Designing from Bones ~ Story Fruit from the World Tree

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Her canopy holds the sky aloft. Her branches, broad and strong, protect and bear fruit born of heaven for those below. Her steady trunk is stronger than the greatest tower, rising as a bridge from the realms of the dead to the homes of the gods. Her roots sink deep into Gaia’s life well – to the heart of the underworld and to that which lies beneath the grave of Tartarus. Her ageless wisdom connects all that is living and dead, on Earth and Heaven and places beyond the knowledge of mankind. She is the World Tree.” (Quote: Gene Lempp).

According to the best scientific evidence, sixty million years ago the species of primates that would rise to become modern humans, lived in trees. And we lived there for longer than we have currently paced the Earth’s skin.

Given this knowledge, it is easy to see why so many of Earth’s cultures explored the idea of a World Tree – an all-encompassing ideal that connected life: past, present, future, living, dead or betwixt the two – into a common ground understanding.

Cultures throughout history have used the World Tree to represent the connection between the heavens, the physical world and the realm of the dead. A connection to the full circle of life. We are born from nowhere (the heavens), live among each other (Earth) and then transition to death (interred below).

A modern example of this concept can be found embedded in James Cameron’s movie Avatar. In the movie, the planet of Pandora has one truly unique feature – a massive tree that is capable of balancing all life on the planet. Of allowing a metaphysical connection between all it gives life to and maintains. It protects and ensures life and its natural cycle. Although James does make one key adjustment, he splits the tree into two aspects – the one the Na’vi live in and the one that acts as the “brain.”

This concept is similar to what the Mayan’s believed. For them, there were five “world trees”. One placed at each cardinal direction point (east, west, north, south) and a large central one – like tent stakes – acting together to hold up the sky and connecting to the underworld.

For the Mayan’s this concept was central to their entire belief system. It determined their gods, the colors and aspects related to the gods, their belief in the origin of mankind and their understanding of the after life. This is very similar to the impact of the great Pandora trees on the culture of the Na’vi.

Yet, this is only one of many beliefs associated globally with the World Tree.

  • Artists conception of Yggdrasil the Norse World Tree. Image by Oluf Olufsen Bagge – Wikicommons CC

    The Norse World Tree, Yggdrasil, a sacred ash, was the daily meeting place of the gods (the Na’vi). It’s roots stretched beyond our world to mystical wells (scientifically unexplainable connection). Within the tree lived a host of creatures, from magical birds to a wyrm (greater dragon – or the flying creatures in Avatar).

  • Kalpataru is an Indonesian wish-fulfilling tree that could grant a person all of their desires. (Calling on nature to defend itself. Returning the dead to life in a new body).
  • The Samoyeds of northern arctic Russia believe that the World Tree connects three different realms (heaven, earth, underworld) and that through it Mother Earth can provide their shaman with a drum allowing him to travel between the realms. (Most protagonist turning points occur at one of the two trees or in relation to them – his transition from evil human to pure Na’vi – and he “beats the drum of change.”)
  • Judeo-Christian belief in the Trees of Life and that of the Knowledge of Good and Evil are strongly associated with the far older concept of a World Tree. (Both “life” and “good and evil” are tested in actions against or in relation to, the trees).

By taking a close look at the five concepts above, one will find many of the themes, story world concepts and cultural foundations James Cameron uses in Avatar. And he signals this with: Big pretty trees under which lie a “near priceless treasure,” cleverly named “unobtainium.” Which, of course, is the central reason for the movie’s conflict.

All connected with and pointing to -> The World Tree. A central concept that holds up the entire story in all its aspects.

The Mayan Izapa Stela 5 depicts a central World Tree that spawns and shelters life. Composite by Madman2001 Wikicommons CC

Here are a few less obvious modern examples of the World Tree.

In Star Wars, the Force acts as a connecting power of the galaxy and pervades most aspects of the story world and plot. No Force = No Star Wars.

In Star Trek, the drive of living creatures to survive and thrive is the connecting power. How each culture approaches these two things offers contrasting views of the vision of the World Tree – and yet, at the root, all living beings desire the same things.

When considering a story, what concept is it that lends stability and power to the overall story? Find that and you’ve found your own personal World Tree.

Are you familiar with the World Tree myths? What is your take on this? Can you think of other examples where this concept was used or “in play?” I’d love to chat with you!

