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The world tree is a motif present in several religions and mythologies, particularly Indo-European religions, Siberian religions, and Native American religions. The world tree is represented as a colossal tree which supports the heavens, thereby connecting the heavens, the terrestrial world, and, through its roots, the underworld. It may also be strongly connected to the motif of the tree of life, but it is the source of wisdom of the ages.
Specific world trees include égig érő fa in Hungarian mythology, Ağaç Ana in Turkic mythology, Modun in Mongol mythology, Yggdrasil in Norse mythology, Irminsul in Germanic mythology, the oak in Slavic, Finnish and Baltic, Iroko in Yoruba religion, Jianmu in Chinese mythology, and in Hindu mythology the Ashvattha (a Ficus religiosa).
Scholarship states that many Eurasian mythologies share a motif of a tree whose branches reach the skies and whose roots connect the human or earthly world with an underworld or subterranean realm. A bird perches atop its foliage, and a snake or serpentine creature crawls between its roots. A more elaborate description is thus: on the treetops are located the luminaries and heavenly bodies, along with an eagle's nest; several species of birds perch among its branches; humans and animals of every kind live under its branches, and near the root is the dwelling place of snakes and every sort of reptiles.
The imagery of the World Tree is sometimes associated with conferring immortality, either by a fruit that grows on it or by a springsource located nearby.
In specific cultures
American pre-Columbian cultures
- Among pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, the concept of "world trees" is a prevalent motif in Mesoamerican cosmologies and iconography. The Temple of the Cross Complex at Palenque contains one of the most studied examples of the world tree in architectural motifs of all Mayan ruins. World trees embodied the four cardinal directions, which represented also the fourfold nature of a central world tree, a symbolic axis mundi connecting the planes of the Underworld and the sky with that of the terrestrial world.
- Depictions of world trees, both in their directional and central aspects, are found in the art and traditions of cultures such as the Maya, Aztec, Izapan, Mixtec, Olmec, and others, dating to at least the Mid/Late Formative periods of Mesoamerican chronology. Among the Maya, the central world tree was conceived as, or represented by, a ceiba tree, called yax imix che ('blue-green tree of abundance') by the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel. The trunk of the tree could also be represented by an upright caiman, whose skin evokes the tree's spiny trunk.
- Directional world trees are also associated with the four Yearbearers in Mesoamerican calendars, and the directional colors and deities. Mesoamerican codices which have this association outlined include the Dresden, Borgia and Fejérváry-Mayer codices. It is supposed that Mesoamerican sites and ceremonial centers frequently had actual trees planted at each of the four cardinal directions, representing the quadripartite concept.
- World trees are frequently depicted with birds in their branches, and their roots extending into earth or water (sometimes atop a "water-monster", symbolic of the underworld).
- The central world tree has also been interpreted as a representation of the band of the Milky Way.
- Izapa Stela 5 contains a possible representation of a world tree.
A common theme in most indigenous cultures of the Americas is a concept of directionality (the horizontal and vertical planes), with the vertical dimension often being represented by a world tree. Some scholars have argued that the religious importance of the horizontal and vertical dimensions in many animist cultures may derive from the human body and the position it occupies in the world as it perceives the surrounding living world. Many Indigenous cultures of the Americas have similar cosmologies regarding the directionality and the world tree, however the type of tree representing the world tree depends on the surrounding environment. For many Indigenous American peoples located in more temperate regions for example, it is the spruce rather than the ceiba that is the world tree; however the idea of cosmic directions combined with a concept of a tree uniting the directional planes is similar.
In Baltic, Slavic and Finnish mythology, the world tree is usually an oak. Most of the images of the world tree are preserved on ancient ornaments. Often on the Baltic and Slavic patterns there was an image of an inverted tree, "growing with its roots up, and branches going into the ground".
The world tree (Lithuanian: Aušros medis) is widespread in Lithuanian folk painting, and is frequently found carved into household furniture such as cupboards, towel holders, and laundry beaters. According to Lithuanian scholars Dunduliene and Velias, the World Tree is "a powerful tree with widespread branches and strong roots, reaching deep into the earth". The recurrent imagery is also present in Lithuanian myth: on the treetops, the luminaries and eagles, and further down, amidst its roots, the dwelling place of snakes and reptiles.
In Latvian mythology the world tree (Latvian: Austras koks) also was one of the most important beliefs and was associated with the birth of the world. Accoding to Ludvigs Adamovičs's book on Latvian folk belief, ancient Latvian mythology attested the existence of a Sun Tree as an expression of the World Tree, often described as "a birch tree with three leaves or forked branches where the Sun, the Moon, God, Laima, Auseklis (the morning star), or the daughter of the Sun rest[ed]".
It has been suggested that the word for "tree" in both Baltic languages (Latvian mežs; Lithuanian medis), both derived from Proto-Indo-European *medh- 'middle', operated a semantic shift from "middle" possibly due to the belief of the Arbor Mundi.
According to Slavic folklore, as reconstructed by R. Katičić, the draconic or serpentine character furrows near a body of water, and the bird that lives on the treetop could be an eagle, a falcon or a nightingale.
Scholars Ivanov and Toporov offered a reconstructed Slavic variant of the Indo-European myth about a battle between a Thunder God and a snake-like adversary. In their proposed reconstruction, the Snake lives under the World Tree, sleeping on black wool. They surmise this snake on black wool is a reference to a cattle god, known in Slavic mythology as Veles.
