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The Forest in Folklore and Mythology

The Forest in Folklore and Mythology

by Alexander Porteous

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"If you have a feeling for the mystery and enchantment of the woods, you will want to own this book." — Outlook.
Assembled from an enormous range of sources, this fascinating book is a mind-expanding compendium of facts, folklore, superstitions, myths, and anecdotes about trees and the forest. Included are descriptions of old forests; forest customs


"If you have a feeling for the mystery and enchantment of the woods, you will want to own this book." — Outlook.
Assembled from an enormous range of sources, this fascinating book is a mind-expanding compendium of facts, folklore, superstitions, myths, and anecdotes about trees and the forest. Included are descriptions of old forests; forest customs, temples and sacred groves; mythical forest creatures such as witches, fairies, demons, wood spirits, the "wild huntsman," and wood nymphs.
The author also recounts facts and fables about individual trees, including famous trees throughout the world, unusual trees, tree worship, people's transformation into trees, and disposal of the dead in trees — as well as folklore about fossil trees, tree bark, leaves, thorns, diving rods, and Yule logs.
This long-unavailable treasury of legend and lore will be welcomed by naturalists, anthropologists, students of folklore, and general readers alike. "A work which the curious will love to consult … a book which should be in every upper school library, and at the hand of every one to whom reference to such things is important." — Saturday Review.

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The Forest in Folklore and Mythology

By Alexander Porteous

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-12032-4



Archæan Forests; Primeval and Tropical Forests; Cosmogonic and Traditional Forests.

THE earliest vegetation of our globe must have been of the simplest possible type, as during the Archæan Age the earth still retained much of its original internal heat, and the resulting close, warm and damp climate, with the superabundant quantity of carbonic acid gas in the atmosphere, would be favourable to the growth and development of Fungi, Moulds, Algæ, Mosses and similar plants. Judging from the analogy of after ages, when gigantic plants appeared during the Carboniferous Era, and enormous reptiles had their being throughout Jurassic times, probably these now lowly plant forms attained dimensions far exceeding those of our loftiest forest trees of the present day. If one can imagine the forests of that period, there would probably have been seen enormous toadstools with their domed summits extending over many yards; patches of gigantic mosses pushing up their vast spore urns into the murky sky; or mighty masses of cellular moulds ramifying in every direction and producing thickets of globular spore cases borne on long cellular stalks. Absolute silence would reign in the cimmerian gloom; no song of bird would be heard, no chirp of insect, nor rustle of leaf, for none of these yet had being. Even during the tempests which must often have raged through these forests, no crash of falling trees would resound; the soft cellular tissue would sink noiselessly to earth. In the waters which in all likelihood at that time constituted the greater part of the surface of the globe, strange and gigantic forms of algæ would rear themselves above the surface, and all the various forms of vegetation would be of one uniform sombre hue. During unnumbered æons, from these simple cellular plants were gradually evolved the mighty piniferous (if they may be so called) forests of the Carbonaceous Age, and, later, the highly organised trees of the forest which are now familiar to us.

Each succeeding geological period had its own peculiar type of vegetation which had all been leading up to that immense development of plant life known as the Carboniferous period, the remains of which form our coal seams. Never before or since had there been such an exuberance of plant life. So luxuriant was the plant growth over the whole globe that to the inhabitants of other planets this world would probably be known as the green star. A strange picture indeed, these forests, with their towering reeds and their gigantic club-mosses, must have presented had there been human eye to see. In addition to the damp steamy atmosphere, an ever-clouded sky hung over these forests, reaching from pole to pole. During the daytime a pallid light would shed a lurid glimmer through the shadowy recesses, bringing into relief here and there the naked trunks of Sigillarias, while, above, the hirsute arms of the Lepidodendrons would wave ghostlike in the gentle breeze, or toss wildly when a hurricane swept through the forest carrying destruction in its path.

