Probably one of the first things most people envision when they think of fairy tales, myths or even ancient legends is a deep, dark forest. Depending on the culture you might think of other dense pockets of nature too, whether a cave containing treasure, an oasis harboring the fountain of youth, a valley within which lies Shangri-la, or a jungle where intrepid heroes go in but never come out. Sometimes the nature is in a smaller package, it’s a single flower containing the power of the gods, a mythic tree of life or wisdom, an herb capable of granting eternal life, or a single apple promising forbidden knowledge.
Nature is a huge part of the mythic narrative no matter what part of the world you are in. Nature is a strange and mysterious mistress and stories from all over the world show her elements as magical, mythical and even legendary. What follows is a short book list that showcases books talking about the forests of the world in this context in one way or another. These books show nature’s mythical as well as very real abilities and the stories and legends that have sprung up surrounding the natural elements of our world.
While this book is not mythologically focused what it does is alphabetically go through a list of deadly plants and features a short essay about each one. These essays not only touch on the facts of the plant such as what it does, where it is found, and how it is used, but it also mentions any shining moments in history along with any myths or legends a particular plant plays a part in. The organization of the book is strictly alphabetical and not organized by category so if you are only interested in reading about flora in myth you will have to page through every one, but the book is fascinating and very light reading. This is a good non-fiction read for people who don’t like non-fiction and/or prefer their reading in bite-size chunks. Be prepared to become a bit neurotic when it comes to plants after you finish reading it, however.
Irish Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore by Niall Mac Coitir
In ancient Ireland, mythology and folklore were part of the general knowledge about each tree. This books gathers together the myths, legends, and folklore associated with the native Irish trees. The folklore has two main themes: the tree as a marker of important places such as royal site or holy well, and the role of different trees as source of magical power in folk customs and superstitions. Many themes are common to different trees, such as fertility, magical power, and the tree as a link between this world and the spiritual. Along with beautiful watercolors illustrating the different kinds of trees, the book features an Ogham tree calendar based on the early Irish alphabet and the ancient Celts’ lunar calendar that links the trees to the different months of that calendar.
The Forest in Folklore and Mythology by Alexander Porteous
This book is the one I credit with introducing me to forests in myth and legend. The book contains several stories, myths and legends about forests, sacred groves and even specific trees. The stories are summarized into brief, short paragraphs to give you a taste of the tale but there are well documented sources for all of them so it is easy to look up the full length legend if you are so inclined. The author also breaks off and talks about a forest’s magical denizens as well such as sprites, fairies or even witches. The book is not organized in any way so you go from one fairy tale, myth or legend to the next without much cohesiveness. It is a fascinating read though and a great way to be introduced to several stories about the forests of the world all at once.
Myths of the Sacred Tree by Moyra Caldecott
Protecting the earth is a universal theme and it is one that is brought to light in this next book in a very interesting way. In Myths of the Sacred Tree the author highlights myths from all over the world that celebrate the sacredness of nature, often in the form of a single divine tree. There are several page long (but often still truncated) summaries of the myth or legend in question accompanied by commentary picking out the threads that unite all of these stories into a cohesive, world-wide, centuries-old message about the preservation of nature. These myths either show nature being saved, nature being brought back from destruction or nature striking back in self-defense in stories from all over the world.
A Contemplation Upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth and Literature by Bobby J. Ward
My last selection focuses on flowers instead of trees but it’s a worthwhile side trip. The author lists 80 different types of flowers and talks about the various names each has had throughout history, its role in historical events and its practical uses. Each essay also includes name origins, symbolism, its meaning in the language of flowers and most importantly its magical or mythical stories and legends. Probably the best part of this book for a reader like myself are all the quotes and references in poems, literature and mythic writing throughout history. The author quotes work from ancient Greece straight through until Shakespeare and showcases each flower’s literary impact alongside its historical one.
While these books are a great start to forests in myth and legend they are just the tip of the iceberg. I have started a more thorough book list on GoodReads: Forests in Myth, Folklore and Fairy Tales. There you can find great collections of fairy tales, especially ones surrounding nature, like:
Have other recommended books about nature in folklore? Please share them! Especially if the titles are non-Europe centric which I realize is always hard to get away from in Western literature.