On November 21, 2009, Christine Brown
gave a Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning program on the “tree of life” design.
This program had two parts: first a lecture by Christine treated in the part you are in.
Wendel Swan facilitated, Part 2, in which we examined actual pieces brought in for this session. Part 2 is treated in a separate post. It is advantageous to read through the lecture but here is the link to Part 2:
The virtual version of this program, provided here, follows closely both Christine’s Powerpoint image sequence and her lecture notes without claiming to have adhered to them entirely.
“I will start by defining what I mean by “tree of life” and by discussing design elements that are often found in association with a tree of life that differentiate it from a simple tree.
I will then talk about why the tree, early on and almost universally, became an iconic symbol of the universe.
We will then look at some of the ways that tree designs have been incorporated into objects down through time and around the world in various media, including rock art, bronze sculpture, metalwork, miniature painting, and stone carving.
I will then give some concluding thoughts on the tree of life before turning the floor over to Wendel, who will lead the “show and tell” portion of the program.
Defining Aspects of Tree of Life
“So what is meant by the term ‘tree of life’?
When I began my research, I assumed that there would be a universally accepted definition of a tree of life. What I found were multiple definitions, which don’t necessarily contradict each other; rather, they differ in focus.
I first checked Peter Stone’s book, The Oriental Rug Lexicon, which gives the following definition: “A pervasive motif in oriental rugs, occurring in many variations, naturalistic, geometricized, and abstract. Generally, any primary design motif with a long vertical axis and horizontal or upward pointing limbs.”
The Shahsavan sofreh on the board behind me fits this definition perfectly.
A sofreh is a woven cloth that serves as a dining table. It is stretched out on the ground, platters of food are placed on it, and diners sit around it to eat. Smaller versions are used to wrap bread.
This example belongs to Tom Xenakis, who lent me four of his sofrehs, all of which you will see this morning. This particular sofreh is from the Moghan steppes region of NW Iran.
It is wool and cotton on a cotton foundation with all natural dyes. Just as in Peter Stone’s definition, this tree of life is highly stylized,
and has a long, vertical axis and upward pointing limbs.
There are split tree designs comprising the side borders
and three small animal figures near the base. Tom dates this piece to the early 20th century.
Another example fitting Peter Stone’s definition is the tulu or sleeping rug below
from Central Anatolia. Again, we see a stylized tree with upward pointing limbs on a white ground. The tulu is coarsely woven of lustrous wool, which provides padding and warmth to the person sleeping in it. Peter Stone: the Turkish word tulu means “long-haired.”
A third example is the purse or small bag, below, from Afghanistan.
In this image, the flap is raised to reveal a tree of life embroidered on the inside. In this orientation, the branches of the tree point downward, contrary to Stone’s definition.
However, when the bag is worn attached to a person’s belt and the flap is opened, the owner will see it in this orientation, with the branches pointing upward.
The caption in the book where I found this image describes the tree as a protective device for the contents of the purse. The caption doesn’t mention the two-tone gray circular device with jagged edges at the top of the tree in the image immediately above, but it looks to me to plausibly represent the sun.
In some instances the tree of life is represented as an inverted image as we see below.
This form appears on embroidered wedding dresses in the Sind region of Pakistan and on dresses in Yeman.
The image is a close-up of the bodice of the dress showing three inverted trees. In this orientation, the tree is believed to draw strength through its roots in heaven, which it then bestows on the world.
Below is the same image turned upside down, making it easier to see the three trees.
In my search for definitions of a tree of life, I next turned to Sheila Paine, a British woman who has spent more than 20 years researching embroidery traditions in various part of the world. While Peter Stone focuses on rugs, Sheila Paine focuses on embroidery.
In her book Embroidered Textiles: Traditions from Five Continents, Paine identifies four guidelines for determining when the purpose and pattern of tribal and peasant embroideries are mythological in origin.
She states that images of a mythological origin, such as the tree of life, often appear on textiles that are associated with some ritual or rite of passage, for example, marriage or death, or with something of symbolic significance, such as a woman’s hair.
An example of a textile associated with a rite of passage is the beautiful suzani from Uzbekistan below.
A suzani is usually a dowry piece consisting of silk embroidery on cotton panels that are sewn together. It is used as a wall hanging or bedcover.
The kantha from Bangladesh, below, is a quilted cloth made of old saris.
