Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Let Us Worship the Tree

One recent reader suggested that this blog had gotten bogged down in criticizing aspects of Norse Paganism that the author objects to. The suggestion was made that it would be good to devote more space to articulating a positive vision of the kind of Paganism that the author would like to see. This entry is a first step in that direction, building on ideas that have been hinted at and pointed to in earlier portions of the blog.

In Norse Paganism and many other European-derived religious traditions, as well as many traditions from other regions and peoples around the world, one of the most potent symbols of unity and interconnectedness among the many aspects of our existence is a tree often called a "World Tree," a mighty tree which rises from earth to sky, whose roots and branches reach out in all directions. In Norse tradition, this is Yggdrasil. In other traditions it has other names. It is the center of the universe in the Norse cosmos, containing within its expanse nine worlds in all, including ours, the world of mankind.

In Norse myth, the base of Yggdrasil is where the three Norn sisters, supernatural beings who may be more powerful than even the gods, carve runes that shape the past, present and future and determine the fates of all. The Norns also water the tree each day. Yggdrasil is also where the gods meet each day to hold council. It is on the tree that the god Odin hangs himself in a ritual of self-sacrifice, an action which gives him access to magical wisdom. "Ygg" is in fact an alternate name of Odin, and Yggdrasil means "the steed of Odin," as he "rides" the tree in his shamanic quest for knowledge.

The tree suffers from deer that nibble its branches and a serpent, Nidhogg, that snaps at it from below. When the end of the world comes in the poem "Voluspa," one of the indications of the coming doom is that the Tree begins to tremble. It is therefore something of a nerve center for the Norse cosmos.

We also have evidence that the World Tree was of great significance in pre-Christian worship of the Germanic peoples. The Saxons, a Pagan people who would ultimately be forced into Christianization by the armies of Charlemagne at the end of the eighth century, worshipped a great oak pillar symbolizing the world tree, which they called the Irminsul. When the Christian missionary Boniface came and cut down the oak, this act of disrespect and sacrilege likely contributed to the strife between the Saxons and the growing empire of Charlemagne, which would ultimately lead to a bloody war that was in certain respects a Holy War. The Saxons burned Christian churches, and the Christians demolished Pagan temples. On one horrific day in 782, Charlemagne had 4000 Saxons beheaded for reneging on an agreement to embrace Christianity. When the Saxons finally surrendered after 32 years of off-and-on war with Charlemagne, the terms of surrender included the death penalty for any further practice of Saxon Pagan religion.

The holy tree of the Saxons, the Irminsul, therefore bears a special meaning for Pagans today as a historical marker of the past suppression of Paganism by Christianity. Taken together with the Norse myths of Yggdrasil, as well as the similar World Trees of other traditions, we have a very good foundation in past tradition for seeing trees as proper objects of worship.

In our current time, when the world faces the possibility of environmental collapse brought on by unthinking human destructiveness, trees have become symbols of ecological awareness. Planting a tree has become emblematic of concern for the environment, and protecting trees and forests are key objectives of modern environmentalism, a form of "conservatism" that liberals, progressives, and even conservatives can get behind.

The World Tree is therefore a wonderful focus for a Paganism that is concerned with global welfare. It is a greater-than-human reality that suggests interconnection and the need to care and protect our world. It cannot be interpreted to support racism or narrow tribal concerns or self-centered individualism, but brings us out of our selves to a broader vision of human life rooted in the natural environment.

For these overlapping spiritual, historical and political reasons, the Tree is the perfect religious symbol for a progressive-minded Paganism. It also connects us to many other religious traditions in their own moments of reverence for nature.

Therefore, let us worship the Tree.

I invite readers to submit other myths and beliefs concerning sacred trees of other traditions.


Matt BP said...

I painted a work on the subject of Charlemagne and Irminsul titled "Charles Saxonkiller" which was Charlemagne's epithet for most of his long and violent life. You can see the work at

I am in interested in the Saxons partly because half my surname (I have a double surname) is Mercian, Mercia being a Saxon kingdom from pre-Norman England. The kingdom dates from the middle 6th Century to the middle 10th Century, a time which saw the conversion of the English people from Heathenism to Christianity.

Irminsul is believed to have been a living hollow tree, as the Saxons believed that by such trees one could gain entrance to all the worlds, of which Irminsul was the chief tree and the representative of the world tree itself.

Trees seem to be particularly important to all the peoples of the British Isles and many villages still have a semi-sacred and ancient tree at their centre.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

History is written by the winners. This presents a very big problem for modern day Pagans trying to trace back our own history, since for much of this history all of the written sources are from Christians.

But sometimes the truth shines through even in the Christians' own narrative - and this is the case with the Saxons, Charlemagne and Irminsul. We Pagans can take a lesson here from the state of Texas. The Saxon resistance to Christianization is like our Alamo.

In my opinion Irminsul should be a universal symbol for all modern day Pagans. We can all take great pride in stubborn resistance of the Pagan Saxons - which boiled up again during the Stellinga uprising from 841-845.


Maelstrom said...

Matt BP, could you note the sources for what you describe about the Saxon's holy tree being a hollow tree? That is something I was not aware of, perhaps other readers too, so it would be nice to know where to go for further info. Thanks.

Dreamburo said...

I wrote a post about this recently looking at the etymology of the word "tree".


Maelstrom said...

Dreamburo, as not everyone will go to your blog and also because I would love to have the info here in this blog, could you mention a few points of information or examples?


Danny said...

You lost me @ environmental collapse caused by humans.

Maelstrom said...

