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Original English version of "Att förstĺ livets träd," a contribution to René Gothóni, ed., Inlevande förstĺelse i humaniora (Helsingfors: Finska Vetenskap-Societeten, 2002)
Understanding the Tree of Life
As a general concept, the Tree of Life is probably well known to you, dear reader. You may have encountered it in the Biblical paradise story or as a decorative motif in Oriental carpets and Scandinavian rugs, for example. But what does it mean to you?
May I venture the guess that, like most people, you are not particularly interested in it and have not given much, if any, thought to it. A fanciful "Tree of Life" may be fine as an art motif, but, let's be frank about it, intellectually the idea of such a tree belongs to the field of mythology and fairy tales and has no place in today's world. This seems, in any case, to be the attitude of the modern church, which does not make much of the Biblical Tree of Life.
Things have not, however, always been that way. In the Christian Bible, the Tree occupies a very prominent place: it not only occurs in the story of man's fall, at the very beginning of the Bible, but also at its very end, in the last chapter of Revelations, where the tree growing in the middle of the heavenly Jerusalem is presented as the seal of man's salvation. This remarkable configuration – the Tree is otherwise rarely mentioned in the Bible – makes it the Alpha and Omega of the early Christian doctrine of salvation. In early Christianity, it is commonly associated with the cross of Christ, and until the late Middle Ages, representations of the Christian cross often took the form of the Tree of Life. The late second and early third-century Church Father, Tertullian, wrote a poem entitled De ligno vitae, where the cross of Golgatha transforms itself into a magnificent tree providing delicious fruit and heavenly nectar to all nations. The notion of the cross as the Tree of Life is also common in Gnostic and early Syriac texts. Only since the ninth century has this notion been gradually replaced by that of a pole of execution.
Overall in the Bible and in early Christian literature and art, a certain mystery shrouds the Tree. It may be described and depicted in intriguing, fanciful detail, but is rarely explained; having mentioned it, the writer seems to back off, as if wary of revealing too much. This attitude is even more pronounced in Jewish mysticism, where mystical lore related to the Tree is guarded as a secret to be divulged only to those who "fear the divine name." Such secrecy reminds one of the end of the Biblical paradise story, where a flashing sword is placed at the gate of the paradise to guard the way to the Tree of Life.
But the Tree of Life is much more than just a Biblical or Jewish/Christian invention. It is found, under different visual forms and names (Celestial Tree, World Tree, Cosmic Tree, Tree of Enlightenment), all over the world, from the ancient Near East, Egypt, Greece and India to the Islamic world, mediaeval Scandinavia, Central Asia, China, Northern and Central America, and even Indonesia.1 In most cultures of the world, it is closely associated with the psyche and the divine spirit. In fact, this association appears to be so ubiquitous that Jungian psychology classes the Tree as an archetypal "symbol of the self" produced by the unconscious. Through the millennia, the Tree has been a source of inspiration to countless artists and great thinkers. And its intellectual appeal is not just a matter of past history. There are still people who take it very seriously and regard it as a gate to enlightenment and eternal life.
It is not my intention here to consider the Tree of Life in its infinite variety as attested in different cultures, although I do think that this bewildering variety conceals within itself a relatively simple basic message which, not by accident, is largely identical in these different cultures. Instead, I will trace my own personal attempt to understand the Tree in one of its oldest manifestations – a story of gradual progress from total ignorance and indifference to increasing curiosity and knowledge, and eventually total preoccupation with the Tree.
The Mesopotamian Tree
A stylised tree appears for the first time as an art motif with clearly religious significance in ancient Mesopotamia. It already occurs in prehistoric graffiti and on pottery, and later becomes a favoured motif on seals, particularly in imperial glyptics. Under the Neo-Assyrian Empire (930-607 BC) it is found virtually everywhere: on cylinder and stamp seals, jewellery, glazed tile panels, sculptures, wall paintings and columns of royal palaces, royal garments, furniture, implements, helmets, weapons, and so on.
