Even if I were certain the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree this very day.
--Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Nothing crosses cultures and continents like the tree. It has flourished as the central symbol of life, immortality and enlightenment for just about every tribe and religion that ever was. And when we encounter the same symbol repeated over and over in hugely different traditions among peoples from farflung parts of the globe, these patterns announce something bigger than dogma or Bible or fun folk tales. They reveal universal truths. Not just Jewish truths, Christian truths, Cherokee or Greenpeace truths. But the authentic keys to life.
Check out this list of credits:
- Not only is the Tree of Life the key prop in the creation myth of Genesis, but Moses, the star of the Old Testament, attained his enlightenment from a burning bush. Tree, bush—in the desert, even God has to improvise.
- The Koran, the holy book of Islam, also extols the centrality of the Tree of Blessing. The symbol of divine gifts and spiritual enlightenment, this tree is considered the light of Allah (God) on Earth. Years earlier, the Bible recounts the story of Hagar, the concubine of Abraham. When the poor woman and her son Ishmael, who was fathered by Abraham, were driven off into the desert by Abraham’s wife Sarah, a desperate Hagar “cast the child under one of the trees” (Genesis 21:15) so she would not have to witness her poor son’s death. But the Tree hears the boy’s wailing. God shows his mother where to find water for them both and promises that from Ishmael—the patriarch of the Arab people—will spring a great nation.
- Buddha attained his enlightenment in the 6th Century BC under a Bo tree, the tree of wisdom. And for five hundred years, this embodiment of Light, the original Buddha, was depicted not as a seated man, but as a tree.
- The ballads of the ancient tribes of Western Tibet described the world as a tree with three summits and six branches and on each branch sits a bird laying an egg (sphere).
- Christ, the carpenter—he who refines the wood (i.e. structure) of a tree—was also crucified on one. His death on the wooden cross triggered his resurrection and enlightenment. This cross lives on not only in churches around the word but every time you knock on wood to drive away evil spirits. This ancient superstition symbolically replicates the touching of the tree of Jesus, who in dying for man’s supposed sins purifies all negative influences.
- Saemund’s Prose Edda tells us that the chief Norse god Odin found his enlightenment by hanging himself upside down on the Yggdrasil, the great ash tree that binds heaven, the underworld and the Earth in between. The infamous Tarot card “The Hanged Man” commemorates this story, which led to Odin’s discovery of the magic runes in the river beneath the tree. Norse mythology also reports that Odin created the first man and woman from two trees, imbuing them with ten qualities—spirit, life, wit, feeling, form, speech, hearing, sight, clothing and names—that correspond rather precisely to the specific energies of the ten spheres of the Kabbalistic Tree.
- Hindu tradition considers the tree the symbol of the cosmos with roots in the underworld, branches as heaven and the trunk standing for Earth. The Taittiriya Brahmana states: “Brahman was the wood, Brahman the tree from which they shaped heaven and Earth.” As in Genesis, Hindu scripture also features a Tree of Life called Aditi and a Tree of Knowledge named Diti or separation, which symbolizes the concept of Samsara, or this mortal coil.
- Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Iran, recounts that Ormazd, the eternal source of all that is good, created Gayomart, the primordial man. When he died, a tiny plant with a male and a female shoot sprang from a drop of his sperm. It grew into a great tree that bore as its fruit the ten races (corresponding to the ten spheres) of mankind. Thus spoke Zarathustra.
- The Great Spirit of the Native American Sioux made the first man, whose feet then rooted fast into the ground like a tree. He stood there for thousands of years until finally a female tree sprang up beside him. A large snake gnawed at their roots and the couple wandered off free and gave life to all humans that have ever lived.
- The Mayan Popul Vuh recounts that Quetzalcoatl and his companions on high, shaped man from the maize stalk.
- In the mythology of the South Pacific islands of Melanesia, the good spirit Sirini transforms himself into a Tree of Life called Cordyline to escape the wrath of the Goddess Sinapki. Sirini subsequently incarnated as the first human by springing from the fruit of this tree.
- The Yakut of Siberia believed that at the golden navel of the Earth stood a tree with eight branches. The original man in this tradition, born in a sort of primordial paradise, feeds on the milk of a woman who half-emerges from the trunk of the tree.
