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As might be expected of a group of plants that have provided a wealth of beneficial products, which have significantly enhanced the quality of life of human societies world-wide, conifers have played an important role in human culture. They have been the subjects of folklore and mythology. Conifers have also served as political and religious symbols and have played a prominent role in art.


Conifers, especially pines, have been a subject of the folklore and mythology of many cultures. Examples are described in the following paragraphs.

According to an ancient Greek legend, the forests and glades of Greece were home to nymphs and dryiads and of many minor male gods including Pan. Among the nymphs was Pitys, whose duty was to tend pine trees. She had a lover, Boreas, god of the north wind. Boreas was a big, burly fellow, quite different from the happy, flute playing Pan. Pitys flirted with both Pan and Boreas. One day, Boreas asked Pitys what was going on between her and Pan. Her reply was evasive. In the quarrel that followed, Boreas seized Pitys and tossed her against a rocky ledge. Instantly she was turned into a pine tree. The resin droplets often seen on the wounded limbs of a pine tree broken by the wind are said to be tear drops shed by Pitys when she thinks of her youth, her lover Boreas and, most likely, of Pan. The pine species Pinus pityusa, of the Black Sea region, (synonym - P. brutia) commemorates this legend (Mirov and Hasbrouck 1976).

The pine tree was sacred to Zeus and an attribute to Serapis. It was beloved of virgins. The Pinea corona was the emblem of virginity, which Daphne took from Chloe and placed on her own head. In ancient Rome, the chaste Diana was crowned with a chaplet of pine. Because pine was so important and sacred, the Roman poet Ovid referred to pine branches as cut from arbore pura, a pristine tree. The pole of Bacchus is described by Roman writers as an inflammable and fragrant pine pole (Mirov and Hasbrouck 1976).

In an ancient Phrygian legend, Attis, lover of Cybele, the mother of gods, was changed into a pine tree after his death. The cult of Cybele was adopted by the Romans during imperial times and the sacred pine tree became an object of worship during a spring festival in Rome each year on 22 March. A pine tree (Pinus pinea or P. nigra) was cut in the forest and carried into the sanctuary of Cybele, where it was worshiped. The trunk was then buried. Three days later, the divine resurrection was celebrated with an outburst of glee. In Scandinavia and in northern Russia, a spring festival based on this tradition is held at the end of June. These festivals celebrate the resurrection of life after a long winter (Mirov and Hasbrouck 1976).

According to another legend, when Adam was dying, he sent his son Seth to the Garden of Eden to beg the angel on guard for a little of the precious juice from the tree of life. Instead, the angel gave him a small portion of the tree, which was later planted, on Adamís grave. This tree eventually grew into one with three branches, one cypress (Cupressus), one cedar (Cedrus) and one olive. It is from these three trees that the cross on which Christ was ultimately crucified is said to have been made; the upright beam was cedar, the cross arm of cypress and the title of olive. In another version of this legend, when the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon, she was asked to cross a marshy piece of ground by means of a bridge built of cedar (Cedrus) wood. She refused to step on the bridge because she would not tread on wood which she had dreamt would some day bear the crucified body of the Christ (Maheshwari and Chhaya Biswas 1970).

Another legend tells of an angel who took refuge under a massive cedar (Cedrus) tree during a severe storm. After the storm abated, he prayed to God that this tree, whose wood was so fragrant and shade so refreshing might, in the future, bear some fruit to benefit the human race. The fruit was the sacred body of Jesus. Being regarded as a tree of good fortune, its wood has always been a favourite for making sacred icons (Maheshwari and Chhaya Biswas 1970).

In China, cedars (genus not designated) are called the "trees of faithful lovers" because of a legend about a king who sent a good man to prison in order that the latterís beautiful wife be available to him. The imprisoned man died of grief and his wife killed herself. Although their bodies were buried far apart from each other at the kingís express command, cedar trees grew from each grave, attained vast heights and lovingly interlaced their branches and roots (Maheshwari and Chhaya Biswas 1970).

The indigenous cultures of the Pacific Coast of North America believed that the Pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia, could impart its strength to the people and was traditionally used where strength was required. Young men of the Swinomish tribe used smooth yew sticks to rub themselves to gain strength. The Swinomish also used the boughs of Pacific yew to rub themselves after bathing. The people of the Chehalis tribe would crush the foliage of Pacific yew in a bath for old people and children to make them sweat and improve their condition (Gunther 1973).


Humans encountered pines and other conifers in many places in the Northern Hemisphere. In contrast to deciduous trees, which shed their leaves in fall, most conifers remain green and were re-assuring. Evergreen pines were eternal. Only evergreen oaks rated as high as pines with early human societies who worshiped pines as they worshiped other wonders of nature that they could not understand. Initially, pines were worshiped for themselves. Later, they became the abode of gods and spirits. As human civilization advanced, nations were formed and temples built, humans continued to worship pines as the most sacred of trees (Mirov and Hasbrouck 1976).

