Thursday, December 22, 2016

Aspects Of The Goddess: The Matronae

triple goddess
Matronae from a Romano-Celtic settlement in Gaul

This post is about the cult of the Matronae (or matres),  found throughout Europe from 100-400AD, during the Roman occupation of those lands. About 1100 carved stone altars remain in Eastern Gaul, Northern Italy, Britain and regions of Germany. These deities - themselves remnants of earlier goddess worship -  are also found in later forms of pagan worship, especially in Norse concepts such as the Norns, Valkyries and Disir.

Matronae were attributed with concepts of life-giving and abundance. Many of these goddesses were typographical and related to territory, sometimes giving their names to local tribes - the most famous being the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the tribes of Danu, a goddess associated with the land. These concepts may well stem from Neolithic origins. Across Europe  venus figures and cave sculptures  appear as testaments of an age-old cult. However it is uncertain if this is proof of a singular  Great Goddess religion, though Marija Gimbutas would steer us eloquently in that direction. Gimbutas postulated that the emergence, and spread, of a feminine goddess cult  was later downgraded by Indo-European tribal incursions, these tribes being viewed as bringing with them patriarchal gods, reflecting their warrior nature, as oppose the more agrarian cultures whose lands they invaded. Gimbutas traces this Earth Mother cult to around 7500BC. Joseph Campbell, writer of a series of important works, tracing elements of comparative religion, came to a similar conclusion. He talked about the 'goddess-with-many-names', a shared concept under various guises. Some archaeologists believe this concept overly simplifies things. 

We know that in Celtic society women played an important role, there were warrior queens, such as Medb of Connaught, and Boudicca of the Iceni, to name but a few. In Europe several burial sites from the Hallstatt period have revealed lavish female burials that could be those of either royalty or priestesses. That they were highly respected is evidenced by the type of objects interred with them.

Three Matronae display their bounty, Gloucestershire.

In the Romano-Celtic period the Matronae, or Deae Matres, appear at shrines and as votary statues in triadic form. The most distinguishing features of the matronae is their benevolent aspect.  They are non-threatening, fully clothed, maternal (but with breasts covered), and they project their meaning via the offerings that they carry, which includes fruit, bread, fish, infants and cornucopia. Across Gaul (which maybe the place of their origin), areas of Germany and Britain these enigmatic and mysterious statues appear. They are not governed by a single name, though much of the symbolism associated with them is similar and confers ideas of fertility, abundance and healing - especially when these shrines are placed near sacred wells.  Some are dedicated to single goddesses, such as the shrine of Coventina (a goddess of springs at Carrawburgh, near Hadrian’s wall),  are represented by three nymphs. Perhaps in this form we have a clue to the nature of the triplism of the Celtic faith, that the one could be represented in three parts, or three elements.  In Ireland  Ériu, Fódla and Banbha represent the land. The Machas were an Irish goddess triad linked with war and fertility. Life-giving  goddesses may also be coupled with death, and there are a number of warlike goddesses such as the Morrighan (of Irish mythic cycles), and Andraste, a British war goddess. Sometimes these are also seen singly or as part of a shapeshifting triad, encompassing the spectrum of  life, death, rebirth and protective symbology. This triplism was very important to the Celts and I’ve touched upon this in my Triskele posts (I  intend to elaborate on ‘Triplism’ further in a future post). 

Mothers of Aufania
A replica of an altar for the Mothers of Aufania (Matronae Aufaniae), Nettersheim. 

There is some debate as to whether this triple goddess notion is purely ‘Celtic’ or an import. The Matronae appear to be alien to the Roman culture, but there are parallels in Grecian myth,* which also possessed a penchant for the number three.  Interestingly there appears to have been a cross-pollination of concepts regarding the Gaulish matronae. A Germanic tribe called the Ubii appear to have adopted this triple-goddess concept and adapted it, in the form of the Matronae Aufaniae. Here the Matronae take on the role of ‘fates’. This is interesting when viewed in light of later Germanic and Scandinavian myths in which the three Norns (essentially Fates) sit around a well at the foot of the World Tree, Yggdrasil. 

