“One thing seems clear beyond doubt: that the cosmos is a living organism, which renews itself periodically. The mystery of the inexhaustible appearance of life is bound up with the rhythmical renewal of the cosmos. This is why the cosmos was imagined I in the form of a gigantic tree; the mode of being of the cosmos, and first of all its capacity for endless regeneration, are symbolically expressed by the life of the tree.”
Mircea Eliade, “The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion”, p. 193
Tree has always been a religious symbol for human beings. This living organism, with its branches rising towards the sky, and with its roots going below the surface into the unknown lands of the underworld, has always been a fascination and taken basically as a bridge between “two worlds”.
Tree meant growth, strength and stability, and flexibility at the same time. One could grow strong like a tree and be flexible in his being. And this meant “durability” against time and space, which brings us to the essence of a being that is beyond our reality -maybe we can thus call it “God”, or “the Self”.
And also, a tree reminded man of himself: it would grow and live through time as a man does. It gets old, gives fruits and seeds as a man would produce children. So, it also brings us the understanding of time and reality.
And paradoxically, a tree also reminded man of immortality and rebirth: Through time, through seasons, it died and came to life again and again. Man, through rites of vegetation could feel the essence of the soul of Nature: eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth. And among many plants and living beings that have been the symbols for this aspect, the tree “represents the living cosmos, endlessly renewing itself”. And for this reason, it also meant connection, I believe, because it revealed the common truths for all beings: life is real; death is real, and these two go after the other for eternity; go together for eternity. Thus, it connected one human being with the other -in timelessness. And this also means being a part of a “family tree”, which is of humanity. Thus, the tree whispered to man’s ear something about the meaningfulness of life itself through representing the renewal of life -a new beginning after the “Fall”. Like the tree, one could create seeds to carry one’s essence for eternity.
Hence, it is meaningful and might be right to say that tree carries powerful psychic energy, either because it is already a very powerful symbol of the psyche itself, or man projected his own psyche onto it very successfully as he did onto other aspects of Nature. However, I believe that this is not of importance, but of a fascinating truth, which took me to explore the story of the Tree of Life in two ancient lands of man: Middle Asia, which is the land of my ancestors, and Egypt, which has always been of my interest and captured my curiosity deeply.
THE HISTORY OF “THE TREE OF LIFE” SYMBOL
As a symbol, the Tree of Life goes all the way back to ancient times. The oldest known example was found in the Domuztepe excavations in Turkey, which dates back to about 7000 BC. It is believed that the symbol spread from there in various ways. However, Anatolia was not the only land where this symbol appeared. Tree was a very common symbol that could be seen in almost every culture, in every religion since earliest times. Moreover, we can see the tree image not only as “the Tree of Life”, but also as “the Cosmic Tree”, and “the World Tree”. Although these names carry different meanings in various ways, one can see a deep connection between these different sides of the same being, which is that it carries the power of “bringing together” the two different worlds (Heaven and Earth; sky and underworld; Father and Mother) of the psyche. And this psychic narrative of “bringing together”, which, I believe, feels like an archetypal story itself seems to have captured the human being from the time immemorial. This narrative, I am deeply interested in to feel through.
TREE AS A RELIGIOUS ELEMENT IN THE MIDDLE ASIAN TURKS
Middle Asia has been home for many different groups, but here, I will be focusing mainly on Altai people, who, as far as we know, were Turks and immigrated to Mongolia from Northeast China and called themselves Altaian.
Jean-Paul Roux, who is a writer of multiple books on the mythology and religions of Turks and Mongolians, says that an Altaian believed that everything that could be perceived in the cosmos resembles himself. He does not make a difference between the living and the non-living, and for him, it is only outside that is the stillness of the object. For him, “everything is alive”, and there is soul in them, and thus they live as man himself does.
Middle Asian Turks, and thus the Altaians, were known to be shamans, and for him, Nature was not a place or a thing, but a creature or a living being that had a soul like himself did. In fact, Nature and man were of the same source for him, and thus, an Altaian could have taken Nature as the projection of his soul. Thus, he might have created rituals around it to feel the connection with the main source in himself, the gods, as to say.