Art-historically, the Mesopotamian tree (in its many variant forms) without any question belongs to the same tradition as the later Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Indian Tree of Life. The available, very abundant evidence leaves no doubt that as an art motif, the Tree spread from Mesopotamia to other parts of the ancient Near East, and that e.g. the typical first-millennium Israelite tree (two caprids climbing up an almond tree) and its later variant, the seven-branched lampstand (menorah), are both derived from earlier Mesopotamian models. Accordingly, art historians long used to refer to the Mesopotamian tree as the "Tree of Life," taking its affinity with the later Tree of Life as granted.
However, there is a complication here. While Mesopotamian texts do contain incidental references to all kinds of mythical trees, the term "Tree of Life" is not unequivocally attested in Mesopotamia. Moreover, no known Mesopotamian myth bears any particular resemblance to the Biblical story of the tree in the Garden of Eden. Hence Assyriologists have since the fifties gradually shifted to using the more "neutral" term "sacred tree" when referring to the Mesopotamian tree, which is nowadays usually studied as a separate phenomenon not necessarily related to the Biblical Tree of Life or to any other "sacred tree" at all.2
I first encountered the Mesopotamian tree in my early student years (as a matter of fact, it is virtually impossible to pursue Assyriology, and Neo-Assyrian studies in particular, without noticing its existence). Since it was but one of the many things that were new to me, I did not pay much attention to it; however, I could not help becoming mildly intrigued by that strange-looking tree. I consulted some literature but could not find any satisfactory explanation of its meaning, much less a coherent theory of what it stood for. Some experts plainly stated they did not know; others speculated that it probably symbolised "fertility."3 Many studies simply analysed and registered the diachronic, synchronic and regional variations observable in the Tree, without speculating on their meaning.4
This was a bit disappointing, as I had noticed that in the sculptures of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II, the Tree seemed to alternate with the king, suggesting that the two were in some way considered identical. I wondered if it was really not possible to arrive at a more satisfactory understanding of the Tree based on facts such as this. However, I was busy with my studies and for a long time did not think about the Tree very much.
The Tree of Kabbalah
Years later, in 1981, I came across a book that rekindled my interest in the Tree: Z'ev ben Shimon Halevi's Kabbalah: Tradition of hidden knowledge.5 Its cover, a modern artist's representation of the esoteric "Tree of Life" diagram of Kabbalah, was the nearest thing to the Assyrian sacred tree that I had ever seen. Reading the book, I became aware that the Tree was not a mere design or symbol but served as a backbone for a complex esoteric philosophy centring on the salvation of man. Hitherto I had always thought of Kabbalah as an occult mediaeval science preoccupied with magic, not as a religious or philosophical system; now I started wondering if it might not somehow help solve the enigma of the Assyrian sacred tree. Could the latter similarly have been the key to a mystical philosophy, not just a symbol of fertility?
I tried matching the Kabbalistic tree diagrams with the Assyrian trees, but soon gave up: while there was a certain resemblance in the overall composition, it was not possible to harmonise the two trees in detail. Moreover, I was perplexed by Kabbalah's complicated cosmology and theosophy, which seemed to differ utterly from those of Mesopotamia, and was worried by the great temporal gap that separated the Kabbalistic doctrines from ancient Mesopotamia. I started to think that the apparent affinity between the Kabbalistic tree and the Assyrian one was probably just accidental.
Nevertheless, the possibility that there might be something to the matter kept nagging at me. I toyed with the fact that the Kabbalistic tree was tied to an esoteric doctrine of salvation and found it helpful in explaining another problem I was struggling with at the time, that of Assyrian prophecy. In searching for analogies to this ecstatic phenomenon associated with the cult of Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of love, I could not help making a comparison with the ecstatic cult of the Canaanite goddess Asherah, the "Queen of Heaven," which also had strong links with prophecy and worshipped the goddess in the form of a sacred tree object, the "Asherah tree." This tree had been identified with the Canaanite variant of the Mesopotamian tree, which was the prototype of the Israelite tree and hence also the Jewish Tree of Life. Could it be that the goddess Ishtar, who was likewise called "Queen of Heaven," was identified with the sacred tree in Assyria as well, and that this tree contained a secret doctrine of salvation for the devotees of Ishtar, as in Kabbalah?
