Saturday, April 23, 2011

T is for the Tree of Life

Detail of the Tree of Life by Gustav Klimt, 1909

In the mythic art and literature of many times and cultures we find versions of the Tree of Life.  (As always in instances of comparative study, I caution against ironing out the differences between the versions we find: we should not prejudge whether it is the commonality or the differences that are the most important.  We should start, if anything, delving the differences and then only slowly work our way towards the common.)  For this subject, I will take samplings from three sources: the Judeo-Christian, the Norse, and the Green movement under the influence of the contemporary physical sciences.

Most readers, I am guessing, were first exposed to the Hebrew version in Genesis.  In the center of the Garden of Eden, are a pairing of trees, the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life.  These trees have the distinction of being planted by God, rather that simply commanded into existence.  Under the influence of the story, there is a strong tendency to focus on the taboo tree and not the Tree of Life.  Once the taboo is violated, Man and his wife are driven from the garden, and access to the Tree of Life is closed.

The Tree of Life motif is picked up once again by a Jewish sect, who's teacher is put to death on a Roman built tree of execution.

We have representations of the cross as the Tree of Life, as the epitome of the Christian paradox or eucatastrophe, such as the one above.  Just like Aaron's dead staff, the dead wood of the cross, the instrument of Christ's death, has flowered with life.  Thus at the return to the Garden of Eden at the end of the Bible (Apocalypse 22), access to the Tree of Life is for all peoples.

Any knowledge of Norse mythology, so very different from this Semitic religion, immediately prompts us with fascinating parallels.  The nine worlds are encompassed by Yggdrasil, the world tree.  Odin, Father of the gods, god of both knowledge and the gallows, hangs himself from it for nine days and nights to gain knowledge of these worlds.  To connect with my earlier methodological warning, how different the sacrifice of Odin is from the sacrifice of Christ.  They are both divine, on wood, and have cosmic implications, but their specific motives and outcomes are quite different and must be respected.

Finally, we have an emerging use of the Tree of Life as a metaphoric diagram for the relationship between all life forms.  It is this use that has recently been given form in one of the most impressive pieces of public art I have seen in recent years: the massive sculpture at the heart of the Animal Kingdom in Walt Disney World, Florida.  Having seen it last year, I can assure you that pictures do not do it justice in scale, beauty, and complexity.  The roots, trunk, and branches of the tree contain the shapes of animals of all kinds.  It's message is the unity of life in all its diversity by the analogy of a single organism.

Detail of Disney's Tree of Life by Charles V on Picasa

For mythopoesis, taking samplings of this kind are a first step.  Having identified these three basic strands, I then ask myself how much I want to deepen any of my understandings of the samples.  Generally I do, because I find the research that it demands to be enjoyable in and of itself.  But moreover, this also keeps me from making easy identifications or uses that anyone could make.  After study of each example, then I look for the points of similarity and tension.  Providing fictional or speculative explanations for why these points exist will allow for something original, but something that has the feel of depth and antiquity, to arise in my subcreation.