Symbolism in religion is a powerful force to be considered. Many people see the symbolic images or themes of their own religion as wholly different to all others, but with close inspection it can be recognised that there are some symbols which retain significance throughout the majority of major faiths. The most prominent of these symbols that exists in most religions in some shape or form is the tree. It has been said that this is because trees are bountiful and important to humans worldwide, and have been for thousands of years, making them the obvious choice to be assigned holy connotations. A valid argument; however, there are many other plentiful plants that are frequently used by man that haven’t achieved a level of religious significance anywhere near that of the tree.
We’ll start with what we know; in Genesis it explains that there were two trees in the garden of Eden: the tree of knowledge and the tree of life. Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge and were subsequently exiled from paradise. This image can be seen depicted in many churches all over the world, and the story itself is repeated in services, prayer groups and schools countless times all year round. It’s safe to say that these are two pretty important trees. Not only is the frequent use of the story significant, but the idea behind the trees themselves also carries some poignancy. Think about it: these trees, collectively encompassing all knowledge and all life, are the two of the most important symbols in paradise (apart from God himself). Okay, we all know that.
The idea starts to get more interesting when you begin to consider other faiths, namely those not based around the Holy Land. Take Buddhism for example; their holy tree is the famous Bodhi tree, in front of which the Buddha gained enlightenment. Today it is seen as an object of worship for Buddhists, and a symbol of the Buddha’s presence. This is a religion that cropped up on the other side of the world to faiths such as Christianity or Judaism, and yet they share the tree as a key image.
Take a look at religions that have gone out of use and you’ll soon recognise a holy tree in the Scandinavian world of Norse. According to Viking beliefs (known as Norse), there is such as thing as a “World Tree” that stands over and spans through the entire world. In fact all of the worlds; they had many (Midgard, Asgard etc.). It is called Yggdrasil (shown above), and is seen as a sort of great transcendent tree. One story talks of how Odin (the leader of the Gods) hung from its branches and gained all the wisdom of the world. After the apocalypse (Ragnarok), Yggdrasil is one of the only things that still remains.
Even in ancient Egypt, trees are sacred. The sycamore tree carried significance in their faith, and according to the Book of the Dead, two sycamores stood at the gates of heaven. This tree is also said to have been a manifestation of various goddesses, such as Isis. Starting to see some links here? Keep looking and you’ll find that ancient Rome is the same. A fig tree that was sacred to Romulus, the twin of Remus from the founding of Rome myth, grew near the forum in Rome itself. This particular symbol is fascinating if you look at it alongside the Buddhist Bodhi tree, since that too was a fig tree.
I could go on like this for a while. Sacred trees appear in many faiths including that of ancient Greeks, in Hinduism, and in many more after that. The point of all this is that it shows a lack of disparity in religion. In my view that’s not a bad thing. I am a fervent Christian, and I see this kind of evidence only as an argument in favour of faith as a whole. One thing strong atheists like to pick at about religion is the question of which of them is the correct belief, but this kind of investigation seems to answer in our favour. If, since ancient times, religions have had common themes and ideas without any actual communication between them, then does this not show an instinctive drive towards a God? Does that drive not indicate that humans know their creator without actually realising it? Some may say that this only proves that faith is a construct of the brain. I suppose it could go both ways. What do you think?