TLDR: the study of humans
(Science) + (humans) = anthropology
Ex. Ecology + humans = ecological anthropology: the study of humans adapting to their environment or changing the environment; or the relationship between a group of humans and their environment.
Ex. Medical + humans = medical anthropology: broadly defined as the study of human interactions in language, biology, culture, past and present to understand which factors affect the health and wellbeing of specific groups of people.
Ex. Neurology + humans = Neuroanthropology: broadly defined as the study of the relationship between culture and the brain (development, adaption, health, etc.).
We could do this all day.
Anthropology is divided into four main categories. These basic categories are what you can choose to study in school, and most professionals will describe themselves broadly in one of these four discipline areas:
Social/Cultural: The study of current, existing cultures
Archaeology: The study of past, pre-existing cultures based on artifacts
Linguistic: The study of language and communication, past and present
Biological/physical: Focused on biological and behavioral aspects of humans past and present (paleontology, primatology, forensic anthropology, etc. – this is where most “science + human =” anthropologies fit)
Again, we could go all day, but we won’t.
. . .
So let’s break it down
I had absolutely no idea what anthropology was, but I was looking for it when I got to college. I knew I wanted to study cultures, but I had no idea what that was. I went to a couple campus events for international business and others for foreign exchange programs, and none of them were what I was looking for. I had already declared a writing major, but I was being pressured by my counselor to pick a minor, which is dumb ‘cus this was the first semester of a four year sentence. But that’s its own rant for later.
So, I picked my gen-eds for the next semester, and one of the options was Ancient Civilizations. I was all about that, so I went for it, and when I finally got to the class, this crazy short guy with a little pudge belly and wild curly hair stood on a stage and talked and talked and talked, and sometimes, he pointed a laser at the class on accident (he was pretty funny, think Jack Sparrow plus Indiana Jones… weird, I know); he told me that archaeology was a part of anthropology and I was like WHAAAAAAAT…even is that?
And then I went to the campus library and googled it because I didn’t have a computer (stop your judging… stop it!). And that’s how I found what I wanted to do, declared my second major, and ensured that I was equally knowledgeable of random facts as I was completely unemployable!
Okay, not that unemployable, I got good grades. And I did a lot of random things on campus. But my counselor assured me that I would not find a job, and my parents urged me to try teaching instead, but I was like nah, because teachers are amazing and I am not (also, I really (REALLY) hate speaking in front of classes; I love tutoring, I hate teaching, and a teacher should love teaching). So, I read all of the super helpful (note: sarcasm) web pages about what an anthropologist does or can do. At the time, that was basically just Wikipedia and the American Anthropological Association, and a couple of other university websites listing what anthropologists do, urging you to get a B.A., but curiously, listing the careers of PhDs.
So, two things:
- You can’t do any actual anthropology with a Bachelor’s degree. You can be an adjunct professor with a Master’s, but you’re going to need that PhD to do any anthropolizing (fyi, that’s not a real word). BUT…
- Globalization happened (is happening?).
So what that means is that having anthropology on your resume/cv with an explanation about how you got your minor in learning about cultures around the world and are a great asset to company X because of your experience in diversity and human connections in a globalized economy is actually becoming a *gasp* desired quality! Which is awesome, because this way I am still a little employable.
Except I’m a self-employed editor and Jake is a researcher, so… it didn’t really matter in the end. But you’d think the world was ending with the amount of times people asked me my major and upon explaining it, their face got that pitying concern with the sad knowing nod and “oh…English and Anthropology…so what are you going to do with that?” and before I could offer any insight about my (possibly over ambitious) future goals, their eyes would widen and they would answer for me, always inevitably involving “work for National Geographic, maybe?” and the rest of the conversation would center around this other individual, generally a stranger or acquaintance I definitely didn’t know well enough to be having this conversation about all of my hopes and dreams with, coming up with potential ways I could be employed in the future, without bothering to understand what the hell anthropology even is, some even going waaaaaay past feasible (for me) into “oh, I know, an ambassador, they do that kind of thing” territory.
Ugh, whatever, ambitious ambassadors, you have my blessing. People are hard to get along with, and no matter how much I tried to kindly explain what exactly I was studying, and that observing people is much more of my strength than actually befriending them (though I do like that too), having entire international relationships sitting on my shoulders is not my idea of future goals (I can’t even deal with a classroom, what the hell lead them to ambassador is beyond me, but it happened. More than once).
I basically learned that “anthropology” is social code for “I like science, but my brain can’t do it well, so I settled” or “I just love people and I think I’m really unique,” depending on who I was (forcibly) talking to.
And that is so far from true. I rocked at A.P. Chemistry, and that’s saying a lot, because our teacher was awful at his job (sorry Brian). Also, I’m pretty generic (not to be confused with basic), so….
. . .
There are a couple reasons that I think/discovered society sees anthropology as… well, a sub-par science. I’ll try not to rant… too long.
1. Science vs. Humanities
With the emergence of our technological age, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs have found the spotlight. These are the programs driving progress, bringing us to a productive future, pushing us to the top of the world. But in the process of the technological revolution, there has been a separation of art and science, a rivalry even. Arts programs around the US were cut and unfunded, closed down, poof gone. And with this shift, there has been a very sad lack of understanding that art and science are not opposing forces, but one in the same, with art being emotional, and science being logical sides of the same coin. Science programs today are void of art and creativity, and we are seeing this as graduates enter the workforce, unable to think creatively or produce new things.
