World mythology and folklore is riddled with the symbolism of trees. These symbols and deifications of trees may vary from place to place, however, much of the philosophical teachings and mythological tales bare striking similarities to one another. On the African continent, this is no different, as a variety of trees called 'the tree of life' or 'of knowledge' appear scattered among the legends of Africa. Across the continent to this day, trees remain ingrained in the culture, myth, and magic of African traditions. Some of these are seen as creator trees, while others are believed harbor spirits, the ancestral dead, or gods. While other trees bare these titles for more material reasons, such as storing water or providing fruit in seasons when other trees do not. This presentation will take a look at some of the iconic trees of Africa called the 'trees of life', 'of knowledge', and 'of magick.' These include the Somb tree, the Sycamore fig, the Baobab, the Shepherds tree and a variety of Acacia species.
The Serer religion of Senegal holds a special regard for the Somb tree (Prosopis africana). It is said that the Somb tree was the first tree to be created on the primordial swamp of earth and that it is the progenitor of all other plant life. Burial rites of the Serer people are closely associated with this tree and represent immortality rather than just life. Alongside the Somb tree, the Saas tree (Acacia albida) also features heavily in Serer cosmology and as a tree of life and especially fertility. The Somb tree, however, remains the first and cosmic tree in their teachings.
The Sycamore fig (Ficus sycomorus) is another tree considered sacred by many African cultures. This is especially true for the Kikuyu people of Kenya, whose name means 'children of the huge sycamore'. To the Kikuyu, the Sycomore fig is the 'child of Ngai' or God and the tree from where the first Kikuyu were born. This tree is favored by Ngai, who is said to dwell within the sacred tree. It is for this reason that sacrifices and ceremonies are conducted by shamans beneath the tree, in plain sight of the creator. Elders congregate beneath these trees to discuss the happenings and troubles of the community, where Ngai and other spirits can help guide them to a better future. Parts of the tree are used for a variety of purposes, one of which is using the milky sap as an ointment for fertility. This tree also provides fruit for an extended period of the year, thus provide welcomed figs that attract a large variety of creatures, which furthers its reputation as a tree of life. Egyptian myth also refers to this fig in multiple tales, leading some to believe that it is also their 'tree of life.' The god Osiris is said to have been trapped in a Sycamore fig after being killed by his brother Set.
The Baobab (Adansonia sp.) are very iconic African trees also deemed a 'tree of life'. These plants are actually succulents and not trees, hailing it the largest of all succulents. A variety of folklore about this tree is found across the continent. The most prominent of which is how it got its odd look. Many different tales claim that the tree is planted upside down, either by the creator who got tired of hearing the tree complain and getting its way every time. Or, by being planted upside down in spite or stupidity by mischievous animals such as the hyena. Traditionally, some of the nomadic Khoi and San peoples of southern Africa would give birth in hollows of this giant tree as it thought to provide protection during birth. Thus, this tree is also one of fertility. Materially, the tree provides medicine, water, nutrition, rope and more, making it a vital tree for nomadic peoples. Some African cultures believe that the spirits of ancestors congregate beneath these trees during the evenings and is therefore not to be disturbed at night. Other groups purposefully built their villages around these giant trees as a holy center of their community.
The Shepards tree (Boscia sp.) is another 'tree of life', however, is seemingly named so for material reasons rather than spiritual. The tree is hardy in dry conditions and remains evergreen through the dry season. Thus it provides welcomed shade and out of season leaves for browsing game and livestock. The trees are known to gnarl and create hollows where water can be found, while the roots dig deep into the soil to reach water stores far beneath. This, along with many uses such as to brew beer, as a coffee substitute or as medicine makes this a 'tree of life'. An interesting note is that this is also thought to be 'the thunder tree' in some southern African cultures. The tree is said to protect one from lightning when under it, or when carrying a charm of its branches. One tale claims that an infamous Impundulu, or lightning bird, can be defeated with a staff of this tree. Thus, it is also a 'tree of magick.'
A variety of Vachellia and Senegalia species, formerly Acacia, are known across Africa as a sacred or magickal tree. Though they generally are very useful trees with regards to wood, gum, medicine and more, their true value lies in the spiritual consumption. Brews are made from a variety of parts of the plant, especially the bark and is then ceremoniously ingested. Shamanic consumption of this tree is evident from ancient Egyptian mysticism to modern traditional healers across the continent. Many legends of spirits or gods living in the plants are passed down to this day. The modern chemical analysis of these species illustrates ample quantities of the chemical dimethyltryptamine, DMT, or the spirit molecule which induces shamanic vision similar to that of South American ayahuasca and global use of Amanita muscaria mushrooms.
Many more trees are said to be magickal or sacred throughout Africa and are to this day used for spiritual teaching or experience.