Enchanted forests have long been a source of curiosity and inspiration for humankind. The name itself suggests a place of mystery, magic, and alluring possibility. Hypnotic and dicey by nature, enchanted forests have been a core part of mythology and folklore in cultures around the world for a reason: they represent something that both intrigues and terrifies us – the gap between the worlds.
From the Great Woods of Naria to Harry Potter’s Forbidden Forest and back to the legendary Mirkwood (“mirky” being the old English for “murky”) and Sleepy Hollow, modern-day tales of magical forests reflect those of old.
Teeming with life, and all that accompanies it, forests represent risk, danger, and the hope of survival. But moreover, they symbolize freedom and the possibility of a life truly lived. The latter often proving the more fearsome prospect.
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…”
– Robert Frost
To live – to really live – is to walk through the enchanted forest of life, and to face its perils, just as the heroes and heroines of old have done before you.
In this post we will delve into 12 enchanted forests from around the world – some you might know of, and some you might not. Plus, we’ll explore their significance in cultural mythology and folklore, as well as in popular fiction.
1. Cedar Forest in the Epic of Gilgamesh
Enchanted forests have always been a part of myth and folklore, right back to the earliest known civilization of Sumer (modern-day Iraq).
One such tale describes a demigod, Gilgamesh, who went about tyrannizing the people of his kingdom, Uruk. Having heard the cries for help from the people of Uruk, the gods were spurred on to create an equal to Gilgamesh. The result? A deity named Enkidu – who would challenge Gilgamesh and put an end to his egotistical antics. However, Enkidu was unable to defeat the mighty Gilgamesh. So, he opted for the wiser plan of joining forces with him instead.
Swollen egos intact, Enkidu and Gilgamesh set off to conquer the ultimate trophy: a very special forest that happened to be the realm of the gods. In both pre-biblical and biblical times, cedar trees were celebrated as symbols of strength, fertility, and abundance. Thus, a forest full of said trees only amplified their value. Knowing this, Enkidu and Gilgamesh set their sights on the gods’ Cedar Forest.1
However, the beastly protector of the forest, the demonic Humbaba intervened. Following an altercation with the demon, Gilgamesh ambushed Humbaba and chopped off his head. It is said that before his demise, Humbaba cursed the two warriors, wishing them a short life of misery and ill-health. Enkidu and Gilgamesh then declared themselves kings of Cedar Forest, just in time for Enkidu’s untimely deterioration and death.2
2. Foloi Oak Forest – Land of Centaurs and Gods
Foloi (or Pholoe) Oak Forest, tucked away in the southwestern corner of Greece, is the largest forest of its kind in the country. According to Greek mythology, it was frequented by gods, centaurs, and mythical heroes. Some believe that it was Hercules himself who gave the forest its name.
One day, Hercules (which is the Roman name for the Greek hero Herakles) set out on a journey to Mount Erymanthos to hunt a troublesome wild boar he’d heard about. Along the way, in a deep and wondrous forest, he came across a friend of his, a centaur (half man, half horse) named Pholus. Being a kind and generous friend, Pholus persuaded Hercules to join him for a feast of meat and wine. (The feast being divinely made by no less than the god of winemaking and revelry, Dionysus). Hercules heartily accepted the king’s offer and ate and drank until he could no more.3
As things go, the other centaurs of the forest were displeased at the sight of an outsider eating and drinking their bounty. So, naturally, a brawl erupted. Rocks, sticks, and arrows were hastily exchanged between the two sides before Hercules chased the remaining centaur foes to Cape Malea.4
However, when Hercules returned, he found his Pholus lying on the ground, dead. Hercules had accidentally struck his dear friend with his own arrow. Downhearted and dismayed, Hercules buried his friend in the forest and named it after him – Pholoe (or Foloi).
