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2.6 Tree of life

The concept of a many-branched tree illustrating the idea that all life on earth is related has been used in science, religion, philosophy, mythology and other areas. A tree of life is:

a- A mystical concept alluding to the interconnectedness of all life on our planet.

b- A metaphor for common descent in the evolutionary sense.

c- A motif in various world theologies, mythologies and philosophies.

2.6.1 Conceptual and mythological “trees of life”

Various trees of life are recounted in folklore, culture and fiction, often relating to immortality or fertility. They had their origin in religious symbolism.

Ancient Egypt

  • In Egyptian mythology, in the Ennead system of Heliopolis, the first couple, apart from Shu and Tefnut (moisture and dryness) and Geb and Nuit (earth and sky), are Isis and Osiris. They were said to have emerged from the acacia tree of Saosis, which the Egyptians considered the tree of life, referring to it as the “tree in which life and death are enclosed”. A much later myth relates how Set killed Osiris, putting him in a coffin, and throwing it into the Nile, the coffin becoming embedded in the base of a tamarisk tree.
  • The Egyptians’ Holy Sycamore also stood on the threshold of life and death, connecting the two worlds.


Fragment of a bronze helmet from Urartu, with the “Tree of Life” depicted.
Fragment of a bronze helmet from Urartu, with the “Tree of Life” depicted.

What is known as the Assyrian Tree of Life was represented by a series of nodes and criss-crossing lines. It was apparently an important religious symbol, often attended to by Eagle-Headed Gods and Priests, or the King himself. The name “Tree of Life” has been attributed to it by modern scholars; it is not used in the Assyrian sources. In fact, no textual evidence pertaining to the symbol exists.

Baha’i Faith

In the Baha’i Sacred Writings, the Tree of Life refers to the reality of the Manifestation of God in whatever age he appears. Hence, today, the Tree of Life is Bahá’u’lláh . But, as the Baha’i Faith teaches the essential unity of the Manifestations of God in the divine realm, the Tree of Life also refers generally to all the Manifestations of God. The Tree of Life is also identified with the Book of the Covenant (the charter of the Covenant of Baha’u’llah).


  • In Chinese mythology a carving of a Tree of Life depicts a phoenix and a dragon –in Chinese mythology the dragon often represents immortality. There is also the Taoist story of a tree that produces a peach every three thousand years. The one who eats the fruit receives immortality.
  • An archaeological discovery in the 1990s was of a sacrificial pit at Sanxingdui in Sichuan, China. Dating from about 1200 BCE, it contained 3 bronze trees, one of them 4 meters high. At the base was a dragon and fruit hanging from the lower branches. At the top is a strange bird-like (phoenix) creature with claws.
  • Also from Sichuan, from the late Han dynasty (c 25 – 220 CE) is another tree of life. The ceramic base is guarded by a horned beast with wings. The leaves of the tree are coins and people. At the apex is a bird with coins and the Sun.

Germanic paganism

Hebrew Bible/Christianity


  • Flora in general plays a central role in the Indian culture, which has largely a vegetarian tradition. The symbolism of the tree is mentioned in the 135th hymn of the 10th book of Rig-Veda, and in the 15th chapter of Bhagavad-gita (1–4).
  • Two varieties of the fig (called Ashvatta in Sanskrit), the banyan tree and the peepal tree are the most revered in the Indian tradition, and both are considered the trees of life. The banyan symbolizes fertility according to the Agni Purana and is worshipped by those wanting children. It is also referred to as the tree of immortality in many Hindu scriptures. The banyan is believed to have nourished mankind with its ‘milk’ before the advent of grain and other food.
  • The fig tree is either a player or an observer in several scriptural incidents of Hinduism. The sages and seers sit under the shade of the fig tree to seek enlightenment, hold discourses and conduct Vedic rituals. The Bodhi tree under which Gautama Buddha achieved enlightenment is a peepal tree.
  • The fig tree assumes special importance in the Indian tradition owing mainly to its ‘two-way growth’ (aerial ‘roots’ growing downwards).

The Book of Mormon

  • The Tree of Life is shown to Lehi and then also to his son Nephi in a dream or vision, between 600 and 592 B.C. according to the Book of Mormon. Lehi recounted the tree as “a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy.” (1 Nephi 8:10)
  • Nephi’s vision is found in 1 Nephi 11:8 “And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me: Look! And I looked and beheld a tree; and it was like unto the tree which my father had seen; and the beauty thereof was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow.”
  • Nephi seeks to learn from the Spirit what the tree represents: “10 and he said unto me: What desirest thou? 11 And I said unto him: To know the interpretation thereof.”
  • Nephi is then shown in vision Mary with the baby Jesus in her arms, after which the Spirit says “21 Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw? 22 And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things. 23 And he spake unto me, saying: Yea, and the most joyous to the soul.”
  • These visions were experienced by Nephi and Lehi before they departed the Bible lands and travelled by boat to the Americas.


