Saturday, March 21, 2009

Tree of Life (The Spine)

An 1847 depiction of the Norse Yggdrasil as described in the Icelandic Prose Edda by Oluf Olufsen Bagge.

The concept of a many-branched tree illustrating the idea that all life on earth is related has been used in science, religion, philosophy, mythology and other areas. A tree of life is variously, a) a mystical concept alluding to the interconnectedness of all life on our planet, b) a metaphor for common descent in the evolutionary sense, and c) a motif in various world theologies, mythologies and philosophies.

Conceptual and mythological "trees of life"

Various trees of life are recounted in folklore, culture and fiction, often relating to immortality or fertility. They had their origin in religious symbolism.


  • What is known as 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 by Eagle-Headed Gods and Priests, or the King himself. There is no consensus among Assyrilogists 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 exists.
Fragment of a bronze helmet from Urartu, with the "Tree of Life" depicted.

Ancient Armenia (Urartu)

  • In ancient Armenia around 13th to 6th century BC, the Tree of Life was a religious symbol, drawn onto the exterior walls of fortresses and carved on the armour 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 (some winged) stood on each side of the tree with one of their hands up as if they are taking care of it. This tree can be found on numerous Urartu artifacts, such as paintings on the walls of the Erebuni fortress in Yerevan, Armenia.


  • Flora in general play a central role in the Indian culture, which has largely a vegetarian tradition. The symbolism of the tree is mentioned in the 135th hymn of the 10th book of Rig-Veda, and in the 15th chapter of Bhagavad-gita (1–4).
  • Two varieties of the fig (called Ashvatta in Sanskrit), the banyan tree and the peepal tree are the most revered in the Indian tradition, and both are considered the trees of life. The banyan symbolizes fertility according to the Agni Purana and is worshipped by those wanting children. It is also referred to as the tree of immortality in many Hindu scriptures. The banyan is believed to have nourished mankind with its ‘milk’ before the advent of grain and other food.
  • The fig tree is either a player or an observer in several scriptural incidents of Hinduism. The sages and seers sit under the shade of the fig tree to seek enlightenment, hold discourses and conduct Vedic rituals. The Bodhi tree under which Gautama Buddha achieved enlightenment is a peepal tree.
  • The fig tree assumes special importance in the Indian tradition owing mainly to its 'two-way growth' (aerial 'roots' growing downwards).

Ancient Egypt

  • In Egyptian mythology, in the Ennead system of Heliopolis, the first couple, apart from Shu & Tefnut (moisture & dryness) and Geb & Nuit (earth & sky), are Isis & Osiris. They were said to have emerged from the acacia tree of Saosis, 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 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.

Germanic paganism

The Kabbalah Tree of Life derived from the Flower of Life.

Hebrew Bible/Christianity

  • The Tree of Life is mentioned in the Book of Genesis, in which it has the potential to grant immortality to Adam and Eve, in Proverbs where it's a simile for a blessing.
  • A Tree of Life, in the form of ten interconnected nodes, is an important part of the Kabbalah. As such, it resembles the ten Sephirot.
  • 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. Further, it is also used to describe each of the wooden poles to which the parchment of a Sefer Torah is attached.

The Book of Mormon

  • The Tree of Life is shown to Lehi and then also to his son Nephi in a dream or vision, between 600 and 592 B.C. according to the Book of Mormon. Lehi recounted the tree as "a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy." (1 Nephi 8:10)
  • Nephi's vision is found in 1 Nephi 11:8 "And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me: Look! And I looked and beheld a tree; and it was like unto the tree which my father had seen; and the beauty thereof was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow."
  • Nephi seeks to learn from the Spirit what the tree represents: "10 And he said unto me: What desirest thou? 11 And I said unto him: To know the interpretation thereof."
  • Nephi is then shown in vision Mary with the baby Jesus in her arms, after which the Spirit says "21 Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw? 22 And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things. 23 And he spake unto me, saying: Yea, and the most joyous to the soul."
  • These visions were experienced by Nephi and Lehi before they departed the Bible lands and travelled by boat to the Americas.


  • Among pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, the concept of "world trees" is a prevalent motif in Mesoamerican mythical 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.[1]
  • 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.[2] The trunk of the tree could also be represented by an upright caiman, whose skin evokes the tree's spiny trunk.[3]
  • 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.[4] 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.[5]


  • In Chinese mythology a carving of a Tree of Life depicts a phoenix and a dragon – in Chinese mythology the dragon often represents immortality. There is also the Taoist story 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 3 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 from 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.

Other cultures

  • In the Japanese religion of Shinto, trees were marked with sacred paper symbolizing lightning bolts, as trees were thought to be sacred. This was propagated by the fact that after they passed, ancestors and animals were often portrayed as branches on the tree.
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • One of the earliest forms of ancient Greek religion has its origins associated with tree cults.

