One World, Many Myths

Indigenous peoples, or those human populations whose identity, sustenance, and well being often are directly derived from their surrounding environment, often maintain a close and intricate relationship with the natural world that is vastly different than the views and perceptions held by members of industrial, modern societies. Through various spiritual practices and beliefs, cultures such as the pre-Christian Scandinavians, the Australian Aborigines, and the natives of the North American Pacific Northwest hold world-views in which humanity is closely linked with the natural world. Through an analysis of various indigenous culture’s spiritual beliefs and how they relate to a cultures natural environment, we can gain insight and appreciation for aspects of the human condition that directly relate to the natural world.

The spiritual beliefs of indigenous cultures often hold cosmologies, or views of reality, that perceive the concept of nature as a whole with various interconnected parts. Specifically, indigenous populations of the Arctic regions view the world as divided into three parts; the upper, middle, and lower worlds. The upper world is seen to be in the sky, the middle world is the earthly realm, and the lower world is below the surface of the soil and sea. The spirits and dead are said to reside in the upper and lower worlds, and life there is quite similar to that of the middle world. These realms are said to be utilized in shamanistic practice, and that a shaman can make contact with the different worlds, (Helskog 1999). This belief places humans on a nexus between the different aspects of the natural world, and blends the spiritual world with the physical.

The aboriginal populations of Australia have a cosmology concept that is quite different than this three-world system of the Arctic peoples, but essentially performs the same service. Their way of viewing reality is called ‘the Dreaming’, a concept in which nature, time, or history does not exist. People are not separate from the whole of creation, nor is their separation amongst anything in existence. In effect, The Dreaming unites the self, the clan, the totem, the physical surroundings – all are indissolubly one,“ (Mol 1979). This is a world-view that unites humanity with the natural world, completely dismantling the borders between human and non-human life, uniting the spiritual world with the physical.

Besides maintaining cosmological frames as a way to relate to the natural world, natural forces are personified and revered. Amongst the indigenous Pacific North-west coast of North America, the natural world was compromised of spirits, and that every natural force had life, whether it was “the earth, rocks, trees, ferns, as well as birds and animals-even the hail which fell from the sky”, (Clark 1953). This concept, called animism, is one that was entrenched in the lives of the people of this region (as well as many other indigenous cultures), influencing the way they acted in reference to natural forces and places. For example, the Tlingit people of the pacific northwest call various spirits of the sun and sky the ‘Children of the Sun’, giving them anthropomorphic qualities and shaping masks in their image, (de Laguna 1987). Klamath Indians believed that the lake known as ‘Crater Lake’ was the result of a magnificent battle between the forces of the earth and sky, causing the mountain that was there to collapse and fill with water. The lake that was a result of this battle was shunned by the Klamath; only the spiritual leaders were allowed to see it, and any others who saw it risked death and disease, (Clark 1953).

The forces that were seen to pervade the natural world were used as a source of power for the populations of indigenous cultures, who used shamanistic and magical practices to communicate with these forces to provide aid for their people. A common way to communicate with the spiritual world is through the use of sacred areas, where spiritual forces were seen as most able to be contacted. “Spirits in other dimensions are ‘contacted’ by people in order to gain control over animals, resources, diseases, people, spirits, life or the spirits themselves initiate the contact,” (Helskog 1999). The Sami people of northern Scandinavia identified these sorts of areas with ‘seide stones’ – stones with unusual shapes, representing spirits, while the aboriginal Australians identified these sacred areas through the use of rock art, (Helskog 1999). Specifically, among the aboriginal Australians, the symbol known as the ‘Rainbow Serpent is depicted at natural sites where water is found. These areas were seen as places ‘liminal places’ in which the threshold between the physical and metaphysical worlds was found, (Helskog 1999).

Besides specific places having spiritual power, various animals and other life-forms are held to have significance among indigenous peoples. Among the Tlingit of the Pacific Northwest coast, creatures such as the bear, mosquito, otter, and devil-fish, are revered as shamanic spirits, and various masks are constructed to bestow their respective powers upon the wearer, (de Laguna 1987). Various other Pacific Northwest tribes say that either Raven or Coyote gave the gift of fire to humanity, and that twelve tribes were created out of a large beaver that was killed by the youngest of four wolf brothers. They also believe that “…the primeval beings are “animal people.” In a sacred myth of the Skagit Indians, Raven, Mink, and Coyote “planned everything with the Transformer, were in on all the arguments” they decided that there should be male and female in everything on the earth, that people should not live forever, that at death the body should go to the earth and the spirit to the spirit world,” (Clark 1953).

Amongst the Australian aborigines, the Rainbow Snake is whom healers and medicine-men receive their powers from. According to the aboriginal myths, quartz crystals, which are often used by these healers, were once vomited from the Rainbow Snake long ago, (Eliade 1967). In the belief of the indigenous northern Scandinavians, reindeer/elk, fish, and bird were seen as symbols for three parts of nature, those parts being land, sea, and sky, (Helskog 1999).

Indigenous peoples are also very connected to the seasons and weather. In Arctic societies, rituals involving the transition from winter to summer were performed when various signals of the coming of summer were observed, such as the awakening of bears from hibernation among the Sami, (Helskog 1999). Among several tribes of the Pacific Northwest, it was Coyote who arranged the seasons, and a being known as Thunder controlled the weather and had the ability to call forth lightning. Amongst other tribes, a being known as Thunderbird was known to bring storms. “The flapping of his wings caused the thunder; the pieces of flint which he threw or the flash of his eyes was the lightning,” (Clark 1953). Among the Tlingit, weather itself was something that the shaman was seen to have control over, being a mediator between the forces of nature and the tribe, (de Laguna 1987). Among indigenous cultures, weather and climate is something unavoidable, and various spiritual beliefs such as these allowed for adaptability and validation of its power.

