“The Tree of Life in Ancient Cultures,” Ensign, June 1988, 27
The Book of Mormon brought the tree of life to our attention long before modern scholarship revealed how common the tree was in ancient history. The symbol of that tree pervades the art and literature of every Mediterranean culture from centuries before the time of Lehi until well after the time of Moroni. This fact, and the fact that Lehi and Nephi portrayed the spiritual meaning of that symbol much the same way other ancient cultures portrayed it, demonstrate that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text, not an invention of the nineteenth-century social milieu.
What, in particular, were the views of the tree of life among the ancients and how well do those views correspond with the view in the Book of Mormon?
Among the closest parallels are scenes that appear on a number of small gold plates dating from the fifth century B.C. to the third century A.D., engraved in Greek and found in Italy, Sicily, Crete, and Macedonia.1 These plates depict the dead, wandering in the world of the shades, and warn them to avoid a destructive spring on their left. They enjoin the souls to keep to the right, where they will encounter another spring beside a white cypress tree.
After pausing for refreshment and nourishment from the spring and the tree, the wanderers continue to the lake of memory, where, after responding appropriately to questions posed by the lake guardians, the travelers receive eternal memories and enter into the gods’ presence. The texts on many of the plates state that those who successfully complete the journey become gods themselves.
Commentators agree that the cypress tree is a tree of life symbol, the spring nearby is a spring of life, and the other spring is a source of forgetfulness and punishment. They also agree that the most likely origin for the mythology is Egypt. The similarities to the Book of Mormon account are striking, inviting comparison with the more detailed descriptions in that book of the river of filthy water, the tree that gives sustenance, the fountain of living water, the questions at judgment, and the disciples who attain exaltation.
It is difficult to say why tree of life accounts are so prevalent and why they are all similar. One possible reason is that they may have had a common source: the encounter Adam and Eve had with the two trees in the Garden of Eden. This encounter is treated in the scriptures:
“I, the Lord God, planted the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and also the tree of knowledge of good and evil. …
“And I, the Lord God, commanded the man, saying: Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat,
“But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee; but, remember that I forbid it, for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Moses 3:9, 16–17.)
Until Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, there was no prohibition against eating the fruit of the Tree of Life. But once they had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, access to the Tree of Life was taken from them:
“I, the Lord God, said unto mine Only Begotten: Behold, the man is become as one of us to know good and evil; and now lest he put forth his hand and partake also of the tree of life, and eat and live forever,
“Therefore I, the Lord God, will send him forth from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. …
“So I drove out the man, and I placed at the east of the Garden of Eden, cherubim and a flaming sword, which turned every way to keep the way of the tree of life.” (Moses 4:28–29, 31.)
Had Adam and Eve partaken of the fruit of the Tree of Life, the sentence of death brought upon them by partaking of the Tree of Knowledge would have been reversed. They would have lived forever in a sinful condition, separated from God. So he took the two away from Eden, away from the Tree of Life.
We might suppose that Adam and Eve and their posterity, distracted by the labor necessary to support themselves outside the garden, would have eventually forgotten the life-giving tree in paradise. Quite the contrary. The tree of life seems to have continued throughout antiquity as a major religious symbol. In fact, man’s quest to return to the tree of life in the paradise of God has never ceased.
Tree of life symbolism permeates the Old Testament. The tree symbolizes not only eternal life but also God’s presence. For example, Adam and Eve’s exclusion from the tree was also exclusion from the presence of the Lord. Thus, whenever man regained God’s presence, a tree of life representation was used to symbolize that reunion.
When Moses went to the mountain of God, the Lord spoke to him out of a bush that burned with fire but was not consumed. (See Ex. 3:1–6.) The rod of Aaron similarly represented that God was with Moses and Aaron as it swallowed the rods-turned-serpents of the Egyptian magicians. (See Ex. 7:10–12.) The Lord later caused Aaron’s rod to blossom and bear almonds as a testimony that the Lord had selected the tribe of Levi to bear the priesthood. (See Num. 17:2–10.)
Messianic prophecies often speak of the Messiah in terms of a tree of life. For example, Isaiah prophesied that “there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.” (Isa. 11:1.) Then he described life much as it was in Eden, with the Messiah giving light and life to the earth.
