The Tree of Life

“No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.” (Jung)

A tree features as a central motif in our production of Descent.

In his book Patterns of Comparative Religion, Mircea Eliade discusses the cultural symbolism of the Tree of Life:

 

The tree represents - whether ritually and concretely, or in mythology and cosmology, or simply symbolically - the living cosmos, endlessly renewing itself. Since inexhaustible life is the equivalent of immortality, the tree-cosmos may therefore become, at a different level, the tree of “life undying.” And as this inexhaustible life was, in primitive ontology, an expression of the notion of absolute reality, the tree becomes for it a symbol of that reality (“the centre of the world”). Later on, when a new way of looking at metaphysical problems came to be added to the traditional ontology (in India, for example), the effort of the mind detaching itself from the rhythm of the cosmos and concentrating on its own autonomy, came to be designated as an effort to “cut the cosmic tree at its roots” - in other words, to get completely beyond “all appearances,” all representations, and beyond their source - the ever flowing spring of universal life.

The last sentence of this passage refers to the Bhagavad Gita. Later in the same book, Eliade describes this particular text as a distinctively Indian specification of the cosmic tree-image, to express not only the universe, but also the human condition in the world.

Are the meanings we find in a symbol like the Tree of Life simply part of our cultural heritage? Or does it go deeper than that – does it emerge, as Jung believed, as an archetype from the “collective unconscious”?

In her new book Dante's Dream, Gwenyth Hood argues that archetypal images like this can shape a culture's imagination; but over time, they can become stale or conventional, and lose their power. But an artist or mystic can refresh and revive the meaning of these images, by exploring his or her personal dream-visions.

Arguably, this is the case with the images of trees in Dante's Divine Comedy: from the dark wood at the beginning, through the uncanny suicide-trees in Purgatory, to the Tree of Life in Paradise, the trees reflect the journey of the character's psyche.

 

Jung, in his book Symbols of Transformation, outlined some of the ways that trees have appeared in the mythology of diverse cultures - the pine-tree of Attis, the tree or trees of Mithras, and the world-ash Yggdrasill of Yggdrasill of Nordic mythology, and Christ on the Cross. We know, however, that trees also appeared in his own personal dreams and visions – and he also explored it in the art he produced for the Red Book (inset).

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