The Delphic oracle of Greece commanded the Corinthians to worship a particular pine equally with god (Dionysius) so they made two images of Dionysius, with red faces and gilt bodies. In art this god or his worshipers commonly carries a wand tipped with a pinecone because the pine tree was particularly sacred to him.

The pinecone appeared on many ancient amulets and had a phallic meaning. It is said that the pinecone was most used in the cult of Venus. Pinecones were regarded as symbols of fertility and even now the tops of wooden bedposts are often embellished with carved pinecones. At the festival of Demeter, the Greek goddess of the fruitful earth and happy marriage, pinecones were offered "for the purpose of quickening the ground and the wombs of women." Assyrian priests on ancient bas -reliefs are shown offering pinecones to the altars of gods. Pine cones on these carvings and the tips of priestís staffs appear to be those of the stone pine, Pinus pinea (Mirov and Hasbrouck 1976).

Pines have been, and perhaps still, are believed to possess supernatural powers. The anonymous author of Cultus Arborum wrote:

"The pine was supposed by some to be inhabited by wind spirits, like Ariel, owing to the whispering noises proceeding from it in the breeze. The legend was that it was the mistress of Boreas and Pan, an idea acceptable to Germans in the consequence of its holes and knots, which were believed to be the means of ingress and egress for the spirits. It is told that a beautiful woman of Smäland, who was really an elf, left her family through a knothole in the wooden house wall. "Frau Fichte (spruce)," the pine of Silesia, is believed to possess great healing powers, and its boughs are carried about by the children on Mid-Lent Sunday, adorned with coloured papers and spangles. It is also carried with songs and rejoicing to the doors of stables where it is suspended in the belief that it will preserve the animals from harm."

In some parts of Silesia (Germany), people burn rosin all night between Christmas and New Year in order that the pungent smoke may drive witches and evil spirits from the house (Mirov and Hasbrouck (1976).

In Siberia, a ritual was performed at Epiphany during which crosses were made over every door with the smoke of pine torchwood to protect houses and stables from evil spirits. Later votive tapers became a more convenient instrument for this ritual, which is still practised by some Russian Orthodox priests and housewives (Mirov and Hansbrouck 1976).

The yew, Taxus baccata, is deeply woven into the religion folklore of the British Isles. The ancient Britons held the tree sacred and the Druids perpetuated the religious association by erecting temples near yew trees (Harrison 1975).

In Mexico and Central America, pines were worshiped by indigenous people long before Spanish conquest. The Aztecs considered Pinus teocote to be the pine of the gods and burning its incense-fragrant rosin as an offering in the temples was the privilege of priests and kings. In the highlands of Guatemala, some Mayan people avoid, even now, the killing or harming of pines because they are considered not only living but animated beings. For household use and for their pagan-Christian ceremonies, the Mayans lop the side branches of pines, leaving a sizeable tuft of foliage on the top of the tree so it will continue to live. In Guatemala, Mayan people still burn pine rosin in religious rituals (Mirov and Hasbrouck 1976).

The Buriats, a Mongolian people living in the vicinity of the southern end of Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia, often viewed groves of Pinus sylvestris as sacred. These "shaman" forests were scattered over dry grassland. Before the Soviet revolution of 1917, it was a tradition to approach and ride through the groves in silence to avoid offending the gods and spirits of the woods. Solitary trees near the Buriat villages were always sacred and adorned with talismans, ribbons or sacrificial sheepskins. These trees were often called pines, although some were actually larches, Larix spp. (Mirov and Hasbrouck 1976).

The use of a non-wood product from a conifer is mentioned at least once in the Holy Bible. At the time of the Great Flood, God instructed Noah to "Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shall pitch it within and without with pitch" (Mirov and Hasbrouck 1976).

To the indigenous tribal cultures of south-western United States and adjoining parts of Mexico, the piñon, Pinus edulis, was an important part of religious ceremonies literally from the cradle to the grave. When an infant Apache outgrew her cradleboard, her mother would place it in the east side of the crown of a young piñon pine. She would then tell the tree, Here is the baby carrier. I give this to you, still young and growing. I want my child to grow up as you do. Among the Navajo, the cradleboard of a dead child was placed in the crown of a dead piñon, as were the worn cradle laces of healthy children. On the ninth day of Keldzi Hatal, the Night Chant, the Slayer of Alien Gods and the Child of the Water placed their corn husk cigarettes in the shade of a piñon. After the ceremonial of the male initiation, ritual items were placed in a young piñon pine at sunrise and the initiates were instructed not to visit ancient ruins, not to injure a young piñon and not to stand over another person. On the fourth day of the Night Chant, when performed for male initiates, the Talking God carried in his hand a piñon sapling stripped of its branches. The burning of pitch from the piñon provided the incense of the Night Chant. The ceremonial wands and pokers were of piñon wood, selected from branches that grew on the east, north, west and south sides of the tree (Lanner 1981).