A world tree is a common motif in ancient art of Iran.
In Persian mythology, Gaokerena or white Haoma is a tree whose vivacity ensures continued life in the universe. Bas tokhmak is another remedial tree; it retains all herbal seeds and destroys sorrow.
The Tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the Tree of life are both components of the Garden of Eden story in the Book of Genesis in the Bible. According to Jewish mythology, in the Garden of Eden there is a tree of life or the "tree of souls" that blossoms and produces new souls, which fall into the Guf, the Treasury of Souls. The Angel Gabriel reaches into the treasury and takes out the first soul that comes into his hand. Then Lailah, the Angel of Conception, watches over the embryo until it is born.
In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil is the world tree. Yggdrasil is attested in the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources, and the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson. In both sources, Yggdrasil is an immense ash tree that is central and considered very holy. The Æsir go to Yggdrasil daily to hold their courts. The branches of Yggdrasil extend far into the heavens, and the tree is supported by three roots that extend far away into other locations: one to the well Urðarbrunnr in the heavens, one to the spring Hvergelmir, and another to the well Mímisbrunnr. Creatures live within Yggdrasil, including the harts Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Duraþrór, the giant in eagle-shape Hræsvelgr, the squirrel Ratatoskr and the wyrm Níðh��ggr. Scholarly theories have been proposed about the etymology of the name Yggdrasil, the potential relation to the trees Mímameiðr and Læraðr, and the sacred tree at Uppsala.
Like in many other Indo-European cultures one tree species were considered as the World Tree, beside this there were several other sacred trees. In Greek mythology the olive, named Moriai was the World tree and associated with the Olympian goddess Athena.
In a separate Greek myth the Hesperides live beneath an apple tree with golden apples that was given to the highest Olympian goddess Hera by the primal Mother goddess Gaia at Hera's marriage to Zeus. The tree stands in the Garden of the Hesperides and is guarded by Ladon, a dragon. Heracles defeats Ladon and snatches the golden apples.
The sacred tree of Zeus is the oak, and the one at Dodona (famous for the cultic worship of Zeus and the oak) was said by later tradition to have its roots furrow so deep as to reach the confines of Tartarus.
In a different cosmogonic account presented by Pherecydes of Syros, male deity Zas (identified as Zeus) marries female divinity Chthonie (associated with the earth and later called Gê/Gaia), and from their marriage sprouts an oak tree. This oak tree connects the heavens above and its roots grew into the Earth, to reach the depths of Tartarus. This oak tree is considered by scholarship to symbolize a cosmic tree, uniting three spheres: underworld, terrestrial and celestial.
In Roman mythology the world tree was the olive tree, that was associated with Pax. The Greek equivalent of Pax is Eirene, one of the Horae. The Sacred tree of the Roman Sky father Jupiter was the oak, the laurel was the Sacred tree of Apollo. The ancient fig-tree in the Comitium at Rome, was considered as a descendant of the very tree under which Romulus and Remus were found.
North Asian, Siberian, Mongol and Turkic cultures
The world tree is also represented in the mythologies and folklore of North Asia and Siberia. In the mythology of the Samoyeds, the world tree connects different realities (underworld, this world, upper world) together. In their mythology the world tree is also the symbol of Mother Earth who is said to give the Samoyed shaman his drum and also help him travel from one world to another.
The world tree is visible in the designs of the Crown of Silla, Silla being one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. This link is used to establish a connection between Siberian peoples and those of Korea.
Hinduism and Indian religions
In Brahma Kumaris religion, the World Tree is portrayed as the "Kalpa Vriksha Tree", or "Tree of Humanity", in which the founder Brahma Baba (Dada Lekhraj) and his Brahma Kumaris followers are shown as the roots of the humanity who enjoy 2,500 years of paradise as living deities before trunk of humanity splits and the founders of other religions incarnate. Each creates their own branch and brings with them their own followers, until they too decline and split. Twig like schisms, cults and sects appear at the end of the Iron Age.
According to scholarship, Georgian mythology also attests a rivalry between mythical bird Paskunji, which lives in the underworld on the top of a tree, and a snake that menaces its nestlings.
Folk and fairy tales
The imagery of the World Tree appears in a specific tale type of the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index, type ATU 301, "The Three Stolen Princesses", and former subtypes AaTh 301A, "Quest for a Vanished Princess" (or "Three Underground Kingdoms") and AaTh 301B, "The Strong Man and His Companions" (Jean de l'Ours and Fehérlófia). The hero journeys alone to the underworld (or a subterranean realm) to rescue three princesses. He leads them to a rope that will take them to the surface and, when the hero tries to climb up the rope, his companions cut it and the hero is stranded in the underworld. In his wanderings, he comes across a tree, on its top a nest of eggs from an eagle, a griffin or a mythical bird. The hero protects the nest from a snake enemy that slithers from the roots of the tree.
Serbian scholarship recalls a Serbian mythical story about three brothers, named Ноћило, Поноћило и Зорило ("Noćilo, Ponoćilo and Zorilo") and their mission to rescue the king's daughters. Zorilo goes down the cave, rescues three princesses and with a whip changes their palaces into apples. When Zorilo is ready to go up, his brothers abandon him in the cave, but he escapes with the help of a bird. Serbian scholar Pavle Sofric (sr), in his book about Serbian folkmyths about trees, noted that the tree of the tale, an ash tree (Serbian: јасен), showed a great parallel to the Nordic tree as to be coincidental.
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