Across all cultures; from the mystical East to the Christian West; they have pondered deeply about the meaning of life. What is it about life that fascinates us all? Perhaps, we should go back to the root and question just why are we born? What purpose do we have in life? Are we the ones who set the purpose or is it predestined?
All cultures have tried time and time again to explain this. Despite the different interpretations, it seems that there is one image that dominates across many cultures which is a Tree of Life. For most, it is a mystical tree, seen as a symbol that unites the earth and sky. The roots are firmly planted in the ground, signifying stability, its branches and leaves grow towards the sky and its trunk, the being that unites both sky and earth.
In this sense, all beings on Earth are related to one another as we live on the same place which is a part of this Tree. Every being is equal and each species will give and depend on other species; such as how the grass feeds deer which is eaten by the tiger and eventually the tiger decomposes on the grass, feeding it with nutrients. Each person, each culture in the world is just a branch belonging to the same Tree.
For the Egyptians, the acacia tree is their tree of life. It is due to the tale of Isis and Osiris who emerged from an acacia tree which is the patron tree of Iusaaset, one of the early Egyptian goddesses with vague origins. In the Baha’i faith, their view on the tree of life is more symbolic. The Tree of Life is the embodiment of the Manifestation of God, the source of all spiritual good.
The Norse’s Tree of Life was called Yggdrasil. It grows in the middle of Asgard, an evergreen Ash tree that shades worlds with its branches. The Norse gods held all meetings and court under this tree. The god, Odin, hung himself from the branches of this tree to gain power over the runes and all their secrets. On the day he gained the knowledge, he fell, screaming.
A tree seems immortal as it can live for hundreds of years; so people view it as being able to bear witness to several generations of a family. Perhaps being the etymology of the phrase “family tree”. When a tree (which could mean the current generation) falls, the seed (sons and daughters) are left behind and they will spring forth to be new lives. A more direct interpretation would be the “branching out” of a family from one generation to another; like a grandparent to the father and then the daughter and etc.
In Chinese mythology, images depicting the Tree of Life bear a phoenix and a dragon with the dragon representing immortality. Such is the fascination with immortality with people in China that a tale in Taoism tells of a tree that produces a peach every three thousand years and the person that ate the peach will live on for another three thousand years. This tree is owned by Xi Wang Mu or “the Queen Mother of the West”. She is one of the oldest figures worshipped in Chinese history.
Trees are symbols of longevity and even immortality to the Chinese. Confucianism has deeply rooted itself into the heart of Chinese culture and this is one of the reasons why immortality or even possessing a long life is so important to the Chinese: The older one gets, the more that person is held in reverence; as living a long life equates having more wisdom and will hold a very high position in society.
Journeying to the West, the Tree of Life is one of the two main trees (besides the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) planted in the Garden of Eden. Catholic Christianity believes the Tree of Life represents the innocence of humanity that is free from all sin including the Original Sin. This is the state Adam and Eve were in before they displeased God. It is also associated with the tale of Eve taking an apple from a tree; coaxed by the serpent and biting into it, dooming mankind in sin.
In Proverbs 3:13-18 of the King James Version of the bible, it is said that those who attained wisdom, which is “more precious than rubies”, have gained the Tree of Life. In a further chapter of Proverbs 15:4, it describes one with a moral character is akin to having the key to the Tree of Life.
The Tree is also known as a ‘Creator’ whereby the tree provides protection with its great leafy shades and it provides fruit for the nourishment and regeneration of life.
Charles Darwin, the father of the theory of evolution used a diagram of a tree to explain how each species is related to each other. He called this, the “Tree of Life” as well. Be that as it may, recent research is disputing this. Instead they call it ” a web of life “. A “tree” is deemed as too simple as species crossbreed on a frequent basis.
All in all, the symbolism attributed with this tree is applicable to humans around the world, regardless of age, gender or culture. As we grow, we must have beliefs that are deeply rooted yet seek wisdom by branching out and finally, to connect them, we have a trunk (the mind and body). The Tree of Life resounds with a powerful message that is understood by all: unity.
The Tree of Life is found in multitudes of ancient to contemporary artworks found all over the world. In South-East Asia, artists stylize their concept of the Tree of Life in exquisitely intricate batik pieces that uses a tedious and repetitious process of waxing and dyeing the cloth. There is one thing that sets these South-East Asians depictions of the Tree of Life apart; which is a common use of a gold element as gold symbolizes longevity and wealth which can be interpreted as having wealth in longevity. Sometimes, gold leaf is used to achieve this effect and this Javanese technique, known as batik parada/prada (A type of batik that uses gold to enhance its designs); is done by applying a paste and letting the gold leaf adhere to it. This adds an elegant touch to the overall piece.