As I stated in a previous post, I’m at a loss to find a link between the triskele symbol and the mothers. Though triplism was obviously important to the Celts I feel that the triskele symbol reflects a host of concepts. The idea of birth, death and life does fit well with the goddess concept. Though you’d think, in that case, there’d be some symbolic link on the statues, but there just isn’t (correct me if I’m wrong). That being said, the topographical naming of many Matres shrines may point to an overall commonality; that they are indeed goddesses of the earth, and perhaps the same, adopted individually by each tribe, or aspects of a similar deity, or spirit of the tribe/area/locality - and therefore a part of the whole (Campbell's goddess with a thousand names). It is also argued that,  due to the lack of written records, the three goddesses portrayed are separate deities, each performing a single function but contributing to a unified cause. There is also a suggestion that repetition strengthens the power of the deity. This idea is problematic:  why not carve more than three goddesses  to gain maximum power? Why limit yourself to three? Personally I’m not so struck on the latter notion.  I’m more inclined to suspect that the matronae were adaptations of earlier concepts involving creator goddesses, perhaps with a common theme. For example the gaelic Cailleach or Welsh Keriden (see The Cauldron). 

I think it is obvious  that as Christianity spread, evangelists  secured credence of their new religion with imagery that was not completely alien to the Celts: imagery that has persisted in many Catholic icons, and that exists by roadsides and paths to this very day in areas of countries such as Italy. It is that of the Holy Mother, with the babe on her knee. Indeed the ready adoption of this imagery, its profusion and power, may, to some extent, have replaced pagan imagery of matronae, yet it retained elements of pagan attitude.

More matronae, one with infant in swaddling. 


* E.g: the three Gorgons; Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa and the three Fates: Clotho (the spinner), Lachesis (drawer of lots), and Atropos (the inevitable). 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Power to the Horn! The Symbology of the Stag

stag in stone

 Stag Design by the Author - Stone Mad Crafts.

Across Northern Europe the stag was not only hunted but it was also so revered and respected that this magnificent animal became associated with hunting rites and folklore. 

In Celtic realms across the Continent and Britain there exist  carvings depicting an antler-horned humanoid. These have been tentatively linked to a deity named  “Cernunnos”  (translated as The Horned One*). This Horned God appears in various iconography in Europe and must have been associated with the wildwood. In Valcamonica his figure is carved on a rock (along with attendant serpent and torc), dwarfing a human figure at his feet (The Horned God will be the subject of a future post).  However the stag also appears alongside the god and must have been a sacred animal in his worship**. 

cult wagon
The Strettweg cult wagon from 600BC features stags in a ritual reference

This human/stag mix  may have links with the general ‘undercurrent’ of ancient ‘shamanic’ type practices.  In Britain 24 stag skull masks from the mesolithic period (and dated to 9000BC) were unearthed at Star Carr in North Yorkshire. Could this be the visualisation of a physical sensation that ritualists involved in ancient spirit-world practices actually experienced? Could it be that the sensation of the extended mind was (and is) still symbolised and expressed visually by antlers?  

star carr
Digital reconstructions of some of the masks found at Star Carr

In fact stags feature predominantly in parts of Valcamonica, where rock carvings date from early bronze-age and iron-age.  Obviously Valcamonica was a site where stags featured as part of the ritual, most likely tied to regional hunting rites.  It could be that the distinction between spirit/shamanic hunting rites and the hunt were blurred. 

Much of the imagery portrays young males in the peak physical fitness, revealing a sense of strength and virility.  Male deer shed their horns every year, and subsequently remove the velvet covering from their growing horns as the weeks progress. Drawing upon observations of the natural world (to which they were bound) symbolic links were surely drawn by these Iron-Age hunters***: ideas of  transition and re-birth also reflecting a seasonal symbology, which would tie in with much of the cyclical beliefs of the Celts and their predecessors.  The link between fighting prowess (males defend their females from other males) and  mating success surely could have been interpreted symbolically.  Certainly some of the carvings, in which the antlers are of an outlandish size,  may be an indication of strength and prowess. However certain Shamanic practitioners in the recent past drew symbolic stags, whose exaggerated horns represented the amount of spirit guides available to the shaman (the more ‘tines’ the more helpers).  

Another significance attached to the antler brings us back round to the Horned God and the association with the natural world, and how these forms could easily converge, i.e. the tree-like antler representing the ‘spirit of the forest’. In this aspect we glimpse the stag’s association with the World Tree, and in Norse myth we find deer that live in Yggdrasil’s branches, nibbling the leaves while their dung add fertiliser to the great tree’s roots.  

sun antlers
One of my photos from Valcamonica
showing the antlered sun symbol.
valcamonica carving
Another of mine from Valcamonica

The visual impact of the antlers was also manipulated in another way. Examples from Valcamonica portray figures and symbols that are a fusion of antler and the sun, indicating the association the stag had with this element. The huns had a legend in which a stag  was depicted with a sun on its forehead and there are designs from the bronze-age in which solar discs are portrayed with antlers. This is another age-old symbolic link. 

