More Research from ARAS: The World Tree

From its tangle of roots burrowing into the secrets of the earth to its topmost leaves that sparkle with the stars, the World Tree upholds the universe. A dynamic bridge between above and below, its massive trunk, spine of the middleworld, connects and supports all life: creatures of the underworld creep and tunnel within its limitless root web; while birds make music in the airy freedom of its upperworld branches. In between, many animals - including human beings - are sustained by its manifold gifts of flowers, leaves, fruit, nuts and sheltering branches. The World Tree is both axis mundi and a living reservoir of life. It speaks to us equally of stability and motion: the perfect order and harmony of the cosmos, and the ceaseless activity of life as it pours forth its creative abundance.

ILLUSTRATION OF PROSE EDDA In this 17th century illustration of Snorri Snurluson's Prose Edda, Yggdrasil is beset by four browsing deer, who represent the four winds, and the dragon-like serpent who attacks its roots. The squirrel, Ratatosk, climbs the tree to deliver Nidhogg's latest piece of invective to the eagle of wisdom above, who is aided by the hawk, Vedrfolnir, perching on his head.

AZTEC WORLD TREE In Aztec mythology, the World Tree is rooted in the underworld, passes through the material plane and ascends through the layers of heaven to the garden paradise of Tamoanchan. Its radiant blossoms exude an ambrosial scent.

WORLD TREE LADDER A female shaman of the Machupe tribe of central Chile climbs a carved ladder, symbolizing the World Tree. When she beats her drum her spirit will rise, taking the prayers of her people to the "Mother-Father" of all things.

One of the most complex descriptions of the World Tree comes to us from Scandinavian mythology. At the center of the world grows Yggdrasil, a gigantic evergreen ash or yew, so huge that its branches stretch over heaven and earth alike. One of its three great roots reaches down into the realm where the frost-giants dwell. Here lies Mimir's Well which contains the waters of wisdom and memory. Another root goes into the realm of the dead, while beneath the third is Asgard, the abode of the gods. (Orchard, 185) Close by live the Norns, three sisters who spin the web of destiny and water the tree from the sacred spring of Urd. But even as it grows and flourishes, Yggdrasil is constantly under attack from goats and harts that graze from its shoots, and especially from the cosmic serpent, Nidhogg, who along with scores of smaller snakes, gnaws at its roots. An eagle who lives on the topmost bough battles the snake every day, while the squirrel, Ratatosk, runs up and down carrying insults from one to the other (Davidson, 26). We are made aware of the precarious balance of life, as eagle and serpent, archetypal creatures of heaven and earth, light and darkness, act out the ever-shifting battle for power in our world of opposites.
'Yggdrasil' is thought to mean 'the horse of Ygg' or Odin, the god who sacrificed himself on the tree in order to gain wisdom from Mimir's Well. Odin's ordeal parallels the ritual ascents of the World Tree for initiation and healing found in northern shamanism. The shaman, in ecstatic trance, climbs the tree (usually a birch), rising through many planes of existence to the world of the gods in order to bring back divine wisdom. (Eliade, 119)
The World Tree shows the way beyond our often limited conception of self, connecting us with both heaven and earth. Like twisting roots, our dreams penetrate the soil of the soul and nourish the creative force within, so that it rises out of hidden depths to grow straight and strong like the trunk of a tree. Our thoughts, restless as leaves on wind-blown branches, turn towards the light of the sun to transform its vital energy into the green fire of vision.

Davidson H.R. Ellis. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe London, 1964.
Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism, Princeton, 1974.
Orchard, Andy. Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend London, 1997.