In the modern era, you’ll find the Tree of Life symbol on all manner of items; it is a popular tattoo request, looks fabulous in tapestries and is a stunning design for a necklace or pendant and other forms of jewellery. Yet for the Celts and various ancient cultures, the Tree of Life was an extremely important symbol.
Tree of life symbolism has a long history, crossing many cultures. While it would be overwhelming to explain its significance to each culture, the tree of life has overarching themes and meanings that span across many peoples.
As you may know, trees were a vital element of Celtic culture and in their world, the Tree of Life (crann bethadh) was a representation of how the forces of nature combined to create balance and harmony.
There’s no question that the Tree of Life’s origins pre-date the Celts as it is a powerful symbol in Ancient Egyptian mythology among others. There are various designs associated with this symbol but the Celtic version dates to at least 2,000 B.C. This is when carvings of the design were found in Northern England during the Bronze Age. Obviously, this also predates the Celts by over 1,000 years.
It would appear as if the Celts adopted their Tree of Life symbol from that of the Norse who believed the source of all life on Earth was a world ash tree they called Yggdrasil. In the Norse tradition, the Tree of Life led to nine different worlds including the land of Fire, the world of the dead (Hel) and the land of the Aesir (Asgard). Nine was an important number in both Norse and Celtic cultures.
The Celtic Tree of Life varies from its Norse counterpart in terms of its design which is folded with branches and forms a circle with the tree’s roots. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the design is pretty much a circle with a tree in it.
According to the ancient Celtic Druids, the Tree of Life possessed special powers. When they cleared an area for the purposes of settlement, a single tree would be left in the centre which became known as the Tree of Life. It provided food, warmth and shelter to the population and was also an important meeting place for high ranking members of the tribe.
As it also provided nourishment to animals, this tree was believed to take care of all life on Earth. The Celts also believed that each tree was an ancestor of a human being. It is said that Celtic tribes would only inhabit locations where such a tree was present.
During wars between tribes, the biggest triumph was to cut down the opponent’s Tree of Life. Cutting down your own tribe’s tree was deemed to be one of the worst crimes a Celt could commit.
Perhaps the central tenet of the Tree of Life is the idea that all life on Earth is interconnected. A forest is made up of a large number of individual trees; the branches of each one link together and combine their life force to provide a home for thousands of different species of flora and fauna.
There are actually a number of things the Tree of Life symbolizes in the Celtic tradition:
- Since the Celts believed humans came from trees, they viewed them not only as a living being but also as magical. Trees were guardians of the land and acted as a doorway to the spirit world.
- The upper and lower worlds were connected by the Tree of Life. Remember, a large proportion of a tree is underground so according to the Celts, the roots of the tree reached into the underworld whereas the branches grew to the upper world. The tree trunk connected these worlds with the Earth. This connection also enabled the Gods to communicate with the Tree of Life.
- The tree symbolised strength, wisdom and longevity.
- It also represented rebirth. Trees shed their leaves in the autumn, hibernate in the winter, the leaves grow back in the spring and the tree is full of life in the summer.
Today, the Tree of Life has become one of the most requested tattoo symbols, rivalling the much loved tribal symbol. Most people in the modern era look at trees and don’t give them a second thought. Things were a lot different in ancient times when civilization loved, respected and revered trees. The meaning and symbolism the Celts attached to trees is a prime example of this as these proud warriors viewed them as magical bringers of life that connected all worlds.
The tree of life is a term mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.
In the Book of Genesis, the tree of life is first described in chapter 2, verse 9 as being "in the midst of the Garden of Eden" with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Hebrew: עֵץ הַדַּעַת). After the fall of man, "lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever", cherubim are placed at the east end of the Garden to guard the way to the tree of life. The tree of life has become the subject of some debate as to whether or not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is the same tree.
What do you think?