In the autumn of 1986, while working at the British Museum on quite different things, I made two discoveries that for the first time made the connection between the Assyrian sacred tree and the Tree of Life of Kabbalah seem more than just an intriguing possibility. First, it suddenly occurred to me that the total lack of explicit references to the Tree of Life and its symbolism in Mesopotamian texts did not mean that the Tree was unknown in Mesopotamia; rather, it implied that the related knowledge was secret and hence could not be written down, as in Kabbalah. Second, checking the history of Kabbalistic doctrines I found that they were brought to Europe from the rabbinic schools of Babylonia and hence could very well be based on ancient Mesopotamian esoteric traditions.
In summer 1989, working on the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary while on leave of absence, I read more about Kabbalah. It struck me that in some Kabbalistic diagrams, the Tree was surmounted by a circle representing the transcendent God of Kabbalah, En Sof, just as in many Assyrian representations the tree was topped by a winged solar disk symbolising Ashur, the supreme god of Assyria. The Kabbalistic tree itself was composed of ten divine attributes, taken to "emanate" from the transcendent God. These attributes, called sefirot (literally, "countings"), all had a definite place in the tree, either on its right or left branches, or on its trunk, crown or base; moreover, each of them had a name or names reflecting their nature (Wisdom, Mercy, etc.), and a mystic number reflecting their position in the tree. The number of Crown (the first sefirah) was 1, that of Wisdom (the second sefirah) was 2, and so on. All this reminded me of the Mesopotamian "great gods," whose epithets and attributes resembled those of the sefirot and who also had mystic numbers tightly linked to them, so that each "great god" could be simply identified with his number in Assyrian texts. In the Kabbalistic tree diagrams, the sefirot were connected to one another by a mesh of intersecting lines, interpreted as channels for divine blessings, which resembled the tight mesh of intersecting lines connecting the "fruits" of the Assyrian tree with one another and the trunk of the tree.
These similarities between the sefirot and the "great gods" on the one hand, and between the structures of the Kabbalistic and Assyrian trees on the other, seemed too specific to be just accidental. If the Israelite sacred tree was derived from a Mesopotamian prototype, why could not the Kabbalistic tree with its system of sefirot be based on a Mesopotamian model? In adopting the scheme for Jewish thought, the Mesopotamian names of the "great gods" would of course have had to be deleted. But otherwise the "system" of the Tree could have been taken over as such. An illustration of this is the Christian form of Kabbalah of the Renaissance, which to all practical purposes was identical with its Jewish model, except that the transcendent god En Sof was identified with Jesus Christ and the Hebrew names of the sefirot were translated into Latin.
Work on the recently launched State Archives of Assyria project prevented me for two years from taking this hypothesis any further. But in autumn 1991, when faced with a promise to contribute a chapter on Mesopotamian religion for a Finnish volume on world religions, I decided to put it to a test. I reasoned that if it was correct, it would be possible to reconstruct the original Mesopotamian model of the Kabbalistic tree by simply substituting the names of the Sefirot with the corresponding Mesopotamian "great gods" who shared their attributes. There were some oddities with the Hebrew names of the sefirot: they did not all express qualities or attributes of God (witness the name of the highest sefirah, Crown, or those of the two lowermost ones, Foundation and Kingdom), and some of the sefirot oddly had two names, seemingly unrelated to each other (like Judgement and Heroism, or Mercy and Greatness). If these features had been taken over from the Mesopotamian model of the tree, resconstructing the latter might – and in fact would have to – explain these oddities. If it didn't, the test would have failed and I could happily and finally bury my long-cherished idea of the possible connection of the trees.
I sharpened my pencil and carried out the experiment. I replaced Crown with Anu, the god of heaven, whose principal symbol was crown; then Wisdom with Ea, the god of wisdom; Judgement with Shamash, the god of justice; Beauty with Ishtar, the goddess of love and beauty, and so on. Finding Mesopotamian equivalents for the sefirot was not difficult. Most could be provided immediately and with great confidence; others (like Splendour = Adad, god of thunder) were not obvious and required some research, but in less than an hour I had all "great gods" whose names could be written with mystic numbers fitted in the diagram in place of the sefirot. The only exception was the lowermost sefirah, Kingdom. Since it broke the triadic structure of the Tree and had no counterpart in the Assyrian tree, I concluded it was a later addition and decided to leave it out of the reconstructed tree.
