Tree of Life

The tree of life is a widespread myth (mytheme) or archetype in the world’s mythologies, related to the concept of sacred tree more generally,[1] and hence in religious and philosophical tradition.

The tree of knowledge, connecting to heaven and the underworld, and the tree of life, connecting all forms of creation, are both forms of the world tree or cosmic tree,[2] and are portrayed in various religions and philosophies as the same tree.[3]

Religion and mythology

Various trees of life are recounted in folklore, culture and fiction, often relating to immortality or fertility. They had their origin in religious symbolism.

Tree of life on a rhyton from Marlik, Iran, currently at the National Museum of Iran.

Ancient Iran

In the Avestan literature and Iranian mythology, there are several sacred vegetal icons related to life, eternality and cure, like: Amesha Spenta Amordad (guardian of plants, goddess of trees and immortality), Gaokerena (or white Haoma, a tree that its vivacity would certify continuance of life in universe), Bas tokhmak (a tree with remedial attribute, retentive of all herbal seeds, and destroyer of sorrow), Mashyа and Mashyane (parents of the human race in Iranian myths), Barsom (copped offshoots of pomegranate, gaz or Haoma that Zoroastrians use in their rituals), Haoma (a plant, unknown today, that was source of sacred potable), etc.[4]

Gaokerena is a large, sacred Haoma planted by Ahura Mazda. Ahriman (Ahreman, Angremainyu) created a frog to invade the tree and destroy it, aiming to prevent all trees from growing on the earth. As a reaction, Ahura Mazda created two kar fish staring at the frog to guard the tree. The two fish are always staring at the frog and stay ready to react to it. Because Ahriman is responsible for all evil including death, while Ahura Mazda is responsible for all good (including life).

Haoma is another sacred plant due to the drink made from it. The preparation of the drink from the plant by pounding and the drinking of it are central features of Zoroastrian ritual. Haoma is also personified as a divinity. It bestows essential vital qualities—health, fertility, husbands for maidens, even immortality. The source of the earthly haoma plant is a shining white tree that grows on a paradisiacal mountain. Sprigs of this white haoma were brought to earth by divine birds.

Haoma is the Avestan form of the Sanskrit soma. The near identity of the two in ritual significance is considered by scholars to point to a salient feature of an Indo-Iranian religion antedating Zoroastrianism.[5][6]

Another related issue in ancient mythology of Iran is the myth of Mashyа and Mashyane, two trees who were the ancestors of all living beings. This myth can be considered as a prototype for the creation myth where living beings are created by Gods (who have a human form).

Assyrian tree of life, from Nimrud panels.

Ancient Mesopotamia and Urartu

The Assyrian tree of life was represented by a series of nodes and criss-crossing lines. It was apparently an important religious symbol, often attended to in Assyrian palace reliefs by human or eagle-headed winged genies, or the King, and blessed or fertilized with bucket and cone. Assyriologists have not reached consensus as to the meaning of this symbol. The name “Tree of Life” has been attributed to it by modern scholarship; it is not used in the Assyrian sources. In fact, no textual evidence pertaining to the symbol is known to exist.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a similar quest for immortality. In Mesopotamian mythology, Etana searches for a ‘plant of birth’ to provide him with a son. This has a solid provenance of antiquity, being found in cylinder seals from Akkad (2390–2249 BCE).

The Urartian tree of life

In ancient Urartu, the tree of life was a religious symbol and was drawn on walls of fortresses and carved on the armor of warriors. The branches of the tree were equally divided on the right and left sides of the stem, with each branch having one leaf, and one leaf on the apex of the tree. Servants stood on each side of the tree with one of their hands up as if they are taking care of the tree.