Neither is it surprising that the stag possesses  Otherworld symbolism in Celtic literature. There is some evidence to suggest that this same Horned God, mentioned above, may have chthonic properties (I promise I’ll deal with this in a future post).  Indeed the animal was different things to different people; it was associated with various deities, and appears in several Romano-celtic carvings paired with a bull. To me this is the stag’s most enduring imagery:  a symbol of the wild, unrepentant and chaotic nature (whereas, in this context,  the bull represents domestication and agriculture). In this aspect the stag’s imagery persists - right into the medieval period and beyond, always hinting at that which has gone before, as an echo of the past which made us all. And it is no wonder, as anyone  lucky enough to sight a  stag in the wild will know, such a sight  can’t fail to impress and, perhaps, tweak the mythological awe inside us all. 

gundestrup cauldron cernunnos
The horned deity on the Gundestrup Cauldron (Silver repoussé)

*There is some dispute about whether the deity was known by this name.
**This is similar in essence to the Grecian Goddess Artemis to whom the stag is devoted.
 *** The vast majority of the stags and hunt scenes in Valcamonica were carved in the Iron-Age.

Check out these links:


Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Cauldron is Deep

Icelandic manuscript
Odin, in the form of an eagle, steals the Mead of Poetry.
From 18th c. Icelandic manuscript IB 299 4to.

In Welsh myth Ceriden, the hag-goddess*, bears a child called Afagddu (his name means ‘utter darkness). Knowing he would never attract a mate Ceriden mixed herbs of inspiration in her magical cauldron. She tasked wee Gwion with the job of stirring the reeking stew, but he fell into the cauldron by mistake. Thus the laddie gained the powers of poetry and was later known as Taliesin, the great bard. However Ceridwen wasn’t the only one to own such an inspirational cauldron, the Welsh hero Ogyrvran possessed one through which inspiration arose in the form of fey folk. 

Such notions are also reflected in Norse mythology:  The gods created a supreme being called Kvasir, but two dwarves slew him. They poured his blood into two cauldrons and a pot, then sweetened his juice with honey - whoever drank this mead  would become a great poet. Of course it was the god Odin himself who eventually stole this potion for his personal use. 

Copper Cauldron from Bronze-Age Ireland.
Copper Cauldron from Bronze-Age Ireland.

In her book The Well Of Five Streams,  Erynn Laurie discusses an interesting link between cauldrons and poetry. Translating a 7th century Irish poem, “The Cauldron Of Poesy”, Erynn elaborates upon the text's reference to three inner cauldrons, through which poetry is born. 

Apart from being associated with inspiration and poetry the cauldron is also often blessed with rejuvenating properties. The myth of the great replenishing cauldron is not restricted to Northern Europe. It featured in the Greek classic Jason and the Argonauts. The hero's wife, Medea, was a powerful sorceress who rejuvenated Jason’s father, Aeson, by filling a cauldron with a stew of magical herbs. She sacrificed Aeson, slitting his throat, releasing his old blood and then poured her magic potion into his gaping wound. As soon as the potion filled him Aeson was restored and returned to being a young man. Via this method she also rejuvenated a ram after it had been hacked to pieces and placed into the cauldron.

Interestingly in Celtic myth we see parallels of the use of a magical cauldron to restore the dead. Indeed in the Welsh otherworld (Annwn) there existed a cauldron of plenty which was never empty. This might be the same cauldron that the hero, Arthur, stole in one of the many ancient stories relating to his exploits. In the Mabinogion we find the tale in which the Irish king Matholwch used a Magical Cauldron that once belonged to the Welsh giant Llassar Llaesgyfnewid. Matholwch employed the cauldron’s properties against the invading Welsh forces of Brân The Blessed. The dead were heaped into the cauldron to be reanimated! 

One of the panels of the infamous Gundestrup Cauldron portrays a scene that some interpret as the use of a cauldron in such a fashion. Warriors are lined up while a giantess transforms them into horsemen (the horse was a powerful status symbol in those days). Note that they are following a serpent, which is a chthonic symbol; so they may be 'reanimated' for the Otherworld**. 

A panel from the Gundestrup Cauldron, 2nd -1st c. BC, Denmark but Celtic themed

These themes of abundance and rejuvenation abound in Celtic myth. Another example is the Irish god, Dagda. He possessed a cauldron that was forever filled with good things (this being one of the mythical four treasures of the Tuatha dé Danaan, which originated in the city of Murias, travelled to Ireland with the Dé Danaan and is also linked with the holy well on the island of Iona -  whose waters were said to rise from the sacred cauldron itself). There was a Cauldron of plenty stored in an Irish cave, Oweynagat. Or the one belonging to the goddess Bláthnat, which the legendary hero, Cúchulainn stole from the Otherworld (along with the goddess and her magical cows).  The Smith God of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, Goibniu, purportedly possessed one that was forever filled with youth-restoring beverage. In Irish myth Cú Roí, (a mythical hero of Munster, or possibly an ancestral god),  kept a huge magical cauldron inside his keep. 