Kanthas are used in a variety of ways: as bed covers, to wrap precious objects such as valuable books (e.g., the Koran), mirrors, betel nuts, etc. ; or may be provided to guests to sit on at weddings. They are often stitched for a newborn child, for one’s husband, a grown-up son, or for one’s daughter to take when she marries and leaves her parental home for that of her in-laws.
The textile below is an example of a textile associated with a woman’s hair.
It is a cap from Chitral, northern Pakistan, seen from the back. The cap sits on a woman’s head and hangs down over her neck and shoulders and covers her hair. This cap is adorned with a variety of objects to protect the wearer, including cowrie shells and a pom-pom at the top, buttons down the sides and one at the bottom, the color red, which is believed to enhance protection, a Coke bottle cap, and more cowrie shells sewn on in the form of a tree of life.
Paine’s second guideline for identifying a pattern of mythological origin is when it is accompanied by symbols such as birds, chevrons, zigzags, or a worshipping figure.
The felt piece below was created by the Namay people of eastern Siberia.
There are birds sitting on, or hovering between, several of the branches. I am not sure how this piece was used.
Another example is the beautiful embroidered cloth below, which Paine states is probably of Balkan origin, dating to the Ottoman period, which means before 1924.
Here, the tree of life is transposed into a vase with flowers that is flanked by birds and figures.
Starting at the bottom, there is a pomegranate, which often symbolizes fertility, a vase flanked by two birds and two flowers, on top of which are two pairs of birds flanking the base of the flower devices, which extend upward, and other birds and flowers surrounding it.
At the top are two figures that look like babies. The combination of babies, pomegranates, and various flower forms indicates, in my opinion, that this piece is expressing a woman’s desire and hope for children.
The Saruk carpet below
from Iran is similar to the Balkan piece in that it has a vase containing flowers that may be a transposed tree of life as seen in the previous image. In this example, the vase is flanked by two columns.
Paine’s third guideline for identifying a pattern of mythological origin is what she refers to as the “deformation of figures” – for example, women that are depicted as half trees or half birds, or who have a solid base rather than legs.
The painting below is of the goddess Isis found on a wall in the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmosis III, located in Thebes, and dating to between the 16th and 14th centuries B.C.
At first glance, this looks like a person standing next to a tree. If you look more closely, however, you will see a human arm intersecting with a triangular shape that, in turn, intersects with the human figure.
This image actually depicts the goddess Isis in the guise of a sycamore tree. The sycamore is a type of fig and, as such, exudes a milky sap. The triangular shape is actually the breast of Isis who is shown here providing sustenance to the soul of Thutmosis III.
Paine’s fourth guideline is that patterns of mythological origin are often flanked by guardian or worshiping animals or birds, which may be realistic or fantastical.
In the Persian carpet below,
a tree is flanked by three tiers of opposing lions with suns on their backs, and a fourth tier with opposing camels and two birds above them.
The fantastic beaded wall hanging below was created by the Rabari people in the west Indian state of Gujurat.
It belonged to Bill and Sondra Bechhoefer, who have since donated it to The Textile Museum.
The beadwork depicts a tree flanked by two animals, with four pairs of birds in the branches: two pairs on the lowest branch facing the trunk of the tree, one pair on the branch above facing away, and the fourth pair near the top of the tree facing it. There are two more sets of figures above the tree on either side, each set comprised of one bird and one animal. Surrounding the tree is a series of of eight-pointed stars.
In the Kerman rug below, which we will see “in the wool” later,
two dervishes flank cypress trees, which in turn flank the tree of life. Lions, the ancient symbol of Persia, are on either side at the top of the field. The border is comprised of cartouches containing inscriptions.
The Tree as Iconic Symbol of the Universe
Let’s talk briefly about possible reasons why the tree, very early on and almost universally, came to be seen as an iconic symbol of the universe.
Roger Cook, in his book Tree of Life: Image for the Cosmos, paraphrases something the English poet and mystic, William Blake, wrote in 1810: “Throughout the world, at all times and in all places, men have pictured, in one form or another, the imaginative image of the tree.”
Cook also quotes the late French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962), who equated human imagination and trees. Bachelard wrote: “The imagination is a tree. It has the integrative virtues of a tree. It is roots and boughs. It lives between earth and sky. It lives in the earth and in the wind. The imagined tree imperceptibly becomes the cosmological tree, the tree which epitomizes a universe, which makes a universe.”
The Romanian historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, talks of the “symbolism of the Centre,” and mankind’s intense desire to grasp the essential reality of the world, especially the origins of things, with which all myths are ultimately concerned. The center is where the supernatural beings of myth, or the gods or God of religion, first created humankind and the world. In the symbolic language of myth and religion, the center is imagined as a vertical axis, the cosmic axis, or Axis Mundi, or the Tree of Life.
