The tree of life is a symbol that personifies ‘life’s cycle on Earth’ for all species under the sun. All life starts at a microscopic size, and we grow over time we develop into stronger beings, pass along our genes, and eventually, our DNA lives on while we pass.
The concept, idea, multiple meanings, and origins of the tree of life date back thousands of years, spanning across ancient cultures from every corner of the planet.
Today the tree of life is one of the most common tattoos, inspiring millions globally.
In this article, we’ll look at the real meaning, multiple meanings, history, and origin of the tree of life by looking at experts, historians, and researchers who have deeply studied the global history and mythology of where the tree of life started.
Let’s Dive In.
The “tree of life” is a symbolic metaphor for the life cycle of trees and how they interact with their environment as compared to our own growth cycle, life cycle, survival means, and anatomy. The fractal nature of a trees growth and lifecycle can be looked at and compared similarly to the fractal nature of our own human lifecycle.
Looking at the lifecycle of a tree from this symbolic perspective can give us the sense, that perhaps, a tree may be just as sentient as we, especially from a cosmic perspective.
Humans have had an ingrained connection with trees for millenniums. The omnipresence of ‘powerful’ tree symbols shared by a variety of cultures throughout-history reveals to us today, the depth of the connection our ancient ancestors had with life on Earth.
Since the spawn of time trees have provided man with abundant resources such as fire, construction, medicine, food, shelter, and energy.
The Tree of Life is said to inspire ancient man to reflect upon his existence in his search for the meaning of life.
Some cultures call ‘the tree of life’ , the “tree of knowledge”. Other cultures call it God’s tree, the cosmic tree, the World Tree, the divine tree, the sacred tree, or the tree of immortality. Despite the different names, these cultures share a common thought behind the metaphoric symbolism for “the tree of life”.
The thought is, that the tree of life is not just a tree. It served (and still does) as a visual representation of wisdom, knowledge, and human consciousness. It embodies enrichment, bliss, peace, and all the (unnecessary) pleasantness of life.
7 Symbolic Meanings Behind The Tree Of Life
People get ‘tree of life tattoos’ or wear ‘tree of life jewelry’ for a reason. According to the various mythologies, we can learn a lot from this tree.
The tree of life is a symbolic representation that personifies how the world is a unified field. Everything in life is intertwined, nature, biology, your life, other lives, the past, the present, the future, all connected in ways we’d never think to realize.
The tree of life firmly anchors itself to the earth. It recognizes the earth as its source for nourishment, anchoring its roots into the earth’s soul. Its branches spread out for sustenance while leaves reach out to heavens to receive energy and strength from the sun.
After all the years of hard work the tree has put into growing, both internally into the soil and externally into the air, the tree is finally ready to give fruit back to those who need it.
This is a reminder of the importance of community in life. If you stop and think about it, everything you do connects around you.
Notice how tree branches are increasingly complex and ever-extending? The same fractal pattern is expressed in how our families grow and expand through generations.
A tree sprouts from a seed and grows little by little while sprouting out branches and spreading them as far as possible towards the sunlight. At some point, the tree produces new fruits and new seeds that usher in the next generations of saplings. Just like trees, we connect to our ancestors in the generations both before and after us.
During the Winter months trees go through a metamorphosis, lose their leaves, and dive into a deep slumber; an almost death-like state.
Once Spring hits, forests full of trees across the globe are symbolically “reborn” and suddenly become full of life again. This “”new awakening”” is represented both physically and symbolically with the natural beauty of fresh new growth.
The tree of life is also represented as an emblem of immortality. Even as trees naturally age, they continue to bear seeds carrying life’s essence. The seeds survival ensure the tree species lives from one generation to the next.
When you study a tree’s growth throughout its lifecycle, you’ll notice distinctive periods of growth over time. From a seedling, to sapling, to fruit bearing, and into old age, and eventually the tree stands firmly above all else.
During severe storms and bad weather the tree weathers. Some branches may break off, and leaves may fall off, but still, trees find ways to ‘take the hit’, rejuvenate, and grow new branches.
Similarly, life experiences mold you into a better and more unique person. As humans, we too can rise from hard hits and deep corners of life. Over time we can also grow to stand out, be stronger, and into the best version of ourselves.
As a barrier of life, a tree always finds a way to keep thriving. The survival of its species depends on every tree doing its part to produce offspring.
The tree of life is a prominent representation of strength, stability, and “groundedness”. The deeper a tree’s roots anchor, the more stable it is. Trees are also strong enough to endure brutal conditions.
There are no two trees that mirror each other. The unique challenges, different growth patterns, and environmental conditions they experience in their evolution turn them into individual beings.
