The Theosophical Forum – June 1945

THE TREE OF LIFE — Gertrude W. van Pelt

What can be the meaning of the universality of the Tree Symbol, found, as it is, in every country, though modified by national thought and customs? Conventionalized trees, generally guarded on the right and left by strange figures, are placed on sacred monuments or buildings of importance of all the old nations. On an Assyrian cylinder, for example, was found such a tree, surmounted by the winged disc and guarded by two winged figures with bird's heads. (1) From a capital of the Temple of Athena at Pryene is another, guarded by two animals, and again on a sculptured slab in the Treasury of St. Marks, Venice, is a tree guarded there by two huge birds. A tree symbol, similar in design to the ancient Chaldeans, has been found in Mexico, suggesting a pre-Columbian colonization of America. But the oldest examples of these designs come from Asia and the ancient countries. In India each Buddha had his own Bodhi-tree, and we are familiar with the story of Gautama Buddha gaining his enlightenment under the sacred Bodhi-tree, poetical reference to his initiation. Gautama's tree was the pippala or Ficus religiosa.

In the folklore of every old nation was the idea that in every tree dwelt its spirit, sometimes a god, or in some trees an evil demon, and these tree legends form a rich part of the folklore of European countries also. Some of the Druidic rites associated with the misletoe are echoes of old tree-worship. Aside from and probably out of the religious idea of tree-worship have grown the ideas of tree-spirits, good and evil, who had to be propitiated or thanked by offerings or ceremonies. Certain trees became sacred to gods, as the laurel to Apollo, the olive to Athena, out of which grew the "Olive branch of Peace." In Persia it was the cypress, sacred tree of the god Mithra, and in Egypt, the tree of Osiris was the Acacia. Gifts were hung on these various sacred trees, or offering of fruits to the gods laid at their base. Wreaths were used in religious ceremonies in Greece and Rome from the tree of the god worshiped, branches or garlands in the hands of a chorus of maidens. Even the persecuted were safe under the branches of a sacred tree.

The medieval history of which we have records is surrounded with a halo of charm and mystery by the folklore, fairy tales and myths, growing out of tree legends. Hamadryads and elves peopled the forests. Children lived in an atmosphere of other worlds. The woods were full of friendly nooks. Spirits were in the wind. Everything was alive.

There were many legends representing mankind as born from trees. Hesychius said the Greeks believed that mankind was the fruit of the Ash. Similar legends to the effect that the human race originally sprang from a tree, exist in the mythology of widely separated races. The Damaras of South Africa believe that the universal progenitor was a tree, out of which grew everything that lives. According to a legend of the Sioux Indians of the Upper Missouri, our first parents were two trees, rooted to the ground until a monster snake gnawed at the roots and gave them independent motion, thus destroying their harmony and mutual trust. There is also an Iranian account that our first parents issued from the ground as the rhubarb plant, which divided into two. Ormazd endowed each with a human soul and they became our first parents. According to the Prose or Younger Edda, Odin and his brothers saw two trees on the sea-shore, which they changed into two humans, male and female, which then became the parents of the human race. This idea of mankind issuing from two parents was also wide spread. Further there are many stories suggesting that heaven was in some way connected with trees. The Khasias of India have a legend that the stars are men who have climbed into heaven by a tree, and the Mbocobis of Paraguay believe that the souls of the dead go up "to the earth on high" by the tree which joins us to heaven. Here we have hints of the teaching on the after death journey of the human monad through the spheres, kept alive by myths. Such a hint is also given in The Secret Doctrine, I, 411 and 577. Quoting from the latter reference: "On its way to the Earth, as on its way back from the Earth, each soul . . . had to pass through the seven planetary regions both ways" — a teaching which has been more fully elaborated by G. de Purucker in his various writings.

When Zoroaster died, Ormazd had his soul translated into a lofty tree, and in his previous incarnations Gautama Buddha is said to have been a tree-spirit forty-three times. These few examples indicating the universality of the Tree Symbol are taken from the many to be found in an interesting, well illustrated volume, The Sacred Tree, by Mrs. J. H. Philpot.

