The Tree of Life is known throughout Indo-European cultures, with ancient roots. Slavic cultures are no exception; the Tree of Life had robust meaning in both Pagan and Christian culture. Alongside its ritual and religious use, this symbol entered every aspect of Slavic and Serbian decorative art, from stone and wood carving to weaving and embroidery.
The symbolic Tree of Life is found as early as ancient Assyria, where it took the form of a palmetto or date palm. It was often also associated with a spring or fountain, as an additional symbol of the power of the life force. It became part of Persian ornamental art, and this version came to the Balkans via Byzantium, where it had taken on Christian symbolic meaning – eternal life, resurrection, the eternal soul.
Naturally, this is a widespread symbol, not unique to Slavic or Serbian culture. It is very much like the mythical Scandinavian tree, Yggdrasil, which supported Earth and connected it to nine mystical realms (hence, why we speak of being on cloud nine in English). Serb folk belief only has the concept of three worlds: lower, middle, upper, with the upper one sometimes divided into two zones, one like a garden and the most important one of pure light. Still, these realms are connected by a tree, believed to be a willow (vrba), linden (lipa) or oak (hrast, dub) among the various Slavic nations.
Let us remember that the presence of Germanic tribes was widespread by the coming of the new era. From northern and central Europe, Gothic tribes spread initially eastward, encountering Scythians and Sarmatians, then southward, encountering Dacians . The 3rd century AD saw incursions of Germanic tribes – Goths, Bastarni, Skiri, Gepids and others – into the Balkans. They remained, regularly harrassing the Eastern Roman army and other tribal peoples. Vikings themselves first raided Constantinople, then “convinced” the emperor to keep them in his hire as the Varangian Guard. In the province of Pannonia, the lesser-known Gepids had assimilated among the Avars, beginning a process of cultural fusion. As for us Slavs, our ancestors were noted to have trickled in by the sixth century; that trickle had become a flood by 602. This is the year that Byzantine soldiers, tired of a decade of warring with allied Slavs and Avars at what is now Belgrade, mutinied, declared one of their own Emperor, and went home, surrendering the Balkans to the Slavs.
This prolonged encounter, gradual at first, brought with it cultural borrowings; to this day certain Germanic-root words remain in Serbian and Romanian: ban, nobleman or governor; grad (gard) originally garden (cf gradina) but later town, fortress; hum (holm) hill; slina, mucus; bukva, beech tree, etc. In terms of beliefs, the pagan pantheons of Slav, Goth or Varangian had many parallels already, including the concepts of a thunder god and his associated tree: Germanic Thor, Roman Jove, and Slavic Perun. (interestingly, for all three, the associated tree is oak!) A symbol, very reminiscent of runes, is found at early Slavic sites, showing this tree from roots to crown; that is, from soil to sky.
In terms of design or form, aside from the highly stylized ancient Slavic form, the version of the Tree of Life found in later Serbian material culture originated in the near east. Taking the route from Assyria and later Persia, through Byzantium, this tree of life tends to be multi-branched and arching, as if heavy laden with fruit. So, ultimately the Slavs had three versions of the Tree of Life influencing their art and their beliefs: the Scandinavian-Germanic version, the Persian-Byzantine version, and their own autochthonous Slavic tree.
Trees are prominent in the Serbs’ folk beliefs. Each species has its particular use and role. For example, the traditional Serbian musical instrument gusle is almost always carved from maple (javor, Acer sp.). Many tree barks, leaves, and fruits are used in dyeing textiles as well as traditional medicine. Certain customs dictate the use of specific trees, such as the use of hazel twigs (leska, Corylus avellana) to make small crosses as amulets to protect crops in the Leskovac region, or the use of linden (lipa, Tilia sp.) to produce new or “living fire” – živa vatra, an important component in purification rituals for livestock, new homes, or even people during a time of epidemic.
It is not unusual for trees to be honoured and revered in a village, sometimes to an incredible degree. The case of a pine tree (bor, Pinus sylvestris) in the village of Nerodimlje, Kosovo, is a particularly vivid example. This pine is said to have been planted by King Milutin (founder of nearby Gračanica monastery) and on Easter, the villagers break their fast with a communal meal set up such that the pine “sits” at the head of the table, the seat of honour. The hawthorn tree (glog, Crataegus sp.) is a symbol of health and is considered to have magical powers; glogov kolac or a hawthorn stake is the only thing, it is said, that will kill a Vampire! The yew tree, (tis, tisa, Taxus baccata) especially venerated by Serbs in Bosnia and Montenegro and is only surpassed by hawthorn in protective (apotropeic) function. A yew sliver is sewn into children’s caps, and women with infants would try to carry a yew twig whenever leaving the house. Yew wood is the most popular material for making pendant crosses; it decorates the buklija or brandy flask used to invite guests to a wedding.
