The above photo shows an excavated site belonging to the Jomon Period in Japan.
The comma-shaped gemstones hung on the tree are called ‘maga-tama‘ in Japanese, ‘maga’ meaning ‘curved’ and ‘tama’ meaning jewel, which is also synonymous with ‘soul’. (Of course, we cannot be sure that is what they were called during Prehistoric Jomon times) However, maga-tama gems have been fairly common finds in Jomon Period, often seemingly in an altar setting beside a phallic item in the pit dwelling, although large numbers are excavated from Yayoi and Kofun Period tombs. The specific context of the funerary and ritual setting is significant and lends a number of possible interpretations of the abstract symbolism represented by the ritual setting (see below – the scenes below are adjacent to the “Soul Tree” located to its right).
Firstly, the maga-tama jewels hung on a tree in a funerary setting, are seemingly suggestive that each tama is symbolic of a soul (see definition below) The concept of a =departed ancestor on the Soul Tree is known in specific parts of the world (which we will examine below).
Secondly, the reconstructed scene based on the actual topography of the excavated site, faces a mountain with special astronomical sightings such as the appearance of the sun upon the mountain peak. This setting is suggestive of yet another set of fairly complex ideas at work (in Wakhan-Afghanistan as well as in Persia, the Nowruz Spring Festival/New Year would not begin till the sun had mounted the peak over the mountain and the people would pay their respects to their ancestors the night before, lighting bonfires(ancestor worship).
The ceramic pottery suggest a scenario where a feast and food offerings were made to ancestors, (a scenario which looks a lot like an ancient version of the Persian-Eurasia-wide New Year or spring festival). This setting leads us to infer that there was a symbolism of, and a belief in a Tree of Souls, and ancestor veneration practices among the Jomon people of the Kanto area. A Soul Tree concept is the concept of an ancestral tree to which the deceased or departed have ascended to find their rest.
There was a continuity in the magatama material culture from the Jomon through the Kofun ages. But was there also a continuity of ideas?
Tama – the Soul or Human Spirit
The entry in the Encyclopedia of Shinto defines “tama” thus:
“A general term for spirit or soul in ancient times. In addition to human spirit, it also refers to spirit or spiritual force in nature. A human soul is considered a spiritual entity that comes from outside and dwells in the body, endowing the individual with energy and personality. The word tamashii (spirit, soul) presumably had an original meaning of the “function of tama.” Mitama (御魂、御霊) is an honorific term of tama. When it is written with the characters 神霊 (mitama), it refers to a spirit of a kami. Later on, the spelling of 御霊 came to be used exclusively for goryō, a spirit that brings hazards to a human society.”
The tama representing the soul or spirit of a person is a belief recognizable from the design motif found in crowns of the Kofun Period (possibly earlier) through to today’s Japanese. While the magatama beads attached to golden crowns are shared with the early Koreanic kingdoms, particularly, that of the Silla, the magatama found during the earlier Jomon Period are not similarly found on the Korean peninsula, thus suggesting a different provenance and associated cultures.
Tree worship and tree motifs are frequently said to be a universal phenomenon, however, we would like to show that within the broad notion of the Sacred or Magical Tree, there are in fact distinctive categories and different concepts, and important distinctions and different characteristics will help identify the cultural sphere the object and mytheme belongs to, and the stage of evolution and complexity of the belief, practice or myth, will lend a perspective on the historical events and times associated with the associated myth and mytheme.
For example, the Jomon Soul Tree idea is not only distinctive, the concept of a Soul Tree is significant in identifying the material culture it is associated with (i.e. stone and wood) and the distinct geographical locations where the Soul Tree beliefs exist, and may juxtaposed alongside of those cultures. It can be distinguished from the later material culture (bronze and gold leaf technology) which has the Tree of Life, central to the World Tree and Tripartite World cosmogony…and consequently with the cultural spheres from which metallurgy arrived.
The Jomon Soul Tree is also clearly a concept distinguishable from other ideas such as the Tree of Fortune; Fertility Tree, Dying Tree or Vegetative Deity, Tree of Knowledge, Cosmic Tree or Solar Tree, etc.. Each of these motifs are distinctive enough and we may be able to identify the associated cultural spheres of each of these. It may also prove useful and worthwhile to compare the Soul Trees found in other cultures, which may throw light on the general origins of and migrational paths taken by the Jomon people, before settling in Japan.
Other cultures with concepts of Soul Trees or cultural beliefs of a people or tribe descended from a tree include:
India: Mahabharata: An enormous Indian fig-tree from whose branches hung little devotees in human form. The Malabar speak of a tree whose fruit were pigmy men and women. The Khatties of Central India are said to be descended from Khat “begotten of wood” who at the prayer of Karna sprang from the staff fashioned from a branch of a tree. One Indian superstition is that peepal trees are the abode of ghosts and spirits. The legendary ‘Munja’ ghost is also believed to reside in the peepal tree.
- Interestingly, the Scandinavians are now thought to have received influences from their Central Asian interactions with Scythian-Sarmatians, and with the Altai tribes: see David K. Faux “The Genetic Link of the Viking – Era Norse to Central Asia: An Assessment of the Y Chromosome DNA“, Archaeological, Historical and Linguistic Evidence, 2004 – 2007. The shared concepts may be less surprising in view of the genetic links.
In the European tradition of Saxony, Thuringians too, children are spoken of as growing on a tree. There were traditions in Latvia, Lithuania, and northern Germany of the world tree as a distant oak, birch, or apple tree with iron roots, copper branches, and silver leaves. The spirits of the dead lived in this tree.
The Semitic tradition. While the Biblical Genesis Tree of Life or more correctly, the Tree of Knowledge is best known, the Kabbalah writings speak at length of a Soul Tree of the Hebrews –
see Origins of the Kabbalah by Gershom Gerhard Scholem
God has a tree of flowering souls in Paradise. The angel who sits beneath it is the Guardian of Paradise, and the tree is surrounded by the four winds of the world. From this tree blossom forth all souls, as it is said, “I am like a cypress tree in bloom; your fruit issues forth from Me.”(Hos.14:9). And from the roots of this tree sprout the souls of all the righteous ones whose names are inscribed there. When the souls grow ripe, they descend into the Treasury of Souls, where they are stored until they are called upon to be born. From this we learn that all souls are the fruit of the Holy One, blessed be He.
This Tree of Souls produces all the souls that have ever existed, or will ever exist. And when the last soul descends, the world as we know it will come to an end.
Rabbinic and kabbalistic texts speculate that the origin of souls is somewhere in heaven. This myth provides the heavenly origin of souls, and in itself fuses many traditions. First, it develops themes based on the biblical account of the Garden of Eden. It also builds on the tradition that just as there is an earthly Garden of Eden, so is there a heavenly one ….
As for the Tree of Life in Paradise, its blossoms are souls. It produces new souls, which ripen, and then fall from the tree into the Gulf, the Treasury of Souls in Paradise. There the soul is stored until the angel Gabriel reaches into the treasury and takes out the first soul that comes into his hand. After that, Lailah, the Angel of Conception, guards over the embryo until it is born. Thus the Tree of Life in Paradise is a Tree of Souls. See “The Treasury of Souls,” p. 166. For an alternate myth about the origin of souls, see “The Creation of Souls,” p. 163. For the myth of the formation of the embryo see “The Angel of Conception,” p. 199.
Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, known as the Ari, believed that trees were resting places for souls, and performed a tree ritual in the month of Nisan, when trees are budding. He felt that this was the right time to participate in the rescue of wandering spirits, incarnated in lower life forms. The Ari often took his students out into nature to teach them there. On one such occasion, upon raising his eyes, he saw all the trees peopled with countless spirits, and he asked them, “Why have you gathered here?” They replied, “We did not repent during our lifetime. We have heard about you, that you can heal and mend us.” And the Ari promised to help them. The disciples saw him in conversation, but they were not aware of with whom he conversed. Later they asked him about it, and he replied, “If you had been able to see them, you would have been shocked to see the crowds of spirits in the trees.”