Buddhism

The Bo tree, also called Bodhi tree, according to Buddhist tradition, is the pipal (Ficus religiosa) under which the Buddha sat when he attained Enlightenment (Bodhi) at Bodh Gaya (near Gaya, west-central Bihar state, India). A living pipal at Anuradhapura, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), is said to have grown from a cutting from the Bo tree sent to that city by King Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE.[13]

According to Tibetan tradition when Buddha went to the holy Lake Manasorovar along with 500 monks, he took with him the energy of Prayaga Raj. Upon his arrival, he installed the energy of Prayaga Raj near Lake Manasorovar, at a place now known as Prayang. Then he planted the seed of this eternal banyan tree next to Mt. Kailash on a mountain known as the “Palace of Medicine Buddha”.[14]

Bronze Tree with birds, flowers, and ornaments from Sanxingdui

China

In Chinese mythology, a carving of a tree of life depicts a phoenix and a dragon; the dragon often represents immortality. A Taoist story tells of a tree that produces a peach of immortality every three thousand years, and anyone who eats the fruit receives immortality.

An archaeological discovery in the 1990s was of a sacrificial pit at Sanxingdui in Sichuan, China. Dating from about 1200 BCE, it contained three bronze trees, one of them 4 meters high. At the base was a dragon, and fruit hanging from the lower branches. At the top is a bird-like (Phoenix) creature with claws. Also found in Sichuan, from the late Han dynasty (c 25 – 220 CE), is another tree of life. The ceramic base is guarded by a horned beast with wings. The leaves of the tree represent coins and people. At the apex is a bird with coins and the Sun.

Christianity

The tree of life first appears in Genesis 2:9 and 3:22-24 as the source of eternal life in the Garden of Eden, from which access is revoked when man is driven from the garden. It then reappears in the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, and most predominantly in the last chapter of that book (Chapter 22) as a part of the new garden of paradise. Access is then no longer forbidden, for those who “wash their robes” (or as the textual variant in the King James Version has it, “they that do his commandments”) “have right to the tree of life” (v.14). A similar statement appears in Rev 2:7, where the tree of life is promised as a reward to those who overcome. Revelation 22 begins with a reference to the “pure river of water of life” which proceeds “out of the throne of God”. The river seems to feed two trees of life, one “on either side of the river” which “bear twelve manner of fruits” “and the leaves of the tree were for healing of the nations” (v.1-2).[15] Or this may indicate that the tree of life is a vine that grows on both sides of the river, as John 15:1 would hint at.

Pope Benedict XVI has said that “the Cross is the true tree of life.”[16] Saint Bonaventure taught that the medicinal fruit of the tree of life is Christ himself.[17] Saint Albert the Great taught that the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ, is the Fruit of the Tree of Life.[18] Augustine of Hippo said that the tree of life is Christ:

All these things stood for something other than what they were, but all the same they were themselves bodily realities. And when the narrator mentioned them he was not employing figurative language, but giving an explicit account of things which had a forward reference that was figurative. So then the tree of life also was Christ… and indeed God did not wish the man to live in Paradise without the mysteries of spiritual things being presented to him in bodily form. So then in the other trees he was provided with nourishment, in this one with a sacrament… He is rightly called whatever came before him in order to signify him.[19]

In Eastern Christianity the tree of life is the love of God.[20]

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The tree of life vision is a vision described and discussed in the Book of Mormon. According to the Book of Mormon, the vision was received in a dream by the prophet Lehi, and later in vision by his son Nephi, who wrote about it in the First Book of Nephi. The vision includes a path leading to a tree symbolizing salvation, with an iron rod along the path whereby followers of Jesus may hold to the rod and avoid wandering off the path into pits or waters symbolizing the ways of sin. The vision also includes a large building wherein the wicked look down at the righteous and mock them.

The vision is said to symbolize the spiritual plight of humanity and is a well known and cited story within Mormonism. A Mormon commentator reflected a common Mormon belief that the vision is “one of the richest, most flexible, and far-reaching pieces of symbolic prophecy contained in the standard works [scriptures].”[21]

11th century tree of life sculpture at an ancient Swedish church

Europe

In Dictionnaire Mytho-Hermetique (Paris, 1737), Antoine-Joseph Pernety, a famous alchemist, identified the tree of life with the Elixir of life and the Philosopher’s Stone.

