From the days of myth and legend to the busy whirl of modern life, the tree has been venerated. The oak and pine, palm, laurel, and silvery olive have had their devotees. The oaks surrounding Dodona in ancient Greece 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 was a symbol of victory, likewise 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 an emblem of peace, spoke of victory, a wreath of olive being the prize contended for in the Olympic Games; it was also the highest tribute that could be proffered to a citizen meriting well of his country. In Egypt the tamarisk was held sacred as possessing hidden virtues and was often planted around temples. It is also in the land of pyramids that we discover the Goddess Nut pictured as the Lady of the Sycamore who offers 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 the early races of mankind should choose the tree to represent Life — the never-ending force of vital consciousness which brings the universe and every living creature into existence. In the Bhagavad-Gita of India we find the Asvattha or world tree depicted as growing with its roots in the heavens, its trunk and branches extending downwards to earth. When we discover that the symbol of the majestically spreading tree, variously called the Tree of Life, the Tree of Knowledge, the Tree of Speech, is universally found, we are led to conclude that awareness of its spiritual import could not have been the result of untutored observations pieced together by happenstance, but must have been imparted by the "gods" or "wise ones" to infant humanity. These Sacred Trees are often guarded by dragons or serpents — in antiquity emblems of wisdom more than of cunning — who will let no one eat of their fruit who has not first conquered the material elements in his nature.
There is another World Tree which the ancient Hebrews depicted in their Kabbala as the Sephirothal Tree of Life. Here we have a tenfold Tree, with the highest emanation from space being called the Crown or Summit, from which extend nine Sephiroth in three triads, each group of three being a representation respectively of spiritual, intellectual, and material qualities, with the tenth or lowest of the third triad considered as our globe earth. In one of the works of Robert Fludd, who is spoken of as the "chief" of the Fire Philosophers and Alchemists of the 17th century, is included a remarkable interpretation of this Sephirothal Tree which he illustrates as a Palm, whose ten spreading branches raying forth from the lowest world suggest that man on earth is a microcosm or reflection of the macrocosm or universe.
The original body of Rosicrucians were, like the Freemasons, Kabbalists, and Alchemists of medieval and renaissance Europe, an outlet for true spiritual values, and it is not surprising to find that the Rosicrucians, for example, should have taken the rose as the symbol of their World Tree. Pictured as a gigantic flower sought by bees from nearby hives, it tells a most interesting story: anything said sub rosa or "under the rose" was given in confidence; and if this applied to worldly affairs, how much more binding was it with instruction given to those who had earned the right to fuller knowledge by discipline and self-improvement. Among the Greeks in the time of the Mysteries, "bees" was a name used for certain disciples, and the sacred wisdom which they sought was called "honey."
Possibly the best known of the World Trees, at least in the Occident, is the Scandinavian Ash or Yggdrasil of the Eddas. This mighty tree has three roots reaching out into three different worlds, and similar to the Sephirothal Tree of the Kabbalists and the Asvattha tree of the Hindus, links these worlds together. One root extends into the land of the gods, or the Ase folk, who gather each day beneath its branches 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 inexhaustible spring called Hvergelmer, while gnawing at this deepest root is Nidhogg, variously described as a giant, a demon, and a serpent.
One recognizes here a striking similarity between the well of Mimir which conceals within its waters wisdom and knowledge, and the Pierian springs of ancient Greece whence came the inspiration for poetry and song. The fountain of Urd is the most sacred of the waters, for here dwell the Norns or Goddesses of Fate, who sprinkle Yggdrasil daily with "dew" to keep the tree always green. Again we see the Norse counterpart of Greek mythology with the gods sitting in council, and the Norns so alike to the Moirai or Spinners of Destiny who make known the "lots" of men, representing as they do the Past, the Present, and the Future.
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 beginning 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 Yggdrasil, 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 taken from "The Beginning of Death" also parallel the Norse tradition, and here 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 child comes the urge to pass beyond the Golden Age, to learn from life itself and to grow wise through experience. Even the Lord Buddha had to meet the "three awakening sights": old age, illness, and death; yet in understanding their deepest import he attained wisdom and compassion.
Nourished among the branches of the evergreen Tree of Life, man can know the realms in which its roots find strength only through daring to eat first of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; but having dared to eat thereof, he has power to choose the Good, and one day will be able to partake of the Tree of Life.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1997/January 1998. Copyright © 1997 by Theosophical University Press)