There are few natural symbols out there that are so rich and diverse as that of the tree, representative (at least on one level) of the never-ending cycle of existence, as well as the ups and downs of life that come along with it. Thanks to the seeds that are distributed in its fruit, the tree can never truly die, and so it is fitting that one of the most prominent symbols from old Celtic traditions—and, in truth, the traditions of the populated world at large—is the Tree of Life, an image that has been closely associated with immortality and abundance since ancient times.
Often depicted as a deep-rooted, broad-crowned tree encircled by an unbroken band which represents eternity, the Tree of Life is as popular today as it has ever been. It appears on clothing and jewelry, is used as a narrative device in literature and film (taken both metaphorically and literally in equal measure), and brings a sense of stability and power to those who invoke the Tree when in need. But where, we come to wonder, did this striking symbol first stem from, and when?
AN ANCIENT AND GLOBAL SYMBOL
Firstly, we recognize that it is impossible to discuss the global nature of the Tree of Life without noting (if somewhat redundantly) the ubiquitous nature of trees in our world. There are few places on earth that one could imagine traveling to without encountering a tree native to that soil, be it a majestic oak or a powerful, bristling palm. As such, trees have been given powerful and deeply sacred meanings by countless different peoples over the course of history.
Shedding their leaves in the winter months and bursting forth with verdant new growth in the summer, deciduous trees are frequently used in art to represent rebirth and hope, whereas coniferous trees, with their stubborn sameness than carries them through year after year, are often associated with longevity and resilience of spirit. In many belief systems, the significance of the tree lies not only with the growth itself, but the ecosystem it provides for protected creatures or unseen spirits held in high regard, such as rare insects or forest sprites. Taking this into account, it’s little wonder that trees have for so long been viewed as synonymous with the essence of life itself.
Many folkloric scholars have drawn attention to the fact that the Tree of Life is, in actuality, one of several fascinating deviations that come from a vaster and more generalized “sacred tree” trope. In this regard, it is joined by legends concerning Wishing Trees, chiefly found in Europe and known as popular sites for prayer to invoke healing; sacred groves, or living temples safeguarded by the mystical connections of priests and priestesses with the natural world; and the mighty World Tree, a gargantuan specimen said to reside in the underworld by its roots, the world of the living by its trunk, and in heaven by the tips of its uppermost branches. With many of these mythical tree archetypes existing in varied cultures worldwide, it’s no stretch to imagine the ways in which they might have informed, altered, and enriched one another. This renders their depth of meaning as close as one can imagine to infinite.
Since the Tree of Life mytheme (which quite literally means “myth theme,” or a fundamental element present in two or more otherwise-unrelated myths) is so widespread, it has often in the past been mistakenly conflated with the biological tree of life, a metaphorical model developed by the most influential naturalist in human history, Charles Darwin. In 1859, Darwin introduced the idea that all life on earth, both living extinct, is related through common descent through a hesitantly-sketched diagram in his seminal book, The Origin of Species. It was a thought that would change the course of scientific history.
Indeed, many Trees of Life that feature in myths all over the world are actually anything but mythical. In Bahrain, the Tree of Life is a true tree that has existed for over 400 years, earning its title in spades. It measures approximately 32 feet high and, despite sitting on a barren hill in the middle of the Arabian desert, is the only fully-leafed tree for miles. The way in which the tree manages to survive is a mystery, as Bahrain does not get enough rain throughout the year to support its growth in theory, though many have theorized that its 164-foot roots may be far-reaching enough to graze some unknown subterranean water source. It is also the belief of many locals that the tree is protected by divine power, specifically the god Enki, who is associated with powerful bodies of water in Babylonian and Sumerian tradition.
Similar to this example is the El Árbol del Tule, a massive tree that exists in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. It possesses the stoutest trunk of any tree in the world, coming in at an astounding 46 feet. The tree has earned its Tree of Life nickname by virtue of the animal figures, which include elephants and jaguars, said by many to appear naturally in the lines of its trunk, and is immense age, estimated to sit anywhere between 1,200 and 3,000 years old. One legend, which cites the tree to be 1,400 years old, claims that a priest of the Aztec wind god, Ehecatl, planted the tree in his honor.
Our final example of a real-world Tree of Life is more accessible by far for anyone, no matter their location, to touch with their own two hands; in fact, it can be purchased at just about any supermarket in the world. In Phillipino and Caribbean traditions, the humble coconut is considered to qualify as a Tree of Life in its own right. This is due to the fact that every part of the coconut is useful to human survival—its water makes a healthful drink, its skin is tasty and nutritious, and its shell can be hollowed out for use in making shelters, clothing, receptacles, and more.
CELTIC TREE OF LIFE
Turning our gaze to the Celtic corner of the world, we see that the Tree of Life appears in the folklore of the Celts as often as, if not more than, any other symbol. It is known that Celtic people felt a deep and abiding sense of unity with nature, further study into which has prompted some scholars, such as Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick, to propose that the Celts made a practise of venerating certain trees. U.K.-born archaeologist and academic Miranda Aldhouse-Green has even suggested that the Celts were animists, meaning that they believed that communicable spirits resided in all bodies of the natural world. If this is the case, we can assume that, within Celtic communities, trees were far more than food, shelter, or even meeting places; they were fully-acknowledged living beings, worthy of the same respect shared that might be shared between friends or family.
As with the people of many other cultures, the supernatural properties of a tree were highly-respected by the Celts. Oak trees, as well as being seen as the center points of the universe, were in particularly teeming with transportative mystical energy; the old Irish word for “oak” is daur, an early take on the word “door”—which referred, in this case, to the portal to the fairy-filled Otherworld believed to be hidden behind its bark.
