For centuries, forest has marked the edges of mankind’s domain. Across Europe, North America and the Far East, humanity has had to carve living space out of the great temperate forests. Much of the world has a long history of being in close proximity to these green wildernesses. Forests are strongly symbolic of the cycle of life, from the growth of spring and the flowering of summer to the decay of autumn and the barren emptiness of winter. Frequently trackless, inhabited by potentially dangerous animals, forests are places of danger and trickery.
Where the jungle is an unsubtle, all-out attack, forests are subtler – a familiar presence, outwardly calm and tranquil, but firmly marking the boundary of man’s authority. Where the desert is stark and revelatory, forests seemingly take joy in shading and dappling, defeating the sun, blurring and softening everything into uncertainty. Vegetation is in control here, unregulated; the domain of the earth mother, the feminine principle. The heavens – and Heaven itself – are hidden in forest, out of sight, out of control.
Accordingly, there is a long association between forestry and the unconscious mind, which is often seen as feminine – forests are home to fairy tales, legendary bandits and monsters, witches and wizards, and all manner of magical presences. The trees themselves are reminiscent of temple columns, but what terrifying god or goddess could need such a vast church? Children’s stories are full of forest dangers from the Big Bad Wolf on downwards, a symbolic journey into the frightening subconscious.
As a marked boundary, forests symbolise the frontier, thresholds, the unknown. Journeys into them are seen as initiations, tests and challenges; to return is to be reborn, the uncertainty of the unconscious laid to rest. Forests are the fringe of darkness that lurks on the edge of civilisation, a space where we can project our deepest anxieties and fears.
“… place of testing and initiation”
The forest is the realm of the psyche and a place of testing and initiation, of unknown perils and darkness. J.C. Cooper in An Illustrated Encyclopaedia Of Traditional Symbols notes that:
“Entering the Dark Forest or the Enchanted Forest is a threshold symbol; the soul entering the perils of the unknown; the realm of death; the secrets of nature, or the spiritual world which man must penetrate to find the meaning.”
Cooper observes that “Retreat into the forest is symbolic death before initiatory rebirth.”
“… association with the unconsciousness”
Bettelheim elaborates on this noting:
“Since ancient times the near impenetrable forest in which we get lost has symbolized the dark, hidden, near-impenetrable world of our unconscious. If we have lost the framework which gave structure to our past life and must now find our way to become ourselves, and have entered this wilderness with an as yet undeveloped personality, when we succeed in finding our way out we shall emerge with a much more highly developed humanity.”
“… the female principle or of the Great Mother”
Although forest symbolism is complex, J.E. Cirlot notes that it is connected “at all levels with the symbolism of the female principle or of the Great Mother.” He says:
“The forest is the place where vegetable life thrives and luxuriates, free from any control or cultivation. And since its foilage obscures the light of the sun, it is therefore regarded as opposed to the sun’s power and as a symbol of the earth… Since the female principle is identified with the unconsciousness in Man, it follows that the forest is also a symbol of the unconsciousness. It is for this reason that Jung maintains that the sylvan terrors that figure so prominently in children’s tales symbolize the perilous aspects of the unconsciousness, that is, its tendency to devour or obscure reason.”
“… place in which inner darkness is confronted and worked through”
The forest (…), notes Bettelheim, “symbolizes the place in which inner darkness is confronted and worked through; where uncertainty is resolved about who one is; and where one begins to understand who one wants to be.”
“… symbols for an eternal and indestructible life force”
Deciduous forests and their seasonal cycles of falling and growing leaves, or new growth sprouting from the base of burnt or cut trunks, may have induced people to regard trees as symbols for an eternal and indestructible life force.
“… superlative forces such as courage, endurance or immortality”
Trees and forests thus took on symbolic divine characteristics, or were seen to represent superlative forces such as courage, endurance or immortality. They were the means of communication between worlds. Some societies made them into magical totems. Sometimes a particular tree was considered to be sacred because of association with a holy individual, saint or prophet. Trees have frequently held great religious significance, for example the tree under which the Buddha received enlightenment and the tree used for the crucifixion of Jesus. As a result they often featured in religious rituals, and still do today. Examples include trees upon which prayers or offerings are hung in many different cultures, and the Christmas tree, a custom whose present form evolved in Europe in the nineteenth century.
“The tree of life”
The tree of life is a widespread motif in many myths and folktales around the world, by which cultures sought to understand the human and profane condition in relation to the divine and sacred realm. Many legends speak of a tree of life, which grows above the ground and gives life to gods or humans, or of a world tree, which is often linked with a “centre” of the earth. It is probably the most ancient human myth, and is possibly a universal one.
However, more generally the cosmic tree was believed to have its roots in the underworld and its branches in the highest empyrean above. It was always considered as both natural and supernatural, that is, belonging to the earth but somehow not of the earth itself. To come into contact with this tree, or to live in or on it, usually always meant regeneration or rebirth for an individual. In many epic stories the hero would die upon such a tree and be regenerated. There is also a notion that the world tree told the story of the ancestors, and to recognize the tree was to recognize one’s place as a human being. The wood of this tree was commonly held to be the universal matter. In Greek, the word hylé designates both “wood” and “matter”, “first substance” (Pochoy, 2001).