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Spirit Trees

Updated on July 27, 2017

The bond between a shaman and his or her spirit tree has been a long-established principle of shamanism and many cultures of antiquity adhere to the principle that the abilities of the shaman are very much dependent on the shaman’s spirit tree, to the extent that the metaphoric tree has taken on a life of its own and has become a central feature or facet of shamanism.

The shaman tree can be divided into two types. The first type or category of shaman trees are trees where spirits or spiritual entities reside. These trees have their origins in the realm of folklore and are often divided into different tiers. The strength of the spirit is dependent on the tier that the spirit occupies. Spirits that reside on higher tiers are stronger than those that occupy lower tiers. It is therefore possible, in this manner, to distinguish between inferior spirits and spirits of a higher capacity.

The second type of shamanic trees are trees that have a spirit i.e. these trees have a soul and it is the soul or the spirit of these trees that help and assist shamans during shamanic rites and rituals. The tree that is most commonly associated to having a spirit of its own is the birch tree and the use of birch trees, milk, white colors and white ribbons are prevalent in Altai shamanism. The color white symbolizes purity and this aspect of Altai Shamanism is also known as the milk faith.

In addition to that there is also a tree that is called the world tree which without doubt has its origins in popular myth and it is more commonly referred to as the eternal poplar. According to Altai shamanic principles, the roads to the lower and higher levels of the world run along the trunk(s) of this tree and the tree unites the various levels of the world.

In ancient Turkic-Mongolian circles, these trees along with the sun, moon and the stars were venerated as deities and the bond between the shaman and the spirit tree is strengthened by repeatedly performing shamanic rituals in honor of these tress.

The worship of trees was also rampant among animistic cultures. It is a common precept among followers of the animistic faith that all things for example trees, mountains, rivers etc. have spirits. Tatar oral narratives handed down for generations give us an example of the spirit of the Alps. He is, according to legend, strong, swift, tall and proud.

It is usual among animistic cultures to characterize and attached tangible attributes to natural objects. In his book Religion in Primitive Cultures, Edward Taylor defines animism as the doctrine of Spiritual Beings.

In addition to birch trees, other trees like oak, cedar and ash were also worshipped in ancient Europe and it was widespread in pre-Christian Europe. This type of worship also extended to plants especially plants with healing properties and it’s not unheard off or uncommon to assign plants especially those with medicinal value some sort of divine status.

Animism, as a religion, gives all things, animate and inanimate, character, and that includes attributing salient or prominent features like gender, strength and height to name a few, to the object(s) of worship and the characteristics that are attributed to the object(s) are a general perception of what the object(s) represent and this representation becomes the soul or the spirit of the object.

The spirit of a tree for example may be described as strong and uncompromising if the tree remains and has remained stolid for years. The spirit of the tree may be described as tainted if the bark is covered with blight and it is beset with insect infestation. Similarly, a withering tree that has lost its leaf cover may be described as a dying tree and the spirit of the tree can be described as being on the verge of being set free to either become an acorn that will grow into a new tree or achieve salvation or liberation.

Likewise, a monolith that has stood the test of time may be ascribed with attributes of being strong and enduring and may even be worshipped in some circles as bestowing providence and good luck.

It is very similar to the ancient Persian belief that all things have at their core a soul. It is practically impossible of course to determine if a tree actually does have a soul or otherwise but according to most sources, the worship of trees can bring about a turn of good fortunate unless of course the spirit of the tree is tainted or polluted.

© 2017 Kathiresan Ramachanderam and Dyarne Jessica Ward

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