Solstice and Santa

The Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere is December 21 this year, the shortest day and longest night of the year. (For those in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s the Summer Solstice and the longest day of the year.)
What is a Solstice?
If you note the spot where the sun rises each day for a year, you’ll see it moves along the eastern horizon until it reaches its farthest point (the solstice or sun-stop) before it seems to turn around and move back toward the center (the equinox). For a more complete explanation, see the earlier post on Solstice and Equinox.

santa solstice
The Winter Solstice is an important event for those of us who hate the very brief daylight and early darkness of late fall days because we know all that will start to change after the Winter Solstice. The days will start to get longer, the nights shorter. We’ll be on the upswing, even if the day to day change is slight.

This moment of change is so important it’s often marked by rituals and lights. The Hindu festival of Diwali features lights, candles, fireworks, prayers, treats and sweets.santa tree of life menorah

The Jewish festival of Chanukah (Hanukkah) involves songs, prayers, special foods, good fellowship, and of course, the lighting of the candles on the menorah one by one over the course of eight days. The bronze menorah pictured features a Tree of Life design inspired by the African Acacia tree, an interesting combination of themes.

Perhaps the best-known post-Winter Solstice celebration is Christmas, but it is a complicated holiday and season. In some ways, it’s about the birth of Jesus. In others, it’s more a commercial and social event, one sewn together out of dozens of cultural patches from different times and regions.

Two main influences have shaped our thoughts about the Winter Solstice and Christmas: the Mediterranean and ancient Near East, especially the Roman Empire and the early Catholic Church, and the Nordic traditions of Yule.

In the Mediterranean world and the Ancient Near East
The greatest power in the Ancient Near East about 500 BC was the Persian Empire. It stretched from the Black Sea to the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf. After Alexander the Great, originally from Macedonia in Greece, defeated the Persian King Darius, Alexander became the new King and, by 323 BC, extended the empire’s reach from Greece to India, over two million square miles! Alexander sought to combine elements of Greek, Middle Eastern, and Persian culture.
Santa persian_empire map
After Alexander’s death, the empire fell apart, but his efforts to spread Greek culture ushered in the Hellenistic period, which lasted over two hundred years and had a lasting influence on Western civilization.  Alexander coin, below. Note his interesting headdress.

Santa AlexanderCoin
When the Roman Empire conquered Greece, about 146 BC, it incorporated many parts of Greek culture, as well as some elements of Persian culture that Alexander had introduced. When the Roman Empire conquered new lands (See map, below), their armies spread those cultural elements as well.

Santa map-roman-empire1

One interesting element of Persian culture spread by the Roman army was Mithraism, a mysterious men-only cult that involved worship of the sun as Mithra, complex initiations, a strict hierarchy of power, and absolute loyalty to the ruler.santa sol invictus

Even after the cult’s popularity faded, Emperor Diocletian dedicated an altar to Mithras (pictured above) as patron of the Roman Empire. In 80 AD, an altar to Sol Invictus (The Unconquered Sun) in Rome carried the inscription “The Unconquered Sun Mithra.” In a mosaic, Mithra-Sol appears in a chariot drawn across the sky by four horses, as he makes the sun rise and set. He is generally shown with a halo around his head, or a crown of rays, like the sun.

Santa, Sun, Mithra, Apollo

How does all of this about Mithra/Sol Invictus relate to those of us anxiously awaiting the Winter Solstice? The biggest day of the year for followers of Mithra was December 25, when it was clear that the sun was once again growing in strength. The priests of Mithra, called Magi, studied the stars for signs. (They show up in a later story.)
Today, the Iranian festival Shab-e Yalda (“The Night of Birth”) carries on the tradition of gathering together with friends and family to ward off the darkness of the longest night and then celebrate the triumph of Mithra, the Sun God, over darkness.

