The concept of a tree of life is a widespread mytheme or archetype in the world's mythologies, related to the concept of sacred tree more generally, and hence in religious and philosophical tradition.
- Religion and mythology
- Ancient Iran
- Ancient Egypt
- Ancient Mesopotamia and Urartu
- Jewish sources
- Baha'i Faith
- Latter Day Saint movement
- Germanic paganism and Norse mythology
- North America
- Serer religion
- Popular culture
The expression Tree of Life was used as a metaphor for the phylogenetic tree of common descent in the evolutionary sense in a famous passage by Charles Darwin (1872).
The tree of knowledge, connecting to heaven and the underworld, and the tree of life, connecting all forms of creation, are both forms of the world tree or cosmic tree, according to the Encyclopædia Britannica, and are portrayed in various religions and philosophies as the same tree.
Religion and mythology
Various trees of life are recounted in folklore, culture and fiction, often relating to immortality or fertility. They had their origin in religious symbolism.
The Eternal Banyan Tree (Akshaya Vata) is located on the bank of the Yamuna inside the courtyard of Allahabad Fort near the confluence of the Yamuna and Ganga Rivers in Allahabad. The eternal and divine nature of this tree has been documented at length in the scriptures.
During the cyclic destruction of creation when the whole earth was enveloped by waters, akshaya vata remained unaffected. It is on the leaves of this tree that Lord Krishna rested in the form of a baby when land was no longer visible. And it is here that the immortal sage, Markandeya, received the cosmic vision of the Lord. It is under this tree that Buddha meditates eternally. Legend also has it that the Bodi tree at Gaya is a manifestation of this tree.
In pre-Islamic Persian mythology, the Gaokerena world tree is a large, sacred Haoma tree which bears all seeds. Ahriman (Ahreman, Angremainyu) created a frog to invade the tree and destroy it, aiming to prevent all trees from growing on the earth. As a reaction, God (Ahura Mazda) created two kar fish staring at the frog to guard the tree. The two fishes are always staring at the frog and stay ready to react to it. Because Ahriman is responsible for all evil including death, while Ahura Mazda is responsible for all good (including life) the concept of world tree in Persian Mythology is very closely related to the concept of Tree of Life.
The sacred plant haoma and the drink made from it. The preparation of the drink from the plant by pounding and the drinking of it are central features of Zoroastrian ritual. Haoma is also personified as a divinity. It bestows essential vital qualities—health, fertility, husbands for maidens, even immortality. The source of the earthly haoma plant is a shining white tree that grows on a paradisiacal mountain. Sprigs of this white haoma were brought to earth by divine birds.
Haoma is the Avestan form of the Sanskrit soma. The near identity of the two in ritual significance is considered by scholars to point to a salient feature of an Indo-Iranian religion antedating Zoroastrianism.
Another related issue in ancient mythology of Iran is the myth of Mashyа and Mashyane, two trees who were the ancestors of all living beings. This myth can be considered as a prototype for the creation myth where living beings are created by Gods (who have a human form).
To the Ancient Egyptians, the Tree of Life represented the hierarchical chain of events that brought everything into existence. The spheres of the Tree of Life demonstrate the order, process, and method of creation.
In Egyptian mythology, in the Ennead system of Heliopolis, the first couple, apart from Shu and Tefnut (moisture and dryness) and Geb and Nut (earth and sky), are Isis and Osiris. They were said to have emerged from the acacia tree of Iusaaset, which the Egyptians considered the tree of life, referring to it as the "tree in which life and death are enclosed."
A much later myth relates how Set and 72 conspirators killed Osiris, putting him in a coffin, and throwing it into the Nile, the coffin becoming embedded in the base of a tamarisk tree.
The Egyptians' Holy Sycamore also stood on the threshold of life and death, connecting the two worlds.
Ancient Mesopotamia and Urartu
The Assyrian Tree of Life was represented by a series of nodes and criss-crossing lines. It was apparently an important religious symbol, often attended to in Assyrian palace reliefs by human or eagle-headed winged genies, or the King, and blessed or fertilized with bucket and cone. Assyriologists have not reached consensus as to the meaning of this symbol. The name "Tree of Life" has been attributed to it by modern scholarship; it is not used in the Assyrian sources. In fact, no textual evidence pertaining to the symbol is known to exist.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a similar quest for immortality. In Mesopotamian mythology, Etana searches for a 'plant of birth' to provide him with a son. This has a solid provenance of antiquity, being found in cylinder seals from Akkad (2390–2249 BCE).
