The Theosophical Forum – December 1948

THE WORLD-TREE — Allan J. Stover

Symbols chosen or adopted for important occasions often have a way of revealing truth beyond the knowledge or wish of those using them. This is so with the Christmas Tree, for Christmas, coming at the sacred season of the winter solstice brings with it folk memories of the ancient mysteries; and the evergreen tree decorated with lights, fruits, stars and glittering strings of tinsel is the World Tree, a symbol of the universe, with its stars and planets, and the shining pathway of the Milky Way. It belongs to the Mysteries and the cycle of initiation, and traces of its existence may be found all over the world.

It matters not that no documentary evidence directly connects the Christmas Tree with the World Tree from which it was adopted, or that puerile explanations trace the custom of decorating an evergreen tree at Christmas time to the beginning of the seventeenth century, or that old tales tell of the miraculous blooming of a thorn tree on the anniversary of Christ's birth. The symbol itself is ageless and belongs to all people, but once the church adopted the decorated tree as a symbol of Christmas its pagan origin was promptly forgotten.

Long ago, when the Ancient Mysteries still lingered in the hearts of the Northern People, it was the custom to go into the snowy forest on the eve of the winter solstice and gather in a great circle about a pine from whose branches blazing pine-knots were suspended. In the fragrant light of these torches beautiful and significant ceremonies were performed. Imagine the scene: the dark gloomy forest, the pure white snow underfoot and overhead the twinkling stars. The flaming torches were the great souls whose light illumines all things, while the cones fastened to the branches were the ordinary men and women. Finally wreaths of pine were lighted and sent whirling down the hillside into the valley where the people were gathered, whirling in from outer space as a comet or a peregrinating soul comes whirling in from the spaces of space to seek imbodiment in a new solar system.

The significance of the Christmas Tree as an emblem of the hierarchy of manifested life is given by G. de Purucker in the following beautiful words.

Have you never heard of the World-Tree with its roots in the realms of spirit and whose branches are the great suns and systems of suns? This World-Tree began in the beginning of this Cosmic Age to bring forth all the stellar hosts. Now the Winter Solstice is the beginning of the cosmic New Year, and so these northern peoples, knowing some of the ancient truths, celebrated the cosmic event with the Christmas tree. It symbolizes the World-Tree, and the lights are the suns that bestrew the deeps of Space, hinting to us the message from the divinities who constantly give us the light of love, the light of mind, the light of hope eternal. But so far have we fallen from the wisdom of our forefathers that now the Christmas tree has become merely a sign of festivity, except for the few who preserve its significance in their hearts. — Wind of the Spirit

One of the most remarkable conceptions of the cosmic tree is that of the Ash Yggdrasil, called the God-bearer because of its deep and sacred significance. It is both the tree of the Universe and of Time. It has three roots: the first is fixed in Asgard the dwelling of the Gods, the second in the Jotunheim the abode of the frost giants, and the third reaches into the gloomy realms of the underworld. Beside each root is a sacred well; near the first root Urdur, the Norn or fate of the past, waters Yggdrasil with the knowledge of past experience. In the land of the Frost Giants, Werdandi, Norn of the ever-present-time, sprinkles the World Tree with transcendent wisdom drawn from Mimer's well. It was at this well that Odin himself was required to place his eye in pledge in order to obtain a drink, for such wisdom as Mimer's well holds must never be misused. In the underworld Skuld, Norn of the future, draws from the stream of Hwergelmir such wisdom as even Odin knows not of. So the three Norns of the past, present and future are the guardians of the tree Yggdrasil, and approaching, enveloped in a dark veil, they daily sprinkle it with the waters of life.

The crown of Yggdrasil reaches high into the heavens and overshadows even Walhalla, the Devachan of the Norse. The branches spread over the whole universe, and all the kingdoms of nature inhabit the tree each at its proper level or zone. The tree, in fact, is the solar system itself with all its systems of planes and sub-planes and orders of life of many and various kinds.

It was on this tree of our home universe that Odin hung nine nights and offered himself to Himself:

I know that I hung
On a wind-rock'd tree
Nine whole nights,
With a spear wounded,
And to Odin offered
Myself to MYSELF —
On that tree
Of which no one knows
From what root it springs.

A theosophist sees in the symbol of the Tree a reference to the Earth chain of seven globes with their serial planes and sub-planes of existence, each bearing its appropriate lives. Analogically it is also the occult structure of man, or of an atom or even of the galaxy.

On the other side of the world, in Burma, the Bamboo is decorated and presents are piled about its base. There is also a myth among the Maoris of New Zealand that Heaven and Earth were once joined, and it became the duty of Tane-Mahuta the Forest God, to separate them so that light might fall upon the Earth. Taking the form of a gigantic tree he stood upon his head and with his feet uppermost forced the sky far above the Earth, where it has remained to this day.

The great myths of mankind should be studied wherever they appear, for different facets of truth are given according to the race and time. Altogether they begin to form a mental conception having volume and mass. It is only then we begin to grasp the inner meaning of the myth.

Turning to the literature of ancient India we find in the Bhagavad-Gita (Chap. XV) the following illuminating words:

Men say that the Ashwattha, the eternal sacred tree, grows with its roots above and its branches below, and the leaves of which are the Vedas; he who knows this knows the Vedas. Its branches growing out of the three qualities with the objects of sense as the lesser shoots, spread forth, some above and some below; and those roots which ramify below in the regions of mankind are the connecting bonds of action.

May it not be that the mystic tree represented upright in some instances and inverted in others has reference to the course of evolution downwards and involution upwards, and that like the interlaced triangles the complete symbol would include both positions?

According to the myths of Mexico a great cosmic tree forms the center of the universe, its branches supporting the clouds which supply the earth with life-giving rain while its roots are said to be immersed in a jar of primaeval waters.

Even classic Greece was not without its World Tree, for Hesiod, the Greek poet who lived about 600 b.c. states in Works and Days that after the destruction of the Second Race "Zeus the Father made a third generation of mortal men, a brazen race, sprung from ash trees." While the scholars have made sheer nonsense of these lines, every ancient people had their world tree and just as metals have been used to signify the yugas through which each race passes so various trees may well symbolize the greater races or ages of mankind. It is the most natural thing in the world to speak of one's family tree, for it expresses the organic unity of a stream of life and the interrelations of part to part, as no other emblem does.

That the many aspects of the cosmic tree myth found throughout the world are intimately related is shown in The Secret Doctrine:

The Norse Ask [or ash tree], the Hesiodic Ash-tree, whence issued the men of the generation of bronze, the Third Root Race, and the Tzite tree of the Popol-Vuh, out of which the Mexican third race of men was created, are all one.

and then she gives a challenge to the intuition:

But the Occult reason why the Norse Yggdrasil, the Hindu Asvattha, the Gogard, the Hellenic tree of life and the Tibetan Zampun, are one with the Kabalistic Sephirothal Tree, and even with the Holy Tree made by Ahura Mazda, and the Tree of Eden — who among the western scholars can tell? (II. 97)

When the room is darkened on Christmas eve, with only the colored lights on the tree aglow, the air vibrant with the peace and love of this sacred season; could we but know what flaming glories attend the coming into life of a new year, of a minor manvantara, then indeed the night might well be an initiation. This little tree decorated with loving hands is a reminder of that greater one, our universe "in whom we live and move and have our being."


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