Santa ChristAsSol mosaic
Interestingly, Sol/Helios, with halo, is sometimes pictured in a golden chariot being pulled by four horses. A 3rd century AD mosaic of Sol Invictus still lies in a necropolis (place of the dead) underneath Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Some now interpret it as the sun-god Helios/Sol Invictus/Jesus Christ. (Mosaic pictured, left)
Saturnalia
The Romans later morphed the December 25 “dies soli invicti nati” (the birthday of the unconquered sun) into a week-long wild party called Saturnalia, dedicated to Saturn, the god of agriculture, liberation, and time. During the festival, which dates back at least as far as 217 BC, Romans decorated their houses with greenery and candles, gave gifts to children, and enjoyed good food, drink, sex, some gambling and fighting – all the regular party elements. With work suspended and lots to celebrate, it was the most popular of the Roman festivals. (Saturn in his chariot, below.  Yes, there is a similarity.)
Santa Saturn in chariot
Indeed, the festival remained popular long after Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of Christians, (312 AD), converted to Christianity, banned Saturnalia and other “pagan” festivals, and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
When Catholic Church officials realized they couldn’t eradicate Saturnalia, they co-opted it, making it the celebration of the birth of Jesus. No one knew the actual date of Jesus’s birth, so it was a perfect date for a celebration of new birth and the triumph of light over darkness.

Art
Though the Roman Empire had a new official religion, it maintained many of the older customs, not just in terms of festivals. Important figures, formerly seen as gods and goddesses, were now presented as Jesus and His particularly notable followers. Through their pure faith and ability to inspire others, they became known as saints. In Christian artwork, they were often marked by a halo, a golden orb around the head very much like the sun orb around the head of Sol/Mithra and the orbs surrounding Hindu and Buddhist holy people.

Santa Kzanskaya Mother of God icon  Santa infant with halo  santa Madonna_benois_01

When Jesus appeared in a painting or sculpture with other holy people, his halo often had rays as well as the orb, in keeping with the Mithraic sense of rank.

The Benoit Madonna, or Madonna with Flowers, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s early paintings (on the far right), shows subtle floating halos around the heads of the Madonna and Child. However, the more modern stained glass image of Jesus shows a full rayed halo reminiscent of the older image in the mosaic (left) and the image of Alexander on the coin.
Santa Jesus halo   Santa StJohnsAshfield_StainedGlass_GoodShepherd_Face

Saint Nicholas
Saint Nicholas was a bishop in Myra (modern-day Turkey) in the 4th century AD, who was known for his strict defense of the Christian faith and his generous gift-giving. He was said to have given gifts to poor children and secretly provided the dowry money to keep three sisters out of a life of prostitution.Santa Saint Nicholas icon

The icon show his serious demeanor, as well as his halo. The painting by Gentile da Fabriano, made a thousand years after Saint Nicholas’s death, shows him sneaking up the side of a building so he can throw bundles of money inside.

Santa Saint Nicholas window

The Nordic Connection
Meanwhile, in Scandinavia, the Juul (Yule) celebration before, during, and after the Winter Solstice included feasting, fighting, drinking, and merrymaking, as well as lots of fire, heat, and light to encourage the return of the sun.
In Norse mythology, the wolf, a symbol of darkness and destruction, is always chasing the goddess of light. At the Winter Solstice, she is at her most vulnerable. Yet the epic Edda says after she is killed and eaten, she is reborn out of the belly of the wolf. Just as she will always be consumed by darkness, she will always return. So the Winter Solstice Yule is a celebration of the interplay of death and rebirth.

santa holly
Like holly, the evergreen tree was a Norse symbol of immortality because it didn’t lose its leaves and turn brown, even after all the other plants did. Therefore, it had special powers. Vikings used holly leaves and berries to make circular wreaths to decorate their houses. To some people, trees were  homes of the spirits, so they decorated evergreen trees in winter with charms and offerings.

The Yule log was burned in honor of the Norse god, Thor, the protector of Earth (Midgard). A piece of the giant log was kept for good luck and as kindling for the following year’s fire.santa yule_log martha vineyard gazette

The picture here shows a log in a hearth, but really a Yule log should be giant and the hearth that can hold it should also be giant, so that, for a moment at least, it can drive away all thoughts of the dark and the cold.

Thor

Thor-Christmas_throughout_Christendom_-_Thor
Unlike the Thor of the Marvel comics and movies, Thor in Nordic legends traveled the skies in a magic chariot drawn by two goats. Sometimes he killed and ate the goats, but they would always be reborn the next day – a perfect symbol for the Winter Solstice sun dying one day and being reborn the next. The goat became a symbol of Thor. Today, the Yule Goat is the most common holiday decoration in Scandinavian countries.

 

goat with elf and light

In some holiday images, elves drive a sleigh pulled by one goat, or several, so they can deliver gifts to children.

Goat and elves-Nystrom_God-Jul_10

The Dark Side
Ancient Norse folk beliefs also included dark, scary figures: the Yule Riders of Norwegian folklore, dangerous creatures of the Underworld; Lussi, who would steal children away into her dark world, Icelandic trolls and the Yule Lads, who live in the mountains with their terrifying ogress mother Gryla and her cat, which eats children.