In ancient Urartu, the Tree of Life was a religious symbol and was drawn on walls of fortresses and carved on the armor of warriors. The branches of the tree were equally divided on the right and left sides of the stem, with each branch having one leaf, and one leaf on the apex of the tree. Servants stood on each side of the tree with one of their hands up as if they are taking care of the tree.
Etz Chaim, Hebrew for "tree of life," is a common term used in Judaism. The expression, found in the Book of Proverbs, is figuratively applied to the Torah itself. Etz Chaim is also a common name for yeshivas and synagogues as well as for works of Rabbinic literature. It is also used to describe each of the wooden poles to which the parchment of a Sefer Torah is attached.
The tree of life is mentioned in the Book of Genesis; it is distinct from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. After Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they were driven out of the Garden of Eden. Remaining in the garden, however, was the tree of life. To prevent their access to this tree in the future, Cherubim with a flaming sword were placed at the east of the garden. (Genesis 3:22-24)
In the Book of Proverbs, the tree of life is associated with wisdom: "[Wisdom] is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her, and happy [is every one] that retaineth her." (Proverbs 3:13-18) In 15:4 the tree of life is associated with calmness: "A soothing tongue is a tree of life; but perverseness therein is a wound to the spirit."
The Book of Enoch, generally considered non-canonical, states that in the time of the great judgment God will give all those whose names are in the Book of Life fruit to eat from the Tree of Life.
The Bo tree, also called Bodhi tree, according to Buddhist tradition, is the pipal (Ficus religiosa) under which the Buddha sat when he attained Enlightenment (Bodhi) at Bodh Gaya (near Gaya, west-central Bihar state, India). A living pipal at Anuradhapura, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), is said to have grown from a cutting from the Bo tree sent to that city by King Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE.
According to Tibetan tradition when Buddha went to the holy Lake Manasorovar along with 500 monks, he took with him the energy of Prayaga Raj. Upon his arrival, he installed the energy of Prayaga Raj near Lake Manasorovar, at a place now known as Prayang. Then he planted the seed of this eternal banyan tree next to Mt. Kailash on a mountain known as the "Palace of Medicine Buddha".
In Chinese mythology, a carving of a Tree of Life depicts a phoenix and a dragon; the dragon often represents immortality. A Taoist story tells of a tree that produces a peach every three thousand years. The one who eats the fruit receives immortality.
An archaeological discovery in the 1990s was of a sacrificial pit at Sanxingdui in Sichuan, China. Dating from about 1200 BCE, it contained three bronze trees, one of them 4 meters high. At the base was a dragon, and fruit hanging from the lower branches. At the top is a strange bird-like (phoenix) creature with claws. Also found in Sichuan, from the late Han dynasty (c 25 – 220 CE), is another tree of life. The ceramic base is guarded by a horned beast with wings. The leaves of the tree are coins and people. At the apex is a bird with coins and the Sun.
In Catholic Christianity, the Tree of Life represents the immaculate state of humanity free from corruption and Original Sin before the Fall. Pope Benedict XVI has said that "the Cross is the true tree of life." Saint Bonaventure taught that the medicinal fruit of the Tree of Life is Christ himself. Saint Albert the Great taught that the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ, is the Fruit of the Tree of Life. Augustine of Hippo said that the tree of life is Christ: "All these things stood for something other than what they were, but all the same they were themselves bodily realities. And when the narrator mentioned them he was not employing figurative language, but giving an explicit account of things which had a forward reference that was figurative. So then the tree of life also was Christ... and indeed God did not wish the man to live in Paradise without the mysteries of spiritual things being presented to him in bodily form. So then in the other trees he was provided with nourishment, in this one with a sacrament... He is rightly called whatever came before him in order to signify him."
The tree first appeared in Genesis 2:9 and 3:22-24 as the source of eternal life in the Garden of Eden, from which access is revoked when man is driven from the garden. It then reappears in the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, and most predominantly in the last chapter of that book (Chapter 22) as a part of the new garden of paradise. Access is then no longer forbidden, for those who "wash their robes" (or as the textual variant in the King James Version has it, "they that do his commandments") "have right to the tree of life" (v.14). A similar statement appears in Rev 2:7, where the tree of life is promised as a reward to those who overcome. Revelation 22 begins with a reference to the "pure river of water of life" which proceeds "out of the throne of God". The river seems to feed two trees of life, one "on either side of the river" which "bear twelve manner of fruits" "and the leaves of the tree were for healing of the nations" (v.1-2). Or this may indicate that the tree of life is a vine that grows on both sides of the river, as John 15:1 would hint at.