In the Himalaya region of Uttar Pradesh, India, Cedrus deodara is considered sacred and plays an important role in religious ceremonies. Thin slices of its wood are burned with butter and other plants after chanting the "mantras" on the occasion of births, marriages, deaths and other occasions. This ceremony is called hawan. The bright yellow pollen grains are used for brightening metallic idols and as a pitham, a small mark over the forehead for certain religious occasions (Singh et al. 1990).


The national symbol of Lebanon is the cedar of Lebanon, Cedrus libani. This tree, with its characteristic multi-stemmed form and massive, spreading crown appears on the national flag, on coins, postage stamps and military insignias. Unfortunately this tree has been over-exploited and few native stands remain in the country. It is said that today there are more cedars of Lebanon on flags, coins and postage stamps than there are in Lebanonís forests (Chaney and Basbous 1978). The eastern Mediterranean Island of Cyprus is believed to have derived its name from the extensive forests of Cupressus sempervirens, which once existed there. These forests are said to have been a deterrent to the development of agriculture until copper was discovered on the island. Then the forests were cut for fuel to smelt copper (Brey and Müller 1993).

Early American colonists expressed their affection for the pine by making it an emblem on historic flags. In 1775, both the Continental and the Pine Tree flags were decorated with the green, conical shape of the eastern white pine, Pinus strobus. Today, the Vermont State seal bears the likeness of a pine tree with 14 branches representing the original 13 colonies plus Vermont. Maine is called the "pine tree state" where eastern white pine is the official tree and appears on both the state seal and the state flag (Mirov and Hasbrouck 1976).


The Chinese may have been among the first to paint pines on panels and silk scrolls to decorate their homes. Later pine forests or individual trees became a favourite subject for artists in many countries. The Renaissance painters used pines as the background for their lovely Madonnas or as illustrations for stories as Botticelli did with the Ravenna pines. There are many Victorian paintings depicting Scots pines, Pinus sylvestris (Mirov and Hasbrouck 1976).

One of the most fascinating pieces of art depicting a conifer is a Roman fountain in the shape of a giant, bronze pinecone. It is most likely modelled after the cone of Pinus pinea. The cone was cast in the first century AD by Publius Cincius Salvius, a bronze worker who left his signature at the base of the cone. This bronze was found near the baths of Agrippa and probably decorated a fountain near the Temple of Isis. During the eighth century, this massive cone was situated in the portico of Constantineís Basilica of St. Peters in Rome, Italy, where the water, emerging from holes in the points of the scales, was used to refresh pilgrims. During the seventeenth century it was moved to the nicchione, designed by Pirro Ligoro, in the famous Bramante courtyard of the Vatican Museum. Today, the portion of the courtyard housing this giant bronze pinecone is known as the Cortile della Pigna, the courtyard of the pinecone (Hersey 1993, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1975).

The cones of Pinus pinea are featured in wall paintings, sculpture and in mosaics in the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, two ancient Italian cities destroyed by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Pinecones are also figured in household altars and paintings at Pompeii (Meyer 1980).

The famous Dutch impressionist, Vincent Van Gogh, is perhaps best known for his bold, colourful paintings of sunflowers. He was also intrigued by the columnar cypresses, Cupressus sempervirens, which, even today, are an integral part of the landscape of the region of Tuscany, Italy and the south of France. In 1890, he painted "Lane with cypresses under a starry sky," an oil of a single cypress along a country lane with a dark sky in the background. Another of his works containing cypress trees is "Wheatfield and cypress" and "Cypresses" both painted in 1889. The latter consists of a grove of columnar cypresses being tossed by a summer mistral in southern France (Zurcher 1985). These masterpieces now hang in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

In a letter to his brother, Theo, in 1899, Van Gogh wrote:

"I am totally preoccupied with the cypress. I would like to create something similar to my sunflower paintings with them. I find it strange that they never have been painted in the way that I see them. They are as beautifully proportioned as an Egyptian obelisk."

In southern Brazil, the tall, stately Paraná pine, Araucaria angustifolia, with its characteristic umbrella-shaped crown, is a regional symbol. In the city of Curitiba, the capital of Paraná State, the characteristic profile of A. angustifolia appears in patterned sidewalks made of tiny black and white stones (Ciesla 1986) (Fig 2.1). Its characteristic silhouette also appears in many art forms including photographs, paintings and pictorial landscapes pieced together from inlaid local woods of various colours and textures (Fig 2.2).

Figure 2.1: Tile silhouette of Araucaria angustifolia in a sidewalk, Curitiba, Brazil.

Figure 2.2: Landscape with Araucaria angustifolia made of inlaid woods, southern Brazil

Perhaps the ultimate form of using conifers in art is the ancient Japanese tradition of bonsai. Bonsai is a three dimensional, living art form in which trees are subjected to special growing techniques and the application of principles of design to develop them into miniature objects díart (Stowell 1966). Many species of conifers, especially pines and junipers are popular plant materials for bonsai. The fine art of bonsai is described in greater detail in Chapter 3.

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