Often, the spiritual beliefs of an indigenous culture allow for the moderated and respectful use of natural resources. Among the Chinook of the Pacific northwest, salmon were believed to be guided by spirits, who needed to be appeased in order to ensure the existence of the salmon run. Besides having myths to limit the amount of a salmon catch, at the beginning of each salmon season, the first salmon caught were placed back in the water with a specific sort of berry in its mouth, (Clark 1953). One might assume that this helped prevent the over-fishing of salmon, as well as allowing for a sustainable amount of fish for the next year.

This reverence for nature also manifested itself in the form totems, and other various animal symbols that were held by specific groups of people, or single individuals. Among various tribes of the Pacific Northwest, young people would fast and mediate in order to experience a spirit (often in the form of an animal) that told them their abilities that they would be gifted in their adult lives, often doing this at a places considered spiritually powerful, such as mountains.. Those who experienced this would often carry a symbol of their power animal with them throughout their life, (Clark 1953). Among the Australian aborigines, a similar system of animal totemism permeated the culture, with each individual, each tribe, and each group of ancestral descent having an animal symbol, (Mol 1979). These totemic symbols show that indigenous cultures held a respect for the life that existed around them.

I feel cultures native to a region develop spiritual systems and cultural practices that are environment oriented because of the close, consistent contact the people maintain with the natural world. These are peoples whose sustenance and resources are derived directly from the surrounding landscape, rather than a store or a distant faraway place. Just as those in our modern Western lifestyle derive their values and beliefs from a constant, steady source of information such as the media, it only makes sense that people would derive ideas from the things that they perceive nearly everyday.

Whether a people lived in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, the icy realm of northern Scandinavia, or the arid bush of western Australia, they developed practices and views that allowed them to relate their human identities with the landbases on which they depended. The reverence and power indigenous peoples assign to the natural world is a direct result of the close contact that they maintain with the environment. By developing knowledge of an indigenous cultures views of nature, we can learn to hold the same respect for the environment as our own indigenous ancestors, and through this practice we can maintain a stronger contact with the planet that we developed with.


Clark, Ella E. “The Mythology of the Indians in the Pacific Northwest.” Oregon Historical

Quarterly. 54.3 (1953): 163-189. Print.

de Laguna, Frederica. “Atna and Tlingit Shamanism: Witchcraft on the Northwest Coast.” Arctic

Anthropology. 24.1 (1987): 84-100. Print.

Eliade, Mircea. “Australian Religions. Part IV: The Medicine Men and Their Supernatural

Models.”History of Religions. 7.2 (1967): 159-183. Print.

Helskog, Knut. “The Shore Connection. Cognitive Landscape and Communication with Rock

Carvings in Northernmost Europe.” Norwegian Archaeological Review,. 32.2 (1999):

73-94. Print.

Mol, Hans. “The Origin and Function of Religion: A Critique of, and Alternative to, Durkheim’s

Interpretation of the Religion of Australian Aborigines.” Journal for the Scientific

Study of Religion. 18.4 (1979): 379-389. Print.

Slowly into the Dark : Thoughts and Visions of the Future


I am not a survivalist – nor would I call myself a passive bystander – but my views, as well as my interests, activities, and prioritization of the different aspects of my life – are somewhere in the middle between these two extremes. From what I’ve learned in my time spent working towards my bachelors in Environmental Studies (both in school and the plethora of reading I have done outside of class – most notably James Howard Kunstler‘s ‘The Long Emergency’ and Derrick Jensen‘s work) as well as the eye opening philosophical views I have exposed myself to (and the casually paying attention to the behavior of society at large) , I feel that I will witness the precipitous decline of western industrial -capitalist civilization within my lifetime. With that, I can safely say I wish I had been born after the actual ‘collapse’ occurs, because it definitely won’t be pretty.

I can narrow it down to three factors that will bring about the end of this mode of living: peak oil, climate change, and the inherent instability and flaws within the capitalist mode of production. These three problems are so deeply embedded within modern fossil fuel powered, industrial capitalist society that I feel there is honestly no hope trying to actively ‘change’ anything (at least nothing I myself feel I have the skills, hope, or charisma to do). They are ultimately problems with our cultures perception of reality, and trying to ‘save’ modern industrial capitalist society would be to save the problems with it. Its problems arise from its exploitative nature, just as civilization itself inherently is – particularly this civilization. Being at the receiving end of exploitation, bullying, and abuse from many different angles, I sympathize greatly for the human and non-human victims of it. I ultimately wish I could just be ‘human’ and live up to the potential I was evolved to live – to eat the foods I was meant to eat and live within a community and social structure I evolved to live in. I’ll keep out of everyone elses business if they keep out of mine – and I expect those others to keep out of everyone elses business too.

One could easily look at this through the Hegelian dialectic – the thesis being global industrial capitalism, the antithesis being the ecological limits, and synthesis being a new world of localized economies and political units. I don’t think a classic socialist revolution will happen (at least pan-globally, relying on the same industrial modes that might bring about a general overthrow of society) but that it may arise in several states as long as political hegemony is limited by limited fossil fuels and infrastructure. I could totally imagine the United States possibly being dissolved into different autonomous regions, similar to the division of the Roman Empire into Western and Eastern halves. Hopefully, people of different political mindsets who would more likely talk about whats pressing rather than the less important warm fuzzy sort of politics that seems to dominate our country today.