Einstein spoke a lot on the unification of art and science, and there are some beautiful words strung together amidst some variables and equations. The opposite is also true though, art also relies on science. Artists use measurements, angles, anatomy, color, technique, they are not mutually exclusive hemispheres of the brain, and seeing them this way has caused anthropology to fit… nowhere. But I think as we move forward, these ideas will continue to grow together in a technological society that is liberated enough to appreciate art.
(NOTE: I learned this the other day, and I’m sure plenty of people have thought about it, but I had never made the straight connection: they are called liberal arts degrees and disciplines because they are those that can only be utilized and appreciated by a liberated society. Without freedom, a writer cannot publish whatever they want, an artist cannot struggle on the fringes of society, and society alone cannot determine what is good. Therefore, the more liberated we are, the more prosperous and valuable our art is. Makes so much more sense now! But does it also go the other way? The more restricted and less free a society is, the more authentic an artist is?)
P.S. Fabian Oefner gets it.
2. Scientific Method vs. Anthropology
Anthropology doesn’t follow the scientific method because if you enter your research of an entire culture of human beings with a hypothesis, it is easy to manipulate data and fieldwork to prove a hypothesis is true, even if it may be entirely false. Biases are an anthropologist’s worst set back. Because anthropology does not follow the scientific method, which would risk the loss of all observations due to previous biases, it is often referred to as a “soft science” with more data-oriented sciences being deemed “hard science.”
However, this social stigma against observational science is derived from ideas of what anthropology is and how it differs from hard science. In Jake’s lab, they do an equal amount of observational sciences and experiments without hypothesis as I did in fieldwork. However, his results are measurable as “results,” while mine were measurable by data that required a little more creativity to understand and conclusions based on multiple sources and interpretations of data, rather than the straightforward and practically indisputable results of a well done lab report or experimental study that produces data, statistics, and measurable outcomes, not relationships, understanding, and connection to the larger world around us. Because of this, anthropology has come to be seen as unreliable, and in some cases, unnecessary.
3. Thanks Gov’ner
Florida Governor Rick Scott came forward during an interview to say that anthropology is unnecessary. His daughter studied anthropology…. So, Dad of the Year right there. But his ideology further illustrates the misunderstanding of what anthropology actually is – the ability to connect disciplines, and apply them to human interaction so that we can further understand a problem and develop a solution (also, people really don’t like him.
Here we are on a floating space rock; we have entered the proposed Anthropocene (Epoch of Humans), in which our globe is covered with about 8 billion humans, and a political figure head is saying that understanding these unique cultures and interactions of these humans in every aspect of the world is unnecessary?
This is the equivalent of saying “Oh, hey, our world has been overrun by robots, we are now their slaves, but you know, I really think engineering, mechanics, and robotics are overrated, we just don’t really need that many of them.” The only understanding I can really glean from this is that the Senator has no idea what anthropology is, and what it can do, and also that he likes the status quo, and fears that studying human interaction and influence will likely lead to big changes that will disrupt that status quo that he himself profits from. This sentiment is repeated throughout the sciences, and peer-reviewed journal world, so be prepared for the hate.
But actually, anthropological disciplines and uses have been skyrocketing. While a Master’s degree is basically useless in today’s market, other degrees in anthropology are growing a bit more valuable, with the 10-year-growth projection in the industry at a 19% increase by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Businesses are increasingly valuing individuals able to connect with their market. Because technology and social media are great, but they leave something to be desired in the personal-connection department, and our society is literally begging for connection. So we sell it to them. And anthropologists are really good at figuring out what the people want for businesses, a.k.a. corporate anthropology.
Okay, so that was a pretty bleak picture, but jobs in user experience research, market research, P.R., journalism, preparing for international meetings and events, and other international-based positions are looking for words like culture, and language skills, and connection, and network, on resumes to fill these empty seats, skills you get in, you guessed it, anthropology!
Also, Jake’s mom reminded us that the Baby-Boomers should start retiring soon, and then even more of these jobs will be open and waiting!
4. Specialists vs. Anthropologists
In a lot of research, anthropologists are combining and connecting information from multiple disciplines. They often call upon specialists to explain or provide data on larger specialized concepts. These specialists are taking their “hard” science and applying it to humanity, making their position that of an anthropologist, but they are often separated, by society and title, so that when an anthropologist publishes results, the data from the specialist is separated as “hard science” used to support the “soft science” of the anthropologist. Which not only takes away all of the hard work of both parties, but continues to disregard anthropology altogether. It credits the specialist only.
Which brings us to the other side of this situation, which is when an anthropologist publishes connections he or she made through research and literature review, only to be told that the conclusions are inadequate because there is no “hard” evidence. Again, this only credits the specialists providing the initial research and completely disregards the work of the anthropologist to understand correlations, patterns, observations, and other forms of data, while maintaining an open and unbiased perspective and understanding that correlation does not equal causation.
Sometimes, a specialist will be doing anthropology in their own research, applying their “hard” science to people, but he or she will avoid referencing their work as anthropological, for whatever reason. This leaves a lot of well-done anthropological research misclassified as its specialty science. Which also means that anthropologists (or, let’s be real, anthro students) have to be really good at finding research in other fields.
One time, I had to leaf through a biology and anatomy journal to find an article about social views of plastic surgery in China. But that’s okay, because I also learned a lot about how much I hate biology and anatomy journals! Just kidding, they’re not awful, but really, how many ways are there to draw a foot? (Jake says infinite…. Ugh, I googled it and I think he’s right. Stupid anatomy).
5. Complex (racist/ethnocentric and relatively recent) History
While anthropology isn’t really new, it is not a traditional science that was dappled with in the middle ages, because, well, there wasn’t really a need for it. Who cared why a culture on the other side of the planet held contests to see who could jump higher? Or that a small group of people somewhere really far away were mutating a plant on accident. Or that 20 miles south of your village lived a pack of hippogryphs.
