We may not think about them now, but the cultural importance of forests shaped philosophy and the human psyche since antiquity. A mountain pass through a heavily wooded area makes a difficult journey even more so. Traversing such a pass would require a good amount of courage and endurance.
The forest is dangerous and filled with predators, both animal, and human. In human consciousness, a great value is placed on order over chaos. This is why people choose to live in cleared-off settlements, separated from the wooded parts.
A safe haven and the cultural importance of forests
The village became a safe haven, far from the dangerous unknowns of the forest. And precisely that unknown is what fascinated and set off people’s curiosity. Looking out from the safety of the village encampment at the tall trees must have sparked people’s imagination.
Many cultural attributes are tied up to forests by humans’ perspective of them. It is both good and evil, a giver of resources but also an obstacle to advancement.
Growth and resources
As a bountiful source of resources, forests supplied settlers with food, medicinal herbs, and roots. Shelter and most commonly, wood, which could be carved into many tools, weapons, and even barricades all came from forests.
Hunting in the woods offered up even more in the way of food, and the trees of the forest helped camouflage the hunter in his pursuit. Trees have deep roots and like human beings, they seem alive.
Growing and changing over time, a sense of wonder is instilled in people to see them as resilient and adaptable. Deciduous trees especially, with their seasonal cycle as the summer leaves change their color and shed them in autumn only to regrow in the spring.
This regenerative property of trees may have motivated people to assign symbolic meaning to them, as eternal energetic forces.
The divine and the supernatural
Living in walled cities, the Greeks very much feared the forests and wilderness. They saw this unknown and untamed wilderness as belonging to the gods. Venturing out into it would be a perilous endeavor to undertake.
One might accidentally cross the unseen boundary between the human realm and the divine. The consequences of such a trespass would be awfully great.
This association with the divine can in some form find association today with the supernatural. Many horror movies and stories take place in the wild forest or a cabin in the woods. Humans have pushed out their fears that now populate the deep dark forests of our imagination.
That is not to say that the wild was completely harmless, wild animals and thieves still dwelled in them. But in a way, it served as a perfect place to store all our internal fears.
Stories and fairy tales
Many stories and myths have the protagonist embarking on a quest or adventure through the forest. Little red riding hood is sent on the forest path, the tamed part of the wild forest, to take food and wine to grandma. But she encounters the wolf on the oath, thus into the untamed wilderness.
The abandoned Hansel and Gretel and find themselves face to face with a witch, in her home, deep inside the dark forest. Even Dante Alighieri’s journey in the divine comedy begins “within a forest dark” as he has lost his way from the path.
In ancient and medieval periods of time, wild forests were vastly more expansive than the civilized cities and villages, where humans made their homes. It’s only natural that they extend their fear to the unknown mysterious wilderness.
The cultural importance of forests as protector
Monsters dwell there, witches and goblins. But in some other stories, the forest is a protector. Snow White finds shelter with the dwarves in their forest home. She thus finds protection from her cruel stepmother for a while.
Sherwood Forest is almost a character of its own in the story of Robin Hood. It provides the hero with the perfect hiding place, as he seems to have a special tie with this wilderness.
The symbolic duality of the forest took shape from human consciousness. People are the ones that created the border between the tamed wilderness and the civilized city.
The mystery of wild forests still lingers in our minds today, granted with different fears and shaped around other anxieties. It seems that forests have taken up roots not just in the ground but in our subconscious as well.