Ultimately then, I agree with Derrick Jensen in that life (being all life on planet earth) would be best if civilization was destroyed. With how entrenched we are within this mode of living, there is a possibility that we may see the end of what could be called civilization on the vast majority of the earths surface – ultimately a plus for biodiversity. Do I have the skills, charisma, or even the want to actively destroy civilization? I often imagine myself as some sort of barbaric figure (a modern day Brennus descending on Rome) but I don’t want to get involved in anything too attention grabbing, too complex, or too suicidal. I want a family and happiness (and ultimately the dream of every hobbit – reading books and tending to his garden in the Shire), but I also know that there is horrible injustice and outright insanity going on in the world, and to deal with that I intend to take a route more subtle.

Ultimately, this mode of living will destroy itself. There really is no hope to change the direction of this train wreck, either through changing the minds of those in power or the minds of the general public. (When people regularly complain to me about the price of $9 watermelons in January and the fact that they’re not American grown, there is clearly a disconnect between the average customer and reality) They value the unreal over the real, and so symbols and power structures will be favored over life, leading to a variety of frightening conclusions. What resource limit will come first, how intense will it be, and what will be the worlds reaction? When countries are threatening nuclear war over ideological differences, would they act on it over real problems? Whether it be peak oil, peak phosphate, or some other intense scarcity of a ‘strategic resource’, the implications of that scarcity are frightening.


As I write this, my brother is playing a game I consider the most ethically redeeming one in existence, one I actually consider a work of art. The game – titled ‘Fallout 3’ – is one in which the player controls a character born in a self-sustaining, underground fallout-shelter community 200 years after a nuclear war between a nationalistic, communist fearing United States and an expansionist China over dwindling sources of oil. The character, having been born into an enclosed society isolated from any knowledge of the outside world, roams the irradiated post-apocalyptic ruins of Washington, D.C. scavenging bombed out ruins for supplies while fighting anarchic raiders, remnant US government factions, and mutated animals such as giant cockroaches. Going past the science fiction elements of the game, is a future like this (particularly with the current saber-rattling going on with North Korea) something my children or grand children will inherit? Playing the game makes me hope not.

What I find amazing about this game is that the creators really capture the bleak reality that such a situation would create, and that they show believable methods of governance and living that could arise in such an environment. Small communities are scattered throughout the wastelands, being housed in the ruins of buildings where simple subsistence agriculture and hunting are depicted. It is almost a ‘new dark ages’ – something similar to what I feel may arise after the looming collapse on the horizon. This idea of living in an generally anarchic land with a patchwork of localized societies and economies appeals to me. Different societies adapted to their own local environments, implementing close-knit community organization and localized means of production seems the most natural and realistic means of human living. I feel that this is how our society might live in the far future, though as the passing of time has shown us, societies evolve and change constantly when exposed to multiple environmental or social constraints. Obviously, some may become much stronger or technologically advanced than others – though with fossil fuels out of the way, there never will be another society as advanced or centralized as ours is at the moment – which is a very good thing.

I don’t think nuclear war is the most likely conclusion, but I feel that it is the most dreaded. I only can hope peak oil is what causes the real crises (though I argue that the Iraq war, the 2008 financial crisis, and the stagnant economy are all related to the peaking of its production) and that its worst effects come well after I am established on a piece of land not to far from civilization. If peak oil is the thing to come first, it may lessen the eventual horrible effects of climate change though its social, political, and economic effects could be quite frightening – racial, religious, political, economically and other driven conflicts could very well be initiated by some sort of oil scarcity.

Now, there definitely will be some sort of massive changes within my lifetime – oil price increases, a worsening economy, climatic shocks that will disrupt agricultural production – as well as the political instability that comes with this. My goal then is to get through these shocks as comfortably as possible, and to survive through it with a family and pass on my own views and cultural values to them. I stayed in Binghamton because I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, nor did I want to spend a lot of money figuring that out. I feel that its probably the best decision I ever made, despite what many would think.

I’ve worked full time while attending school, and now that I graduate I only owe around four thousand dollars. I’ve tried to keep in contact with my friends and family here, although the vast majority of my old friends got sucked into dead-end jobs, dropping out, and drug use, so I’ve been separated by them in terms of world view and aspirations. I’ve been with the same wonderful girl for about three years. We intend to get engaged, be married, and start having a family as soon as we can afford it. She’s currently still in school (at BCC for Dental Hygiene) and has a year left to go. She realizes how horribly things are in the world, and has come to her own conclusion that things will change quite drastically within our lifetime. She’s incredibly supportive of me, my views, and our ideas for the future, and I wouldn’t have finished up school without her encouragement to go back. Knowing something about teeth, she figures she would have at least some practical knowledge to carry through the craziness that will probably occur. We’ll probably live within several hours of Binghamton, either somewhere in upstate New York or northern Pennsylvania.

