-old trees were treated with respect. It was forbidden to break or cut their branches. Those who disobeyed suffered calamities—even death. Instead, people would hold rituals beneath the trees, and let the blood of sacrificial animals soak into the roots.
Perhaps the best-known World Tree to the western world is the Norse Yggdrasil. As far as I know, the Slavs do not give their world trees a particular name, but different trees species are called World Trees, a primary one being the oak. In our middle-grade fantasy series, we call the world tree in Dragon Village (Zmeykovo) the Znahar Tree, since znahar is the word for a wise old woman who heals with herbs and charms. The Firebird roosts in this tree, protecting it. The eagle is another animal you may find within the branches of Slavic world trees. Both birds are considered messengers of the gods.
World Tree. Illustration by Dmitrij Rybin. Stock illustration via Depositphotos.
The following is an excerpt about the Slavic World Tree from our book, A Study of Dragons of Eastern Europe.
Prevalent in many of these creation myths is a cosmic tree, or a World Tree, that grows out of the water and supports the land. It’s known by various names: “tree of life, tree of knowledge, tree of the Garden of Eden, tree of the cross, Shaman’s tree.” It’s also been called “a golden fruit bearing tree,” a “straight tree—tall and lean,” and a tree whose branches are “pure silver, dotted with golden bees.”
Ancient civilizations considered nature sacred, and they deeply venerated the World Tree as a force of strength and protection. The three parts of the tree symbolize the nature of the universe. Branches represent the heavens where divine spirits reside. The trunk signifies Earth, which is the home of men and preternatural creatures like nymphs and fairies. And roots represent the underworld and the dead who dwell there. Like nature itself, all these creatures live in harmony with one another.
Many illustrations display the serpent coiled at the tree’s roots or along its trunk. However, in popular belief, it can also live in the tree’s crown as a dragon—thus showing the creature’s dichotomy of being both an evil viper and a benevolent guardian. Also inhabiting the branches are magical birds, such as the firebird (the messenger of divine will and the protector of the fruit of life, the magic apple), nightingale, falcon, and eagle (the symbol of light and heaven). Other birds found there include doves, swallows, roosters, and peacocks. Even bees make their home in the tree’s branches.
The snake and the bird are the most widespread personifications of a human soul. This belief relates to the shaping of the idea about two worlds of death—one below the earth and another above the clouds. Therefore, the images of snake and bird merge to create the winged dragon.
Over time, the benevolent dragon and the eagle have become interchangeable in folklore, thus associating the dragon with both heaven and earth as a cosmic mediator between the two. And so, from serpent to dragon, the creature becomes connected to all three parts of the universe: the roots and the dead, the trunk and the living, the branches and the divine beings.
- The Dead. The World Tree has been called the “Path to the Souls of the Ancestors,” and it symbolizes “the transformation and transition between the worlds.” It’s a place where the souls of the dead reside, and a place from which one can enter the realm of the ancestors, often called the “other world” or the “beyond.” This is a place where not only the dead, but also mythical creatures, live. (You’ll read more about the other world in the “Dragon Slayers” chapter.)
- The Living. The World Tree has a place in the daily lives of people. It underlines “the inseparable connection between the cosmic balance, life—fertility—marriage—death.” Many life-cycle rituals involve trees—especially fruit-bearing trees, symbolic of this World Tree.
- The Divine. Among the Slavs, the World Tree is often oak and sacred to the god Perun, wielder of thunder (who in later beliefs becomes St. Iliya or Elijah, who fights against destructive dragons). In folklore, the tree may also be a cypress or sycamore.
In particular, a budnik (a special log burned at Christmas to celebrate the rebirth of the Mlada Boga or Young God, when the days begin to be longer after the winter solstice) acts as “a mediator between the heavenly and earthly life.” People perform rituals “to magically strengthen the vitality of the World Tree, during the transitional time between the old and the new year, and to further reinforce the equilibrium and order in the universe.”
The more that is discovered about trees, the more awe-inspiring they become.
Make sure to follow our upcoming Kickstarter campaign for our book, Magical Healing Trees in Slavic Folklore, to discover more fascinating information about trees. The main focus is on Slavic beliefs, but general information about the included trees is also included.
For further reading, check out Iva Kenaz’s Tree Magic: The Path of Druids, Shamans, and Mystics.
Also, be sure to check out the Kickstarter campaigns that are part of the Storytellers Oracle Deck project.
The current project is Tales of Akatsuki: Special Edition Hardcovers, which runs from February 14 to March 2, and the oracle card is for CHARM.
Fierce heroines, brooding heroes, and heart fluttering romance collides with anime and fairy tale influences in this fantasy series.