It is essential for me to see that Nature itself, and thus the tree, stood for something bigger than it really was. The belief that tree was the source of life was a very fundamental one in Middle Asian and Siberian peoples. The Altaian seems to have believed that Nature was kind of a God image, and it had the power to transform, to create, to give life and also to take life, and give it again. And through rituals, Altaian shamans made it possible for God to perform His miracles such as healing and bringing the order that is needed on Earth again. Just like Mountain Lake of the Pueblo Indians once said to C. G. Jung that they were the sons of Father Sun, and with their religion they daily help their father (Sun) go across the sky so that it wouldn’t be night forever, so did the Altaian seems to have believed that through getting in touch with God (i.e. via the tree), he made it possible to heal what was broken or sick, or which needed renewal. Thus, the tree could give life and “order” back through life, death and rebirth. It says in one of the oldest texts of Asian Turks, the book of Dede Korkut: “Whether it is a man or a woman, it is the tree which they take as sacred.” This sacredness was due to the tree’s old age -it was ancient and it was unusually big; the biggest thing on earth, like the mountain (which was another image they took as sacred).
In many Altaian peoples (like Kazaks or Kirgiz Turks), especially oak, pine and cypress trees were the most sacred ones. These trees were protected, they were served and taken as “Dede” (means “Grandfather”), and their branches were not cut ever. In fact, these trees became altars, and thus, they were turned into temples where the Altaian could meet with the Creator. And at this point, I feel that this meeting or getting in touch with the sacred, or the Creator was the source of the renewing energy -it gave the power to heal or to bring things together, or to re-order what had been divided and separated. And I cannot help but think that, this process of being in the presence of the tree, and going through rituals including the tree, somehow brought the individual, and the community, into “in-dividuum”. So, my question is: Can we also say that these tree rituals, which I will in a moment be writing about, help the Altaian (shaman) to individuate his people, and also himself?
Mircea Eliade says, “In Asia, as in many other parts of the world, the structure of the universe is understood on the whole as having three tiers—Heaven, Earth, Hell—interconnected by a central axis. This axis passes through an ‘opening,’ a ‘hole,’ by which the gods descend to the Earth and the dead into the subterranean regions. It is through this opening that the soul of the shaman is able to fly away or descend during his celestial or infernal journeys. The three worlds—which are inhabited by gods, men, and the Sovereign of Hell with the dead—are thus imagined as three superimposed planes.” So we might say that the tree stood for some kind of connecting element also for the people and the shaman himself, and thus, the individuation could be possible. It connected the three realms, and acted as an axis, maybe symbolizing the bridge between the ego (man) and the Self (God), thus, it lead to a renewal process, because if we look at this psychologically, when the ego starts to act not only according to its will, but also according to the will of the Self (if there is something as “the will of the Self”!), or if the ego takes action for contributing to the wholeness of the psyche, a new being is born; the old self dies and a new person is born. Then, this would be a rebirth.
Then how did the Altaian shaman perform the ritual for renewal or rebirth?
Eliade states that for the Asian shaman, “cosmologically, the World Tree rises from the center of the earth, from the point of the earth’s ‘navel,’ and its highest branches touch the palace of Bai Ülgän.” Bai Ülgän was the greatest god of the Altaian, and It was placed in the sky. And it was the sky the Altaian looked to reach; the tree was a vehicle, just as the body itself, and it made it possible for the Altaian shaman to reach the sky, the world of the gods. So, the tree was such a mediator, a “medium” just like Mercurius; it made the transformation possible through its “body”. And for the ritual, the Altaian would choose a tree with seven or nine branches, which would symbolize the seven or nine levels of the sky. This ritual tree would show the Altaian shaman “the way to the sky” Then the tree would be a guide, a spiritus, for the shaman. For this, the tree would be placed in the middle of the tent, which would be the ritual space for the shaman. He would enter his tent, and this tree would be the mediator for the spirits -thanks to the tree, the spirits needed by the shaman would descend onto the earth through the tree. And meanwhile, rituals of dancing, singing and sacrifice would be performed. This would be the first night. And when the second night arrived, it would be the time for cosmic travel. The shaman would circle around the tree and then would climb up the tree. This part of the ritual symbolized the ascending and would be the part for rebirth and renewal.