I next wrote under each god their mystic number. Surprisingly, these numbers, most of which had made no sense to me before, assumed a meaningful order on the tree. All of them ranged between 1 and 60, the two base numbers of the Mesopotamian sexagesimal number system. Six of them were full tens, and these were neatly distributed in descending order on the branches of the tree, numbers 60-40 to the right, 30-10 to the left. The remaining three, 1, 15 and 14, were distributed on the trunk, with 1 (the number of the god of heaven) on the top, and 14 (the number of the god of the underworld) at the bottom. I noticed that the middle number, 15, was the sum of 1 and 14, and that 1 + 15 + 14 yielded 30, the median number of the sexagesimal system, which nicely corresponded to the medial position of the trunk in the tree. Moreover, subtracting the numbers on the left side from those on the right side yielded for each branch the same median number, 30 (60 - 30 = 30, 50 - 20 = 30, 40 - 10 = 30). This was possible because, contrary to the positive right side, the left side of the tree was considered negative, not only in Kabbalah, but in Mesopotamia as well. Thus the seemingly "unbalanced" left and right sides numerically balanced out each other and were in "equilibrium" in relation to the trunk, which in Kabbalah was called the "Pillar of Equilibrium."
I now took a closer look at the reconstruction as a whole. I had already noticed that the position of the gods of heaven and netherworld at the top and bottom of the reconstructed tree agreed well with the Assyrian iconography of the tree, for it was often depicted as standing on a mountain, the word for which also meant "netherworld" in Mesopotamia. Moreover, Mesopotamian mythology knew a cosmic tree (mes) whose roots were in the netherworld and whose top abutted the heaven. I now noticed that the order of the gods on the branches and trunk of the tree corresponded to the age and family relationships of the "great gods," as detailed in Mesopotamian god lists and other texts. Altogether, the tree was composed of three "generations" of gods, corresponding to the concept of three superimposed heavens attested in Mesopotamian mystical texts. In its middle was Ishtar, the goddess of love, who bound the whole family of gods together in being related to all of them: she was the daughter of Anu, Ea and Sîn (the gods above him), the mother of Adad, Nergal and Nabű (the gods below her), and the sister of Shamash and Marduk (the gods beside her), and she was married (under different names) to all the "great gods."
All this was totally unexpected, but made wonderful sense and could not have fitted the facts better. It could not be just coincidental! What finally convinced me was that the attributes, epithets and symbols of the "great gods" easily explained the weird double designations of the sefirot. Shamash, the god of justice, was throughout Mesopotamian history referred to as "the Hero," hence the two names of the corresponding sefirah, Judgement and Heroism. Marduk, the merciful king of the gods, was commonly called the "Great Lord"; hence the two names of the corresponding sefirah, Mercy and Greatness. Ishtar, the goddess of love, was also the goddess of beauty and the mother of gods, hence the two names of the middle sefirah, Maternal Love and Beauty. In Jewish thought, such pairing of attributes does not make any sense; in ancient Mesopotamia, however, they were, so to speak, "built" into the system.
Yet the Jewish Kabbalists, in whose esoteric philosophy and theosophy the tree played a central part, were ardent monotheists who never stopped emphasising the unity of God! It struck me like a bolt of lightning that the reconstructed tree turned upside-down everything I had been taught about the concept of God in Mesopotamia and in Judaism. For if the "monotheistic" Jews had been able to take over the system of the tree virtually unchanged from the "polytheistic" Mesopotamians, then the latters' concept of God, against all appearances, must have been virtually identical with theirs! To put it differently, the Assyrian "great gods" must have been (at least in some circles) conceived of as mere powers and aspects of a single transcendent God, like the sefirot. Thus the "polytheistic" Assyrian religion in the final analysis was as "monotheistic" as Judaism – and more than that: a source of inspiration for the latter!
Checking the evidence
At this point, I was convinced that I had made a very important discovery, which was already helping me to understand the previously so frustratingly opaque Mesopotamian religion. Though the "breakthrough" had happened very quickly, I knew it was based not on wishful thinking but on sound facts. On the other hand, I realised that the implications of my discovery were so unorthodox (in fact, revolutionary) that I'd better check all the potentially weak points in my theory very carefully before making it public. All of a sudden, I had become an "adept" of the Assyrian Tree of Life! I had "knowledge" of potentially great significance to my field, but I had to keep it "secret" for some time lest I make a fool of myself!
