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The cosmic world-tree and the tree of life

© Kat Morgenstern, August 2001

Ancient cosmologies tell of a magnificent World-Tree that grows at the centre of the universe and encompasses all realms of existence: its stem pierces through the world of human affairs, its branches reach high up to the domain of the Gods, upholding the firmament of the heavens and all the stars and planets, while its roots stretch far down into the dark, chthonic Underworld, forming a gateway to the realm of the dead. The image of the World-Tree or Tree of Life is truly universal. It can be found at the centre of archaic cosmological iconography in widely separated cultures all over the world.

One of the oldest recorded accounts of the World-Tree is of Babylonian origin and stems from about 3000 - 4000 BC. This tree stood at the centre of the Universe, which was thought to be somewhere near the ancient city of Eridu at the mouth of the river Euphrates. Its white crystal roots penetrated the primordial waters of the abyss, which were guarded by an amphibious God of wisdom called Ea. He was the source of the waters of life that made the plains fertile. The foliage of the sacred tree was the seat of Zikum, the Goddess of the heavens, while its stem was the holy abode of the Earth-Goddess Davkina and her son Tammuz. Echoes of this imagery can be found in all the mythologies of ancient Mesopotamia.

Writing in the 12th century, the Icelandic scholar, poet, historian and politician Snorri Sturlunson described the Norse version of this cosmic tree in his epic poem known as 'the Edda'. It is hard to tell how much of the symbolism is derived from actual oral accounts of ancient Norse mythology and how much of it is based on the authors' prosaic fancy. The World-Tree of the Eddas seems at any rate to be a compilation of mythic imagery drawn from various sources. The story has been re-told many times, variously embroidered with more or less fancy details, but essentially it goes like this:

Somewhere, in a space beyond space and a time beyond time grows a magnificent, huge tree, who's branches embrace and uphold the heavens, and who's roots reach deep into the Underworld - it is known as the World-Tree Yggdrasil.

Yggdrasil bridges the three great realms of existence: In its midst lies Asgard, the mountainous domain of the Gods, pierced by the stem of the sacred tree. Yggdrasil has three gigantic roots that stretch to all the realms of existence. One reaches into Asa, the second into the realm of the frost giants and the third into Niflheim, the underworld realm of the dead.
Three sacred springs gush forth from beneath the three great roots: From the first flows the spring of wisdom and knowledge, jealously guarded by the hermit Mimir. From the second, springs the well of destiny, guarded by the three Norns, the sisters of fate: Uror (fate), Veroandi (being) and Sculd (necessity) who govern the destinies of human beings. They take care of the tree, water its roots every day, purifying and keeping it alive with the holy waters and the white clay of the sacred spring. The well of destiny is also where the Gods meet for their daily assembly, to settle their differences and decide on their actions. From beneath the third root flows the river of life. Its waters carry the souls of the dead back to be reborn into their next incarnations. But this microcosm what not be complete without the serpent and the eagle, signifying the polarised opposites between the creative and the destructive forces of the Universe. At the very base of the tree lurked the serpent Niddhogg who constantly gnawed away at its roots. Its destructive powers were only kept at bay by an eagle, symbol of the sun, who lived in the upper branchesof the tree from where he continuously warded off the serpent's assaults. Thus, the forces of life and death are kept in equilibrium and the essential life-force of the tree is never damaged.

The image of the World-Tree illustrates the interconnectedness between nature, humans and Gods and forms the basis of an integrated cosmology in which the Gods manifest in nature and humans communicate directly with them through their outer forms. It represents the 'axis-mundi', the immovable central pole of the universe around which all life revolves. In this cosmology, humans and Gods essentially share the same dimension, though on somewhat different levels.

According to the ancient hermetic doctrine 'As Above - So Below', the microcosmic world of human affairs is but a reflection of the macrocosmic world of the Gods. To our ancestors the inherent fertility of nature represented an awesome mystery. The recurrent cycle of the seasons - of blossoming, fruiting, decay - and miraculous rebirth, as seemingly dead branches burst back to life each spring, was seen as a reflection of the regenerative powers of the cosmos itself. Elaborate rituals and ceremonies were held not only to ensure the continued fertility of the land but also to partake spiritually in the cosmic process of regeneration. Trees, with their extremely long lifespan and apparently inexhaustible vigour became the central symbol of such nature based mystery religions. Many fragments of this archaic symbolism have miraculously survived all attempts of eradication and they can still be found in modern religions, customs and folklore, although their original meanings have become much distorted.

