The Tree of Life,
The middle tree, and highest there that grew. Milton.
The middle tree, and highest there that grew. Milton.
Sowohl der Apfelbaum and die Quelle, als auch der Drache des Hesperidengartens, werden in den Mythen and Märchen der meisten Völker in das Centrum der Natur, an den Gipfel des Weltberges, an den Nordpol verlegt.—Wolfgang Menzel.
In the centre of the Garden of Eden, according to Genesis iii. 3, there was a tree exceptional in position, in character, and in its relations to men. Its fruit was "good for food," it was "pleasant to the eyes," "a tree to be desired." 1 At first sight it would not perhaps appear how a study of this tree in the different mythologies of the ancient world could assist us in locating primitive Paradise. In the discussions of such sites as have usually been proposed it could not; but if the Garden of Eden was precisely at the North Pole, it is plain that a goodly tree standing in the centre of that Garden would have had a visible and obvious cosmical significance which could by no possibility belong to any other. Its fair stem shooting up as arrow-straight as the body of one of the "giant trees of California," far overtopping, it may be, even such gigantic growths as these, would to any one beneath have seemed the living pillar of the very heavens. Around it would have turned the "stars of God," as if in homage; through its topmost branches the human worshiper would have looked up to that unmoving centre-point where stood the changeless throne of the Creator. How conceivable that that Creator should have reserved for sacred uses this one natural altar-height of the Earth, and that by special command He should have guarded its one particular adornment from desecration! (Gen. ii. 16, 17.) If anywhere in the temple of nature there was to be an altar, it could only be here. That it was here finds a fresh and unexpected confirmation in the singular agreement of many ancient religions and mythologies in associating their Paradise-Tree with the axis of the world, or otherwise, with equal unmistakableness, locating it at the Arctic Pole of the Earth. 1
That the Northmen conceived of the universe as a tree (the Yggdrasil) is well known to ordinary readers. Its roots are in the lowest hell, its mid-branches inclose or overarch the abode of men, its top reaches the highest heaven of the gods. It was their poetical way of saying that the whole world is an organic unity pervaded by one life. As the abode of the gods was in the north polar sky, the summit of the tree was at that point, its base in the south polar abyss, its trunk coincident with the axis of heaven and earth. 1 It was, therefore, in position and in nature precisely what an idealizing imagination magnifying the primitive tree of Paradise to a real World-tree would have produced. 2
But while most readers are familiar with this Norse myth, few are aware how ancient and universal an idea it represents. This same tree appears in the earliest Akkadian mythology. 3 And what is precisely to our purpose, it stood, as we have before seen, at "the Centre" or Pole of the earth, where is "the holy house of the gods." 4 It is the same tree which in ancient Egyptian mythology inclosed the sarcophagus of Osiris, and out of which the king of Byblos caused the roof-pillar of his palace to be taken. But this was only another form of the Tat-pillar, which is the axis of the world. 1 In the light of comparative cosmology it is quite impossible to agree with Mr. Renouf in his treatment of the Tree in Egyptian mythology. It is neither "the rain cloud," nor "the light morning cloud," nor "the transparent mist on the horizon." His own citations of texts clearly show that under all its names the Egyptian Tree of Life is a true World-tree, whose trunk is coincident in position and direction with the axis of the world; a tree in whose sky-filling branches Bennu, the sun-bird, is seated; a tree from whose north polar top the "North-wind" proceeds; a tree which, like the Yggdrasil, yields a celestial rain that is as life-giving as Ardvi-Sûra's, and that descends, not merely upon the fields of Lower Egypt, but, like Ardvi-Sûra's, to the Underworld itself, refreshing "those who are in Amenti." 1 The super-terrestrial portion of the Egyptian's Yggdrasil, therefore,—like that of the Northman's,—stands at the Arctic Pole.
The Phœnicians, Syrians, and Assyrians had each their sacred tree in which the universe was symbolized. 2 In the lost work of Pherecydes the former is represented as a "winged oak." 3 Over it was thrown the magnificent veil, or peplos, of Harmonia, on which were represented the all-surrounding Ocean with his rivers, the Earth with its omphalos in the centre, the sphere of Heaven varied by the figures of the stars. 4 But as this self-interpreting symbol was furnished with wings to facilitate its constant rotation, it is plain that we have in it, not only a World-tree, but also one the central line of whose trunk is one with the axis of heaven and earth. 1 In the language of Maury, "It is a conception identical with the Yggdrasil of Scandinavian mythology." 2 That section of the tree, therefore, which reaches from the abode of men into the holy heavens rises pillar-like from the Pole of the earth to the Pole of the sky.