Similarly, humans are unique. You, your life, bloodline, upbringing, experiences, challenges, home environment, and your past and future are all singularly unique.
The History Of The Tree Of Life Symbol
The tree of life symbol is often depicted as an enormous tree with broad branches within a circular border.
The earliest possible evidence of the tree of life existed after archeological excavations by students of Hacettepe University placed the tree of life back to about 7000 BC in Domuztepe, Turkey.
But, the different references to the tree and the different names and different meanings assigned to it by various cultures, make sit difficult to pinpoint its exact multi-tiered lineage.
Norse mythology spread and thrived in the Pre-Christian Scandinavia and Northern Europe forest regions. The Nordic society referred to their tree of life as the Viking Tree of Life.
There are many tales of this tree, otherwise known as the Yggdrasil. It was believed to grow from the Well of Urd, which overflowed with cosmic energy.
If you weave through more Celtic folktales, you’ll discover that the Yggdrasil was a giant ash tree whose roots and branches linked the nine cosmos of earth, hell, and heaven. This tree’s power and knowledge particularly impressed Odin, King of the Norse God, who hung himself from a branch for nine days to channel the energies.
The Pagan Celtic culture was full of cultic practices performed in thickets full of sacred oak trees.
The believers viewed the Oak tree as their Tree of life, representing the ‘Celtic otherworld.’ Pagan Celtics believed that the trunk was the mortal world and the link between the roots and the branches, while the branches represented the world above (heaven).
The Egyptian society was renowned for dendrolatry (tree worship), revering the tamarisk, acacia, the lotus, and the sycamore trees.
Some ancient Egyptian folklores even suggest that the famous Osiris, the god of the dead, the underworld, and the afterlife, was a tree god.
According to the legend, the sibling rivalry between Osiris and his brother Set saw Osiris being locked up in a coffin and thrown into the Nile. The coffin washed up at the coast of Byblos in Phoenicia, lodging itself in a gigantic Sycamore tree. As time passed, the tree grew around the coffin, engulfing it and it’s power.
A Pillar In Byblos
Interestingly, some sweet fragrance from the giant sycamore tree that had Osiris’ coffin tends to attract the attention of King Malcander of Byblos while on a stroll. He decides to make a pillar out of the tree, so he cuts it.
Meanwhile, the continued search for the whereabouts of King Osiris leads his wife, Isis, to King Malcander’s court. She passes by the pillar( which had the coffin) and instantly feels the lovely scent.
The story continues with King Malcander presenting the pillar to Isis as a gift. She takes it with her to Egypt and plants it in the ground. Locals believed the sycamore was the tree of life because of how it turned into a pillar, then into a tree again.
African Tree of Life
The baobab tree is the tree of life in Africa. In fact, no other tree dominates African folklores and myths as much as the Baobab tree.
Its distinct upside-down physique sets it apart from other regular trees, making ground for its mystical powers. Explanations for this appearance revolve around God changing his mind by re-planting the tree on earth upside down.
Some African tribes revered the tree so much that they made it a shrine for their gods. Others lived by its other-worldly properties, believing that if they soaked a baby in the water with a baobab bark, it would grow stronger like the tree.
Ancient Africans wouldn’t dare pick the tree’s white flowers because they believed it would lure a lion into eating them. There were also beliefs that crocodiles wouldn’t attack one if they drank water with soaked baobab seeds.
Medieval Greek and Roman folklores claim that the oak tree, precisely the winged type, was the tree of life. The concept of the tree of life, commonly referred to as the World Tree by both cultures presented in the tale of the wedding between Lord Zeus and Hera, whose union bore a giant oak tree.
In another myth, Gaia, the Goddess of Earth, gives Zeus apple seeds as a wedding gift. Gaia plants the seed in Hera’s garden, and they sprout into a magical yet beautiful apple tree.
Legends strongly hint that the apple tree was a cosmic structure that holds together different parts of the universe. There seems to be a striking resemblance between the stories of Hera’s apple tree and the tree of life in the Biblical Garden of Eden.
The allusion to the ‘tree of life isn’t strange to Christians. The concept runs way back to the beginning of humanity, even before the birth of Christ.
According to the bible, the Garden of Eden hosted two trees: the tree of life and the tree of knowledge. Adam and Eve were immortal, clean of sin, and transcendent of old age, pain, and sickness as long as they ate fruits borne of the tree of life.
Fruits from the other tree, the tree of knowledge, were forbidden. However, Adam and Eve rebelled. They ate the fruits from the forbidden tree of knowledge and condemned humanity to a life of eternal toil, sin, pain, and ultimate death.
