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The World Tree & Its Function in Myth

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In exploring the concepts of the World Tree, it is interesting to recall that the mythologist Joseph Campbell, after a lifetime of study devoted to the myths and legends of cultures spanning the planet, identified four functions of myth that were common to all its manifestations. The second of these was “to present an image of the cosmos… that will maintain your sense of mystical awe and explain everything that you come into contact with in the universe around you” (Campbell, 6–10). Naturally, different cultures have employed different symbols and frameworks to accomplish this, but for over a century now, the widespread centrality of the tree in this key role has been a subject of analysis and debate.

Some evolutionary psychologists suggest that the ubiquity of the “world tree” is rooted in the simian origins of humanity and the centrality of trees to the lives of our evolutionary ancestors (Karlson, 157). Regardless of its source, however, the concept is so widespread as to have been treated extensively by Carl Jung as an archetype of the collective unconscious (see, in particular, Man and His Symbols).

World Tree from Scandinavia to Siberia—The Hanging Tree & the Shaman’s Ladder

World Tree Yggdrasil (Friedrich Wilhelm Heine, 1882)

World Tree “Yggdrasil”
(Friedrich Wilhelm Heine, 1882)

Probably the most famous “world tree” is Yggdrassil—the great ash whose roots and branches, in Scandinavian lore, connected the nine realms of gods, men, giants, and elves. Its three roots extended to three sacred wells, at the last of which the chief god, Oðin, gave his eye to gain wisdom. Oðin’s connection with the tree was exceedingly intimate. One of the more commonly proposed etymologies for the name Yggdrassil is “Oðin’s horse” which, in the Norse poetic tradition of kenning (using a standard picturesque or metaphorical phrase as a standin for a common word) translates as “gallows.” And indeed, the most important Norse myth directly concerning the tree is that in which Oðin hanged himself by his spear from a branch as ‘a sacrifice of himself to himself,’ (as it says in the thirteenth century poem Hávamál) in order to learn the secret of the runes. This act, central to Norse conceptions of Oðin as a master of magick and hidden wisdom, had a real-life parallel in a tree planted at the great temple in Uppsala, Sweden, which stood green in both summer and winter, and hung its boughs over a pool where human sacrifices were drowned—an account similar to descriptions of human sacrifice in other sources, which depict those offered to Oðin as being hanged from trees, in likely imitation of him. In both cases, the tree likely represents the return to the sacred center and the realization of unity with the cosmic order.

A fascinating twist on this theme is given through another important Oðinic story (found in the thirteenth century poem Völuspá), in which Oðin, shortly after having fashioned the world with his brothers Vili and Ve from the body of the primordial giant Ymir, is walking along a beach with the gods Lóðurr and Hoenir and comes across two trees. The gods take pity on these, because they have no sense and no destiny, and so each of the three contribute a gift to them, forming them into the first man and woman—Ask (Ash) and Embla (Elm). Ash, of course, is the same species as Yggdrassil itself, and it has been proposed by some scholars that when, in the Norse account of the Ragnarök (or end of the world) two humans survive the cataclysm by hiding in a wood, that the reference is, in fact, to the recreation of humanity out of the stock of the world tree (Simek, 115). In this way, the Norse cosmology draws an implicit connection between the axis mundi and man as microcosm—a connection implicit in the world tree across many cultures.

World Tree (J. Augustus Knapp, 1928)

World Tree (J. Augustus Knapp, 1928)
Illustration from The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly P. Hall

In fact, some scholars suggest that Norse understandings of the world tree as the connecting link between the various spiritual realms in an exoteric sense was influenced by their more ancient neighbors, such as the Finns, the Saami, and the wildly diverse tribes of Siberia (Davidson, 69). In those cultures, shamans undertaking trances or vision journeys often used the image of a tree to describe their inner ability to move up and down the levels of spiritual reality and between human and spirit realms. Decorative and symbolic motifs found across Siberia connect the underworld, this world, and the heavens through the image of a tree, which is often also a symbol of the Earth itself conceived as a mother goddess who gives the shaman both his drum and his power of astral travel. The appearance of world tree designs in the symbolism of the Crowns of Silla—an ancient Korean kingdom that flourished between the first century BC and the tenth century AD—is sometimes used to argue for a connection between Siberian cultures and the cultures of the Korean peninsula (Kidder, 105).