Among the Persians the legendary tree of Paradise took on two forms, according as it was viewed with predominant reference to the universe as an organic whole, or to the vegetable world as proceeding from it. In the first aspect it was the Gaokerena (Gôkard) tree, or "the white Hôm" (Haoma = Soma); in the second, the "tree of all seeds," the "tree opposed to harm." Of the former it is written, "Every one who eats of it becomes immortal; . . . also in the renovation of the universe they prepare its immortality therefrom; it is the chief of plants." 3 Of the second we read, "In like manner as the animals, with grain of fifty and five species and twelve species of medicinal plants, have arisen from the primeval ox, so ten thousand species among the species of principal plants, and a hundred thousand species among ordinary plants, have grown from all these seeds of the tree opposed to harm, the many-seeded. . . . When the seeds of all these plants, with those from the primeval ox, have arisen upon it, every year the bird (Kamros) strips that tree and mingles all the seeds in the water; Tîshtar seizes them with the rain-water and rains them on to all regions." 1
Where stood this tree which, in its dual form, was at once the source of all other trees and the giver of immortality? Every indication points us to the northern Pole. It was in Aîrân-Vej, 2 the Persian Eden, and this we have already found. It was at the source of all waters, the north polar fountain of Ardvî-Sûra. 3 It was begirt with the starry girdle of the zodiacal constellations, which identifies it with the axis of the world. 4 It grew on "the highest height of Harâ-berezaiti," 5 and this is the celestial mountain at the Pole. Finally, although Grill mistakenly makes the Chinvat bridge "correspond with the Milky Way and the rainbow," he nevertheless correctly discerns some relationship between Chinvat and the Persian Tree of Life. 1 By this identification we are again brought to the one unmistakable location toward which all lines of evidence perpetually converge.
The Aryans of India, as early as in the far-off Vedic age, had also their World-tree, which yielded the gods their soma, the drink which maintains immortality. As we should anticipate, its roots are in the Underworld of Yama at the hidden pole, its top in the north polar heaven of the gods, its body is the sustaining axis of the universe. 2 Weber long ago expressly identified it with the World-ash of the Edda; 3 and Kuhn, 4 Senart, 5 and all the more recent writers accept without question the identification. Grill's interesting sketch of the historic developments of the myth may be seen in the Appendix to this volume. 6 Some of the late traces of it in Hindu art betray the ancient conception of the Pole as a means of ascent to heaven, a bridge of souls and of the gods, a stair substituted for the slippery pillar up which the Tauist emperor vainly sought to climb. 1
Among the Greeks 2 it is more than probable that the "holy palm" in Delos, on which Lêtô laid hold at the birth of Apollo, represents the same mythical World-tree. If so, and if we follow Hecatæus in locating the scene, we shall be brought to the Arctic Pole. 3 The eternally flourishing olive of Athênê (Euripides, Ion 1433) seems also but another form of the holy palm, and this in some of its descriptions brings us again to the land of the Hyperboreans. 1 In the Garden of the Hesperides, the tree which bore the golden apples was unquestionably the Tree of Paradise; but following Æschylus, Pherecydes, and Apollodorus, we must place it in the farthest North, beyond the Rhipæan mountains. 2 Traces of the same mythical conception among the Romans are presented by Kuhn. 3
The sacred tree of the Buddhists figures largely in their sculpture. An elaborate specimen representation may be seen on the well-known Sanchi Tope. One inconspicuous feature in the representation has often puzzled observers. Almost invariably, at the very top of the tree we find a little umbrella. So universal is this that its absence occasions remark. 4 This little piece of symbolism has a curious value. In Buddhist mythological art the umbrella symbolizes the north polar heaven of the gods, 5 and by attaching it to the tip of the sacred tree the ancient sculptors of this faith unmistakably showed the cosmical character and axial position of that to which it was attached.