No one. No one cared.
Because no one would ever see them, hear them, or smell them. Unless there was a big adventurous journey involved, or someone was eaten by said hippogryphs.
Cultural differences simply didn’t matter until humans started to trade on a global scale and the age of exploration commenced (also known as the age of my-way-is-better-than-yours). This means that anthropology’s history is not as long as say chemistry, and the little quips along the way (like alchemy) happened relatively recently, and racism was a bias embedded in anthropologists during this time.
Not that that is okay!
But, while today we can read the chemistry of alchemists and laugh and say “wow, they were so silly with their magic and elements to gold and philosopher’s stones,” because we assume that today we know more than they did then, when we read older anthropology, it feels more like: “oh…wow…that’s really racist… and stereotypical…this is really uncomfortable… wow, he just said all women are stupid, okay…oh, and everyone who isn’t white is stupid…oh wow this sucks…I’m just going to stop reading now.”
And this history of modernism in anthropology and the idea that an anthropologist can find a solid Truth is how a lot of society sees anthropology – that my opinion as an anthropologist will determine solid facts about your culture. However, through the post-modern era of the literature, which was also rough, that ideology has changed to a perspective of finding multiple truths (note the lower case t) that are not absolute, but based on observational and experiential data.
You can read about the history of anthropological schools of thought on the internet, in a class, or maybe I’ll write about it sometime, but for now, just know that anthropology has evolved into a much more complex understanding of human interaction and societies as a whole.
. . .
The understanding now is much more intricate, and for me, I understand it best like this:
In my brain, I have my own experiences that I have gone through. My brain stores these experiences for the future, to protect me against dangers, to find food again, to learn about the world and use the information later to my survival advantage. All of my judgements and understandings of the world are based on what I have experienced as a person – we are made to be judgmental, it’s how we survived and evolved in harsh environments, and how we are now able to experience both generational and social learning. But if I see another culture through this, I will superimpose all of my thoughts, opinions, and carefully experienced judgements onto my observations, which will flaw my understanding of my own observations.
So, I have a switch. If I am trying to perceive something as an anthropologist, I first have to flip this switch. I have to turn off all of my judgements, all of my perceptions, assumptions, thoughts, all of it. Off. And then I can see an observation more clearly. However, I must first be aware of my biases, experiences, and judgements and how I got them before I could turn them off.
So, this could easily dwindle into a conversation about philosophy and suffering, and even religion if you will, but, basically, we all suffer in many different ways, and we have to come to terms with our suffering and its repercussions on our mind and body (and probably soul) before we can even begin to comprehend or observe the sufferings and enlightenments of others. This may sound a bit preachy, but there is a reason phrases like “don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes” are so prominent in so many cultures.
I would also argue an amendment to this phrase, to fit modern anthropology, so that it goes more like: Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes, and after you have done this, still do not judge this man, only understand how his shoes are different than your shoes, and why you may each be suited to different paths and decisions because of this.
But, to do this, you have to understand your own shoes.
This is why most anthropologists would travel somewhere far away, to look at a culture that is extremely different from their own, as an outsider, because they would have no prior knowledge or biases of these people. This allows them to compare a completely unseen shoe without any prior knowledge, to their own cultures.
BUT, that seems a bit… wrong now, because, again, globalization and the internet have given us access to just about the entire globe. I know that’s a pretty bold statement, and that internet users are a very select population, but it is really hard to find a shoe you’ve never heard of before, that you’ve had NO interaction with or reference to. Even the most remote areas are getting recorded on Google Maps, and allegedly running off modern tourism with arrows (can you blame them?).
This idea of anthropology only working with such “unique” cultures also operates under the idea that far away cultures are strange and isolated and that makes them interesting. To me, the idea of going so far away to look at a strange place is now irrelevant. You can’t do it without making those people look stranger to your audience, and that is not what the world needs, nor the goal of anthropology.
I had an amazing professor who explained that the purpose of anthropology is to step out of your world and into a new one, to build connection, and overall, to deliver a message back to your own culture that makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange, creating an equality of perspectives that allows a pure connection of understanding.
So instead of a culture of my-way-is-better-that-yours, we begin to ask why do I even do X, and oh, that’s an interesting other way to do X, why do they do X that way?
Since we’re already talking about shoes, here’s an equally entrancing metaphor: why do [American] brides even wear a fancy white dress (generally) on their wedding day?
But check out some interesting other ways brides dress on their wedding day:
(NOTE: I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the fashion in this video, or how often traditional dress is worn in each country; especially because it seems that at the end of most K-dramas, “the girl” is wearing a short cute white dress that I personally associate more with “prom” than “wedding,” not a Hanbok (also, Eat Your Kimchi explain more realistically), BUT my friend recently married a Korean man and they had a traditional ceremony with his family, in which she did have a custom-made Hanbok given to her by his mom, so, there’s that.)
What I’m saying is that I really don’t think we have to go to faraway places, to study a “primitive” people and compare them to our current understanding of our own civilization. I think this is an old notion of anthropology, a stigma we still have to shake academically and socially. I think we can comment on our own cultures, on those we are somewhat familiar with, as long as we understand our biases, acknowledge them, and do our best to put them away and interpret around them. I think that is actually the most important part of anthropology and why it is so significant: we need connection and understanding in our world.
I think the Governor was right in that the travel-faraway-and-study-an-unknown-group-of-people kind of anthropology is becoming exceedingly unnecessary. We don’t need Indiana Jones or Lara Croft anymore (while we are all secretly hoping to be that awesome, statistics show that exactly 0% of us will ever get there…that’s a lie, no one has bothered with statistics about that specifically, *sigh* I suppose in that case, we can still hope/criticize their lack of anthropolizing (still not a word)).