Krampus

santa krampisparade
Norse and Germanic folklore also gave us Krampus, the Christmas devil who shows up on December 6, which is also the feast day of Saint Nicholas, but Krampus is not carrying gifts. He’s carrying a rod with which he can beat wicked children. He looks truly terrifying. Oddly enough, he’s enjoying a resurgence in popularity these days, especially in Austria and Germany. The photo included is from this year’s festival. Some parents  take their children to meet Krampus and be terrified. Maybe it’s supposed to scare them into better behavior. The main legacy of Krampus, though, seems to be the idea that someone is keeping tabs on your behavior, and you’ll be rewarded with gifts if you’ve been good, but be punished if you’ve been bad.

Mistletoe

Santa Christmas-MistletoeThank the Celtic Druids for the mistletoe you hang in the parlor. Mistletoe, a semi-parasitic plant that grows on willow, apple and oak trees, was long considered a magical, medicinal, and sacred plant that should be gathered at the Summer or Winter Solstice. People often pinned a sprig of mistletoe over the door to ward off evil spirits and encourage goodwill. Interestingly, mistletoe was incorporated into many Saturnalia celebrations as a fertility symbol.
Old Man Winter/Father Christmas/Sinterklaas/Santa Claus
The Nordic Yule Goat at one time brought children gifts. Other pre-Santa Nordic figures include Old Man Winter and Father Christmas.santa_bluecoat

Father Christmas was pictured as an old man with a long beard, very often dressed in embroidered cloth or furs and carrying a cut evergreen tree or perhaps wearing a wreath of holly.  He might still carry a switch to punish bad children.  Sometimes he rode a goat.

 

 

The antique Christmas card pictured below shows Father Christmas carrying a cut evergreen tree, toys, and the baby Jesus, who has a rayed halo, an interesting mix of cultural images.

Santa carrying Jesus

Sinterklass was the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas/Father Christmas. A serious old man sporting a full beard and fine red robes, he kept a book in which he recorded whether each child had been good or bad. He would deliver gifts to good children and a broom made of willow branches to spank bad children.
The Trouble with Christmas
People from all over the globe came to the New World and brought their native customs about the Solstice and Christmas with them. However, these customs were not always welcomed. The Puritans and other conservative Christian sects hated Christmas, claiming it was little more than a pagan celebration with a Christian veneer.
Worse than that, by 1800, Winter Solstice/Christmas celebrations in the US had become wild, rowdy affairs noted for public drunkenness, aggressive begging, and destruction. The common practice of demanding food and drink from the rich (which later turned into the tamer “Wassailing”) sometimes ended in gangs threatening to destroy a house if not offered the finest food and ale.
Santa festive druid with elf
Stephen Nissenbaum describes the problem in his fine book, The Battle for Christmas. There were two camps in the eastern US in 1800: those who wanted the wild Solstice/Harvest party like the one pictured, and those who wanted something gentler, kinder, and more religious. In 1809, partially in response to these problems, Washing Irving published Knickerbocker’s History of New York, in which the narrator claims to remember the old customs associated with Christmas, particularly those of the early Dutch settlers in New York. He describes Saint Nicholas’s wagon, his pipe, and his gifts, and the great customs of visiting family and friends, sharing good food and drink, as well as games. It’s a fine, civilized picture.

In 1810, John Pitard paid for the publication of a pamphlet featuring a picture of Saint Nicholas bringing gifts like toys, oranges, and candy to good children.
In 1821, William Gilley published a poem called “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight,” which includes many of the features we’ve come to expect of Santa: the red outfit, the appearance on Christmas Eve, and the presents for good children. For naughty children, he leaves a birch rod so parents can beat the offending little ones. And the poem is the first to mention reindeer pulling the magic sleigh, rather than goats. Santa HarpersStNick001 1857

“A Visit from St. Nicholas”
This poem, published in 1823, also called by its first line, “’Twas the night before Christmas,” did the most to change the figure of Saint Nicholas into what we know as Santa Claus. Though the main character is called Saint Nicholas in the poem, he’s not the 4th century Turkish bishop, the stern authority figure of the early Church. He’s now good ol’ Saint Nick, dressed in fur that was covered in soot. “He look’d like a peddler just opening his pack.” His eyes twinkle. He has a broad face and a round belly. He’s “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.” He has lost his halo and his bishop’s robes. He no longer has dark hair, dark eyes, and a stern face. In the 1857 Harper’s version, he’s seen climbing down the chimney while his magic flying reindeer/deer wait for him.