At the far opposite end of this mythic zone, conceptions startlingly similar to those of the Siberian tribes are found in Hungarian folklore. The Magyar tribes that migrated into the Carpathian basin from Siberia’s far western edge during the tenth century brought with them tales of Világfa (literally “world tree”), which they also called égig érő fa (“the sky-high tree”), életfa (“the tree of life”), or tetejetlen fa (“the tree without a top”). Magyar shamans, called táltosok, could climb the world tree to roam the seven or nine layers of the sky (depending on the version of the story). Later folktales tend to feature a downward descent as well.

Similar accounts can be found in Turkic culture, where the tree is called Ağaç Ana, Mongolian stories, which name it Modun, Finnish tales that make it an unnamed oak (as many Slavic tales do also), and Chinese annals, which term it Kien- or Jian-Mu. In many of these, as in the Hungarian version, the tree grows atop a world mountain, which forms an integral part of the axis mundi along with the tree. In some regions, as in Greece, the mountain has effectively displaced the tree. In ancient Greek lore, Mt. Olympus often fulfills the realm-joining functions of the tree, although medieval folk stories from Greece restore the tree as the pillar that holds up the world (adding a crowd of goblins, the kallikantzaroi, who are perpetually sawing at its base).

Other Indo-European cultures surrounding northern Eurasia, particularly the Balts (Vélius 1989), keep the world tree as central. Across this whole region, spanning from the Baltic Sea to the Sea of Japan, a number of details are surprisingly constant (Usačiovaitė, 67), particularly that the tree’s top is inhabited by one or more eagles, and that one or more serpents are entwined around its base (like the dragon, Niðhöggr, who gnaws at the roots of Yggdrassil).

World Tree in India—The Treehouse of the Gods

While many of the traditions surrounding world trees in Norse, Baltic, and other European cultures may be the result of cultural diffusion from Siberian, FinnoUgric, and other peoples, much undoubtedly comes from a common Indo-European source, as similarities to Vedic traditions make clear. In India, the role of the world tree is fulfilled not by an ash, but the peepal (or “sacred fig”), which is marked out as holy in some of the earliest lines of the Rig Veda (I.164.20). The Sanskrit name ashvattha, also used as a name of Vishnu and of Shiva, was held by Adi Shankara to be derived from the words shva (“tomorrow”) and stha (that which remains), referring to the tree’s eternally enduring nature (Dalal, 44). It was believed to inhibit lies, and older Vedic and Upanishadic literature refers to it as a “tree of knowledge” (Haberman, 70). Perhaps for this reason, Vedic tradition held that the fire god Agni resided in the ashvattha tree, and used its deadwood to kindle the triple sacrificial fires. Triple association was then extended to the tree itself as Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva grew in the classical period to be preeminent in the Hindu pantheon—the roots represented Brahma, the Creator of all things, the trunk represented Shiva, the Destroyer, and the branches stood for Vishnu, the Sustainer (72) (modern Hindus, however, frequently reverse the last two associations [77]).

With the development of more formalized, monistic theologies, the tree gradually became associated with whichever deity a given school regarded as supreme (as when Krishna in the Mahabharata declares, “Among all trees, I am the ashvattha” [73]), or else viewed all of the deities as residing in it together (71) (as when the Padma Purana speaks of “God in the form of an ashvattha tree” as being worthy of “the highest worship”, proclaiming that the tree is an enlightened being that has achieved oneness with reality itself [73]). At last, late Vedic commentaries taught that the whole universe was a grand ashvattha tree, which they termed both a “tree of knowledge” (brahmataru) and a “tree of life” (jivanataru); the Maitri and Katha Upanishads, as well as the Bhagavad Gita, identify it as one with the highest vision of brahman—or absolute reality (72–3).

