Tree of Life

From Academic Kids

See also tree of life for other meanings of the term.
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The tree of life as represented in Kabbalah, containing the Sephiroth.

The Tree of Life, in the Book of Genesis, is a tree whose fruit gives everlasting life, i.e. immortality. After eating of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil, the story goes, Adam and Eve are exiled from the Garden of Eden. Fearing Adam and Eve will also eat of the tree of life and become immortal, God sets angels to guard the entrance to the Garden.

In the story, the serpent had tempted Eve into partaking of the Fruit of Knowledge by promising they would become as wise and powerful as God. The unstated but implied moral is variously interpreted as God's anger at their decision, God's fear that they will harm the Tree of Life, or God's fear of the serpent's influence. These are of course not contradictory.

The tree of life is represented in several examples of sacred geometry, and is central in particular to Kabbalah, the mystic study of the Torah.


The serpent and tree theme, especially as it relates to the development of the earliest man, occurs in the beginning of the Hebrew Bible, a sacred text to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It is also found in the Norse sagas as the ash tree Yggdrasil. Instead of having fruit that gives knowledge, it has magic springwater of knowledge. In opposition to the serpent at the base was an eagle and hawk at the top.

The first man and first woman are called Adam and Eve in the bible, but in Norse mythology we have Ask and Embla, not (Freya and Balder (or Odin). In Egyptian mythology, the first couple are Isis and Osiris. There is no tree of life in the Egyptian myth, but the story does involve Seth killing Osiris, putting him in a coffin and throwing it into the Nile. The coffin becomes embedded in the base of a tamarisk tree.

The first person to give an overview of world myths and to attempt to provide a unified theory of religions was James Frazer in "The Golden Bough" (1890). By then many people were prepared to accept the book of Genesis as mythology, not history. Since then feminists have re-analysed the stories and interpreted the temptation of Eve as a symbolic way of describing a change in society.

A stone age matriarchal religion was replaced by a patriarchal one in the bronze age. Robert Graves suggests this in "The White Goddess" (1947) by literary analysis, and Baring and Cashford use extensive archaeological evidence to present the same case in "The Myth of the Goddess" (1991). A serious theologian Elaine Pagels says much the same in "Adam, Eve and the Serpent" (1988).

Ioan P. Couliano gave a semiotic analysis in "The Tree of Gnosis" (1991). To him the serpent was in turn, bad, then good as each phase in the history of religion re-examined its past. To the ancient Gnostics the serpent was offering immortality, which was snatched away by a lying selfish god. To Milton, Eve was once again a villain. To Byron, she was a hero once more. To some followers of Kabbala, the tree is a concealed version of the Kabalistic tree, and the apples are the nodes of the Sephiroth.

The most all-encompassing theory is one that suggests that all these myths are an attempt to explain why an all-powerful creator god would fail to give man immortality. The Arabian Nights has a story, 'The Tale of Buluqiya', in which the hero searches for immortality and finds a paradise with jewel-encrusted trees. Nearby is a fountain of life guarded by Al-Khidr. Unable to defeat the guard, Buluqiya has to return empty-handed. The 'Epic of Gilgamesh' is a similar quest for immortality. In Mesopotamian mythology Etana searches for a 'plant of birth' to provide him with a son. This has the most solid provenance of antiquity, being found in cylinder seals from Akkad (2390 - 2249 BC).

One of the most spectacular archaeological finds of the 1990s was a sacrificial pit at Sanxingdui in Sechuan, China. Dating from about 1,200 BC it contains 3 bronze trees, one of them 4 metres high. At the base was a dragon, and fruit hanging from the lower branches. At the top a strange bird-like creature with claws. Also from Sechuan, from the late Han dynasty (c 25 - 220 AD) is another tree of life. The ceramic base is guarded by a horned beast with wings. The leaves of the tree are coins and people. At the apex is a bird with coins and the sun.

In 'Eden in The East' (1998), Stephen Oppenheimer suggests that a tree-worshiping culture arose in Indonesia and was diffused by the so-called "Younger Dryas" event of c 8,000 BC, when the sea-level rose. This culture reached China (Sechuan), then India and the Middle east. Finally the Finno-Ugaritic strand of this diffusion spread through Russia to Finland where the Norse myth of Yggdrasil took root.

On a much simpler level, the maypole or Christmas tree can be seen as a phallic symbol, worshiped as a way of generating fertility. The Bible condemns the setting up of an "Asherat" (upright pole dedicated to Astarte).

Located on the southern end of the island of Bahrain is a solitary tree. A very nice tree, especially considering the otherwise very barren surroundings. This tree is also known as the tree of life.

See also

ja:生命の樹 pl:Drzewo życia (religia) lt:Gyvybės medis


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