The core text of this myth comes from Ha-Nefesh ha-Hakhamah by Moshe de Leon (Spain, 13th century) who is generally recognized as the primary author of the Zohar. It is possible that de Leon symbolically identified the Tree of Souls with the kabbalistic “tree” of the ten sefirot. Tikkunei Zohar speaks of the ten sefirot blossoming and flying forth souls. (See also the diagram of the sefirot on p. 529.)
Not only is there the notion of a Tree of Souls in Judaism, and the notion that souls take shelter in trees, but there is also the belief that trees have souls. This is indicated in a story about Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav found in Sihot Moharan 535 in Hayei Moharan: Rabbi Nachman was once traveling with his Hasidim by carriage, and as it grew dark they came to an inn, where they spent the night. During the night Rabbi Nachman began to cry out loudly in his sleep, waking up everyone in the inn, all of whom came running to see what had happened. When he awoke, the first thing Rabbi Nachman did was to take out a book he had brought with him. Then he closed his eyes and opened the book and pointed to a passage. ..
The Turkic Tree Kazakh:
“Baiterek is the world tree. It is one of the embodiments of the universe and model of world. It is met in all myth traditions, including the Kazakh mythology. Baiterek (literally – original poplar, mother poplar), the World Tree, connects all three levels: upper-heaven with nine or seven layers, middle and lower ones, having seven or nine layers of the universe. Its individual parts represent the parts of separate worlds: roots represent the underworld, crown is the middle world, branches and leaves are the upper world. Etymology of ‘Terek’ (variants: darak, darau, dara, tarak) comes apparently from *Tir – life.
Baiterek is the original life. Most often, actually the one story found in many fairy tales is as follows: The hero finds himself in the underworld, and after a long journey reaches a large tree where he helps the chicks of giant bird Alyp Karakus (Simurg) killing a snake or dragon aydakhar. In gratitude, the bird delivers the hero to the earth’s surface. Tree is the world tree, and bird and snake are representatives of opposing worlds – the upper and lower worlds. Their perpetual opposition involves a middle world representative – a man, a hero of the tale.
Baiterek – the world tree – is the center of the universe. It is the door, the gate between the worlds, and usually the sacred actions occur under such tree. Baiterek is also at the center of the horizontal model of the world. The horizontal structure of the world: on the right of the tree is the moon, on the left – the sun and the star (ayyn tusyn onynnan, zhuldyzyn tusyn sonynnan).
The Kazakh epic Kobylandy and dastan of Kashagan ‘Aday tegi’ mention the world tree as a tree with golden leaves (in the epic it has the golden and silver leaves), in dastan of Kashagan, it is referred as a tree of all fruits.
There are data on two world trees or poles, standing in parallel. The image of the world tree symbolizes the marriage, succession from generation to generation, genealogical tree. The Turkic people had widespread belief that people take the babies under the trees (comparing with version of genealogical legend about Aday), or that the ancestors’ souls live in the tree, branches and leaves. The branches of shaman tree, according to the ideas of Turkic-Mongol people, host the souls, preparing for a new birth.
Kazakh shamans believe that the world tree appears as a material thing – ‘asa tayak’ as well as the pole put into the ground near the tomb of holy person-‘aulie’. The symbolism is clear in this case: the pole – Bagan shall symbolize the world tree, by which the soul of dead shall rise into the sky, and by which it can go down. For the same reason the Kazakhs are put on tunduk spear after they die.
‘Baiterek’ word is used in the tribal sign system of the Kazakhs. For example, a generic slogan and one of the mythical ancestors of the tribe Kangly is Baiterek. Among the Turkic people, the myth traditions of world tree image are preserved well enough by Sakha Yakuts. It is called al-luk-mas or pay kayyn. (Kayyn – katyn)” Baiterek Source: Book of Serikbola Kondybay. Kazakh mythology
“Among the Melanesians of Mota, one of the New Hebrides islands, the conception of an external soul is carried out in the practice of daily life. In the Mota language the word tamaniu signifies “something animate or inanimate which a man has come to believe to have an existence intimately connected with his own… . It was not every one in Mota who had his tamaniu; only some men fancied that they had this relation to a lizard, a snake, or it might be a stone; sometimes the thing was sought for and found by drinking the infusion of certain leaves and heaping together the dregs; then whatever living thing was first seen in or upon the heap was the tamaniu. It was watched but not fed or worshipped; the natives believed that it came at call, and that the life of the man was bound up with the life of his tamaniu, if a living thing, or with its safety; should it die, or if not living get broken or be lost, the man would die. Hence in case of sickness they would send to see if the tamaniu was safe and well.”
The “tamaniu” is not only phonetically similar sounding but in meaning possibly finds a cognate in mi-tama, magatama, tamashi concepts of the Japanese, so that it may be able to find a genetic connection or an interaction sphere of cultural borrowing of ideas as well. When considering the jade material culture – the East Asia is markedly far more sophisticated from early times, and although it is the magatama jade and female figurines of the Jomon are popularly considered to have emerged from the Hongshan culture, it is abundantly clear however, that Japan did not follow in producing any of the same forms of jade items or figurines at all.
All that we can ascertain is that the early Jomon earring forms were identical to those on the Southern Chinese coast, and that some populations of the Jomon period received extensive migrations from Siberia which is evident from the shared genepool. These areas contiguous areas to Japan, therefore have been sources for Jomon tree myths and beliefs. The Bronze Age culture and gold crowns with Tree-of-Life with bird-and-boat motifs are most likely a heritage that came with the Bronze Age metal-workers, via the Silk Road, sponsored by some elite royals of Saka-lineages and/or Koreanic Sillan families. Their concept of a Cosmic World Tree of Life, however, would only have complemented or built upon the previously existing body of tree myths and beliefs already owned by the indigenous or earlier waves of settled populations.
The Melanesians who are upstream (or older) in the ancestral or phylogenetic tree of the haplogroup C (Y-DNA)-bearing migrants who went northwards to Japan and to East Asia (Mongolians, Siberians, Koreans) after passing through the Indian subcontinent and Melanesian Island Southeast Asia (see p. 4, map A, Wang and Li paper). There is a Melanesian belief in the dual composition of the tama soul called “konpaku” (which looks a lot like the Taoist dual “maga-tama” embryo). According to one interpretation of the Chinkon sai rite:
Kon– A Sinic term that refers to the soul. In ancient China kon was related to yang (of yin-yang dualism) and to the dimension of mental activity, while haku was related to yin and the somatic, physiological dimension. Thus, the soul had a two-layered structure. Accordingly, when a person died it was believed that these two components returned respectively to the heavens and the earth. Concerning their relationship to the Japanese conception of soul (tama), the kon (tamashii) of konpaku was indicated as corresponding to it. This was according to an interpretation of chinkon (pacifying spirits, see chinkonsai) found in the regulations dealing with personnel (shokuinryō) in the article for Shintō administration (jingikan jō) of the ritsuryō legal code, which was revised in the first half of the eighth century. On the other hand, konpaku was used as another term for mitama in a tenth century work called the Wamyōruijūshō. Subsequently, other interpretations were also offered, such as konpaku being the combined spirit of blessing (sakimitama) and the spirit of auspiciousness (kushimitama). — Konpaku, The Encyclopedia of Shinto
The concept of the jade jewel or stone as repository for the soul is also significant in the exploitation and demand for jade and other semi-precious stones. Although jade as an elixir (grounded into powder) or as magical amulet is better known in the Chinese civilization, the association of green jadeite with the stone being a repository of life force is also a known reason for Chinese (and Khotanese) jade exploitation.