  • In Urartu around 13th to 6th century BC, the Tree of Life was a religious symbol, drawn onto the exterior walls of fortresses and carved on the armour of warriors. The branches of the tree were equally divided on the right and left sides of the stem, with each branch having one leaf, and one leaf on the apex of the tree. Servants (some winged) stood on each side of the tree with one of their hands up as if they are taking care of it. This tree can be found on numerous Urartu artefacts, such as paintings on the walls of the Erebuni Fortress in Yerevan, Armenia.


The Kabala Tree of Life derived from the Flower of Life.


  • Among pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, the concept of “world trees” is a prevalent motif in Mesoamerican mythical cosmologies and iconography. World trees embodied the four cardinal directions, which represented also the fourfold nature of a central world tree, a symbolic axis mundi connecting the planes of the Underworld and the sky with that of the terrestrial world.
  • Depictions of world trees, both in their directional and central aspects, are found in the art and mythological traditions of cultures such as the Maya, Aztec, Izapan, Mixtec, Olmec, and others, dating to at least the Mid/Late Formative periods of Mesoamerican chronology. Among the Maya, the central world tree was conceived as or represented by a ceiba tree, and is known variously as a wacah chan or yax imix che, depending on the Mayan language. The trunk of the tree could also be represented by an upright caiman, whose skin evokes the tree’s spiny trunk.
  • Directional world trees are also associated with the four Year-bearers in Mesoamerican calendars, and the directional colours and deities. Mesoamerican codices which have this association outlined include the Dresden, Borgia and Fejérváry-Mayer codices. It is supposed that Mesoamerican sites and ceremonial centres frequently had actual trees planted at each of the four cardinal directions, representing the quadripartite concept.
  • World trees are frequently depicted with birds in their branches, and their roots extending into earth or water (sometimes atop a “water-monster”, symbolic of the underworld).
  • The central world tree has also been interpreted as a representation of the band of the Milky Way.

Other cultures

  • In the Japanese religion of Shinto, trees were marked with sacred paper symbolizing lightning bolts, as trees were thought to be sacred. This was propagated by the fact that after they passed, ancestors and animals were often portrayed as branches on the tree.
  • The Book of One Thousand and One Nights has a story, ‘The Tale of Buluqiya’, in which the hero searches for immortality and finds a paradise with jewel-encrusted trees. Nearby is a Fountain of Youth guarded by Al-Khidr. Unable to defeat the guard, Buluqiya has to return empty-handed.
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh is a similar quest for immortality. In Mesopotamian mythology, Etana searches for a ‘plant of birth’ to provide him with a son. This has a solid provenance of antiquity, being found in cylinder seals from Akkad (2390 – 2249 BCE).
  • One of the earliest forms of ancient Greek religion has its origins associated with tree cults.

Modern interpretations

2.6.2 Modern use in science


Graphical representation of the modern “Tree of Life on the Web” project.

The tree of life in science describes the relationships of all life on Earth in an evolutionary context. Charles Darwin talks about envisioning evolution and ecosystems as a “tangled bank” in “On the Origin of Species”; however, the book’s sole illustration is of a branched diagram that is very tree-like. The evolutionary relationships of the tree of life were refined using genetic data by the great American microbiologist Carl Woese, the discoverer of the domain Archaea and a pioneer in molecular (genetic) methods in evolutionary biology.

From the first growth of the tree, many a limb and branch has decayed and dropped off; and these fallen branches of various sizes may represent those whole orders, families, and genera which have now no living representatives, and which are known to us only in a fossil state. As we here and there see a thin, straggling branch springing from a fork low down in a tree, and which by some chance has been favoured and is still alive on its summit, so we occasionally see an animal like the Ornithorhynchus (Platypus) or Lepidosiren (South American lungfish), which in some small degree connects by its affinities two large branches of life, and which has apparently been saved from fatal competition by having inhabited a protected station. As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.

2.6.3 Views on Darwin’s Theories

People accepting or promoting theories of evolution, whether through Darwinian natural selection or through Lamarckian acquired characteristics, can be described as follow:

  • Evolutionary creationists/Theistic evolutionists who consider their faith in God (or Gods) to be compatible with the scientific understanding of evolution. At the outset this group included libera Christians, Unitarians, Quakers and Deists, who take the approach that God laid down laws which allow species to evolve naturally.
  • Agnostics who accept or promote naturalistic evolution without necessarily believing or disbelieving in the existence of a god or gods.
  • Atheists who consider that belief in God is unreasonable and that the development of life can be explained naturalistically.

2.7 Transmutation of the species

Transmutation of species was a term used by Jean Baptiste Lamarck in 1809 for his theory that described the altering of one species into another. It was one of the names commonly used for evolutionary ideas in the 19th century before Charles Darwin published “On The Origin of Species” (1859). Other names used in this period include the development hypothesis and the theory of regular gradation. Transformation is another word used quite as often as transmutation in this context. These early 19th century evolutionary ideas played an important role in the history of evolutionary thought.

The proto-evolutionary thinkers of the 18th and early 19th century had to invent terms to label their ideas, and the terminology did not settle down until some time after the publication of the “Origin of Species”. The word evolution was quite a late-comer: it can be seen in Herbert Spencer‘s Social Statics of 1851, and there is at least one earlier example, but it was not in general use until about 1865-70.