- The Aboriginal Yaraando, or Dreaming Tree of Life, represents “dreamtime,” the metaphysical state in which the creative urge flourished long before man arrived on Earth. In ritual ceremonies, the Aborigines plant an inverted tree with its roots pointing to the skies to symbolize that all life originates in the heavens.
- Voodoo, the religion of the peasant masses of Haiti, worships the tree as Loco, the God of vegetation and repository of knowledge about the secret properties of herbs and healing.
- Taoists regard the Peach as the Tree of Immortality, its intertwining branches evoking the balance of yin and yang.
- Zeus and his Roman counterpart Jupiter—each king of the gods and god of thunder and lightening—were revered as the “Oracular Oaks.” Their priests entered a sacred grove and consulted the trees for answers and prophecy. The Oak also symbolized Thunar and Perun, the Gods of Thunder in the ancient German and Slavic traditions respectively. In Judaism, YHVH—the holy name of God, the creator of The Tree of Life—also appears in the Bible amid thunder and fire in the sky.
- James G. Fraser’s groundbreaking “The Golden Bough” chronicles the fanatical devotion of the trees among nearly every society in pre-Christian Europe. The people of these nations, who back then created fire by rubbing sticks together, believed that the trees themselves contained the very Sun. The cult of the forest goddess Diana in pre-Roman Italy featured a man called The Wood King, who stood guard with a sword before The Golden Bough (the mistletoe of the Oak, the seeds that spawn new growth). If a rival succeeded in snatching the Golden Bough, he then dueled against the reigning Wood King. The winner would automatically ascend to the throne, insuring that this man, the personification of the spirit of the trees, would never grow old and feeble, and nature itself—all life itself—would therefore always remain young, strong and vital.
- The priests and healers of the Celts of Northwestern Europe were called Druids, literally “Men of the Oaks.” This nation worshiped the trees so fanatically that they refused to build any temples to their God. No matter how skilled their craftsmen, they knew that a temple of marble and wood always would pale in magnitude and beauty to the actual forest. They let the tree be their temple, the forest their holy ground. When the Romans invaded, they subdued the Celts simply by burning their beloved groves, essentially torching the heart right out of an entire culture.
- The Christmas tree, a remnant of the Winter solstice celebrations of these ancient Europeans, commercializes their adoration of the forest. At some point, some cunning entrepreneur realized, “Hey, they love trees so much, let’s chop them down and stick them in their living rooms alongside the TV.” But the symbolism of the Xmas tree, with the star on top and the presents (odd fertilizer to be sure) beneath, mirror perfectly the Kabbalistic Tree of Life—whose blindingly bright top sphere touches the Light of heaven, while the lowest sphere holds the gifts of this life on Earth.
- In the mythology of Phrygia, an ancient culture of Asia Minor, the sun god Attis emasculates himself under a pine tree, killing himself but bestowing immortality to the tree. Attis’ death and resurrection three days later—the same number of days in Christ’s resurrection, the same number of days the moon vanishes when it’s new—symbolize the death of deciduous trees in winter and their rebirth in the spring. Attis sacrificed himself on the Vernal Equinox (the first day of spring), just about the same time of year the Romans executed Christ.
- A young American named Julia Butterfly Hill climbed a towering California Redwood in 1997 and lived 180 feet above the ground for more than two years to protect it from a lumber company’s ax. Clinging for her life one black night in storm winds raging near 100 miles per hour, she claimed the tree named Luna spoke to her, encouraging the woman not to fight the forces of nature, but to let go and sway with them.
- The list could go on forever, but we’ll stop with Merlin, the marvelous magician. Together with his disciple King Arthur, he fashioned the Round Table from a slice of a huge Oak to symbolize equality for all. (A round table by design features no head of the table to signify the boss or any hierarchy). In the end, Merlin decided to freeze himself inside a tree. Once charged with unifying all of the United Kingdom, Merlin’s next mission, according to the legend, will be to unify all of humanity. He will emerge from the tree to do so. Or perhaps he will simply remain alive as a spirit inside and allow the trees to teach us how to do it ourselves.