The tree of life image is often used to express the ancient mythological idea of a threefold structure of the cosmos. Cook: “The Tree of Life or Cosmic Tree, penetrates the three zones of heaven, earth, and underworld, its branches penetrating the celestial world, and its roots descending into the abyss.”
The life cycle of trees plays out each season of the year. Buds, leaves, and fruit symbolize birth, maturity, death, and rebirth – the endless regeneration of the cosmos.
A tree’s fruitfulness is equated with the fertility of women.
The sap of the tree is sometimes equated with milk, or with the vital sap of the Cosmic Tree flowing throughout the universe. The earlier image of the Egyptian goddess Isis is a variation of this belief.
The tree continues to grow throughout its lifetime, which makes it a powerful symbol of growth.
If the foliage, which is that part of the tree that changes and dies, is stripped away, a tree’s unchanging, undying center is revealed. This center symbolizes the vertical axis around which the visible world revolves. The tree’s center also represents the undying center of the cosmos.
The tree’s vertical axis is the means of ascent and descent between the sky, earth, and underworld.
Versions of the tree of life are manifold. According to Sheila Paine, trees can be depicted as a tree goddess, a vase of flowers (as we saw in the Balkan piece and the Saruk carpet), a fountain, or some symbol of local iconography, such as an eagle or a heart.
It may be a simple linear pattern intended to signify a particular tree, such as a palm, or to convey the general concept of growth and fertility. When the tree of life is depicted as an actual tree, it is often stylized to convey mythological significance. In these instances, foliate patterns or simple branched devices signifiy the tree of life, as seen in the image below.
The piece below
is a portion of a large felt found in one of the tombs of Pazyryk in the Altai mountains of southern Siberia. (Many of the Pazyryk textiles have been carbon-dated to 500 B.C.)
Repeated across its width is this motif of what Paine describes as a seated goddess figure holding a sacred branch. She is believed to be Tabiti, deity of the hearth and, therefore, of fire and fertility, who was worshipped in the Altai region in pre-Scythian times, meaning before 700 B.C.
She is approached by a male rider on a horse, possibly a worshipper. Another source describes the appearance of this rider as Persian.
Tree Images Across Media
Given the universality of the tree of life image, let’s look at some of the many ways that tree designs have been incorporated into objects down through time and around the world in various media, including prehistoric rock art, bronze sculpture, metalwork, miniature painting, and stone carving.
The image below is of a rock painting found in the southern African country of Zimbabwe.
It shows trees on both sides of a river and hunters in the lower right corner. This particular rock painting only dates from between 900 and 500 years ago, nowhere near as old as the Paleolithic paintings in the caves of Europe that date back 35,000 years.
I was unable to find an image of a rock painting from Europe that included a tree. However, at least two French prehistorians have done considerable mapping and analysis of the Paleolithic cave paintings in Europe, and have documented the fact that trees are represented in them.
The point I wish to make is that, from mankind’s earliest days on earth, humans have perceived trees to be important to their survival.
Coming down through time, the bronze tree seen below, encased in glass, was excavated in southern China, near the city of Chengdu in Sichuan province.
It was created by a previously unknown culture dating to between the 12th and 11th centuries B.C.
This culture, subsequently named Sanxingdui, had a remarkably advanced bronze casting technology which enabled its artisans to create large and heavy objects such as this tree.
The top portion of the double image below shows a section of a bronze helmet that dates to the 9th century B.C. It was excavated in a region called Urartu, located around Lake Van in the mountainous plateau between Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, and the Caucasus mountains. The tree of life seen here is flanked by two winged and bearded figures, each holding something in one hand and gesturing toward the tree with the other.
The image on the helmet is very similar to that on the stone carving (repeated below), which depicts four figures flanking a tree of life under a winged disc.
Below is a slightly closer look at the stone carving.
One of the figures is an Assyrian king, and we see again two winged figures holding that same object in one hand and raising the other toward the tree.
The carving dates to between 883 and 859 B.C., and was part of a palace located in the ancient empire of Assyria, which extended along the Tigris River in Mesopotamia.
The image below is a tree of life and a ram,
excavated from a royal tomb at Ur, a city in ancient Sumer, located near the lower Euphrates River in present-day Iraq. Ur dates to between 3,000 and 2,600 B.C.
The image below is of the regalia of the so-called “Golden Warrior,” excavated from a tomb in Kazakhstan in Central Asia.