What is the root basis behind all these tree legends? Plainly they have sprung from the teaching of "The Tree of Life," the mysterious and rich heritage of every race in every age. The frequent inclusion of two figures, one on each side of the tree, with the Serpent of Wisdom, suggests that this revealing symbol refers to the separation of the sexes and awakening of mind in the 3rd Root Race by the Dhyani-Chohans, symbolized by the serpent. (2) The Tree of the knowledge of good and evil, recorded in the Christian Scriptures familiar to the West is surrounded by a story which veils its meaning. (3) That found in the Norse Mythology is more revealing. Here all life is figured as a tree. (4) In Norse Mythology by Rasmus B. Anderson, pp. 205-9, is a description of Yggdrasil, The Tree of Life, extending its branches into the whole universe. It has its roots in the Kingdom of Hela or Death, where at its foot are the three Norns, past, present and future. Their decrees are inviolable destiny (Kar-man). It is the Tree of Existence. Its boughs are histories of nations, every leaf a biography. Beneath the root of Yggdrasil is Mimer's Fountain, in which wisdom and knowledge are concealed. (The Eternal Unknown Cause). This "Tree of the Norse Legend cannot wither and die until the last battle of life shall be fought, while its roots are gnawed all the time by the dragon Nidhogg." (S. D. I, 211) But "the Norns sprinkle it daily with the waters from the fountain of Urd, that it may not wither." (5)

We have a most perfect tree symbol in our oldest Aryan Race, viz. the Asvattha, referred to in Chapter XV of the Bhagavad-Gita, where the roots are said to be above and the branches below. (6) Vishnu is said to have been born under this tree. Then there is the Mexican tree whose trunk is covered with ten fruits with a female figure on one side and a male on the other, while on the topmost branch is added a bird, signifying Atman. (7) Again in the Popul Vuh, the 3rd Race is represented by a tree. (8)

No known race is without this symbol. Certainly there can be no chance or accident in a teaching which is so universal. Indeed it is not difficult to see behind it the strong force of the Guides of the human races, keeping alive this symbol through the ages as a picture of reality. It has been stated that the Great Ones remain with an opening race until certain vital trends are established with sufficient force to run their courses, and one can imagine that this revealing picture of "The Tree of Life" may be one which has been painted on the screen of the Astral Light in unfading colors and with intent. Why this might have been so is clear in the light of the deeper teachings of the Ancient Wisdom as they have been explained in our present cycle. (9) We can see the Tree as a picture of the Universe itself, its roots buried in the depths of Space, the Reality, unknown, unfathomable, its branches spread into worlds within worlds. There too we see an exact picture of the teaching of "emanations." Every new branch establishes a new hierarchy, growing out of a higher one, yet all have their life-force from the same root. The framework of "The Tree of Life" is the body of the Universe in which exists all that is, from our atoms to the highest gods. "In it we live and move and have our being" — a brotherhood which is all inclusive — universal. This symbol is so revealing that it might even be called a "Text-book of Life." Some legends hint that it may have been so used; for instance, those referring to men entering trees at death. It is also easy to see written in the structure of trees the teaching of the compound nature of man as united in consciousness with higher branching hierarchies, which we may call Manas, Buddhi, Atma, as well as with branches lower down. And further we can see how man, being a part of the whole and a free agent, may through effort climb in consciousness to higher levels in the hierarchy to which he belongs as man, thus enriching the life currents for all below him, or alas, through misuse of energies, generate poisons in his branch." The dominant teaching in this symbol is that of the unity of all lives from gods to atoms and hence, that of ever-enduring and reciprocal responsibilities.

Beyond the "world of Brahma," i. e., beyond Brahman, there are realms of consciousness and being still higher than this "world of Brahma," in which reside the roots, so to speak, of the Cosmic Tree and therefore the Root of every human being, the offspring of such mystic Cosmic Tree. — The Esoteric Tradition, p. 129


1. See The Secret Doctrine, II, 104. (return to text)

2. See The Secret Doctrine, II, 97-8. (return to text)

3. Op. cit., 215-6, 354-5. (return to text)

4. Isis Unveiled, I, 152; II, 412. (return to text)

5. The Secret Doctrine, II, 520. (return to text)

6. Op. cit., I, 406. (return to text)

7. Op at, II, 36. (return to text)

8. Op at, II, 181, footnote. (return to text)

9. Op at, I, 128, footnote. (return to text)

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