3. Slieve Gullion Forest and Fionn Mac Cumhaill
The forests of Ireland are steeped in folklore and myth. One enchanted forest called Slieve Gullion is no exception. This forest is well-known as the hunting ground of the legendary Gaelic giant, Fionn Mac Cumhaill (pronounced fy-un mc-cool). A hero featured in many Irish legends, Fionn famously accepted the challenge of the Scottish giant, Bernandonner, in an epic battle that took place on the Giant’s Causeway. According to the legend, the frenzied Fionn hurled massive boulders into the sea, which created a path, or causeway, where the two behemoths could meet head-on.
However, the battle never took place. Spying from across the water, Fionn saw that Bernandonner was far bigger and stronger than he was. Realizing he was out of his depth, he disguised himself as a baby. When Bernandonner saw the infant, assuming it was Fionn’s, his imagination ran wild, thinking with horror that Fionn would be 20 times the size of the baby, so he ran for the hills in fright.
Fionn and the Hag of Beare
One Fenian (about Fionn) legend brings us to the unearthly forest of Slieve Gullion (Sliabh Cuilinn in Irish), which is nestled among the rolling green hills of County Armagh, Ireland. A mature woodland exploding with diversity, it is home to oak, ash, birch, beech, and chestnut trees, among others. The forest of Slieve Gullion leads to an ancient, primordial volcanic lake, as well as to the burial tomb of a malevolent witch called the Hag of Beare (Cailleach Bheara in Irish).
According to the legend, Fionn and the hag clashed in this very forest.
As the story goes, the woeful witch disguised herself as a beautiful young maiden. Then she purposefully distracted young Fionn from his hunt (apparently Fionn was easily side-tracked by beautiful women). She, being an enigmatic enchantress, begged Fionn to rescue her missing jewellery in the lake. Hoping to win her favor, Fionn didn’t hesitate to jump in.
The enchantress didn’t lie about her jewellery being in the lake, however. Indeed, Fionn found her golden ring at the bottom. But as he emerged from the water, he was no longer the powerful muscular hero; he was a weak and withered old man.
Fionn’s army, the Fianna, fearing for their leader, didn’t even recognize him at first. But Fionn let out three sorrowful cries and then, true to his nature, he gathered himself and ordered his men to defeat the swindling witch.
Succeeding in their mission, the warriors buried her in a passage tomb. In so doing, they discovered the antidote to her spells hidden amongst the witch’s possessions. Thus, they were able to rescue their leader and revert him back to his heroic self.5 The lake became known as Loch Doghra, or the Lake of Sorrows.6
4. Waipoua Forest and Tāne Mahuta
The ancient and diverse Waipoua Forest in the Northland region of New Zealand is home to Tāne Mahuta, also known as God of the Forest. Today, Tāne manifests himself as a giant kauri tree (Agathis australis) that overlooks the entire woodland. But according to local lore, this was not always the case.
Long before the Lord of the Rings became the ambassador of New Zealand’s mythos, Tāne Mahuta was the true essence of local legend. He played a pivotal role in the Māori creation story. The legend says that he was one of the many offspring of Papatūānuku (the earth father) and Ranginui (the sky mother). Tāne’s mother and father so loved each other that they could not part. Subsequently they trapped their progeny between them.
Tāne is said to have spearheaded his way out of the darkness, delivering his siblings to the world of light. Having pulled apart this papa and mama with his sheer strength and will, which stretched the earth and the sky, he is compared with the trees of the forest that stretch upwards to separate the elements. Tāne was named the God of the forest (or ngahere).
In Māori culture, the forest symbolizes the source of life: food, refuge, and essential tools. Tāne Mahuta represents just that: a brave and bold protector of all life.7
5. Forest Brocéliande
The Dark Ages brought us Arthurian legends of whimsical wizards, frivolous fairies, and intrepid kings. Forest Brocéliande in Brittany (modern-day Paimpont) seems to be the birthplace of such stories – thanks to its mossy trees, mists, lucent lakes, and other-worldly ambience.
