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A dryad is a shy nymph or spirit who lives in the woods. Dryads are associated with trees, and many mythologies have some version of the dryad, even if this specific term is not used, which would seem to suggest that people have long associated trees with supernatural beings and events. The term “dryad” comes specifically from Greek mythology.
Specifically, a dryad is a spirit associated with an oak tree, as “drys” means “oak” in Greek, but over time, these spirits have come to be associated with trees in general. According to legends, the dryads look after the forest and keep an eye on the health of the trees. They may periodically appear to travelers or assist the gods, but they are primarily concerned with the trees. Devout members of society would make offerings to appease or thank dryads when they needed to harvest trees or branches.
A specific type of dryad known as a hamadryad actually lives inside the tree, according to legend, and if the tree dies, the hamadryad dies with it. For this reason, the Greeks believed that it was necessary to ask permission from the gods before felling a tree, to confirm that they would not be killing a hamadryad by mistake. The gods were also said to punish people severely for cutting down trees without permission. Both of these legends may have originated in a desire to preserve a scarce resource in ancient times, encouraging the public to think before they cut by creating a religious association.
The Greeks were far from the only culture to associate spirits with the trees and the forest. Many animist and pagan cultures had legends and stories about spirits in the trees, and also associated specific trees with good or evil, depending on the trees involved. Certain woods were said to be more auspicious than others for projects like building houses or making walking sticks, while other types of wood were supposedly cursed or unlucky to use. The kodama of Japan and ghillie dhu of Scotland are two examples of dryads from other cultural traditions.
Depictions of dryads usually suggest that the spirits look sort of like the trees they live among, with long limbs, leafy hair, and mossy bodies. Dryads were sometimes depicted on wood and stone carvings or in works of art, often peering out from the trees at a scene taking place in the forest. A number of adaptations of the dryad myth can be seen in modern literature, from the willow women of The Chronicles of Narnia to the Ents in The Lord of the Rings.