Moore’s Santa is much kinder than Sinterklaas or Santeclaus. He’s a jolly old elf like those of Norse lore, even though he doesn’t look much like an elf. He doesn’t leave birch rods, only presents. He winks at the viewer/narrator before he heads back up the chimney, as if they’re both in on a wonderful joke. And he wishes a Happy Christmas to ALL. He’s Father Christmas without all the dark stuff.

santa thomas-nast
The Thomas Nast illustration  shown makes Santa really fat. He’s a figure of plenty. He brings gifts to children. He lives in the North Pole and has a workshop run by elves.  And he’s wildly popular. But he’s not overtly religious. He has a sprig of holly in his cap and a knowing twinkle in his eye. He now carries a long clay pipe, the type fancied by the wealthy. His cheeks look pretty flushed. He carries so many toys he can barely keep hold of them all.  He’s an odd relative of the severe saint he’s named after and the Father Christmas figures who preceded him. Mostly, he’s shown riding on his magical sleigh while he brings presents to children on Christmas Eve. Interestingly, in the card pictured below, he has an American flag on his pink sleigh.  Make that two.  Does this mean Santa only delivers in the USA?
Santa and deer
Through the early 1900s, the Nast version of Santa co-existed with the more gaunt or elfin figures of Father Christmas.Santa Coca-Cola-Christmas

Then, in 1931, Coca-Cola asked Haddon Sundblom to design an image of Santa for their ads. Sundblom’s painting clearly uses the Nast figure of Santa as a model. He’s not an olive-skinned Turk. He’s a blue-eyed, ruddy-cheeked, jolly fat man who sports the red outfit with fur trim on the cuffs. Sundblom’s Santa was so popular, the artist went on to paint Santa ads for Coke for the next 32 years!

So, out of the Solstice, Saturnalia, Mithra, Sol Invictus, Saint Nicholas, Old Man Winter, Father Christmas, Thor, elves, Yule, and good old American commercialism, we end up with something that has parts of all of them and yet turns into something a little less than the sum of those parts. Santa is pleasant and acceptable to many, but in the end, it’s quite a bland image, especially now that it’s been stripped of its ethnic, spiritual, and magical associations. Today he’s used to peddle cars and power drills and soft drinks. He works in malls and shows up at various events around town before Christmas. Children are encouraged to sit in his lap and make wishes/demands.

Santa Miracle on 34th Street
Who is this man with the fake beard and strange outfit? He’s meant to be the figure he never quite manages to be: the Santa in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), in which Edmund Gwenn, as Kris Kringle, convinces young Susan, played by Natalie Wood, and her doubting mother, played by Maureen O’Hara, that Santa Claus really does exist.
That Santa Claus is the personification of a fond memory, a wish for something magical.

Every year, I hear about people who are upset because they think holiday lights and candles and evergreens and mistletoe are “pagan” and therefore evil. But they’re just elements of the past that belongs to all of us. Time didn’t begin with the birth of Jesus. Indeed, He followed customs and rituals of His Jewish ancestors. When we decorate an evergreen tree with lights and hang mistletoe, we are simply giving a nod to our amazing – and complicated – collective past.
Happy Winter Solstice!  Happy Hanukkah!  Merry Christmas!

Sources and interesting reading:
Bagot, Neil, “Yule – A Merry Viking Christmas?” Viking Slots, 19 December 2014, https://www.vikingslots.com/blog/yule-viking-christmas

Basu, Tanya. “Who is Krampus? Explaining the Horrific Christmas Devil,” National Geographic News, 1 December 2017 https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131217-krampus-christmas-santa-devil/

“Coca-Cola didn’t invent Santa – but they did change Christmas as we know it,” The Aps Group, https://www.theapsgroup.com/coca-cola-didnt-invent-santa-change-christmas-know/

Eldridge, Allison. “7 Winter Solstice Celebrations From Around the World,” Britannica.com, https://www.britannica.com/list/7-winter-solstice-celebrations

Fox, Selena, “Celebrating Winter Solstice,” Circle Sanctuary, 2017.

