[Note: page numbers cited for The Esoteric Tradition are to the 2-vol. Second Edition and do not correspond to the 1-vol. 3rd & Revised Edition.]
From the days of myth and legend to the busy whirl of modern life, the tree has held an honored place in the hearts of men. The oak and pine, palm, laurel, silvery olive and many another have had their votaries. The oaks at Dodona voiced through their whispering leaves the will of Zeus, and groves of this mighty tree were held sacred by the Druids of Britain and Gaul. The palm from of old was a symbol of victory, as was also the laurel or daphne, the prize for those who were successful in the Pythian games in honor of Apollo. The olive, too, though linked with the dove as a symbol of peace, is emblematic of victory, a wreath of olive being the prize contended for in the Olympic Games of ancient Greece, it was likewise the highest mark of honor that could be extended to a citizen meriting well of his country. In Egypt the tamarisk was held sacred as possessing occult virtues, and it was often planted around temples. It is also in Egypt that we find the Lady of the Sycamore, otherwise the goddess Nut, who is pictured as if standing in the midst of the tree from which she is offering to her worshipers the fruit or the water from the Tree of Life.
Here we meet a universal symbol — the World Tree. What more natural than that early man should choose the tree to represent Life — not merely the never-ending force itself, but the very source from whence it comes. So truly did the ancient Hindus understand this that they represented their world tree, the Aswattha, as growing with its roots in the heavenly worlds, and its trunk and branches extending downwards into the world of men. When we consider the sevenfold nature of the Universe, and of man its seed, and take into consideration the possibilities of only a seven times seven ramification, the pattern of a majestically spreading tree is easily visioned. The pattern, however, is too intricate to suppose that awareness of it came to man from the piecing together of untutored observations. The symbol of the World Tree, variously called the Tree of Life, the Tree of Knowledge, the Tree of Speech, is, by its very universality, a truth given to infant humanity by those wise ones who are ever our guides and protectors. H. P. Blavatsky refers to it as follows:
The Symbol for Sacred and Secret Knowledge was universally in antiquity, a Tree, by which a Scripture or a Record was also meant. Hence the word Lipika the "writers" or scribes; the "Dragons," symbols of wisdom, who guard the Trees of Knowledge: the "golden" apple Tree of the Hesperides; the "Luxuriant Trees" and vegetation of Mount Meru guarded by a Serpent. Juno giving to Jupiter, on her marriage with him, a Tree with golden fruit is another form of Eve offering Adam the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. — The Secret Doctrine, I, 128-9
And she says further, in Isis Unveiled:
The tenacious vitality it exhibits all over the globe . . . is the best proof that the seed planted by our fathers on "the other side of the flood" was that of a mighty oak, not the spore of a mushroom theology. No lightning of human ridicule can fell to the ground, and no thunderbolts ever forged by the Vulcans of science are powerful enough to blast the trunk, or even scar the branches of this world-tree of Knowledge. — I, 574
In one of the works of Robert Fludd, spoken of as "the chief of the "Philosophers by Fire,'" is an interesting pictorial interpretation of the Arber Sephirotheca, or the Sephirothal Tree of the Kabbala.(1) This World Tree, like the Aswattha, is shown with its roots above, and its branches below. In this representation of Cosmogonic emanations we have the ten Sephiroth extending from the highest, the Crown — the heart and center of the spreading roots on the spiritual plane — surrounded by a glory of light whose rays extend with lessening power behind the remaining Sephiroth, ending with the tenth, or our world. From the "Crown" the succeeding Sephiroth are represented as globes extending from arms or branches on the trunk of the tree. The nine form three groups of three, each group or triad being the expression of the spiritual, intellectual and material aspects or qualities of that particular plane. The tenth Sephirah, our globe, being the link, as it were, between the Universe and Man. H. P. B. speaks of the ten as representing the seven manifest and the three unmanifest worlds. In the illustration of Fludd referred to, the World Tree is a palm, whose ten spreading branches ray forth from the lowest world and, named after the ten Sephiroth respectively, they are a symbol of the Macrocosm in its reflection, the Microcosm, Man. In this simple manner is represented a volume of esoteric truth. H. P. Blavatsky turns a goodly number of the pages of this Volume," giving many valuable keys to their interpretation both in Isis and The Secret Doctrine. She remarks, following a quotation of several paragraphs from Franck, the translator of the Kabbala, that
