Combs of Wood: The Cosmic Tree

February 13, 2010 at 9:45 am Leave a comment

Tree inside rainbow

The Tree is an image of ourselves,  but it is also a symbol and as such larger than ourselves. In the same way as every one of us stands in the center of the circle that is the horizon, the symbolic Tree is the Center and because of this,  climbing this tree allows us to find the opening between our daily life and a different reality.

In ancient Egypt, the sky was a huge tree. The stars were the fruits or the leaves.

In Hebraic and Islamic traditions, the Tree of Life has its roots in heaven with its branches overarching the earth.  We also find this tradition in the Hindu Upanishads.

For the Buddhists, the Bodhi Tree is both the source of life and the tree of enlightenment.

The spirit of the shaman climbs the Tree in the Center to make her way from one reality to another.

In Christianity, the Cross plays the same role. In the Middle Ages, the image of the cross was so important that according  to popular traditions its wood could not come from an ordinary tree.   In fact,  in the 14th century the popular Golden Legend recorded  that it was made from the Tree of Knowledge, which once grew in the center of Paradise:

It begins with Adam feeling that he is about to die. He sends his son Seth to the entrance of  the Garden of Eden to ask the angel for a seed from the Tree of Knowledge. Upon receiving it, Seth puts it in the mouth of his dying father and from the navel of the dead Adam a mighty tree grows. Salomon finds it and incorporates a plank  in his new temple in Jerusalem where the Queen of Saba adores it. However, Salomon having learned its origin, orders it taken down and buried. A thousand years later, some Roman soldiers find it and use it for the cross on which Jesus is crucified.

The cross incorporates the two realities: It was an instrument of torture, a torture from which only death  liberated you.  It is the tool of redemption.  One is physical, the other one is spiritual. The  Cross is  the  Center that opens the Way over the Threshold.


In the Scandinavian sagathis tree is named  Yggdrasil, a mighty ash tree that grows near a well, the spring of Mimir, beside which the Norns, the three Spinners sit. It is not only the Tree, but Cosmos and in the Völuspa, the Vulva, that is the shaman, prophecies that when the end of the world comes, it will tremble, but not fall.

In the great epic of Havamal, Odhinn himself sings the tale how he once hang on the tree for nine days and nine nights without food and drink, pierced by his own spear in order to receive the runes, the highest, most secret knowledge: “A sacrifice of myself to myself.”

This is, as I understand it, the only fit place where Odin, the anthropomorphic personification of Masculinity among the ancient Germanic people, could have sacrificed himself. It had to happen on the Tree that is an analogy, a symbolic image of himself as the principal god. (I acknowledge with gratefulness having borrowed this explanation from Terry Pratchett’s books about the Discworld.)

Yggdrasil is, however, not only a symbol of masculinity. The nine days and nights – three times three, the number three being the sides of the triangle, that from the beginning of the late Paleolithic Age, 25 000 years ago,  symbolizes Femininity – shows that the World Tree is both feminine and masculine — but neither male or female — uniting all opposites in itself.

Photo K.B.

The Summer Tree in Fionavar

Guy Gavriel Kay has transposed this majestic tale to a human environment in his chronic about the Fionavar Tapestry:

Five students, two women and three men, agree to “travel” from Toronto to Fionavar, also called the First World, plagued by a terrible drought. Paul, feeling guilty over his beloved’s death, offers to sacrifice himself on the Summer Tree instead of the king in order to bring back the rain. Bound on the Tree he can only move his head; the nights are freezing, the days scorching hot. He begins to understand that he is there to die. During the third night the full moon rises in the sky where a new moon should be and Paul suddenly understands that he is innocent–he has not even unconsciously wished for Rachel’s death. His tears begin to flow and with them the rain comes, a steady, summer rain.

Paul doesn’t die. He is taken down and becomes Pwyll Twice-born, Lord of the Summer Tree, always feeling the presence of God inside himself.

Bound on the tree Paul deeply feels the tree inside himself. The ordeal makes him a mortal brother of the immortal gods always feeling the presence of the god inside himself. It is easy to forget that the image of this mighty tree is incorporated in the small wooden comb.

Let me return to Odin, the patriarchal farmer, who created the earth making it his object. Ymir was the primordial giant and Odin’s own father, but in killing him did the son not perchance kill his mother Earth, whose flaxen hair of nettles includes the trees and the forest?

Can one god kill another? Does a new religion kill the earlier gods or do they continue to live somewhere? When we personalize our feelings of love and hate, our longings for protection and security, these images take on their own lives. Being symbols they cannot die, but only go to sleep for some time. Odin is very alive today and so is Gaia, the Earth. The giant’s hair became the trees in the forest that stops baba yaga from catching the Russian girl and her brother, but not the Siberian monster who wants to be transformed. Is it because the forest is an image of the hair of the goddess that it wakes such deep emotions in us?

Swedish Maypole

The  Maypole and the Christmas Tree

When the middle class began to doubt the creed of the Lutheran state church in Sweden — and even more when people began to leave it — a new interest in the Maypole and the Christmas Tree vas born.

The Maypole is known from the early 14th century in Germany. It was a wooden pole covered in greenery that served as the center for dances and plays during the shortest night of the year.  It is a fertility symbol but its significance goes deeper than it only having a phallic shape.

I think that the myth about the Hindu god Shiva and his phallus clarifies what the Maypole is about. (Being Indo-European stories we share the same cultural circle):

Once when Shiva was trying to meditate his erect penis kept bothering him so much that he angrily cut it off.  The penis became a phallus with its own life and began making havoc of heaven and earth. Nothing and nobody could stop him. At last, the desperate gods turned the the Great Mother Devi and asked her for help. She smiled and opened her vulva, her yoni,  for the phallus to settle. Thus creation could begin again.

The Maypole is placed in a hole in the feminine earth. Only in this way can they procreate.

Dancing around the Maypole we continue a dance that began hundred of thousands of years ago, the circular movement around the center, the spinning of the universe around the rod. The swing, too,  that nowadays only has a forward and backward movement began as a circular movement around a pole. I remember how, on the island of Capri, I once found zi’ Antonio, an old farmer, sitting on a swing “to help the grapes mature.” The life-giving force of the circular movement is given by the analogy with the constellations, which slowly move in a horizontal circle around and above the earth at night, and the circular, always returning time of the seasons for sowing and harvesting. We dance the fertility of the Earth.

Swedish Christmas Tree. Photo A. Asker

Six months after Midsummer during the once longest night of the year, we dance around the Christmas Tree in the same way as we dance around the Maypole. Once again we fecundate the now sleeping earth.  We dance around the center being ourselves both the center and the circumference.

My wooden comb

At the end of a vision quest outside the Death Valley in California, I threw my miniature comb made of sandal wood into the desert. It was a sacrifice and it felt the right thing to do, but some time ago I acutely began feeling the void until I discovered, that at that place the comb and I are one. The feelings of emptiness that invaded me are not only because of the comb, but because I left a part of myself outside Death Valley to which I’ll never return.


Entry filed under: Combs, Folktales, Guy Gavriel Kay, Myth, Terry Prachett, Trees.

Combs of Wood: the Anthropomorphic Tree Crouching Tiger

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