We need people to understand the differences in the ever growing smaller groups of people. We need more people to be culture translators without agendas. We need people to go between groups, mediate understanding, find reason, and dispel ignorance. And these people are anthropologists, and they should be distributed through every industry, and represent different cultures (not just western ones). That is why we need anthropology.
So understanding yourself, where you came from, why you think the way you do, and asking these questions of others, is basically anthropology.
And we think everyone should be trying to think a little bit like this every day.
. . .
Really. Everyone should do this. Everyday.
Because at the center of racism, behind the history, and classism, and hatred, is ignorance. And behind every war and disagreement is misunderstanding and lack of compromise is also ignorance. Trying to understand why someone would do something, why they would value something different, is, I think, a human right, because otherwise, you operate under the assumptions of ethnocentrism and xenophobia, saying your culture is in the right in all things and others are wrong simply because you do not acknowledge or understand the differences.
Ignorance is not bliss, it is destruction.
But to educate ignorance, we have to set down our pride and establish an understanding of it. And this understanding, from my experience, goes both ways. We have to ask questions, all the time, even when they may be a little uncomfortable, an open mind goes a long way. However, I do believe it is also our individual responsibility to claim our own ignorance. Curiosity and ignorance are not the same thing, and there are many ways to ask questions and learn today, especially with the internet. We also have to be patient and offer answers to ignorant questions, not blame or attack or anger. Just truth, our truth. The questions we ask, we also have to feel comfortable answering from our own truths. In this way, we can trade understandings, safely; we can see each other’s shoes.
So every day, just for a couple minutes, I challenge you (and myself) to try and think about why you think something the way you do, or do something they way you do, or what habits you’ve formed throughout you life because of interactions or expectations you’ve had and formed over time. What experience made you who you are, good and bad. And slowly, as you find more answers, ask these questions of others in your life.
It is hard. Jake and I do it to each other all the time, and sometimes the other person has answers about you that you’re not ready to hear yet, or they call you out for applying your judgements when you’re already having a bad day, and just wanted to vent. But just starting to think like an anthropologist can begin connecting the world in more than economics and (hopefully) climate change efforts.
. . .
So what ideas do you have about anthropology as an art or science, as a part of society; do you think it’s necessary? What observations have you noticed about yourself? What patterns have you seen in your own culture and what do you think they mean?
Let us know in the comments!
A (Very) Brief History
Trees. They are tall, generally leafy, mostly green and brown, sometimes more colorful. They are old. Like, really old. And Beautiful! They create our natural skyline.
They have a pretty intense history written in their rings. Each year, a new ring of bark forms around the tree, scientists who study these rings (dendrochronology) can tell how old a tree was and how much rain watered the earth for any of those years the tree lived:
Trees are pretty cool.
There are “Old-Growth Forests,” which are areas of forest that are at least 10 acres large and more than 120 years old. These places on earth are patches of ancient history, like the giant redwoods and sequoias of California, ancient trees around the world hide and reveal the diverse history of the planet!
These historical giants are amazing!
(Sequoia National Park, 2015)
The Theory of Evolution asks many questions about how organisms (like trees) have grown, adapted, and changed over time. Some theories say they haven’t really changed all that much, while others map out a complex and ancient family history for our modern trees, and still others continue to ask further questions about our current perspective and answers provided by science.
An ongoing online project called the Tree of Life is working on categorizing all organisms in one large taxonomy database in order to track evolution and change in organisms, including trees, and help scientists make connections across disciplines. You can explore this databases using this tool.
. . .
So, all in all, trees have grown and changed, adapted to our modern world, just as humans have. But probably the most notable moment
in tree history, is the start of mass deforestation. The history of deforestation goes back well before our modern machines. European forests were decimated by the timber trade and logging movements in the 1700s and the conifer trees planted in their place are not nearly as effective at cooling the planet as their broad-leafed predecessors.
Though scientists continue to debate the extent that different trees and types of forests have on the environment (for example, some say that the conifer forests of Europe don’t play a large role in climate change), most agree that our environment is messed up enough to warrant international talks about what we can do to save ourselves.
. . .
Trees are immensely useful! They give us wood for fire and shelter, they provide medicines, and nourishments with saps, fruits, nuts; they are a large part of the ecosystem, and bring us animals, and air! We get so much out of trees!
Basically, no trees = no humans.
And ironically, a lot of the post-apocalyptic images we see include nature taking over places we have pushed it out of, plants regaining their land like a people conquered returning home.
What Science is Finding
Currently, new science is coming out almost daily as researchers challenge our perspective on trees, our environment, and the flora that surround us. Recently, a study found that new forests will not be able to keep up with carbon emissions as well as expected. In 2014, researchers discovered the “Wood Wide Web,” a communication highway between plants made of fungi, allowing them to communicate, share nutrients, and destroy unwanted plants. In 2013, scientists reopened the case of talking trees. In a world ready to ask bigger questions, researchers were able to genuinely return to the question of plant communication without being laughed out of the lecture hall with guffaws at the thought of trees able to do anything but be used as a natural resource. So far, they have found that trees can and do communicate warnings about bugs or disease to one another. Researchers have also found that plants respond to the sounds of being eaten!
In the more artistic side of science, American artist and professor at Syracuse University in New York, Sam Van Aken, has grafted 40 different fruits onto a single tree, which he has named the Tree of 40 Fruit. This unique tree is pushing the science and history of grafting further than expected.
