Latin name: Acacia
Symbolism: Sensitivity and protection
Divine Association: Osiris (ancient Egyptian)
Astrological Associations: Sun, Pluto
Historical Spotlight: When travelling through Patagonia (southern Chile and Argentina) in 1833, Charles Darwin came upon a sacred tree between the Rio Negro and the Rio Colorado. The native peoples referred to this solitary acacia as the Altar of Walleechu, and visited it to hang votive offerings in its branches. Poor people just added coloured threads, while richer people poured alcohol and maté into a hole in the tree. The visitors made smoke offerings that carried their gratitude to the spirit world.
Acacia is a very large genus of 800 to 1,000 species of shrubs and trees found throughout the subtropical and tropical regions, particularly of Africa and Australia (where they are known as wattles). They are mainly shrubs, but several species reach tree size. The leaves are often bipinnate. The flowers are usually yellow and appear in small, rounded heads, mostly in winter or spring. The fruits are ovate to linear legumes.
The common acacia (A. raddiana) grows 16–26ft (5–8m) high, and its leaves divide bipinnately into small oblong to elliptical leaflets. The main flowering season is in spring, with a second season in late summer. The twisted pods contain many seeds, which, after falling from the tree, are eaten by various animals. A. abyssinica is native to Ethiopia and has 3–5in (7.5–12.5cm) long fruits.
The locust tree or false acacia (Robinia pseudoacacia) is not a species of this genus but, like the true acacias, a member of the pea family (Leguminosae).
Practical Uses of Acacia
The acacia was of great importance in ancient Egypt, both practically and spiritually. Of the native trees, it was the most widespread and also the most useful. Roof-timbers up to 12 cubits (17ft 9in/5.4m)long could be cut from the low-hanging, curved branches, and the wood was strong enough to form the main timbers of the hulls and ribs of small ships. Shorter pieces of wood were used to make the common Nile cargo barge. This boat was constructed from pieces 2ft (60cm) long, fitted together like bricks. Acacia was also used for making furniture, chests, coffins and bows.
In the southwestern USA, the Cahuilla and the Pima tribes eat the pods or seeds of catclaw acacia (A. greggii) either raw, or ground and cooked in cakes. In Hawaii, the wood of the koa (A. koa) was used to make canoes.
Hawaiians apply koa ashes to the insides of infants’ mouths to give them physical strength. They also place the leaves on a sick person’s bed to encourage him or her to sweat.
Culture, Myth and Symbol
To the mind of the ancient Egyptian, a boat was not only a physical object but also a mirror image of the barge of consciousness on which the soul floated through life. Viewed in this way, boats and coffins have something in common, and many cultures developed ship or boat burials. In the five boat burials discovered near the pyramid of Cheops (c2590 BCE), the boats were made from acacia and cedar.
Most importantly, the original sacred barge of Osiris at the temple of Thebes was made from acacia. This ancient nature god “died” every year when the plants withered, only to be “reborn” in spring. By overcoming death and achieving eternal life, Osiris personified the promise of redemption in the afterlife. The ancient Egyptians’ spiritual goal was to transcend the boundaries of personality and merge with Osiris. The acacia was the guardian of this promise, for it protected Osiris’ mummy while his soul embraced the universe. Inscriptions call him “the solitary one in the acacia”, and inscribed images show the god as a mummy sheltered by the tree.
The tribes of Israel made the Ark of the Covenant, the Tabernacle, the table and altar from common acacia wood (A. raddiana). This tree has no other sacred history in Jewish tradition and it was probably used for the Ark simply because Moses was familiar with it from having lived in Egypt. Of the three acacia species that survive the harsh conditions of Sinai, only the common acacia would have been suitable for construction timber.
In Arabia, the acacia tree is still revered, and anyone who even breaks a twig is expected to die within a year.
Elsewhere, in ancient China the great Earth god was said to live in a pine tree, while the other Earth deities resided at the four points of the compass in other species of trees. The homes of the gods of the north were acacia trees.
Find out more
The Living Wisdom of Trees: A Guide to the Natural History, Symbolism and Healing Power of Trees is definitive guide to the sacred place trees hold for cultures around the world, exploring the natural history, folklore and symbolism that give each genus of tree its unique character and fascination.
Fred Hageneder is a naturalist, author, graphic designer and harpist. He is co-founder of the Ancient Yew Group which aims to protect the yew trees in the UK, and a member of the Ecocentric Alliance. His books include The Spirit of Trees, The Tree Angel Oracle, and the acclaimed Yew – A History.
The Living Wisdom of Trees is available now.