No Christmas is complete without the Tree, that grand symbol of spirit shedding its beneficence about the world. Trees have always been associated with those spiritual luminaries who founded what we now know as the great world-religions. In the old mythologies too — which are not just fairy tales, but a clever method of preserving ageless truths in popular form — the tree is associated not only with gods and goddesses, but with knowledge, wisdom and spiritual sustenance.
Gautama the Buddha is supposed to have received his enlightenment while sitting under the Bo tree — the word bo coming from the old Sanskrit bodh meaning wisdom — a wisdom not born of the intellect but of Spirit.
Hindu mythology abounds with symbols that hide universal truths. Take the Banyan-tree, with its up-and-down root system, the tree as it grows in age covering huge plots of ground with its network of roots and limbs. A beautiful symbol of a great living hierarchy, all linked together by the vast system of 'roots,' their descending line of teachers being called the Ever-Living Human Banyan, spreading compassion, wisdom and peace throughout the land.
Many instances in Greek mythology associate the virtue, gentleness and wisdom of their gods and goddesses with trees. An outstanding mythos is that of Athena, goddess of Wisdom, fashioning an olive tree, and sharing its fruit with all the inhabitants round about.
In the Old Testament, Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Did this mean literally a tasting of evil awareness, as our Dark Ages would have us believe? Or was it the age-old story in allegory form of that point in Man's evolution when the light of Mind, the power of choice, the gift of free will and rational thinking became a force to reckon with? In other words, Adam and Eve, representing infant humanity, had reached that stage of growth in their long cycle of evolutionary experience when spiritual yearning could be awakened within the soul. Under this compulsion then, they tasted the apple, the fruit of the Tree of spiritual knowledge. From then on, man felt the potency of spiritual perception, and became a responsible unit, with the ability and power of carving his future destiny. From a dull plodding creature, born of the flesh, he knew now that he could make the life of the spirit his own.
In the old Norse legends, we find the Tree again playing an important role. Odin, the Father of the Gods, is said to have "hung for nine days and nine nights," while his spirit soared the cosmic deeps, to bring back upon his awakening, wisdom and knowledge to men. In the Edda of Scandinavia we have the Yggdrasil, the Great Ash or World-tree, sometimes called the Tree of the House. It grows from the floor of the central room up through the roof, to spread its branches as a protective covering over the dwelling. In religious symbolism, the "house" is often the physical body, so here again is the concept of spirit with its roots and tentacles permeating matter, to raise it up and enlighten the physical life with the light of the spirit and give of its wisdom to struggling mankind.
Richard Wagner made use of this mythos of the Tree of Life especially in his Die Walkure. The whole first act concerns the struggle of the human soul, represented by Sigmund, to shed the rags, tatters and storms of the emotional-physical life for the peace and comfort of the fireside of Hunding's Hut. The house symbol again, with the Tree holding center stage, and Sieglinde standing beneath the tree in her pure white robe representing Sigmund's higher self. Hunding, of course, stands for the baser side of human nature, and is finally overcome.
As the opera opens, it is night, and Sigmund at the point of exhaustion enters the hut, and drops on the floor by the fire where Sieglinde entering from another room finds him. She helps him recover, and before long recognizes him as her long lost twin brother. In due course, Hunding who has been asleep awakens, enters the room, and offers to do battle with this intruder. Sieglinde quiets him, gives him a sleeping potion, and he retires. Then Sieglinde begins her long aria telling of past associations, her love for Sigmund, trying to force his recognition of her. She urges him to forget his former ways and join her in a life of bliss. During all of this, Sigmund's strength returns as he listens attentively to her pleadings. She tells him of the sword (symbol of the spiritual will) buried by Wotan (Odin) in the trunk of the tree, by which he can slay the enemy, and free her from bondage.
A light flashes intermittently in the tree trunk — perhaps a symbol of the spiritual intuition? At long last, Sigmund roused to great strength, with a glorious cry of triumph draws the sword from the tree. As dawn breaks, he seizes Sieglinde, and armed with the sword, they leave the hut facing the sunrise of the Eastern portal. Could it be that the sunrise here is the light of the spirit breaking through the darkness of material night, warming the earth with its rays? Thus the human soul, battered under the storms of night, does battle with the evil forces, to rise victorious in spirit. The Norse mythos of the House, the Soul, the lower self defeated by the power of the spiritual will, and the final blending of the human with the spirit — the ancient story of man, at last throwing off his shackles, and attaining enlightenment and wisdom under the Tree of Knowledge.
"I am the Tree, ye are the branches" — it was to help mankind give birth to the spiritual strength within, to awaken the inner Christos, that Jesus was born upon the earth: to remind us once again as Christmas rolls around that man may have his physical roots in matter, but his branches and leaves open to the Sun, for his spiritual source is the Universal Tree that spreads its branches to every point of the compass.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1953; copyright © 1953 Theosophical University Press)