In Eden in the East (1998), Stephen Oppenheimer suggests that a tree-worshipping culture arose in Indonesia and was diffused by the so-called “Younger Dryas” event of c. 10,900 BCE or 12,900 BP, after which the sea level rose. This culture reached China (Szechuan), then India and the Middle East. Finally the Finno-Ugric strand of this diffusion spread through Russia to Finland where the Norse myth of Yggdrasil took root.

Georgia

The Borjgali (ბორჯღალი) is an ancient Georgian tree of life symbol.

Germanic paganism and Norse mythology

In Germanic paganism, trees played (and, in the form of reconstructive Heathenry and Germanic Neopaganism, continue to play) a prominent role, appearing in various aspects of surviving texts and possibly in the name of gods.

The tree of life appears in Norse religion as Yggdrasil, the world tree, a massive tree (sometimes considered a yew or ash tree) with extensive lore surrounding it. Perhaps related to Yggdrasil, accounts have survived of Germanic Tribes’ honouring sacred trees within their societies. Examples include Thor’s Oak, sacred groves, the Sacred tree at Uppsala, and the wooden Irminsul pillar. In Norse Mythology, the apples from Iðunn’s ash box provide immortality for the gods.

17th-century depiction of the tree of life in Palace of Shaki Khans, Azerbaijan

Islam

Main article: Sidrat al-Muntaha

The “Tree of Immortality” (شجرة الخلود) is the tree of life motif as it appears in the Quran. It is also alluded to in hadiths and tafsir. Unlike the biblical account, the Quran mentions only one tree in Eden, also called the tree of immortality, which Allah specifically forbade to Adam and Eve.[22][23] Satan repeatedly told Adam to eat from the tree, and eventually both Adam and Eve did so, thus disobeying Allah.[24] The hadiths also speak about other trees in heaven.[25]

Tuba

Ṭūbā (طُـوْبَىٰ‎, ‘blessedness’) is a term often associated with a tree that some Muslims believe grows in Al-Jannah (ٱلْـجَـنَّـة‎, the Islamic Heaven).

The term is only mentioned once in the Quran in the context of blessedness and it is not mentioned as a Tree by name. The only other source that relates the arguably same term to a tree is a hadith.[2] The term has caught the imagination of writers over the years. For example, Sohrevardi developed a story surrounding the old Persian mythology and suggests that it is indeed a Tree in the heaven where the mythical bird Simurgh lay eggs. Similarly, in 1449, Mehmed Yazıcıoğlu wrote of a similar tree in The Creation of Paradise in his manuscript called Muhammediye:

In its courtyard’s riven center, planted he the Tuba-Tree;

That a tree which hangeth downward, high aloft its roots are there: Thus its radiance all the Heavens lighteth up from end to end, Flooding every tent and palace, every lane and every square. Such a tree the Tuba, that the Gracious One hath in its sap Hidden whatsoe’er there be of gifts and presents good and fair; Forth therefrom crowns, thrones, and jewels, yea, and steeds and coursers come, Golden leaves and clearest crystals, wines most pure beyond compare. For his sake there into being hath he called the Tuba-Tree, That from Ebu-Qasim’s hand might every one receive his share.

According to Islamic tradition, when the wife of the Prophet asked him the reason of kissing his daughter a lot. He replied that during Ascension, I ate the fruits of Tuba and when I returned I became intimate with my wife and Fatimah was born. So, whenever I kiss Fatimah I smell the fragrance of that tree of Paradise. The holy city of Touba, Senegal, is named for the tree.

The Arabic female given name Tuba or Touba derives from the tree. Tuba (often spelt “Tuğba”) is also a modern Arabic borrowing into Turkish and has become a common female name since the 1970s.

