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The Tree: Meaning and Myth

Trees – actual, mythical and metaphorical – are at the heart of mankind’s relationship with the natural and supernatural world, a relationship that serves as a powerful index of both ecological and spiritual well-being.

Tree - Meaning and Myth, The

The Tree: Meaning and Myth, written by Frances Carey, will be out on Monday from the British Museum Press. To celebrate, we’ve included here an extract from the book. Enjoy!

OAK / Quercus

Over 600 species of oak, both evergreen and deciduous, grow across Europe, Asia and North, Central and South America. As a symbol of strength and endurance the tree has sustained a multitude of myths associated with local, national and imperial identity, and was sacred to gods including Zeus, king of the Greek gods, and Thor, the Norse god of thunder.

At the heart of Zeus’s sanctuary at Dodona in north-western Greece – regarded as the most ancient of all the Hellenic oracles – was an ancient oak (probably a Valonia oak, Quercus macrolepis). According to Herodotus, legend had it that a black dove came from Thebes in Egypt and, speaking in a human voice, told the people there should be an oracle to Zeus on that spot. In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odysseus goes to Dodona ‘to hear the will of Zeus that rustles forth from the god’s tall leafy oak: how should he return, after all the years away, to his own green land of Ithaca’.

Gold oak wreaths are listed in inventories from Greek temples and sanctuaries and are known from burials in Macedonia, South Italy, Asia Minor and the northern Black Sea region, including a recently excavated example of the fourth century BC from the ancient Macedonian capital of Aegae (Vergina).


Gold oak wreath with a bee and two cicadas. Hellenistic, 350 – 300 BC. L. 7.7cm, diam. 23cm.

This reputedly came from a tomb excavated in Turkey on the Dardanelles, the passage between the Aegean and the Black Sea.

WILLOW / Salix

Salix babylonica, commonly known as the weeping willow, has become a universal symbol of grief and loss. The name ‘babylonica’ derived from its mention in the biblical account of the Jewish exile in Babylon. Along with many other species of willow, it is indigenous to western China and was only introduced to Europe in the late seventeenth century. First recorded in England in 1748, it has largely disappeared in the United Kingdom because of its susceptibility to frost. The weeping willow most widely grown today is a cultivar, ‘Chrysocoma’, of Salix x. sepulcralis, itself a hybrid of the Chinese Salix babylonica and the European Salix alba (white willow).

Willows belong to the same family (Salicaceae) as sallows, osiers and poplars, trees that are fast-growing and easy to propogate in a wide range of soils and climatic conditions. Salix alba and Salix fragilis (crack willow) are most commonly found in northern Europe. Their timber is used to make baskets and cricket bats, and they are often planted along riverbanks and canals to prevent erosion. When Leonardo da Vinci was looking at ways to convert the river Adda in Lombardy (which formed the border between the Duchy of Milan and the Republic of Venice) into a canal, he observed that, far from damaging riverbanks, willow roots actually reinforced them. For the same reason willows are a commonplace of the Dutch landscape, as captured by Rembrandt and Van Gogh.


The Political Weeping Willow, 13 May 1791. Hand-coloured etching published by William Holland (1757 – 1815), 31.3 x 24.7cm.

This image satirizes a famous event that took place in the House of Commons on 6 May 1791, when Charles James Fox wept copiously at Edmund Burke’s renunciation of their friendship because of Fox’s praise for the French Revolution. Burke repudiated him, declaring ‘there is something in the cursed French Constitution which envenoms everything’.

Text and images ©Trustees of the British Museum

The Tree:  Meaning and Myth, by Frances Carey, is published by the British Museum Press (hardback, £25) and can be published online at the British Museum shop.

Category: History


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