Tree of Life

It’s an image found in many cultures – a tree with religious, ahem, roots, a symbol or a character in legend and faith. Trees are impressive wherever one finds them, and it is easy to see why certain individual trees, or trees in odd places, or certain types of tree, inspired veneration. Eventually, trees became elements of imagery in animist and later religions.

OK, maybe not these trees.

Yggdrasil is probably one of the better known named trees, in this case one that connected the three worlds of Norse/Germanic belief. Interestingly, there are a few surviving churches in Scandinavia that have a central pillar, rather than the traditional aisle design associated with Christian places of worship. Often, the pillar is carved or painted as a tree, with two small human figures near the base. Are these Adam and Eve, or the two survivors of Ragnorak entering Baldur’s new world? The answer was probably a little of both, because ideas die hard, especially when they form a bridge between old and new. In contrast, St. Boniface persuaded the Saxons in what is now northern Germany that perhaps there was something to his message when he chopped down a sacred oak tree and either 1) he didn’t drop dead or 2) a small evergreen sprang from the oak’s roots.

In English, the cross of the Crucifixion is sometimes referred to as being a “tree.” It is a form of kenning, an old poetic tradition when part of something or an aspect of something is used for the whole. For example, I once sang a very, very odd lament for the dead Jesus entitled “At the Cry of the First Bird”, where Jesus is referred to as “Cheek like a Swan,” referring both to the pallor of death [white] and the imagery of Jesus as the White Christ, the Swan that only sings at its death. As I said, the symbols can get complicated. So “the tree” can refer to the cross, since it was made of wood.

Jesus as the fruit of the tree is frequently seen in Medieval church art, as the Tree of Jesse.

From Limburg, Germany. This and the above photo are author photos.

Jesus can also be referred to as a tree, such as in the song often done at Christmas “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.”  “A tree of life my soul hath seen/Laden with fruit and always green./ No tree on Earth so fruitful be/ as Jesus Christ the apple tree.” This nods to the popular tradition of the apple as being the form of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Mack Wilberg took that in a new, modern direction with “Tree of Life.” Wilberg’s music points to the image from Genesis, but also to the vision in First Nephi in the Book of Mormon. The 2020 (recorded in 2019) Christmas from Temple Square program included dancers acting out the song. I love it, but it is very mystical.

Tree-of-life images are very popular on items marketed at neo-pagans, based on the catalogues that come to my house. I noticed one of the Catholic and Orthodox things catalogue has taken the same pattern and added either the Virgin Mary or the Host [Communion wafer] to the tree, making it a Christian tree-of-life. I’m still not entirely comfortable with the design, even re-worked, but that’s just me.


15 thoughts on “Tree of Life

  1. It’s a treemendous undertaking to investigate this theme in poplar culture. It saps the willow.

  2. I have similar thoughts about the Catholic and Orthodox catalogs incorporating this design.

    Yew don’t need to follow that trend, fir good reasons.

  3. Jesus being the Tree of Life, Himself, and also being the One Who “reigns from the tree,” is a big thing in the early Christian Fathers, mostly because “reigns from the tree” was one of the messianic prophecies found only in the Septuagint and in older Hebrew readings of the Bible. It goes together with the Burning Bush, the almond tree menorah, and so on.

    Re: the weird lament, it is an Old Irish one. It’s in Kuno Meyer’s Selections from Ancient Irish Poetry, and it’s poetry written in the margins of the Leabhar Breac on two different pages about a hundred pages apart, but in the same meter. Crucifixion songs and poetry were a thing, of course, but this is pretty striking.

    Do gabsat ó gaírm in chet eóin
    ‘cot chrochad a ghrúad mar géis
    nis chóir anad oc cói chaidche
    scarad lái is aidche da éis.

    Ach cer thinn a fulachtadh
    tucad er chnes Meic Mhuire
    tinne leis a dubhachus
    do bhí uirruidh-si uime.

    “Cheek like a swan” is pretty standard praise for medieval young Irishmen of rank, because they were expected to be ridiculously fairskinned and fairhaired, unless they were ridiculously fair Irish Spring black-haired or brown-haired men.

    There’s kind of a wordplay behind using “eóin”? Because that’s John’s name, of course, but it is a case of the word en, bird. So it’s “The cry that the bird/John let out — at its landing, o Swan-Cheek, they started crucifying you./Nor is it right to start stopping lamenting you ever/Parting the two, day and night.”

    The other stanza is more straightforward: “Oh! how pointed the suffering/Put upon Mary’s Son’s body/Pointier to him the grief/On her [Mary] for his sake.”

    • Anyway… there’s kind of a hidden white reference in “chrochad,” crucified. Because one of the words for cream was cróch, but the word for saffron-yellow or saffron-orange/red was “croch,” which was also one of the words for “cross.” Wordplay galore.

      Here’s the index to the Leabhar Breac. “Do gabsat” is in the top margin of page 262, and “Ach cer thinn” is in the bottom margin of page 168. Turn up the brightness on your screen, and yes, they wrote whole quatrains like a single long sentence.

    • I think the point is that they’re messing with the cause and effect — it wasn’t that John’s cry signaled the start of the crucifixion, but that the crucifixion started and John cried out.

      The other thing is that there’s various old expressions where people’s feelings are represented as birds, like heroes manifesting a bird of fury. And there’s a line somewhere about salt being the bird of a cross — because people cry salty tears at a cross or a gallows (also croch).

    • I forgot the “chet” thing. “An chéad” is “the lead/leader,” but “chet, ced” would be “permission, allowed.” So it’s “the bird in the lead” or “first bird,” or it’s John letting something happen. Wordplay again. I suspect there are other layers of wordplay I’m missing, because there are lots of horrible puns you miss, in old poetry, if Irish isn’t your first language.

  4. The Irish learned and then mastered other languages, so they could make awful puns and word games across languages. Switching to a Roman alphabet from Ogham meant you not longer had to rune for it, and you can take that for granite.

    (Rainsuit on, I feel a flying fish inbound, perhaps a scared salmon?)

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