It dates to between the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. The regalia includes: a costume of gold plates; plaques depicting felines, deer, and horses; a gold-plated dagger and sword; and a spectacular pointed headdress. The headdress includes horses, two winged beasts with horns, and birds, among other things.
Here is a closeup image of the birds.
Each one sits atop a tree comprised of eight branches – four on a side.
According to the catalog entitled Of Gold and Grass: Nomads of Kazakhstan, produced in conjunction with an exhibition of objects excavated from burial mounds, the birds may represent the heavenly world and the trees the tree of life. According to the catalog, the headdress held a total of five trees with birds.
Moving now to the first century A.D., the next image is one you may recognize from the fabulous exhibit, Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, that was on display at the National Gallery in 2008.
This spectacular gold crown was excavated from one of six graves in a mound known as the “Hill of Gold.” It was located in Bactria, in the northern plains of what is today Afghanistan.
This collapsible crown consists of a band in the form of a diadem with five removable trees. Four of the trees are identical, with symmetrical branches on either side of the trunk. Each trunk is decorated with two opposing heart shapes with a crescent in between. On the upper branches of each are two birds with wings extended and heads reaching up toward the top of the tree, appearing to touch it with their bills. Each tree is decorated with six rosettes with six leaves, bearing round pendants.
The beautiful gold diadem, below, was excavated from a Sarmatian kurgan, or burial mound, in the Lower Don River region of Russia, and dates to the 1st century A.D.
On the upper rim, in the center, are two opposed deer, flanking a tree. To the right is at least one more deer and probably two. The deer we can see is facing away from the tree. Although not shown, it seems likely that there was a third grouping of deer and a tree that has since been lost.
The face of the diadem holds several types of semi-precious stones, including amethyst, coral, turquoise, and almandite (which the dictionary defines as “a deep red garnet consisting of iron aluminum silicate). Note the beautiful female figure in the center below the tree.
The image below is of a bronze sculpture from India, entitled The Tree of Life and Knowledge, which dates to the Vigayanagar period between 1356 and 1546 A. D.
Fourteen branches, seven on a side, are tipped with alternating birds and buds. The branches open out from a central stem, on which there is a lotus-sun-wheel surmounted by a serpent, its tail coiled in two loops and its hood extended. Two monkey-headed figures cling to the stem, and the base is flanked by two bulls.
According to the caption, this sculpture represents the belief that “all life is created and sustained from the center.” This harks back to the “symbolism of the centre” that was mentioned earlier.
An interesting variation of a mythical tree is what is referred to as a vak-vak (or talking) tree.
The limbs of this type of tree terminate in the heads of different animals as well as humans. The heads purportedly talked. The image above (from a Persian miniature) illustrates the legend that such a tree informed Alexander the Great of his early death.
The vak-vak tree is also found in rugs.
This is a 20th century fantasy carpet from Kashan, Iran. A horned figure, which appears to be hairy and to have a tail, is riding a camel that is being led by another horned and tailed bipedal figure. The rider is grasping a head hanging from the end of one of the branches. If you look closely at the camel, you will see that its body is comprised of the bodies of other small animals.
gives you a better look at the variety of human and animal heads that form the ends of the branches in the design of this rug.
The image below is of a jolli, or carved screen window, set in the Sidi Sayyid mosque in the city of Ahmadabad in western India.
This is a beautiful rendition of a tree of life.
In summation, I would just say that my thinking about the distinction between a tree and a tree of life changed over the course of researching this topic.
When I began, I was intent on finding a definition that was generally, if not universally, accepted. I have since come to think that perhaps that’s not a distinction that needs to, or even should, be made.
As we have seen today, humans have revered trees from time immemorial, as evidenced by the inclusion of trees in a wide range of objects down through the ages, around the world, and in a variety of media.
There is no way to know whether the creators of the beautiful objects we have seen this morning intended to depict trees of life or not. I do think it very likely that the creators consciously chose to depict trees because of their mythological importance.
I will end by showing two more slides that provide proof that the the tree continues to be an iconic symbol to this day.
believe it or not, is a photo of Wendel Swan’s plumber, displaying a tree tattoo on her lower back!
To avoid leaving you with that image, I will end with this one,
showing a beautifully decorated Christmas tree on the ellipse behind the White House.
This was the end of Christine’s lecture and Part 1 of this program.
Wendel Swan facilitated examination of the material that was brought into this session. To see it, you need to go to Part 2 using the following link:
R. John Howe