As the milleniums passed, other epochs of time held their sway, until at the close of the glacial periods forests as we now know them covered the land, and, apart from their utilitarian purposes, a very wealth of romance lies hidden within their bosky depths. There, the voice of Nature speaks to the weary wayfarer; the rustling and whispering of the leaves; the sad, yet sweet, cooing of pigeons; the melody of songbirds, or the distant cawing of rooks; the hum of innumerable insects: all impart a feeling of rest, and the strife and jealousies of the world seem far removed. Here in the sunny glades of the forest the ground is carpeted with mosses and flowers, while all around the view is bounded by gigantic trunks of trees each clad with many-coloured lichens, and the whole canopied with leafy boughs whence the feathered orchestra of the woods pour forth their divine melody. It is recorded that the monk of Hildesheim, doubting how with God a thousand years could be as yesterday, listened to the melody of a bird in the green wood during three minutes, and found that in these three minutes three hundred years had flown.

To a wanderer in forest solitudes a sense of mystery is often perceived which lures him on and on into the verdant depths of the woodland world. On a brilliant summer day the tremulous throbbing of the air, seemingly full of whisperings and sighings from an unseen host, appears like the pulsation from the mighty heart of the forest, while, all around, sunlight and shadow form a tangled web of enchantment, which is deepened by soft elusive perfumes floating on the damp zephyrs. In fancy he may feel drawn back to the early primitive ages, when the forest deities would have had a very real existence to him, and he would understand the inner meaning of those oracles which were often spoken in the glades of the primeval woods.

Every season of the year imparts its own peculiar beauty to the forests. In early spring a shimmer of tenderest green spreads over them, especially when a forest of Beeches is breaking into leaf, as if the wand of an enchanter had been waved over it. These tints gradually deepen with the advent of summer, when in the hot noontide hours the tired wanderer may repose in the cool shade, lulled to rest by the hum of insects and the music of rustling leaves. When autumn comes, what an inimitable palette of gorgeous colour is spread out before the eye, albeit but the symptom of decay; and when winter holds the land in its icy grasp, even then the forest has a grandeur and a grace all its own, especially when the branches and twigs glitter in the sunshine with hoarfrost, or gracefully bend under a dazzling weight of snow. It has been said that the forest knows all and is able to teach all, and there is a French proverb to the effect that the forest, which always listens, has the secret of every mystery, while a Latin proverb of the Middle Ages says: Aures sunt nemoris, oculi campestribus oris, and similarly the German: Das Feld hat Augen, der Wald hat Ohren.

In Asia vast forests yet exist in many unexplored quarters in much the same condition as they did in primeval ages, and in their depths myth and superstition still hold full sway. According to Pliny (Nat. Hist., Bk. vi. c. 34) there were forests beyond the shores of the Red Sea in which the city of Ptolemais was situated near Lake Monoleus, which city had been built by Philadelphus for the pursuit of the elephant, and that in consequence it had been called Epitheras. When Timour the Tartar subdued the Kingdom of Kashgar, he marched to a distance of about 1,440 miles towards the north-east of Samarcand, crossing the River Irtish, into the depths of these forests, and in them his emirs erected a rude memorial to commemorate their exploits.

Palestine is one of those ancient seats of civilisation which in former times contained numerous forests, but which now, owing to the ravages of war and the improvidence of the people except in a few districts, is a comparatively bare and treeless land. The Old Testament has many references to forests, the best known of which were those of Mount Lebanon, and the venerable Cedars growing thereon are perhaps the most solemnly impressive trees in the world. A full century before the days of King Solomon one Zekar-baal reigned as king in the city of Byblus on the Syrian coast, which city was said to have been founded by the great god El, and to have been the oldest in Phœnicia. An Egyptian merchant named Wen-Ammon traded with the king, and kept a record of his transactions written on papyrus. He records that he stayed for some time with the king at Byblus, and on his leaving they exchanged presents, he receiving a supply of timber which had been felled in the forests of Lebanon. There was also a sacred Cedar Forest at Elam. (See Art. "Paradise," Jewish Ency.)