An alternative explanation is that Japanese tamashi might also be cognate with the also similar-sounding Indian Brahma Kumaris(origin: India) and Sikkh word, atma for soul, believed to be life-sustaining spiritual light or “spiritual spark”, and in the former, to reside in the forehead of the occupied bodies, and “The pure root of the tree is Brahman, the immortal, in whom the three worlds have their being, whom none can transcend, who is verily the Self” (Katha Upanishad 2:3:1) (see The Universal Tree)
However, according to “Legend in Japanese art“ at p. 355, the Jade Stone called Benwa or Tama is mentioned in a tale:
“The Jade Stone found by BENWA (PiEN Ho) is also called Tama, and it plays a part in the wars between the Chinese Kingdoms of Wu and Yueh, which is set forth in the Goyetsu gun dan (443, et seq.). In the eighth century B.C. Pien Ho found an eagle standing upon a large block of jade; he took the stone to the ruler of Ts’u, whose advisers pronounced it to be valueless, and gave it back to the man, but first of all they cut off his right foot. Benwa returned to the King Shan mountains and put the stone back in its proper place, when the same eagle came again to perch upon it. In the meantime the King had died, and the man went again to Court with his stone to present it to the new ruler, and this time his left foot was cut off. A third King came to the throne, and on seeing Benwa weeping by the gate of the Palace, inquired into the cause of his grief, and had the stone tested, when it was found to be a perfect gem.*”
This stone was at last carved and made into a jewel called the Ho SHI CHI PIH, which finally passed into the hands of the King of Chao, Bun O; 3E (298-266 B.C.). This King had a devoted counsellor in the person of LIN SIANG Ju (Rinshojo) and when the envious ruler of Ts’in offered fifteen cities in exchange for the stone, this crafty person advised Bun O to surrender the stone and accept the land in exchange. But soon after he went to the Court of Ts’in and requested that the jewel be sent back to Chao. Ts’in hesitated, but Rinshojo took the stone, saying: “Do you fail to see its defects?” walking the while away from the King until he came to the end of the hall. He then dropped his cap and exclaimed: “Unless you return this stone to my master I shall break it to pieces; not only have we jewels, but also courageous men, such as none could be found in Ts’in!” The King of Ts’in yielded to his demands.
In some versions, he is said to have invaded Chao, and requested the stone as a ransom for the fifteen cities, but to have given way before Rinshojo’s boldness””… See Comparative survey of moon symbols and beliefs, and the likely derivation of “tamashii” jewel or soul [Note that in Zhuzhou, shishi (which is close in sound to the Japanese word for rock, “ishi”), is a Mongolic word associated with megalithic tomb stone]
Beliefs in tree worship, tree of life (immortality) and World Tree/Pillar cosmologies may be divided into these categories:
1) Creation myths of a race or tribe originating from trees, (many examples of Tree of Souls follow below)
According to the Altai Turks, human beings are descended from trees. According to the Yakuts, White Mother sits at the base of the Tree of Life, whose branches reach to the heavens where it is occupied by various creatures that have come to life there (Source: Turkic mythology) The central importance of the Tree of Souls to the Turks is dwelt on as revealed from ancient traditional rug motifs and the people who make them:
The Siberian Turks, who preserve most rudiments of ancient Turkish culture, believe in the ties between a man and a tree which they envision as a kind of umbilical cord. They believe, that when an old tree dies, it means that an old man had died somewhere, and when a young tree falls down, it indicated the death of a youth. After death, according their beliefs, the human spirit returns to the tree. Similar notions are current among the Kazaks and the Turkmen of Mangyshlak, who believe that there is a tree in heaven, every leaf of that tree belonging to someone on Earth. When a man dies, his leaf falls off (Karutz, s.a. page 134). It explains certain burial rites connected with trees. Small toothless babies were regarded as creatures completely belonging to Nature, therefore, Siberian Turks used to dispose of their dead bodies, wrapping them in birch bark, and hanging them on trees. Birch bark, the symbol of proximity to Nature, emphasizes that a baby has nothing to do with the culture of men, but instead belongs to wild nature. According to shamanistic beliefs, a six moth old baby still remembers the tree on which his spirit used to reset in the shape of a bird (Sovetskaya ethnograpfiya, 1974, No. 2, p 109). The placenta of a new born baby is buried below a tree. The tree was regarded as a place where reincarnated souls from the clan lived, growing in the shape of leaves, fruits or most often in the shape of birds. Each clan or tribe has its own kind of tree. Spirits of different animal species were also believed to be growing on their own special trees. The archaic cultures of hunter tribes of the Russian East present even more integral notions of incarnating spirits. According to their beliefs, a female demi-god named Omi, the mistress of all kinds of vital forces, lives in Heaven.
A female deity of a similar name, May, which is common to all Turkic peoples and which performs similar functions – patronage of childhood, childbearing, endowing ikhakans with charisma, luck in battle, etc. – probably represents the same personage. In Heaven animal species are ripening on their own tree which belongs to goddess the Omi. Anthropogenic myths about trees, the ancestors of human being, are popular among the peoples of this region.
The forefather of the Nanay people was born by a tree. He was also the first human named Hado or Hodai (Sistemniya issledovaniya vzaimosvyazi drevnih kultur Sibriri I Severnoi Ameriki, 1995, p. 114) [These sound like homonyms for Hoori and Hoderi brothers in the royal genealogy of the ancient Japanese texts]…Other myths tell about the creation of the shaman tree by a demi-god, who is at the same time a shaman himself, and a married couple, who are a brother and a sister born by a tree. Stories of a married couple, the forefathers of mankind, are widespread in Eurasia. In the legendary genealogy of the Oghuz people, the Oghuz name, two trees, the golden one and the silver one, are mentioned.
A newly consecrated Buryat shaman had to run around a tree (Potapov, 1991, 123). Moreover shamans used a tree during their mysteries (Radlov, 1989, p371). Each shaman was a keeper and protector of his clan or tribe. Shamans had their own tree upon which they placed the souls of all the people they protected (potapov., 1991, p423). Such trees were guarded by spirits-protectors assisting shamans. The Yakuts regarded their shamans as trees. His limbs were called “branches”, not arms or legs (Xenofontov, 1992, p. 77) …
The “vak-vak” tree
Now, let us turn to the “talking trees”. In the past, the peoples of Tuva and Altai ascribed to trees certain human abilities (Traditsionnoye mirovozzreniye tyurkov yutshnoi Sibiri, 1990, pp. 68, 79) Trees, according to their beliefs, were conscious of pain, they slept at night, and they could die as humans. The Turks of the Near East called them “talking trees” (danisan agac). In western scholarly works, they are also mentioned under the name “vak-vak”.. The theme of the vak-vak trees is founded upon the notions of the hunter tribes of Siberia that human souls grown on trees. As for the word, vak, it has originated from the Indo-European “bhag”, meaning “tree, ok”. It is known that the ancient Indo )Aryans worshiped oaks. (the Russian word “Bog” (God) also derives from the same stem.( The Yakut “bagah” is evidently related tot the Inod0Euriopean “bhag and “bak”. “Bagah in the Yakut language has two meanings, “tether and pole, pillar”. A similar word “bakan/bagana” of the Turkish languages has almost the same meaning “pole of the tent” (Potamin, vol IV 1883, p. 14). Both these objects played an important part in the rites of birth and fertility. The tether and the pole are the ritual substitutions of the mythical Tree. Turkish speaking peoples making a sacrifice to their gods used to stretch an animal skin on a tree (pole). The existence of a similar custom among the Tyugo people is testified by Chinese sources.