Jewish sources

Etz Chaim, Hebrew for “tree of life,” is a common term used in Judaism. The expression, found in the Book of Proverbs, is figuratively applied to the Torah itself. Etz Chaim is also a common name for yeshivas and synagogues as well as for works of Rabbinic literature. It is also used to describe each of the wooden poles to which the parchment of a Sefer Torah is attached.

The tree of life is mentioned in the Book of Genesis; it is distinct from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. After Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they were driven out of the Garden of Eden. Remaining in the garden, however, was the tree of life. To prevent their access to this tree in the future, Cherubim with a flaming sword were placed at the east of the garden. (Genesis 3:22-24)

In the Book of Proverbs, the tree of life is associated with wisdom: “[Wisdom] is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her, and happy [is every one] that retaineth her.” (Proverbs 3:13-18) In 15:4 the tree of life is associated with calmness: “A soothing tongue is a tree of life; but perverseness therein is a wound to the spirit.”[28]

The Book of Enoch, generally considered non-canonical, states that in the time of the great judgment God will give all those whose names are in the Book of Life fruit to eat from the tree of life.

Judaic Kabbalah tree of life 10 Sefirot, through which the Ein Sof unknowable divine manifests Creation. The configuration relates to man

Kabbalah

Jewish mysticism depicts the tree of life in the form of ten interconnected nodes, as the central symbol of the Kabbalah. It comprises the ten Sefirot powers in the divine realm. The panentheistic and anthropomorphic emphasis of this emanationist theology interpreted the Torah, Jewish observance, and the purpose of Creation as the symbolic esoteric drama of unification in the Sefirot, restoring harmony to Creation. From the time of the Renaissance onwards, Jewish Kabbalah became incorporated as an important tradition in non-Jewish Western culture, first through its adoption by Christian Kabbalah, and continuing in Western esotericism occult Hermetic Qabalah. These adapted the Judaic Kabbalah tree of life syncretically by associating it with other religious traditions, esoteric theologies, and magical practices.

Mesoamerica

The concept of world trees is a prevalent motif in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cosmologies and iconography. World trees embodied the four cardinal directions, which represented also the fourfold nature of a central world tree, a symbolic axis mundi connecting the planes of the Underworld and the sky with that of the terrestrial world.[29]

Depictions of world trees, both in their directional and central aspects, are found in the art and mythological traditions of cultures such as the Maya, Aztec, Izapan, Mixtec, Olmec, and others, dating to at least the Mid/Late Formative periods of Mesoamerican chronology. Among the Maya, the central world tree was conceived as or represented by a ceiba tree, and is known variously as a wacah chan or yax imix che, depending on the Mayan language.[30] The trunk of the tree could also be represented by an upright caiman, whose skin evokes the tree’s spiny trunk.[29]

Directional world trees are also associated with the four Yearbearers in Mesoamerican calendars, and the directional colors and deities. Mesoamerican codices which have this association outlined include the Dresden, Borgia and Fejérváry-Mayer codices.[29] It is supposed that Mesoamerican sites and ceremonial centers frequently had actual trees planted at each of the four cardinal directions, representing the quadripartite concept.

World trees are frequently depicted with birds in their branches, and their roots extending into earth or water (sometimes atop a “water-monster,” symbolic of the underworld). The central world tree has also been interpreted as a representation of the band of the Milky Way.[31]

North America

In a myth passed down among the Iroquois, The World on the Turtle’s Back, explains the origin of the land in which a tree of life is described. According to the myth, it is found in the heavens, where the first humans lived, until a pregnant woman fell and landed in an endless sea. Saved by a giant turtle from drowning, she formed the world on its back by planting bark taken from the tree.

The tree of life motif is present in the traditional Ojibway cosmology and traditions. It is sometimes described as Grandmother Cedar, or Nookomis Giizhig in Anishinaabemowin.