Galloway, Laura, “How Santa Got His Reindeer,” CNN, 223 December 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/22/opiion/galloway-reindeer/index.html

Harris, Kathleen, “How Joulupukki, the Finnish Santa, went from naughty to nice,” Ink Tank, 22 December 2015. http://inktank.fi/how-joulupukki-the-finnish-santa-went-from-naughty-to-nice/

“Halo (Religious Iconography)” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halo_%28religious_iconography%29

Handwerk, Brian, “Saint Nicholas to Santa: The Surprising Origins of Mr. Claus,” National Geographic News, 29 November 2017, https://new.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131219-santa-claus-origin-history-christmas-facts-st-nicholas/

“Holidays and Traditions around the December solstice,” Time and Date AS, 1995 – 2017. Timeanddate.com

“Icelandic Folklore,” Iceland Travel. https://www.icelandtravel.is/about-iceland/culture/folklore

“Julbock ornament – pewter” Scandinavian Shoppe.com. https://scandinavianshoppe.com/products/julbock-ornament-pewter.html

“The Magical History of Yule, The Pagan Winter Solstice Celebration,” The Huffington Post, 2 December 2016, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/winter-solstice-pagan-yule_us_585970abe4b03904470af4c5

Map of Persian Empire about 500 BC, http://www.worldmapsonline.com/persian_empire.htm

Map of Roman Empire at the end of Julius Caesar’s reign, 100 BC BBC Primary History/Romans/Rome

“Mithraism/Persian Religion,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mithraism

Miracle on 34th Street, Twentieth Century Fox, 1947.

“Mosaic of Sol Invictus in Mausoleum M in pre-4th-century necropolis beneath St Peter’s Basilica,” Halo, Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halo_%28religious_iconography%29#media/File:ChristAsSol.jpg

Nelles, Scott, Tree of Life menorah, cast bronze, https://www.etsy.com/listing/59829422/tree-of-life-menorah-cast-bronze-9

Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc, 1998.

Nystrom, Jenny, “Elf Gnome Delivering Presents on Goat Sled,” Christmas counted cross stich or counted needlepoint pattern, Orenco Originals, (//cdn.shopify.com/files/1/1003/2254/products/01a11x14SnataGnomePresentsJennyNystrom…)

“Old Norse Yule Celebration – Myth and Ritual,” Lady of the Labyrinth’s Old Norse Mythology, http://freya.theladyofthelabyrinth.com/?page_id=397

“Old Santeclaus with Much Delight,” anonymous poem published in New York in 1821, Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Santeclaus_with_Much_Delight

Pruitt, Sarah, “8 Winter Solstice Celebrations around the World,” History Stories, A&E Television Networks, 20 December 2016, http://aenetworks.com

“Saint Lucy,” BBC – Religions – Christianity: Saint Lucy. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/saints/lucy.shtml

“Saint Nicholas,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nicholas

Saint Nicholas painting by Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427), public domain, Wikipedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gentile_da_Fabriano_063.jpg

“Santa Claus,” History.com. http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/santa-claus/print

“Santa Claus,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Claus

“Saturn,” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Saturn-god

“Sinterklaas,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinterklaas

“Sol Invictus,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sol_Invictus

“Stained Glass Good Shepherd,” stained glass at St. John the Baptist’s Anglican Church, New South Wales. Wiki Common, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:StJohnsAshfield_StainedGlass_GoodShepherd_Face.jpg

Thomas, Robert B. “Yule comes from the name of old feast in honor of Thor, Midwinter solar rituals included fires, which evolved into yule log,” Deseret News, 12 December 1999. https://www.deseretnews.com/article/732571/Yule-comes-from-the-name-of-old-feast-in-honor-of-Thor.html. Also Ask the Almanac, The Old Farmer’s Almanac, http://www.almanac.comYankeePublishing

“Thor,” Thor with goats, Wiki Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thor_1832_from-Die_Helden_und Gotter_des_Nordens.jpg

“The Tradition of Mistletoe at Christmas,” Why Christmas? https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/mistletoe.shtml

“A Visit from St. Nicholas,” poem by Clement Moore, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Visit_from_St._Nicholas

“A Visit from St. Nicholas,” poem by Clement Moore, 1822, from Burton Egbert Stevenson, ed. The Home Book of Verse, Volume 1 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1912), Project Gutenberg etext #2619, https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Poetry/a_visit_from_st_nicholas.htm

Wade, Deena, “Winter Solstice Traditions: Rituals for a Simple Celebration,” Mother Earth Living, November-December 2004, https://www.motherearthliving.com?Health-and-Wellness/simply-solstice-celebrate-winter-with-new-and-old-traditions

Weaver, Sue. “The Yule Goat (Yulbock)” Storey Publishing, http:www/storey.com/article/yule-goat/

Whipp, Deborah, “The History of Santa’s Reindeer,” Altogether Christmas, http://www.altogetherchristmas.com/traditions/reindeer.html

“Why is Christmas Day on the 25th December?” Ehy Christmas, https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/25th.shtml

“Yule Goat,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yule_Goat

 

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life image is very popular today.  It’s found on T-shirts, jewelry, drawings, paintings, wall-hangings, sculptures, the French 2-euro coin, and many beautiful tattoos.