In Eastern Christianity the tree of life is the love of God.
The "Tree of Immortality" (Arabic: شجرة الخلود) is the tree of life motif as it appears in the Quran. It is also alluded to in hadiths and tafsir. Unlike the biblical account, the Quran mentions only one tree in Eden, also called the tree of immortality, which Allah specifically forbade to Adam and Eve. Satan, disguised as a serpent, repeatedly told Adam to eat from the tree, and eventually both Adam and Eve did so, thus disobeying Allah. The hadiths also speak about other trees in heaven.
According to the Ahmadiyya movement, Quranic reference to the tree is symbolic; eating of the forbidden tree signifies that Adam disobeyed God.
The Book of One Thousand and One Nights has a story, 'The Tale of Buluqiya', in which the hero searches for immortality and finds a paradise with jewel-encrusted trees. Nearby is a Fountain of Youth guarded by Al-Khidr. Unable to defeat the guard, Buluqiya has to return empty-handed. This has similarities with the much older Epic of Gilgamesh.
The concept of the tree of life appears in the writings of the Baha'i Faith, where it can refer to the Manifestation of God, a great teacher who appears to humanity from age to age. An example of this can be found in the Hidden Words of Bahá'u'lláh:
"Have ye forgotten that true and radiant morn, when in those hallowed and blessed surroundings ye were all gathered in My presence beneath the shade of the tree of life, which is planted in the all-glorious paradise? Awestruck ye listened as I gave utterance to these three most holy words: O friends! Prefer not your will to Mine, never desire that which I have not desired for you, and approach Me not with lifeless hearts, defiled with worldly desires and cravings. Would ye but sanctify your souls, ye would at this present hour recall that place and those surroundings, and the truth of My utterance should be made evident unto all of you."
Also, in the Tablet of Ahmad , of Bahá'u'lláh:
"Verily He is the Tree of Life, that bringeth forth the fruits of God, the Exalted, the Powerful, the Great".
Bahá'u'lláh refers to his male descendents as branches (Aghsán) and calls women leaves.
A distinction has been made between the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The latter represents the physical world with its opposites, such as good and evil and light and dark. In a different context from the one above, the tree of life represents the spiritual realm, where this duality does not exist.
Latter Day Saint movement
The tree of life appears in the Book of Mormon in a revelation to Lehi (see 1 Nephi 8:10). It is symbolic of the love of God (see 1 Nephi 11:21-23). Its fruit is described as "most precious and most desirable above all other fruits," which "is the greatest of all the gifts of God" (see 1 Nephi 15:36). In another scriptural book, salvation is called "the greatest of all the gifts of God" (see Doctrine and Covenants 6:13). In the same book eternal life is also called the "greatest of all the gifts of God" (see Doctrine and Covenants 14:7). Because of these references, the tree of life and its fruit is sometimes understood to be symbolic of salvation and post-mortal existence in the presence of God and his love.
In Dictionnaire Mytho-Hermetique (Paris, 1737), Antoine-Joseph Pernety, a famous alchemist, identified the Tree of Life with the Elixir of Life and the Philosopher's Stone.
In Eden in the East (1998), Stephen Oppenheimer suggests that a tree-worshipping culture arose in Indonesia and was diffused by the so-called "Younger Dryas" event of c. 8000 BCE, when the sea level rose. This culture reached China (Szechuan), then India and the Middle East. Finally the Finno-Ugaritic strand of this diffusion spread through Russia to Finland where the Norse myth of Yggdrasil took root.
The Borjgali (Georgian: ბორჯღალი) is an ancient Georgian Tree of Life symbol.
Germanic paganism and Norse mythology
In Germanic paganism, trees played (and, in the form of reconstructive Heathenry and Germanic Neopaganism, continue to play) a prominent role, appearing in various aspects of surviving texts and possibly in the name of gods.
The tree of life appears in Norse religion as Yggdrasil, the world tree, a massive tree (sometimes considered a yew or ash tree) with extensive lore surrounding it. Perhaps related to Yggdrasil, accounts have survived of Germanic Tribes' honouring sacred trees within their societies. Examples include Thor's Oak, sacred groves, the Sacred tree at Uppsala, and the wooden Irminsul pillar. In Norse Mythology, the apples from Iðunn's ash box provide immortality for the gods.
