Linden Trees – Myth and Lore
The linden (Tilia spp., Malvaceae) genus contains about 30 different species, including large-leaved linden (T. platyphyllos), little-leaf linden (T. cordata), their naturally-occurring hybrid, common linden (T. × europaea syn. T. vulgaris), and American basswood (T. americana). According to Greek mythology, enduring love, hospitality, and kindness are synonymous with the linden tree.1 In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, an older couple in Phrygia, Philemon and Baucis, welcomed Zeus and Hermes into their home after their wealthy neighbors had spurned the disguised travelers. Because of their warmth and hospitality, the gods granted them a boon. The couple’s desire was to remain together to the end of their lives and die at the same time. Their wish was granted, and after several years serving in the gods’ temple, they simultaneous transformed into an oak (Philemon) and a linden (Baucis).
The Greek origin story of linden, however, does not carry these virtues. An Oceanic nymph, Philyra,* was seduced by the Titan, Kronos.2 When his wife, Rhea, caught them, he transformed into a horse to escape. Other variations state that Philyra transformed herself into a mare to escape Kronos, who then transformed himself into a stallion to mate with her, or that Kronos himself transformed Philyra into a mare and himself into a horse to remain undetected by Rhea. The resulting birth from this union was the half man, half horse centaur, Chiron, who became known for his wisdom and medical acumen. To ease her shame, Philyra was transformed into the linden tree.
Sacred to Odin, Freya, Arianrhod, and Aphrodite, linden trees were thought to attract love, protect against negative influences, and bring harmony.3 Known as the tree of forgetfulness in China, beliefs range from its ability to tame a rebellious heart to offering clarity. In Greece and Eastern Europe, the linden tree was used in numerous rituals, including divination, marriage, fertility, and healing. In Romania, and other Slavic countries, the linden held divine presence and was thought to be a link between life and death. In Germany, the tree symbolized justice and peace. Often planted in town centers, arbitrations would be made under the linden tree as it was thought no lie could be told within its shade. In Poland, the tree has been planted in front of houses to ward off evil spirits and lightning (many cultures hold the belief the tree cannot be struck by lightning) as well as to engender steadfastness within the home.
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*Philyra is also said to be a shapeshifter and the goddess of perfume, writing, beauty, divination, and healing. She taught humans how to make paper.
1Ovid. 43 BCE-17 CE or 18 CE. Metamorphoses, Book VIII. Oxford: Clarendon Press; 1970.
2Philyre (Phyilra). Theoi website. Accessed May 3, 2022. https://www.theoi.com/Nymphe/NymphePhilyre.html.
3Ţenche-Constantinescu AM, Varan C, Borlea F, Madoşa E, Zsekely G. The symbolism of the linden tree. Journal of Horticulture, Forestry and Biotechnology. 2015;19(2):237- 242.