One of the oldest cross cultural symbols of antiquity is that of the Tree. A Tree is a perfect symbol to connect the Earth with Heaven because its roots branch out into the earth and likewise its body reaches into the sky. In this way it connects the below with the above and comes to represent the perfect distribution and growth of the universal force which spreads out from its seed, to create its trunk, branches, leaves, and fruit. It simultaneously has come represent the descent of spirit into matter and its ascent back to spirit while conferring the quality of immortality. There is a vast range of myths that circle around the Tree yet generally the deeper allegory remains hidden. A cross-cultural analysis of this symbol reveals some very startling insights. Its universality contributes to my ongoing thesis which is that of an underlying unity or Perennial Tradition that weaves all cultures together.
Many suggest that the Tree as a symbol goes back deep into unwritten shamanic traditions. This Tree is often called the "Axis Mundi" or "world tree" which is also called the "cosmic axis" and "world pillar" among other names. Within the Vedas and Upanishads one can find this "world tree". It is said that from this tree drips the nectar of immortality called soma or amrita. Whoever tastes it is able to transcend space and time, returning one to the original vision of the infinity of existence. In Iran the tree can be found in the Bundahesh of the Zoroastrian tradition. It describes a double tree, one containing all seeds of existence and the other a drink of immortality (haoma) which is the juice of the fruit. This brings to mind the biblical trees of Paradise - the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. Of course the Fruit of the Tree in the Garden of Eden is what tempted Adam to "become as God" and is connected to the fall or incarnation. Anyone familiar with the Jewish tradition of Qabalah will realize the connection with the Tree of Life by which "Life is raised on high" and is produced the resurrection of the "dead". It doesn't take much imagination to see the intimate connection with the Vedic "soma" and Iranian "haoma". In Greek mythology Ladon, the serpent like dragon, coiled around the tree in the garden of the Hesperides protecting the golden apples of immortality. In Norse mythology there is Yggdrasil which rises before the fountain of Mimir and contains the principle of all wisdom. It is also said a dragon protects it. In the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha attained Enlightenment under a Bodhi tree, which is a sacred fig tree. The significance of the fig as a symbol is that it blossoms inwardly. According to the legend Buddha spent seven days at the tree and was enveloped by Mucalinda the serpent king who coiled around him seven times. The Tree is also often depicted as a staff or rod, such as the caduceus of Hermes which is entwined with two serpents, or the Rod of Asclepius, and the staff of Moses. The spinal column along with the sympathetic and para-sympathetic nervous systems are this Tree within the body. This is the Sushumna, Ida and Pingala of Kundalini which coils up through the seven wheels or chakras. Also, there are seven main steps in the Alchemical process.
It will now be asserted that there is in fact one Tree and all of these are different ways of communicating different aspects of the same thing. There are so many more examples of the Tree being utilized with similar connotations across seemingly diverse cultures that to thoroughly go over them all would require a book in and of itself. It is said that Odin was hung upside down and crucified on a Tree. The cross Jesus was "crucified on" was in fact made from the wood of a Tree, which ancient legends say was made from the wood of the Tree of Paradise. The symbol of the cross is actually the symbol of the four elements and Christ represents the fifth element, the Quintessence, the Stone that the builders refused, and finally the Philosopher's Stone of the Alchemists. Since the cross with its four points represents the four elements it also symbolically represents the fall as well as the Tree. The word cross shares the same root as the word crucible from Latin which is crux. The crucible is the primary retort of the Alchemists. This is the story of our incarnation and "resurrection" at death.
In all likelihood these are all cultural permutations of a tradition that is more ancient than all of the religions. Its important to recognize that the Tree is represented as the figure of the Divine Mother, Virgin Mercury, or "Mother Nature". She is sometimes called Ishtar, Inanna, Anat, or Cybele among many other names. It becomes clear that there is a strong feminine nature that is connected with the tree. It is this feminine nature that Alchemists associate with the descent of spirit - PATER (latin for Father - PATTERN) into matter or MATER (latin for Mother). This descent is symbolized by the downward facing triangle which is also a symbol for water and coagulation/condensation. It is the ascent which is associated with the masculine nature. The ascent is symbolized by the upward facing triangle which is also the symbol for fire and calcination. It must be remembered that when the Alchemists speak of the four elements, Fire, Water, Air, and Earth they emphasize that their Fire is not a vulgar fire, that their Water is not a vulgar water and so on. What this means is that they are speaking about the principle behind which the elements operate. To the Alchemists the "vulgar" elements are the ones commonly known whereas they are speaking of underlying principles. Fire is the principle which is plasma and electric, Water is the principle which is liquidity and magnetic, Air is the principle which is gaseous and neutral, Earth is the principle of solidification and the material culmination of all the previous elements.
