Copyright © 1985 by Theosophical University Press. All rights reserved.
Every mythology features a Tree of Life. In the biblical account the "jealous" deities (elohim) — usually translated "the Lord God" — when the humans had eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, feared "lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever." They therefore set "a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life." (1) In the Bantu myths a rather awesome Tree of Life pursues the goddess of fertility and with her begets all the kingdoms of nature; (2) in India, the Asvattha (3) tree is rooted in the highest heaven and descends through the spaces bearing all existing worlds on its branches. The concept of a tree branching into worlds is a universal one. Interestingly enough we still continue a tradition of adorning a tree with multicolored globes representing the many varieties of worlds pendent from the branches of the world tree although the meaning has long been lost.
In the Edda, the Tree of Life is named Yggdrasil, apparently for several reasons. This is another of the ingenious puns the bards of the Norsemen used to convey their message. Ygg has been variously translated in conjunction with other words as "eternal," "awesome" or "terrible," and also "old" or rather, "ageless." Odin (4) is called Yggjung — "old-young," equivalent to the biblical "Ancient of Days" — a concept the mind can grasp only in the wake of intuition. Yggdrasil is Odin's steed or, with equal logic, his gallows, the implication being of a divine sacrifice, a crucifixion of the silent guardian whose body is a world. In this thinking any Tree of Life, large or small, constitutes a cross whereon its ruling deity remains transfixed for the duration of its material presence. While Yggdrasil may refer to a whole universe with all its worlds, each human being is an Yggdrasil in its own measure, a miniature of the cosmic ash tree. Each is rooted in the divine ground of All-being and bears its Odin — omnipresent spirit which is the root and reason of all living things.
Any Tree of Life — human or cosmic — draws its nourishment from three roots that reach into three regions: one rises in Asgard, home of the Aesir, where it is watered by the spring of Urd, commonly translated as the past. However, the real meaning of the name is Origin, primal cause, the connotation being that of antecedent causes from which flow all subsequent effects. Urd is one of the three "maidens who know much" the Norns, or Fates, whose farseeing gaze scans past, present, and future, as they spin the threads of destiny for worlds and men. "One was named Origin, the second Becoming; these two fashioned the third, named Debt. Fortune's lots, life and death, the fates of heroes, all comes from them." (5) Urd, the past, personifies all that has gone before and is the cause of both present and future. Verdande is the present, but it is not a static condition; on the contrary it means Becoming — the dynamic, everchanging, mathematical point between past and future; a point of vital importance for it is the eternal moment of choice for man, when conscious willing decision is made, directed by desire, either for progress or retrogression on the evolutionary path. It is noteworthy that these two Norns create the third, Skuld, meaning Debt: something owed, out of balance, to be brought into equilibrium in the future — the inevitable result of all the past and of the present.
While the Norns are the Norse equivalent of the Greek Moirai or Fates who spin the thread of destiny we recognize in them also what in the Stanzas of Dzyan (6) are called Lipikas — a Sanskrit term meaning "scribes" or "recorders." Like the Norns these are impersonal, implacable processes that automatically retain every event and set the stage for the balancing action of karma, the natural "law of consequences" or of cause and effect, which operates infallibly in all fields of action and determines the conditions met by every entity as a result of its past choices. In the unself-conscious kingdoms this is a purely automatic adjustment; in the human kingdom, every motive, noble or base, brings appropriate opportunities and obstacles that modify the future. Moreover, as the human awareness is capable of self-determined choice, it is also increasingly conscious of its responsibility for events to come. Each being is the result of all that it has made itself to be, and each will become what is in preparation through its present thoughts and deeds. The record of the everchanging complex of forces remains in its inmost identity the higher self in man, the individual's own Norn which the Edda calls his hamingja. In the Christian tradition it is our guardian angel.
Yggdrasil's second root springs from Mimer's well. This, the well of absolute matter, belongs to the "wise giant Mimer," source of all experience. It is said that Odin drinks each day from the waters of this well, but to do so he had to forfeit one of his eyes, which is hidden at the bottom of the well. In many popular tales where Odin is disguised as an old man in a blue fur coat, he wears a slouch hat to conceal the fact that he is lacking one eye. However, this is not the same as saying that he has only one eye. Can we be so sure that he had only two to begin with? The sacred writings of many peoples refer to a distant past when humanity possessed a "third eye" — organ of the intuition, — which, according to theosophy, retreated inside the skull millions of years ago where it remains in vestigial form as the pineal gland, awaiting a time when it will once again be more functional than it is today. Such an interpretation gives us information not only on the meaning of the tale but on the picture language used in these myths. As immersion in the world of matter provides the experience which brings wisdom, consciousness (Odin) sacrifices part of its vision to obtain daily a draught from Mimer's well, while Mimer (matter) obtains a partial share of divine insight. Mimer is the progenitor of all giants, the timeless root of Ymer-Orgalmer, the frost giant from which worlds are formed.
Long ago, it is said, Mimer was killed by Njord (time) and his body was thrown into a swamp (the "waters" of space). Odin retrieved his severed head and "confers with it daily." This suggests that the god, consciousness, uses the "head" or superior portion of its matter-associate, the vehicle or body, to obtain the distillate of experience. At the same time the giant achieves a measure of consciousness by association with the energic, divine side of nature. Duality appears to be universal: no world is so low, no consciousness so elevated as to be beyond this perpetual interchange, as the divine impulsion daily organizes and dwells in worlds of action, "raising runes of wisdom" by experience. Consciousness and matter are thus relative to each other on all levels, so that what is consciousness on one stratum of cosmic life is matter to the stage above it. The two sides of existence are inseparable. Both comprise every level of life as giants grow into gods and gods are graduates of former giant worlds, evolving toward still greater godhood.