It should not surprise us, then, when we recall that the Buddha gained enlightenment while sitting under this tree (which is therefore, in Buddhist parlance, termed a bodh tree, from the same etymological root as “Buddha”). Beneath the leaves of the sacred fig, he sat not merely under a tree, but under the world tree itself. This explains the serpents that harassed him during that meditation, since world tree stories from all over Eurasia place serpents at the base, but it also reminds us of Norse myth, specifically, in which the well from which Oðin gained wisdom was set at the base of the tree.

One other version of the world tree appears in Indian lore—the Kalpavriksha (variously interpreted as “world tree”, “tree of life”, and “wish-granting tree”). This emerged from the churning of the primordial ocean along with the divine cow Kamadhenu (a motif which will be familiar again to students of Norse lore), and stood on the earth until people began using it to wish for bad things, at which point, depending on the version of the story one hears, Indra took the tree to a paradisiacal garden atop the holy Mt. Meru (recalling the Hungarian tree atop the mountain) to safeguard it from men and demons alike (Dalal, 620).

The Levant—The Tree at the End of the World

The story of the Kalpavriksha bears a certain similarity to another family of world tree stories that link the presence and absence of the tree to the moral and ethical choices of human beings—a family united by the story of Adam and Eve. This emphasis on choice and transgression was natural enough for the Semitic cultures, however, as the world tree concept took a slightly different turn in their myths than in those of the cultures we have examined so far, being associated less with the structure of the cosmos on which the realms are arranged and more with the concept of liminality and the boundaries between the realms.

In the stories of the ancient Egyptians (whose language was closely related to that of their Hebrew and Arab neighbors), the body of the slain god Osiris was concealed in the trunk of a tamarisk tree before being revived by his wife Isis, the tree serving as a waystation between death and life. In some versions of the tale, the tamarisk is replaced by a sycamore. Both trees had long careers later in Semitic myths. Genesis 21:23 tells us that Abraham stopped to plant a tamarisk at Beersheba, where he had earlier dug a well (a connection we have seen before and will return to again), and the sycamore is the tree climbed by Zacchaeus when he hopes to catch a glimpse of Jesus above the heads of the crowd in Luke 19:4. Unquestionably, however, the most notable trees in the Bible appear in Genesis 2–3—the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. So many of the elements we have come to expect of world trees appear here: the serpent at the tree’s base, the intimate connection with the creation of man, the setting within the paradisiacal garden, and the close connection with waters (in the form of the four rivers that flowed out of Eden). But what of the movement between worlds?

In the 3500 years the story has been told, it has come to play a central role in the teachings of no fewer than ten distinct religions, some of which have dozens or hundreds of rival denominations and schools. Accordingly, there are readings of the text that focus on virtually every imaginable angle, and spin it in every conceivable direction. One traditional reading, which Joseph Campbell shared, sees the story precisely as one of movement from the vision of the spiritual to the material world: “ The garden is the place of unity, nonduality, nonduality of male and female, nonduality of man and God, nonduality of good and evil. You eat the duality, and you’re on the way out. So this tree of the [duality], is the tree of the exit.” (Moyers, “Sacrifice and Bliss”)

Paradise Tree of Knowledge (Lucas Cranach, 1530)

“Paradise” Tree of Knowledge
(Lucas Cranach, 1530)

In this reading of Genesis, the Fall of Adam and Eve through eating the forbidden fruit represents the descent of consciousness from the plane of undifferentiated awareness—the beholding of the highest or absolute unitary reality symbolized by the Hindus in the ashvattha tree and by the Buddhists in the enlightenment attained by Siddhartha beneath it—into the plane of physical manifestation, on which all things are expressed in dualities. Genesis actually reflects this twice—once as the duality inherent to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and once in the duality of the Trees of Knowledge and Life (making a fascinating parallelism to the dual accounts of the creation of human beings, with man and woman being made together in a single act in Genesis 1, and separately in two distinct acts in Genesis 2). The tree here is not merely a framework on which the cosmos can be hung, but is itself the mental process required for us to interpret our experience as a reality, similar to Immanuel Kant’s view of space and time not as realities of the world “out there”, but as mental frameworks we impose on the experience of the unknowable “out there” in order to render it comprehensible.