The beech tree (bukva, Fagus sylvaticus) shares an etymological root with the Germanic buche, which means that this tree was not known to the Proto-Slavs until their arrival in Central and Southeastern Europe. Favoured as the yule log in Western Bosnia, inland Dalmatia, and parts of Hercegovina, it is believed that the mythical fairies called vile give birth in the branches of a beech tree, the mother swaddling her newborn in its green leaves.
Apple trees (jabuka, Malus sp.) and their fruit are used in many Serbian rituals and customs. The apple has many meanings and functions, such as abundance, fertility, peace, and plenty; for this reason it is considered as a valuable gift. For example, in many Serbian regions, when a maiden accepts from her lover an apple, she is engaged. At New Year and Christmas eve in many regions, an apple with a coin embedded in it is a common gift. The apple carries the deep meaning of humanity’s fall, as described in the Bible’s Book of Genesis. Oddly, the apple itself is the least likely candidate for the fruit mentioned in the story, as it is originally a Central Asian plant. Turkish ethnographer Ahmet Dagtasoglu has a very interesting take on how the interpretation of the Adam and Eve story came to involve the apple tree. He posits that at some point an erroneous interpretation of ‘malûm’ (evil, distress, in Neuter accusative) in the Genesis story was understood as ‘mālum’ (apple, in the accusative). This is interesting, of course, but fails to explain the association between apples and evil for Eastern Christianity, which derived its texts primarily from Greek translations before Slavonic.
By far the most important tree in Serbian culture is the Oak. Three types of oak grow in the Balkans: the Lužnjak, or Gorun (Quercus pedunculata), considered a demonic tree (so we make crosses out of it, of course!); the Cer (Quercus cerris – the Turkey Oak, or Austrian Oak), and Hrast, Dub (Quercus robur – the common or European oak). In as far as it is revered and used in both practical and ritual ways, it could be considered the national tree of the Serbs.
The Cer type of oak is considered to be a senovito drvo, that is, a tree imbued with a spirit, or sen. It is an invisible force, the soul’s doppelganger it could be said. Sen is related to our shadow, or senka, which is feminine – sen is masculine. Senovita drva (pl.) are left alone – in Livanjsko polje, Western Bosnia, it was customary to bury the dead beneath the trees of a sacred forest. These trees belong to a particular soul, or to a vila, or div (the old pagan gods) so people claim to have seen the vile fairies near them; to harm one is to risk falling dead immediately or to suffer years of illness. The Tree of Life motif, in this sense, takes on deep spiritual meaning in both religious and superstitious senses.
Hrast or dub type of oak is a frequent zapis – sacred trees that each village had. They had a cross carved into their bark, and sometimes were fenced off, with benches for people to rest beneath them. A zapis is where many annual rituals and processions happen, such as on Trojice (Holy Trinity Day) or Spasovdan (Ascension). It was the site of important village meetings – the Takovo uprising had its inception under the “Takovski Grm”, an oak that long stood in the village of Takovo near Gornji Milanovac. Oak is the preferred yule tree or Badnjak in Bosnia and Serbia; in Southern Serbia, the head of the household enters the house on St. Ignatius’ day (Ignjatijevdan, Jan. 2) holding oak twigs, and wishes everyone a happy new year. In Montenegro on Ascension day oak twigs were used to bless all grain fields with water, and the lintels of doorways in homes were also decorated with oak twigs that day. The oak has mythical connotations, being associated with the primary Slavic pagan deity, Perun, the god of thunder and lightning. Folk belief explains that a dragon called the Ala lives in oak trees – this is why lightning, it is said, tries to strike oaks, in order to kill the the ala. Undoubtedly, the oak was the ancient Southern Slavs’ Tree of Life.
