7 Symbolic Meanings of Cypress Trees in Art, Myth & Bible

The cypress tree is a symbol of sorrow and melancholy, towering and slender, stretching high into the gloom of the evening sky.

Its thick evergreen cover allows no light to penetrate, casting eerie, long shadows on the ground as dusk descends.

The evergreen cypress tree has its roots in the Himalayan region. It was the Phoenicians, in around 1100 B.C., who brought this tree to the Mediterranean area when they established a settlement on the island that came to be known as Cyprus, a name derived from this very tree.

The poet Ovid (34 B.C. – 17 A.D.) provides a mythological backstory to the cypress tree’s name.

The legend involves a young man named Cyparissus, who was a close friend of the god Apollo. A tragic accident resulted in Cyparissus killing a majestic stag who was Apollo’s favorite and highly revered by the Dictean nymphs.

Overwhelmed by guilt and grief for his actions, Cyparissus pleaded with the gods to let him mourn forever.

Heeding his request, the gods transformed him into a cypress tree. Consequently, the tree has come to symbolize the immortal soul and the concept of eternal death.

The Cypress is a sacred tree of life

The cypress tree holds a sacred status as a symbol of life. The concept of a sacred tree dates back to prehistoric times, and is rooted in the belief that spirits resided in certain trees and plants that were helpful to humankind.

It is likely that the cypress was initially seen as an embodiment of the Mother-Goddess, Ishtar.

This belief that the cypress was the tree of the Mother Goddess gradually spread across the Near East and lands far away, adapting to the local cultures it arrived in.

Both the cypress and the “Tree of Life” have become universal symbols of eternity.

The cypress tree, revered by many cultures, was often referred to as the “Tree of Life” due to its longevity and persistently green leaves.

In ancient China, the cypress tree held a unique significance. It was believed that consuming its seeds, rich in yang substances, would bestow longevity.

The resilience of the cypress tree, even in the face of harsh winter frosts, was a testament to its robust nature, as poetically captured by Chuang Tzu in chapter 28:

“Winter frosts only emphasize the powers of resistance possessed by the cypress, from which they cannot take its leaves.”

The Cypress was the tree of the Greek & Roman afterlife

The cypress tree has historically been associated with the afterlife in both Greek and Roman mythology.

This association stemmed from the shared symbolism of conifers, their unspoiled resin and evergreen leaves acting as symbols of immortality and resurrection.

Another explanation of the cypress’ being a symbol of death is the tree’s unique characteristic of not regrowing after being cut down.

 These reasons led to the widespread planting of cypress trees in graveyards.

Consequently, the cypress was closely tied to Hades, the ruler of the underworld. In many cases, the cypress was synonymous with the subterranean realms

Orphic depictions of the afterlife mention that upon entering the underworld, a newly arrived soul would be greeted by the sight of a white cypress tree overlooking the fountain of Lethe, also known as the Waters of Oblivion.

The Cypress is a mourning tree

During the Victorian era, the symbolic significance of the cypress tree was deeply woven into funeral and mourning traditions.

The tree was often planted in graveyards, creating alleys lined with cypress. It was also harvested and used to line coffins or scattered over them, its pleasant aroma filling the room.

A wreath made of cypress branches would be crafted to signify a death, symbolism derived from the cypress tree’s characteristic of not regrowing once cut.

This wreath, adorned with a black ribbon, would be hung on the front door. When combined with marigolds, a symbol of grief, the cypress expressed deep sorrow.

Cypress trees were typically planted in and around graveyards, even at the head of graves.

The Western perception of the cypress as a funeral tree is in stark contrast to the East Asian interpretation of the cypress tree.

Rather than a symbol of death, East Asian cultures view the cypress more as a symbol of grace and joy.

In Japan, the Cypress represents purity and incorruptibility

In Japan, a particular type of cypress, known as hinoki, is prominently used in Shinto worship. This wood is employed in crafting various religious artifacts, including the shaku, a scepter used by priests.

Notably, the ritualistic fire in these ceremonies is ignited by friction between two hinoki sticks. The hinoki wood is also utilized in constructing temples, such as the ones in Ise, symbolizing purity and resistance to decay.

In China, the Cypress tree symbolized immortality

For the ancient Chinese, cypress resin held a unique significance. It was believed that rubbing one’s heels with cypress resin would allow them to walk on water due to the lightness it imparted to the body.

Furthermore, burning cypress resin was thought to reveal the presence of jade and gold, both of which are yang substances and are considered symbols of immortality.

Reinforcing its role as a symbol of eternal life, the cypress tree, along with the pine, holds a significant place in the rituals of Chinese secret societies.

These trees are often situated at the entrance to the ‘City of Willows’ or the ‘Circle of Heaven and Earth’.

In Biblical tradition, the Cypress tree is a warning against ambition

In Biblical traditions, the cypress tree serves as a caution against unrestrained ambition.

The verse from Psalm 29:5 states, “The voice of the Lord breaketh the cedars; yea the Lord breaketh the cedars of Lebanon.”

Concurrently, Isaiah (14:15) criticizes those rulers who, akin to the towering cypress and cedar, aspire ‘to ascend above the heights of the clouds,’ only to be toppled.

The tendency of cypress trees to grow tall were thus used to symbolize human flaws, that of unchecked earthly ambition that incessantly strives to expand its influence, only to ultimately succumb to its downfall.

Cypress tree symbolism in dreams

The cypress tree in dreams holds rich symbolism, ranging from feelings of sorrow and loss, due to its Western association with mourning, to signaling personal growth and vitality, as suggested by Eastern traditions.

However, considering its Biblical implications, a cypress tree in a dream could also represent the dreamer’s aspirations, or serve as a caution against unrealistic ambition.

The specific interpretation depends heavily on the dreamer’s personal experiences and the context of the dream.


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Atlas Mythica

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