Mimer's tree is Mimameid, the Tree of Knowledge, which is not to be confused with the Tree of Life, though the two are in certain ways interchangeable, for knowledge and wisdom are the fruits of life and living; conversely the application of wisdom to living brings immortality in ever loftier ranges of the Tree of Life.
Yggdrasil's third root reaches into Niflheim (cloudhome), where the clouds — nebulae — are born. This, like the other two realms, refers not to a place but to a condition. The name is highly suggestive as nebulae are stages in the development of cosmic bodies. The root is watered by Hvergalmer, source of all the "rivers of lives" — classes of beings. (7) These are what we call the kingdoms of nature which in their great variety of forms make up every globe. Niflheim, where lies the source of all these life types, contains the seething caldron of matter — primordial, undifferentiated substance out of which the matters of all ranges of substantiality and materiality are derived. It is the mulaprakriti (root-nature) of Hindu cosmogony, whose divine complement is parabrahman (beyond-brahman).
The intricate life system of Yggdrasil contains both facts of natural history and cosmological information which may be gleaned from the texts. For instance, the first root, springing from Asgard, the realm of the Aesir, watered by the well of the past, maps the "fates of heroes" from cause to effect for all hierarchies of existence, and the gods are no more exempt from this inexorable law than any other form of life. Yet every moment changes the course of destiny as each being acts freely within the limits of its own self-created condition.
The second root, watered by Mimer's well, draws its nourishment from the experience in matter earned by the divine eye of spirit, as Odin daily confers with Mimer's head.
The third root is watered by the many rivers of lives: all the different expressions needed to fill the requirements of all kinds of consciousnesses.
During the first half of its life, Yggdrasil, the mighty Ash Tree, is named Mjottvidr (measure increasing); while in its process of growth the tree's energies are flowing from its spiritual roots into the worlds that are becoming. Its substances flourish on all levels, enriched by the nurturing wells that feed its three roots of spirit, matter, and form. After reaching full maturity, the tree becomes Mjotvidr (measure exhausting); its juices then flow back into the root system, the life forces leave the matter realms, as the autumn of its life brings the fruit and seeds for succeeding lives to come. At length dormancy prevails during the ensuing frost giant — or rest cycle.
This metaphor of a tree, used in so many myths and scriptures to depict a cosmos, is remarkably exact. We know how on the earth with every spring the flow of forces infuses their growing power into each limb and leaf, giving beauty and perfection to blossoms, which in the course of time ripen into fruit which bears the seeds of future trees; and how, when the year draws to its close, the sap returns into the root system, nourishes it and provides firmer foundation for the next year's growth. We see an analogy to this in every human life as well: a baby's flesh is soft and delicate but increases in bulk and weight until middle life; thereafter the process reverses itself, culminating in the transparent fragility of the very old. So in the imbodiment of worlds do divine powers imbue latent, unformed matter with character, structure, and shape, increasing substance and solidity. The layered cosmos expands from within, branching through all grades of matter until the limit is reached for that phase of its evolution, whereupon the life forces retreat back into the spiritual realms as the divine root receives into itself the essence or aroma of the experience. So it is that consciousnesses imbody through multilevel worlds, earning the gods' mead of experience.
Yggdrasil nourishes all beings with a life-giving honeydew. The worlds pendent from its branches on all its shelves of existence receive from the divine roots what is needful for growth: predisposition from the well of Urd, material substance from the well of Mimer, and appropriate means of expression from Hvergalmer's rivers of lives. At death, when spirit withdraws as does the nutrient sap into the roots, the seeds of future imbodiments remain as an imperishable record while the empty shell of matter is recycled for future use, much as the leaves falling from a tree in winter become mulch to enrich the soil.
Yggdrasil is not immortal. Its lifetime is coeval with the hierarchy the tree is used to represent. Destructive forces are always at work and lead to its eventual decline and death: its leaves are eaten by four stags, its bark is nibbled by two goats, its roots are undermined by the serpent Nidhogg (gnawer from beneath). When it has lived its span, the mighty Ash is overthrown. Thus is taught the temporal nature of existence and the impermanence of matter.
Throughout the Ash Tree's life a squirrel makes its home in the tree and runs up and down the trunk maintaining communication between the eagle, or sacred cock, high in its crown, and the serpent at its base. The little rodent suggests life or consciousness, which spans the height and depth of existence. It is also pictured as a drill which can bore through the densest matter. In Havamal, which relates how Odin sought the bardic mead concealed in the depths of a mountain, he enlisted the aid of the squirrel (or drill) to penetrate the rock and, in the guise of a serpent, entered through the bore hole. Once inside, he persuaded the daughter of the giant Suttung, who had the mead hidden in his underground domain, to give him drink of it, and thus he gained wisdom. This is an oft-recurring theme: the divine seeking the mead in matter, gaining and learning from it before returning to supernal worlds.
1. Genesis 3:22, 24. (return to text)
2. Indaba, My Children, pp. 3-13. (return to text)
3. Bhagavad-Gita, ch. xv. (return to text)
4. Also called Woden or Wotan. (return to text)
5. Voluspa, 20. (return to text)
6. These stanzas form part of the ancient records on which The Secret Doctrine is a commentary. (return to text)
7. Grimnismal, 26. (return to text)