This kabalistic conception is . . . proved identical with that of the Hindu philosophy. Whoever reads Plato and his Dialogue Timaeus, will find these ideas as faithfully re-echoed by the Greek philosopher. — Isis Unveiled, II, 40
It is not surprising that the mediaeval Rosicrucians should have taken the rose itself as the symbol of their World Tree.(2) Pictured as a gigantic rose sought by bees from near-by hives, it tells a most interesting story. Anything said sub rosa, "under the rose," was said in confidence; and if this applied to worldly affairs, how much more binding was it with teaching given only to those who had earned the right to it! Among the ancient Greeks "bees" was a name for disciples, and the sacred wisdom that they sought was "honey." Referring to this, Dr. de Purucker comments:
In Greece, Melissai or Bees, was a title given in certain cases to priestesses
having certain recondite functions to perform; while frequently "honey" or "honey-
dew" is spoken of by some ancient writers as signifying or symbolizing Wisdom,
or wisdom gained from life's experiences: just as the bees collect and digest the
nectar of flowers, turning it into honey, so do human beings collect knowledge
from life and spiritually and mentally digest it into Wisdom. We are reminded
of the "ambrosia" and "nectar" on which the gods, the spiritually wise ones, feed,
and which nourishes them. — The Esoteric Tradition, p. 848
And H. P. B. links this thought with the Scandinavian Eddas, pointing out that
the honey-dew — the food of the gods and of the creative, busy Yggdrasill — bees — falls during the hours of night, when the atmosphere is impregnated with humidity; and in the Northern mythologies, as the passive principle of creation, it typifies the creation of the universe out of water; this dew is the astral light in one of its combinations and possesses creative as well as destructive properties. — Isis Unveiled, I, 133
Possibly the best known of the World Trees, at least in the Occident, is the Ash Yggdrasill of the Eddas. This mighty tree has three roots reaching out into three different worlds, and, like the Sephirothal tree and the Aswattha, links these worlds together. One root extends into the land of the gods, the Asa folk, who gather each day beneath the branches of the tree to hold their council meetings; and under this root is the fountain of Urd. The middle root goes to the land of the Frost giants, and Mimir's well or fountain lies beneath it. The third root extends to the underworld, and here is the fountain Hvergelmer, while gnawing at the roots of Yggdrasill is Nidhogg, variously described as a demon, a giant and a Serpent. Now the well of Mimir conceals within its waters wisdom and knowledge, and the inspiration for poetry and song, but the fountain of Urd is the most sacred of the waters. Here dwell the Norns, who sprinkle Yggdrasill daily with the waters of the fountain
that it may not wither. It remains verdant till the last days of the Golden Age.
Then the Norns — the three sisters who gaze respectively into the Past, the Present, and the Future — make known the decree of Fate (Karma, Orlog), but men
are conscious only of the Present. — The Secret Doctrine, II, 520
H. P. B. says of the Norse Legends that
one recognizes in Asgard, the habitat of the gods, as also in the Ases themselves, the same mystical loci and personifications woven into the popular "myths," as in our Secret Doctrine; . . . The Norse Ask, 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. . . . As in the Gogard [the Hellenic tree of life], among the luxuriant branches of all those mundane trees, the "Serpent" dwells. But while the Macrocosmic tree is the Serpent of Eternity and of absolute Wisdom itself, those who dwell in the Microcosmic tree are the Serpents of the manifested Wisdom. One is the One and All; the others are its reflected parts. The "tree" is man himself, of course, and the Serpents dwelling in each, the conscious Manas, the connecting link between Spirit and Matter, heaven and earth. — S. D., II, 97-8
Almost poles apart, geographically, yet with a marked sympathy of thought, is the World Tree of Fiji — a conception brought there from the Friendly Islands by the Tongans. Here, again, is a tale of the beginnings of things, and the "Tree of Speech" is but an episode in the recounting of the coming of men to earth and their subsequent knowledge of decay and death. As with the Ash Yggdrasill, this is the gathering-place of the gods, and the tree grows by a fountain, the Water of Life. Told by Ma'afu, a Tongan Chief, the legend charms and impresses one with its simple dignity. The following passages are taken from the legend called "The Beginning of Death" — suggestive of the Norse legend! — in this instance the Tree of Speech fulfills the office of the Norns, making "known the decree of Fate."