If someone asked you to draw the tree of life, you’d probably draw a tree trunk rising in the center, surrounded by spreading branches.  Maybe you’d draw a circle around the image, or perhaps the foliage tree of life trivetwould create a circle.  If you drew a Tree of Life like the one on the trivet pictured on the right, which is identified in a sale catalog as a Tree of Life, what makes it a Tree of Life rather than just a tree?

The answers are varied because the image has many forms.  The one on the trivet is a very plain variety. Others tree Julia's Needlewordshold many animals in their branches, including those that never live in trees (like deer or lions) or contain elements that don’t go with the tree, like giant flowers. Or very stylized branches and foliage, like those pictured in the drawing (right).tree Yggdrasil ultime IIby Bog Viking

Often, the image contains a clear pairing of opposites, such as the foliage fan contrasting with the root fan.  Or the presence of the sun and moon.  Or a bird in the branches and a snake in the roots.  In the tattoo illustration on the left, an eagle perches in the tree top while the dragon/serpent controls the lower part.

tree yggdrasil_and_dragon_by_tattoo_design-d7652i2

In many of the examples you’ll find on this post, the Tree of Life features male and female elements.  The trunk is an upright rod (male) while the branches form a fan or circle (female).  Sometimes the whole design is enclosed in a circle.  It’s a symbolic glorification of the union of opposites.

In some cases, the tree itself is simplified into a series of lines, but the intent is the same.  These are examples from Persian rug designs and from ancient Assyria:
tree Persian carpet patternstree Assyrian bas-reliefs

tree of life celtic nordic belt buckle, ebay live_fast (13205)

Some Tree of Life images quite clearly indicate sexual union of humans, but the symbol is usually far more universal.  It illustrates the pairing of opposite forces that engenders creation in all of nature.  Thus the flowers and animals appearing in its branches. The fine pressed paper design by Kevin Dyer uses the oak tree, sacred to the Druids, to illustrate the pairing of opposites that results in new life, represented by the acorn cradled in its roots.tree of life cast paper by Kevin Dyer

While the tree is often generic, as in the trivet, sometimes it’s a specific species, such as an oak (Celtic) or an ash (Nordic), an almond tree (basis for the menorah), a Ceiba (Maya), a Ficus (India), flowering yucca (Anasazi), or a wild plum (The Koran).  In other areas, an ear of wheat, a corn plant, or a thistle might be substituted.  Most of the time, the male (rod) /female (circle) balance remains.

tree thistle by Devin Dyer

In other examples, the tree is a mirror image, combining the power of positive and negative opposites, forming an arboreal yin and yang.

tree of life Paradign Shift

History

tree petroglyph, Naquane, ItalyBecause the Tree of Life is a very old symbol, it’s had many variations over thousands of years and probably many different meanings.  Certainly, the graphic elements of the rod and circle are some of the oldest known images found carved in stone.  The example on the left is from Italy, but similar figures appear all over the world.tree pictograph interior pictograph BC,Canada The rock art figure from British Columbia, Canada, on the right, shows a figure rising out of the combined rod and circle elements.  The stone carving  in the center is from Galicia, Spain.rock art, Spain

While we don’t know what meaning the carvers attached to those images so long ago, we can interpret some of the more recent uses of the same image by asking the descendants of the carvers.  In some cases, the flowering of the combination of male and female is cosmic, as in the union of the earth and the sun, or Scan_20150622personal, as in this petroglyph from Crow Canyon, New Mexico.  The humpbacked Ye’i known as Ghanaskidi bears a sack full of seeds, decorated with feathers.  Similar to the Hopi kachina Kokopelli, he seduces the girls and then offers them gifts. He’s associated with harvest and abundance, increased fertility in humans, plants, and animals.

tree Huichol goddess of lifeThe peyote-driven yarn painting created by the Huichol Indians (Mexico) shows Tacutsi, the Goddess of Life,  giving birth to everything that lives.

