Nature and spirituality throughout history

Nature and spirituality throughout history

by Agnes van den Berg

Nature for People

Abstract Throughout various cultures, nature has historically been ascribed with spiritual significance. In Europe, this notion can be traced back to classical antiquity, particularly among the Greeks and Romans, and even further into the past. However, due to limited documentation, understanding the precise beliefs about nature in earlier times remains speculative.

Nature and spirituality throughout history


Throughout various cultures, nature has historically been ascribed with spiritual significance. In Europe, this notion can be traced back to classical antiquity, particularly among the Greeks and Romans, and even further into the past. However, due to limited documentation, understanding the precise beliefs about nature in earlier times remains speculative. Notably, there was a prevalent belief until the Middle Ages that nature served as a ‘hotline’ for connecting with the divine. People perceived nature as a manifestation of God’s wisdom and omnipotence, evident in its beauty, unity, regularity, and balance. Natural phenomena, both favourable and adverse, were interpreted as expressions of God’s overarching plan, prompting reflection and self-improvement.

This teleological perspective imbued nature with a spiritual essence, providing a means for individuals to connect to the divine and seek solace or guidance. While subsequent eras, such as the Renaissance and Enlightenment, introduced alternative viewpoints and rational inquiry, the concept of nature reflecting profound truths and offering spiritual enrichment persists. Elements of nature, including trees, gardens, and cycles, continue to hold spiritual significance for many individuals. In this blog I briefly discuss the spiritual meaning of each of these elements.


The tree, with its roots deep in the ground and its crown reaching high into the sky, has long captivated the human imagination as something beyond comprehension. Throughout the ages, trees have been imbued with special spiritual symbolism and healing powers (Hageneder, 2020). As towering living beings, steadfast, grounded, and vertical, trees serve as a connection (Axis Mundi) between the underworld, the earthly realm, and the divine. In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil, the world tree, symbolises this connection.

Trees play a significant role in the religions, myths, folklore, and customs of nearly all peoples on Earth. Consider the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Bible or the Bodhi tree in India under which Buddha attained enlightenment. For our ancestors, trees symbolized the foundation of their existence on Earth. They felt a kinship with trees, recognizing them as sentient beings, akin to humans and animals. Different tree species (oak, birch, elder, alder, lime, etc.) were believed to possess unique powers and attributes. Individual trees often had names, and people would implore the spirit of the tree for forgiveness when it was necessary to bring it down.

The Christian church viewed tree worship as idolatry, and with the onset of Christianisation in Europe, pagan practices were swiftly eradicated. Sacred trees were felled, and small churches or chapels were often erected in their place. The Christmas tree, along with a few others like the twisted willow, tulip tree, and forsythia used for Easter branches, were among the few trees incorporated into Christian tradition. Nonetheless, ancient customs surrounding tree worship endured. Throughout Europe rag trees, also called clootie trees, can still be found, where people hang scraps of fabric, such as ribbons, neckties, handkerchiefs, and other fabrics – and even face masks during the pandemic – to ask the tree for healing for themselves or a loved one (Le Borgne, 2002).


Gardens, as a more cultivated type of nature, have also been imbued with symbolic meaning throughout history, serving as a means for establishing a direct connection with the divine. Notably, in medieval times, monastery gardens were meticulously designed, often adopting a square layout with four quadrants. This architectural configuration symbolically evoked the biblical Garden of Eden, with the central motif representing the confluence of the four rivers: the Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates. Positioned at the heart of these gardens, there would often be a fountain of life or another focal object, serving as a metaphysical gateway to higher, transcendent realms. Occasionally, a juniper tree, emblematic of perpetual verdure and thus, eternal life, would stand as an icon of paradisiacal abundance.

The act of gardening within these sacred spaces was not merely carried out for practical reasons but also constituted a spiritual endeavor for the nuns and monks. Engaging in horticultural activities within these divinely ordained spaces involved a profound sense of reverence and attentiveness to the cyclical rhythms of life, death, and rebirth, thereby mirroring the inherent fragility and unpredictability of existence. Working in the garden thereby induced a sense of something bigger and sacred.

Within gardens, throughout history, people have been captivated by the allure of labyrinths and mazes, which can still be found near castles and estates. While the words labyrinth and maze are often used interchangeably, a subtle distinction exists: A maze is a complex network of paths with multiple junctions and dead ends, typically designed as a puzzle or recreational challenge. A labyrinth is a single, continuous path leading to a central point and back out again, through which one walks in a contemplating manner, focused on being in the moment. This distinction extends to their architectural manifestations, with mazes characterized by convoluted pathways delineated by high hedges or other structurs that block the view, whereas labyrinths may assume a simpler form, often comprising of a spiral arrangement of stones upon a flat terrain.


The cycles of nature are determined by the positions of the sun and the moon. Holding significant spiritual connotations for our ancestors, the meanings attributed to daily and seasonal cycles persist to this day(Foster & Roenneberg, 2008). Daily cycles, marked by the sunrise and sunset, have symbolized the ebb and flow of life itself. The rising sun signals the beginning of a new day, representing renewal, vitality, and the opportunity for growth. Conversely, the setting sun signifies the end of the day, evoking notions of rest, reflection, and the inevitable passage of time.

The transitions between seasons have long served as key moments for spiritual reflection. Such occasions remain present in our contemporary society, such as the first day of spring when one can step outside with bare legs, the first leaves falling from the trees, or the first instance of needing a winter coat. On such days, we often exhibit a heightened awareness of nature as an omnipresent force. Celtic tribes inhabiting various regions of Europe around the turn of the first millennium viewed the seasonal cycle as an eternal wheel perpetuated by the gods – the Wheel of the Year. This wheel revolved around eight seasonal festivals, marking significant transitional points. The four primary festivals are the solar feasts, each corresponding to a season. These include the summer and winter solstices, representing the longest and shortest days of the year, respectively, and the spring and autumn equinoxes, when day and night are of equal length. Positioned between these are the four cross-quarter days.

Celebrated with festive rituals and reverence for nature deities and ancestors, these occasions were believed to harbour mystical occurrences. On Samhain, the cross-quarter day around November 1st, the boundary between the realms of the living and the dead was thought to be so thin that departed souls could visit their living relatives – hence, extra plates were set out just in case. Recognizable echoes of these traditions persist, with Samhain evolving into Halloween, introduced to America by the Irish and subsequently reintroduced to Europe in a modernised form.

Modern times

Our ancestors lived close to nature. To deal with the omnipresence of nature, they built grand structures, like the mysterious pillars in Stonehenge, and sought solace in rituals and symbols. With our modern, Western perspective, one might think: Why did they spend so much time on these rituals and symbols. But do we really know better? The big questions of life – why are we here, what is the purpose of our lives, why are we born only to die again? – are just as incomprehensible as they were back then. No doctor or other scientist has an answer to that. We simply don’t know. We have all become increasingly alienated from nature. How to reconnect?  In our Nature Intelligence project, we are committed to bring people closer to nature.

Drawing by Lotte Klaver


















Foster, R. G., & Roenneberg, T. (2008). Human responses to the geophysical daily, annual and lunar cycles. Current biology, 18(17), R784-R794.

Hageneder, F. (2020). The Living Wisdom of Trees: A Guide to the Natural History, Symbolism and Healing Power of Trees: Watkins Media Limited.

Le Borgne, A. M. (2002). Clootie wells and water-kelpies: an ethnological approach to the fresh water traditions of sacred wells and supernatural horses in Scotland.


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