Beyond hard science and experimental art, there are even several proposals and theories of plant psychology. Researchers are looking at not only outward communication among trees, but inward individual identity and perceptions of plants.
Trees and Humans
But further beyond their own psychology, plants, and trees in particular, are known to greatly affect humans. I had a climbing tree when I was a kid. It was a catalpa, and I cried when they cut it down the same way I cried when my dog died. It was so much a part of my childhood, so much a part of myself, that the thought of someone killing it because they wanted more space in their yard astounded me. So maybe I was young and naïve, and wanted my own Giving Tree*. But it turns out that, beyond the hippie stereotypes, yoga marketing, and strange American health fads, trees are an important part of healthy human psychology.
The newest "hippie fad" is called earthing or grounding. Our brains and bodies communicate through electrical charges (cough *cylons* cough) and these charges can build up, so like any electrical appliance, sometimes we need a grounder, and the Earth happens to be great for that! The problem is that we wear mostly rubber shoes, which don’t allow those electrical charges to be released. It’s still in the early days of actual research, but if you’re feeling down or overwhelmed or lonely (any dominantly negative emotion), try walking around barefoot outside for a couple minutes on the earth (not sidewalk cement or asphalt, but grass or dirt) and see if you feel more grounded after a while. I hate shoes, so I actually do this a lot on accident and can’t say whether there was a difference. But Jake was trying it for a little while whenever he was feeling particularly anxious, and he said he felt a little more relaxed, but as a scientist, he can in no way make a single correlation when there are so many factors that may play a role (fresh air, openness, cool ground, bright colors of blue sky and green ground, moving around in general, stepping away from the computer, etc.). However, putting all these factors together made it a good practice and he did feel better and less anxious. You can also try non-rubber/non-plastic shoes, such as leather soled moccasins* (support local Native American artists and designers if you can), leather soled dress shoes (like Oxfords*), cotton soled shoes* used mostly in martial arts, woven sandals, or cork shoes without rubber. While these materials are more environmentally friendly, there are several other problems in how they are manufactured, so be careful what you purchase; I’ve been told the best way is to just go barefoot. If you give it a try, let us know if it helps or if you notice any changes!
The tranquil quality of trees is not a new concept. For centuries, trees have been known to calm the human mind, and more recently, science has caught up with human intuition (or tradition, or whatever else you would attribute our uncanny ability to just know what’s good for us), proving that trees do help us heal faster, and calm us down. Trees and parks are being shown to calm fatigue and energize stressed adults while soothing excited children. In color psychology, in general (very general, based on societal perception vs. actual psychological science), green is known as a warm and calming color, equated with nature, balance, growth, and tranquility; the color reflects these memories and social perceptions of peace back to the human (especially with the current green branding movement), which allows for a double effect of the color in nature. And trees are green (in case you forgot).
Mothers have found solace in sending their enraged teens to wilderness camps where they find a sense of belonging. Teens in wilderness camps come home with a new definition of humanity and nature, and essentially a new identity of themselves. However, nature, particularly forests, are becoming exceedingly difficult for people to access and experience (especially teens and children) and this difficulty to reach nature is being linked to numerous psychological problems, from gamer addiction, to obesity, to people feeling out of place in their lives. Psychologists are even analyzing the forest’s role in our ability to lose time and to stand in a moment of transcendence that connects us to the world, which is becoming more important in our hurried and rushed society of advertising, business, technology, and minimal access to the natural world.
History Importance in Culture
So, obviously trees are pretty important and our knowledge of them is constantly growing, but what did our own ancestors think of them?
For most peoples of the world in the past (and many today), trees represented something great, holy, supernatural, a connection to a larger universe, and a symbol of the world. Trees represent all four elements that allow humans to survive: their leaves reach to the sky, filled with air, their roots reach to the earth, filled with the ground; their trunks fill with water and their branches often hold snow, and their wood not only starts fires, but keeps them burning.
Trees also represent seasons, bringing or predicting change, and providing shelter for humans and their prey, as well as providing fruits and nuts. Trees are pretty much a natural survival kit.
Because of their symbolism and intense reliability to our ancestors, similar views of trees are shared by numerous cultures around the world. Trees have played a huge role in human survival, and that is reflected in mythologies and historic religions, and interestingly enough, the message is generally the same around the world: trees are huge and they help us survive…and that makes them awesome.
One idea that is particularly prevalent is the idea of a world tree. This idea takes several forms, but the symbolism is the same, a tree that creates the circle of life, whether it illustrates multiple worlds, as the Norse Yggdrasil or a continuation of life, death, and rebirth as the Celtic tree of life, or a tree of knowledge in a holy garden that causes mortality to the consumer. There are several mythological trees and real live ones that hold importance, and they are pretty awesome.
A Couple of Awesome Trees
The Tree of Life:
The tree of Life is generally a tree that was created by a divine being and is the cause of man’s mortality. Often it is housed in a paradise garden/world and the man, led by the woman (generally, or the woman by herself), ends up somehow unable to return to the place, thereby making the man and woman both mortal. There is often a serpent involved, as well as a divine creator.
In 4th millennia Mesopotamia, while writing was leading the Bronze Age and Gilgamesh was defending his god-king status, the Babylonians drew a tree standing in the middle of the universe. The Assyrians and Sumerians had similar stories of a sacred tree at the center of the universe. The Sumerians believed that their gods lived in a divine garden, the Garden of the Gods, and when the Babylonians conquered them, this idea grew into their culture as well. Over time, this idea has spread over the world. Abrahamic religions believe in a garden as well, referred to as the Garden of Eden, where there was a tree known as The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (there is some debate whether this and the Tree of Life are the same), which gave anyone who consumed its fruit the knowledge of the universe. This tree was off limits to the occupants of the garden, but they were tempted by the serpent, ate the fruit and were kicked out. This same story is recorded in the Qur’an, but with many subtle differences that make man and woman equally at fault for their fall from the heavenly paradise. But, as with any religion and mythology, each group of people has their own views and traditions about the truth they believe in and follow.
