The World Tree
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.