The Tree of Life, sometimes referred to as the World Tree or the Tree of Knowledge, appears in the mythology and folklore of cultures around the world. Tree of Life meanings vary slightly from culture to culture. However, a common theme they all share is the idea that a mystical tree connects the physical and spiritual worlds. In addition, the Tree of Life is foundational to supporting all life.
The fact that this ancient symbol for life is a tree is fitting. After all, throughout history, human beings have paid homage to trees. It’s as if our distant ancestors clearly understood how important trees were for supporting life on Earth, even before the times of scientific inquiry. In this post you’ll learn about the Tree of Life and World Tree in different cultures and spiritual beliefs as well as the Tree of Knowledge.
Table of Contents
- Tree of Life Meaning in Cultural Mythology
- Norse Tree of Life
- Celtic Tree of Life
- Egyptian Tree of Life
- World Tree in Greek and Roman Mythology
- Tree of Knowledge in the Bible
- Tree of Life in the Quran
- Kabbalah Tree of Life
- Assyrian Tree of Life
- Mayan Tree of Life
- Native American Tree of Life
- World Tree in China
- World Tree in Hinduism and the Baháʼí Faith
Tree of Life Meaning in Cultural Mythology
Peoples as diverse as the Vikings, ancient Egyptians, Celts, Native Americans, Jewish mystics, and others all told stories of a Tree of Life. Essentially, the Tree of Life helped to explain the divine plan of how people got here and how they should conduct themselves on Earth.
Norse Tree of Life
In Nordic mythology, the Tree of Life is sometimes referred to as the Viking Tree of Life. However, Nordic people-of-old called it the Yggdrasil Tree. The tree was massive and grew out of the Well of Urd, which was an endless pool that held universal wisdom and other powerful cosmic forces.
The Yggdrasil Tree’s roots and branches held the Nine Worlds of the cosmos together. In fact, it was so important that the well-being of the entire world depended on the tree’s own vitality.
The Norse god Odin wanted to possess the knowledge contained in the Yggdrasil Tree and the Well of Urd. Thus, to demonstrate his fealty to this quest, he hanged himself from a branch of the Yggdrasil Tree for nine days, nearly dying in the process. However, in the end, he survived, gaining the knowledge of the Universe.
According to Norse legends, two mystical birds inhabit the Yggdrasil Tree. One is an eagle and the other a hawk. The eagle possessed the knowledge and wisdom of Odin, while the hawk spread the information through messages.
Celtic Tree of Life
The ancient Celts also had a Tree of Life, which many historians believe was inspired by the Yggdrasil Tree. Like the Aboriginal Australians and other ancient cultures, the Celts were animists. They believed the natural world was interconnected and that spirits inhabited everything, from trees to rivers, lakes, mountains, and animals.
The Celts saw trees as sacred, and each type had its own mystical purpose. In addition, they believed their ancestors became trees after they died. The Celts saw trees undergo the seasonal cycles, shedding their leaves, being barren, and then regrowing their leaves again, flowering, and bearing fruit. So, for the Celts trees symbolized the cycle of life and rebirth.
The Celtic Tree of Life was connected to the underworld through its roots. Its trunk existed in the physical world and its high branches reached the heavens. So, the for the Celts, the Tree of Life symbolized the connection between the world of human beings with that of the gods and spirits. Thus, the Tree of Life also represented wisdom and protection.
Egyptian Tree of Life
The Egyptian Tree of Life dates back to 3150 BC or earlier. According to Egyptian mythology, after the world was created, the god of the Earth, Geb, and the goddess of the sky, Nut, gave birth to a son, the god Osiris. He became the first ruler of the world. Afterwards, other gods were born, including Set (Osiris’ brother) and Isis, who became his wife.
As sibling rivalry goes, Set became jealous of his brother’s enormous power. So, he had a coffin made that fit Osiris’ proportions. Then, he threw a party. During the festivities, Set invited everyone to try out the coffin, saying he would give it as a gift to whomever it fit best. When Osiris tried it out, Set slammed the lid shut and threw the coffin into the Nile.
The coffin drifted down the Nile and out to sea, eventually washing up on the coast of Byblos in Phoenicia. There it got lodged in a giant sycamore tree. Over time, the great tree grew around it, eventually enveloping the coffin.
A Pillar in Byblos
One day, King Malcander of Byblos came upon the tree and noticed a lovely scent emanating from its trunk. He liked the tree so much that he had it cut down and made into a pillar in his palace.
