Within anthropology, the “tree of life” concept can be viewed from either a biological or a cultural perspective. The cultural tree of life is generally linked to religious beliefs and actions. Symbolic reference to trees as sacred entities can be found in Christianity, associated with the Garden of Eden and with the cross of crucifixion. In Viking myths and legends, according to Kenneth Johnson in Jaguar Wisdom, the shaman is said to have “hung like a sacrifice in search of wisdom” from a tree limb.
In the Americas, the ancient Mayan civilization made great use of their own version of the life-giving tree. With the Maya, the tree of life was interpreted on several levels, one being as a conduit or umbilical cord linking one area of space with another. The Mayan lords traveled inside the tree to reach destinations in the sky and also into the underworld of Xibalba and death. As Linda Schele and David Freidel set forth in A Forest if Kings, supernatural spirits moved freely from one realm to another via the sap of the trees, much as human blood, upon which they devoted much religious ritual, coursed through the human body. On the great sarcophagus lid of the Maya Palenque, Lord Pacal is carved traveling up the great world tree called Wacah Chan. Pacal is depicted as being in transition, moving up from the dark world of Xibalba and the Maw of the underworld, through the realm of earthly existence, to the celestial bird positioned at the top of the great tree, where he will next move up into the sky. The tree is laden with blood bowls and spirit-reflecting mirrors, representing the link between the natural and supernatural worlds.
Moojan Momen in the text The Phenomenon of Religion shows that in Siberia, the Buryatia are known to elaborately decorate sacred trees with pieces of ribbon and paper upon which they have written wishes, dreams, and desires, in hopes that they may influence spirits, residing in specific trees, to grant their requests. Momen also includes a description of the often convoluted and weblike structure of the Sephiroth tree of the Kabbalist, within which is formulated its 10 interconnected circles where the “unknowable godhead” representing the “horizons of eternity” resides.
Anthropomorphized deities are included, such as the Buddha Amitoyus, who is known as the “tree of life” and is illustrated with a tree for a body. On several occasions, the great God Zeus, as described in Van Der Leeuw’s writing Religion in Essence and Manifestation, was drawn with the body of a tree. The Egyptian sycamore tree was known to encircle supernatural gods or have the limbs that serve as a throne for the gods.
James Frazer devoted an entire section in The New Golden Bough to life-giving embodiment and life-taking qualities of trees and their resident spirits depicted in a cross-cultural perspective. Included is the belief that contact with specific tree species can increase changes of female fertility capabilities and the ability of tree spirits to ensure abundant crop growth, also connected to fertility. Within the Maori Tuhae tribe, there is the belief that trees are the umbilical cords of mythical ancestors. The Tanga coastal peoples of East Africa believe that specific tree spirits can cause or cure illness and misfortune.
Philip Peek in African Divination Systems shows how for the African Yaka, the tree is a symbol of marital bonding across lineage lines, where households simultaneously both deliver and hold onto their fertile females when physically transferring them to other tribes. Each limb and branch of the life-giving tree reflects the interconnectedness of the continuing alliances across lineage lines and the transmission of continued tribal life as grandmother, mother, and daughter each produce successive generations.
Whether symbolizing Germanic myths of the Oden as shaman, the power of the Garden of Eden, the Mayan conduit or the Hindu and African fertility rites, the life-giving tree is a powerful cross-cultural symbol connecting life, death, time, and space and is worthy of further exploration.
- Johnson, K. (1997). Jaguar wisdom. Minneapolis, MN: Llewellyn.
- Momen, M. (1999). The phenomenon of religion. Oxford: OneWorld.
- Peek, P. M. (Ed.). (1991). African divination systems. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Schele, L., & Freidel, D. (1990). A forest of kings. New York: Morrow.
- Van Der Leeuw, G. (1986). Religion in essence and manifestation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.