The Buryat Mongols believe:
[Buriat] “A red silk rope is led from the patient to a birch tree set up outside the yurt. The soul of the patient is supposed to come back along this rope … . Outside the yurt a man holds a horse, as … this animal perceives first the arrival of the soul and quivers.”
A long, red ribbon with a copper button at the end is fastened to this arrow. Then the ribbon is … tied to a branch of birch tree that had been stuck there [outside the yurt] into the earth. The red ribbon serves as the path of the soul. … A man is sitting near the tree branch and keeps the … horse of the patient. … the horse feels the presence of the returned soul and begins to tremble and neigh.”
2) A general belief in trees or vegetation as abode of spirits, tree spirits or tree demons (sometimes flanked by animals)
“By far the most common, however, are those myths, which trace mankind to some miraculous source, an origin from plants or trees being perhaps the most frequent of these. For the most part we have from the eastern and southeastern islands only the statement that the ancestor or ancestors of mankind burst from a bamboo or tree, although in some instances the tales are more precise. Thus in the Ceram-laut and Gorrom Islands it is said that in the beginning a woman of great beauty, called Winia, came out of a tree together with a white hog, the woman climbing into a tall tree, while the hog remained at its foot. After a time a raft floated ashore, on which was another woman, Kiliboban by name, who had drifted here from New Guinea and who became the comrade of the hog. Later a man (of whose origin nothing is said) came by and took off his clothing to go in fishing, but the two women saw him and laughed at’ him, whereupon, surprised that any one else was in the vicinity, the man sought for the source of the laughter and found Kiliboban, whom he straightway asked to be his wife. She, however, refused, but directed him to the tree in whose top Winia was concealed; so he climbed the tree forthwith, found the lovely damsel there, and taking her to be his wife, became by her the ancestor of mankind.
… the island of Nias, lying off the western coast of Sumatra. According to myths from this island, there was in the beginning only darkness and fog, which condensed and brought forth a being with-out speech or motion, without head, arms, or legs; and in its turn this being gave existence to another, who died, and from whose heart sprang a tree which bore three sets of three buds. From the first two sets six beings were produced, two of whom made from the third set of buds a man and a woman—the ancestors of mankind
In Amboina and Buru, the first human beings came from a tree after a bird had sat upon it and fructified it. In the latter island, according to one myth, the first to appear was a woman, who built a fire near the base of the tree, which it warmed, whereupon the tree split in two, and a man came forth who married the woman. A variant makes the man the first to appear. In Wetar the first woman came from the fruit of a tree; and far to the north, among the Ami, one of the wild tribes of Formosa, we find the same belief, for it is said that in the beginning a being planted in the ground a staff, which took root and became a bamboo on which two shoots developed, a man issuing from one of them and a woman from the other. Coming farther west to Celebes, traces of the idea are found in Minahassa, where, according to one myth, a tree-trunk floated ashore, and from it, when it was broken open by a deity, a man (in reality a god) came forth. A similar tale from the Tagalog, in the Philippines, is reported, in which two hollow bamboos floated ashore on the first land; these were pecked open by a bird, whereupon a man issued from the one and a woman from the other, the two thus be-coming the ancestors of mankind. The belief appears again in Borneo in a tale from the Kayan, where the tree and vine of miraculous origin produce the ancestors of the different tribes; and a variant also occurs in southeast Borneo. Lastly we find in Nias 7′ that man originated from the fruit of the tree, tora’a, which grew, according to one account, upon the back of one of the first beings derived from original chaos; or according to another, from his heart after his death.” – “Myths of origins and the Deluge of Indonesia
Vines figure prominently in the myths of Southeast Asia, particularly gourd (usually along with a deluge sub-motif) stories:
“The legends of the Kayan, Kenyah, and Bahau of central Borneo. According to the Kayan, originally there was nothing but the primeval sea and over-arching sky; but from the heavens there fell into the sea a great rock, upon whose barren surface, in course of time, slime collected, from which were bred worms that bored into the rock. The sand produced by this boring collected, eventually covering the rock with soil, and after many years there fell from the sun upon this land the wooden handle of a sword which, taking root, grew into a great tree; while from the moon fell a vine which clung to the tree and rooted itself in the rock. From this mating of the tree and vine were born two beings, a boy and a girl, who wedded in their turn and became the ancestors of the Kayan..”Myths of origins and the Deluge of Indonesia:
3) Specific Sacred Tree identification or association with specific deities – or tree associations with kings/princes/holy men/heroes with divine or semi-divine status (the distinction between the two categories may be blurred or one category evolves into another)
Examples of this type of tree belief … are too many to list all. In Japan, most shrines and temples have a “Shinboku” or “divine tree,” a tree regarded as sacred, as the symbol of sacred territory or a place in which the kami dwell” (see Encyclopedia of Shinto). Norse mythology:
The sacrifice of Odin (1895) by Lorenz Frølich
Odin was regarded as “guide of souls” and originally the leader of the war band. One of Odin’s names is Hangatýr, the god of the hanged. The ascetic ritual of hanging from the world tree, Odin’s practice of seidr, his familiar animals (Sleipnir, Huginn and Muninn) and his connection to ecstatic inspiration are highly suggestive of an origin in a shaman leader. With new later influences upon the warring society, Odin’s shamanistic role may have become less prominent, while remaining one of his attributes, so that he became revered in medieval society as a wise king of the gods and bringer of victory.
4) Magical trees with bounty of magical fruit (that can bring healing or have an amulet function to ward off evil), or fruits de la mer (the Fishing Tree) or Bronze Age Golden Tree or the Eastern variant: Tree of Gold, Fortune or the Money Tree
– Greek-Argos: Hera (see below) The deity who gave the fruits of the land, depicted with a pomegranate in hand
The Golden Tree The idea that trees are associated with treasure hoards, and therefore gold or fortune are naturally strongly associated with cultures that were involved with bronze, gold smithing technology (see Sarmatian gold; Silla Korea and the Silk Road: Golden Age, Golden Threads) and coin-minting.
However, a Jewish tale tells of The Golden Tree in the dream of a Jewish king, who regrets banishing his favorite wife, and has to travel to India to find her under a Golden Tree … and who, upon their return, plants a branch of the holy golden tree in his palace garden. The Golden Tree motif is often regarded a trait of Scythian crowns, but it is in fact traceable to the spread of gilt and goldleaf technology across Central Asian and a number of East Asian cultures, see this gallery of Scythian crowns
Crowns of a tree-like (or some say, an Iron Mountain motif) pattern are seen in Japanese tumuli, of a type found in larger numbers in the 5th-6th c. Sillan kingdom of Korea. The Tree of Life (Golden Tree or Tree with golden leaves motif) is thought to be an especially dominant motif of Bronze Age Scythian specifically Indo-Saka peoples, from Iran, Afghanistan in Central Asia diffusing to the Korean peninsula and to Japan in conjunction with gilt-working technology. The motif is particularly associated with princely crowns of Central Asia:
From the animal style of artefacts of the tomb the Ziwiyeh material are thought to have come from the tomb of a Scythian prince, or a Median chieftain. However, Ziwiyeh was most probably a stronghold of the Manneans, an indigenous people of the Zagros Mountains, mentioned in Assyrian records. To the north of this region Scythians followed their traditional life-style, with horse-borne warrior-elites maintaining their social position through rich booty acquired on raids Source: J. Curtis, Ancient Persia-1 (London, The British Museum Press, 2000)
The Japanese gilt crown’s tree motif is similar to the Korean ones such as the one below, from which a genealogical connection is often inferred to exist between the respective royal houses by scholars:
Compare the bird-tree motif of this Japanese crowns …
With the remarkably similar Nanay (Eastern Siberian) tree motif below:
The traditional festive occasion silver headdresses of the Dong women of China still feature designs that are remarkably similar to “Scythian” gold crowns with bird, blossom, leaf or fish motifs included in the design.
