Thursday, February 26, 2009

Axis mundi: Part 2-The Tree of Life

"Every Microcosm, every inhabited region, has a Centre; that is to say, a place that is sacred above all." ~Mircea Eliade
The axis mundi is a ubiquitous symbol found in just about every religion and civilization throughout history. It is the navel, the center of the world and the universe, a sacred space set aside that has been represented in a variety of shapes be it natural or man-made. They represent man's attempt at unifying around a common deity, concept, or belief. Although the axis mundi is represented by various symbols it is what the symbol represents that unifies Man.

[From Northern Antiquities, an English translation of the Prose Edda from 1847. Yggdrasil painted by Oluf Olufsen Bagge]

Click here to go for Part 1 and Part 3.

The World Tree is present in several religions and mythologies, particularly Indo-European religions. The world tree is a colossal tree which supports and connects three planes of existence: the heavens (sky), the earth (terrestrial plane), and underground (underworld/Hell). The World Tree acts as a symbol that ties and interconnects all planes of reality. In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil (represented as an ash tree), the world tree, is central and considered very holy where the Æsir, gods of the Norse pantheon, go to hold their courts.

Among pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures the world tree embodied the four cardinal directions, and to the Maya the world tree was represented by a ceiba tree.

In Hindu mythology, the ashvastha ( the sacred Fig) is a sacred tree mentioned extensively in their texts. Buddhist call it the The Bodhi Tree, a tree where Siddhārtha Gautama, the supreme Buddha, sat under until gaining enlightenment.

There are two trees that carry strong symbolism throughout Christianity: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. In Genesis the Tree of Life is a tree planted by God whose fruit gives everlasting life. The Eastern Orthodox Church has understood the Tree of Life as a foreshadowing, a prefiguration, of Christ's sacrifice in which the Cross came to be called the Tree of Life.

In Galatians, Paul speaks of two paths that the church could take: the path of (Jewish/Old Testament) Law, and the path of (Christ/New Testament) Faith. Those who follow the Law are under a curse (Gal. 3:10) whereas in Galatians 3:13

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree." Galatians 3:13 (NIV)

At the end of the verse Paul is quoting Deuteronomy where the Law instructs the Israelites to treat the body of a dead person with enormous respect even the bodies of an executed prisoners and military opponents. This might have something to do with the body being ritually unclean after death occurs which might desecrate the land.

22 If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, 23 you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance. Deuteronomy 21:22- 23 (NIV)

There is another allusion to Christ being 'lifted up' in John.

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. John 3:14-15 (NIV)

John was referring to the story of the Nehushtan where the Israelities were once again complaining ("Oy, G_d, where's the meat!") about lack of water and the miserable food. So the Lord sent poisonous serpents into their camp for speaking against Him. The people begged and pleaded with Moses to speak to the Lord, and The Lord told Moses to fashion a serpent onto a pole. Anyone bitten by the serpents may look upon the bronze serpent and live.

Here is how all of this ties together. Jesus compared himself to the Nehushtan, the bronze snake on a pole, that through him all may receive eternal life. He is hung on a cross (historically some people were crucified on a single vertical stake) which later comes to also represent a "tree of Life". The Nehushtan bears a striking resemblance to the rod of Asclepius , which also consists of a serpent on a staff, "is an ancient Greek symbol associated with astrology and with healing the sick through medicine." The serpent wrapped around the staff (axis) is portrayed as a guardian of knowledge. In Shamanism, Shamans, healers and communicators with the Spirit Realm, "gain knowledge and power by traversing the axis mundi and bringing back knowledge from the heavens." The shaman's staff is the physical representation of the axis where the two realms (earthly and spirit) the shaman walks in join.

The Cross then become a nexus of the three realms of existence: the heavens, earth, and underground. "Anyone or anything suspended on the axis between heaven and earth becomes a repository of potential knowledge." Jesus, suspended on the staff/cross/pole is a symbol of spiritual healing brought to humanity. We too can connect with the Divine realm by following Jesus' teachings of Love, Compassion, and Justice. Jesus and the Cross became a gateway, a bridge to the heavenly realms for the world too receive heavenly knowledge. It is with Jesus' teachings (heavenly knowledge), brought back to the earthly realm, that we can begin to heal the wounds of humanity caused by man's hatred, ignorance, cruelty, and injustice.

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