Trees provide many analogies to human development. They are amazing microcosms of exchange and flow of water, nutrients and gases. With sustenance from the earth, cooling water, refreshing air and the light of the sun, they grow in stature and strength and eventually blossom into full flower and fruit. They are earth bound and yet reach up toward the heavens, trying to touch back to the source. Their three main systems of roots, trunk and branches parallel human development of body, psyche and spirit. The following are some examples of how the Great Tree is understood around the world and demonstrate why so many cultures use the Tree of Life to describe the Divine and our journey back to the Divine.
In Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition underlying Judaism and Christianity, two different Tree of Life symbols are used: one is upside-down and the other right-side-up. The original Tree of Life emanates out of the divine world of unity and is depicted as upside-down, with its roots flowing from the divine place of unity and infinite light. The trunk and branches reach down towards us, penetrating the worlds of spirit, psyche, and physical existence. This is said to be the Tree of Emanation, which flows downward from the source. The other Tree of Life symbol flows upward, back towards the source, with roots in the ground and branches growing up to the sky. This is the Tree that the initiate climbs to return to the source and is the Tree of evolution or initiation. It is the initiate's responsibility to evolve and awaken, climbing the Tree and penetrating the worlds of psyche, spirit and divine unity, reconnecting with the divine source.
From the Hebrew creation myth and from Jewish commentaries, the Tree of Life is a symbol of the life giving source that sustains and nourishes us. "Yahweh planted a garden in Eden, and caused to spring up from the soil every kind of tree, enticing to look at and good to eat, with the Tree of Life in the middle of the garden. Its beauty of gold and crimson transcends all other things created; it's crown covers the entire garden and four streams - of milk, honey, wine and oil - issue from its roots."
From a depth psychology perspective, the tree is seen as a powerful symbol of growth, as the tree is the only living thing that continues to grow throughout its lifetime. The tree is also a symbol for the true self and serves as a positive, healthy model for the unfolding development of both psyche and spirit. As we grow and develop, a larger and more mature personality emerges and begins to flower and fruit, providing its gifts and bounties to the wider world.
In Christianity, the tree is seen as both the vehicle by which sin came into the world (via the serpent encouraging humanity to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the garden) and a symbol of redemption, as Jesus was crucified on a cross made from a tree. The image of Christ on the cross is the symbol of the World Savior on the Tree of Life. The life and teaching of Christ is a model of the path of initiation on the Tree of Life.
It was beneath the great Bodhi tree, the great Tree of Enlightenment, that Buddha was said to redeem the whole universe under its protective branches. Under this World Tree, the Buddha transformed all negative temptations and energies and achieved perfect enlightenment. In this story, as in the Christ story, we have the archetypal World Savior and the World Tree themes together.
From the Alchemical tradition, the Tree of Life is a symbol of the Opus Magnum, the goal of the alchemical journey, which is to find "the gold", "the philosopher's stone" , "the elixir of life". A branch from the Tree of Life was said to protect the Alchemist on his or her journey through the alchemical stages of separation, decay and purification in fires of the underworld. A quote from the Teatrum Chemicum says, "Plant the Tree on the lapis that the birds of the sky can come and reproduce on its branches; it is from there that wisdom rises."
In Nordic mythology, Odin is the god who rules all magic and guards the great well of wisdom and knowledge at the root of the World Tree Yggdrasill, whose strength supports the entire universe. Here, under the branches of Yggdrasill, Odin becomes an initiate magician and discovers a Shamanic vocation, obtaining inner sight and healing capacities. Yggdrasill reaches up with its branches to the spiritual realm of Asgard, which represents the higher self. The middle realm of the Tree is the world of Midgard, the world of the human ego and persona. The roots reach down to the underworld of tree dwarves and elves, the place of shadow and unconscious senses. Yggdrasil is the strong axis around which the three planes of existence revolve.
In many Shamanic cosmologies, the Cosmic Tree is said to connect the Underworld, Middle world and Above world. During initiation, the Shaman learns to travel comfortably in all three realms. In some traditions the Underworld contains power animals and helper guides for healing. The Above world consists of ancestors, spirit guides and spirits of plants and diseases to whom the Shaman can speak and engage their help in healing others. During initiation, Shamans are often instructed to make and climb a ladder to symbolize their ability to access the three zones of the Cosmic Tree.
From the ancient Minoan culture of Crete, the Tree of Life is connected to the Mysteries of the Labyrinth. The Tree of Life is said to occupy the very center of the labyrinth. The goal of initiation is to claim your own self by winding into the center of the labyrinth, climb the Tree of Life and connect with your own divinity as well as the divine source.
In the Native American sun dance and the European May pole dance traditions, dancers attach themselves to the central pole, a symbol of the World tree. May pole dancers are attached to the Tree with brightly colored streamers to get revitalized after the long winter. The sun dancers are attached to the pole by a rope that is hooked to their own flesh. The sun dance promotes vitality and the energy generated around the axis of the Tree is said to bring life into being.