Stories of the ‘Tree of Plenty‘ are said to belong to the region along the north coast of New Guinea, eg the Garus people tell the story of a Banag tree which had all kinds of fruits and roots hanging from it ‘like a supermarket’. The children partake of the fruit, but parents cut down the Sacred tree of Plenty, and when the chopped up bits of wood chips from the tree get distributed, the tree becomes available to others.
The sacred tree myths of this region tend to also be coupled with the quarreling brothers motif as well as a generative snake motif, as well as the concept that the tree has to be cut down or destroyed in order for the fruit or root crops to be distributed (Oppenheimer p.413) This Tree of Plenty may be the precursor of the Bronze Tree of Fortune or Money Trees seen in China and India.
more.. Unearthed from Han Dynasty (202 BC – AD 220) family tombs in Guanghan city, China’s Southwest Sichuan province, Oct 11, 2013.[Photo/CFP]. The money tree symbol is a particularly unique icon belonging to the Han dynasty culture, see History of the Money Tree. Compare the above, earlier bronze money tree with the later one below
A great deal of light is thrown on the meaning behind the symbolism of “The Bronze Money Tree” by the Kaikodo Asian Art studio:
“Money Trees provided promise of eternal happiness and wealth in the afterlife through the power of Xiwangmu, Queen Mother of the West, who presided over the Realm of the Immortals at Kunlun. Here she resides within each of the major branches (fig. 1). She sits regally in full frontal posture on her tiger-dragon throne, surrounded by her adoring court, as she is often represented in various arts of the Han including bronze mirrors and ceramic tomb tiles as in one illustrated here (fig. 2), or in the mirror catalogue 44.
Below the goddess, a potpourri of figures tread on the metal ledges, slopes and outcroppings of the branches: equestrians on their mounts, archers crouched with bows and arrows aimed at their prey, hunters, musicians, and dancers. The figures occupy areas of space created by the meandering bronze bones or skeleton of each branch, just as figures on Han ceramic hill jars or on tomb tiles occupy the “space-cells” formed by overlapping hillocks (fig. 3). The composition is also reminiscent of the fantastic creatures perched on swirling lines in Han lacquer painting, creating a sense of space by virtue of their presence (fig.4). Each branch is completed by constellations of large coins, similar to actual Han dynasty coins in design and must have shone as brightly as stars or suns when such trees were first produced, in preparation for burial where they would ensure both wealth and a paradisiacal afterlife in the presence of the Queen Mother.
The large branches of this tree are very similar to a number of successfully restored Money Trees, the one illustrated here notable for its towering height (fig. 5). While Money Trees have been found in a number of provinces, excavations in Sichuan province have shown that area to have been the major center of production. It was furthermore the heartland of the cult of Xiwangmu during the Han period and also the provenance of the tomb tiles illustrated above. The marriage of the goddess—who promises eternal life and good fortune—with a physical and material manifestation of that promise in the form of replicas of hard currency seems fitting enough in itself but is also supported by historical logic. During the 1st century A.D., the local government in Sichuan—a province in the southwest already experiencing great economic prosperity at the time—was given the right by imperial authority to mint coins that were then circulated throughout the land. It is not hard to imagine how this activity contributed to the development of what was clearly one of the most desirable of funerary items during the late Han in Sichuan.
Another source for the origins of the Money Tree can be found in Xiwangmu’s own garden wherein grows a very special peach tree that bears the fruit of immortality. Among the finds from the Marquis Yi of Zeng’s spectacular 5th century B.C. tomb discovered in Suizhou, Hebei province, was a painted lacquer chest with representations of heraldic trees, stiff and symmetrical, flanked at the top by birds or beasts (fig. 6). These trees are depictions of the Fusang Tree from which the Archer Yi shot down nine contender suns. The spiky orbs hanging from the Fusang Tree and the representations of coins on the Sichuan money trees are strikingly similar. More interestingly, the Zeng lacquer painting brings to mind a Han-dynasty textile from Noin-ula, in Mongolia, which was published and discussed many years ago by William Willets (fig. 7). Willets connected this image with the Tree of Life which he noted was believed to grow in a paradise inaccessible to ordinary mortals, bearing fruit capable of prolonging life. He goes on to describe the Tree of Life as part of the stock of world myth, reaching from Mohenjo-daro to Assyria to Europe and spanning an immense length of time. Representations of that tree are stiff and heraldic and the trees are flanked by two birds or beasts, as they are in the lacquer painting. One might then consider elements in the arts of Sichuan province that suggest influence from the West—the Indian-style que towers, the explicit sexuality sometimes present in the sculpture of that province that also has an Indian flavor, or very early images of the Buddha that appear on the trunks of some Money Trees and Money Tree bases in the Eastern Han period (see cat. 46). The concepts and designs resulting in the creation of Han dynasty Money Trees were inspired by multiple sources, each contributing something to their designs and to their efficacy in the afterlife”
A final word on the Turkic Tree symbolism:
The influence from Central Asian Turkic and Saka nomads for whom the tree motif is central, is elaborated upon by Galina Serkina in her treatise on rug motifs:
“It is known that the tree occupied a semantically important position both in the world-outlook and in the ritual of the Turks. In the epics of Turkish speaking peoples the tree was the center of life which functioned as an orientation point in time and space: many epic themes concentrate around the tree, principal events and decisive encounters of epic heroes take place there.
The preservation of archaic cultural elements is most noticeable in those spheres of everyday life for which women are responsible, where mothers, the keepers of the hearth, transfer them to their daughters. The world of female artifacts is consequently more durable: these are objects playing a vital role in the rites of the cycle of life, their principal idea being fertility and rebirth (for example marriage rites). Similar sacred objects are immune to any changes in their shape or decorum. Female dress always preserves the pattern of ancient garments. Thus the bridal headdress of the Central Asia still preserves the shape of the ancient Sacae [Saka, Scythian] hats….
Tree patterns decorated garments of women reaching the age of fecundity. Chinese court ladies of the Tang period wore head dresses with tree decoration introduced by the empresses of the Uyghur origin. The process of cultural integration between China and Central Asia is not limited to the historical period, its roots go back to remote antiquity. In this connection it is worthwhile to mention the subject of one Chinese embroidery (ill. 74, Rudenko, 1968) from the Pazyryk barrow (southern Siberia); phoenixes and pheasants sitting on or flying around the otung tree.
The Chinese poet of the Tang period, Li Bo states that the nature of the phoenixes allows them to live only on the “otung” tree. [This recalls the otun shrines of Wakhan-Afghanistan, which are branches decorated with cloth stuck on top of a stone cairn, the custom said to be derived from the Saka invaders] As we can see, this statement indicates the presence of some vague ties between trees and birds. Another Chinese author (Li Shih, Chen who lived in the 12th century, was not quite aware of the meaning of the term ”otung”. For some reason, not explaining why, he tied it with the word for ”coffin”, referring to the 3rd century BC lexicon “Er-ya”. The earliest known case of the word “otung” appearing in Chinese sources is dated to the 2nd century AD. In ancient times, the word “otung” was disyllabic and was written in two characters. This means that it was most probably borrowed from some other language [This is the opinion of Prof. Leo Menshikov, a Russian sinologist.] I believe there was some reason for the untraceable association between the words “otung” and”coffin” reflected by ancient authors. We know that Central Asian nomad used to bury their dead below trees and to leave the corpses of children and shamans on trees (Viktorova, 1980, p. 1250). It is possible to suggest therefore that the embroidery from Pazyryk presents “the tree of souls”, its image re-worked beyond recognition by the creative fantasy of the Chinese people.”- Traces of Tree Worship in the Decorative Patterns of Turkish Rugs by Galina Serkina
5) Tree of Life with healing or life-extending (i.e. immortality)or other properties (knowledge) fruit
With sub-motifs (often a triad) of
a. serpent and
b. bird and
c. other players such as the quarreling siblings)
a. An example of the serpent mythme or motif is to be found among the Sioux of Upper Missouri: The original parents, like the trees from which they developed, at first stood firmly fixed to the earth, until a monster snake gnawed away the roots and gave them independent motion, just as in Paradise the serpent destroyed the harmony and mutual trust which united Adam and Eve.