There are numerous references to forests in the sacred writings of India. Thus we are told, that among the Brahmins, students of the Vedas had to study each Veda for twelve years, although he might study one only. When his course was complete he had to choose which of the four orders of Brahmins he would enter. If he chose that of the hermit he had to live in the forest, practise austerities, live on roots and fruits, never enter a village or pass over ploughed ground, and dress himself in skins, or coverings made of bark. This hermit life was considered to be the culmination of their existence. The ascetic life was also highly recommended, as a great portion of it was passed in the forests. If, however, the forest dweller did not find the desired liberation in the forests, then he became a mendicant, indifferent to everything, and concentrating his whole mind on Brahma. One of the precepts given to attain this high life is: "Let him not desire to live, let him not desire to die; let him wait for his appointed time as a servant waits for the payment of his wages."

Buddha was one of the god Vishnu's incarnations, and it is told that in his youth he was never so happy as when sitting alone in the depths of the forests lost in meditation; and it was in the midst of a beautiful forest that he was shown the four great truths.

Various forests of India have become celebrated through the legend of Buddha, among others that of the Mrigadava, concerning which the following is related: The King of Benares was passionately fond of the chase, and killed so many animals that the king of the animals remonstrated with him and offered to provide one animal for him every day if he would give up the hunt. The king accepted that condition, and they commenced to consult Fate as to the animals destined for the table of the king. One day Fate designated a fat roe. The roe objected, and pointed out that if they killed her they would take two lives at once. The king of the animals, who was the Bodhisattva himself, the future Çakky-amuni, on hearing this, was eager to offer himself as a sacrifice to the king in place of the roe. The king, touched by his generosity renounced his pretensions, and gave the order that nothing was to be claimed or hunted in the Migadava.

A form of the legend of Buddha, telling how his high destiny had been foretold and mentioning the objects that led him to adopt the ascetic life, these being a dead man, a decrepit old man, and a religious recluse, relates how he left his palace at night after a last look at his sleeping wife Yasodhara, and the son just born to him, and wended his way to the forests of Magadha. In these forests he passed seven years in extreme asceticism, after which he became the Buddha.

There is a tract of forest country called Nisinhavana, situated to the northwest of Madhyadeça, composed of Palaça trees, of which the derivation of the name is uncertain. On one hand it was considered that the forest was sacred to Vishnu under his name of Nisinha, which means half-man and half-lion, as he had that form in his fourth incarnation; while the other view is that the forest was inhabited by a savage people called Nisinha, who were fabulous menlions.

The whole of the interior of Ceylon is one huge tropical forest where trees peculiar to the Tropics are found growing side by side with those of the Temperate Zone. The Cotton plant or shrub attains almost to the dimensions of a tree, which justifies the statement of Herodotus (Book III, 106), when speaking of India, that "certain wild trees there bear wool instead of fruit, that in beauty and quality excels that of the sheep; and the Indians make their clothing from these trees." A remnant of the aborigines of Ceylon still inhabit the forests. These are the Veddas or "hunters." They live in caves or in huts made from bark, and formerly their clothing consisted of bark. Ages ago they seem to have inhabited hollow trees, as in Singhalese the word for a hollow tree is rukula, and the same word now means a house.

Many of the tropical forests give a faint conception of what vegetation was like in the days of the world's youth. "Neither the season, nor the flight of time, leaves a mark upon the forest; virgin in the days of which we cannot guess the morn, virgin in our days, virgin it will remain in the days of generations yet unborn." Mr. Maxwell, speaking of the eerie feeling that comes over the wanderer in these shades, says: "So little do you see that the feeling comes over you that you are alone in the midst of mysterious hidden things. The feeling that immediately follows this is that these mysterious things are not merely hidden, but are specially hidden from you. The circle that moves with you is the veil built up against you. You could imagine that you were a trespasser, or at all events are regarded as such. Then you have the horrible feeling that from behind the tree-trunks watching eyes are looking upon you. It is bad enough at any time if you are alone and all is quiet; it is worse as the sun sinks and light fades; it is worst if by any ill chance you happen to know that you have lost not only your way, but your sense of direction. At all times you may see things happen of which the reason is hard to divine."