My brother is a 22 year old union carpenter, and my father owns and operates several apartments he rents to people in Binghamton and Elmira. He intends to get my brother and I involved in the operation, and my brother wants to start his own construction business renovating houses. His fiancee is graduating as a registered nurse this May, and intends to work at a hospital, preferably in the maternity ward. They are definitely the ultimate ‘SHTF’ couple to be related to! My brother and I have talked about purchasing land and living off it between the two of us, hopefully having our kids grow up being close cousins. He has heard everything I’ve ever thought and learned, and can see that something is coming sooner or later. My sister, who is just now graduating from high school, has done Animal Science at BOCES and intends to go to school for a veterinary related education. It seems her knowledge would also be very beneficial to have in a post-industrial dark age scenario. I have only shallowly discussed with her the plight of the world, but I ultimately think I have the best collection of close relatives I could wish for.

I’ve never desired to be rich, and I’ve never intended to be famous. I’ve never been very ‘pro-active’ with what I want to do with my life, and I’ve mainly allowed life to make my decisions for me. It may sound bad , but I feel that I’ve been very blessed, happy, and content, and the only things that make me unhappy are those things I have no control over. But I intend to find some sort of stable job, purchase land (whether it be that what my father owns or some I find myself) and live off it as sustainably and simple as possible.

In terms of self sufficiency, I am an amateur gardener, and I am extremely interested in the medicinal and culinary uses of both wild and cultivated plants, as well as traditional means of living. I keep a rabbit and a worm bin which make a very good combination, and I compost the scraps of home cooked meals I make at my apartment. I’ve spent a lot of time ‘in the woods’ being that my moms side is ‘country folk’ from out near Greene and I was in the Scouts when I was younger. I didn’t get my license or a car until I was 21, because I could walk everywhere I needed to go, which was only really in the Town of Chenango. I rarely ever watch television, and the only electronic media I deal with is the internet and Netflix, which limits my exposure to commercials. It is odd too in that my internet usage drops significantly when schools not in session. I think that I’ve at least jumped the first hurdle in a life without fossil fuels or complex technology in that I can imagine myself without them.

I am skilled with a bow and arrow, and I am a fairly knowledgeable owner of legal (and registered) firearms. I can’t say that I inherently like firearms – it truly is very much about the power in the item rather than the item itself that appeals to me. It isn’t about what the item itself can do, but more about the fact that people with much more wealth and political clout have them and will always have them, so why shouldn’t I -with little wealth and marginalized morality beliefs – own them? Gun ownership isn’t a very popular concept amongst us of the environmentalist leaning crowd, but I feel that if those in power can own them (or have people who serve them owning them) that it is absolutely necessary for those of us who are marginalized, who have ultimately the most to lose in a coming time of scarcity. I am quite skeptical of the united efforts of curbing ‘military style’ firearm ownership by civilians, because it really seems to be coming from positions of power (whom it ultimately serves). In times of scarcity, political and economic upheaval, can we really trust the establishment to be on our side, rather than whoever has the money? Illegal wars, Japanese-American internment, and the increasing centralization and policing of our society show that the system will do anything to maintain its control. Besides all this, firearm ownership ultimately serves a practical purpose as well. I intend to get my hunting licensing set up for this coming season, and I want to take it on as a tradition to pass on to my children one day.

No person can be an island, and in perilous times community becomes the single most important aspect of survival. This means that being more sociable with people and ‘networking’ with them (things that are not very natural to me) is something I will need to do. I haven’t done it very much at all throughout high-school or college, and so I intend to be a more active member of society after I graduate.


There are a few ways I’m going to accomplish this – work, volunteering, and surprisingly, organized religion. I’ve always been very spiritual, and it has traced itself throughout my entire life. I’ve always been seeking meaning and truth, and it has lead me to read the written works of many different religions (mythologies from around the world, Catholic and Protestant versions of the Bible, the Koran, and Buddhist sutras) as well as the work of philosophers and the pursuing of an education in Environmental Studies. For the most part, I’ve been very antagonistic towards organized religion. I’ve been involved in neo-pagan spirituality for the longest period of time, being active in witches covens and the national Indo-European re-constructionist organization known as Ar nDraoicht Fein. I’ve had a multitude of phases where I was enamored with a particular belief system, whether it be Wicca, Norse shamanism, Celtic Druidic re-constructionism, Tibetan Mahayana practice, and most recently, Roman Catholicism and my own independent Christianity. This surprises many people who know of my previous interests and opinions, but I have come to think of it as being a misunderstood and misused belief system whose actual message is acceptance of a natural order as well as a need to equalize humanity. Previous religious paths offered me little of community, discipline, or sanity (particularly the New Age philosophies) and I especially value its emphasis on self sacrifice, charity, and its persistence through hard times. It lasted the fall of major civilizations before as well as countless other tumultuous events, and so I feel it – along with various other organized religions – would help quite well within the new dark ages as much as in the last one. Religion, especially when it is organized, can really allow for social cohesion and hope in the face of problems. (As an aside, my lifelong secular humanist best friend has for some reason become extremely polytheist leaning. I think it has something to do with him reading the Derrick Jensen books I lent him.)

The one problem with organized religion – particularly the less philosophical and more popular versions of it in the United States, specifically its fringe Protestant Christianity flavors – is its focus on the ‘end times’. What is very frightening to me is that a significant portion of the population makes decisions as though the Apocalypse will clean all problems away, and that also if their standard of living drops, it will be taken as the End’s immediacy. I don’t have much faith in people, and think their behavior will be bordering on insanity when the price of oil causes their worlds to shrink.