Cer can also be used as a zapis. Veselin Čajkanović wrote of such a tree outside of Veles, where every Thursday from Easter to Ascension people came to light candles and tie threads from their clothing as a type of offering. This has a parallel in tying cloths (peškiri) to the crosses on the graves of young people, who did not have the opportunity to distribute wedding gifts during their lifetimes. These crosses tend to be very ornate, with a cross-on-cross design that is likely a remnant of the Tree of Life. In many Serbian regions, fruit trees are planted on the graves of young people and children; the message of youth, fertility and the hope of Resurrection is clearly embodied in a young, flowering tree. Even the most devout Orthodox Serb will admit to the syncretic nature of so many of our customs; these practices have found expression in a Christian context, despite pagan origins.
In terms of our intangible culture, folk songs reinforce the beliefs and symbolism of trees. In the folk song, Bog nikom dužan ne ostaje (God leaves no debt unpaid) we find evergreens and youth equated in metaphors:
Dva su bora naporedo rasla
Među njima tankovrha jela
To ne bila dva bora zelena
Ni međ’ njima tankovrha jela,
Već to bila dva brata rođena:
Jednjo Pavle a drugo Radule
Među njima sestrica Jelica…
Two pine trees grew side by side
Between them tall and slender fir
Those weren’t pine trees side by side
Nor between them was there a fir
Those are brothers, Pavle and Radula
And between them their sister, Jelica…
The idea of a mythical connection between heaven and earth, through trees, also appears in Serbian folk songs. The souls of deceased people beg the Tree of Life to “stretch its branches, to bend down so that they can step on them and cross the sea which divides the world”. In “Oj mori vrbo zelena” (O, hark, my green willow tree) a beautiful Serbian song from Prizren in Kosovo region, a girl begs the willow tree to do the same, so that she can rise closer to the heavens and confess her love:
Oj mori vrbo zelena
Slegni mi grane do zemlje
Ja da se uspem na gore
Pa da ti kažem dertove
Dertove, moje jadove
Za moje prvo kojšiče
Sto nosi čibuk šamiče
O, hark, my green willow tree
Lower your branches to the ground
So I may climb them up on high
And tell you of my sweet heartaches
My sweet heartaches and my woes,
Longing for my neighbour boy
The one who wears a striped scarf
In material culture, the oldest images of the Tree of Life appear on the gravestones known as stećci and in the carvings on monumental architecture, particularly monastery churches and their iconostasis. Folk culture uses the Tree of Life motif widely but few people associate it with its ancient meaning. It is regularly seen carved into distaffs (preslice) especially in Dinaric zone regions, but also on cradles (kolevke) and dowry chests (škrinja, sanduk). The apotropaic function of this design on the latter two is obvious.
Over the centuries, Serbs have associated trees with the Holy Cross, to such a degree that there are certain customs were crosses are constructed that in reality more closely resemble the Tree of Life of ancient times than what the Orthodox church considers its primary symbol. The Church hymnology says that the Cross brought redemption from the fall, that “wood is healed by wood”; that is, that the Cross raises us up from the fall caused by eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Eden. These wooden crosses, sometimes called krstače, can be crosses upon crosses (i.e. carved in such a way that each end of a cross divides into a new cross, repeatedly) or multi-bar crosses, sometimes several metres tall. In eastern and southern Serbia, crosses marking graves are often multiple crosses, while in Kordun, the Serbian Orthodox population makes elaborate crosses, called kiće (from kićene, decorated or ornate) to mark the final resting places of their kin. These kiće are carved from oak or chestnut, making them very durable, and reach remarkable heights of five or six metres. Women’s markers are slightly lower, but include an ornamental bar called podgrađa that is lacking on men’s markers. These crosses are frankly more Tree of Life than Christian cross, and perhaps represent a forgotten custom of burial in sacred forests. This doesn’t bother the local folk, who only see in them the Holy Cross and the age old tradition of their ancestors: “tako su radili naši stari” – “this is what our elders did”. The cross-on-cross branching, accented by a bare, tall supporting pole, is similar to the krst od leda (“the ice-cross”) that used to be constructed and set up in the centre of villages in Serbia’s west-central Mačva region as a device to protect their crops by warding off hail. Unlike the grave crosses, the ice or hail cross was often painted colourfully and decorated with small cloths, little flags, and even carved figures.
