The Migration of Symbols, by Goblet d'Alviella, , at sacred-texts.com
Not only do the different species of mythical trees which we have just met with amongst the Semites occur amongst the Indo-Europeans, and the Hindus in particular, but nowhere can the ties which link the Tree of the Universe to the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge be more clearly perceived than amongst the traditions of the latter nation.
The Vedas make mention of the tree whose foot is the earth, and whose summit is heaven. 2
Sometimes it is the tree of the starry firmament whose fruits are precious stones, at other times it is the tree of the cloudy sky whose roots or branches shoot out over the canopy of heaven, like those sheaves of long and fine-spun clouds which, in the popular meteorology of our country, have been named Trees of Abraham. Amongst its branches it holds imprisoned the fire of the lightning.
Through its leaves it distills the elixir of life, the celestial soma or amrita, i.e., the vivifying waters "which Mitra and Varuna, the two kings with the beautiful hands, watch amidst the clouds." 1 It also forms the way to the other side of the atmospheric ocean, beyond the river which possesses or procures everlasting youth. 2 Under its dense branches, Yama, the king of the dead, "drinking with the gods, entices our elders by playing on the flute." 3
It is finally the Tree of Knowledge. Its sap begets poetic and religious inspiration. 4 In approaching its foliage, man remembers his previous existences. 5 From its top resounds in sonorous rolling the celestial voice, vac, which reveals the will of the gods, the divine messenger, engendered in the waters of the clouds. 6
This latter aspect of the Sacred Tree is developed especially amongst the Buddhists. M. Senart has shown, in his learned and able Essai sur la légende du Bouddha, how the sacred fig-tree (Urostigma religiosum) under which Buddha attained perfect illumination, in spite of the exertions of Mâra and his demons, is directly connected with the Cosmic Tree of Indo-European mythologies, which produces ambrosia, and dispenses salvation. 7 But to the disciples of the new faith who loathed life and longed for extinction, the old Celestial Tree which led to immortality became
merely the buddhidruma, the Tree of Wisdom, a symbol both of the truths which lead to nirvâna and of the Master who discovered and taught them. 1 The Royal Asiatic Society continued in the same vein when, in its turn, it chose as emblem, with the well-devised motto, tot areores quoi rami, one of the Sacred Trees of the Buddhists, the banyan-tree (Urostigma indicum), whose branches take root on touching the ground, and become so many fresh stems.
Thus, eternal life, productive power, perfect happiness, supreme knowledge, all these divine attributes are in India the gifts of the Tree which represents the Universe. Vedic and post-Vedic traditions tell us the story of the rivalries which occur between the devas and asuras for the possession of this Tree or its produce. The Vedas relate that the Tree of the soma was guarded by gandharvas, kinds of centaurs in whom is generally seen the personification of the winds or clouds. A swift sparrow-hawk with golden wings, Agni, took flight one day from the summit, carrying with it the broken end of a branch. Hit by the arrow of a gandharva it let fall a feather and a claw. These produced the plants which recall the bird of prey by their pennated leaves or sharp thorns, as well as those whose sap supplies the terrestrial soma, the intoxicating liquor of Vedic India.
It is unnecessary, after Kuhn's Herabkunft des Feuers and des Gœttertranks, to dwell upon the purport of those traditions which go towards explaining at once the shape of the universe, the phenomena of the storm, the production of fire, the fertilization of the ground by rain, and, lastly, the virtues of certain plants.
In a different reading, the amrita was in the possession of the asuras who alone at that time were immortal. Indra, the god of the stormy sky, succeeded in abstracting it, and thus it is that the devas obtained in their turn the privilege of immortality. 1
According to the Mahabharata it is a genius half eagle and half man, which, after subduing several monstrous animals on the borders of a lake, takes advantage of the negligence of the dwarfs who guard the Sacred Tree to break off and carry away the branch of the soma. 2
The Persians placed on the borders of a lake two trees, each of which was guarded by a gandhrawa. One of these trees is the white haoma or homa, which, according to the Yasna, wards off death and confers "spiritual knowledge;" 3 the other, according to the Bundehesh, is the Tree of All Seeds, which is also called the Eagle-tree. According to the version of the myth recorded by Kuhn, when one of these birds flies away, a thousand branches grow on the tree, and as soon as it returns to the nest it breaks a thousand branches, and causes a thousand seeds to fall. 4 The sap of the haoma, however, is not only the fertilizing rain; like the soma of India, it is also
the fermented liquor which was obtained by pounding the twigs of an asclepiad, or some allied plant, and which, considered as the drink of the gods, played an important part in the sacrificial rites of the two nations.