However, it is not only during the performance of the shaman that we can see the renewal process. In Turkish folklore, we see a creation myth about the tree and this story tells us something about the renewal/healing aspect of being.
Yakut people (another family of Middle Asian Turks) believed that “There existed a green tree with eight branches in the middle of the world … and from the top of this tree, there was welling out some kind of heavenly yellowish liquid … and whoever drinks this liquid, he feels not tired anymore and he is fulfilled.”This “heavenly yellowish liquid” is somewhere else seen as “milk”, or “white liquid”, and it seems to renew whomever drinks it. It gives strength, as well as a new life. It gives “kut”, which means “happiness/blessing/peace”. And it is not surprising that sacred in Turkish means “kut-sal”: It is the peace given by the gods. This liquid that is coming from the Tree of Life is giving life; it gives “chi”; it gives life energy. Here we can say that the highlighted truth is that the tree is carrying the life force.
Last of all, it is also not surprising to see a tradition of hanging the deceased onto the tree in Asian Turks. It seems to be depending on the belief that the deceased would be given a new life by the greatest God in the sky (Bai Ülgän) if it is hanged onto the transformative element (the tree) so that the tree could give life (God’s doing), or the deceased could thus reach the God. And another fact is that it is still the tradition to put the deceased into a coffin which is made of wood. In old times, it was not a coffin but the trunk of the tree itself. The deceased was put into a tree so that it could be given life again because the tree hole (“kuçak” – means “armful” in Turkish) was the womb of the Mother. And this takes us to another myth of creation of the Uygur people (another Turkish family in Middle Asia): the birth of Bugu Khan (He was a governor of Uygur Turks during 795-805 AD. The word “Bugu” is very similar to bige, boga, boa in Mongolian language, which means “shaman”, and also means “bull” in Turkish). According to the myth, Bugu Khan was born out of a tree, or of the marriage of two trees (one male and the other female). Here we also see the mother (womb) and mothering aspects of the tree. Additionally, the kuçak was not only the womb that would hold the child but was also the regenerative cave (“the source of Life”) that would heal the sick, even that would give new life to the deceased (like a coffin).
TREE AS A RELIGIOUS ELEMENT IN ANCIENT EGYPT
The Tree of Life is also interwoven within Egyptian history, mythology, art and architecture, and this weaving is through many different narratives, among which are the myths of Osiris, Nut, Hathor and of the trees of persea, acacia, palm and sycamore, and of the symbols like obelisk, ankh and Djed pillar.
In the Old Kingdom, the Tree of Life was the Ished tree, which is an evergreen tree, and was associated with the sycamore, the acacia and the persea. According to a myth, the names of the ascended ones were written on its leaves, and the fruit of the persea symbolized the “sacred heart” of Horus, and eating it gave eternal life and knowledge of the gods.
Also, the djed pillar, which was representing the backbone or spine of Osiris, was associated with tree and the Osirian resurrection story tells much about the sacredness of it: Osiris (god of fertility and birth/re-birth) was seduced by his brother Seth (god of chaos and evil) to lie down in a beautiful wooden chest made of acacia. Seth immediately closed it and threw it into the Nile. It floated down the Nile and across the sea until it was deposited at the foot of a Sycamore or Acacia tree. As the tree grew, it enclosed Osiris within its trunk. The tree was cut down and used as a pillar in the palace of the King of Byblos in Syria. Isis (Goddess of magic, creation and fertility) retrieved the pillar and with the help of Thoth (god of wisdom) she was able to breathe life (Ruach) into her brother/husband Osiris. Isis magically became pregnant by Osiris and bore their son Horus (god of the horizon, the “All Seeing Eye”). After the birth of Horus, Seth cut Osiris’s body into many pieces which were spread across Egypt. Isis gathered all of the pieces together and again with the help of Thoth she brought Osiris’s soul back to his dead body.