Textiles and garments are where we most often see the Tree of Life. Sometimes it is subtle, such as the embroidery on the ornate đurđevojka dresses worn by Serbian women in Kosovo. As an embroidery motif, it shows up on wedding towels (svatovski peškiri), household textiles, and dresses (košulje). The beautiful black embroidery of Skopska Crna Gora is an excellent example. As a girl matures and approaches marrying age, she prepares a number of dresses that increase in complexity and depth of ornamentation as they go along. To mark her transition from child to maiden, she must embroider and sew a provezičarče, with elaborate sleeves and bodice, but little embroidery on the skirt. She will wear this for her first public participation in her village’s Easter festivities. Over the next few years, each Easter a more elaborate dress is prepared, culminating in the one reserved for her wedding. The lattermost dresses have many stylized trees, composed of an upright prut (branch) flanked by rhomboid or square motifs – uskućnici, palaske – and topped with a circular kolišnjak. Despite its placement, it is less likely the crown of a tree and more likely a staring eye, protecting the wearer from uroci, curses. This embroidery overall is highly stylized, with very little representation of natural botanical forms.
Similar stylization can be seen in an example from Bukovica area in northern Dalmatia, where a pair of Trees of Life is embroidered in very delicate chain stitch on wool cloth stitched to a small bag or torbica. Unlike the large scale representations of Trees of Life in textiles of the Central Balkan, Morava, Vardar and eastern Šopluk zones, the Dinaric zone generally represents it on a smaller scale, often as minute embroidery motifs. In this example, the tree of life is repeated in a central row, surrounded by repeating patterns of crosses surrounded by minute swirls and spirals. Designs based on a symmetry of 2, 4 or 8 are typical in Bukovica, representing (depending on their form) the four directions of the Earth, or the passage of time and seasons. The woman who spent her winter nights embroidering each motif in miniscule chain stitch on a different colour of woollen cloth, was following traditional patterns and her innate eye for balance and harmonious design, not realizing what a subtle and and ancient story of the nature of human life, destiny and time she was creating.
Another garment that often includes the Tree of Life motif is the zubun, a once universal part of Serbian women’s costume. In Central balkan style of zubun, persisting longest in eastern Serbia, the vest is generally sewn from three to five pieces of cream-white sukno, then decorated to varying degrees using applique of dyed čoja cloth, embroidery (wool, cotton, silk, metal all were used) and, depending on the region, additional ornaments such as tassles, passementerie, beads, sequins etc. The traditional decorative designs are almost entirely stylized botanicals, with some wonderful representations of Kosovo Peonies (Kosovski Božuri) androses (đulovi), forming virtual gardens of chaotic colour on some. Still, in a few examples the Tree of Life is much more explicitly represented. Keep in mind that generally, the zubun was worn by adult women, so like the košulje of Skopska Crna Gora, the moment a girl donned one her status had changed. Sometimes zubuni were passed on from generation to generation, but in some areas girls were expected to create it entirely or partially. Her zubun advertised her talent and skill, but much more. Natural symbols were related to fertility and life; things shown as human or anthropomorphic figures were masculine. Thus, the Tree of Life motif serves as a talisman, imbuing her body with fertility while proclaiming it to those around her.
Men’s garments rarely show the Tree of Life motif, mainly because most men’s costume has limited embroidery. There is one beautiful exception, the jacket or koporan from Obrovac, in northern Dalmatia. Examples of it are kept in ethnographic museums in Belgrade, Zadar and Zagreb. It shows clear influence of the tree of life that evolved in the lineage: Assyria – Persia – Byzantium – Ottoman Empire. Clues to this are the palm-like shape, and the inclusion of an urn or vase. Some ethnographers assumed that, given that this garment is from Dalmatia, it came from contact with Italian Renaissance decorative art. The Italian version also came from Byzantium via Sicily, but also experienced mutual influences from Spain and Western Europe, so the Renaissance Tree of Life took on the spindle-like shape, like a poplar or cypress tree. Had it been influenced via Venice, the Obrovac koporan would have a tree taking on this shape.
The tree here is symmetrically branched, with two flanking groups of three identical branches and a central upright branch. This harkens to the well established mystical and symbolic values of the numbers three and seven, in Serbian folk culture. Two doves (gugutke) or pigeons (golubi) perch on the uppermost branches. In representations of the Tree of Life that are found in a Christian context, the soul is often ornithomorphic, represented as a bird. A central sun-like rosette takes on characteristic spirals of typical embroidery in Bukovica and Ravni Kotari districts of northern Dalmatia, showing that this particular design is not merely a copy of some existing template; rather, it has elements of the embroiderer’s own creativity. The example shown in the photos shares all of these elements, speaking to their importance.