The images of the World-Tree and the Tree of Life are closely related and often merge. Sometimes they are replaced by the image of a cosmic mountain, which is also located at the centre of the universe and which likewise generates and sustains all life. All these images symbolically combine the male and female creative powers of the Universe. The obviously phallic connotations of the tree or mountain are identified with the male life-giving, creative force, while the chthonic underworld amidst the roots of the tree or within the crystal cave of the mountain represent the female transformational and regenerative power of the earth womb. Both aspects fused together represent the 'ursymbol' of life, the essence of cyclic existence and eternal self-regeneration.

In Hindu tradition the World-Tree is conceived as being rooted in the heavens and bearing its fruit on earth. All the gods and goddesses, all the elements and cosmic principles are its branches, but each and every one is rooted in Brahman, who is identified with the stem of the sacred tree itself. Perhaps the Banyan tree, one of the most sacred trees of India inspired this concept. The Banyan (Ficus bengalensis) is a truly awe inspiring tree, which spreads over huge areas by sending aerial roots down from its branches. When the arial roots touch the ground they themselves take root and develop into stems. A single tree can comprise a whole forest. Walking among the stems of an old tree is like being in an awesome natural cathedral. The appearance and growing habit of this tree easily suggests the image of a tree rooted in the heavens. It also perfectly symbolizes the idea of multiple Gods and spirits in all their localized aspects essentially all being aspects of the one ultimate source.

It is astounding how similarly the mythological imagery of widely separated cultures expresses the same themes: A creation myth of the Maoris tells of a world-tree, which was the first thing to be formed at the center of the still void universe. It sprouted from an energy vortex, known as the cosmic navel. From the myriad buds of the all-encompassing tree all creation emerged.

Similarly, in Mayan cosmology the World-Tree is a unifying symbol that represents the origin of all existence. It is usually stylised as a maize plant, since maize is the all important staff of life in Maya culture. Other sources however suggest that originally the World-Tree, known as Yax-cheel-cab was identified with the great Kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra), a magnificent species which, when mature, truly seems to reach the heavens. Great buttress-roots at the base of the stem easily suggest the entrance of the Mayan underworld known as Xibalba. Prominent examples of these incredible sacred trees can still be found at practically all ancient Maya sites.

According to a myth from the lake Atitlan region of Guatemala, the World Tree is the progenitor of the manifest universe. At the beginning of time, a great tree stood at the center of the still void Cosmos. It impregnated itself and bore on its branches a multitude of fruits, one for each thing known to humankind: animals, plants, clouds, stars, stones, lightening and even time itself.

Eventually all the fruits became so heavy that the tree could no longer carry them. One by one they fell to the ground and scattered their seeds. Underneath the protective canopy of the tree, they germinated, took root and grew. The Mayans still offer incense and prayers to these ancestral spirits and thus ensure the continued fertility of the land.

A surprisingly similar myth comes from Persia. Here we find references to a 'Tree of all Seeds', which stood at the center of a magical garden known as Pairidaeza, the Persian paradise. This garden was originally associated with the Virgin Goddess Pairidaeza who represented the eternal regenerative womb from which all life proceeds. In her garden the 'Tree of all seeds' grew next to the Tree of Knowledge. One day two birds came to visit the tree, but as one of them attempted to settle in its canopy a thousand branches went crashing to the ground and thus a thousand seeds were scattered. The other bird swiftly gathered up all the seeds and distributed them in various fertile places all over the earth. All the plants and animals with which we share our planet today issued from these seeds.

The Cosmic Tree is commonly described as the source of a special divine substance, a sacred nectar of immortality and ambrosia of the Gods. The ancient holy scriptures known as the 'Rig Vedas' (Indus Valley) refer to this mythical substance as 'Amrita' or 'Soma'. In Persia it was known as Haoma, while the Eddas describe it as 'golden apples stored in Valhalla', which restore the youthfulness of the Gods. The descriptions in the various sacred texts all seem to imply some kind of psychotropic agent and there has been much speculation and debate among scholars and Ethnobotanists regarding the possible botanical identity of this mysterious substance. Numerous theories have been put forward, some believing it to be Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria), others proposing Syrian Rue (Peganum harmala) and various other species as the lost identity of the sacred fruits of the Tree of Life. It is difficult to judge the validity of such hypotheses given that the evidence rests on mythological sources. It is certainly possible that once upon a time one or the other or several different psychotropic plants were indeed identified with these mythical fruits just as the sacred tree itself was variously identified with an actual tree species. Yet tree and fruit need not necessarily share the botanical identity, as their association was perhaps more of a metaphorical nature. So far, despite fervent research, there has been no conclusive result to the inquiry as none of the known hallucinogenic plants satisfactorily complies with the ancient descriptions. Although the question of botanical identity represents an interesting riddle for modern researchers, it seems less important for the spiritual inquirer. The essence of the fruit's esoteric meaning lies just as much in its symbolic significance. Its ultimate spiritual potential is immortal and will be eternally renewed by each and every seeker.