I have to confess that I could not resist the temptation to hint at my discovery (in veiled terms, of course!) at a conference in Graz at the end of September. I also incorporated some of my results in the article I was writing on Mesopotamian religion.6 But otherwise I kept the matter to myself, collecting, checking and sifting the evidence and reflecting on its implications.
I found numerous additional facts supporting my theory and could not discover a weak point. In checking the evidence for the Mesopotamian divine numbers, for example, I discovered that there were two different sets of these, Assyrian and Babylonian, and only the Assyrian ones yielded a meaningful distribution on the tree. Moreover, I found that it was only in Assyria that these numbers were regularly used for writing the names of the "great gods," and that the system of divine numbers appeared in Assyria quite abruptly at the beginning of the thirteenth century BC, at the same time as the distinctively Assyrian form of the sacred tree started making its appearance in Assyrian imperial art. The emergence of the Assyrian divine numbers and the Assyrian tree were thus interconnected phenomena related to the creation of the Assyrian empire in the mid-fourteenth century BC.
This explained the spectacular match between the hierarchy of gods and the divine numbers in the reconstructed tree diagram. It was not accidental; the Tree being a central symbol of Assyrian royal ideology, somebody had taken the trouble, after Assyria's rise to world dominion, to elaborate that symbol by devising a new, esoteric version of it which stated the Tree in terms of a hierarchy of gods and a set of numbers associated with them. Some of these numbers were old, like the number of the moon god (30), which is already attested in the third millennium BC; but others were new and presumably created precisely for the esoteric version of the Tree, in order to express its hierarchy of gods numerically.
I now understood the reason for the alternation of the king and the tree in the sculptures of Ashurnasirpal. Ideologically the king was the personification of the Tree. As the earthly representative of the supreme god, he was the image of God, who incorporated all the different aspects of the transcendent God ("the great gods") in his person. The esoteric tree "composed" of gods was, as it were, an X-ray of his soul: it depicted him as embodying in perfect balance all the qualities of the "great gods" – authority, wisdom, prudence, justice, love, mercy, brilliance, valour, and physical power. I short, it depicted him as a perfect man, the only kind of man fit to rule an empire named after its supreme god, Ashur.
I noticed that "perfect man/hero" and "perfect image/likeness of God" indeed were well-attested epithets of the Assyrian king. In Assyrian coronation hymns, the "great gods" are said to have given all their properties (wisdom, etc.) as gifts to the king for his office; and in Assyrian royal inscriptions, the king actually shares the epithets of the "great gods." Moreover, in Assyrian lexica, the king was explicitly equated with the date palm (gišimmaru) – the most common representation of the sacred tree – and the word "king" could sometimes be written with the cuneiform sign for "date palm."7 So the evidence amply corroborated the conclusion that the reconstructed esoteric tree indeed underlay the Assyrian sacred tree and the king's equation with it.
I further noticed that the Tree was occasionally represented anthropomorphically, in the form of a crowned man, a sort of amalgam of the Tree and the king. This "tree-man" was not depicted in profile, as customary in Mesopotamia, but frontally, which made it structurally identical with the sacred tree. The crown on its top corresponds to the crown of the tree; the lower body, represented as a mountain, corresponds to the mountain on which the sacred tree stands; the hands crossed over the heart correspond to the node in the middle of the tree; while the protruding ears and two pairs of fruit-bearing branches shooting from the arms and the feet correspond to the fruit-bearing branches of the sacred tree. Significantly, the structure of the anthropomorphic tree accurately reflects the hierarchy of divine powers in the reconstructed tree diagram: apart from the crown, which was the symbol of heavenly authority, the two ears were symbolic of wisdom and prudence, the heart was symbolic of love, and so on.
In Kabbalah, too, the tree diagram is interpreted in terms of man. The configuration of the sefirot represents the spiritual perfection of the first man created in the image of God, which he lost as a result of his fall. Death became the fate of man in his fallen state, though there was a way – but one way only – to evade it: to restore the original state of perfection, as revealed in the tree diagram. Much of the Kabbalistic doctrine is devoted to detailing the method by which this goal could be achieved. Individuals who gained god-like perfection by following the path outlined by the tree gained access to the heavenly council of God, where they could obtain divine knowledge; and eventually, after death, they were rewarded with eternal life.
