The World Tree

The World Tree

Pentecost 175

What do Indo-European, Siberian, and American Indian religions have in common?  What do the mythologies of Hungary, Turkey, Mongolia, Germany, Finland, the Slavic nations, Scandinavia, China, and India have in common?  Better yet, what is the significance of the order of mammals to which mankind belongs to the first two questions?

The answer to all three questions is …a tree.  I’m not referring to the more modern definition of a tree which is used in computer science, a tree being a way to organize abstract data.  I mean a tree as in botany – the climbing kind of tree that offers shade and can be climbed, offering a delight afternoon of fun for youngsters and a source of refuge when needed.  Trees are plants, plants that have an extended stem, known as a trunk, which supports branches and leaves.  Trees are perennial plants, which means they have a life cycle greater than two years.

In the northern hemisphere we are at the end of the autumn leaves color tour.  On trees all over, and especially in the northeastern United States of America, leaves have given way to yellow, red, and brown hues before they fall to the ground.  Technically, chlorophyll breaks down as the amount of sunlight decreases and photosynthesis ceases.  This causes the bright green of the tree’s leaves to fade to yellow, gold, and then orange.  Glucose, another part of the tree’s nutritional system, can become left in the leaves and this causes them to appear red or purple.

Now imagine you know nothing of the science of trees.  All you know is that the leaves suddenly turn into a palette of earth colors.  No wonder the concept of a tree, a world tree, features in so many religions and mythologies.  This large, colossal tree supported the sky and linked the earth to the heavens.  With its roots going so deep into the ground, it also joined the Underworld to the rest of creation.

For the Mayans, the tree was symbolic.  Its strong trunk represented the inner strength of mankind, of each of us.  The branches spread out in all four directions of the compass, something which greatly appealed to and was noticed by these ancient and brilliant astronomers of the new World.  A tree’s branches were also symbolic of the connection between human beings and their gods.

We all have roots; we all have a past. Different species of trees have different types of roots.  Some go very deep; some are quite shallow, growing along the top of the ground.  Some seem very strong while others are gnarly and, well, unattractive.  Sometimes our own past is not so pretty.  That past, however, gives us roots and, if we let it, can nourish is just as the roots of a tree gives it sustenance.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once remarked:  “In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.”  One can also pick a culture and find a mythology about trees.  They do much more than simply tower over other plants.  They stand as natural monuments to life itself.

“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us, “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”  Albert Einstein recognized our need to explain the world with myths and the importance of science in helping us achieve a sense of humanity.

We are indeed all part of a world tree, a family tree of mankind.  Lord Tennyson summarized it most succinctly:  “I am a part of all that I have met.”  Lest you think such thoughts are only ancient history, let me leave you with a quote from someone in this century, Ellen DeGeneres.  “The truth is, we are all one connected thing.”  We are indeed connected.  Like trees in a forest, we may stand independently but we comprise together one large entity, the family of mankind.  That is not a false story, something dreamed up on a cold winter’s night.  It is fact.  It is science.  It is…life, our life.  We are both tree and gardener, a part of the arbor and the arborist.  Nurture the tree within you today and respect the ones standing next to you in this large garden we call our home, our planet earth.

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A Game of Life

A Game of Life

Pentecost 169

In the United States today many people were watching college football – American football, that is.  With an elongated oval-shaped ball covered in a brown-stained pigskin fabric, two teams of eleven men will run, throw, kick, and tackle each other in order to score points.  Mankind has been doing that throughout the ages, even in Mayan mythology.

In the game of American football there have been many cases of family involvement. Fathers and sons, brothers, cousins, and even twin brothers have all participated.  Ronde and Tiki Barber, Devin and Jason McCourty, Maurkice and Mike Pouncey, Rex and Rob Ryan…All were twin brothers who loved playing ball.  They enjoyed it almost as much as Xbalanque and Hunahpo, called the “hero twins” of Mayan mythology.  Mayan mythology is rich in its oral tradition but there is also a sacred book called the “Popol Vish”.  It was transcribed in the mid-1500’s as a way of translating an ancient hieroglyphic.  The book supposedly contains the creation myths and history of the Quiche Maya of Guatemala.

As is true in many cultures, there are several myths about the creation of the world and mankind.  Most of these stories feature the sea creator-god Gucumatz and the sky creator-god Heart of Sky.  Ear;y attempts at creating human beings apparently failed in Mayan legend and did so for various reasons.  Eventually, there is a flood myth that destroys all the failed beings.

The two sons of Xpiyacoc, the matchmaker deity, and Xmucane, the midwife of humanity, loved to play and they spent their waking hours playing with dice and balls.  Their play was loud, however, and disturbed the lords or gods of the Underworld who challenged them to come “below” and play a ballgame.  Once in the Underworld, the boys were mocked and, in the House of Darkness, killed.  They were buried at a place called the Place of the Ballgame Sacrifice.  One of the boys’ head was placed in a tree and later bore fruit, the fruit known as calabash.

A maiden came upon the tree one day and reached up to pick some fruit.  As her hands touched the calabash, it turned into the young man’s head.  The head seemed to spit on the maiden who became pregnant with the Hero Twins.  The twins grew up much like their father and uncle and, like them, angered the spirits of the Underworld with their loud ball-playing.

As their father and brother had once done, the Hero Twins descended to the Underworld.  They stayed one night at each of the chambers – the Dark House, the Razor House, The Cold House, the Jaguar House, and the House of Fire.  Eventually, having survived each test and night, they did play the dark lords and won their game.  The Underworld gods were not good sports in losing, though, and burned the Twins to death.  The Twins came back from the dead and vanquished the dark lords, breaking the power death had over mankind.  Legend says the Hero Twins then became the sun and the moon.

Some of today’s games will be played under the sun and some at night under the moon.  Often we think we only have a few hours or chances to do something.  The truth is we have all the time in the world.  Even when it seems the game is over, it really isn’t.  Even when the score says we lost, we really haven’t.  Life’s game is about learning.  Life is pace, not a race.  We stay in the game and win when we stay present in our life.