The pine tree which remains green and healthy throughout the year is symbolic of eternal and transcendent spirit. The seasons which change our activity and behavior, nevertheless, cannot change the continuity of who we are. In this, we witness the unconscious revelation of the soul of life, of which the unconscious itself, is an inexorable part. Furthermore, pine needles are taught to be therapeutic by many archaic cultures and in the tradition of Wicca, or witchcraft, they are viewed as receptors of pure elemental energy. Perhaps this is why the pine tree remains forever impervious to the elements themselves.
Throughout most of the Far East, the pine is a symbol of immortality, due to its evergreen foliage and the incorruptible nature of its resin.
Taoist Immortals fed upon pine kernels, needles and resin, doing away with the need for any other nourishment and making their bodies light and able to take flight. Flowers from the pines in the Pure Jade Heaven ‘gave a golden complexion to whoever ate them’.
Symbolism of the same character led, in Japan, to the choice of pine and hinoki (cypress) as building material for Shinto temples and the wood used in cult-implements. The notion also occurs in Chinese secret societies: both pine and cypress stand at the gates of the City of Willows or the Circle of Heaven and Earth, both abodes of the Immortals. Confucius, too, relates that beside altars to the Earth ‘the Hia planted pines and the Yin, cypress.’
In Japanese art, the pine is regarded as a symbol of the life force; in everyday life as an omen of good fortune; in literature, as the result of a pun, of delay. Two pine trees are reminders of the legend of Takasago and symbolize love and faithfulness in marriage.
Western iconography sometimes depicts two cocks fighting over a pine-cone, which inevitably conjures up the picture of the two dragons fighting over a pearl. It is the symbol of the truth made manifest.
In China, the pine is often associated with other symbols of longevity such as the mushroom and the crane, or the bamboo and the plum. The Chinese, regarding long life as the highest bliss, perhaps imagine that by bringing these symbols together they can correspondingly augment their power. For unless they are assured of having the time to enjoy them, they have little real regard for wealth, honours, love or children.
In Japan, the pine (matsu) is also the symbol of irresistible strength tempered by a lifetime of daily struggle. It is also the symbol of those who have held to their opinions unaffected by the criticisms of those around them, because the tree emerges unscathed from the assaults of storm and tempest. This is from the Shinto tradition that kami (divinities) dwell in the branches of trees and, as the pine is an evergreen, they prefer it to all others. Pines are therefore placed at the entrance of the house to attract the kami and their blessings.
Dionysos often holds a pine-cone in his hand like a sceptre. Like the ivy, it is an expression of the perpetuity of plant-life, with the additional nuance of a sort of lordship over nature, regarded as an elemental and intoxicating force, on the part of the god. It stands for the elevation of the life force and the glorification of fertility. The Orphics consecrated a mystery-cult to Dionysos in which the god died, was eaten by the Titans and was then restored to life again, a symbol of the perennial return of plants and of life in general. Dionysos was also seen at Delphi for three months when he ruled the shrine, vanishing for the rest of the year. Historians regard this as an agrarian religious myth. The pine was also sacred to the fertility-goddess, cybele. It was supposed to have been a nymph changed into a tree to escape the amorous attentions of Pan. The pine-cone symbolizes the immortality of plant and animal life.
What Franz Cumont calls ‘that great mystical drama’, the cult of Cybele at Rome, with its echoes of the mysteries of Isis, in fact gave the pine a place of honour:
A pine-tree was cut down and carried to the Palatine Temple by a guild bearing the name of dendrophori (tree-carriers). The tree was bandaged like a corpse and wreathed with violets to represent the dead body of the goddess’s lover, Attis. Originally the latter had been no more than a vegetation-spirit, and thus the vastly ancient cult of Phrygian peasants subsisted beside the palace of the emperors in the honours paid to this tree of Mars. The next day was one of sorrow, during which the faithful fasted and mourned beside their god’s body ... The mystic eve of longed-for resurrection... From wails of despair they passed to delirious rejoicing.... With the rebirth of Nature, Attis awoke from his long death-sleep and the delight in his return to life was given full rein in unrestrained rejoicing, licentious masquerades and lavish banquets.
The pine symbolized the body of the god who died and was restored to life again: the image, in the worship of Cybele, of the cycle of the alternating seasons.