One such legend unravels the futile love story of Merlin, the great magician, and Vivien, the “Lady of the Lake”.
The story begins with two charlatans: Lady Vivien and Mark of Cornwall. Mark had ascertained news that all was not well in the land of Camelot and that his enemy’s wife, Guinevere, was guilty of an adulterous affair with one of the knights, Lancelot. Thus, Mark decided to send Vivien to King Arthur’s castle in a bid to stir up trouble.
Despite being accepted into the castle, Vivien failed to gain the king’s favor and became somewhat of a laughingstock. This infuriated her and galvanized her wicked intentions. And so, she set her sights on the king’s trusted friend, Merlin the Great.
Merlin was a very wise man indeed. The quintessential Renaissance man, he was an astronomer, engineer, architect, bard, and magician – all in one. However, Merlin was also human; and when it came to a fleecer like Vivien, whose feminine qualities bewitched the strongest of men, he was weak.8 Despite Merlin’s best efforts, Vivien managed to leech the secret to his potent magic charm out of him, before using it against him in an act of vengeance.9
Having been poisoned, Merlin fell into a hollow oak in the enchanted forest, where, some say, he lies to this day.
6. The Black Forest
The Black Forest (Der Schwarzwald in German) is possibly one of the most well-known enchanted forests. Bundled in between the borders of neighboring France and Switzerland, this German holt is bursting with tales of mythical creatures and happenings – thanks to its rich Celtic and Germanic bonds. In fact, many years ago, locals named the forest Abnoba Mons, after the Celtic goddess of forest and rivers, Abnoba.
The dense and, some say sinister, forest is said to have been the inspiration for the Brothers Grimms’ embellished versions of old German folktales, including the well-known classics “Hansel and Gretel”, Snow White”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and “The Frog Prince”.10
Another German folktale takes us to the banks of the Rhine River, which skirts the Black Forest. According to the story, a beautiful water nymph named Lorelei lived along the river’s banks. Locals say that overwhelmingly seductive aura drew passing sailors into their watery graves. Hypnotized by her beauty, they would crash into the bank and sink. Today, you will find a statue of Lorelei close to Sankt Goarshausen, overlooking the perilous stretch of water.
Other tales of the Black Forest describe the antics of elves who loved to play tricks on unsuspecting parents and their new-born babies. A changeling, in German lore, was the deformed offspring of elves or fairies, covertly swapped for a human baby.11 Legend has it that the elves would hand over the infant to the devil and receive strength as their reward. Throughout Europe, the locals tell stories of changelings and similar creatures.
One such story tells us of a young mother who, worried for the health of her new-born, brought him to a magic spring in Neuhausen, located in the northern end of the Black Forest. According to local lore, the water would either restore her baby to health or kill him within nine days. Desperate for a cure, she poured the water over him and quickly scurried towards home.
Unbeknownst to the mother, a stranger had been trailing her through the forest. Catching up with her, he yellowed at her to throw her baby into the river, for it was a demon! Reluctantly, the mother did so, and the infant perished. When the heartbroken mother finally reached home, she was stunned when she found her baby was cooing in his crib.12
For centuries, Puzzlewood, a picturesque woodland in the belly of England, has enthralled all who dare to venture into its overgrowth. With its questionable rock formations, murky caves, and interwoven trees – it’s not difficult to imagine where it got its nickname.
Puzzlewood, also known as the Forest of Dean, evokes fantasies of magic and far-fetched lore.13 It’s no coincidence that both Tolkien’s Mirkwood Forest and J.K. Rowling’s Forbidden Forest were reportedly inspired by its magic.14
Legend has it that many mystical creatures dwell deep in the forest. Numerous sightings include that of “The Beast of Dean” – a type of moose-pig hybrid.
8. Caddo Lake Forest
Perched on the border between the U.S. states of Texas and Louisiana is the lush and leafy Caddo Lake Forest. A mishmash of waterways and swamps, alligators, and eagles, this enchanted forest is the definition of abundance, both in its wildlife and folklore.