Reflecting upon the Kabbalistic way of salvation I realised that it was also outlined in cuneiform documents, albeit in a covert way, and what is more, there too it was intrinsically linked to the sacred tree. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of an ancient king who sought eternal life, and outlines in twelve tablets his spiritual development from an oppressive, selfish tyrant into a "perfect king." Each tablet describes a distinct phase in Gilgamesh's development. Nine of the tablets are thematically associated with the "great gods" making up the Tree, and the order of the tablets corresponds to that of the gods in the Tree, starting with the god of the netherworld at its root and proceeding in a zigzag fashion through the branches and trunk towards its top. One can observe how Gilgamesh, passing through the spheres of the "great gods," finally gains access to divine knowledge and becomes the "judge of the netherworld," the yardstick by which men's fates are decided after death. The peculiar spelling of Gilgamesh's name in the Epic can be esoterically read "the man who matched the Tree of Balance."
In the Babylonian Epic of Creation, the emergence of a plurality of gods from a state of undifferentiated unity is presented as a "mathematical" process keyed to the numerical structure of the tree diagram. In the Epic of Etana, the tree figures as the seat of two conflicting aspects of the soul, "the eagle" and "the snake." The eagle commits a sin, tastes the "forbidden" (the young of the snake), and, deprived of its feathers, is doomed to perish in a deep pit; it repents, however, and is rescued by divine intervention, regains its feathers, and finally ascends to heaven together with its rescuer, the king Etana. In the myth of Ishtar's Descent to the Netherworld, we have a variant on the same theme: the goddess, who here symbolises the "universal soul," haughtily leaves her heavenly home in order to conquer the netherworld, loses all her divine powers (symbolically referred to as pieces of clothing and jewellery) during her descent, falls sick and dies, but is revived through divine grace and enabled to return to heaven, regaining all her lost powers during her ascent. As in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the number and order of the powers correspond to the hierarchy of gods in the tree diagram.
The Assyrian Tree of Life
There are innumerable other details connecting Mesopotamian religion with the Kabbalistic doctrine of salvation. I cannot go into them here. But realising that these two, externally so different, traditions could be linked together through the esoteric tree diagram, and seeing how this recognition helped to bring order and sense to the seemingly chaotic and "primitive" Mesopotamian religion, I became firmly convinced that my theory was valid and decided to go ahead and publish it.
In December 1991, I wrote to Robert Biggs, the editor of the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, and asked him to keep a slot open in one of the next issues for a major article on Mesopotamian religion and philosophy. In spring 1992, I prepared a preliminary draft of the paper, where I concentrated on proving the link between the Kabbalistic and Assyrian trees, and presented it in July 1992 at the 39th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale in Heidelberg under the (intentionally provocative) title "The Assyrian Tree of Life."
Remembering my own initial doubts, I had written the paper primarily for my Assyriological colleagues, trying to present my theory in a way that would make it possible for them to follow its evolution and the evidence on which it was based. Being no specialist in Kabbalah, I was a bit concerned about the reactions of experts in Jewish mysticism, but I felt that the Assyriological facts were in order. To my great surprise, the paper was received extremely well, even enthusiastically, by people knowledgeable in Kabbalah, whereas some Assyriologists specialising in Mesopotamian religion clearly had a hard time swallowing it. Ironically, the objections they presented were the same that had initially bothered me, and already long since taken into account by me!
In any case, the feedback I got was very useful and it greatly strengthened my resolve to publish my work with proper documentation as soon as possible. I spent the next autumn working hard on the paper, expanding it and supplementing it with a massive footnote apparatus. The article appeared in the July 1993 issue of JNES and turned out to be the longest article ever published in the journal.8 Still, there was much that I had to leave unsaid. My main purpose, now as before, was to prove the link between the Assyrian and Kabbalistic trees; additional arguments not strictly relevant to that could be presented later.
