Trees: Links to the Classical Past

"...larches were green-fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf,...Ithilien...kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness.   . . . groves and thickets there were of tamarisk ..." [Back to Herblore]

 In the fantasy landscape of the epic, too, trees are often associated with mountains, reflecting the geographical realities of the Homeric world. In both the Iliad and Odyssey, for example, peaks are referred to as "quivering with foliage" (Il. 2.263; Od. 9.22: einosiphyllon) and in a later pseudo-Homeric work they are called "green with trees" (Homeric Hymn to Apollo 223: chloros). Such associations become particularly apt in the Iliad when Homer compares the din and destruction of battle to a windstorm in the wilderness of forested mountain slopes (Il. 16.765-770):

As east wind and south wind fight it out with each other in the valleys of the mountains to shake the deep forest timber, oak tree and ash and the cornel with delicate bark; these whip their wide-reaching branches against one another in inhuman noise; thus the Trojans and the Achaians . . .

The imagery of trees fallen in the violence of the wind appears in early didactic literature and lyric poetry as well. In Hesiod's Works and Days, for example, the "lofty-haired oaks" and the "thickly covered fir" are blown down by the rush of the North Wind as it scours the midwinter countryside; indeed, the entire leafy wood groans in the assault (509-11).

Trees often stand at the intersection of the human and the divine in the poetry of mythology. The very word for wood nymph in Greek, dryas, is ultimately derived from the same Indo-European root (dru-) as is the English word "tree". Though considered a divinity, the life of the nymph is bound to the tree; and when it dies, so does the sprite. This concept is perhaps best described in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite 269-272:

Yet whenever fated death is near at hand, first these beautiful trees wither on their ground, and bark all around them shrivels up, the branches fall away, and their souls and those of the nymphs leave the light of the sun together.

Although mortal, some of these lesser divinities are of high pedigree indeed, for according to Hesiod (Theogony 187) the Ash Nymphs (Meliai) were born from the Earth goddess Gaia herself.

 

By John M. McMahon, Le Moyne College, mcmahon@maple.lemoyne.edu