Meanwhile, Isis was still looking for her long-lost husband. In her quest, she eventually made her way to the court of King Malcander. When she passed the pillar in which Osiris was entombed, Isis could smell the sweet fragrance emanating from it. When the king realized that she was a goddess, he told her she could have anything in his kingdom. Naturally, Isis asked for the pillar, which the king graciously gave to her. Isis returned the pillar to Egypt and planted it in the ground.
Now, there is more to this story and what happened to Osiris. But I’ll leave that for another time. However, as the story goes, the tree that had been turned into a pillar and then became a tree again is the basis for the Egyptian Tree of Life.
Other Egyptian myths claim that all of the gods were all born from acacia trees. However, as Osiris became the god of agriculture, the underworld, and rebirth, the Egyptian Tree of Life is representative of the cycle of life, the connection between the underworld, the physical world, and the gods.
In Africa, the closest association with a Tree of Life is the baobab tree. Creation stories throughout the continent attest that it was God who created the baobab tree. In fact, these massive trees pre-date human beings, so as long as people have lived in Africa, there have been baobab trees.
Explanations for why the baobab tree looks the way it does center around God changing his mind and turning the tree upside down and then re-planting it in the Earth.
Some African tribes believed that baobab trees had mystical properties. For example, picking the white flowers from the tree would invite a lion to eat you. Or, if you soaked baobab seeds in water and then drank the water, crocodiles would not attack you. Likewise, soaking a baby in water that contained baobab bark would make the baby strong like the baobab tree.
World Tree in Greek and Roman Mythology
Greek mythology has a few different stories about magical trees, which closely resemble the idea of the Tree of Life or the World Tree.
In one story, Zeus marries the goddess of the Earth, Gaia, and from their union a giant oak tree sprouts. In other versions, as in the story of Osiris, Zeus becomes part of the tree.
As with other Tree of Life stories, the roots of the Greek’s World Tree were said to reach Tartarus, the Greek underworld. And its branches could reach the stars.
In another myth, the Earth goddess Gaia planted a magical apple tree in Hera’s garden as a wedding gift when she married Zeus. Like other World Trees, Hera’s apple tree held parts of the Universe together. At first Hera appointed some nymphs to tend to the tree. However, they proved unreliable and pilfered too many of the tree’s golden apples. So, Hera got a dragon named Ladon to guard the tree.
What’s especially compelling about this story is the similarity between Hera’s apple tree and the tree in the Garden of Eden.
Tree of Knowledge in the Bible
In the Bible, the Tree of Knowledge is similar to the World Tree and Tree of Life in other cultures in that it is a source of universal wisdom.
In some creation stories, the Tree of Knowledge is one of two mystical trees, while in others, the trees are one in the same. What is clear in the Book of Genesis is that Adam and Eve were not supposed to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. While in Nordic mythology, Odin had to prove that he was worthy of accessing that kind of knowledge, in the Bible, Adam and Eve were deemed unworthy at the start.
However, later in the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, human beings are shown how they can safely access the wisdom of Tree of Knowledge, which is then referred to as the Tree of Life. Essentially, if they followed God’s commands, they could earn the right: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the Tree of Life and that they may enter the city by the gates.” (Revelation 22:14)
Tree of Life in the Quran
A Tree of Life also appears in the Quran. Referred to as Tree of Immortality, the tree also grows in the Garden of Eden. As they were warned in the Bible, in the Quran, Allah tells Adam and Eve that they should not eat fruit from the Tree of Immortality.
Because they make the mistake of eating from the tree, Allah sends Adam and Even to Earth, where they must live and learn to repent from their mistakes. However, Allah assures them that while on Earth they will have guidance. Thus, the Tree of Immortality in the Quran represents repenting and learning from one’s mistakes, as well as God’s mercy.
Kabbalah Tree of Life
Kabbalah is an ancient form of Jewish mysticism whose followers say dates back to when the Universe was first created. In written history, Kabbalah came to the forefront in the 12th and 13th centuries in southern Spain and France. Essentially, as is the case with mysticism in other religious faiths, followers of Kabbalah believe that we all have a direct union with God, or the source of creation.
The Kabbalah Tree of Life is “rooted” in this concept. In Kabbalah, the Tree of Life is depicted as a symbol that contains 10 Sefirot, or channels of divine energy and spiritual practice. This divine life force takes place both outside and inside the human body. In this way, the Sefirot are similar to the chakras in Eastern religions. (Though there are seven chakras vs. the 10 channels depicted in the Sefirot.)
The geometric shapes contained in the Kabbalah Tree of Life diagram are considered to be divinely designed and representative of scared principles.
