Climbing the World Tree

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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.

Clan generation tree of Siberian Namay people
Clan generation tree of Siberian Namay people

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.

Kabbalistic Tree of Life of Kircher 1652
Kabbalistic Tree of Life of Kircher 1652

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”.

Different species of trees have long been associated with the gods of ancient Greece: the oak to Zeus, the myrtle to Aphrodite, the willow to Hera and the olive to Athena. The Greeks believed trees were inhabited nymphs, imagined as alluring female spirits with human form; the Meliae were nymphs of ash trees while the Dryads were oak nymphs. Legend has it that Eurydice, the beautiful young wife of the poet Orpheus, was one such Dryad. Often the Greeks simply conducted worship on an altar beneath a tree, and no temple was considered dedicated unless it had a sacred tree nearby. The Celtic Druids as well as the ancient Germans worshipped in groves of trees, as did the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest who gathered in groves of red cedars for ceremonies.
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In European magical traditions, branches of different trees are specified for the crafting of magic wands. Hazel is commonly used due to its associations with Mercury, god of magic, and the magician is instructed to harvest its branch with one stroke of a knife on the day of Mercury (Wednesday) and during its planetary hour.
In some magical grimoires–books of magic–wands made of elder wood are called for. In Celtic folklore the elder tree is associated with witches who were believed to change themselves into its form. Elder was considered a blog wand jpgpowerful tree that if treated respectfully offered protection from evil. Franz Bardon, the famed 20th century Czech occultist, writes that elder is sacred to Saturn and wands made from it can be used for evoking elemental spirits. Following his lead I decided to make a magical wand from a black elder growing in my yard, taking care to give it a few hours of notice before cutting a branch, as well as an offering of thanks afterwards. It was easy to work the branch–it is straight as an arrow and the pith was easily pushed out, forming a hollow tube which I filled with various materia magica. Using a dremel tool I carved symbols of the seven sacred planets as well as the four fixed signs of the zodiac representing the four elements along its sides. I then painted it black, filling in the carved symbols with gold paint. The wand has served me well over the years.
I imagine ancient magicians and shamans cultivated similar relationships with their magical tools crafted from the flora and fauna of their natural environment–and I feel as if my elder wand is a living link with the nature spirits of my local urban ecosystem.
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