Michaelangelo, Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil on Sistine Chapel (1508-1512)
The mysterious Hisham’s Palace (one of several ruins in the area of Jordan classified as a desert castle, built somewhere between 660 and 750 CE by ruling caliphs), is near the Biblical site of Jericho. In the audience room of the bath house is a beautiful floor mosaic of what has been called the Tree of Life.
In Mesoamerica, archaeologists discovered a stela (an upright rock or column with a relief or carving depiction, often a grave marker) in 1941, dating back to over 300BCE with depictions of what seems to be a creation myth involving a tree, known as Izapa Stela 5. This stone has
been used to support the Book of Mormon as well as other theories that the Olmec people may have originated from Africa. Though some argue that the Stela has been manipulated to
represent our modern tales of the Tree of Life and that it is actually a depiction of a blood sacrifice, passing down of tradition, or some other daily task with the tree serving an ornamental purpose and the “heaven” and “earth” being ornamental boarders.
Trees have been found on many archaeological artifacts, and each one is seemingly representing a tree of life, according to modern archaeologists. Is this because many religions share the ideology of a tree of life or central tree of knowledge? Or is this because the culture discovering these artifacts has such a reverence and nostalgia for the idea, that we are actually overlaying our own views of religion and mythology atop artifacts and history that may or may not represent a sacred tree? Are we truly unbiased as we uncover the past?
Other archaeological finds of preserved tree art are continually equated to that of a tree of life by amateurs and professionals alike. Ancient mythologies are often complex and adapted to fit specific groups based on their conditions and trials as a people (as are modern ones).
However, most preserved artifacts are considered important academically because 1) we have very few to study, and 2) because for an item to survive for thousands of years, there is generally an attributed importance to it. Though most experts retain their skepticism before giving any one artifact the power of providing too much information about a culture that may turn out to be a bias or guess of the researchers, many of these ancient artifacts are connected by the appearance of a central carefully crafted and designed motif of a tree.
The Sumerians are said to have recorded a tree of life in their mythology with some stories telling how the gods used the tree to create man, and many claim an ancient Sumerian clay tablet is a depiction of the tree of life.
The Hittites also are said to have a tree of life. Finding these artifacts certainly does help solidify the mythologies and stories that have been orally preserved or passed down through religion, mythology, legend, or conquest. Could they all link to a common religious truth, or do they simply illustrate the importance of, and a dependence on, trees by humanity across the globe?
This petroglyph is hidden in the San Rafael Swell of Arizona, USA. Many suggest it is a tree of life story recorded by Native Americans. Many Native American traditions have similar legends a tree of life, (the Cherokee Galunlati, the Iroquois, and the Souix), though the stories are much different in tone than those of the Mesopotamian, they generally involve a tree of life, a curious woman, a man following her, and them becoming mortal together, sometimes a serpent as well, though a Creator often takes care of them out of love as they travel the earth.
Similarly, in Micronesian mythology, there is a divine garden where humans live. Men and women are separated under separate trees, and one day, in the guardian Na Kaa’s absence, the men and women mingled, after they were warned not to, under one tree. When Na Kaa returned, he told them the bad news – the tree they had chosen was the tree of death, and thus, humans became mortal.
Even the Egyptians are said to have a tree of life, called the sacred Ished tree, as portrayed and preserved in myth and art, like the relief of Ramesses II in the Temple of El-Derr, rumored to be heralded in front of the tree of life.
Chinese legends tell of the immortal tree, bearing peaches, it is in the holy garden of the Queen Mother, Xi Wan Mu.
Terrence Malick even made a (very experimental/philosophical) movie out of it with Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, and Jessica Chastain, called the Tree of Life, that questions the origins of the universe through a man’s memories of his childhood in 1950s Texas, interspersed with beautiful cinematography and galactic imagery that was well received (though not by all).
The tree of life is definitely the most popular tree metaphor/motif in American culture, but it is not by far the only one in the world.
The Sky-High tree is often seen as a kind of tree of life, often connecting our world to that of the heavens, growing as high as the sky, and in most cases, actually holding up the sky so that we may live in this world without getting crushed by the heavens.
In Kiribati mythology, Uekera is a tree that reaches the heavens, but is also known as the tree of knowledge or the tree of life. The idea of a tree reaching to the heavens is well versed as well!
Perhaps the most well-known tale in America of a sky-high tree is the children’s story of Jack and the Beanstalk, the story of a boy who grows a bean stalk that grows through the sky; he climbs it to find a giant living in the clouds, steals the giants chicken/goose who lays golden eggs, and then cuts down the beanstalk before the giant can get him. This is supposedly where the whole Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum thing comes from.
But the myths are much older than an English bedtime story. The Hungarian folk stories have the oldest recorded story of a sky-high tree, known as the égig érő fa.
Only the táltosok (Shaman’s) are allowed to wander the tree’s branches to other layers of the sky, to heaven or Hell (different tales/traditions refer to different worlds and other religious tradition). This idea was prevalent throughout Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, as well as some southeastern Asian cultures. Turkish tradition also includes a tree reaching up to the heavens (also classified as a world tree). Sometimes this tree is known as a tree of life or a world tree, though often the myths refer to it holding up the sky, or having multiple layers of the earth.