In the late 18th century, the Caddo Native Americans settled in the forest. According to Caddo creation myths, a powerful wind threw water into the forest, where it created a giant lake. The Caddo made their home in the dense and swampy forest for decades, hunting, fishing, and farming.
However, in 1835, the U.S. government purchased the land from them for $80,000 and the Caddo left within a year.15
The Caddo and other settlers may not have been the only inhabitants of the Caddo Forest, however. There have been hundreds of alleged sightings of the legendary ape-like creature Bigfoot, in the area. Calling him Sasquatch, the Native Americans have many legends about his existence. Only those who dear to tread into the darkest reaches of the forest may get a glimpse of him.16
9. Sleepy Hollow
Set in the historic Dutch settlement of what is now Tarrytown, New York, the story of the enchanted forest of Sleepy Hollow has both historical and folkloric roots. Washington Irving’s classic The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a riveting combination of known history and local legend.
Towards the end of the 1700s, the British military commander General William Howe and German Hessian mercenaries engaged in a number of battles with the Americans near Sleepy Hollow.
According to historical tales, in a final and fatal battle that took place on Halloween 1776, an unfortunate Hessian mercenary lost his head. According to the story, fellow soldiers buried him under an oak tree in the forest. As the legend goes, the Hessian’s ghost awaits the opening of a magic portal each year on Halloween when the veil thins between the world of the living and that of the dead, so he can emerge and seek his vengeance.17
10. Crooked Forest
Hidden away beneath Poland’s Szczecin lagoon, lies a mysterious forest of 400 bent pine trees called Crooked Forest (or Krzywy Las in Polish). Shaped in the form of upside-down question marks, the crookedness of pine trees has inspired many to wonder at the cause.
Locals speculate that farmers manipulated the trunks of the young trees back in the 1930s, with the desire to create the perfect curve for shipbuilding. However, this practice is unknown to other shipbuilders around the world.18
Others claim that extra-terrestrials had something to do with the forest’s odd formation. The nearest village to the Crooked Forest was the town of Gryfino. However, it was destroyed in WWII. Thus, we may never know the truth about the quirky crooked woodland.
11. Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine
On the Japanese island of Yakushima, there is an ancient evergreen woodland where it seems that time has stood still, and you can see the beauty of nature in all its glory. The Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine (白谷雲水峡) is a paradise for those who are lucky enough to visit.19
Upon entering the forest, a visitor will find an outline of a door, or a Shinto gate. The gate delineates the frontier between two dimensions – that of the ordinary and that of the sacred. The Japanese believe that the spirits of the dead wander aimlessly through the forest, searching for resolution.
It was in this forest that the idea for the epic fantasy movie Princess Mononoke was born. Considered a masterpiece in animation, the film is set in the enchanted forest, where an epic battle between humans and nature ensues.20
12. Lisacul, Forest of the Fairies
Forest of the Fairies (or Lios an Choill in Irish) is located in the emerald landscape of the wild west of Ireland. It’s a forest dense with stories of fairies, banshees, spirits, and pookas. From magical wells that never dry out to ghost processions and beyond, Lisacul is a place where legends are born.
Celtic traditions and beliefs, or pisreogs, stand strong in the minds of the Irish people. And this forest is at the fulcrum.
In Lisacul, legend has it that each night at midnight, a famine funeral procession passes through the woods. The Irish say that to build a house in its path is to bring misfortune to your family. According to the legend, there is a famine graveyard hidden in the forest’s depths. There is also a bottomless well that contains miraculous healing properties. Only those who are willing to risk all would venture to go there…
It’s clear that the forests of old have inspired many artists and storytellers. And despite the passing of time, the legends and lore about the world’s enchanted forests still fascinate many of us today. Perhaps sharing these stories and our sense of wonder with others can help them appreciate the world’s remaining forests for the magic they still hold.
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