The Greeks seem likewise to have been acquainted with a Tree of Heaven. This was the oak whose hollow trunk sheltered the Dioscuri from their enemies, and from which hung the golden fleece "on the shores of the Ocean, there where the sun's beams are imprisoned in a chamber of gold." 1 Perhaps we ought to include in the same category of mythical trees the Oak of Dodona, in whose foliage was heard the prophetic voice of the master of the thunder.
The juice of the grape, personified in Bacchus, that Greek equivalent of the god Soma, grants also a knowledge of the future: "This god is a prophet," says Euripides; "for, when he forces his way into the body, he makes those whom he maddens foretell the future." 2
The name ἀμβροσία, which the Greeks gave to the food of the Olympians, corresponds phonetically with the amrita. But the Aryans of Greece, faithful to their custom of referring everything to man, and inspired, perhaps, by a Phrygian myth, in preserving the old Indo-European tradition changed the theft of the liquor into the abduction of the cup-bearer; and it was Ganymede whom they made Zeus, transformed into an eagle, carry off "in the midst of a divine whirlwind." We may add that it is doves which, in the Odyssey, bring ambrosia to Zeus. 3
The Greeks, again, more than any other branch of the Aryan race, developed the myth of the hero
overtaken by the divine wrath for having communicated to mankind the use of fire and the possession of knowledge. Prometheus was considered not only to have stolen the fire from Zeus by lighting his torch either at the wheel of the sun or at Vulcan's forge, but also to have modelled the first man from clay and then infused into him the spark of life. Without adding comments which no text would justify, we may yet draw attention here to a small monument reproduced by M. Decharme in his Mythologie de la Grèce antique. 1 Prometheus is there represented as engaged in moulding the first man, with the help of Minerva, behind whom stands a tree encircled by a serpent.
Lastly, we find again in Greece a third cycle of mythical tales which refer us still more directly to the Hindu tradition of the Sacred Tree; this is the expedition of Hercules to the garden of the Hesperides, whence he carries off the Golden Apples guarded by dragons. Whether these Apples represent the luminous rays or the healing waters, another reading of the myth records that Hercules handed them over to Minerva, who put them back in the place where they must always remain, "for they are immortal." 2 It is noteworthy that, on a Greek vase reproduced by Guigniaut, the Tree round which the dragon is coiled is depicted between two Hesperides, one of whom gathers the fruit for Hercules whilst the other diverts the attention of the dragon by offering it a jar—which scene may be more or less connected with oriental representations of the Tree of Life, adapted to the requirements of Hellenic taste and Hellenic mythology (fig. 83).
The Edda of Scandinavian mythology exhibits a perfect type of a cosmogonical tree: this is the
ash Yggdrasill, the most beautiful of trees, which has three roots. One spreads out towards the upper spring, Urdur, where the Ases hold council and where the Nornes, whilst settling the duration
Fig. 83. The Dragon and the Hesperides.
(Guigniaut. Religions de l’antiquité, vol. iv., pl. 181.)
of the lives of men, pour water from the spring over the Tree in order to secure for it an endless sap and verdure. The second root stretches towards the land of the giants of the Frost; under this root springs the well of Mimir the first man and king of the dead; in this well all knowledge and all wisdom dwell; Odin himself, in order to quench his thirst with its waters, had to leave one of his eyes in pledge. As for the third, it descends to Nifleim, the Scandinavian Hades, where it is ever gnawed at by a dragon. On the highest bough of the stem an eagle perches whilst other animals occupy the lower branches. Finally, Odin spent nine nights under its shade before discovering the runes, 1 an act which recalls the great meditation of Buddha under the sacred fig-tree.