Modern interpretations

Modern use


  • A 2 1/2 story high "Tree of Life" sculpture by Wisconsin artist Nancy Metz White was installed in Mitchell Boulevard Park in Milwaukee in 2002. The tree is made of brightly painted welded steel and forge flashings recycled from Milwaukee heavy industry.


  • Pictoral representations of the Tree of Life can be found in the album artwork for rock band Mudvayne's L.D. 50(NOPE); and on the outer casing of the album Salival, by rock band Tool. In addition, the Tree of Life was used in the visual displays shown during several of Tool's concerts, especially during the song Triad.
  • Metal band Dååth (pronounced 'doth') also uses the Tree of Life as a basis for their music.
  • In their album Emissaries the black metal Melechesh make a reference to the Tree of Life in their song "Touching the Spheres of Sephiroth".
  • One of the tracks on the soundtrack album for the film The Fountain is called "Tree of Life".
  • The duo "Trees of Life" did the soundtrack for the animated film Tamala 2010.
  • Guitar virtuoso Steve Vai has a Tree of Life inlay in his Ibanez JEM guitars
  • Dillinger Escape Plan bassist Liam Wilson has a Tree of Life tattoo on his chest
  • American jam band O.A.R. featured a tree of life both on the cover art and on the actual c.d. for the album In Between Now and Then


Graphical representation of the modern "Tree of Life on the Web" project.

From the first growth of the tree, many a limb and branch has decayed and dropped off; and these fallen branches of various sizes may represent those whole orders, families, and genera which have now no living representatives, and which are known to us only in a fossil state. As we here and there see a thin, straggling branch springing from a fork low down in a tree, and which by some chance has been favoured and is still alive on its summit, so we occasionally see an animal like the Ornithorhynchus (Platypus) or Lepidosiren (South American lungfish), which in some small degree connects by its affinities two large branches of life, and which has apparently been saved from fatal competition by having inhabited a protected station. As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.

Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species[6]

  • The Tree of Life on the Web is an ongoing Internet project containing information about phylogeny and biodiversity, produced by biologists from around the world. Each page contains information about one group of organisms and is organized according to a branched tree-like form, thus showing hypothetical relationships between organisms and groups of organisms.
  • The phrase the tree of life is often used in association with the DNA molecule, and has sometimes been associated with the maternal placenta.
  • The neuroanatomical term tree of life describes the branching pattern between the cortical grey matter and subcortical white matter of the cerebellum.
  • In the world's rain forests, trees' leaves and branches form a canopy, which traps moisture and protects the diverse ecology underneath from the equatorial Sun. The phrase trees of life is used to describe this protective barrier, as, in its absence, life quickly abandons the area, due to extinction or migration.
  • On 1st February 2009, a new animated interactive tree of life will launch to the public. Narrated by Sir David Attenborough it will be broadcast on BBC One as part of its Darwin Season. The tree is funded by the Wellcome Trust


Decorative arts

5 kuruş coin features tree of life.
  • The grandfather of British studio pottery, Bernard Leach, famously used a 'tree of life' on many of his works. Something which was continued by his Son David Leach, among others.
  • A motif of the tree of life is featured on Turkish 5 Kuruş coins, to be circulated in early 2009.

Physical (real) "trees of life"

  • The Arborvitae gets its name from the Latin for "tree of life".
  • The Tule tree of Aztec mythology is also associated with a real tree. This Tule tree can be found in Oaxaca, Mexico.
  • There is a Tree of Life in the island country of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.
  • Metaphor: The Tree of Utah is an 87-foot high sculpture in the Utah Bonneville Salt Flats that is also known as the Tree of Life.
  • The ancient Zoroastrians[citation needed] and modern Rastafari consider cannabis to be the Tree of Life.
  • In some parts of the Caribbean, coconut trees are given the title of "tree of life", as they can produce everything needed for short/medium term survival.
  • An acacia tree in Tsavo National Park, Kenya.It's a symbol of life in the vast expanses of thorny savanna, where wild animals come to take advantage of its leaves or its shade. Tsavo National Park in southeastern Kenya, crossed by the Nairobi-Mombasa road and railway axis, is the country's largest protected area (8,200 square miles, or 21,000 square kilometers) and was declared a national park in 1948.
  • The West African Moringa oleifera tree is regarded as a "tree of life" or "miracle tree" by some because it is arguably the most nutritious source of plant-derived food discovered on the planet.[7] Modern scientists and some missionary groups have considered the plant as a possible solution for the treatment of severe malnutrition[8] and aid for those with HIV/AIDS.[9]

See also