Although it is early March, it’s unseasonably warm here in the Pacific Northwest with trees already in bloom. Since this blog is intended to explore the connections between magic and shamanism, what better place to start than with a look at trees? Humans have always felt an affinity for trees and myths and folktales about them are associated with our origins worldwide.
In an ancient Egyptian myth, the sibling deities Isis and Osiris emerged from an acacia tree. Some Siberian groups traced their descent to trees, believing in the beginning a tree split in two, out of which came a man and woman. Likewise in ancient Persian lore the trunk of a primordial tree separated into a man and woman, its fruit becoming the different races of mankind. Siberian as well as Mayan myths tell of human souls being raised on the branches of an otherworldly tree. The Tree of Life, and Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden also played a central role in the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis.
The World-Tree, found in myths around the world, is a version of the axis-mundi—or world axis— extending through the worlds and connecting them together. It is an important cosmological symbol in shamanism, arguably mankind’s oldest spiritual practice. Envisioned as vast in scale, it encompassed the universe–rooted deep in the underworld, the realm of the dead, its branches touched the stars in the upperworld, the abode of the gods. Shamans journeyed in visionary consciousness between these worlds by climbing the World Tree. They descended its roots to the land of the dead to retrieve the souls of the living who strayed there, or ascended its branches to the heavens to commune with celestial spirits to gain healing remedies or prophecies. Siberian shamans sometimes ritually enacted the ascent, climbing a birch tree with seven branches representing the seven levels of the heavens.
The Yggdrasil Tree of Nordic lore was similarly envisioned as a vast ash tree spanning the worlds, its fruit and nectar feeding the gods, humans and animals. One of its roots passed into the realm of the sky-gods, another into the land of the frost-giants, and the third into the land of the dead. Beneath it flowed the prophetic spring of Mimir at which sat the Three Norns, oracular goddesses of Past, Present and Future. Echoing the initiation ordeals of shamans, Odin, the god of wisdom and magic sacrificed himself by hanging for nine nights upon the tree to learn magic spells and the runes.
The symbol of the World Tree also appears in ancient Mesopotamia as the Mes-Tree, described as “…the flesh of the gods…whose base reaches the bottom of the underworld…whose summit…reaches into the heaven of Anu”. Assyrologist Simo Parpola writes that the sacred tree was a cosmological symbol of the Assyrians, dating from the second millennium BCE. He states: “The crown of the tree is the god of heaven, Anu; its foundation is the god of the netherworld, Nergal; in between heaven and earth, connecting them, is the goddess of love, Ishtar”. He proposes the Assyrian sacred tree was an early prototype of the Tree of Life symbol of the Kabbala, the mystical tradition of Judaism.
The Tree of Life has become the central symbol of the modern Kabbala–alternately spelled Qabalah. It is an abstracted tree diagram consisting of ten sephirah (spheres) and twenty two paths which connect them, rather like fruit and branches of a tree. The vertical axis of the Tree spans the “four worlds” linking the physical and spiritual dimensions. Much of the work of the modern kabbalistic magician consists in ascending the paths of the Tree through mediation, ritual, and visionary techniques like “pathworking”. Beginning at its base in the earthly realm of Malkuth they aspire to ascend to the highest sphere of Kether at the crown of the Tree. Each path and sephirah of the Tree of Life is associated with various cosmic archetypes which offer transformative experiences. This ascent is described by modern Jewish kabbalist Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi as an inner spiritual journey in which the aspirant slowly climbs the Tree of himself, continually balancing and perfecting himself at each stage. He writes: “In this way the ascent is safely made from Earth to Heaven while the man is still in the flesh”.