We see the renewed and arisen Osiris within this myth, and thus, Osiris became the symbol of stability and rebirth. Here, Osiris’ spine is associated with axis mundi and with the djed, a vertical bar with three or four cross bars representing the tree in which his body laid was used in the palace of the king as a central pillar. The djed was said to represent the re-emergence of Osiris from the Nile in his new, eternal form. Any soul aspiring to continue its existence in the afterlife had to “become an Osiris”, referring to Osiris (the Tree) as the vehicle by which this journey occurred (Perry, 1976). So, the djed was the pillar upon which the earth (the living being) was supported. And psychologically, I believe that the pillar or the backbone stands for the stability or the ego strength during the individuation (rebirth) process. Just like the shaman journeyed using the axis mundi, the world tree, or the pillar, so does the individual explore the unknown through his strong ego.
Ankh appeared in the early dynastic period 3200 BCE and it was referred to as the “key of life,” and was associated with eternal life. Its design symbolizes the morning sun joining with the male and female principles of the heavens and earth. And in carrying the ankh, one held the key to the Tree of Life (the immortal soul). However, although it was known and taken to be the key, I have always felt that the ankh looked also like a tree, or the body of a human being. It feels to me that the body holds the key to eternal life, with its organic structure, because one is never dead even after death: the body is literally eaten by different kinds of living beings (i.e. fungus, bacterias, etc.) and one goes on living as different structures. This is to me “eternal life”.
And it seems that the djed pillar is the Tree of Life in the middle world (i.e. Earth), and as for the Middle Asian Turks, it would be the connecting aspect between the two worlds (Heaven and Hell or Underworld), arising on Earth. In a way, this pillar, or “tet”, also represented coniunctio oppositorum, conjunction of the opposites, and it was one of the symbols of “Ptah”, besides the scepter and the ankh. He was the deity responsible for the creation of the universe by thought and by the Word, and he created all the gods of Egypt. And interestingly, Ptah was generally represented in the guise of a man with green skin, like Khidr in the Islamic religion. To me, this has something to do with the regenerative aspect of the god. Ptah (and also Khidr) included two aspects, dark and light, within their beings, and this makes the possible renewal, I believe: the conjunction of the opposites.
E. A. Wallis Budge, in his “The Gods of the Egyptians or Studies in Egyptian Mythology”, says:
So here we are left with the conjunction of the opposites, and its connection with the Tree, embodied by Osiris. Again, we go back to the renunciation myth of Osiris, and his identification with the tree trunk. And, I cannot help but recall what I have mentioned earlier about the Altaian shaman, “the tree was such a mediator, a ‘medium’ just like Mercurius; it made the transformation possible through its body”. C. G. Jung says, “In the Egyptian texts Osiris had a sun-and-moon nature, and was therefore hermaphroditic like Mercurius.” So, I think, we are faced with a tree spirit here, like “in the fairytale of ‘The Spirit in the Bottle,’ Mercurius can likewise be interpreted as a treenumen … The tree stands for the development and phases of the transformation process, and its fruits or flowers signify the consummation of the work. In the fairytale Mercurius is hidden in the roots of a great oak-tree…”, and it seems to be coming alive through various myths and rituals, which carry the essence and archetype of rebirth and renewal, or of vegetation.
To me, another interesting myth is of the creation of Heliopolis, Iunu, meaning “pillar/tree” in Egyptian.
According to the myth, Ra (Sun god) emerged from the watery world of Nu/Mut/Naumet (Mother) on a mound called Benben. As Benben grew within the empty space Ra, Shu (god of air) and Tefnut (goddess of water) were created. Shu and Tefnut created Nut (goddess of sky – Sycamore Tree) and Geb (god of Earth.) Nut defined the limits of the world as her arms and legs touched the earth in the four directions (symbolic of a tree’s roots and branches). Nut mated with Geb and gave birth to Isis, Osiris, Seth and Nephthys.