According to Mara Freeman, author of Kindling the Celtic Spirit, when Celtic people cleared a piece of land for the purpose of construction, one large tree would always be left to stand alone in the center of the new clearing. This tree was known as the crann bethadh, and was believed to hold the combined elemental strength of its fallen fellows to protected the secrets of the natural world. The crann bethadh was so important to the Celts that, being fearsome and ruthless in battle, they would often strive to cut down their enemies’ sacred tree to turn the tide of the fight in their favor.
The people of pre-Christian Ireland believed the ultimate Tree of Life to be rooted in Uisneach, the spiritual center of Ireland, located in County Westmeath. According to lore, the tree grew 26 miles high, with the tips of its branches touching every star in the sky. It was, in their understanding, an ash tree, which in Celtic polytheism was sacred to the great god Lugh. The wands of Celtic druids were often shaped from the wood of an ash, and fittingly so, as it was associated with ideas such as, but not limited to, rebirth, divination, protection, wisdom, and spiritual knowledge. A worthy contender for the Tree of Life title, indeed.
Famous Irish writer W.B. Yeats was known for his love of mysticism, and believed that the hazel tree was the descendant of the Tree of Life from ancient times. His poem, “The Song of Wandering Aegnus,” begins: “I went out to the hazel wood / Because a fire was in my head.” The magic of the hazel tree is also the force that sets the well-known Fenian Cycle story of The Salmon of Knowledge in motion, with the titular fish having swallowed nine magically-charged hazelnuts that dropped into the water from its branches.
A RELIGIOUS ICON
The Tree of Life appears as an icon in religious and philosophical schools of thought all over the world, often combining its associations with immortality and fertility to evoke a sense of limitless bounty. In Christian belief, which began to assert itself over the polytheistic practices of the Celts around 432 A.D., the Tree of Life is inexorably-linked with the Tree of Knowledge, the source of eternal life, wisdom, and agency that resides within the Garden of Eden; however, contrary to some widely-circulated misinformation, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil are separate and distinct. Genesis reads: “And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”
When the serpent tempts Eve to partake of the Tree of Knowledge’s sacred fruit and Adam follows suit, they are cast out of the garden by God as punishment for their transgression against his single rule: to never eat from that one particular tree. However, it is the Tree of Life to which they are most ferociously barred access when God placed unearthly creatures with flaming swords outside of the garden to block the way.
The Tree of Life reappears in the final book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation. In its last chapter, the tree is described as located within a new garden of paradise, no longer forbidden to those who dutifully follow the word of God.
The role that the tree of life plays in Christianity has varied over time with the teachings of different figures of prominence. Saint Bonaventure, who lived in the 1200s, has said that the fruit of the tree is Jesus Christ. Saint Albert the great taught in the same era, and claimed that the fruit is body and blood of Christ from the eucharist. More recently, Pope Benedict XVI said that the holy cross is the “true tree of life.”
The Tree of Life is also a prominent symbol in other Western religions. The Hebrew term for the Tree of Life “Etz Chaim,” and is commonly used by those who practise Judaism. The expression is metaphorically linked with the Jewish holy book itself, the Torah. In the Book of Proverbs, the Tree of Life is heavily-associated with wisdom (which is described as “a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her, and happy is everyone that retaineth her”) and serenity (“a soothing tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness therein is a wound on the spirit”).
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the tree of life is a religious vision described in the holy text, the Book of Mormon. According to the book, the prophet Lehi and his son, Nephi, both had dreams of a tree that stood for the salvation of humanity, to be reached only by way of a path flanked by dark pits, perilous waters, and a high tower, from which the cruel and evil mock the good and just. Said to represent the spiritual struggle of humankind, this image with the tree at its center is said to be one of the richest, most flexible, and far-reaching pieces of symbolic prophecy contained in this religious group’s scriptures.
In contemporary literature, the Tree of Life is known for having a crucial role in the Chronicles of Narnia, the beloved children’s series by Anglo-Irish writer C.S. Lewis, particularly in the Magician’s Nephew, the prequel to the most famous The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Known in Narnia as the Tree of Protection, its magical seed was planted in London, where its descendant grew before being felled by lightning. Its wood was repurposed into a wardrobe—the very same one through which the Pevensie children enter Narnia to begin their first adventure. It’s no stretch to guess that Lewis, who was a Christian with a deep sense of interest in Irish folklore, may have taken inspiration from the either the Tree of Eden or the Celtic oak superstition in coming up with this concept.
In cinema, the highly-philosophical 2011 film The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, captures the origins and meaning of life in through an Irish-American middle-aged man’s memories of a 1950s Texan childhood, cut through with imagery of the beginning of life on planet Earth. The 2009 science fiction mystery thriller, Knowing, concludes with the main characters setting out to go in search of a physical Tree of Life.
The range of ways in which the Tree of Life symbol has infused itself into societies new and old is, above all things, extremely telling of the importance which we humans ascribe to the trees we interact with every day. Their power, bounty, and beauty are such that it’s no exaggeration to say that there’s a little bit of the mythical Tree of Life in every tree we set eyes on as we go about our daily business in the richly diverse world that we share with them. Our reverence for these life-giving organisms has been well-earned; and every time we stop to appreciate all that they do, the wonder they inspire, and the adversity they overcome, somewhere deep in our collected human consciousness, the Tree of Life grows another inch into the sky.