Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Tree Of Life

Mayan world tree
The Mayan World Tree

In essence  the World Tree represents the universe. In Norse myth Yggdrasil, the sacred ash, joins the underworld and the higher realms of the gods. Within its branches are suspended  nine worlds, while various attendant animals and monsters gnaw at its leaves, roots and fruits it replenishes itself - each animal is a cosmological reference. 

The Norse weren’t alone in choosing the tree to symbolise such a powerful idea. The Mayan World Tree rose through the three spheres of existence. Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Altaic beliefs featured a seven-branched Tree Of Life. In the Egyptian version the Goddess of Destiny sat in the lower branches** and the tree was called ‘aam’ or ‘aama’.    For the Abakhan Tatars  a seven-branched birch tree grew atop an iron mountain. In Chinese mythology the Cosmic tree grew at the centre of the universe, where the perfect capital was to be found; this sacred tree united the Nine Springs with the Nine Worlds. The Irish Dindsenchus mentions huge trees marking the assembly place for the gods, who were linked with the fate and choice of legendary kings. The World Tree of the Yakut of Siberia was called Yryn-al-tojon. 

Under the Universal Tree

Hindu philosophy makes  reference to a Pipal tree, also known as Ashvattha  (mentioned in Buddhist texts as the  Bodhi tree, under which the Buddha meditates).  In  The Mahabharata it is stated: ‘He who worships Ashvattha daily worships the whole universe.”  Indeed Krishna himself said: “Among all trees I am Ashvattha.” And in the Padma Purana: “Ah, there is nothing on earth as great as Vishnu in the form of an Ashvattha tree.” Even today Pipal trees are venerated by Hindus in areas of India. The trees are circled clockwise, wrapped in coloured cord and offered gifts of water, food, flowers, incense and lamps. As with many belief systems the whole is personified in the fragment.  

Its roots above, its branches below,
This is the eternal banyan* tree.
That alone is the bright! That is Brahman!
That alone is called the immortal!
On it all the worlds rest;
Beyond it no one can ever pass

Upanishads (trans. Patrick Olivelle)

While we’re on the subject of the ‘inverted tree’ I’ll mention that  the Lapps used to sacrifice an ox to an inverted tree (as a god of vegetation) - while in Hebraic tradition the Tree Of Life was inverted, as was  the Islamic Tree Of Happiness. An excavation of a site off the coast of Norfolk, dated to around 2000-2500BC, featured  fifty-five split oak trunks arranged in a circle around a central  inverted oak stump (buried in the ground). It became known as Seahenge and it was 'excavated' and preserved in 1999.

Traditional Saami drum from the 19th c
Traditional Saami drum from the 19th c.

The above examples attest to the great age of this symbolism. In fact a great many Shamanistic faiths make reference to the World Tree,  rising through different realms (usually three, seven or nine) and associated with the axis-mundi or sacred centre. For example, in the hymns of the Vasyugan Ostiak shamans, the  Cosmic Tree has seven levels; it passes through all the heavenly spheres and buries its roots in the depths of the earth. 

Thus the Sacred Tree was long seen as a symbol of the cosmos, as a force of life, of endless fertility and total reality.  Because it dies and is reborn the sacred tree contains much power and this regenerative notion  gives rise to the Tree Of Life concept. Not only does the tree tower from the centre of the world, it supports the heavens and can be represented as a pillar.  The Altai peoples believe that the gods attached horses to this cosmic pillar, while in Scandinavia Odin tethered his horse to Yggdrasil. The Saxons called this cosmic pillar Irminsul-universalis columna quasi sustinens omnia. The Maypole is possibly a much degenerated version of this mythos.  

Anglo Saxon cross from the North of England
Anglo Saxon cross from the North of England

Anglo Saxon cross from the North of England
Anglo Saxon cross fragment from the North of England

It is known that the Teutons conflated the World Tree and Tree of Life concepts. To my mind this is apparent in the crosses indicated. These Anglo-Saxon monuments were influenced by Scandinavian heathens and the Church - obviously the populace drew parallels between pagan and early Christian imagery.   Possibly because of their association with resurrection,  the sacred tree and cross (whose wood is supposed to bring the dead back to life - why? Because it is supposed to have been fashioned from the Tree Of Life which stood in the Garden of Eden*** ) were mixed for a time.

In some myths heroes search for the Tree Of Life  but it is guarded by a terrible monster, often a serpent. For example in Slavic myth the Tree Of Life was guarded by  a dragon called Simorg. To obtain immortality from the Tree Of Life the hero had to prove himself. Heroes who took the rite included Hercules and Gilgamesh. 

The imagery of a World Tree is powerful. I can’t help linking it with modern scientific ideas about the universe: Dark matter nested in the structure of the universe, a weblike structure upon which the universe of matter is built - like sap through the boughs of a tree. We could even draw comparisons to fractal forms, such as the branching neural networks of the brain. 

This is a version of Yggdrasil

I’m going to end this post with a piece from about Yggdrasil, basically because there is something about the imagery that stirs me deeply - it’s a personal fave of mine.

I know an ash standing
named Yggdrasil,
a high tree, laved
with white mud:
thence come the dews
that fall into dales
it stands ever green
over Urd´s fountain.

Völuspá verse 19 from The Poetic Edda.


*Pipal/Ashvattha tree

**Compare this to the notion of the Well of 'fate' beneath Yggdrasil in Norse myth.

***Not impossible to read a sort of religious propaganda here: whereby one imposes itself upon the other by conflating it; not to stand as equal but incorporate its mythology as its own. 


Upanishads  - translated by. Patrick Olivelle
People Trees: Worship Of Trees In Northern India - David L. Haberman
Patterns In Comparative Religion - Eliade Mircea 
The Cosmological Origins Of Myth And Symbol From The Dogon And Ancient Egypt, India, Tibet And China - Laird Scranton
Encyclopaedia Of Russian and Slavic Myth And Legend - Mike Dixon-Kennedy 
The Lost Beliefs Of Northern Europe - HR Ellis Davidson 
Norse Mythology - John Lindow

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