In the book Black Elk Speaks, Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota (Sioux) wičháša wakȟáŋ (medicine man and holy man), describes his vision in which after dancing around a dying tree that has never bloomed he is transported to the other world (spirit world) where he meets wise elders, 12 men and 12 women. The elders tell Black Elk that they will bring him to meet “Our Father, the two-legged chief” and bring him to the center of a hoop where he sees the tree in full leaf and bloom and the “chief” standing against the tree. Coming out of his trance he hopes to see that the earthly tree has bloomed, but it is dead.[32]

An 1847 depiction of the Norse Yggdrasil as described in the Icelandic Prose Edda by Oluf Olufsen Bagge

Serer religion

In Serer religion, the tree of life as a religious concept forms the basis of Serer cosmogony. Trees were the first things created on Earth by the supreme being Roog (or Koox among the Cangin). In the competing versions of the Serer creation myth, the Somb (Prosopis africana) and the Saas tree (acacia albida) are both viewed as trees of life.[33] However, the prevailing view is that, the Somb was the first tree on Earth and the progenitor of plant life.[33][34] The Somb was also used in the Serer tumuli and burial chambers, many of which had survived for more than a thousand years.[33] Thus, Somb is not only the tree of life in Serer society, but the symbol of immortality.[33]

Turkic

The World Tree or tree of life is a central symbol in Turkic mythology. It is a common motif in carpets. In 2009 it was introduced as the main design of the common Turkish lira sub-unit 5 kuruş.

Hinduism

In the sacred books of Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma), Puranas mention divine tree Kalpavruksham (కల్పవృక్షం, कल्पवृक्ष ). This divine tree is guarded by Gandharvas in the garden of Amaravati, city under the control of Indra, King of gods. Popular story goes like this, for a very long time, gods and demi-gods who are believed to be fathered by Kashyapa Prajapati and have different mothers. After a long time frequent battles between the two half-brother clans, both groups decided to churn the milky ocean to obtain Amrutam (అమృతం, अमृत ) and share equally. During the churning, along with many other mythical items emerged the Kalpavruksham (కల్పవృక్షం, कल्पवृक्ष ). It is gold in colour. It has mesmerizing aura. It can be pleased with chanting and offers. When it is pleased, it grants every wish.