A fine land is Bulotu, and happy are its people; for there, close to the house of Hiku-leo [the Loki of Tonga], is Vai-ola, the Water of Life, which the gods drink every day. Oh, that we had it here on earth, for it will heal all manner of sickness! Moreover, near the brink of the fountain stands Akau-lea, that wondrous tree, the Tree of Speech, under whose shadow the gods sit down to drink kava, the tree acting as master of the ceremonies, and calling out the name of him to whom the bowl shall be carried.
There came a time, however, when Maui, the king of the gods, decided to sail forth from Bulotu. It was the closing of the Golden Age, the passing of the first and second races, and the coming of the third with the knowledge of death. There was argument among the gods about this going forth, and then they heard
a rustle and a stir among the leaves of the Tree of Speech, as if a sudden blast were sweeping through its branches; and all the gods kept silence, for they knew it was going to speak.
"Hear my words, Maui," it said. "Hear my words, Hiku-leo, and gods all. Go not! Evil will come to pass if you go — an evil so great and terrible that you could not understand if I were to tell you what it is. I pray you not to go."
And in the parting injunctions of Maui, who will not be stayed, there is a sadness, and a boding of ill for the future.
"Look you, my brothers," he said, "it will be well for you to stay behind and watch that evil one, lest he do mischief while we are away. . . . Do you keep the rest together, and have a care of Hiku-leo. What if he should cut down the Tree of Speech, or defile the Water of Life! There is nothing too evil for him when he is in one of his raging moods.
— Folk Tales of All Nations, F. H. Lee, pp. 444-5
Thus, to every Race, as to every normal child, comes the urge to pass beyond the Golden Age, to learn from Life, and to grow through experience. Even the Lord Buddha had to meet the three awakening sights: sickness, old age, and death.
Lastly, let us speak of the Kounboum, the World Tree of Tibet. It is called the "tree of the 10,000 images and characters," and it is said that it will grow in no other latitude. H. P. B., in describing it, quotes from the Abbe Huc as one who could have no possible interest in magnifying its marvels, and we can do no better than follow her example.Each of its leaves, in opening, bears either a letter or a religious sentence, written in sacred characters, and these letters are, of their kind, of such a perfection that the type-foundries of Didot contain nothing to excel them. Open the leaves, which vegetation is about to unroll, and you will there discover, on the point of appearing, the letters or the distinct words which are the marvel of this unique tree! Turn your attention from the leaves of the plant to the bark of its branches, and new characters will meet your eyes! Do not allow your interest to flag; raise the layers of this bark, and still other characters will show themselves below those whose beauty had surprised you. For, do not fancy that these superposed layers repeat the same printing. No, quite the contrary; for each lamina you lift presents to view its distinct type. How, then, can we suspect jugglery? I have done my best in that direction to discover the slightest trace of human trick, and my baffled mind could not retain the slightest suspicion. — Isis Unveiled, I, 440H. P. B. adds that "the characters which appear upon the different portions of the Kounboum are in the Sansar (or language of the Sun), characters (ancient Sanscrit); and that the sacred tree, in its various parts, contains in extenso the whole history of the creation, and in substance the sacred books of Buddhism." (Ibid.)
Nourished among the branches of the Tree of Life, Man can know the realms in which its roots find strength only through daring to eat of its sacred fruit. This is the knowledge of good and evil, but having dared to eat, he has the power to choose the good.
1. The Book of Earths, by Edna Kenton, Plate xxi (return to text)
2. The Book of Earths, Plate xxiv (return to text)
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