The Tree of Life is an ancient and universal symbol. The fundamental basis of the Tree of Life is that of a living “axis mundi”- a symbolic vertical line penetrating the navel of the earth, and reaching from the heavens to the underworld. It is found in almost all cultures throughout time, but taking different form in relation to the area in which it is found. Usually, the specific tree symbol that is used relates to a particular tree or plant of the area that has become sacred because of its usefulness to mankind.
Thus, the Mayan tree of life is the Ceiba tree, a beautiful tall tree with a straight trunk, that has few branches until the trunk reaches the forest canopy. The major branches are usually four in number, thus relating the ceiba tree to the four cardinal directions as well as the axis mundi. A ceiba tree was usually located in the center of most pre-Columbian villages, and may also have been positioned at spots marking the four directions.
In the desert Southwest, trees are few and far between, and are of secondary importance to the maize plant. A growing maize plant, full of ripe ears, is often seen in Southwestern rock art, and in woven rugs, sometimes in stylized form. Native informants have said that the so-called “centipede” form, a straight line, crossed by short horizontal lines, with a “V” shape at top and/or bottom, is really the corn plant. At the same time, in typical Native American double meaning style, this also depicts a single pole ladder to the next world.
Another common form of the Tree of Life in Southwestern rock art is the candelabra-like “menorah” , probably the most ancient form for this symbol. It is found in both the Old World and New World. The number of branches directly relates to the Great Journey, the repeating cycle of birth, life and rebirth. In this symbol, there must be two parts: the roots reaching down into the earth for nourishment and grounding, (physical needs) and the branches reaching toward the sun for light. (spiritual needs) Life is sustained by the composite gift of Mother Earth and Father Sky.
Four Directions, Navajo Sand Painting
The beautiful background that you see on this page is from the lid of the tomb of Pacal, Maya ruler of Palenque. It depicts Pacal at the moment of his death, descending down the Tree of Life (also known as the Foliated Cross) into the Underworld of Xibalba.
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