Followers of sacred geometry believe that mathematical, or geometric, patterns that repeat in nature are evidence of intelligent design. In other words, they are signs that a divine power created the Earth, the Universe, and all life. You can read more about this in my posts on the Seed of Life and the Flower of Life.
So, the Kabbalah Tree of Life is more of a symbol or diagram than an actual tree. However, it’s similar to the Tree of Life in other cultures. It represents the connection between human beings and God, angels, and celestial bodies. It also depicts a plan or map that shows people how they can gain universal wisdom and become closer to enlightenment and God.
Assyrian Tree of Life
The Assyrian Tree of Life, also referred to as the Babylonian Tree of Life or Mesopotamian Tree of Life, is possibly the inspiration for the Trees of Life and Knowledge of the many cultures that came afterwards.
Mesopotamia, considered the cradle of civilization, included the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Akkadian empires. These cultures all believed in a great mother goddess who was the embodiment of all living things. The Sumerians called her Inanna and the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Akkadians called her Ishtar. And they all associated her with a giant tree.
In the epic story Gilgamesh, Enki, the god of water, planted a huluppu, or willow, tree on the banks of the Euphrates River. The tree grew strong until a colossal storm came and uprooted it. The tree then drifted down the river and washed up on a bank where Inanna found it.
Falling in love with the tree, Inanna carried it to her garden and planted it. She envisioned that one day she would use its wood to create a throne and a bed for herself. However, a giant serpent came along and took residence in the tree’s branches.
Lamenting that she couldn’t get to her tree because of the serpent, Inanna pleaded with the warrior Gilgamesh to help her. Gilgamesh slayed the serpent so Inanna could then create what she envisioned from the wood of the tree.
Mayan Tree of Life
The Mayans, as well as other Mesoamerican cultures, also had a Tree of Life. Called the Yaxche, the Mayan Tree of Life was a massive ceiba pentandra tree. According to a Mayan creation story, the gods planted a ceiba tree in each of the four corners of the world to hold up the heavens. Then they planted a fifth tree in the center. The roots of this tree connected to the underworld and its branches to the heavens.
The middle tree, called the World Tree, was especially sacred because it was how the gods traveled to the middle world. Likewise, this tree provided a way for human souls to travel to the underworld and the heavens.
Native American Tree of Life
Native American tribes have distinct stories about mystical trees, and they apply different meanings to different types of trees. However some legends bear an uncanny resemblance to Tree of Life stories in other cultures. For example, the Natchez People (who built the Earth mounds in what is now Mississippi) believed a giant cedar tree connected the heavens to the Earth and the underworld.
In other legends, before the world was created, people lived in the sky where a giant tree grew and Earth was made of water. One day, according to the legend, a pregnant woman was reaching for fruit in the tree but fell to the Earth. Before she fell, she tried to hold on to the tree by grabbing its bark. However, she fell into the water. A giant turtle came along and saved her by putting mud on his back and letting her stay there. The woman still held some of the bark, so she planted it in the mud. And from there, the Earth was formed.
World Tree in China
The Chinese also have stories of a World Tree that connects the three realms of heaven, Earth, and the underworld. As in Native American stories, the Chinese World Tree serves as a bridge that gods and shamans use to travel between the worlds. In addition, the World Tree in Chinese culture provides equilibrium, balancing universal forces.
In Buddhism, the Tree of Knowledge is the Bodhi Tree (which was most likely a ficus tree.) According to Buddhist teachings, while sitting under the Bodhi Tree, Buddha achieved spiritual enlightenment, or Nirvana.
World Tree in Hinduism and the Baháʼí Faith
In Hindu mythology, there is a cosmic World Tree that grows upside down with its roots connecting to the heavens. Its myriad branches reach the Earth and bring blessings to the people.
In one Hindu myth, when the world was created, a cataclysmic storm came and covered the Earth with water. One of the only living things that withstood the deluge was a banyan tree. And on one of its leaves was the baby Lord Krishna.
For practitioners of the Baháʼí Faith, complete devotion to God is described as a Tree of Life. In essence, the tree represents the soul: “Verily He is the Tree of Life that bringeth forth the fruits of God, the Exalted, the Powerful, the Great… Consecrate Thou, O my God, the whole of this Tree unto Him, that from it may be revealed all the fruits created by God within it for Him through Whom God hath willed to reveal all that He pleaseth. By Thy glory! I have not wished that this Tree should ever bear any branch, leaf, or fruit that would fail to bow down before Him.”