Other passages in the Edda show us the contests for the possession of the hydromel, the liquor
which is at once the drink of the gods and the source of poetry. It was carried off by Odin, who, in the form of a serpent, surreptitiously entered the den of the giant who was its guardian. Another myth which alludes more directly to life-imparting fruits is the legend of the goddess Idhunn who kept in a box the Apples of Immortality. This was the fruit which, on approaching old age, the gods partook of in order to renew their youth. Enticed into a neighbouring forest by the faithless Loki, Idhunn was abducted, together with her treasure, by a giant disguised as an eagle. But the gods, feeling themselves growing old, obliged Loki to transform himself into a hawk and go and bring back Idhunn and her Apples during the absence of their abductor. 1
As regards the Slavonic peoples, MM. Mannhardt and de Gubernatis have recorded more than one legend bearing witness to their belief in a cosmogonical tree. Such is, amongst the Russians, the Oak-tree of the island Bujan, on which the sun retires to rest every evening and from which it rises every morning; watched by a dragon, it is inhabited by the Virgin of the Dawn, just as is the oak of Eridu by Tammuz and his mother. 2
In brief, both Semites and Aryans were acquainted with the Tree of Heaven, the Tree of Life, and the Tree of Knowledge. The first has for fruit the igneous or luminous bodies of space; the second produces a liquor which secures eternal youth; the third confers foreknowledge and even omniscience. This valuable produce is the object of mythical rivalries between superhuman beings, the gods, genii, and fabulous animals, on the one hand, who have the treasure in their possession or in their keeping, and the divinity, the demon, or the hero, on the other, who strive to get possession of it. Curious similarities crop up in the different accounts of this conflict, which sometimes ends in the victory of the assailant, and sometimes in his defeat or exemplary chastisement.
Do such coincidences suffice to justify the assumption that all these traditions have one and the same origin or even that they represent an old stock of folk-lore bequeathed to the Aryans and Semites by their common ancestors?
More than thirty years ago, Frederic Baudry recapitulating, in the Revue germanique, Kuhn's work upon the myths relating to the origin of fire and nectar, drew attention, incidentally, to the tradition of the Paradisaic Trees as evidence "of a pre-historic communication between the Semites and Aryans, taking us back to the remotest times, before the fixation of languages and grammars." 1 François Lenormant, going further still, saw therein an indication of the community of origin between the two races. 2
First of all I will point out the fact that the original unity of a tradition by no means implies the relationship of the nations amongst which it is found. The researches conducted in our own times, regarding the migration of fables, have shown with what ease a tale brought into being on the banks of the Ganges or the Nile may have made its way to the islands of Japan, the shores of the Atlantic, or the plains of southern Africa among nations differing widely in race and language. Of course, if the resemblance of the traditions is strengthened by the identity of the names they contain, especially when the people who hold them in common belong to the same linguistic group, we may admit that the formation of these beliefs preceded the separation of the different branches. Such, in particular, is the conclusion to be drawn from the connections noticed, amongst certain Aryan nations, between the names soma and haoma, amrita and ambrosia, gandharva, gandhrawa, and kentauros.
Nothing similar, however, exists between the Semites and Indo-Europeans amongst the words used by the two races to respectively designate either the Tree of Life and its produce or the personages concerned in its legend. Baudry, it is true, gets out of the difficulty by supposing that the communication might have taken place before the fixation of languages and grammars. This is a desperate effort to justify one assumption by another. The etymological independence which we find here, suggests, on the contrary, that the tradition of the Paradisaic Trees either crossed, at some period, from one race to another, or else that it sprang up separately in each of the two centres.
At first sight it may seem unlikely that myths which correspond so well in detail were produced simultaneously in several places. Yet there is not, in all these tales, a single peculiarity whose presence
cannot be connected with the most ordinary processes of mythical reasoning, and that cannot be found, at least in a fragmentary state, amongst a number of nations related neither to the Aryans nor to the Semites.
The idea of referring to the form of a tree the apparent conformation of the universe is one of the most natural methods of reasoning which can occur to the savage mind.
