The Tree of Life – An Ancient Symbol That Still Draws Us In
Ask someone about the Tree of Life, and you’re likely to get a variety of responses. The image and meaning vary, and someone in Turkey will have an entirely different concept in mind than someone who is familiar with Norse mythology. In the many manifestations of the motif in art, there is an underlying message of interconnectedness and beauty that don’t belong to any one culture or belief.
So, what are the common features and meanings throughout time and geography? Looking at these will allow us to cover some of the history and context of this popular and powerful image.
Connection between Heaven and Earth
With branches stretching into the sky, and roots descending into the earth, trees were a natural illustration for the connection between the two. Tree of life artwork has used this image as an illustration all over the globe, although cultures through time described the exact nature of the link in different ways.
The Celts believed that their Crann Bethadh represented the spirits of their ancestors. Usually depicted as an Oak, there is a beautiful symmetry between the crown of the tree’s branches and the spread of the roots in the soil.
With Oak trees also considered as sacred, the early Celts used their locations to perform rituals that would unite the two realms of heaven and earth. The trunk was actually the axis mundi: the center of the world that both pierced and joined them. The origin of the word “door” is derived from the Celtic word for oak: daur. In other words, an oak could be a direct access point to the Underworld and the Fairy realms.
The Norse also had their version of a world-spanning Tree of Life: The World Tree, or Yggdrasil. Their tree, an Ash, ambitiously led to nine different worlds. It’s mentioned in any number of myths, literature, and epic poems.
The massive tree housed any number of important beings, like dragons, serpents, stags, and eagles. As the center of the cosmos, Yggdrasil was the daily meeting place for the gods to take care of business. Understandably, the complexity of the tree’s connections and destinations is still debated today among scholars.
Another piece of the Tree of life symbology is the gift of knowledge. With the tree seen as a repository of wisdom and a being that continues to grow and bear fruit, this is a concept that appeared in the Bible – right there in the Garden of Eden, where it all began.
It was the tree of knowledge of good and evil, tucked away at a far corner of the Garden, and it was forbidden for the first residents: Adam and Eve to eat of the fruit. As we all know, that didn’t happen, and by Chapter 3 of Genesis, they were banished.
In Islamic tradition, Abdula, the father of Mohammed, dreamed that his yet-unborn son with a tree growing from the child’s back, reaching upward and upward to emit a light that spread around the world. The light was the knowledge of his teachings.
The Love of God
Christianity took a different perspective on the Tree of Life symbology in later years with Saint Isaac declaring that “”the tree of life is the love of God” and Pope Benedict XVI stating that “the Cross is the true tree of life”. Thus, the image became associated with both the Crucifixion and other imagery.
Other examples of the Tree of Life artwork are associated with tenets of the Mormon faith, where it is mentioned as a symbol of salvation. As seen in a vision, the tree is located at the end of a path that seekers are following.
One of the most ancient meanings of the tree of life symbology is simply that of abundance. This is seen widely across cultures, who all had reasons to venerate what trees provided: food, shelter, and the supplies all living beings need for survival.
In Babylonian mythology, the Tree of Life stood in the middle of Paradise, with the Apsu primordial waters flowing from its roots. Unlike later versions of Paradise, this tree bore no penalty for anyone visiting it.
This developed in later times into stylized variations of the form, often surrounded by animals and with the branches filled with birds. It can be seen in many ancient examples of tree of life mosaic wall art, and the resulting scenes are quite lively and beautiful.
In ancient Iranian mythology, similar use included references to Amesha Spenta Amordad, who was a guardian of plants and trees, and to Haoma in the Zoroastrian rituals. Haoma, a ritual drink, was prepared from a plant that with divine origins. The original tree, it was said, grew on a “paradisiacal mountain”, had shining white branches, and spouted from sprigs that were carried to earth by birds of a divine origin.
Drinking Haoma conferred prosperity and a number of other desirable outcomes for the lucky participant.
A more broad interpretation of the Tree of Life symbology is that of harmony among all beings and in nature. Indeed, some of the more modern pieces of art utilizing it incorporate this concept.
Often, these include intricate and spiraling forms that reference the interconnectedness of all beings and the cycles of life. Tree of life mosaic art has been utilized often in spaces meant for reflection and meditation.
There are strong associations with many faiths that mythologize the tree with gaining wisdom about the nature of life and the need to live in harmony. Buddha attained enlightenment while meditating beneath the Bodhi tree, and Krishna spent much of his early days living in the forest. In the Bhagavata Purana, he speaks of the trees as examples, saying:
“Look at these bountiful trees. They live for the benefit of others. There is not a single part of the tree which is not useful. With their beautiful foliage, fragrant flowers, cool shade, roots, bark, wood, sprouts, and fruits they serve.”
The Tree of Life Today
In modern times, the imagery of the Tree of Life still resonates. It’s a popular tattoo design, and is depicted in jewelry, mosaic wall art, and pops up in film and culture references. We can all identify with at least one aspect of its many meanings.
Within all of us is a basic need to better ourselves and feel connected to nature and life itself. Tree of Life artwork is appealing to viewers who can be vastly different in culture and religion, but who still share in the desire for a better and more peaceful world. It’s always a beautiful image that is appreciated across generations and continents.