The publication of the article released a fierce scholarly debate, though not in print; I received numerous invitations to lecture on the subject at foreign universities and scholarly meetings. As in Heidelberg, the reactions were mixed. A number of people kept presenting objections, but I also found many supporters.9 In the course of the following years, I continued my research and wrote several new articles and a book on the subject, adding new evidence and examples highlighting the significance of the Tree to Mesopotamian religious thought.10
Looking back, I now see that the Tree is really no tree at all, but a multi-layered visual symbol, an aide-mémoire, holding not just one meaning but a multiplicity of meanings. The tree form with its vertical heaven-earth and horizontal left-right opposition provided a structure by means of which it was possible to express several interrelated doctrines of Mesopotamian religion and royal ideology. The tree could be taken to reflect the psychic structure of the "perfect man" as a balance of cardinal virtues; at the same time it also represented God as a sum total of his attributes. It could symbolise the king as the mediator between heaven and earth, but also the soul as an entity transcending the boundary between heaven and earth. It could be contemplated as an image of the tripartite cosmos consisting of heaven, earth and a mesocosmos of stars and "great gods" situated between them. It could reflect the "divine council," and as such also the Assyrian cabinet, whose ministers ideologically were images of the "great gods." Considered from top to bottom, it pictured the creation of the world and the fall of the soul. Considered from bottom to top, it outlined the purified soul's ascent to heaven.
All these different interpretations have one thing in common: a belief in the ability of the pure, undefiled soul to transcend the boundary between the diametrically opposed realms of heaven and earth. This belief made it possible, on the one hand, to present the king as the "perfect man" sent from heaven to shepherd mankind, and on the other, to maintain the hope of a resurrection from the dead.
In depicting the king as the "perfect man" and the "very image of God," the Tree was a primary symbol of the Assyrian empire. In imperial art it is prominently decorated with symbols of abundance to stress the king's crucial role in transmitting divine blessings to his country.11 This fact is not in disagreement with the basically spiritual interpretation of the Tree presented here, but is a corollary of it: prosperity, abundance, and other divine blessings like peace, fear of god, and just regime resulted from the spiritual perfection of the ruler.12 They were the fruits of the Tree, grown out of the virtues (represented as a series of volutes or nodes on the trunk) that made it up. It is natural that they were emphasized in public and official contexts, for the beneficialness of the king's rule was of crucial significance to the unity and stability of the empire.
In the cult of Ishtar, the Tree must have primarily functioned as an object of meditation, a sort of mandala edifying the devotees in their ascetic quest for salvation. As the human personification of the Tree – the "perfect man" – the king played an important role in the soteriology of the cult: he was the saviour sent to the rescue of the meek and just, and the redeemer of those who believed in him. It is likely that each different circle of initiates emphasised different aspects of the symbolism of the Tree. But all the various interpretations surveyed above must have been basic to all the different traditions, and it is certain that the exegesis of the Tree involved many details and additional interpretations that necessarily remain beyond our ken.
Having done my best, often in vain, to explain the meaning of the Tree in scholarly articles I can understand why the ancients chose to keep it as secret knowledge. No written words can adequately express the complex ideas conveyed by a powerful visual symbol; on the contrary, they tend to obscure and distort its basic message that can be intuitively and instantaneously grasped in contemplation, and may even render it ridiculous. Keeping the meaning of the Tree as a secret disclosed only through allusions and riddles powerfully added to its efficacy and attraction.
Of course, the Tree was only one visual symbol among many others in the ancient world. But it was an important one, at least in ancient Assyria, well comparable to the Christian cross (which later took its place) in meaning and function. Like the cross, it embodied the central doctrines of Assyrian religion and royal ideology and offered boundless incentive for meditation and religious and philosophical speculation.
It goes without saying that any attempt to understand the Assyrian tree must be firmly based on Assyrian evidence. But that is not enough. Since the doctrines relating to the Tree were secret and therefore never committed to writing except in veiled, allegorical terms, it is necessary to take into consideration also related esoteric traditions like Kabbalah, which are better known and for which there is more abundant written evidence. Only with the help of such comparative evidence is it possible to identify and make sense of the available Assyrian data, fill in the gaps that they leave, and piece them together into a coherent picture. But even adducing comparative evidence is not enough. One must immerse oneself into it and meditate on it in order to grasp the essence of the underlying thought and recognise the points of contact with a different religious and cultural frame of reference. In short, one must become both a Kabbalist and an adept of the Assyrian tree in order to understand the latter.
Such was, dear reader, in brief outline, the story of my acquaintance with the Tree of Life. It could not have ended without my becoming, to some extent at least, an initiate of the Tree. How has it affected you?