The Persians called on the Saena tree to tell their creation story as a tree that held up the heavens and whose leaves birthed the first plants. The Saena tree could also be classified as a world tree, depending on legend. The Zoroastrians believed a frog (again, similar to a serpent), gnaws at the roots of the tree, the evil trying to destroy the order of the world.
Much like many Sky-high Tree myths, the world tree has layers, but rather than being the base of the tree and climbing up from our world, viewers of the World Tree see our current world to be in the middle of the tree, looking up toward the heavens, or the gods, or simply other worlds geographically above ours, and down toward hell, or the dead, or other worlds geographically below ours. Most religions that follow this thought see these worlds as connected by the tree, metaphorically or literally. There are many world trees and world-tree metaphors, even among people who do not see it as a religious symbol.
An Epic poem of the Italian Renaissance, The Divine Comedy* (1308-1320 CE) by Dante Alighieri could be set up to allude to a similar world tree system, with Hell (Inferno) below our world, Purgatory (Purgatorio) amidst our world, and Heaven (Paradiso) above.
But there are many more famous trees that are actual trees, here are a few that fit the World Tree system:
Yggdrasil is the Norse World Tree. It was hugely important to native Norse and Germanic tribes across Europe pre-Roman colonization. The tree was represented in different ways according to geography (generally, the tallest or most venerated trees in the area were called the world tree, whether that was an Ash or an Oak or a Conifer depended on region), and often actual trees or tree groves were used to symbolize man’s connection to the universe through the tree.
The Poetic Edda (an adapted collection of old Norse poems* originating in the Codex Regius, or Royal Book discovered in Iceland, often accompanied by the Prose Edda*, a series of manuscripts written by Snorri Sturluson around 1220) gives a description of Yggdrasil:
An ash I know,
Yggdrasil its name,
With water white
is the great tree wet;
Thence come the dews
that fall in the dales,
Green by Urth's well
does it ever grow.
(Stanza 19, V. I: VOLUSPO)
(There is also a Rhyming translation.)
Some (most) legends told of the water that fed Yggdrasil being a sort of fountain of youth, with some roots going to a sacred spring, and others to Urd’s Well, though there are many versions of each story, and these are all generalizations.
Native groups would often mimic this set up in temples and town centers, building wells under the protection of their central world tree. Whether they believed they created a world tree, a direct connection to the gods, or actually worshiped the trees by doing this, we don’t know. It is very possible that these groups simply reflected and honored their tradition by building a mimic of the universe they believed in.
Ironically, more often than not, these trees and groves were treated with the same kind of respect the Roman Christians showed their own wooden crosses, and had similar stories of Thor (or Donar, or Jove, or other names according to regional dialect and tradition), being a son of a greater god-king (Odin, Wodan, etc.), coming to Earth, and in some way saving humanity before returning home. Seems eerily similar to Christianity, no?
But when the Holy Roman Empire’s Christian missionaries began converting the regions, they recorded these people as savage pagans, worshipping trees. In the 8th Century (723-724 CE) Willibald’s work Life of St. Boniface* tell how the local Germanic/Norse tribe venerated an Oak as Donar’s Oak. The tree represented a sacred place for the god’s, specifically Thor, to communicate with them, where they gathered to worship their gods (not the tree itself…probably). Again, in the name of irony, Boniface, cried blasphemy, condemned the pagans, cut down their ancient oak, and built a church from the timber (a sacred place for their god, to communicate with Him, and gather to worship). This is why he was sainted. Because he cut down the pagan tree.
And then they kill him.
Okay, moving on.
The Ceiba Tree is the Mayan world tree. The Ceiba (the yaxché) holds together the worlds of Cab, Kaán, and Xibalbá, with the long vines that hang from the tree illustrating the soul’s journey back to the earth, much those myths of the Celtic Tree holding together the stages of life, death, and rebirth (though this is a modern understanding and interpretation of artifacts based on surviving culture and tradition, all of which are, as we said before, generalizations). The myths of the Ceiba tree are as complex and numerous as the Norse myths of Yggdrasil, varying by community and oral tradition. Sometimes referred to as the Tree of Life and respected as such, with records of Mayan civilizations building settlements around a central Ceiba tree to illustrate their place in the center of the tree. Other legends regale the Ceiba as a sky-high tree, holding up the sky, its strength allowing humans to live in the world without being squashed by the gods
East Asian World Trees are also recorded. Again, there are many different stories, but some Mongolian myths tell of a dragon sitting at the base of the tree (very similar to the Tree of Life stories of a snake occupying the tree), representing strength and power (rather than manipulation). Other Chinese legends also tell of the Jianmu tree, a world tree with a canopy in heaven, a trunk in the center of our earth (some stories say this is where a paradise garden is), and can only be climbed by Fu Xi, who crosses between worlds. In some stories, Fu Xi and Nü Wa are the first humans to emerge from the tree, in other stories, they are gods who birth humans, and in still others, Fu Xi is the only one who can cross the tree-bridge between worlds and communicate between the humans and gods.
The Pipal/Bodhi Tree is in the Indus Valley region, many seals have been discovered, several found in Mohenjo-Daro, dating back to around 2500 BCE, display a Pipal tree. This is often considered to be a depiction of a tree of life by many. The Pipal tree was a sacred tree, considered the seat of the gods, and often considered to be inhabited by gods, able to come and go from our world through its branches. These qualities make it more similar to a world tree than a tree of life, though archaeologists are still piecing together details of the Indus Valley civilization.
This tree is known by many names and to many religions of southeast Asia. It is often worshiped/respected because (like the other world trees) in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, it connects the worlds, or at least man to a god/gods.
