“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.
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.
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!