Christian thought adapted this same motif to establish a new world tree in the Cross. Campbell continues:

Now, the tree of coming back to the garden is the tree of immortal life. Where you know that “I and the father are one.” And the two that seem to become one again… Jesus is the fruit of eternal life which was on the second tree in the garden of Eden. And this is exactly the tree under which the Buddha sits… the Buddha under his tree, and Christ hanging on his tree are the same image. They are the same image.

Jesus Tree (Malta)

Jesus Tree (Malta)

Indeed, the New Testament five times uses the word “tree” to refer to Christ’s Crucifixion (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24), all referencing Deuteronomy 21:23 (“Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree,”) which New Testament writers interpreted as a messianic prophecy of the “suffering servant” (cf. Isaiah 52–3). As Campbell observes, the Cross becomes, in their handling, the Tree of Life, which returns consciousness to undifferentiated awareness of ultimate reality and, in doing so, reverses the effect of the Tree of Knowledge. This adds another layer to Paul’s argument for Jesus as the “Second Adam” undoing the work of the first (Romans 5:12–21; 1 Corinthians 15:45) and serves as a key conceptual framework for the doctrine, elaborated in many forms by the Church Fathers, that God had become man that man might become God (cf. Augustine, On the Psalms, 50.2; Athanasius, Against the Aryans, 1.39, 3.34).

This symbolism proved highly suggestive to many European cultures during and after the conversion. The Son’s death upon the Cross to reconcile mankind with the Father suggested to many Germanic writers and artisans Odin’s sacrifice of “himself, to himself,” and caused them to employ much of the same imagery. Early medieval depictions of the Crucifixion from Scandinavia and Central Europe often show the Cross as a tree growing Jesus into itself by the profusion of its leaves, and the Cross often stands at the center of images and narratives as a living character in its own right, as in the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood. A similar tradition has developed in modern India, where one can now sometimes find the ashvattha tree worshipped as Jesus (Haberman, 78), alongside its more traditional representation of Vishnu and Shiva.

The liminal tree thus made a passage between the human and the divine in both Judaism and Christianity, but it was taken up in differing ways in Islam. One branch of Muslim thought likewise made it a conduit. Just as Christ was identified with the Tree of Life, certain schools of Shi’ite Islam that imputed mystical or even divine significance to Muhammad’s daughter Fatima taught that her pre-existent light spirit had been placed by God in the Tree of Life during the time of Adam and Eve, as a reward for her unfailing piety. In this version of the story, it was Eve’s jealousy at Adam’s admiration of Fatima that led her to pick the fruit from the tree in which Fatima resided (Ruffle, 797–9) and thus, for these sects, it was Fatima’s birth that undid the effects of the Fall by regrowing in its fullness the tree that Eve had damaged. Through this connection with the tree, Fatima was taken to be, like Jesus in Christianity, “human, but not in the Adamic sense… fully both a human and a heavenly creation.” (Ibid., 804, 811)

The majority of Muslims hold such views to be heretical in the extreme, however. For them, the world tree is not a gate, but a barrier. The fifty-third sura of the Qur’an (Al-Najm, “The Star”) speaks of the “Sidrat al-Muntahā”—the Lote Tree which stands at the outer boundary of the seventh heaven. Beyond it, even the angels are incapable of approaching the divine throne any farther, and it thus marks the absolute limit of the realm of all that created beings are capable of perceiving or understanding (we recall the words of the Katha Upanishad, which states that there is nothing beyond the ashvattha tree [II.vi.i]). Muhammad is said to have beheld this tree during his famous Night Flight to Jerusalem, when he was led through the ascent by the archangel Gabriel; he beheld the tree bathed in an unparalleled light of beauty and purity, with an angel standing upon every leaf glorifying Allah.