The Tree of life reaches is most monumental and perhaps most beautiful form in the renowned wool rugs, cilimi, from Pirot in Eastern Serbia. Most frequent motif is the Tree of Life, on its own or as part of a composition in the central part of a rug, called polje. The motif is called, colloquially, guguče na direci, doves on a post; this name shows that to many weavers the original meaning is entirely lost. The central trunk of the tree (or, post – direk) has angled branches with stylized leaves, augmented by birds (gugutke, mourning doves) fruit or flowers (jabuke, apples; đulovi, roses) and much less common mammal or human figures. The branches of the tree, especially on very large rugs, are punctuated with geometric designs, such as the hexagonal veliki đulovi (large roses), diamond shaped litije (banners), or rhomboid kube (church dome). The tree is often flanked by symbols related to the life of the household. Some of these symbols were meant to be apotropaic or protective, like the tortoise (kornjača, or željka), or appeal to the household’s saints and spirits, such as rhomboid sovre, sofre (tables), a symbol of hospitality and family unity, that all family members may live long lives together in good health. The soveljka (loom shuttle) is meant to ensure the well being of the weaver in the household, and nizam, nizamčić (from Turkish nizam, soldier) is a highly stylized human figure, interpreted either as a protective spirit or a representation of the family members. The border had its own design elements, such as kuveri (suitcases), stolice (chairs), žabice (frogs), arslani (Turkish, lions), ibrici (pitchers), narovi (pomegranates), lale (tulips) and many others. Thus, with so many symbols of plenty and so many protective charms surrounding it, a rug with the Tree of Life motif expresses what the Serbian weaver saw as everything they wanted in life.
For Further Reading:
Cajkanovic, Veselin. Vojislav Djuric, ed. (1985) Recnik srpskih narodnih verovanja o biljkama. SANU, Srpska Knjizevna Zadruga, Beograd.
Ciric, Slavica (2017) Pirotski Cilim – Slikovna Pesma Srbije. Udruzenje Grlica, Pirot.
Cvetkovic, Marina. (2008) Igra sarenih niti: Kolekcija pirotskih cilima Etnografskog Muzeja u Beogradu.
Emre Dağtaşoğlu, Ahmet. (2017). The Motif of Apple in Different Cultures and Its Usage in Anatolian Folk Songs. Folklore: Electronic Journal of Folklore. 68. pp 169-186.
Fileki, Irena (1998) Jednobojni vez u Skopskoj Crnoj Gori i na Zmijanju. Etnografski Muzej u Beogradu.
Kanitz, Felix (1991) Srbija: Zemlja i Stanovnistvo (Serbia: The Land and its Inhabitants) Srpska Knjizevna Zadruga, Belgrade.
Kulisic, Spiro. Petar Z. Petrovic, Nikola Pantelic (1970) Srpski Mitoloski Recnik. Biblioteka Sinteze, Nolit, Beograd.
Kus-Nikolajev, Mirko (1930) Motiv Životnog Stabla na Obrovačkom Koporanu. Narodna Starina, vol. 9:21, pp 39 – 52
Menkovic, Mirjana (2009) Zubun: Kolekcija Etnografskog Muzeja u Beogradu iz XIX i prve polovine XX veka. EMB, Beograd.
Ostrogorsky, George. Joan Hussey, Translator (1968) History of the Byzantine State (Geschichte des Byzantinische Staates) Basil Blackwell, Oxford.
Pocek, Petar (2015) Osmanlijski islamski uticaji na kulturu mediterana. Fakultet za Mediteranske Poslovne Studije, Tivat.
Poruciuc, Adrian. (2010) Prehistoric roots of Romanian and Southeast European traditions. Institute of Archaeomythology, XIV, Sebastopol CA, USA.
Poruciuc, Adrian. (2015) Clues to the Chronology of Old Germanic Loans in Romanian and Other Southeastern European Languages. Slavia Meridionalis 15, Institute of Slavic Studies PAS, Warsaw.
Vasic, Olivera. Nikola Pantelic, ed. (1986) Vez na seoskim zenskim kosuljama Metohije i Kosova. Etnografski Muzej u Beogradu.