My initial intention was to write about dryads, but the slightest research indicated that I was operating with a mistaken assumption. “Dryad” is not a neutral or abstract term of its own. In fact, a dryad is not the spirit of a tree per se, but the spirit of an oak tree in particular. The larger term is nymph – a female nature spirit perhaps of trees (for example, ash: meliai; walnut: caryatid), or of streams, rivers and springs (pegaeae), or of mountains, valleys, and ravines (oreads). Et cetera and so on. Furthermore, there are other spirits of trees beyond those of Greek mythology – which got me to thinking, what is it that these various incarnations of tree spirits have in common?
By and large, we imagine wood nymphs as being female. Go on. Do an image search for dryad. I’ll wait. Okay? Typically an idealized woman, scantily clad, suggesting some kind of heady sexuality. Given the nature of the satyrs that pursue them in Greek myth, maybe this makes some sense historically, but honestly, most people don’t care about history when they’re drawing their nymphs nowadays.
Here are my questions. Why would the spirit of a tree need breasts (presumably trees don’t lactate) or genitalia (if the spirits themselves breed, wouldn’t they do so more like trees and less like animals)? Again for the ancient Greeks, I can make an obvious logical stab: everything could pretty much interbreed with everything. Witness Zeus’s turns as a swan or a bull or even a shower of gold impregnating the given female of his current desire (Leda, Europa, and Danaë, respectively). Nevertheless, personally speaking, I rather prefer the less anthropomorphic images.
Honestly, these are still very, very anthropomorphic, but Charles Vess has really embraced the grotesque (as an artistic style, not as gore) in fashioning many of the minions (Sandman #19, A Midsummer Night’s Dream). The ents that appear in Peter Jackson’s cinematic version of The Lord of the Rings – while not tree spirits themselves – show a great design approach, essentially mobile trees.
Andrew Adamson’s The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian does something similar with the fighting trees, although he doesn’t give them faces in the way that Tolkein and Jackson do.
Although Greek mythology has nymphs of all stripes as female, this has not stopped any subsequent individual from creating male dryads (I believe there may be some of these in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia chronicles – particularly The Last Battle, but I may be mistaken). And besides, the Greeks weren’t the only one to imagine tree spirits. There are the “Ghillie Dhu,” Scottish tree spirits (associated with birch trees), which are male and about 7″ tall with dark hair. “Kodama” are Japanese tree spirits mentioned in some older plays, apparently, and in those capable of taking a male shape. By far the most common Internet reference, however, is to Princess Mononoke, and its doll-like kodama.
A German variant is the Moss People (or Wood People), which may be child-sized but old or young and may even have wings.
Disposition and Abilities
The Greek nymphs are typically shy unless in the presence of a stronger deity (Artemis, for example). The Ghillie Dhu are too small to be dangerous and the moss people may be the targets of the Wild Hunt in some stories. Of all of the tree spirits, only the kodama seem to have much agency in dealing with human encroachment. In addition to being able to take human form, they seem to have some power of illusion and may be able to imitate voices (see The Tale of Genji).
Tree spirits, by and large, seem as helpless in their own way as trees themselves: resilient and long-lived, but limited in their abilities to move and not especially pro-active or mobile. Indeed, hamadryads are specifically tied to their trees and die if their tree is cut down. That is not the case with general wood nymphs, which seem to be associated with the trees more broadly speaking. Although vengeful if injured, and everyone seems to agree that Greek nymphs will punish someone who hurts their tree(s), there is no indication of how someone might be punished.
The obvious variation here is the mobile trees from Lewis and Tolkein, whose trees are physically powerful and violent.
It’s worth noting that the helpless Greek nymphs are female and the puissant ents are male. I don’t mean to make that sound like the Greeks disregarded women’s power – Euripides in particular with Medea created a fierce and vindicative character, and the Greek goddesses are no lightweights. Nevertheless, even the moss people (male and female) verge on the less powerful. My initial feeling is that while gender may play some part in how tree spirits are understood to be formidable guardians, more than that they are a reflection of what we understand nature to be. Storms and oceans are frightening and dangerous, but trees? Not necessarily.
Then again – a tree isn’t scary, but a forest might be. A thick and dark forest might be. It might be easy to lose one’s way (cf. Little Red Riding Hood).
In addition, different trees are known for having distinct properties according to folklore and botany. Perhaps this is part of the reason the Greeks paired nymphs with specific trees. Blackthorn provides strong wood and thorns. Rowan wood is thought to be useful in divination. Although all trees share in common their tree-nature, they have unique properties that set them apart. How we think about those properties as well as how we think about trees goes a long way to determining how we think about the spirits that inhabit them.
Is nature something that we can control – a little or a lot or not at all?