As we'd expect there are parallels in Norse mythology. In Valhalla Eldhrímnir is the name of the sooty cauldron in which the boar Saehrímnir is cooked everyday for the Einherjar. 

Bronze cauldron from Shipton-on-Cherwell.
One of the oldest so far found on British shores and dating to around
the 1st millennia BC. It was discovered in the river bed
and was possibly plunged into the river as a votive offering.

Heroes and gods, goddesses and the land itself possessed cauldrons of abundance and inspiration. We can imagine that the cauldron was probably the focal point of many people’s existence. These large pots, blackened by smoke, would have hung above the fire, around which the family gathered. Ritual cauldrons, such as that found in Gundestrup, Denmark,  were employed in communal gatherings. For ceremonies they were filled with both food and drink. Sometimes the blood of sacrifices may have been poured into them. It is obvious that cauldrons were important to the lives of the people. The pot was a container in which food or herbal brews were prepared, it was a tool of transformation whose presence in the household possibly imparted other qualities than purely functional. It is no wonder that there appear a great many stories of cauldrons whose contents never empty. Surely that would be a dream to many, especially in times of hardship. 

That these stories should overlap is not altogether so weird. Between Norse, Germanic and Celtic tribes there was interaction and with this came the cross-pollination of ideas. There is also some evidence to suggest that some myths come from way, way back, before the Celtic migrations. They are like core myths, mutating as tribes split, migrated, forming new ideas, adapting their mythology to the terrain and the fauna that surrounded them. According to some scholars this powerful notion of  rejuvenating cauldrons transformed in to the later Grail myth in the Medieval  Arthurian tales (themselves the retelling of earlier Celtic stories). 

Cauldron from the Hochdorf burial
Cauldron from the Hochdorf burial, a Celtic site dated to around 530 BC.


Ceriden seems  likely to be the same goddess as the Scots Cailleach (Callech, Caillech, Cailliach, Cailleach, in Ireland she was known as Bhéirre, Birrn, Béarra, Bhear, Beare or Birra)  who also possessed a cauldron of plenty. She was an ancient deity and some scholars believe she is of pre-celtic ancestry. She was primarily a goddess of abundance and fertility, although she is also linked with many landscape myths; in which she was a creator deity. 

Once again we glimpse an idea that could have cross-pollinated between cultures. For in this we perhaps glimpse the essence of the righteous warrior dead fighting in the afterlife. It is not unrealistic to see how this idea evolved into later Norse myths of Valhalla.


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Power Of The Ten

Imagine an equalteral triangle composed of points. Like a pyramid the apex is a single point and there are four levels. The foundation  is composed of four points.  So altogether there are ten points. This is the tetractys; a mystical symbol to Pythagoras and  initiates into the inner pythagorean mysteries swore an oath over it. The design was sometimes known as the Tetrad, or Tetractys of the Decad

The Tetractys

Like Dee’s monad glyph, the Tetractys symbolised various strata of concepts. The simplest was its practical mathematic impact. It must be remembered that Pythagoras taught that numbers were the divine language of the cosmos. Numbers were endowed with mystical insights. On a metaphysical level it was a seed that gave growth, and as the source of ever-flowing nature it was harmony and represented the principles of the natural world. 

The design influenced cabalist thought, (especially the Tetragrammaton and possibly even the cabalistic tree of life). It is thought that the pythagoreans also used the tetractys to define a musical scale. 

Thursday, November 24, 2016

John Dee's Monad

This is one of my favourite symbols. I’ve carved Dee's Monad a number of times over the past three years. I’ve noticed that there are variations of this symbol online but this is the original form. The Monad is a symbol of unification. Separate parts yield a whole. In the diagram you can see the individual elements and their basic significance. However there is more to this symbol and I thought I’d share my research in this post. 

In-keeping with the holistic imagery of this sigil we need to take a look at its creator, John Dee; an important figure in 17th c. English history, John Dee was born in England in 1527, and died late 1608. Through the course of his life he was a mathematician, an astrologer, astronomer and occultist. As a young man he went abroad to learn many of these arts. Returning from studies in Europe Dee was taken into the English aristocratic court, where he became an advisor to Elizabeth I. He advocated Imperial expansion of England and played a vital role in its inception. 