Traditional Persian and Slavic myths both told of a tree of life that bore the seeds of all the world’s plants. This tree, which looked like an ordinary tree, was guarded by an invisible serpent-dragon that the Persians called Simarghu and the Slavs called Simorg. For fear of cutting down the tree of life by accident, Slavic peoples performed sacred ceremonies before taking down a tree. The Persians cut no trees but waited for them to fall naturally. The Simorg creature evolved and took many forms, and somewhere between Kazakhstan, Iran and Western China, the Simorg became a Dragon-Peacock, and eventually a Phoenix at the top of the Chinese bronze tree (see my article “Will the real firebird step forward?“).
Trees—or the fruit they bore—also came to be associated with wisdom, knowledge, or hidden secrets.
Two sacred trees—the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil—appear in the Near Eastern story of the Garden of Eden, told in the book of Genesis of the Bible. God ordered Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, not to eat the fruit of either tree. Disobeying, they ate fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and became aware of guilt, shame, and sin. God cast them out of the garden before they could eat the fruit of the Tree of Life, which would have made them immortal. Thereafter, they and their descendants had to live in a world that included sin and death (Myth Encyclopedia)
The Tree of Life myths from the Bronze Ages to medieval times, are usually featured amidst these complexes of motifs as well:
i. The bird-tree-snake triad in the Lost Homeland/Paradise …is probably the most recognizable motif of Near Eastern mythology and Biblical references: Lilith is related to the bird (bird-goddess) motif in the “Eden” garden, see Lilith in Sumeria and Babylonia
“Lilith’s flower was the lilu, or lily, or “lotus” of her genital magic, which represented the virgin aspect of the Triple Goddess. A Sumerian king list dating from this time states that Lugalbanda, father of the great hero Gilgamesh, was a Lillu-demon. This statement cal also be read as a veiled reference pointing to Gilgamesh, who was reputed to be two-thirds divine and one-third human, to have the sacred blood lineage descending from the sexual rites of the Goddess.”
A Babylonian terracotta plaque from 2300 BCE depicts Lilith as a Bird Woman and Lady of the Beasts. She is beautiful, with a slender nude body, wings that fall behind her like an open veil, and powerfully clawed owl feet. Her head is adorned with a crown of multiple horns worn by all great deities, and she holds the ring and rod symbols of power. Surrounded by lions as her protectors, and owls depicting her nocturnal wisdom, she is the animal soul of the world, who is associated with every living creature that creepeth and all the beasts of the field. The literal meaning of Lilith’s name is “screech.” She was associated with the screech owl of the night, and later as a demon of screeching.” But we are informed of the Lilith-and-willow-tree association in Lilith: The Mother of Musical Worship (Graves, Patel) where Lilith “appears earlier as ‘Lillake’ on a 2000 BC Sumerian tablet from Ur containing the tale of Gilgamesh and the Willow Tree. There she is a demoness dwelling in the trunk of a willow tree tended by the Goddess Inanna (Anath) on the banks of the Euphrates.” (On her evolved characterization as seductress, see also The Story of Lilith the Seductress) The bird-serpent-tree triad motif in the Biblical garden or paradise setting as a package is not seen in Japan and as such is not given treatment here (please refer to Stephen Oppenheimer’s “Eden in the East and Trees of Paradise” and Elizabeth A. Newsome’s “Trees of Paradise and Pillars of the World” that do the job remarkably well.)
ii. The sun-crow-sun-bird or rooster or phoenix bird in tree (a Eastern variant on the above Near Eastern mythologies).
The ten suns-equals ten sun-birds roosting on the mulberry tree and archer Yi Chinese myths are given very full treatment by Sarah Allen. We return to this motif later in the section on immortality. The bird on a tree-mast or prow of a boat is extremely abundantly found between the Yayoi and Kofun periods in Japan, in either funerary or shrine contexts (eg Ise Grand Shrines) see our article examining rooster symbolism in Japan. [See next section iii for further treatment of this theme]
iii. The immortality grove and location in Paradise, or Other World or Foreign Land The sacred grove is everywhere it seems, Zeus was born under a poplar in Crete; Rhea’s cypress grows out of her temple; Hermes is reared under a urslane tree; Hera is brought up under a willow in Samos; Apollo was born from an olive (or palm); Romulus and Remus under a Ficus ruminalis by the Tiber; Vishnu under a bamiyan and Buddha under a sal-tree, and died there too.
Other famous tree-deity associations include: Dodona: Zeus=oak;
The oak tree at Dodona Oracle, greece
Rome: Jupiter=oak; Arcadia: Artemis=nut-tree and cedar, etc, etc, etc.
Rome: Jupiter=oak; Arcadia: Artemis=nut-tree and cedar, etc, etc, etc.
One of the most vivid and well-known accounts of an immortality grove must be that of the Xi Wangmu, the shamanic great goddess of China (Max Dashu) and her legendary peach grove. Xi wangmu or Queen Mother of the West lives in a
“In a garden hidden by high clouds, her peaches of immortality grow on a colossal Tree, only ripening once every 3000 years. The Tree is a cosmic axis that connects heaven and earth, a ladder traveled by spirits and shamans.
Xi Wang Mu controls the cosmic forces: time and space and the pivotal Great Dipper constellation. With her powers of creation and destruction, she ordains life and death, disease and healing, and determines the life spans of all living beings. The energies of new growth surround her like a cloud. She is attended by hosts of spirits and transcendentals. She presides over the dead and afterlife, and confers divine realization and immortality on spiritual seekers”
The influence of the Xi wangmu Peach Tree – (or perhaps that of a common source prototype tradition) upon Japan can be seen as the Peach Tree symbol appears in the earliest recorded Japanese myths (below).
Taoist immortals motif can be seen engraved on Kofun bronze mirrors, and to a rarer extent in statuary in the tumuli as well. The paper, Stone Ritual Items and the Stones of Okinoshima Island in the Fifth Century(by SHINOHARA Yuichi) traces the influence of Chinese ideas of immortality, jade or nephrite symbolism and Taoism upon the Kofun culture:
“Under the influence of ancient China, the ancient Japanese placed a high value on the materials and colors of precious stone objects in making prestige goods and treasured items. Green jasper and fine green tuff came to be used as the materials for such objects probably because the tradition of using jadeite since the Jōmon period was influenced by the ancient Chinese tradition of using nephrite. The problem is that no material stone has been found to fill the transitional gap between these hard stones to soft talcose materials for precious stone objects. In fact, green jasper and talc even coexisted for some time. This phenomenon suggests that both were used for precious stone objects and that the material and color failed to serve as criteria for differentiation. Interpreting this puzzling state of affairs requires considering the special importance attached to where the material stone came from. The source mattered especially for the Japanese, a people who has traditionally had a special concept of stone; from them, the materials for treasures and sacred treasures must come from a sacred place. Among such sacred places were Mt. Kasen in Izumo (the eastern portion of present-day Shimane prefecture), which produced green jasper. The ancient Japanese believed that Mt. Kasen was a divine mountain and that the green jasper produced there was sacred stone because it was the product of the divine will. In addition, the places that produced the material for precious stone objects were likely considered to be special places that served as a gate to the Taoist immortal world, as has been discussed earlier. The notion of branding production areas emerged as a result.