But this cosmic tree was the mythical Bôdhi tree, the Tree of Wisdom,—
"Beneath whose leaves
It was ordained that Truth should come to Buddh." 6
It was ordained that Truth should come to Buddh." 6
Its location is in "the Middle of the Earth." 1 Notwithstanding his doctrine of an African origin of mankind, Gerald Massey says, "In the legendary life of Gautama, Buddha is described as having to pass over the celestial water to reach Nirvana, which is the land of the Bôdhi Tree of Life and Knowledge. He was unable to cross from one bank to the other, but the spirit of the Bôdhi tree stretched out its arms to him and helped him over in safety. By aid of this tree he attained the summit of wisdom and immortal life. It is the same Tree of the Pole and of Paradise all mythology through. The Tree of the Guarani garden, the Hebrew Eden, the Hindu Jambu-dwîpa, is likewise the Tree of Nirvana. This final application of the imagery proves its origin. The realm of rest was first seen at the polar centre of the revolving stars." 2
The ancient Germans called their World-tree the Irmensul, i.e., "Heaven-pillar." Grimm speaks of its close relationship with the Norse Yggdrasil, and ends his high authority to the view that it was simply a mythical expression of the idea of the world's axis. 1 The same view was advanced still earlier by the distinguished Icelandic mythographer, Finn Magnusen. 2 How profoundly the myth affected mediæval Christian art is illustrated in many places, among the rest in the sculptures on the south portal of the Baptistery at Parma. 3 It is also not without a deep significance that "in the mediæval legend of Seth's visit to the Garden of Eden, to obtain for his dying father the Oil of Compassion, the Tree of Life which he saw lifted its top to heaven and sent its root to hell;" 4 and that on the crucifixion of Christ, himself the
"Arbor, quæ ab initio posita est,"
this cosmical Tree of the Garden died, and became the "Arbre Sec" of mediæval story. 5 The Paradise-tree of the Chinese Tauists is also a World-tree. It is found in the centre of the enchanting Garden of the Gods on the summit of the polar Kwen-lun. Its name is Tong, and its location is further defined by the expression that it grows "hard by the closed Gate of Heaven." 1 As in many of the ancient religions, the mount on which, after the Flood, the ark rested was considered the same as that from which in the beginning the first man came forth, it is not strange to find the tree on the top of the mountain of Paradise remembered in some of the legends of the Deluge. In the Tauist legend it seems to take the place of the ark. Thus we are told that "one extraordinary antediluvian saved his life by climbing up a mountain, and there and then, in the manner of birds plaiting a nest, he passed his days on a tree, whilst all the country below him was one sheet of water. He afterwards lived to a very old age, and could testify to his late posterity that a whole race of human beings had been swept from the face of the earth." 2
It is at least suggestive to find this same idea of salvation from a universal deluge by means of a miraculous tree growing on the top of the divine Mountain of the North among the Navajo Indians of our own country. Speaking of the men of the world before our own, and of the warning they had received of the approaching flood, their legends go on: "Then they took soil from all the four corner mountains of the world, and placed it on top of the mountain that stood in the North; and thither they all went, including the people of the mountains, the salt-woman, and such animals as then lived in the third world. When the soil was laid on the mountain, the latter began to grow higher and higher, but the waters continued to rise, and the people climbed upwards to escape the flood. At length the mountain ceased to grow, and they planted on the summit a great reed, into the hollow of which they all entered. The reed grew every night, but did not grow in the daytime; and this is the reason why the reed grows in joints to this day: the hollow internodes show where it grew by night, and the solid nodes show where it rested by day. Thus the waters gained on them in the daytime. The turkey was the last to take refuge in the reed, and he was therefore at the bottom. When the waters rose high enough to wet the turkey, they all knew that danger was near. Often did the waves wash the end of his tail, and it is for this reason that the tips of the turkey's tail-feathers are to this day lighter than the rest of his plumage. At the end of the fourth night from the time it was planted the reed had grown up to the floor of the fourth world, and here they found a hole through which they passed to the surface." 1
The opening sentence of the above citation gives us a topography exactly corresponding to Mount Meru, the Hindu "mountain of the North," with its "four corner mountains of the world," in the four opposite points of the horizon. Moreover, in the Deluge myths of the Hindus, as in this of the Navajos, it was over this central mountain that the survivors of that world-destruction found deliverance. However explained, the coincidences are remarkable.
In Keltic tradition the Tree of Paradise is represented by the tree which bore golden apples in Avalon. But Avalon is always represented as an island in the far North, and its "loadstone castle" self-evidently connects it with the region of the magnetic Pole. 1
In the ancient epic of the Finns, the Kalevala, we see the World-tree of another people. If any doubt could rise as to its position in the universe, the constellation of the Great Bear in its top would suffice to remove it. 2
Thus the sacred trees, like the sacred waters, of every ancient people invariably conduct the investigator to lands outside the historic habitats of the peoples in question, and ever to one and the same primeval home-country, the land of light and glory at the Arctic Pole.
William Warren, Paradise Found. The Cradle of the Human Race at the North Pole 1885