1 R. Cook, The Tree of Life: Image for the Cosmos. London: Thames and Hudson, 1974.
2 The term "sacred tree" will for convenience be used here too to refer to the Mesopotamian tree, but it should be noted that this term, unlike "the Tree of Life," is a modern invention not attested in the ancient sources.
3 For this view see most recently B. N. Porter, "Sacred Trees, Date Palms, and the Royal Persona of Ashurnasirpal II," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 52 (1993), 129-139.
4 For recent analyses of the Tree see e.g. H. York., "Heiliger Baum," in Reallexikon der Assyriologie, ed. D. O. Edzard et al., Vol. 4 (1975), 269-280; C. Kepinski, L'arbre stylisé en Asie occidentale au IIe millénaire avant J.C. 3 vols., Paris, 1982.
5 Z'ev ben Shimon Halevi, Kabbalah: Tradition of hidden knowledge. London: Thames and Hudson, 1979. For a recent scholarly presentation of Kabbalah see M. Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988.
6 Simo Parpola, "Kaksoisvirranmaan uskonto," Uskonnot maailmassa, ed. Juha and Katja Pentikäinen (Porvoo, 1992), 227-244.
7 Later on, I noticed that the goddess Ishtar, too, like the Canaanite Asherah, was likewise equated with the date palm, just as I had earlier suspected. This was only logical, since Ishtar in Assyrian texts appears as the (spiritual) mother of the king and hence "consubstantial" with him.
8 S. Parpola, "The Assyrian Tree of Life: Tracing the Origins of Jewish Monotheism and Greek Philosophy," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 52 (1993), 161-208.
9 See, e.g., M. Weinfeld, "Feminine Features in the Imagery of God in Israel: The Sacred Marriage and the Sacred Tree," Vetus Testamentum 46 (1996), 515-529; I. Gruenwald, "How Much Qabbalah in Ancient Assyria? – Methodological Reflections on the Study of a Cross-Cultural Phenomenon," in ASSYRIA 1995. Proceedings of the 10th Anniversary Symposium of the Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, ed. S. Parpola and R. M. Whiting (Helsinki, 1997), 115-127; J. S. Cooper, "Assyrian Prophecies, the Assyrian tree, and the Mesopotamian origins of Jewish monotheism, Greek philosophy, Christian theology, Gnosticism and much more," Journal of the American Oriental Society 120 (2000), 430-444.
10 S. Parpola, "The Assyrian Cabinet," in Vom Alten Orient zum Alten Testament. Festschrift für Wolfram Freiherrn von Soden zum 85. Geburtstag am 19. Juni 1993, ed. Manfried Dietrich and Oswald Loretz (Alter Orient und Altes Testament 240, Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1995), 379-401.
–––, Assyrian Prophecies. State Archives of Assyria 9. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 1997.
–––, "The Esoteric Meaning of the Name of Gilgamesh," in Intellectual Life of the Ancient Near East Papers. Presented at the 43rd Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, Prague, July 1-5, 1996, ed. J. Prosecký (Prague, 1998), 315-329.
–––, "Sons of God: The Ideology of Assyrian Kingship": Archaeology Odyssey 2/5 (November/December 1999), 16-27.
–––, "Monotheism in Ancient Assyria," in One God or Many? Concepts of Divinity in the Ancient World, ed. Barbara Nevling Porter (Transactions of the Casco Bay Assyriological Institute 1, Casco Bay, 2000), 165-209.
–––, "The Mesopotamian Soul of Western Culture": Bulletin of the Canadian Society of Mesopotamian Studies 35 (2000), 29-41
11 Irene J. Winter, "Ornament and the 'Rhetoric of Abundance' in Assyria": Eretz Israel (in press). The palmettes, pomegranates and pine cones surrounding the Tree were important symbols of fertility and abundance, but also of unity, longevity and eternal life.
12 Compare S. Parpola, Letters from Assyrian and Babylonian Scholars (State Archives of Assyria 10, Helsinki, 1993), no. 226, a letter from a courtier praising the king's just and beneficial rule. In this letter, as in many other contemporary texts, the righteousness of the king is mentioned before the economic prosperity that he had brought about.
UNDERSTANDING THE TREE OF LIFE
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