world tree

The World Tree is a motif present in several religions and mythologies, particularly Indo-European religions. The world tree is represented as a colossal tree which supports the heavens, thereby connecting the heavens, the earth, and, through its roots, the underground. It may also be strongly connected to the motif of the tree of life.

Specific World Trees include Yggdrasil (or Irminsul) in Norse mythology, the Oak in Slavic and Finnish mythology, and in Hinduism the Ashvastha (a Sacred Fig).

Norse mythology

Norse Mythology's Yggdrasill also shows the tree as a tree on the Earth, a giant taproot in the under world, and boughs in the heavens. The taproot is said to be the shaft of Thor's hammer, Mjolnir. The Nidhogg, who lives at the centre of the Earth, is a giant serpent. The serpent is always bickering with the eagle that houses in the top of the tree. Nidhogg lies on Nastrond in Niflheim and eats corpses to sustain itself. It is not the only serpent whose task it is to destroy the World Tree; other serpents include Graback, Grafvolluth, Goin and Moin, eat the trees roots, while telling bad words to a little red squirrel (Ratatosk), who in turn tells them to mankind.

Siberian culture

The World Tree is also represented in the mythologies and folklore of Northern Asia and Siberia. In the mythology of the Samoyeds, the "world tree" connects different realities (underworld, this world, upper world) together. In their mythology "world tree" is also the symbol of Mother Earth who is said to give the Samoyed shaman his drum and also help him travel from one world to another.

The symbol of the World Tree is also common in Tengriism, an ancient religion of Mongols and Turkic peoples.

The World Tree is visible in the designs of the Crown of Silla, Silla being one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. This link is used to establish a connection between Siberian peoples and those of Korea.

Mesoamerican culture

  • Among pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, the concept of "world trees" is a prevalent motif in Mesoamerican mythical cosmologies and iconography. World trees embodied the four cardinal directions, which represented also the four-fold nature of a central world tree, a symbolic axis mundi connecting the planes of the Underworld and the sky with that of the terrestrial world.
  • Depictions of world trees, both in their directional and central aspects, are found in the art and mythological traditions of cultures such as the Maya, Aztec, Izapan, Mixtec, Olmec, and others, dating to at least the Mid/Late Formative periods of Mesoamerican chronology. Among the Maya, the central world tree was conceived as or represented by a ceiba tree, and is known variously as a wacah chan or yax imix che, depending on the Mayan language. The trunk of the tree could also be represented by an upright caiman, whose skin evokes the tree's spiny trunk.
  • Directional world trees are also associated with the four Yearbearers in Mesoamerican calendars, and the directional colors and deities. Mesoamerican codices which have this association outlined include the Dresden, Borgia and Fejérváry-Mayer codices. It is supposed that Mesoamerican sites and ceremonial centers frequently had actual trees planted at each of the four cardinal directions, representing the quadripartite concept.
  • World trees are frequently depicted with birds in their branches, and their roots extending into earth or water (sometimes atop a "water-monster", symbolic of the underworld).
  • The central world tree has also been interpreted as a representation of the band of the Milky Way.
  • Izapa Stela 5 contains a possible representation of a World Tree.

Other cultures

Although the concept is absent from the Greek mythology, medieval Greek folk traditions and more recent ones claim that the Tree that holds the Earth is being sawed by Kallikantzaroi (commonly translated as goblins).

Parts of Hungarian folklore also bear resemblance to the World Tree, such as the Égig érő fa (Sky-reaching tree) and several folktales connected to it.

The World Tree is widespread in Lithuanian folk painting, and is frequently found carved into household furniture such as cupboards, towel holders, and laundry beaters.

The "Cosmic tree" also was one of the most important beliefs in Latvian mythology.



Further reading

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