References

  1.  Giovino, Mariana (2007). The Assyrian Sacred Tree: A History of Interpretations, page 129. Saint-Paul. ISBN9783727816024
  2.  World tree in the Encyclopædia Britannica
  3.  Tryggve N. D. Mettinger (2007). The Eden Narrative: A Literary and Religio-historical Study of Genesis 2–3. Eisenbrauns. p. 5. ISBN978-1575061412. Retrieved 10 July 2014.
  4.  Taheri, Sadreddin (2013). “Plant of life, in Ancient Iran, Mesopotamia & Egypt”. Tehran: Honarhay-e Ziba Journal, Vol. 18, No. 2, p. 15.
  5.  “haoma (Zoroastrianism) – Encyclopædia Britannica”. Britannica.com. Retrieved 2013-08-17.
  6.  “HAOMA i. BOTANY – Encyclopaedia Iranica”. Iranicaonline.org. Retrieved 2013-08-17.
  7.  *Taherzadeh, Adib (1976). The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, Volume 1: Baghdad 1853-63. Oxford, UK: George Ronald. p. 80. ISBN0-85398-270-8.
  8.  Kazemi, Farshid (2009). Mysteries of Alast: The Realm of Subtle Entities and the Primordial Covenant in the Babi-Bahá’í Writings. Bahá’í Studies Review 15.
  9.  “Tablet of Ahmad”www.bahaiprayers.org.
  10.  Smith, Peter (2000). “Aghsán”A Concise Encyclopedia of the Bahá’í Faith. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. p. 30. ISBN1-85168-184-1.
  11.  Liya, Sally (2004). The Use of Trees as Symbols in the World Religions in: Solas, 4. Donegal, Ireland. Association for Baha’i Studies English-Speaking Europe. P. 55.
  12.  Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 122.
  13.  “Bo tree (tree) – Encyclopædia Britannica”. Britannica.com. Retrieved 2013-08-17.
  14.  “The Kumbha Mela Times”. Kmt.himalayaninstitute.org. Archived from the original on December 7, 2013. Retrieved 2013-08-17.
  15.  The Bible (King James version), The Revelation of St. John, chapter & verses as noted.
  16.  Gheddo, Piero (March 20, 2005). “Pope tells WYD youth: the Cross of Jesus is the real tree of life”. AsiaNews.it. Retrieved 2013-02-25.
  17.  “The Tree of Life”Yale University. Retrieved 2013-02-25.
  18.  “The Eucharist as the Fruit of the Tree of Life | Saint Albert the Great”. CrossroadsInitiative.com. Retrieved 2013-02-25.
  19.  Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, VIII, 4, 8 (On Genesis, New City Press, p. 351-353)
  20.  Saint Isaac the Syrian says that “Paradise is the love of God, in which the bliss of all the beatitudes is contained,” and that “the tree of life is the love of God” (Homily 72).
  21.  Corbin T. Volluz, “Lehi’s Dream of the Tree of Life: Springboard to Prophecy,” JBMS 2/2 (1993): 38. – as quoted in Lehi’s Vision of the Tree of Life: Understanding the Dream as Visionary Literature, Charles Swift, Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2005. P. 52–63 – online version at [1]
  22.  Wheeler, Brannon (2002). Prophets in the Quran: An Introduction to the Quran and Muslim Exegesis (annotated ed.). Continuum. p. 24. ISBN978-0826449566Abu Hurayrah: The Prophet Muhammad said: “In Paradise is a tree in the shade of which the stars course 100 years without cutting it: the Tree of Immortality.
  23.  Oliver Leaman, ed. (2006). The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis. p. 11. ISBN9780415326391Unlike the biblical account of Eden, the Qur’an mentions only one special tree in Eden, the Tree of Immortality, from which Adam and Eve were prohibited.
  24.  Three Translations of the Koran (Al-Qur’an) Side by Side Quran20:120, “Shall I show thee the tree of immortality and power that wasteth not away? S: But the Shaitan made an evil suggestion to him; he said: O Adam! Shall I guide you to the tree of immortality and a kingdom which decays not? “
  25.  Maulana Muhammad Ali (2011) Introduction to the Study of the Holy Qur’an“This in itself gives an indication that it is the well-known tree of evil, for both good and evil are compared to two trees in 14:24–25 and elsewhere. This is further corroborated by the devil’s description of it as “the tree of immortality” (20:120), …”
  26.  Bilal Khalid. “Quran, Adam and Original Sin”. Al Islam. Retrieved June 7,2014.
  27.  The Holy Quran with English Translation and Commentary Volume 1. Islam International Publications. p. 86. Retrieved June 7, 2014.
  28.  For other direct references to the tree of life in the Jewish biblical canon, see also Proverbs 11:3013:12.
  29. Miller, MaryKarl Taube (1993). The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN978-0-500-05068-2.
  30.  Finley, Michael (2003). “Raising the sky: The Maya creation myth and the Milky Way”The Real Maya Prophecies: Astronomy in the Inscriptions and Codices. Maya Astronomy. Archived from the original on 6 January 2007. Retrieved 9 July 2014.
  31.  Freidel, David A.; Linda Schele; Joy Parker (1993). Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path. William Morrow & Co. ISBN978-0-688-10081-0.
  32.  “Black Elk Speaks”Visions of the Other World. First People of America and Canada – Turtle Island. Retrieved 1 January 2015.
  33. (in French)Gravrand, Henry, “La Civilisation Sereer – Pangool“, vol. 2., Les Nouvelles Editions Africaines du Senegal (1990), pp 125–6, 199–200, ISBN2-7236-1055-1

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