See also my article “Bamboo good luck symbols, charms, taboos and superstitions and fairytales from Japan and the rest of Asia” which lists the many bamboo fertility myths, myths about bamboo grove immortals or sages, bamboo-tree rites and taboo beliefs, which can, incidentally, be correlated to the regions of the world where bamboo vegetation is distributed. The Norse or Viking complex of myths combines a number of tree motifs into a complex of ideas: The Viking Valhalla palace flanked by the Glasir Grove, the Golden Tree called “Glasir and Gload” was in front of the palace Source: the Viking Glasnir apple grove.
The Glasir Grove located near the southern ridge of Asgard, was an orchard of apple trees that had leaves made of red gold; it was near both GIMLI and GLADSHEIMR. In the middle of this forest, the god Odin had a third palace. Many of the horses of ASGARD grazed here … (Bennett, Guerber)
In addition, Odin’s son, also recalling the “dying tree-and-disappearing deity”‘s motif, is Odin’s son Balder’s death which is replete with the Syrian symbolism of the god Bel’s descent into darkness and his wife Nanna (recalling Inanna), according to Timothy J. Stephany “Brother Gods of Light and Darkness: Origins of the Baldr Myth” (2006):
“The relation of Baldr to mistletoe reinforces the relationship of the seasonal cycle with the god of summer. The general conception of light is more accurate than either sun or summer. However as gods of light and darkness, Baldr and Hod would also be associated with both the daily sun cycle and the annual solar cycle.”
The Norse people also believed that a tree runs like an axis, or pole, through this world and the realms above and below it. They called their World Tree Yggdrasill. It was a great ash tree that nourished gods, humans, and animals, connecting all living things and all phases of existence. It was a great ash tree that nourished gods, humans, and animals, connecting all living things and all phases of existence, but it had an evil serpent gnawing away at its roots (Myth Encyclopedia)
The mythology of early India, preserved in texts called the Upanishads, includes a cosmic tree called Asvattha. It is the living universe, an aspect of Brahman, the world spirit. This cosmic tree reverses the usual order. Its roots are in the sky, and its branches grow downward to cover the earth.(Myth Encyclopedia)
Extended motif of a Solar Boat journeying towards sun /solar-tree or homeland:
Whether the above petroglyphs relate to a funerary context, or a purely solar motif is not known, but the funerary context of the next item is certain.
The Japanese funerary boat symbolism above and cult of Solar boats transporting the departed souls, finds remarkable parallels with the Boats in the Underworld of the Egyptians and Greeks:
“The soul of the deceased faced an arduous journey as he traveled throughout the underworld to reach the field of reeds. To achieve this, the ba (soul) must be able to reach the land of the gods, as this is where it will become immortal. The ba must travel on a solar bark, led by the god Ra, as it travels to and throughout the underworld. This ideology exists throughout Egyptian history, starting in the Naqada Period and continuing for thousands of years.
The funerary cult was [ initially] focused on the lunar deities. Osiris [also a phallic tree dying-and-resurrecting-deity, see Frazer’s chapter “Osiris was a Tree spirit“], the moon god as well as god of the underworld, would take the deceased’s soul on his moon boat to the field of reeds. The field of reeds, a place for the souls immortality, could only be reached after passing the tests of various gods as well as avoiding the destruction by the evil ones. Over time, Egyptian mythology shifted towards a solar-based viewpoint with Ra as the sun god. Ra was essentially a mirror image of the moon god Osiris as he represented a stronger form of control over nature, while Osiris represented the uncontrollable chaos of nature. Every night on his solar bark, Ra would cross the underworld and emerge in the morning on his boat in the east….This bark would also carry the “Light of Consciousness” as it would travel hour by hour, waking up the dead. The destination of the solar boat was thought to be the modern constellation of Orion, which was the celestial home of Osiris. If the ba passed judgement, it would be allowed to reside in this celestial home.
Boats in the underworld also had the purpose of allowing the soul of the Pharaoh to cross various waterways on their journey to reach his place among the gods.” — Boats of the Dead
In Chinese mythology, Fusang refers to a divine tree and island in the East, from where the sun rises. A similar tree, known as Ruomu (若木) exists in the west, and each morning the sun was said to rise from Fusang and fall on Ruomu. Chinese legend has ten birds (typically ravens) living in the tree, and as nine rested, the tenth would carry the sun on its journey. This legend has similarities with the Chinese tale of the fictional hero Houyi, sometimes referred to as the Archer, who is credited with saving the world by shooting down nine of the suns when one day all ten took to the air simultaneously. Scholars have identified the bronze trees found at the archaeological site Sanxingdui with these Fusang trees, while others (Stephen Brennecke) with the Tree of Knowledge and Evil, given the fruit, serpent and bird symbols present on the tree. There is also an enigmatic hand with a triskele symbol on it.
Anne P. Underhill in her book “A Companion to Chinese Archaeology” has taken a totally different interpretation to the serpent, seeing it not as a serpent but as a dragon, interpreting it in the light of the ancient myth that dragons are said to pull the sun like a wagon across the sky, and that the dragons rely on the aid the tree to do so. There is a bird sitting on top of the bronze tree, Underhill refers to the myth of the ten suns as either bird avatars of the sun, or as suns that are transported by the birds across the sky. In addition, she says that the eastern myths of the ten suns dating during the Eastern Zhou period (770-221 BC) are of a much later than the Sichuan myths that are no later than the late Shang period (c. 1600 BC to 1046 BC), deducing that the solar bird myths must have originated in the West rather than in the East as previously thought. Here, Underhill also mentions something possibly of significance – that the iconography of bird bodied, human-headed creatures probably represent the bird-headed clansmen. The third bronze tree from pitK2 was noted to have three branches, each branch attached with a human-headed bird figurine.
This last inference of Underhill’s leads us to strengthened scenario that the Sanxingdui bronze trees represent a type of ancestral Soul Tree too.
iv) Sacred grove – the fertility tree or grove
Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” and Oppenheimer’s “Eden in the East” combined, really give seemingly exhaustive treatment and examination of the cultures that practise sacred grove and vegetative fertility rites, so I don’t propose to deal with those themes that have been covered in many tomes. Frazer mentions the ancient European practice of tree-planting at the birth of a child Imagery of trees associated with fertility is particularly strong among Siberians and Turkmen and among Austro-Asiatics, Austronesians and Island Southeast Asians.
“A photo of a tree in Anatolia, with pieces of cloth tied on to the branches, symbolizing talismans to ensure fertility in childless women. In Turkey, notions and tires where the tree holds a place of importance are especially evident in the eastern part of the country (Serebryskova, 1979, pp130-31). Childless Turkish women and girls of marriageable age make a pilgrimage to a tree growing in a lonely place somewhere near their village or close to a mazar – a sacred place connected with the name of a local saint. Models of cradles and dolls tied to the branches of trees materialized and the wishes of the childless pilgrims. Other such bloodless sacrifices were made in the form of pieces of cloth or fillets. Similar trees are scattered all over Asia (Araz, 1995, pp 230-231). Childless Kazakh women appealed to the spirit of the a tree standing alone on the steppes and offered him a sheep (Radlov, 1989, ppp 230-31). The roots of this selective attitude to trees lie in the East.