 

 

 

 

The Importance of Trees

In some creation stories, the tree was literally the source of life, in that people, plants, and animals emerged from it.   In the Nordic epic, the Edda, the first couple: Askr and Embla, were created from ash and elm trees.  Ancient Indian tales mention a giant Ficus (fig) tree that granted wishes and immortality.  In Germanic myths, apple trees guarded by dragons grew the fruit of eternal youth.  Remains of apples found in a burial site in Sweden, dated to 1500 BC, seem to reinforce this idea.

tree Pakal 2The famous tomb lid of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, in Palenque, Mexico, shows the dead Maya lord being reborn as the young Maize God on the Tree of Life.   Unfortunately, bizarre theories explaining this as the figure of an alien astronaut have become so widespread that people fail to see the very consistent Maya imagery used in the carving.  Pakal, who died as quite an old man, is dressed as the young Maize God.  His position is typically used to show a baby.  He lies just above the gaping jaws of the Underworld, but above him rises the cruciform World Tree that unites the three worlds.  At the top the creator god, Itzamna, perches.  Like the kernel of corn, he must be buried in order to be reborn.  This idea is reinforced by the turtle shell ornament he wears on his chest, a reference to the world being born out of the split back of a turtle.  Around the edges are images of the sun, moon, and stars.

Spirit Trees

Many groups around the world believed that dead people’s souls returned as trees.  Tree worship was common Sacred tree, Japanin many areas in the distant past and persists in some areas to this day.  The photo on the right shows an honored spirit tree in Japan.

 

Modern religious application

Because the Tree of Life was a powerful and popular symbol, it was incorporated into the monotheistic religions that replaced older animist beliefs. In ancient Babylonia, the Tree of Life was called Ea, and the fruits of it bestowed eternal life.  This is perhaps the source of the Old Testament Tree of Life growing in the center of Paradise. Judaism also incorporated that image in the menorah and the Kabbalah Tree of Life.  The Koran includes mention of the Sidra or Tuba tree, which grows in the center of Paradise.

tree  Christ crucified  on treeInterestingly, the male/female dynamic that was so central to older representations of the Tree of Life was often played down or replaced by the central figure of the faith, who became the sole generative force.  In the image shown on the left, the tree of life image was used to represent Christ’s crucifixion on the cross (tree) as the source of life in the world.

In some cases, ancient tree worship combines with modern religious beliefs, as in the icon tree pictured on the left.  It also includes the idea of the tree rising out of the waters of life.

icon tree

The Labyrinth

The new labyrinth is a revival of a very old symbol that provides yet another dimension oftree labyrinth the Tree of Life.  Like the most abstract versions of the Tree of Life, it is a rod (the only path in) and a number of circles (which must be navigated in ritual stages), with a six-petal flower at the center of the circle and end of the rod.  In this case, the flowering is personal and spiritual, rather than sexual or universal.  The pattern pictured on the right is most commonly used in contemporary labyrinths.  It’s based on the design in the Cathedral of Chartres, France, built in 1220 AD, though the earliest surviving labyrinth was found in a rock carving in Sardinia, dated to 2500 BC.  Others were found in Crete, Syria, Greece, and Egypt.  At one time, walking the labyrinth was a popular spiritual exercise.  And it’s coming back into favor.  Over fifty turf labyrinths are currently found in England, Poland, the Czech Republic, Denmark, and Sweden.   The Labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, California has been so successful that church leaders had to make portable versions to take to other locations.  Dr. Lauren Artress, who spearheaded the effort to establish the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral, notes in her book, Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth, that the Chartres labyrinth references the moon, sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn as elements of the whole that one enters when walking the labyrinth.  How interesting that the ancient sense of wholeness, including the sky world, is now popular among church goers in San Francisco!  Many people have said that the experience of walking the labyrinth was transformative and included an element of the feminine and spiritual that they felt had disappeared from the Christian church.

tree turf labyrinth The photo on the left shows an open-air version of the labyrinth. Unlike a maze, the labyrinth does not involve solving puzzles.  The path is very straightforward, can be walked at any pace, and can be used as a guide to meditation.

