The Archetypal Symbolism of Trees:
Spiritual and Religious Dimensions
By Ralph Monday
Trees have long held a literal and symbolic fascination for humanity. Their source as a deep archetype of absorption begins with the earliest epic in the Western World, the story of Gilgamesh and his quest for the plant of life (a symbolic tree) that is snatched away by a serpent, thus illustrating that the use of the tree as a universal religious symbol is incredibly ancient; such utilization can be dated to at least the third millennium B.C.E. as a symbol of a rich cultural mythos, the major archetype being that of the center, the beginning where sacred powers first originated. The tree is the navel of the world, the “cosmic axis” (Axis mundi) standing at the universe’s center where it passes through the middle and unites the three great cosmic domains: the underworld, earth, and sky (Roth 11).
In addition to mythological ones, there are other trees throughout our culture, our bodies, and our environment. We have family trees as diagrams relating us and our kinfolk. Philologists construct language trees to show how tongues like Latin, Sanskrit, and English are related historically. Logicians, electrical engineers, and computer scientists all draw trees to depict connections. Our vascular and nerve systems are treelike in their forms, and so are river systems. Although the gallows tree is no longer a familiar sight, it echoes in our racial memory. There is something fundamental and ultimate about trees and tree shapes (Algeo). Furthermore Algeo writes that
Apart from any explanation why, the fact is that we are attracted to the image of the tree. Consider a few of them. The Edenic Trees of Knowledge and of Life had offshoots in the Kabbalistic tree of Life and in the Tree of the Cross on which Christ was crucified, which Medieval legends held to be made from wood of the Tree of Life. The Buddha reached enlightenment by sitting under the Bo Tree of Wisdom. Odin became the god of wisdom by hanging on a tree, Yggdrasil, the world ash tree that unites heaven, earth, and hell. The Druids, Celtic wizards whose name means “tree,” worked their magic in oak groves. The Bhagavad Gita has a tree that grows upside down, with its roots in heaven and its branches in the world. In Tibet a marvelous kumbum tree grows with mystical symbols from the mystery language Senzar on its leaves and bark. (Algeo)
The present tree symbols under discussion are: the Edenic Trees of Knowledge and Life, the Christian Tree of the Cross, and the Norse Yggdrasil.. As we shall see, a commonality possessed by all is the archetypal symbol of life and knowledge in both the conscious and unconscious realms that interaction with the tree brings as a type of mythic boon where the physical and the sacred are united.
The best-known symbol in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is of course, the two trees found in Genesis, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life, the former the very trunk of the mythic fall of humanity and nature and total separation from God that has permeated the mythos for over two thousand years, the latter tree one that is banned from Adam and Eve after their partaking of forbidden fruit so that they might die and not know immortality as the god(s) do. In the Neolithic and Bronze ages the world tree was one where the symbolism was interpreted as a nexus, the world axis, where pairs of opposites come together (Campbell 105). In this interpretation the tree was a universal whole: male and female, dark and light, knowledge and mystery, etc. The Biblical tradition, however, deconstructs this unity and by Eve’s partaking of the fruit, humanity was separated into dualities, male and female, good and evil, the unity dissolved and rent asunder, a unique perspective where humanity is thrown into time and space and becomes aware of imminent mortality. The tree, in such a creative reading, no longer unites the three planes of existence: heaven, earth, the underworld, but instead represents the temporal nature of man confined to the earth in disobedience, separated from the tree (nature), the heavens (god), with only the thought of the underworld (Sheol) as a final, inevitable end, unless the disparity of the tree can be transcended in some manner in this particular mythos.
The spiritual transcendence broken by this ill advised repast, is redeemed, of course, in the tree of the Christian Cross that Jesus died upon (the new Adam) in order to synthesize the breech between God and humanity. Travers has noted that: “Coming to [the Christian] tradition, we can think of the cross as the world tree par excellence. There is an old belief, part of our Christian mythology, that the wood from the cross on which Christ was hanged was hewn from one of the trees that grew in Paradise ” (Travers, 20). Curiously, Christianity is the only branch of any world mythology that disrupts the unity of the world tree and separates man from god, man from nature, man from himself, and then attempts to reunite the sundering via the context of the sacrificed god. There are reversed echoes of Odin’s self crucifixion in such a story, though in the Norse story the spiritual archetype is, of course, the heavens coming down to man, not man ascending to the heavens.