The Mbocobis of Paraguay still say that when they die they will climb up the Tree which unites heaven and earth. 1 To the Maoris heaven and earth formerly clave together; it was a Divine Tree, the Father of the Forests, which rent them asunder by placing itself between them. 2 The Khasias of India take the stars to be men who scaled heaven by climbing up a Tree, and were obliged to remain in the branches, their companions, who had stopped on earth, having cut down the trunk. 3
We will leave out the Khasias, who may have come into contact with the mythology of the Hindus. But will anyone maintain that the traditions of Paraguay, or of New Zealand, are connected with those of the Semites or Aryans? As well might we pretend that old La Fontaine and Virgil before him were inspired by the cuneiform texts or the Vedic poems when they described the mighty oak:
The Tree of Life is no more difficult to account for than the Cosmogonical Tree. Is not a plant one
of the symbols most capable of expressing the abstract idea of life? Whilst an animal evokes, above all, complex ideas of motion, strength and passion, the functions of the plant are concentrated, so to speak, in life, not alone in life subject to the conditions of birth and death, but also in life liable to periodical successions of inactivity in winter, and of re-animation in spring.
What more natural and obvious symbol could there be than the "Gardens of Adonis," those pots of early flowers which were made to blossom, and then left to wither under the rays of the sun, in order to recall the death of the young god? 1 The Tahitans symbolize death by the Casuarina, a leafless tree, allied to our horse-tails, which they plant upon graves. 2 Is it not from the vegetable kingdom that we ourselves borrow our metaphors when we speak of a life "blooming," or cut down in its flower?
We know what lofty precepts the mysteries of Greece drew from the constantly recurring phenomena of vegetation. 3 Egyptian monuments reproduce a sarcophagus from which an acacia emerges with the motto: "Osiris springs forth," as if to call the god to witness that life comes from death. 4 It was especially trees with evergreen foliage, such as the pine, the cedar, and the cypress, which were employed to represent the hope in an eternal life beyond the tomb. M. Lajard has brought together some singular examples in his researches Sur le Culte du Cyprès,
a worship which occurs, with this symbolical meaning, amongst the Greeks, the Etruscans, the Romans, the Phœnicians, the Arabs, the Persians, the Hindus, and the Chinese, without taking into consideration the nations of the New World. 1
The plant, however, has not only the faculty of typifying life. The power of communicating and of renewing life can also be attributed to it. By means of its grains or fruits it provides mankind with fresh strength; by its fermented juice it increases our vitality tenfold; finally, it furnishes remedies, or simples, to which is ascribed the faculty of restoring the sick to health, and of recalling the dying to life.
Now these qualities are met with precisely in most of the vegetable species from which the Aryans and Semites derived the outlines of their Sacred Trees. There is the oak, whose acorns the western Aryans gathered for food in the primeval forests. There is the asclepiad, from which the eastern Aryans got their elixir of life. Then there are the cone-bearing plants, whose prophylactic reputation amongst the Semites of Babylonia is proved by numerous texts. Above all there is the palm-tree, whose fruits still form a considerable part of the food of the people inhabiting the Lower Euphrates, and whose fermented juice produces an intoxicating liquor well known to the Arabs. There is even the vine, which, according to M. Lenormant, was termed, in the ancient language of Chaldæa, ges-tin, literally "wood of life," 2 whilst the goddess of the Tree of Life, named "the Lady of Eden" in the North of Mesopotamia, is called in the South "the Lady of the Vine." 3
Lastly rain, which revives Nature periodically,
appears among nearly all nations as a seed of life. When therefore the configuration of the universe is referred to the type of the tree, it is natural enough to look upon rain as the sap which flows from its trunk or branches. In the island of Ferro, in the Canaries, a tradition of the Guanches told of a wonderful Tree whose top is surrounded by clouds, and whose branches let fall every morning, before sunrise, the water necessary for quenching the thirst of the natives. 1
Here we see the Tree of Life become connected with an allied class of myths which we find fully developed amongst the Aryans: the belief, namely, in the existence of a spring, river, or lake which prolongs or renews life. This tradition was not wanting in Chaldæa either; the poem of the descent of Istar into Hades places in the gloomy realm of Allat, queen of the dead, a fountain of life which could revive the dead, were its approaches not jealously watched by the anounas or spirits of the earth. Istar herself must immerse herself therein before returning to the light of day and taking her place again amongst the gods. 2