 

 

So the trivet, the item we saw initially as the Tree of Life, is actually a stripped-down version of an ancient symbol.  It’s lost most of its sexual and spiritual elements, yet it retains something of its history and power.  That’s why it’s so popular.  tree of enlightenment, heaven on earth silks

tree CrowsFeaters Art wire tree amd agate
tree of life steel drum art from Global Crafts

Sources and interesting reading:

Amadi, Reza T.  “Symbolism in Persian Rugs,” Manuscripta Orentalia, vol. 3, no. 1, March 1997. http://www.islamicmanuscripts.info/reference/articles/Ahmadi-a997-mo-03-1-Symbolism.pdf

Artress, Dr. Lauren. Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool.  New York: Riverhead Books, 1995.

Bonaguida, Pacino di, “Tree of Life” painting of the crucified Christ, from the Galleria dell’ Accademia, Florence, Italy

Bjornson, Anthony, “The World Tree or Tree of Life,” norsespirtualism.wordpress.com

Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS), “Images of Ancient Iran: Achaemenid Dynasty (550 – 330 BC) Metalwork and Glass, Golden Décor Piece,” RezaAbbasi9.jpg

Collyer, Chris.  “Tree of Life Rock: Bronze Age Rock Carving”  http://www.stone-circles.org.uk/stone/treeoflife.htm

“Conventional trees of Assyrian bas-reliefs” (Figure 63), www.sacred-texts.com

Davidson, H. R. Ellis.  Gods and Myths of Northern Europe.  Reprinted by Penguin Books, 1990.

Diaz, Gisele, and Alan Rodgers (ed) The Codex Borgia. New York: Dover Press, 1993.

Drawing of Pakal’s sarcophagus lid, Palenque, Mexico, http://www.utexas.edu

Fage, Luc-Henri. “Rock Art of Borneo,” interactive image, from Hands across Time: Exploring the Rock art of Borneo, books.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0508/feature2/zoomify/index.html

Kagedan, Binyamin, “Menorah: History of a Symbol,” JNS.org.  Httyp://www.jns.org/latest-articles/2013/9/23/menorah-history-of-a-symbol

Kim, Jimi, “Yggdrasil” by lazysongwriter, traditional art painting, fc01-deviantart.net

“Labyrinth,” Blanton-Peale Institute and Counseling Center, http://www.blantonpeale.org/labyrinth.html

“Labyrinth: The Walking Prayer,” http:..www.emu.edu/seminary/labyrinth

Lechler, George, “The Tree of Life in Indo-European and Islamic Cultures,” Ars Islamica, Vol.4 (1937) 369-419.

Nuttall, Zelia (ed).  The Codex Nuttall: A Picture Manuscript from Ancient Mexico. New York: Dover Press, 1975.

Rock art, Navajo petroglyph of humpbacked Ye’i, Crow Canyon, New Mexico, from The Serpent and The Sacred Fire by Dennis Slifer

Rogers, Richard A. “Rock Art: Indigenous Images, Historic Inscriptions and Contemporary Graffiti,”  documentaryworks.org/stories/rockart.htm

Saward, Jeff.  “Historic Turf Labyrinths in England,” Labyrinthos, Labyrinths and Maxes Resource Centre, Photo Library and Archive, http://www.labyrinthos.net/turflabuk.html

Slifer, Dennis.  The Serpent and the Sacred Fire: Fertility Images in Southwest Rock Art.  Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2000

“The Tree of Life,” Learning about Rock Art, http://www.angelfire.com/trek/archaeology/tree.html

“The Tree of Life” Symbol Dictionary: A Visual Glossary, http//symboldictionary.net?p=34

“Tree of Enlightenment mandala” from Heaven on Earth Silks, www.etsy.com/listing/182211309/treeofenlightenment

“Tree of Life,” Carpets Auction – LAVER KIRMAN

“Tree of Life,” cast paper art by Kevin Dyer

“Tree of Life,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tree_of_life/

“Tree of Life in Oriental Rugs,” www.capethomeca.com

“Tree of Life mandala,” from Heaven on Earth Silks, www.etsy.com/listing/117394192/tree-of-life-mandala

“Tree of Life Meaning,”   http//www.treeoflife.net.au

“Tree of Life” steel drum art, Global Crafts, Haiti

“Tree of Life Teachings: Living with Passion, Heart and Purpose,” http://www.treeoflifeteachings.com/tree-of-life/

Tree of Life trivet (wood) from Oxfamshop.org.au

“Yggdrasil Art, Yggdrasil,” th05.deviantart.net

Wire Tree of Life on Agate, CrowsFeather Art, on Etsy