In the final decades of his life Dee dedicated himself to alchemical/hermetic philosophy, searching for an understanding of the divine forms he was certain underpinned reality. These transcendent principles he named “pure verities.” Dee saw no difference between his love of mathematics and science or his hermetic/occult dealings; to Dee they were means to the same end. In his quest for knowledge he gathered hundreds of books and manuscripts. It was said that Dee possessed the largest library in  England at the time. 

Dee is also renowned for his dealings with ‘angels’. It could be that these ventures into angelic converse were instigated because he felt a sense of failure in life. Dee hadn't  gained the knowledge and “pure verities” he sought via conventional methods. He was also losing favour with the Queen at court. So Dee took to scrying and ‘contacting’ divine beings. In 1582 Dee took one Edward Kelley into his service. Kelley has been figured by some scholars as a charlatan, however he was the medium  by which Dee conversed with angels. Together they meticulously detailed their dealings, completing several books  - some in the divine language which they called Enochian**. 

The following year, prompted by his angels, Dee left the court of Elizabeth I. Wishing to keep his head firmly on his shoulders* Dee and Kelley wound up travelling through Europe,  meeting with emperors and kings (all the while their spiritual conferences continued). Eventually Kelley and Dee parted ways after the angels told them that Kelley had to sleep with Dee's young wife. Kelley went to work for the emperor of the Bohemian empire, Rudolph II, in Prague, creating alchemical gold (did he or didn't he? Was Kelley a charlatan after all? A medium through whom Dee's subconscious was extricated in the form of angelic discourse?). Kelley, rising to fame across Europe because of his skills fell from grace. He was imprisoned and was slain whilst trying to escape. Dee returned to England and eventually died in poverty at his home, Mortlake,  at the grand old age of 82. 

One of the books he wrote during his long lifetime was the Monas Hieroglyphica, which is an explanation of the monad symbol. As previously seen Dee divided the monad into separate parts, and as we have also seen these parts can be divided into lunar, solar, element and fire, as well as lunar, solar, earth and spirit. However each part has other significance, as Dee sought to devise an all-embracing symbol - The monad. 

One thing to bear in mind here is that like the Pythagoreans Dee believed that numbers represented the sacred and the divine truth of the construction of the universe. Therefore sequences of numbers served as proof of the wholeness and sacredness of his hieroglyph. To Dee this symbol itself contained great power and mystery.

The Crown - 

The reason the moon features as taurus-like horns is that they are also cornucopia; the bounty of the fertile moon (remember that much cultivation was tied with astrological thought - and still is in modern day Italy). The moon  phases especially are seen as vital to the growth of plants. 

The Head - 

At the point (monad) all things come into being. In geometry neither a line nor a circle can be created without it. However due to the flawed pre-Galilean astronomy of the time the sun circled the earth. We know this to be wrong now, but Dee aligned the then belief with his symbol. Therefore the circle represented the sun's gyration around the central earth point. Entwined in the circle was of course the moon, also circling the earth. 

The Body - 

Represents the mystery of the elements, four stems that are also joined at their fulcrum. The cross also serves a quaternary function, upon which the theorem adds Pythagorean substance in the form of the Tetractys (a formula or sequence of numbers in triangular form that added up to the mystical number 10). Mathematically and numerically the cross was a symbol of perfection.

The Feet - 
As Aries Dee introduced a fire symbol, relating that in the alchemical practice of his symbol fire was a necessary component,

The entire figure could also be recognised by those versed in hermetic law as an alchemical process, complete in itself. Hermetically Dee summed his monad thus: The Sun and the Moon of this Monad desire that the Elements in which the tenth proportion will flower, shall be separated, and this is done by the application of Fire.

John Dee further involved the monad with astrological layers, proving that it was also formed from combinations of planetary symbols: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and elements of aries, sol and the moon. It was also a conjunction of Aries and Taurus. 

The Monas Hieroglyphicus is a dense and unfortunately obscure account of the symbol, however much one delves into numerological formulae, comparisons of the alchemic art and the symbol, along with geometric reasoning, interpretation et al. Other books of Dee's that explored the monad further have been lost. 

For those of you who wish to explore deeper I have provided a link by which you can access the Monas. 

Masters of Darkness - a BBC documentary about JD, featuring Alan Moore.

John Dee

Some believe that Dee was still working for Elizabeth and as he wandered Europe - he was in effect a spy.

Through their discourse Dee 'uncovered' a complete magical system with it's own language. He detailed everything in a scientific manner. 

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