Both the Christian and Islamic world tree concepts informed Bahá’u’lláh, the 19th century Persian nobleman who declared himself the Second Coming of Christ and the Manifestation of God for the present world age. To anchor his claim in the worldviews of both prior religions, he identified himself as “the Lote Tree Beyond Which There is No Passing” (Sadratu’l-Muntahá in the standard Bahá’í spelling ) but, in the process, he took it as a means of joining the human and the divine, rather than separating them. In his person, the tree was incarnate upon Earth to spread the light of God into the world and to make known of Him all that can be known by human beings. Similar to some esoteric teachings on Fatima, he held that all the Manifestations (himself, Muhammad, Jesus, the Buddha, Krishna, and many others) were births in human form of the Tree of Life (Taherzadeh 1976, 80), and he referred to his sons as his “branches” and his wives and daughters as his “leaves” (Liya 2004, 55). As the Most Great Branch—his son, ‘AbdulBahá—later explained, the Tree of Life is the Tree of Knowledge as seen from a nondual perspective, and these are thus identical with each other and with the Lote Tree, which, from one perspective, is the limit of what dualistic vision can perceive, and, from the other, is the portal by which nondualistic vision may apprehend divine reality (in this, we may be reminded that the Katha Upanishad holds that there is nothing beyond the ashvattha tree because it is brahman). Drawing on Rumi’s commentary that the branches of the Lote Tree were filled with birds (Sale n.d., 323 notes) (reminiscent, perhaps, of the eagles atop the world trees of Scandinavia and Siberia), Bahá’u’lláh spoke often of the human soul as a bird. Over the last one hundred fifty years, the branches of his teaching have collected approximately five million of these, and they continue to address their prophet in their daily prayers as “the Lote Tree beyond which there is no passing.”

The world tree makes a notable appearance in another great 19th century religious movement. At the very beginning of the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi), the Israelite prophet Lehi has a visionary dream of the Tree of Life (1 Nephi 8). Three chapters later, his son, Nephi, receives instruction from an angel who interprets the dream for him: “I beheld that the rod of iron, which my father had seen, was the word of God, which led to the fountain of living waters, or to the tree of life; which waters are a representation of the love of God; and I also beheld that the tree of life was a representation of the love of God.” (v. 25) In the angel’s equivalence of the tree and the fountain, we cannot help but be reminded of the well at which Oðin gave his eye for wisdom at the base of Yggdrassil (an allegory for the illuminatory seership that raises the dragon force), and the pool used to drown the sacrificial victims beneath the sacred tree at Uppsala. We think, perhaps, also of the emergence of Kalpavriksha from the primordial ocean and of the close relationship between the creator god Brahma, who was represented by the roots of the ashvattha tree, and his daughter/wife the river goddess Saraswati, who governs the domain of wisdom. In all of these we stay close, perhaps, to the symbol we are doubtless meant to recall—that of being baptized into the death of Christ, which occurs upon the tree.

Whether climbed as a ladder to the deepest self, hung heavily as a trellis for the many realms of gods and men, set at the boundary of all life and knowledge as the farthest marker, or used as the instrument of God’s self-sacrifice, the world tree is always set at the most sacred center—that point where a culture’s treasure is, and its heart is also. In this way, the tree fulfills Campbell’s second purpose of myth in presenting an image of the cosmos, but it does much more than this. As Campbell recognized, the function of depicting the order of the universe has long since been transferred from spiritual disciplines to scientific ones. Today, the more important functions of myth are the first and the fourth—” to evoke in the individual a sense of grateful, affirmative awe before the monstrous mystery that is existence” and to “carry the individual through the stages of his life, from birth through maturity through senility to death” in keeping with that awe. It is precisely to fulfill these functions that the great world religions of our day have adapted the tree in rendering it the symbol of life emergent from death, and of the hope of knowledge in the pursuit of spiritual illumination.

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Cover Image Attribution: FrostZero, 1990
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