It is interesting to note, that in Mayan as well as in Greek mythology there are references to the Tree of Life or World Tree amidst the signs of the Zodiac, although astronomically there is no such constellation. The mystery is only revealed if one takes into consideration the appearance of the actual night sky itself, which in pre-classical times looked quite different to what can be observed today. Due to a phenomenon known as the 'precession of the equinoxes', caused by the 'wobble' of the earth's path around the sun, the sign of the vernal equinox up to about 4000 BC was Taurus. At the spring equinox, the milky way would appear almost vertical above the observers head, like a giant tree clad in a magnificent cloak of star-flowers, crowned by the sign of Leo and at its root the sign of Aquarius, the Waterbearer. The other constellations were seen as the branches of the World-Tree, and the stars and planets as its fruits. Amidst its roots gushed forth the constellation of Eridanos, the cosmic spring, bearing the waters of life.

The same image is repeated in other mythologies, in which the World Tree is often described as the place where disembodied souls dwell prior to their reincarnation. Underneath the roots of the tree that grows at the centre of the paradisiacal garden, flows the sacred river that carries the waters of life. When their time has come the river of life will carry these souls back to their new incarnations.

In our microcosmic world the same symbolism is often repeated in old churchyards where one can find ancient trees (usually Yews) planted next to a sacred spring. (see Spirit of the Earth - Trees and Fertility, May 2002)

Similarly, in Siberian shamanism the World-Tree represents a cosmic ladder along which spirits and Gods descend or, conversely, along which the shaman can either ascend to the spirit world or climb down into the Underworld. The shaman's drum, which serves as a spirit horse, is made from the wood of the sacred tree. Furthermore, the tree is regarded as a nursery that nurtures the souls of the young shamans until they mature sufficiently to manifest in human form. In the words of the Tungus Shaman Semyonov Semyon:

Up above there is a certain tree where the souls of the shamans are reared, before they attain their powers. And on the boughs of this tree are nests in which the souls lie and are attended. The name of the tree is 'Tuuru. The higher the nest in this tree, the stronger will the shaman be who is raised in it, the more he will know, and the farther he will see. The rim of the shaman's drum is cut from a living larch. The larch is left alive and standing in recollection and honour of the tree Turuu, where the soul of the shaman was raised. Furthermore, in memory of the great tree Tuuru, at each séance the shaman plants a tree with one or more cross-sticks in the tent where the ceremony takes place, and this tree too is called Tuuru. According to our belief, the soul of the shaman climbs up this tree to God when he shamanises. For the tree grows during the rite and invisibly reaches the summit of heaven. (Joseph Campbell, Primitive Mythology)

The Tree of Life or World Tree represents one of the most deeply rooted archetypes of the human psyche and its symbolism still surfaces in the imagery of modern psychotherapy. In terms of Jungian psychology the World-Tree or axis mundi represents the personal 'meridian', the psychological umbilical cord, which connects each individual not only to the divine source (realm of the Gods) but also to the vaults of the unconscious (Underworld). The quest of the mythological hero, who embarks on an adventure to search for the World-Tree, or a sacred mountain at the centre of Universe, is a metaphor for the quest of psychological realignment with one's own inner center and spiritual source. The task of the hero/seeker is to sublimate the cosmic energy that enters his or her being through the realignment with the 'axis mundi'. The journey is usually beset with peril and impending danger for it is a quest of transformation that requires the sacrifice of the ego. In the words of Micea Eliade it is 'a rite of passage, from the illusory to the eternal, from the profane to the sacred and from chaos to cosmos' (Eliade, Myth Of Eternal Return). Thus, the World-Tree is also a symbol of initiation and transcendence. When the hero reaches this centre of the Universe, s/he arrives at the sacred centre of his or her own being.

Footnotes

"The miracle of this flow may be represented in physical terms as a circulation of food substance, dynamically as a streaming of energy, or spiritually as a manifestation of grace. Such varieties of image alternate easily, representing three degrees of condensation of the one life force. An abundant harvest is the sign of God's grace, Gods grace is the food of the soul, the lightening bolt is the harbinger of fertilizing rain and at the same time the manifestation of the released energy of God. Grace, food substance, energy, these pour into the living world and where ever they fail life decomposes into death. The torrent pours from an invisible source the point of entry being the center of the symbolic circle of the universe, the immovable spot of the Buddha legend around which the world may be said to revolve. Beneath this spot is the earth supporting head of the cosmic serpent, the dragon, symbolical of the waters of the abyss, which are the divine life-creative energy and substance of the demiurge, the world generative aspect of immortal being. The Tree of Life, i.e. the universe itself grows from this point."
Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces)

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