My two most pertinent and unanswerable questions in regards to the coming shift in paradigm are ‘1) How do I maintain an ounce of happiness and good humor in the face of all the bad?’ and ‘2)Where do I begin?’ With my impending graduation in a few weeks, these two questions have been on my mind constantly. I am worried about employment, about proving to my parents this wasn’t a waste of time. I have nearly nothing as a resume – having had to work my entire time in school hasn’t particularly allowed me time for internships or other extracurricular activities. I was in a Paranormal Investigation group at BCC, and an animal rights group with some friends from high-school – but these are things that won’t get me a job. So ultimately, I’m worried about being stuck in some dead end, environmentally destructive or socially irresponsible career. I have no idea where I am going to work to make more than minimum wage but feel like I am important and morally sound, and I can only hope to find something that fits my wants and needs within a reasonable distance from home.

How to keep my hopes up is probably the hardest part of it all, because in all honesty I have little hope. I guess the only hopeful thing I can think of is paper that Professors Richard Andrus  and Mike Kane passed in each class, with the quote from J. R. R. Tolkien’s ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ where Gandalf says So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

With what I feel may happen, my goal is to cultivate a means of living with a family where materialistic wants are what is valued least, and self sufficiency and deep ‘living in place’ are valued most. I don’t intend to do anything too drastic, nor anything flashy or truly active. I don’t want to communicate through electronic devices to people I should be talking face to face with, and I don’t want to have my family spend hours staring at moving pictures on a screen. I want to actually know my children and have them know me, rather than me not knowing what they are going to school for or thinking TV time is family time. I want the knowledge and wisdom of men dead for decades or even centuries to guide them rather than the latest fad media trying to sell them shallow bullshit. I want to not have money and its pursuit rule my life and deprive me of time from my family. I want to be ‘old fashioned’, and hopefully keep as many of mainstream societies physical and mental poisons out of my life as much as possible. I intend to ‘lay low’ and weather the storm as best as I possibly can, growing and guarding whatever knowledge I can gather to pass on to the descendants of my family’s house. I hope to go forward through the turbulent dark times ahead as if this were the end of the Third Age of Middle-Earth or the coming of Ragnarok. I hope the end of industrialization brings with it an age of real, true freedom.

Between the Worlds : Humanity and Forests through Celtic and Norse Perspectives

Between the Worlds : Humanity and Forests through Celtic and Norse Perspectives


By Justin Linn O’Brien

“As the shore is not sea nor land,

 like the time between the times

where the dawning is not day nor night

you are between the worlds.”

Eluveitie, ‘The Endless Knot’

Common knowledge states that Western Civilization, in all its philosophical and technological grandeur, has the greater part of its foundational roots buried deep within the cultural legacy of Greco-Roman culture. Through the martial and organizational prowess of the Roman Empire, Greek views on philosophy, science, government, and aesthetics was spread through the destruction and subjugation of peoples whose worldviews were quite different than the ‘civilized’ Romans. These ‘others’ – known by words with negative connotations such as ‘barbarian’ and ‘heathen’ – had ways of life that were less urban, more egalitarian, and much more tied with the lands on which they lived. Though fiercely resistant to ‘civilization’, two of these ‘barbaric’ cultural groups – the Celts and the Nordic peoples – have nearly only left us linguistic, genetic, and almost forgotten cultural marks of their existence. Their mythological legacies reveal close ties with the land, and the once vast forests that they inhabited before the coming of ‘civilization’.

The Celts were an amalgam of tribes and kingdoms united in similar culture and language but almost always divided by allegiance to separate families, chieftains, or clans. Starting in the middle of the European continent, south of Germany, the culture expanded to inhabit Belgium, Switzerland, western Spain, the entirety of France and the British Isles, and even areas as far away as central Turkey. (Markale 1976) However, the greatest amount of information we have about them is from France and the British Isles, due in part to the high level of archaeological evidence and that Scotland and Ireland managed to avoid the ravages of conquest (by ‘civilized’ peoples) for a longer period of time.

The British Isles primarily consist of two ecological regions – one that is called ‘Celtic Broadleaf forest’ and the other called ‘English lowland Beech forest’. (European 2002) Celtic Broadleaf forest is found in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall – areas where Celtic culture persists today. It consists primarily of oak, mixed-oak, and oak-ash forests, with a limited amounts of birch forests. (Hogan) English lowland beech forests is found on the southern landmass of Britain – an area originally Celtic, but subjected to countless invasions over the millennia. It consist mainly of beech, fir, ash, and elm trees. Both have climates that are moist and high in rainfall. (World Wildlife)

France, or what was called Gaul when inhabited by its Celtic culture, is divided into two ecological regions known as the ‘Atlantic Mixed Forest’ and the ‘Western European Broadleaf Forest’ (European 2002) Atlantic mixed forest is an ecoregion on the north-west coast of France, made up of oak and pine forests, as well as heathlands. Along the coast there are sandy, salty soils that have vegetation that can thrive in these conditions. The Western European Broadleaf forests are located in the eastern half of France and extend further into the European continent. It is primarily made up of beech forests. ( World Wildlife Fund)

Just as any environment and lifestyle influences humanity’s perception of existence and its place in the universe, so did these ecological regions influence the development of spirituality and mythology of the Celts. Because of laws enacted after the Christian conversion of Europe, we know that the worship of trees, groves, stones, wells, and rivers as well as the active sacrifice of offerings to them was common. Natural forces were worshiped along with gods, and the landscape was peopled with numerous spirits, such as the sidhe in Ireland. (Macculloch 1911) Before the conversion of Celtic lands to Christianity, and well before the Roman conquests of France and England, there existed a religious system based entirely in the establishment and honoring of relationships with natural forces.