The tree is known as:
Science: Ficus religiosa or sacred fig
Sanskrit: अश्वत्थः aśvatthaḥ
Hindi: Peepal – पीपल
Bengali: অশ্বথ: ashwath or পিপুল: pipul
Tamil: அரசு, அரச மரம் arasa maram (King’s Tree)
Punjabi: pippal / پپل
Nepali: पीपल: peepal/pipal
Burmese: ဗောဓိပင်: Bodhi pin
Urdu: peepal پیپل
NOTE: Sometimes this tree is also called a Banyan tree. Scientifically, the Banyan is different, it fits in the subgenre of Urostigma, as do some F. Religiosa, but not all, as they are different species of the same genus. However, socially, the term Banyan has come to refer to any fig that is considered a “straggler fig,” using another tree as its base. The Banyan trees have their own significance in Hindu and Buddhist culture and religion, but they are not world trees, and often the mix up is made by Westerners.
From the Aswatha Vruksha Stotram (Stotram is the Sanskrit word for an ode, eulogy, or poetic song or hymn of praise).
My salutations to the king of trees.
Whose root is the form of Brahma,
Middle is the form of Lord Vishnu,
And top is the form of Lord Shiva.
It is also mentioned in the In Bhagavadh Gita* (Ch 15.1-3):
- The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: It is said that there is an imperishable banyan tree [in some copies*: tree of Transmigration, the Asvattha tree everlasting] that has its roots upward and its branches down and whose leaves are the Vedic hymns. One who knows this tree is the knower of the Vedas.
- The branches of this tree extend downward and upward, nourished by the three modes of material nature. The twigs are the objects of the senses. This tree also has roots going down and these are bound to the fruitive actions of human society.
- The real form of this tree cannot be perceived in this world. No one can understand where it ends, where it begins, or where its foundation is. But with determination one must cut down this strongly rooted tree with the weapon of detachment. Thereafter one must seek that place from which, having gone, one never returns, and there surrender to that Supreme Personality of Godhead from whom everything began and from whom everything has extended since time immemorial.
In Buddhism, the Buddha was believed to achieve enlightenment beneath this tree, and so Buddhists refer to it as a Bodhi tree, meaning a tree of enlightenment.
At the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, the Sri Maha Bodhi tree sits at the site where the Buddha gained enlightenment and is said to be a descendant of the original tree. For a tree to be a Bodhi, it must be traced back to the original tree that the Buddah sat beneath.
Often, Trees of Life, Sky-High Trees, and especially World Trees, with their cosmic connection, are used as wishing trees. Prayers, wishes, and garlands are hung in them with the hope that the gods or heavens will grant the wish or answer the prayer. The tradition of a maypole is said to have started with similar pagan traditions of wishing trees, celebrating their world tree beliefs with decorations and prayers of fertility decorating the tree and small groves. Over time, this tradition, with the synthesis of Christianity, began to represent and celebrate the fertility of spring, cutting down a tree and erecting (hah, pun intended) the maypole, still celebrating fertility, until it adapted to the maypole tradition we know today.
In much the same way as the maypole, the Christmas tree was a tradition already practiced by pagans, as the winter solstice equivalent to the maypole celebration. Initially a tree was decorated in the forest, then later brought into the house, and eventually adapting to and synthesizing with the Christian celebration.
The Banyan tree is often used as a wishing tree. Its story is sometimes used to illustrate that the earth was created from nothing, like the tree is created out of the seed, to show children that strong and powerful things can grow from seemingly nothing, locals believe that the roots extend through the earth, connecting to every part of it. In Lam Tseun, locals tossed their joss paper wishes into the tree tied to oranges, believing that the higher branches, being closer to heavens, made one’s wish more likely to come true.
The Kalpariksha tree is a divine wish-granting tree (some sources say this is connected to the Pipal tree of life, depending, like all others, on regional tradition), important in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.
Trees are pretty cool, and important. They are seen throughout the world to represent the Axis Mundi (like any large tall thing…mountains, and trees are pretty prominent representations of the axis of the world.). Trees are seen as Omphalos, a linking spot from heavens to earth, like the navel (belly button) from mother to child, these kinds of stories are found throughout the ancient and modern world. Connecting mortals to gods above, and dead below, an original tree bringing humans to the world, there are many common themes in these stories. They are all beautiful images.
What tree stories have you heard? Did you grow up hearing legends or myths or religious stories about any of these trees? Do you have any new trees to add?
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The following is a list of sources providing information used in this article:
Sacred Narrative: Readings in the theory of myth* edited by Alan Dundes
Chinese Mythology: An Introduction* by Anne Birrell
Sacred Trees: Spirituality, Wisdom & Well-Being* by Nathaniel Altman
The Meaning of Trees: Botany, History, Healing, Lore* by Fred Hageneder
Tree of Salvations: Yggdrassil and the Cross in the North* by G. Ronald Murphy
Micronesian Legends* by Nancy Bo Flood, et al.
Plant Myths and Traditions in India* by Shakti M. Gupta
The Holy Himalayas: An Abode of Hindu Gods* by Shantha M. Nair
A Natural History of Trees in Eastern and Central North America* by Donald Peattie, et al.
The Tree of Life: An Archaeological Study* by E.O. James
Cherokee Myths and Legends: Thirty Tales Retold* by Terry L. Norton
Aztec & Maya: The Complete Illustrated History* by Charles Phillips
Thematic Guide to World Mythology* by Lorena Laura Stookey
Handbook of Chinese Mythology* by Lihui Yang, et al.
Chinese Myths and Legends* by Lianshan Chen
A History of Pagan Europe* by Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick
Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan* by Clement A. Miles
The Shaman's Daughter* by Nicki Royall Peet