Furthermore, the symbolism of the Christian Cross has an interesting history as stated by Schama in exploring the transformation of the old pagan practice of tree worship into the new interpretation of the tree as symbolized by the cross:
The botanical cross was rapidly translated into the iconography of the Christian West, where it put out multiple shoots. But sometimes traces of pagan prototypes hung on the branches. A decorated capital T (for Te Igitur) in a ninth-century Metz breviary in which the cross is formed from vines also includes a pair of oxen at the base and twin sacrificial lambs at either cnd of the crosspiece.” Generally, this signified the victory of the new faith over the old,. and in time classical icons like the oxen were replaced at the base of the cross by the serpent of Genesis. The most austere and militant of the early church fathers were certainly aware that using trees and flowers to symbolize the death-that-is-no-death might come perilously close to outright idolatry. Formidable iconoclasts like St. Eligius, the bishop of Noyon, warned the faithful to obey scrupulously the commandment of Deuteronomy 12:2 to “utterly destroy all the places, wherein the nations which ye shall possess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every green tree.” But tree cults were everywhere in barbarian Europe, from the Celtic shores of the Atlantic in Ireland and Brittany, and Nordic Scandinavia, all the way through to the Balkans in the southeast and Lithuania on the Baltic. And since the latter province was thoroughly converted only in the fourteenth century, it is still possible to find startling “graveyards” where, instead of conventional crosses, wooden totems, their forms unaltered from paganism, crowd together in antic disorder. (Schama)
In this instance it is easy to recognize that the cross symbolizes eternal life. Various religions employ this archetype with minute differences: Christianity incorporated the mythography of the tree/cross from Gnostic and Kabbalist ritual, and echoes of this religious structure can be found even earlier in the Egyptian world. In addition, in the Mediterranean world the Latin or Roman cross was present, and Buddhist missionaries brought their symbolic version of the cross from India, but as has been touched upon earlier, the specific Christian meaning of the cross is that of the incarnation of Divinity, the “Word (Logos) made flesh” — crucified on the cross of matter, as St. Paul so eloquently dwells upon (Immink).
In Teutonic and Norse mythology Yggdrasil, the World Tree, is the trunk wedding the heavens, the underworld, and earth. This tree represents the place where the sacred enters the profane. The universe is supported by this tree that towers from the netherworld to the apex of the heavens. According to Travers,
One of its roots is grounded in the fountain of Mimir, from whose sacred waters flows all the wisdom of the world. Close to another root dwell the Norns-who are the equivalent of the Greek fates. And at the foot of the third lies the lake of memory and premonition, to achieve…[its] qualities the high god Odin paid the price of one of his eyes (Travers 20).
Odin, the equivalent of the Greek Zeus, hung on the tree for nine days, self-sacrificed so that he could bring the wisdom of the runes to his people, interpreted as language, knowledge, archetypally equal to Eve’s eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Once again, from the symbol of the tree flows human awareness and consciousness, the nexus of being thrown into time and space.
In conclusion, the tree symbol is viewed as a universal archetype uniting the world of temporal matter, the other world of death, and the universal paradise myth regained after the completion of life’s journey, for the tree exists in three worlds: the earthly, the underworld, and its branches soar into the infinite heavens, the domain of god.
Algeo, John. Viewpoint: Trees Around us and Within us, Theosophical Society
in America. Nov.-Dec. 1999. 21 Aug. 2003. http://www.theosophical.org/
Campbell, Joseph. Occidental Mythology: The Masks of God, New York: Penguin Books,
Immink, Phyllis. The Secret Wisdom of Symbols. Sunrise Magazine, August/September 1996. Theosophical University Press. http://www.theosociety.org/pasadena/sunrise/45-95-6/my-imm.htm
Roth, Stephanie. The Tree of Life, The Ecologist. Jan. 2000 v30il. TEL. ASAP.
18 Aug. 2003.
Schama, Simon, Landscape and Memory, New York, Alfred E. Knopf, 1995.
Travers, P.L. “In Search of the World Tree.” Parabola: Myth, Tradition, and the Search
for Meaning, Volume 24, Number 3. August, 1999.