Likewise, Zechariah saw a vision in which the Lord promised that Joshua the high priest would walk with the Branch (the Messiah). That vision was followed by another of two olive trees on either side of the menorah, or lampstand, of the Jewish tabernacle. (See Zech. 3–4.) As symbols of the tree of life, the olive trees are identified as the anointed ones of God. Even the menorah symbolized the tree of life, as one scholar suggests:
“In general it may be said that most scholars now seem to suppose that the menorah originated from a sacred tree, more specifically the Tree of Life of mythology—a primal image which can be glimpsed as early as the third millennium B.C. … and which played a decisive role in the tree cult of the ancient world.”2
Jewish literature outside the Old Testament also contains tree of life references. The Books of Enoch, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and 4 Ezra are the best-known of such books. When Enoch journeyed to the Seven Sacred Mountains, he saw a sacred tree similar to a date palm but more beautiful and grand than any he had ever beheld. (See 1 Enoch 29.) His guide on the visionary journey, Michael, told Enoch that the fruit of the tree could not be eaten by mortals until they were purified after the judgment and that they would have to enter the temple of God to partake of it. (See 1 Enoch 25.)
In the Secrets of Enoch 9:1, the seer is shown the heavenly dwelling place of the righteous, where stands the tree of life. In the Testament of Levi 18:9–11, Enoch prophesies that in the last days the Lord “shall open the gates of paradise, and shall remove the threatening sword against Adam. And he shall give to the saints to eat from the tree of life, and the spirit of holiness shall be on them.”3
Likewise, 4 Ezra 8:52 promises to the righteous that in the last days “is opened Paradise, planted the Tree of life; the future Age prepared, plenteousness made ready.”4 Jewish literature often portrays the tree of life as the seat of an oracle of God, a source of inspiration as well as of nourishment, a sacred sanctuary apart from worldly cares and dangers.
Like the Hebrews, virtually all ancient Near Eastern cultures have some account of a tree of life and of man’s quest to obtain its fruit. Among them are the following.
In a famous Mesopotamian epic, the hero Gilgamesh, dressed in animal skins, undertakes a long ritual journey to find the plant that gives life.5 His guide in the quest, Utnapishtim, has the prospective initiate taken “to the washing place” so as to “wash off his grime in water clean as snow.” After the washing, Gilgamesh is dressed in “a cloak to clothe his nakedness,” and a band is placed upon his head.6
Thus attired, the epic hero passes through the great waters to obtain the plant he describes as “a plant apart, whereby a man may regain his life’s breath.”7 In this version of the epic, a serpent drags the plant away, preventing the hero from achieving his quest.
Gilgamesh also appears on an Akkadian tablet containing a translation of the Sumerian legend, which tells again the story of a tree of life in the creation of the universe.8 Here the goddess Ishtar gives Gilgamesh a magical drum and drumstick made from the tree of life, which she has planted in her garden. Gilgamesh loses them to the netherworld—the world of the dead—and cannot retrieve them.
The Akkadian myth of Etana tells of a shepherd who is to establish kingship for his people, but who cannot do so until he has an heir. With the aid of an eagle, Etana flies to heaven to obtain the “plant of birth,” which cures his childlessness.9
Other ancient writings tell of Eridu, whose earthly dwelling is in a tree, “so that his branches, used to sprinkle holy water, have therapeutic virtues,” and of Marduk, praised as “a dispenser of the ‘plant of life.’”10 Nell Perrot claims that “the sacred is everywhere the abode of the god, or, as a sacred tree, guards the Temple and the gate of the rising sun.”11
Egyptian culture provides countless examples of the tree of life symbol. Representations of the lotus plant and the papyrus, for example, are found on numerous artifacts. The lotus was a symbol of rebirth and regeneration, and the Egyptians frequently depicted life emerging from both the lotus and the papyrus. Temple columns were made in the form of either of these plants.