The forests that dominated the lands of these cultures were revered and respected. Whole forests were perceived as goddesses, such as Dea Abnoba for the Black Forest and Dea Arduinna for the Ardennes. The Fatæ Dervones ruled the forests of Celtic Northern Italy even into the Roman conquest of that region. Groves of trees were used as places of worship, where offerings were left for the gods and spirits; where warriors would hang the heads of defeated enemies. Human-sacrifice, though repulsive to people of today, was common – the victims, usually criminals, were hung or pierced on trees in these groves. (Maculloch 1911)

Nearly every dominant tree in these regions had a power, honor, and respect given to it. The oak was perceived as the greatest of trees, and as Pliny said of the Celts: “ They esteem nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree on which it grows. But apart from this they choose oak-woods for their sacred groves, and perform no sacred rite without using oak branches.” He also describes an elaborate ritual that was enacted to take the mistletoe out of the tree without it touching the ground. Ash, alder, cypress, yew, rowan, and hazel were also venerated as sacred, and the wood of these trees was used for specific religious purposes such as ritual items or sacred fires, such as those before battle. (Maculloch 1911)

In Ireland, certain specific trees, called bile, were even the totems of different tribes and clans. These trees were considered representatives of the leaders and the people themselves, and it was seen as a great dishonor to have it cut down. Throughout the entirety of the Celtic world whole tribes received their names from specific trees, such as the Eburones being the ‘yew-tribe’, and the Vivisci and Bituriges being related to the mistletoe. Various names of trees were taken as surnames as well as first names as well. (Maculloch 1911)

In a symbolic manner, trees were also the inspiration for an entire alphabet in Ireland known as ‘Ogham’ or ‘Bethluisnin’ from its first two letters . The alphabet is made up of twenty-five symbols that are dash-lined in appearance which are designed for carving into stone or wood. Each of the letters has a corresponding name given to it, which is the name of a tree such as a birch, elm, ash, alder, yew, or so forth. (

An amazing example of the Celtic veneration of trees comes from the Welsh poem ‘Cad Goddeu’ or ‘Battle of the Shrubs’ by the semi-mythical poet/druid Taliesin. The poem describes a battle between two armies of Britons, with one group led by the author and the mythical Welsh hero Gwyddyon, and the other led by a mysterious woman. As the battle begins to look like a victory for the enemy, the hero Gwyddyon uses magic to turn his soldiers into trees and other plants. Within the poem, it lists off various species of trees, such as pines, elms, birches, hazels, oaks, honeysuckles, cherry-trees and a host of other species, describing their personalities and how they fared in the battle (Markale 1993)

Gods with attributes of the natural world were also venerated in the Celtic culture. The Gaulish bull-god Tarvos Trigarannos has three cranes that would be found in the forest environment shown perched on his back. The Irish goddess Dana or pan-Celtic form Danu was a goddess of the land, giving her name to the Danaans (the Irish pantheon of gods) and the river Danube. (Markale 1993) The antlered Gaulish god known as Cernunnos is perhaps one of the finest symbols of Celtic awareness of the inseparable connection between humanity and the non-human world. He is pictured as a anthropomorphic figure, usually seated squatted down on the ground, with antlers protruding from his head. He is often portrayed as being surrounded by native, forest dwelling animals such as wild boar and deer. (Maculloch 1911) This deity evokes a symbolism of humanity and nature being one and the same.

In his ’The Conquest of Gaul’, Julius Caesar tells of his movements, tactics, and subterfuge used in taming the Celtic Gauls, and he also describes their culture. According to him, three classes of people exist in Celtic society – the commoners, the warriors, and the Druids. He describes the druids as a hereditary priestly class who are above military service and taxes, and officiate over all religious matters in the society. Because it is a deeply religious society, he says, they regard nearly every official and public matter as religious, and so the druids officiate over them. They are well educated and use Greek letters, but they only pass their knowledge down orally, regarding it too secret and sacred to be committed to writing. Caesar 2005) This easily allowed the Druidic teachings to go extinct – firstly through the conquest of Celtic lands by Rome and the enacting of laws against the druidic organizations; secondly, through the destruction of their holy grove and ancient center at Inis Mona (Anglesey) by Rome in 61 AD; and thirdly, the conversion of Ireland to Christianity by Saint Patrick (thus, driving out the ‘snakes‘ or druids – from Ireland. (Markale 1993)The druids are also said by Caesar (as well as other historical writers) to teach that the human soul is immortal, and passes through different forms of life and existence for eternity.

This is illustrated quite well in the legendary 6th century Welsh druid-bard Taliesin’s ‘Book of Taliesin’ when the poet says:

“I have been a sow, I have been a he-goat,

I have been a sage plant, I have been a boar,

I have been a horn, I have been a wild sow,

I have been a shout in battle,

I have been a stream on the slope,

I have been a wave on the stretch of shore…”

(Markale 1976)

This form of reincarnation philosophy, if taken in a physical, ecological sense, is very nearly true. Every single particle in a humans body is from somewhere else, and has been cycled through countless existences as different organisms, or even non-living things such as streams and shores. It could even be stretched to include the air molecules escaping from a warriors lungs as he shouts, and those molecules passing their way through the environment back into the authors own body. It is as if the existence of a living being is only a cup of water taken from the ocean, to be poured back in when that existence is done. Could this awareness of the interconnectedness of humanity and nature in this sense been realized by the druids?

