Natural features in the landscape that were recognized as having special energies or qualities attracted people; they became focal points of mythological and religious significance. These sites are found in most every culture and time, across the world.
Many of these sites have water as the predominant element. The town of Calistoga, California grew up around effervescent hot springs that were known for healing by many Native American tribes. The Virgin Mary was sighted at a water grotto in Lourdes France, which then became a site of pilgrimage; the holy water had a reputation for miraculous cures. The River Ganges in India is revered as the physical embodiment of the goddess Ganges. She prepared the dead for the afterlife by purifying their souls of negative karma. Smaller water features in the landscape have been known and visited by local people throughout time.
A sacred grove, forest or an individual tree can be of special significance as well. Many trees can be thousands of years old, as are the cultures that worshipped them. The Bodhi tree under which Buddha sat and realized enlightenment is one of the more famous, but there are many others. The banyan tree is clonal, having aerial roots that grow upward and eventually become accessory trunks - thought to represent eternal life. The massive, oddly shaped baobab tree (the “Tree of Life”) in Africa is thought to hold the spirits of the dead.
Aside from ghosts, fairies and other-worldly creatures can be found in some of these places. In 2008 the Healing School community dedicated an aspen grove to the fairies who lived there, with a ceremony marking the perimeter (humans not allowed in!). These enchanted places are still recognized and honored in Ireland and elsewhere.
This magical lore continues today with “the Tree of Soul” in the movie Avatar. “The Lord of The Rings” has several trees of significance – the “White Tree of Gondor” linked ancient civilizations together as one, ”Treebeard” in the forest of Fangorn was the oldest living creature in Middle Earth, and the Elves lived in the treetops of the forest Lorien.
Even today I often see a single Rowan tree (sometimes referred to as mountain ash) in the front of many houses; in Celtic times a Rowan was planted to protect the inhabitants of the home. Whether we know it or not, we still carry on many of these traditions.
The earliest spiritual practices were closely tied to earth-based religions, and these special places in nature are recounted in the folklore, culture, and art of all ancient civilizations. Next, we’ll explore how people have built structures on and around these significant places; churches, burial mounds, standing stones and more! Until next time