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  • Writer's pictureHannah McQuilkan

the tree that holds up the universe

As I have researched the role of trees in indigenous cultures around the world, I have discovered that a tree is often central to the creation of the universe and everything in it. A tree is the central being, responsible for both creating the world and holding everything in place.

This is known as the Axis Mundi or World tree, a cosmic pillar that upholds the universe.

In Maori mythology the world was once all in darkness, with Papatuanuku (Earth Mother) and Ranginui (Sky Father) being pushed together, so much did they love each other that in their desire to be close, only darkness prevailed. It was Tane, the God of the forests and birds who was the one to force them apart, thus bringing light to the world.

Across the other side of the world in the Scandinavian Nordic tradition, it is the giant tree Yggdrasil (Eggdrazil) whose trunk rises at the geographical centre of the norse spiritual cosmos. The rest of the cosmos, including the nine worlds is spread around it and held together by its branches and roots, connecting the various parts of the cosmos to one another. The wellbeing of the cosmos depends on the wellbeing of Yggdrasil. Yggdrasil means ‘Horse of Odin’ who was a major God in Norse mythology. Odin is the God of wisdom, healing, death, royalty and war. Yggdrasil is said to be an Ash tree.

An old Norse poem states that ‘Yggdrasil is the friend of the clear sky, so tall its crown above the clouds. Its heights are snow-capped like the tallest mountains and the dews that fall in the dales fall off its leaves. The tree is windy, surrounded by frequent, fierce winds at its heights. No one knows where its roots run because they stretch all the way to the underworld, no one except the shamans can see before they die’. The gods are said to hold their daily council at the tree.

Moving across to Central America, we have a similar view of the tree of life as an important motif in Mayan mythology, specifically concerned with the Mayan view of the cosmos. According to Mayan mythology, the sacred tree of life originated in the underworld, grew through the earthly realm and then rose into the heavenly realm. During its ascent, it gave birth to life on earth and later set the stars and heavenly bodies in motion. In this way, the Mayans held the tree of life to be a vertical axis connecting all the three cosmic realms.

Mayans considered the Ceiba tree as a real-world manifestation and example of the sacred tree of life. Consequently, the Ceiba tree was usually planted in all Mayan settlements and cities. A typical Ceiba has a long, straight trunk and interestingly shelters bats in its roots. The straight and long trunk was considered by the Mayans as a representation of the horizontal axis connecting different realms.

Finally, the Ceiba tree is topped with a canopy of leafage with branches spreading out in all the four directions. This, the Mayans believed, represented the four cardinal directions. To this day, the tree is grown in the centre of Mayan villages and is considered a site of important religious rituals.

This theme of trees is repeated throughout the indigenous world view across our planet, reminding us of a time where all of humanity was deeply and profoundly connected to the earth and all her creatures. Personally, bestowing trees with the honour of holding up the universe feels fitting, indeed, there would be no life on earth if not for trees.

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