Peaceful Journeys.

About Gene Lempp

Gene Lempp is a writer blending elements of alternate history, the paranormal, fantasy, science fiction and horror for dark and delicious fun. He unearths stories by digging into history, archeology, myth and fable in his Designing from Bones blog series. β€œOnly the moment is eternal and in a moment, everything will change,” sums the heart of his philosophy. You can find Gene at his Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, WANATribe, Google+, Pinterest and StumbleUpon.
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14 Responses to Designing from Bones ~ Story Fruit from the World Tree

  1. ralfast says:

    I always found it fascinating that in the Garden of Eden, two trees are mentioned, but Yahweh only prohibits the eating from the Tree of Knowledge but allows Adam and Eve to consume from the Tree of Life. In Nordic sagas Yggdrasil served both functions. Odin hanged himself from it in order to learn the magic of life and death.

  2. Jenny Hansen says:

    I’m not familiar with most of the World Tree myths but I LOVE your quote at the top and am totally excited that Designing From Bones is back. πŸ™‚

    I soooo want you to turn this series into a book…

  3. I love this post! Your opening quote is amazing!

    It seems so trivial compared to your examples, but the Imagineers at Disney designed a “Tree of Life” as the focal point for their Animal Kingdom park. It’s supposed to symbolize many of the same things you’ve cited in this blog. (I’d post a picture of it here, but I’m not sure how to do that. If you’re intrested you can Google it.)

    Good stuff.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Ral: Oh, I love the Garden of Eden – what I find most interesting about the trees is the fact that they were put in Eden to begin with. Yahwah creates man, and according to the story, is all knowing, which means Yahweh must know the nature of the thing he has created. That you cannot tell a human NOT to do something and expect them to anything other than try to do it. But that is perhaps a subject for theologians to debate, as for me – great story fodder πŸ™‚

      Jenny: Actually, I am. The DfB posts run side by side with my writing research (because I don’t have time to do them separately), which means, all the “elements” that have appeared in them are for one, or more, of the projects I am working on. I just love sharing my story seeds, inspirations, epiphanies, etc. Just how I tick πŸ™‚

      Jansen: Thanks – you’d almost think I pulled it out of my WIP. Almost (grins). I had not heard of the Animal Kingdom Tree but will definitely look it up. Disney is excellent at finding the core myths, tales and legends and finding a use for them – I think it is excellent that they have made Life the centerpiece. Thanks for sharing, much appreciated πŸ™‚

  4. catwoods says:

    I’ve always loved the idea of the World Tree. What always interests me is when so many cultures and religions share the premise, yet we outsiders still struggle to see the essential building blocks that hold us all together.

    Thanks so much for sharing this wonderful post. Your pictures were amazing.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Cate: I believe that it all comes down to context. As you mention we all “share the premise,” essentially, the story idea. From there each person, or culture, will interpret that premise based on the context of their immediate world. Exactly the way writers do. This is what fascinates me about the broad human story, how we all see the exact same things and understand the same precepts, and yet are blind to finding the commonality, instead fighting over the varied nuances. Great to see you, by the way, and thanks for the excellent comment πŸ™‚

  5. Don’t laugh, but in Joss Whedon’s tv series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, friendship to me is what is the connecting force.

  6. What an inspiring post, Gene. Trees and forests are so fascinating and resonate with people in a primal level, likely because our distant ancestors lived in trees. No wonder that there are so many world tree myths all around the world. The idea of the roots of the world tree leading to the underworld gives me shivers. I’d love to write a story where it’s an element. And I can’t wait to read your story that contains the beginning quote.

  7. lynnkelleyauthor says:

    What a fascinating post, Gene. I love trees and tree houses, but I’m not familiar with the World Tree myths. Very cool stuff. And your quote at the beginning is truly awesome! I was wondering which famous author it came from, and what a delight to see that you wrote it!

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  11. I’m coming in a little late, but wow… fantastic post! The only World Tree mythology I was familiar with was the Judeo-Christian one. Your post gave me a hellacious plot bunny! As in, one that’s more like the demon bunny from Monty Python’s Holy Grail than the cute little critters that sit in my backyard… Now to exorcise that so I can focus on my NaNoNovel! πŸ˜€

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