Another plant the Egyptians considered sacred was the Ished tree. One artifact—a small statue of Ramses—shows the pharaoh dressed in a special headdress and a pleated kilt, stretched out in a ritual position with hands extended, making an offering to the gods. (See fig. 1.) Ramses is kneeling on the leaves and branches of an Ished tree inscribed into the base of the statue. The accompanying inscription states that Ramses’s deeds are written upon the sacred Ished tree, as are his sacred and ritual-related names.
Ancient Egyptians believed the Ished—a persea tree—grew in the temples at Heliopolis and Abydos. Ancient Egyptian ritual required the names of each pharaoh to be inscribed on the leaves of this tree of life during the coronation ceremony.
Egyptian coffin covers often depict the deceased eating and drinking from a tree of life, out of which is growing the goddess Nut. (See fig. 2.) She pours drink from a pitcher and offers food from a tray to a man, who needs nourishment as he wanders through the dark netherworld.
Many other Egyptian artifacts show divine beings refreshing the pharaohs with the fruit of the tree of life. (See fig. 3.) A pond or stream of sacred water often lies near or under the tree (see fig. 4), with the god of writing, Thoth, inscribing the name of the king on the tree (see fig. 5). In all these examples, partaking of the fruit of the tree is a sacramental act, one that symbolizes unity with the gods; hence, the fruit is not available to mortals in the normal course of daily life but can be found only in the rituals relating to eternity.
Throughout the ancient history of Greek art, the tree of life is a common mythological symbol of religious ritual. It appears, for example, as the sacred palm symbol on the gold Vapphio cup from Minoan Crete. (See fig. 6.) Later black-figure and red-figure vases show Dionysius kneeling before a palm (see fig. 7) or pouring a libation on a palm growing out of an altar (see fig. 8).
Greek literature is also replete with references to the sacred tree, or tree of life. In Homer’s epic The Odyssey, the hero Odysseus speaks of seeing a palm growing by the altar of Apollo, different from any tree growing from the earth.12 In Homer’s Hymn to Apollo, Apollo’s mother grasps a palm tree during her son’s birth. The newborn god is then washed with water and wrapped in a newly woven white garment.13 Many stories also tell of the Athenians visiting Delphi after the Persian Wars to dedicate a bronze palm tree with golden fruit to Athena.14
Often the sacred tree was an olive, not a palm. The token that Odysseus uses to identify himself to his wife, Penelope, is their marriage bed, which is carved from a great olive tree still rooted in the ground.15 In later history, the olive tree on the Acropolis, believed to have been planted there originally by Athena, was thought to have been the source of all olive trees in Attica. The victors of the Olympic games were crowned with branches and leaves from an olive tree growing near sacred altars at Olympia.16 The games represented the ritual process of obtaining the tree of life, a process described in many ancient cultures.
In Greek mythology, Heracles exemplifies this process in his twelve labors, which would secure eternal life for him. In the last two of his labors, Heracles descends into Hades, the realm of departed spirits, and acquires golden apples from the sacred grove of the Hesperides. He accomplishes all his tasks but has to give the apples back to the heavenly guardians because it is not proper for mortals to have the sacred fruit.17
The tree of life was an enduring symbol in the ancient world, possibly spreading through intercultural contacts. It appeared in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Palestine, Greece, and elsewhere with virtually the same significant characteristics. This symbol of eternal life, however, could accurately point only to Jesus Christ, as the New Testament writers and early Christians realized.
The tree of life is mentioned specifically in the Revelation of John (Rev. 2:7; Rev. 22:2, 14), with the promise that its fruit will be given to the righteous. Other passages refer to or fulfill Old Testament symbols and prophecies. The olive tree, for example, becomes Paul’s symbol of eternal life for the Saints, both Jew and Gentile. (See Rom. 11:16–27.)
Olive oil—a product of the sacred tree—was not only used in the Old Testament for the ritual anointing of priests and kings, but was also used in the New Testament for anointing the sick for God’s blessing. (See Ex. 30:23–33; James 5:14–15.) The name Christ (Greek) or Messiah (Hebrew) also means “the anointed one,” and anointing for divine kingship or for God’s blessing is especially significant for Jesus.