The Benben stone is found on the top of the obelisk. An Obelisk is a tapered four-sided column with a square base, topped with a Benben stone (four-sided pyramid) designed to catch the first rays of dawn. An obelisk represented the Tree of Life and the Benben was the Phoenix (also known as Bennu bird) that came out of it. I think that the Benben symbolized the spirit of the obelisk, which came out of it and also stood for the whole tree itself. And thinking about the myth of the Phoenix, one can say that the being of the obelisk (symbol of the Tree of Life) gave life (Phoenix; spirit; Ruach; “fire”) to the Egyptian. E. A. W. Budge says:
“Among the birds which were worshipped by the Egyptians, or held to be sacred, the following were the most important: 1. The Bennu, a bird of the heron species which was identified with the Phoenix. This bird is said to have created itself, and to have come into being from out of the fire which burned on the top of the sacred Persea Tree of Heliopolis; it was essentially a Sun-bird, and was a symbol both of the rising sun and of the dead Sun-god Osiris, from whom it sprang, and to whom it was sacred. The Bennu not only typified the new birth of the sun each morning, but in the earliest period of dynastic history it became the symbol of the resurrection of mankind, for a man’s spiritual body was believed to spring from the dead physical body, just as the living sun of to-day had its origin in the dead sun of yesterday.”
The Phoenix is the mythological bird that comes to life again and again after it dies. It is one of the symbols of renewal and rebirth. In Egypt, I believe, this myth of the obelisk and the belief around it seems to have constellated the archetypal force among the people. Wherever the obelisk would be raised, there the people would be protected and renewed eternally.
THE MOTHER ASPECT
Hathor, Nut and Isis were all given the name, “Lady of the Sycamore Tree.” All three are seen as a mother goddess. Nut was both a sky goddess and Mother Earth, who symbolized the duality and oneness of the Tree of Life. Nut (Sycamore fig) provided life in the form of milk from her breasts and fruit and sap from her body; the Sycamore fig provides a milky substance that could sustain life, which was thought to be given to the dead in the afterlife. Here I think, we again come across with the milk symbol, which is “of the beginning of a divine rebirth of man”. As Budge states, “the favor of Nut gave the deceased the power to rise in a renewed body,” just like the tree of the Middle Asian Yakut, which fed man with its “heavenly yellowish liquid” and gave a new life to man.
Nut/Nu was later depicted as the Tree of Life swallowing Amun-Ra (Sun) and protecting the earth from chaos during the night to rebirth Ra in the morning. In the paintings and frescoes, we see her bending over the earth, her back creating a barrier to protect earth from chaos (night; unconscious). And her feet and hands look like a tree’s roots, holding onto the earth, her arching back is kind of a protective wall or a boundary between the earth (conscious) and the unknown space (unconscious). So, she is like a tree rising up in the sky and bending herself and creating a protection wall for humanity, so that life can emerge (again and again?) and continue. So, she acted as the Mother aspect, which could give life and feed, even heal and give life again.
Besides, in Ancient Egypt, the dead were buried in coffins of sycamore wood in order to make the deceased return back to the womb of the mother goddess. This mother goddess is mostly expressed as Hathor or Isis in tomb paintings. Here again, we can see the similarity between the Egyptian and the Middle Asian, putting the deceased into the womb (kuçak) of the tree, letting it get renewed by the Mother.