This fresh analogy between the Aryan and Semitic traditions, however, seems to me to be rather an assumption in favour of their original independence. On both sides, to be sure, there is the notion of natural waters which renew life upon earth; but whilst in India, and even among the nations of Europe, the annual re-awakening of Nature is chiefly brought about by the rains which fall from the Celestial Tree, in Chaldæa—as all travellers in that country bear witness—the fertility of the soil, and even the existence of the civilization, are dependent not upon the celestial
waters but upon rivers, wells, and canals, which some sixty centuries ago made of this land, now a desolate and pestiferous waste, a vast and luxuriant garden. 1
There is therefore nothing to preclude the supposition that the Aryans and Semites might have separately imagined their Tree of the Universe, and even their Tree of Life, under the more or less rudimentary forms belonging to the traditions still to be observed amongst a number of uncivilized or savage peoples. The borrowal, or rather mutual infiltration of the two mythologies, had only to deal with the details and episodes which everywhere spontaneously clustered round this common nucleus, and which, spreading in the neighbourhood, without disappearing from their respective cradles, ended not in obliterating but in enriching and assimilating the original tradition of each race. 2
Let it be granted, for instance, that both races vaguely pictured to themselves heaven under the form of a tree. If one race likened the heavenly bodies to the tree's fruits, can we wonder at the other doing the same, as soon as they became acquainted with this development of the myth
amongst their neighbours? Let us assume that the Chaldæans learnt from the Indo-Iranians, or vice versâ, or yet again both from a third people, the art of making intoxicating liquors with the juice of certain plants: does it not appear likely that the myths suggested by this invention in its original home were transmitted along with the art itself? Thus it is that Christian infiltrations, by blending with the old stock of local traditions, unquestionably contributed in such a degree towards forming the legends recorded in the Edda of the Scandinavians and the Kalevala of the Finns, that it is now no longer possible for us to ascertain the proper share which either of those elements had in the formation of these legends.
Comparative archæology shows clearly how these exchanges are brought about, when it enables us to see how the Mesopotamian type of the Sacred Tree was adopted by the Persians to represent their Tree of Immortality, by the Buddhists to typify their Tree of Wisdom; and by the Christians to symbolize their Tree of Temptation.
Each race, each religion has its independent type, which it preserves and develops in accordance with the spirit of its own traditions, approximating it, however, by the addition of extraneous details and accessories, to the equivalent image adopted in the plastic art of its neighbours. Thus the current which makes the Lotus of Egypt blossom on the Paradisaic Tree of India has its counter-current which causes the Asclepias acida of the Hindu Kush to climb upon the Sacred Tree of Assyria. Art and mythology comply, in this respect, with the usual processes of civilization, which is not the fruit of a single tree, but has always been developed by grafts and cuttings between the most favoured branches of the human race.
161:1 Babyl. and Oriental Record for June, 1888, pp. 149–159.
161:2 "Which is the forest," asks the Vedic poet, "which is the tree wherein they have hewn heaven and earth?" (Rig-Veda, x., 81, 4.)
162:1 Rig-Veda, i., 71, 9. In the Vishnu Purâna (i., 9), the amrita and the Tree of Paradise (the pârijata) are generated in succession by the churning of the sea of milk, i.e., of the primordial or atmospheric ocean.
162:2 A. De Gubernatis. Mythologie des plantes, vol. i., p. 178.
162:3 Rig-Veda, x., 135.
162:4 E. Senart. Journal Asiatique for 1874, vol. iii., p. 289.
162:5 Id., ibid., p. 305.
162:6 J. Darmesteter. Essais orientaux. Paris, 1883, p. 179.
162:7 E. Senart. Essai sur la légende du Bouddha, in the Journal Asiatique for 1875, vol. iv., p. 102.
163:1 See the description of the Tree of Brahma, as the Tree of Knowledge, in the Anugita (Sacred Books of the East, vol. viii., pp. 370–371). A Buddhist legend, recorded by Mr. Hardy, tells of an immense Tree, adorned with four boughs, from which great rivers flow unceasingly; it bears golden pips which are carried down to the sea. "This description," M. Sénart adds (loc. cit.), "may convince the most sceptical that the tree bô must not be separated from the Cosmic Tree of Indo-European mythologies." It may be added that these details especially remind one of the Tree of Life with its wonderful fruits, planted in the middle of that Garden of Eden from which flowed four great rivers.