Java lays claim to be the finest and most interesting tropical island in the world, and with reason, for, apart from the luxuriant forests which clothe the mountains to their summits, in these forests are found, buried in the jungle, the remains of ancient cities, with vestiges of the temples and statues which once adorned them. They all point to a high degree of civilisation, and it is known that for untold centuries Brahmanism was the religion of the land, until it was superseded by Mahommedanism in or about the year 1478.

Mr. H. M. Stanley, in his journey for the relief of Emin Pasha in 1887, when crossing Africa through the primeval forest, expressed the eerie feelings that beset one when alone in these gloomy depths, similar to those mentioned by Mr. Maxwell when writing of the Malay forests. Stanley wrote that "an awe of the forest rushed upon the soul and filled the mind. The voice sounded with rolling echoes as in a cathedral. One became conscious of its eerie strangeness, the absence of sunshine, its subdued light, and marvelled at the queer feeling of loneliness, while inquiringly looking around to be assured that this loneliness was no delusion. It was as if one stood amid the inhabitants of another world."

Hermann von Wissmann also speaks of the apprehensions besetting one in these wilds. He says: "Be it imagination, be it excitement of the nerves, the slightest sound which at night interrupts the deep quiet seems to startle you. The piercing shrieks of the nocturnal monkey, the splashing of a fish pursued by a crocodile, or the deep thundering of the hippopotamus, causes the auricular nerves to be continually on the alert."

It is to Dr. Alfred R. Wallace that we are most indebted for his glowing descriptions of the Brazilian forests, particularly those of the River Amazon and the Rio Negro, through which he travelled in 1848. In his accounts of the forests of the Amazons he says: "Perhaps no country in the world contains such an amount of vegetable matter on its surface as the valley of the Amazon. Its entire extent, with the exception of some very small portions, is covered with one dense and lofty primeval forest, the most extensive and unbroken which exists upon the earth....

"The forests of no other part of the world are so extensive and unbroken as this. Those of Central Europe are trifling in comparison; nor in India are they very continuous or extensive; while the rest of Asia seems to be a country of thinly wooded plains, and steppes, and deserts. Africa contains some large forests, situated on the east and west coasts, and in the interior south of the Equator; but the whole of them would bear but a small proportion to that of the Amazon. In North America alone, is there anything approaching to it, where the whole country east of the Mississippi and about the great lakes is, or has been, an almost uninterrupted extent of woodland.

"In a general survey of the earth, we may therefore look upon the New World as pre-eminently the land of forests, contrasting strongly with the Old, where steppes and deserts are the most characteristic features."

The Australian "Bush" gives an impression of mystery and awe in its very name. The "Great Hush and Mystery," as it has been called, has been the scene of many tragedies. Hunger and thirst, and often death, have been the lot of many who, in the past, had endeavoured to penetrate its secrets. It is the uncleared country, the parts covered with trees or brushwood, and the name is derived from the Dutch word booch, meaning a wood or forest. The common use of the word, however, is to indicate the open country as distinguished from towns and their environments. In the more sterile regions amid the rocky mountain tracts, or in the sandy plains of the interior, the forests degenerate to what is called the "scrub," where the country is covered with miserable stunted trees and scanty brushwood of unpromising and forbidding aspect.

Many forests of fabulous fame have been mentioned in classical writings and by the authors of old romances. Hindu mythology tells of a great cosmogonic forest, the principal tree in which is the mighty Jambu, which bears an immortal fruit as large as an elephant, resembling gold, and of which the seeds produce pure gold. In this celestial forest, in the field of flowers of light, the plant of immortality grew, and from this plant Dhanvantari, the physician of the gods, extracted the divine ambrosia.


Excerpted from The Forest in Folklore and Mythology by Alexander Porteous. Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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