C. G. Jung states in his Collected Works 9ii, under the title “Concerning Rebirth” (par. 199-239), that there are five different forms of rebirth. Here within this paper, I discussed mainly the forms of resurrection, rebirth (renovatio) and participation in the process of transformation. Especially the act of the Altaian shaman involved the aim for renovatio, while, maybe, the act of the Egyptian aimed for resurrection. In both religions, participation in the process of transformation through rites was common. And if I am to mention, to summon up the whole discussion, about what might be the purpose of those rebirth/renewal processes, I should continue with the support of what C.G. Jung continued to say about the subjective transformation in the same chapter: I believe that through, for example, those rites of the Altaian shaman, a kind of personal initiation was also there besides the collective one. This made possible the enlargement of personality and the change of internal structure. And the shaman went through magical procedures to transform himself and his people. However, these religious ceremonies and acts, I believe, might not be only for the individual or only for the community, but for both. And although the Egyptian seemed to have performed the rebirth rituals more for the afterlife, the symbols that were used also in daily life (like the obelisk or the djed pillar; talismans) show that there is possibility that also the Egyptian performed rituals through myths, and thus made the rebirth/renewal process possible on Earth.
To summarize, man seems to have been in deep connection with the spirit of the tree, and he welcomed its magical treats. He honored its divine and transformative energy through rites and myths. To him, the tree must have been “sacred”, that is ever alive and giving birth to itself for eternity, and since he did understand its aliveness, he gave space to its sacredness within his everyday life. As Eliade states, “…Life is manifested through a plant symbol. And so, we are back at the idea of vegetation becoming a hierophany -that is, embodying and displaying the sacred- in so far as it signifies something other than itself. No tree or plant is ever sacred simply as a tree or a plant; they become so because they share in a transcendent reality, they become so because they signify that transcendent reality. … Through vegetation it is the whole life, it is nature itself, which is renewed in its manifold rhythms, which is ‘honored’, urged on, prayed to.”
Didem Çivici – Copyright ©2021
Jungian Analyst (diploma candidate @ C.G. Jung Institut, Zürich)
*This paper was originally written as an exam paper for Comparative Religion, to C. G. Jung Institut, Zürich.
 Mircea Eliade, “Patterns in Comparative Religion”, p. 267.
 Jean-Paul Roux, “Orta Asya’da Kutsal Bilgiler ve Hayvanlar”, p. 31-32.
 C. G. Jung, MDR, p. 252.
 Dede Korkut Kitabı, Ergin, p.109, line 3.
 Mircea Eliade, History of Religious Ideas, Vol. 3: From Muhammad to the Age of Reforms, p. 27
 Mircea Eliade, History of Religious Ideas, Vol. 3: From Muhammad to the Age of Reforms, p. 30
 Jean-Paul Roux, “Orta Asya’da Kutsal Bilgiler ve Hayvanlar”, p. 66.
 Jean-Paul Roux, “Orta Asya’da Kutsal Bilgiler ve Hayvanlar”, p. 358.
 Mircea Eliade, “Patterns in Comparative Religion”, p. 267.
 Vol. 1, p. 503.
 Vol. 1, p. 503.
 Jung, C. G., Hull, R. F.C., Adler, Gerhard. “Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 14: Mysterium Coniunctionis”, par. 726.
 Jung, C. G., Hull, R. F.C., Adler, Gerhard. “Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Vol. 9 (Part 2): Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self” par. 372.
 In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, there is a reference to the Benben stone, which says: ‘O Atum-Khoprer, you became high on the height, you rose up as the benben-stone in the Mansion of the Phoenix at On’. The Sun temple in Heliopolis was called “On”.
 E. A. Wallis Budge, “The Gods of the Egyptians or Studies in Egyptian Mythology, Vol.2”, p.371.
 Marie-Louise von Franz, “The Interpretation of Fairy Tales”, p. 161.
 E. A. Wallis Budge, “The Gods of the Egyptians or Studies in Egyptian Mythology, Vol.2”, p.110.
 Jung, C. G., Hull, R. F.C., Adler, Gerhard. “Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Vol. 9 (Part 1): Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious”, par. 215 & 220.
 Jung, C. G., Hull, R. F.C., Adler, Gerhard. “Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Vol. 9 (Part 1): Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious”, par. 231.
 Mircea Eliade, “Patterns in Comparative Religion”, p. 324.