Dangerous Environments - The Dark Forests
Location, location, location, even for dungeons, is all important. Environments are a dangerous enemy. Mother Nature is powerful and temperamental. She can raise up whatever is needed to survive, or smash down with destructive elements of her choosing. Her magic is unsurpassed, and beyond our capabilities. Legends and tales of great beasts with immense power represent her elemental prowess. The Chimera is said to be the power of a volcano, Typhon is a deadly typhoon. Tibetan folklore blames earthquakes on the giant frog which holds up the earth.
The great dark forests of immense size in which little children could disappear forever are a common theme in IndoEuropean folklore. In Fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty, the element of the story where vegetation grows all around the castle – in this case protecting the genetic line of the king – can only be 6000 years old, as no forestation existed prior to that time. It was about 6000 BC, during the Boreal (means tree) era, when the ice ages were waning and the earth was warming up. At first the tundra was soft and wet as it thawed, trees started to grow but the soil was not firm enough to secure the roots, and the trees would tilt. Drunken Forests, as they are called, still exist in parts of Alaska, where the ground never dries out.
After a few centuries or so the earth became firmer, and enormous dense forests of huge trees covered the land. Hundreds of miles of forestation created an environment where predators thrived and many different kinds of life emerged. Little or no light produced a dank and mysterious environment, even at the edge of the woods where only the bravest souls would enter. Legends of nasty creatures, witches, and other beasts were told to children to prevent them from wandering into the woods. Hansel and Gretel, a story of two children who are deposited into the dark forest to die, also tells of a cultural enemy – the witch – who desires to kill them. Only the compassion of the inhabitants of the forest and their cleverness help them survive. Babes in the Woods is a sad tale of a brother and sister who get lost and die, covered up with leaves by the birds. In The Lost Mermaid, a witch casts a spell on all the creatures of the woods, turning them into imp slaves to do her bidding; those who were unfortunate enough to wander in also fell to her power.
The forests of folklore were dangerous, not only for their natural predators, but because lack of sun and stars made navigation next to impossible, and getting lost was a given. Magical intervention was credited with saving the few who did, by magic or luck, find their way out. Animals smell changes in water, vegetation, and soil as well as they navigate by the sun and stars, so they can find their way in and out. Creatures of legends and myths also have this ability, so they too are not a victim of the environment, and if you are true of heart, they will lead you to safety. But puny humans must depend on the intervention of those who know their way around the trees if they are to survive. But, getting lost is not the only danger. Little Red Riding Hood is the story of a young pretty girl traveling a path she knows well and comes across a clever wolf who deceives her; representing dangers of those we think we know as ‘friends’. A woodcutter with an axe, working in the forest, is the hero (in this story he represents the iron workers of their culture defending them from enemies).
Some wonder tales tell of sentient trees or other plants that intervene in the fate of those lost in their woods; sometimes for the good of the character, other times for their detriment. Narnia and Harry Potter feature sentient trees and vegetation, which could either aid your quest or inform on you to your enemy. Magical spaces are found deep in forests, somewhere impossible to find unless you are lost, end up there by a roll of the dice so to speak. It is in a clearing within a dark forest that Belle’s father meets the beast in Beauty and the Beast. Some forest creatures are both good and evil. Slavic folklore tells of Baba Yaga, an old witch, or supernatural being who lived in the forest in a hut on chicken leg stilts. She can hinder or help those she encounters, or be neutral.
Forests are not the same as jungles. Climate and location create a different kind of danger in the northern environs, and altogether different sorts of beasts. The Black Forest which grew from the Rhine across Germany and into northern Europe was known long ago as the Hercynian Forest, home many supernatural beings, one of which is the legendary powerful Unicorn. This is a beast worth having as a friend, and fearsome as an enemy. Another popular animal in European forest folklore is the wolf, who can either be an enemy or benefactor, depending on who you happen to be. Jungles are full of snakes and bugs, whereas forests are full of poisonous mushrooms and creatures with claws and teeth. Birds can represent the only connection between the forest floor and the heavens above the dense canopy of leaves, through which nothing can be seen, and little or no light enters. Winged creatures can be dangerous spies, or helpmeets to those unfortunates who find themselves deep in the forest.
Forests are places where Fairies abound. They live in the Sacred Trees in European folklore, and are found in streams, at springs, and wherever forest flowers grow. The have led some to their doom or helped them escape the Dark Woods. They can hinder or help your quest. Shyla encounters three Fairies in The Lost Unicorn, who are instrumental in helping her find her way. Forest Fairies have been known to enchant water flowing through little streams. Witches also cast spells on the only water to be found in any environment. Water, necessary for life, is dangerous in a forest. There are few sources and are targets for mischief. In reality, natural poisons are deposited in these streams as they flow over decomposing vegetation and animal remains. One must know how to find water that has emerged from a natural filter like chalk, sand, or gravel to be safe, or find water standing in granite or stone, which also purifies liquid. These are historically accurate methods, and now there are solutions which purify water – magic potions if you will. You could, with luck, find a Unicorn to purify the water with his horn.
The wood itself can be magic – either demon possessed as in Pinocchio (the book), or imbued with beneficial qualities as in the living Fairy wood of The Lost Mermaid. Magic wands are created with particular strengths, depending on the kind of wood from which they are made. Some trees provide food, others poison. Some wood burns well, sometimes it gives off a poisonous smoke, or release blessings or curses in the smoke. Sometimes it screams as it burns – bad for the one who lit the fire. This haunting sound can be heard around campfires wherever a particular kind of wood is inadvertently gathered and burned.
The forest floor, upon which you must walk unless you swing from the branches (something more common in jungles than woods), also presents hazards. Upon the forest floor are dead leaves, pine needles, mushrooms, decaying branches, and other plants that thrive in damp dark environments. Roots tangled together from the tightly clustered trees make travel difficult, and tales of being grabbed by them and dragged below the earth are common. What lurks under the blanket of leaves and sticks is anybody’s guess: traps can be set, treasures can be found, or tiny magical creatures might be lurking out of sight.
Most fundamentally, all tree lore is rooted (pun intended) in Yggdrasil, the original Tree of Life, Sacred Tree, World Tree etc. Our ancestors observed that animals would eat in the shade of trees, and die there. They would melt into the ground, nourishing the tree, which then grows food to feed the animals and people, and the cycle repeats. Yggdrasil is a symbol for the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth – the greatest and most powerful mystery of all time. Real magic. From this lore grew the Green Man and Green Girl, Dryads, and other tree-beings. These are keepers of the trees, protectors of the forests, and we reap the consequence of our treatment of their home. Be careful, therefore, how you tread in the dark of the wood.
About Symbologist Michelle Snyder
Michelle is a professor of mythology and symbolism, an author, blogger, artist, and geek. She earned her post-graduate degree at the University of Wales, decoding prehistoric images and folklore, tracing them to their roots. Her artwork has appeared in galleries from MA to CA. Michelle is co-owner of White Knight Studio.
Books by Michelle, available at Amazon:
Symbology ReVision: Unlocking Secret Knowledge
Symbology: Hidden in Plain Sight
Symbology: My Art and Symbols
Symbology: Fairy Tales Uncovered
Symbology: Decoding Classic Images
Symbology: World of Symbols
NEW!!! A TALE OF THREE KINGDOMS, BOOK 3: THE LOST DRAGON!!
Call of the Dragon and other Tales of Wonder
Call of the Dragon and other Tales of Wonder
A Tale of Three Kingdoms: Book One - The Lost Unicorn
A Tale of Three Kingdoms: Book Two - The Lost Mermaid
The Fairy Tales: Once-Upon-A-Time Lessons First Book