What is the Tree of Life?

The Tree of Life

tree of life metallic coloured vase
a “tree of life” vase in metallic gunmetal grey and silver

The Tree of Life is an ancient symbol – recognised in many cultures around the world – which embodies our own individual journey through life, and our spiritual connection to the world we live in.  It also represents the interconnectedness of life, and the passage of time.

The deep roots show our connection to the Earthly realm, and our physical reality, while the branches stretch towards the sky and our spiritual life of hopes and dreams.  As with trees, we all begin as a tiny seed, and as we grow we learn to ground ourselves with our roots, and at the same time to stretch out our branches towards wisdom, love, hopes and dreams.

The tree also symbolises an enduring strength through the passage of time in our lives, and the phases of time we all experience – from the melancholy of Autumn, to the harshness of Winter, through to the joyful rebirth of Spring, and the glowing health and fortitude of Summer.  It is an ever-present reminder that each Winter in our lives is followed by a Spring, with the hopes and dreams of a Summer to come.

Equilibrium Tree-of-Life Amethyst Necklace
A beautiful example of the Tree of Life on an amethyst background

Ancient Persia and Zoroastrianism

The tree of life was represented in ancient Persia from around 1300BC.  A tale from Zoroaster suggests that the tree was once threatened by Ahriman (the deity of negativity and destruction), who sent a frog to suppress and even wither the tree’s growth.  In response, Ahura Mazda (which translates to “Lord of Wisdom”) sent two Kar fish to guard the tree from the frog, allowing the tree to grow in the midst of a stand-off between good and evil.

Buddhism

Sitting Thai Buddha Tealight Holder
A Sitting Buddha tealight holder in traditional Thai style

In Buddhism, the tree of life is often understood to be the Bodhi tree (the sacred fig tree) which the Buddha was sitting underneath when he attained enlightenment.

A living tree in Sri Lanka is believed to have been grown from a cutting of the Bodhi tree, and the seeds of the original are also believed to have been planted at the foot of Mount Kailash, in a place known as the “Palace of the Medicine Buddha”

Norse Mythology

The Norse tree of life appears in the form of Yggdrasil, a gigantic ash tree whose roots reach deep beyond the realms of the Earth, and whose branches support the sky and the spiritual realms.  It was believed that the tree also contained a dragon and an eagle.  Strangely, a bronze statue of the tree of life found in China 4500 miles away, and dating from 1200BC, shows a dragon at the base, and a phoenix or eagle rising from the branches.

Pre-Colombian South America

For the Mayans, Inca, Aztecs and others, the world tree was seen as the great axis of the world – very similar to the Norse Yggdrasil – with roots reaching into the underworld, and branches to the heavens.  Often it was depicted as sitting on top of a water monster from the underworld – could this be the same as the Chinese dragon, or the Persian frog?

North America

From the Iriquois comes the legend of “the world on the turtle’s back”.  In this myth, a pregnant woman fell from the branches of a heavenly tree of life and landed in a great sea.  She was saved by a turtle, and planted a tree of life there which became our own Earthly world.  Could the turtle be another “water monster”?

Connections through culture, time, and our understanding of life

Decorative Plate Tree of Life design
A decorative “tree of life” design plate in champagne silver

In researching and writing this blog on the tree of life, and how it represents connectedness through life and time, I have been very surprised at just how often the same themes appear right around the world, and often at about the same time!

China and Scandinavia with their dragon and eagle/phoenix; Persia and the North American Iriquios with their “water monster” frog and turtle; the Aztecs and the Vikings with the tree of life as the axis of the world, reaching to the underworld and the heavens.

Perhaps we are all more connected than we think…

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Further reading is available here