Danny, I don't quite understand your point of view. Are you suggesting that modern industrial pollution and our high-consumption lifestyle is not causing destruction to the environment, such as the increasingly severe weather events being brought about by global warming? Nature can be harsh, no doubt, but our abuse of nature is making things much worse.

Danny said...


I'm suggesting just that. The science of man made climate change has been consistently proven to be be seriously flawed. The entire environmental movement is less about preserving the environment than it is about seizing political power. There have been too many cases of cherry picking data, of falsified, and then destroyed data on the part of the people pushing it.

Maelstrom said...

Danny,you have every right to be skeptical, but I believe it to be a fact that the vast majority of climate scientists today accept that serious climate change is underway in a very destructive manner that we may only have a few decades to reverse or slow down. Having noted your disagreement on this point, I will not publish further comments in this vein, as you have made your point. I don't want this blog to turn into a flame war about global warming. I am sure you can find other venues for this argument, if you wish to engage. Here I would like to focus on the World Tree and whether Pagan readers see environmentalism as important in their Paganism.

Danny said...

Are speaking of pagans or heathens and our environmentalism? I think most heathens are very pro-environmental conservatism as long as it does not place an undue risk to human life, health, and liberty. I think that there is a fundamental difference in how pagans and heathens see environmentalism. Heathens work within the system, pagans tend to want to use government to control how others work within it.

Heathens revere Yggdrassi, but we don't worship it. Unlike Eddings Tree of the Vale, it is not sentient, but is instead the building blocks of the nine worlds.

If one takes a look at the string theory of the universe, it starts sounding very much like the Yggdrassil. One does not worship the universe, one lives in it, one preserves it, and one uses it to build frith, wealth, and faith among the folk.

Yggdrassil represents the universe as a whole. Midgarth, Asgarth, Niffelheim and all the others are contained within its limbs. It is NOT the Earth alone, just as all of the Universe is not the Earth alone. Like the universe here are places in the nine worlds that are very dangerous to life, and places
that nurture it.

If you are looking for a symbol to attach environmentalism to, I think you could probably do to find a better one- the Greek concept of Gaiia perhaps, but not Yggdrassil.

Matt BP said...

how is working within the systemn different from working to get the system to do as you will it? You shouldn't make such crass generalisations about Pagans, or perhaps I should say that Heathens are conservatives who think that working within the system means going with the flow until someone else figures out how to fix the problem - thats the same sort of generalisation right?. Here in Australia we have been living with nary an ozone layer for the last 20 years thanks to northern hemisphere produced pollution. Skin cancer is a massive killer here, 1/2 of all people will get it at some point in their lives. We have a continent that is drying out, resulting in more frequent and hotter bushfires, droughts, unseasonal cyclones that come further south than they should, tornados in my home city that we never had before. I don't want to turn this into a flame war, but if you think Pagans are such anti-governmentalists that we can't function as well as Heathens in getting significant change to occur, then you're ignorant.
As for Yggdrasil being a good logo for environmentalism, seeing as it represents the wanderer god in search of knowledge as well as physics string theory, as well as the christmnas tree as well as a star map, I think its a fine logo. It certainly speaks to all people about all things about humanity and the Earth. Better than a panda at any rate.

Maelstrom said...

...but the panda is SO CUTE.....(sigh). Yet if China becomes the leading economic power in a few more decades, as some suspect, perhaps the panda will come to be viewed as suspiciously as the Russian bear!

Danny said...

Matt BP

You seem to misunderstand: By working within the system, I meant that Heathens to work as part of the ecology, letting nature take its course where it will and where it won't impact humans, and changing the situation where it needed to change.

Pagans tend to want to use government to control nature and we've seen the trouble that's caused with California's wildfires, and use government to control other's activities.

Heathens tend to be hunters, pagans don't. I know very few heathen vegans, but pagans abound with them. I'm saying that Heathens embrace themselves as part of nature, and their nature as part of the chain.

It is a difference in how we approach our Gods, the world around us and the nature of the universe. Heathens revere nature, but we don't worship it. We conserve nature and that includes managing it; we don't run from it.

Heathens are willing to look at what actions that work and those that don't. They throw what doesn't out and try something else.

Maelstrom said...

Danny, I don't think your idea of "letting nature take its course" stands up to analysis. A lot of what is happening in the environment today is due to human industrialization, which only by a very extreme stretch of definition could be considered "nature taking its course." Without government action to control industrial pollution, we would be living in a nightmare of deadly pollution. the fact that our air is still breathable and water, still drinkable, by and large, has a lot to do with the EPA, the Clean Water Act, and other government actions over the last 40 years, with parallel situations in other countries. A laissez-faire approach to the environment means more pollution, sickness, cancer, extinction. Surely you don't favor all of that as "nature taking its course?"

I also have to disagree with you and gently chide you when you say Heathens do this, Pagans do that, as if there is some absolute distinction between them and no commonalities. There is also a variety of viewpoints within Heathenry as in other forms of Paganism, so I don't think it is correct to suggest that you know how ALL Heathens think or act or are. If it is your general impression that most Heathens are or think or act this or that way, fine, but please don't presume that ALL Heathens are this way or that way. I have also been accused of this over-simplification, and have had to apologize on several occasions. Let's both try to avoid that and respect the diversity within the Heathen community, as well as among other Pagan traditions.

Hermann said...

I don't believe Yggdrassil, not being a deity, can be worshiped. At best, it can be presented as a symbol and serve as a focus for activities. As the subject of worship, and prayer while we're at it, neither has validity in the practice of Northern theology. We don't worship; we do honor. We don't pray to the gods and goddesses; we call out and speak to them. Worship and prayer, submission, are mostly Abrahamic constructs. Northern Heathens live with our deities, not under them.

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