The Celts were not the only ‘barbarians’ of Europe that had a deep connection with trees and the forests in which they lived. Scandinavia, in the ancient and medieval eras, was occupied by a cultural group called the Norse who derived much of their values from the often-times harsh environment they lived in. Colloquially known as the Vikings, these peoples were unified by common language, culture, and mythology, and much of this reflects the ever present forest ecosystems that surrounded them.

Northern Europe is dominated by six ecological regions. The ‘Scandinavian Montane Birch forest and grasslands’, the ‘Scandinavian Coastal coniferous forests’, the ‘Scandinavian and Russian Taiga’, and the ‘Sarmatic mixed forests’ are found in Norway and Sweden, while the ‘Baltic Mixed forests’ and ‘Atlantic mixed forest’ are found in Denmark. (European 2002) The taiga is within the boreal forest and tundra zone, having mainly limited species of coniferous trees. The ‘Scandinavian Montane Birch forest and grasslands’ has dwarf birch forests mixed among grasslands. The ‘Sarmatic mixed forests’ is a Norway Spruce and Scots pine dominated conifer/broadleaf forest, while the ‘Baltic Mixed forests’ are primarily beech and oak, with Scots pine, European hornbeam, and linden trees further inland. (Hogan)

This mix of forest types inspired quite a number of forest and tree related deities and concepts within the Norse worldview. Within Norse mythology, there are several groupings of spiritual entities known to exist – the gods, the giants, the dwarves, and the alfs. The gods are made up of two ‘tribes’ – the Aesir and the Vanir. The Aesir are lead by Odin, and include well known deities such as Thor, Heimdall, and Freya. They seem to represent the more civilized, agrarian-minded aspects of reality. The Vanir are the sea and wind gods, such as Van, Niord, and Skadi. They represent the more wilderness related aspects of nature, and it is said that the Aesir and Vanir warred with one another until they realized they were stronger united than divided. Both tribes represent the aspects of nature that are regenerative and beneficial to humanity. (Guerber 2006) This could represent the duality of agriculture versus wilderness, and that for humanity to exist comfortably the two need to be honored.

The giants are primarily divided into the frost and fire types – directly related to the idea that forces of fire and ice initially created existence. These are representative of the destructive forces of nature, and are constantly at war with the gods. The most well known giant, Loki, is a often-times friend of the gods although due to a dramatic turn of events becomes their most hated enemy. Out of jealousy, he tricked the god of darkness, Hodr, into slaying the gods brother Baldr (a god of light) with a shaft of mistletoe, condemning himself to the punishment of the gods. He will finally rise up in battle against the gods with the combined force of giants, ultimately culminating in the destruction of the world and the death of the Aesir – an event known as Ragnarok. It has been suggested that this could represent a focus on the cyclical nature of natural processes, and the progressive movement towards entropy. (Guerber 2006)

The more minor figures in the great play that is Nordic cosmology are the dwarfs and alfs – semi-divine entities that reside in natural settings. The dwarfs, representing the aspects of darkness and decay, lived in the dark places of the earth and deep in the realm of Svartalfaheim. They include creatures such as trolls, gnomes, and kobolds. The alfs are connected to the air and light, and these creatures are at home in the forests and the realm of Alfheim. (Guerber 2006)

Specifically, gods such as Ullr (the bow-wielding god of hunting and winter) and Freyr (the Vanir god of the alfs, who rode astride a wild boar), and the goddess Skadi (whose domain includes mountains, winter, snow, and skiing) are also indicative of the Norse cultures close relationship and awareness of the importance of forests. The gods were worshipped in temples with wooden poles representing gods, and there are even stories of trees growing within buildings – specifically the Branstock, an oak with a sword placed in it by Odin – in the Volsung saga. (Guerber 2006)

A tree, quite literally, was central to the worldview of the Norse. Within ‘Völuspá’ of the Poetic Edda, it is said:

‘An ash I know, hight Yggdrasil,

The mighty tree moist with white dews;

Thence come the floods that fall adown;

Evergreen o’ertops Urth’s well this tree.’

(Hollander 1962)

This evergreen ash tree, known by the name Yggdrasil, was the center of the Nordic cosmos. The ‘World Tree’, as it is called, was the ‘axis-mundi’ of the universe, and its branches held and connected the nine-worlds of existence, binding all living entities together. It was created by Odin, Vili, and Ve, three aspects of Odin Allfather, with its three great roots buried deep within the depths of dark Niflheim (the realm of the dead), in Midgard (the physical Earth we live in) near a place called Mimir’s well, and in Asgard (the realm of the Aesir, the gods of humanity) near the well of Urth. (Guerber 2006)

Odin Allfather, the one-eyed, blue cloaked, wandering chief of the Aesir, created the world tree soon after slaying the primordial giant Ymir and creating the world from the giants corpse. Over time through various processes, beings such as the gods, alfs, and dwarfs all came about, but humanity did not yet exist. Finding an ash and an elm washed up on the seashore, Odin, Vili and Ve took up the two trees and carved them into human figures – Ask ‘ash’ being the first man, and Embla ‘elm’ being the first woman. (Guerber 2006) The symbolism that these two trees could portend could be quite esoteric and subtle, and perhaps many meanings could be derived from it -possibly based on the characteristics of each tree, and the general characteristics of each sex.