Jewish mysticism depicts the Tree of Life in the form of ten interconnected nodes, as the central symbol of the Kabbalah. It comprises the ten Sephirot powers in the Divine realm. The panentheistic and anthropomorphic emphasis of this emanationist theology interpreted the Torah, Jewish observance, and the purpose of Creation as the symbolic esoteric drama of unification in the Sephirot, restoring harmony to Creation. From the time of the Renaissance onwards, Jewish Kabbalah became incorporated as an important tradition in non-Jewish Western culture, first through its adoption by Christian Cabala, and continuing in Western esotericism occult Hermetic Qabalah. These adapted the Judaic Kabbalah Tree of Life syncretically by associating it with other religious traditions, esoteric theologies, and magical practices.
The concept of world trees is a prevalent motif in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cosmologies and iconography. World trees embodied the four cardinal directions, which represented also the fourfold nature of a central world tree, a symbolic axis mundi connecting the planes of the Underworld and the sky with that of the terrestrial world.
Depictions of world trees, both in their directional and central aspects, are found in the art and mythological traditions of cultures such as the Maya, Aztec, Izapan, Mixtec, Olmec, and others, dating to at least the Mid/Late Formative periods of Mesoamerican chronology. Among the Maya, the central world tree was conceived as or represented by a ceiba tree, and is known variously as a wacah chan or yax imix che, depending on the Mayan language. The trunk of the tree could also be represented by an upright caiman, whose skin evokes the tree's spiny trunk.
Directional world trees are also associated with the four Yearbearers in Mesoamerican calendars, and the directional colors and deities. Mesoamerican codices which have this association outlined include the Dresden, Borgia and Fejérváry-Mayer codices. It is supposed that Mesoamerican sites and ceremonial centers frequently had actual trees planted at each of the four cardinal directions, representing the quadripartite concept.
World trees are frequently depicted with birds in their branches, and their roots extending into earth or water (sometimes atop a "water-monster," symbolic of the underworld). The central world tree has also been interpreted as a representation of the band of the Milky Way.
In a myth passed down among the Iroquois, The World on the Turtle's Back, explains the origin of the land in which a tree of life is described. According to the myth, it is found in the heavens, where the first humans lived, until a pregnant woman fell and landed in an endless sea. Saved by a giant turtle from drowning, she formed the world on its back by planting bark taken from the tree.
The tree of life motif is present in the traditional Ojibway cosmology and traditions. It is sometimes described as Grandmother Cedar, or Nookomis Giizhig in Anishinaabemowin.
In the book Black Elk Speaks, Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota (Sioux) wičháša wakȟáŋ (medicine man and holy man), describes his vision in which after dancing around a dying tree that has never bloomed he is transported to the other world (spirit world) where he meets wise elders, 12 men and 12 women. The elders tell Black Elk that they will bring him to meet "Our Father, the two-legged chief" and bring him to the center of a hoop where he sees the tree in full leaf and bloom and the "chief" standing against the tree. Coming out of his trance he hopes to see that the earthly tree has bloomed, but it is dead.
In Serer religion, the tree of life as a religious concept forms the basis of Serer cosmogony. Trees were the first things created on Earth by the supreme being Roog (or Koox among the Cangin). In the competing versions of the Serer creation myth, the Somb (Prosopis africana) and the Saas tree (acacia albida) are both viewed as trees of life. However, the prevailing view is that, the Somb was the first tree on Earth and the progenitor of plant life. The Somb was also used in the Serer tumuli and burial chambers, many of which had survived for more than a thousand years. Thus, Somb is not only the Tree of Life in Serer society, but the symbol of immortality.
The World Tree or Tree of Life is a central symbol in Turkic mythology. It is a common motif in carpets.
In 2009 it was introduced as the main design of the common Turkish lira sub-unit 5 kuruş.
Austrian symbolist artist Gustav Klimt portrayed his version of the tree of life in his painting, The Tree of Life, Stoclet Frieze. This iconic painting later inspired the external facade of the "New Residence Hall" (also called the "Tree House"), a colorful 21-story student residence hall at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, Massachusetts.
In George Herbert's poem The Sacrifice (part of The Temple, 1633), the Tree of Life is the rood on which Jesus Christ was crucified. In C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, the Tree of Life plays a role, especially in the sixth published book (the first in the in-world chronology) The Magician's Nephew
Alex Proyas' 2009 film Knowing ends with the two young protagonists directed towards the Tree of Life.
The Tree of Life is a Terrence Malick film released in May 2011, starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe film franchise features a Tree of Life, in a more science-based version of the mythical tree. In the 2011 Marvel Studios superhero film Thor, the Asgardian warrior Thor explains that the Nine Realms of the Asgardian cosmos are linked by Yggdrasil, the Norse mythological Tree of Life, which is here interpreted as a nebula in space connecting the planets in an orbit.