Yakut women believed that childless woman could conceive a child after spending a night under a larch-tree having an unusual crown. A personage from the Kyrgyz Manas epic, whose wife remained childless for many years, explained it by her “neither going to a sacred place, nor lying where an apple tree grows… Chorasmian Uzbeks used to bury a placenta umbilical cord or a fetus less than three months old under a fruit tree so that it could go to the place of its former being. In the shaman’s performances of the Uzbeks in Samarkand, the fruit tree served as the symbol of fertility among childless women (Doislrnskiye verovaniya I obryady v Sredny Azii, 1975, p 69). In Erzurum and in other parts of the Turkey, an apple branch was set in the room where a woman was giving birth to a child (Serebryakova 1979, pp 130-3`1). The Siberian Turks, who preserve most rudiments of ancient Turkish culture, believe in the ties between a man and a tree which they envision as a kind of umbilical cord.” — Traces of Tree Worship in the Decorative Patterns of Turkish Rugs (Galina Serkina)
The Sacred Branch procession
“The carrying of the sacred branch in solemn procession formed the essential feature in some of the most important religious festivals of Greece. At Daphenephoria, held every nine years at Thebes in Boetia in honour of Apollo, the chief post in the procession was held by the Daphephorus, or laurel-bearer, a boy chosen for his strength and beauty. He was followed to the temple of the god by a chorus of maidens, also bearing branches nad chanting a porcessional hymn and was regarded for the ocasion as the priest of Apollo who bore amongst his many other appelations that of Daphenphorus because he had brought the laurel to Delphi and planted it there.” – p. 47 The sacred tree or, The tree in religion and myth
In much the same manner, we see in Japan a “festival with a similar name of keichinsai is held at Kashima Jinja in Kashiba City, Kitakuzushiro County, Nara Prefecture, on January 16. The primary focus of the ritual is the tōya watashi in which gohei of sakaki and shiraki (unfinished wood) are moved from the shrine to the tōya‘s residence” — “Gechinsai” Encyclopedia of Shinto. (The purpose of the ritual is the warding off of evil pestilent spirits. Rivaling the symbolism of the pine tree, the Sakaki is the sacred laurel and evergreen tree of Japan, used in many shrine rituals and festivals, see The Sakaki from Myth to Modern Japan (Renata Maria Rusu) and Sakaki: Sacred Tree of Shinto for all its deep symbolism and connections with central Kojiki and Nihongi myths, and the Amaterasu solar myth. We suggest that the Sakaki Tree is so named, because it originally signified that it was a tree of the Saka people, literally Saka-tree.
v) Cosmic Pillar and Sacred Adonis fertility (submotif of dismemberment and disappearing/dying and resurrected deity motif); phallic tree symbolism; symbolism of the erecting of asherah poles or tree pillars or poles; tree ladder climbing practices
The most famous of practice in Japan is possibly that of Lake Suwa’s Suwa Taisha. The erecting of the sacred tree pillar here is said to have strong masculinity and virility symbolism.
Enshrined at the Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen-jinja Shrine’s sacred grove are two large Japanese cedars and one Japanese cypress, the God Trees or “Goshinboku ”. They are over 1000 years old and are believed to stand guard over the shrine. Oyama (Yamamatsuri) Festival
vii. The pair of tree posts-gate, dokana and tori
The Dioskouri twins were associated with the Indo-European tradition of dual kingship and were so appreciated that two princes of their ruling house were elevated to immortality. Sparta’s unique dual kingship reflects the divine influence of the Dioscuri. When the Spartan army marched to war, one king remained behind at home, accompanied by one of the Twins, thus securing political order in the realm of the Gods”. The tree was regarded by the Spartans as sacred to Castor and Pollux, and images of the twins were often hung in its branches. While elevated to deities in their own right, they usually accompanied greater deities and goddesses.
The “God-entertaining” cult ritual theoxenia and a domestic setting with amphora (of wine?) was particularly associated with Castor and Pollux, with the two deities were summoned to a table laden with food, whether at public hearths or individuals’ own home shrines where the offering was a meal offered to the house god and the house god was a snake that came to partake of it (hence the depiction of snakes ascending the dokana.
In another interpretation, the dokana represents the house while the Dioskouri twins are themselves the house gods, often represented by amphorae (Greek Popular Religion, Martin P. Nilsson). Strongly associated with sailors and horses, they are sometimes depicted arriving at a gallop over a food-laden table. The “table offerings” were a fairly common feature of Greek cult rituals normally made in the shrines of the gods or heroes concerned. was a characteristic distinction accorded to the Dioskouri. Still other interpretations are that they were seen as phallic pillars and ‘beams’ of the world (A.B.Cook), and guardians to a shrine or sepulchre (the same forgotten meaning for the torii and Korean shrine gates is proposed in these writings) see The Meaning of the “Dokana” by Margert C. Waites.
In the final analysis, Japan owns rich tree symbolism, with the different motifs falling into many of the above defined categories. There appears to be a continuity of ideas from earlier Jomon times with the Jomon Soul Tree and then later Tree of Life motif seen in crowns from Kofun tumuli emerged from pan-Asian cosmology and tree worship practices. The maga-tama jewels were symbolic of a prototype kind of ancestral “Soul Tree” of the Turkic type or of the Iranic or the Soul Tree of the kabbalistic writings. The sun positioning on the mountain peaks suggest ancestor veneration may have taken place perhaps during spring or autumn equinox, such as during the current Bon period or during the spring Nowruz spring New Year festivities.
Since the magatama pendant ornaments and amulets originate early on during the Jomon era, the origin of the practice must lie with some of the earliest waves of migratory peoples into Japan. Y-DNA haplogroups C and D and NO are shown by DNA analysis to have been the earliest colonizers of South East Asia and East Asia (Wang and Li 2013) and any of these lineages may have brought Soul Tree veneration beliefs with them possibly via the Eurasian steppelands with a later Bronze Age Hunnic-Xiongnu wave (from Ordos-Liaoning or alternatively, via Sichuan’s and other Chinese-Xiwangmu-Taoist-following enclaves to Japan), with the tumuli technology. The spread of ancestral tree(s) and tree worship is so widespread throughout SEA and Eastern Asia, some diffusion of motifs from these areas is possible too. According to Oppenheimer:
Resources on Tree Worship Myths of Origins and the Deluge of Indonesia (originally published in the early 1900’s)
Tree worship (Jewish Encyclopedia) The Sacred Tree: Tree worship in Ancient Israel (Jewish Heritage Online Magazine, July 2014) Comparative survey of moon symbols and beliefs, and the likely derivation of “tamashii” jewel or soul
Traces of Tree Worship in the Decorative Patterns of Turkish Rugs by Galina Serkina (Excerpted from the 11th International Congress of Turkish Arts – Utrecht, the Netherlands, August 23-28, 1999 paper) The paper is an important revelation on the coherent transmission of mythical and shamanistic beliefs via the rug-making technology, and both the rugs and the people who make them, being an amazing visual resource and preserve of knowledge.
“Rugs, like all other artifacts in traditional societies, perform not just utilitarian functions but store and transfer information on the world-outlook o f their creators. Rugs like other kinds o cultural texts (ritual, mythology, images, structures, etc.) retain archaic features which tie the culture of the Turks of Asia Minor with Turkish cultures [ethnic Turkic peoples] of other regions. These features testify to their common sources. Traces of ancient beliefs reflected in carpet patterns of the Turkish of Asia minor reveal their pre-Islamic, shamanistic origin. Turkish prayer rugs (namzliks) were usually intended to be a bridal dowry. Most of them are decorated with tree patterns.
The attention of human societies has always been attracted by the reproduction of life – the principal function of Nature. The cycles of natural cosmic processes was perceived as a constant process of rebirth….
Fertility was the principal essence of life of any traditional society. The tree embodies it in the most concentrated form. For that reason the tree functioned as a sacred center not only in mythology but in rituals as well (the prototype of an altar).””
Sources and further readings:
Encyclopedia of Imaginary and Mythical Places by Theresa Bane (MaacFarland, 2014 p. 68 citing Bennett, Gods and Religions of Ancient and Modern Times, Vol. 1, 288; Grimes, Norse Myths, 260; Guerber, Myths of the Norsemen, 18
Who are the Turks and who are the Huns? compared with Hungarian-Turanian (Sumerian) hypothesis