Yggdrasil means ‘Steed of Ygg’ in Old Norse. Ygg, meaning ‘the Terrible’, is an epithet for the god Odin, and the world tree is known as his steed for a very deep and complex reason. Primarily, the term refers to Odin’s dramatic sacrifice of his life for the knowledge he gained of the runes – the alphabet system used by the Norse for mundane, as well as spiritual reasons. In line 138 of Hávamál in the Poetic Edda, Odin is supposed to have said:

“I wot that I hung on the wind-tossed tree

All of nights nine,

Wounded by spear, bespoken to Odin,

Bespoken myself to myself,

Upon that tree of which done telleth

From what roots it doth rise.’

(Hollander 1962)

In an attempt to understand the secrets of the universe, Odin hung himself from the world-tree and pierced his side with his spear Gungnir, surrendering himself to the experience of death. The poem goes on to say how after nine days and nine nights of dangling over the abyss of Niflheim, Odin finally died, and through sacrificing his godly life to himself, he perceived in an instant the runes – arcane and mystical symbols supposedly older than existence itself, with meanings both mundane and esoteric. (Hollander 1962)

In another interpretation of the myth, name, and meaning of the Odin hanging upon the world-tree myth is its link to the cultural practice of seidr. Seidr, coming from the Old Norse word meaning ’to boil’- is the Norse equivalent of shamanism. Shamanic activity, in which a person through altered states of consciousness supposedly travels through various other worlds of existence and communicates with spirits, has existed in many indigenous cultures for millennia. It is supposedly through the work of shamans that indigenous cultures gain knowledge of the uses of plants, discover the location of prey, and maintain a spiritual connection to the landbase. Because Odin is known as a wanderer of the nine worlds who used his own death to bring about an altered state of consciousness, and that he also accomplished this upon the world tree itself – he is the epitome of a shaman. (John 2004) Mythical connections to shamanic practice even further reveal the close links that Norse society had with forests and the natural world.

According to the myth, it was because of this act that Odin received the power to allow him to be creator of the universe and chief of the Aesir. It was with these runes he was able to control the other gods, imbue magical properties to certain items, and allow him to have the many mystical abilities he is ascribed to in myths. (Guerber 2006) This quite possibly could be likened to the invention of written word, and how it allowed greater control over man and the environment. But the meanings of these runes, and the fact Odin is the one that gave them to humanity, shows a strong link between humanity, trees, and the divine.

Runes, as an alphabet, are made up of straight lines and a noticeable lack of rounded marks. This is perhaps a reflection on the use of wood as a medium of writing, as wood is easier carved with straight lines (to go with the grain) than with rounded curves. The Elder Futhark, the most popular form of runes used by Scandinavian cultures, is made up of twenty-four symbols with various names and meanings ascribed to them through folklore and poetry. Similar to the Irish ogham, several of the runes bear the names of trees or other forest-related subjects. The most apparent of these runes are ’Eihwaz’ meaning ‘yew’ – an alternate tree depicted as Yggdrasil, ‘Algiz’ meaning ‘elk’, a common forest dwelling species in Scandinavia, ‘Berkana’ meaning ‘birch’, and a symbol of regeneration due to the trees trunk sprouting ability. (Krasskova 2010) The symbolism of the runes evokes a connection to the forest and the natural world, and this connection is even seen in their eschatology – their thoughts on the end of the world.

Ragnarok, the end of the world, starts when Loki escapes from his imprisonment in the recesses of the world. He gathers his children – Hel, the goddess of the underworld, Jormungundr, the serpent that lives in the ocean surrounding the world, and Fenrir, the giant wolf personifying humanity’s violence – and with the help of Surtr, the giants, and the dishonored dead makes war on the Aesir. The myth is very detailed, and each of the gods is killed by a specific enemy, and all of Loki‘s forces are defeated as well. The earth is burned, and the oceans rise to cover the land. Humanity is wiped out and everything is destroyed, but out of the salty waves a new world rises, green, vibrant, and so much better than before. (Guerber 2006) It is interesting to note the similarityof a flaming world being submerged by the ocean with climate change.

Deep from within Hoddmimi’s Holt, which is either described as a forest or the trunk of Yggdrasil, the two last, surviving humans emerge – Lif (life) and Lifthrasir (lover of life). Just as the first two humans of the first world were created from wood, the first two of the second world will emerge from it to populate the world. Baldr, having been slain and sent to the underworld by Loki before the great battle, is said to rise from the depths of Niflheim to reign as his father Odin did. (Hollander 1962) What began with wood and a tree ends with wood and a tree, and the cycle of human development is repeated.

The ancient Celtic and Nordic peoples had a much greater connection to forests and the natural world than modern cultures do. In terms of respect for the environment, they were some of the last patches on the fabric of human history that were frayed and torn with the coming of monocultures and monotheisms. Perhaps being connected with nature, and realizing mankinds relationship with it, is natural. Maybe it is only through a subtle domestication that we yield that connection, and perhaps we can learn to feel it again. Unfortunately, to feel it again may take the end of the world as we know it.

Works Cited

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Krasskova, Galina. Runes: Theory and Practice. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books, 2010. Print.


Markale, Jean. The Celts: Uncovering the Mythic and Historic Origins of Western Culture. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International, 1993. Print.

Rolleston, T. W. Celtic Myths and Legends. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2007. Print.

Hollander, Lee M. The Poetic Edda. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962. Print.

“Western Europe: Southern England, United Kingdom.” World Wildlife Fund. World Wildlife Fund. Web. 21 Oct 2012.

“Western European Broadleaf Forests.” World Wildlife Fund. World Wildlife Fund. Web. 25 Oct 2012.