The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life – Brief Article

Stephanie Roth

The universal use of the tree as a religious symbol is extremely ancient (dating at least from the third millennium B.C.) and belongs to a rich body of myth. It mainly signifies ‘the Centre’; the point of ‘beginning,’ where the forces of the sacred first broke through. In the symbolic language of myth and religion, the tree is ‘the navel of the world’ or ‘the cosmic axis’ (Axis Mundi) which stands at the centre of the Universe and passes through the middle of the three cosmic zones; underworld, Earth and sky.

Sacred architecture like the Buddhist stupa and the pyramid-ziggurat (such as those found in Mesopotamia and Mexico) represent the centre within the primeval mound which arose out of the infinite depths of the primordial ocean in the beginning. The tree is also closely associated with fertility. Artemis, the many — breasted tree divinity, is the Mother of Earth; embodying the powers from which all life emerges.

To shamans ranging from China to Asia, and from Oceania to the Americas, the tree is a bridge to heaven; symbolising the ascent to the sky world. To the Kabbalists, creation was the manifestation of an inner world of the Divine, and they used an inverted tree to symbolise this idea. A passage in the Book of Zohar reads: “Now the Tree of Life extends from above downwards, and is the sun which illuminates all.”

The tree of Life is not, however, the same thing as the Tree of Knowledge, which, according to Christians, led to Man’s fall. After expelling Adam and Eve from Paradise, God left a cherubim with a flashing sword to guard the Tree of Life (Gen 3:24). This tree signified the essence of life, whilst the other signified the knowledge of good and evil. To the earliest Christians, Christ was sacrificed at the centre of the world, on the cosmic tree. And it was upon an altar under a banyan tree, attributed to Shiva, that Buddha chose to sacrifice his selfhood and achieve enlightenment. A cutting of this very tree is still venerated at Bodh Gaya. The Nordic god Odin sacrificed his Self on Yggdrasil, the World Tree, to gain the wisdom of the runes.

Essentially, the tree — the source of endless regeneration — is synonymous with imagination. In the words of the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard: “Imagination is a tree. It has the integrative virtues of a tree. It is root and boughs. It lives between earth and sky. It lives in the earth and in the wind. The imagined tree imperceptibly becomes the cosmological tree, the tree which epitomises a universe, which makes a universe.” [1]

(1.) Quoted from Roger cook, The Tree or Life, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1974, p.9

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