The Kabbalah tree of life is not an actual tree but a symbol of the Kabbalah, a set of esoteric teachings in mystical Judaism. These teachings date back to the universe’s beginning and are believed to enlighten humanity about the union between this world and the eternal world.
Followers of Jewish mysticism consider the Kaballah tree of life as a helpful tool, map, path, or worldview that guides people in gaining universal knowledge and wisdom that brings them closer to God.
Magicians and alchemists claim that the Kabballah tree of life is the true key that opens the material and mystery worlds.
On the other hand, the Assyrian Sacred Tree is a stylized tree symbol in most ancient Assyrian art. It signified life and was also a symbolic representation of King Ashurnasirpal.
This cosmic tree mostly appeared as an art motif on royal robes, official seals, wall artwork, jewelry, and royal palace statues.
It was earlier depicted as an actual palm tree before artists made it more of an ornamental motif. This tree of life was significantly associated with the mother goddess Ishtar, whom they believed was a fertility deity and a representative of all living things.
Mayan Tree Of Life
The Mayans revered the sacred ‘Ceiba’ as the tree of life thanks to its anatomy. This society believed that the branches of this cosmic tree touched the thirteen heavens while the nine layers of the underworld hanged from its roots, forming a near-circular shape.
The shape represented the path of the sun setting to the underworld, rotating to rise again in the sky.
The Mayans also believed the ceiba had roots that touched the sky and acted as a divine door that linked human beings to the heavens, the earth, and the underworld.
Other myths claim that the Ceiba tree of life was the world’s navel and point that connected mother earth’s womb with everything else in the universe.
Native Americans were also tree worshippers and believed in the miracles of the trees of life. For instance, the maize (corn) tree represented the tree of life for the Navajos of Native America, a belief they shared with their Ojibwe counterparts.
The Natchez people, too, believed that the Cedar tree was their tree of life and that it bridged the spiritual realm and the underworld.
Others believed that humans would one day relocate to the sky since the earth was made of water, and a giant tree of life would help connect the people in the skyline to the world.
The sacred fig tree, also referred to as the Bodhi tree, was the tree of life for the Buddhists. According to mythical tales, Bodhi was an enlightened tree that allowed Buddha to reach enlightenment after meditating under it.
If you scour through Mesopotamian folklore, you’ll see that this cosmic tree was of great religious significance. It was mainly associated with the mother goddess Innana. Other myths also depicted it as the magical tree that grew in the center of Paradise in polytheistic Mesopotamia.
The epic poem Gilgamesh provides an extra reference to this tree of life. It starts with Enkidu, the god of wisdom water planting a willow tree (huluppu) along the banks of River Euphrates. The tree grows up strong until a mighty storm breaks it. It falls into the river, drifting away, and washes on the bank where goddess Innana finds it.
The goddess transplants the tree into her garden, hoping that she will use it to craft a throne and bed for herself in the future. However, she becomes threatened when a giant serpent builds a nest on the branches, blocking her access to it. She asks the legendary warrior Gilgamesh to slay the serpent to allow her to fulfill what she envisioned of the tree.
So, does the tree of life really exists somewhere in the wild? Well, one tree that has miraculously survived to stand alone deep in the southern regions of the Bahrain desert for about 400-500 years.
This tree, locally known as “Shajarat-al-Hayat,” has kept locals, visitors, and scientists stumped for ages. They attest that the tree is mysterious because it has grown and thrived into a 32-foot mesquite tree even when there is no water source in sight.
What’s even more special about it is that it proudly graces the barren desert nation with no signs of dying. You may argue that desert vegetations have adapted to store gallons of water in their trunks, but that happens only when they can draw the liquid from somewhere.
Due to the lack of a rational biological explanation for the tree’s success, Bahrainians believe that the place where the tree stands is the actual location of the Biblical Garden of Eden.
Other theories claim that Enkidu, the god of water in ancient Mesopotamian mythical stories, is responsible for providing the tree with its water needs.
The Vrksasana, a Yoga “tree pose,” borrows a great deal from the tree of life. Every time you stand tall and barefoot in the tree pose, your feet equate to the roots that tether a tree to the ground. Your feet offer you stability the same way the roots support the trunk. The legs grant you strength and balance just like the trunk does the branches.
And when you stretch out your arms, you tap into newer power, light, energy, and consciousness the same way tree branches reach out to the sky for the nourishment of the sun and air.
Like the tree, you cultivate nourishment of the soul, inner peace, silence, and clean energy body while returning to earth any “ill energy” within your body when you do the tree pose.
Various cultures associate the tree of life with personal growth, beauty, nourishment, and strength. And the deeper we delve, the more we realize that the tree of life is simply a path to wisdom, knowledge, hope, contentment, and happiness.
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