The Alchemists realized that everything observed in Nature is a SYMBOL or EXPRESSION through which an underlying principle could be discerned. This is the difference between the SYMBOL and the SYMBOLIZED. With this in mind there is also a tradition of depicting the double Tree as the Tree of the Sun and the Tree of the Moon, which represent the Fire/Water, Electro/Magnetic, Objective/Subjective as well as the pillars Jachin and Boaz which are the pillars said to stand outside the entrance to Solomon's Temple. This is the true meaning of the Seal of Solomon better known as the "Star of David". It can be summed up in the alchemical statement "solve e coagula" or dissolve and coagulate which is analogous to evolution and involution - explosion and implosion - centrifugal and centripetal. It is significant that there is a black hole or implosive force at the center of every galaxy. This cycle of solve e coagula is often symbolized by the alchemical Ouroboros, which is the Fibonacci sequence because the previous number - or tail- in the cycle is "consumed" to continue its growth.....1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, ect....
It should be noted that some of the earliest Christians called the Ophites actually worshiped the serpent. In the New Testament Jesus says "Be wise as serpents" and of course Moses raised up the brazen serpent. Serpent symbolism goes back to prehistory, and the Uraeus or Golden serpent in Egypt played an important role. The reason being is that the serpent draws on a very interesting analogy with its habitudes of life, its rebirth through the shedding of skin, and spiral coiled shape which is often depicted as seven coils culminating to its head which depicts the create life force. Also, symbolist Egyptologist John Anthony West suggests that the serpent represents the sine wave which connects it with the "original sound" that so many ancient texts speak of in relationship to the beginning of the Universe. This seven coiled snake created a central circular hole which the Greeks called "the snakes hole" or the Cycle of Necessity. These are the seven cycles of the soul's journey through the elements to evolve. Remember the serpent that coiled around the Buddha at the Bodhi Tree of Enlightenment. Often times the Qabbalistic Tree of Life is depicted with a serpent coiled in it.
In Egyptian texts there is reference to "two divine sycamore trees of heaven and earth" which brings to mind what was discussed earlier about the double tree symbol which symbolizes exactly everything described up until this point. It is the process of our incarnation and death or involution and evolution. In this way the fruit of our life is what is brought into the afterlife because the fruit is the final product of the Tree yet also contains the seeds for the next cycle of growth. Here the most beautiful realization is revealed and the genius which was employed in the sagacity of ancient symbolism. Once we begin to see through the symbols we begin to see the symbolized, the true vision slowly dawns on us. Now we can come to see the drinking of the haoma, soma, or amrita in its true significance, for it is the juice which is pressed out of the fruit contains the subtle/finer/vital essence of the fruit. The etymological root of the word haoma, hu-, and of soma, su-, suggests 'press' or 'pound'. Likewise it is the blood of man which contains the secret of life, for the blood carries the pranic electricity of life which our life experience is impressed upon through sensation, then emotion, thought, and then a sense of purpose. Thus the juice of the fruit is that which is the deposit of life experience, which is the only thing that we may take with us at "death". This was the principle thing to be conveyed by initiation into the Mystery Schools of antiquity. The key that makes all this knowledge useful is that it must transcend a mere intellectual exercise and become a living experience.
In the Alchemical Hermetic tradition one finds all the above symbols represented with the same association of ideas. It is the Tree that shelters the "fountain" of Bernard of Treviso in whose center is the Alchemical dragon which is the Ouroboros - or the "All" , "0". This "All" or "0" is also the Hermetic Seal, which brings us to the present widely known definition of the term because no energy is lost. This is the perfect understanding of how the Universe works because everything is recycled or consumed back into the All. It is said the represent the Alchemical "Mercury" which is said to contain the whole mystery of the Hermetic Opus. It is equivalent to the Divine Water, the "Water of Life" and the "Lady of the Philosophers" which is said to resurrect the dead and illuminate the wise. This "Mercury" which is also a "Water" is the beginning point signified by the serpent or dual serpent biting its tail which is inside the Tree. This also comes to represent a universal solvent, which is said to be a power that kills. This brings us to the three primary "substances" of the Alchemists, "Mercury", "Sulfur" and "Salt".
But for now we will end here. In summary there is clearly a trend occurring across the space and time of 'separate' cultures and traditions. It is my ongoing thesis that the Hermetic Tradition is the key that unlocks the mystery of their interconnectedness.
Until then, check out Maze Overlay's Living Tree