164:1 A fragment quoted by Weber in his Indische Studien, vol. iii., p. 466.
164:2 Mahâbhârata, i., 1345.
164:3 Yasna, ch. ix. and x. (Trans. by M. de Harlez. Paris, 1876, vol. ii.)
164:4 Revue germanique, 1861, vol. xiv., p. 375.
165:1 Minnerme (fragm. 11), quoted by M. P. Decharme, Mythologie de la Grèce antique. Paris, 1886, p. 607.
165:2 Bacchæ, iii., 265.
165:3 Odyss., xii., 62.
166:1 Mythologie de la Grèce antique, fig. 82.
166:2 ibid., p. 533.
167:1 R. B. Anderson. Mythologie scandinave, trans. by Jules Leclercq. Paris, 1886, p. 34 et seq.
168:1 Anderson, p. 124.
168:2 A legend, given by M. de Gubernatis, relates that the Tree of Adam reaches to hell by its roots and to heaven by its branches; in its top lives the infant Jesus (Mythologie des plantes, vol. i., p. 18).—For traces of the belief in a Tree of Knowledge in Celtic folk lore, see John Rhys Celtic Heathendom (London, 1888, p. 557) The Finns and Esths possess on their side, several legends relating to a cosmogonical tree. The Lapps are acquainted with an Oak or Tree of God which covers the heavens with its golden branches; it is uprooted by a dwarf, who afterwards transforms himself into a giant. The Esthonian legend develops this myth still further. The divine tree is here a Tree of Plenty; from its trunk come houses, cradles, and tables. The chief of these dwellings has the moon for a window; the sun and stars dance on the roof (De Gubernatis. Mythologie des plantes, vol. ii., p. 76).—As regards the tree with fruits of precious stones, consult the interesting little p. 169 volume in which M. Lethaby recently endeavoured to prove that the religious architecture, and even all the symbolism of the early civilizations, have a cosmogonical bearing, i.e., tend to reproduce the image of the universe according to the conceptions of the period (Architecture, Mysticism and Myth, London, 1892, chap. v.).
169:1 Revue germanique for 1861, vol. xiv., p. 385.
169:2 Origines de l’histoire, vol. i., chap. ix.
171:1 E. B. Tylor. Early History of Mankind. London, 1878, p. 358.
171:2 A. Reville. Religions des peuples non civilisés. Paris, 1883, vol. ii., p. 28.
171:3 E. B. Tylor. Primitive Civilization, vol. i. of French translation, p. 333.
172:1 C. P. Tiele. Histoire des Religions de l’Égypte et des peuples sémitiques, p. 292 in French translation. Paris, 1882.
172:2 Letourneau. Sociologie. Paris, 1880, p. 217.
172:3 See preface, page 2.
172:4 Tiele. Religions de l’Égypte et des peuples sémitiques, p. 83.
173:1 F. Lajard, in the Mémoires de l’Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, vol. xx., second part.
173:2 F. Lenormant. Orig., vol. ii., p. 254.
173:3 Sayce. Op. cit., p. 240, note.
174:1 Ramusco. Historia delle Indie occidentali, quoted by de Gubernatis, Mythologie des plantes, i., 36.
174:2 Sayce. Op. cit., p. 221 et seq.
175:1 In other countries this fountain of perpetual youth might again be accounted for in another way. We find, indeed, a similar tradition existing amongst the Malays, certain Polynesians, and the inhabitants of the Antilles; le., amongst insular peoples who see, every evening, the dying sun vanish in the sea to arise from it in the morning, endowed with fresh life. The Maoris, according to Tylor (Civilisation primitive, ii., 383), imagine that the sun descends every evening to the bottom of a cave, where he bathes in the Wai Ora Tane (water of life), returning, at dawn, to the upper world.
175:2 This seems, on the whole, to be what M. Tiele means when he suggests that the myth of the elixir of life originated doubtlessly in a non-Aryan race, although he discovers points of contact in similar myths belonging incontestably to the Aryans (Manuel de l’histoire des Religions, translation of M. Maurice Vernes, 2nd. ed., pp. 153, 154).