The New Testament also alludes to the cross of Jesus as a tree. (See Acts 5:30; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 2:24.) Some have noticed that the Greek word used in these passages is the same as that used for the tree of life in the Septuagint, different from the usual New Testament word for tree. According to a number of sources, some early Christians thought of the cross as a tree of life.18 Later sources likewise relate the cross to the tree of life, as in some hymns attributed to St. Ephraem the Syrian:
“The tree of life is the cross which gave a radiant life to our race. On the top of Golgotha Christ distributed life to men. And henceforth he further promised us the pledge of eternal life.
“Our Savior typified his body in the tree, the one from which Adam did not taste because he sinned.”19
Even a spare sampling of writings from the early Church Fathers shows their awareness of the power of the symbol of the tree of life in ancient Christianity. The Instructions of Commodianus, for example, states in chapter 35 that “by this tree of death we are born to the life to come; … therefore, pluck believingly the fruits of life.”
Cyril of Jerusalem writes that the cross fulfilled the Old Testament symbol of life coming from the wood in the temple, on the ark, and even on the rod carrying the bronze serpent.20 The same author adds, “The Tree of Life therefore was planted in the earth, that the earth which had been cursed might enjoy the blessing, and that the dead might be released.”21 Methodius called Jesus both the first principle and the tree of life, and John Chrysostom not only speaks of life through the cross, but calls the cross the fountain of life.22
The Book of Mormon provides an excellent example of how sacred writings preserve and transmit great religious symbols and of how intercultural exchange occurred. The book reflects past ties with the Jews and other cultures, since Lehi and his family were at least bilingual and traveled at least between Egypt and Palestine.
The tree of life appears in the visions of both Lehi and Nephi as a symbol of spiritual nourishment and salvation. The symbol contains many critical elements found in Old World cultures: (1) the difficulty of gaining access to it; (2) the various destructive forces around and about it; (3) the spiritual qualities required to make its fruit acceptable and nourishing to its partakers; and (4) the divine nature of the tree and its fruit, which render them unavailable to mortals lost in darkness and laden with sin.
The tree of life as found in Nephite culture had other—future—ties as well, for the Nephites affected other cultures that came in contact with them. John Sorenson, for example, has noted that “Tree of Life symbolism occurred widely in Mexico and Central America in ancient times. Many of the same artistic features occur in scenes there as in Near Eastern art.”23 M. Wells Jakeman and V. Garth Norman have also documented specific similarities between some of those tree representations and references to the tree of life in the Book of Mormon.24
Among all these representations, however, nowhere is there a better depiction of the tree of life and its true meaning than in the Book of Mormon. Lehi and Nephi learned that only by holding fast to the rod of iron, representing the word of God, could people reach the tree and its fruit. (See 1 Ne. 8:24; 1 Ne. 15:23–24.) Those who reached the tree but partook of its fruit without forsaking the world and its enticements became ashamed, falling away into forbidden paths. (See 1 Ne. 8:28.)
The destructive forces about the tree included mockers and a filthy river representing the hell prepared for the wicked. (See 1 Ne. 8:26–27; 1 Ne. 15:26–29.) The tree’s white fruit, described similarly in other ancient cultures, was sweeter and more desirable to the righteous than anything else. (See 1 Ne. 15:36.) The tree itself represented the love of God, specifically manifested in the ministry and sacrifice of the Savior. (See 1 Ne. 11:21–33.)
Alma later used the tree of life motif in his sermons, inviting the people to “be baptized unto repentance, that [they] also may be partakers of the fruit of the tree of life.” (Alma 5:62; see also Alma 32:40.) Although the story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden tree of life in the Garden of Eden was well-known among the Book of Mormon writers, the New World prophets, like those in the Old World, looked to another tree of life with fruit they could eat. (See 2 Ne. 2:15.)
These and similar ways in which Book of Mormon writers use the symbolism of the tree of life place the Book of Mormon solidly in antiquity. But the greatest challenge of the vision of the tree of life in the Book of Mormon is not in tracing its history, however enlightening that experience may be. The greatest challenge is in making the truths it symbolizes an integral part of our lives. Most men continue to eat only the deadening fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The tree of life, however, is available to all who do not wish to live forever in their sins, and the Book of Mormon invites all people to approach and partake of the tree’s divine and eternal fruit.