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Barbara Warren

Tree of Life

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 Dr. E. C. Krupp, Director of Griffith Observatory, and expert in ancient astronomy, says that Nut, the Egyptian goddess was a version of the Milky Way. The Milky Way was, in myth, called a river of milk jetting from Hera's or Gaia's breast, or a ladder leading up into the sky, or a giant tree growing upward into the sky.  Macrobius, the 5th century Roman astronomer known for his poetry, called the Milky Way the 'Tree of Life'.

 Look at that picture overhead, of the goddess Nut standing in and being a tree. She was the Tree of Life, the Milky Way stretching across the sky. 

The Greeks spoke about the function of the Milky Way. It was the place were souls came from at birth, and where they returned after death. Souls drifted downwards from the Tree of Life like leaves in the wind, falling down through the seven spheres of heaven, picking up 'color' at each sphere before landing in the bodies of babies as they were born. Thus, that goddess, that Tree of Life was the origin of all souls, of all babies, of all life. I suspect the two figures on the right are drinking the milk from the Milky Way. It was a Tree, and also a river of Milk at the same time, these weren't mutually exclusive.

 From Nils Billing, Nut: The Goddess of Life in Text and Iconography, fig. F.3. -egyptian-tree-goddess.jpg

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It is very interesting. I know relatively very little about ancient Egypt, hence I have little to add to the discussion, but the suggested identity between the Tree of Life archetype and the Milky Way is quite interesting. The above picture seems quite clear in indicating the identity.

A quick search shows that the same identity has been proposed for the Maya culture: https://web.archive.org/web/20070106021734/http://members.shaw.ca/mjfinley/creation.html

However, all in all I am unfavourable to the comparative study of myth and religion based on the study of so-called 'archetypes' (and it is a faded paradigm anyway).

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Yes, I have read several works that point out that the great tree which appears in the heavens in Mayan mythological artworks might be the Milky Way galaxy. 

:)  I find the comparative study of myth and religion to be very interesting.  It sheds a great deal of light on the subject.  

Just as I can only know my own face by comparing it with others, I can know my own cultural background best by comparing it with others.

Many of these stories are wide spread, found in various versions stretching across continents and millennia.  I admit, I don't have patience with Jungian archetypes.  Everything in the world is not simplistic and childish Freudian imagery. But humans communicate.  We spread words and ideas and technology.  These are our best trade items, and they are light to carry, too. 

Sometimes the cultural additions can obscure the underlying similarity.

I can think of a few examples of this tree story, if it does not try your patience too severely.

In the epics of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh kills the giant Humbaba and chops down the great cedar tree guarded by the giant.  My St. Martin's Press "Field Astronomy Handbook"  points out that constellation Hercules was called Gilgamesh.  You'll notice the Sumerian and Akkadian stories of Gilgamesh on his journeys is a variant version of Hercules on his journeys of the Twelve Labours of Hercules. Gilgamesh also meets and kills the Celestial Bull/Taurus the Bull, meets and kills Leo the Lion, meets Scorpio-man or Scorpius, meets Utnapashtim or Aquarius, and so on.  Hercules has twelve labours because the sky is divided into twelve parts by the movements of the planet Jupiter.  This divides the sky in to the twelve parts of the zodiac. Humbaba the Giant was a version of Orion the Hunter, or Orion the Giant.  Next to Orion is the Milky Way, so in the Gilgamesh story, next to Humbaba the Giant is the great cedar tree. The Gilgamesh story is from the Middle East about 3,000-1,800  B. C. The ancient Middle Eastern sky map was a bit different than the modern western one, although shared many similarities.

The Hercules or Herakles stories of the Greeks and Romans are written down about 600 B.C. to 300 A.D., approximately. In one of the Greek stories, the Milky Way is the gush of milk that arcs from Hera's breast as she pulls away from baby Herakles. The Greek and Roman pantheons had twelve great gods.  Each of the twelve gods had a 'temple' or house of the zodiac, according to Manilius, the 1st century writer.  These were : Aries the Ram - Athena/Minerva, Taurus the Bull -Aphrodite/Venus, Gemini Twins - Apollo (also called Helios) /Apollo, Cancer the Crab - Hermes/Mercury, Leo the Lion - Zeus/Jupiter, Virgo the Virgin - Ceres/Demeter, Libra the Scales - Hephaestus/Vulcan, Scorpius the Scorpion - Ares/Mars, Sagittarius the Archer - Artemis/ Diana, Capricornus the Goat-Fish - Hestia/Vesta, Aquarius the Waterbearer - Hera/Juno, Pisces the Fish - Poseidon/Neptune.  Jupiter, who divides the sky into twelve parts and assigned each of the great gods a 'house' in the sky, was appointed king of the gods.  In myth, Jupiter wrestled with his father Saturn or Chronos (Time) for rulership.  Jupiter won, and cast his father, bound, into the outer limits of dark Gygigia, and Saturn is still out on the edge of the solar system today. According to legend, Jupiter, as new king of the gods, took the measures of Time from his father Saturn or Chronos, and so we measure time by the movements of Jupiter today. Because Jupiter divides the sky into twelve parts, we divide the sky into twelve parts. We divide the year into twelve months. We divide the day into twelve hour segments.    

 Just about the time of the Roman Empire (more or less)  the sky had drifted, and the winter solstice was no longer in Capricornus the Goat-Fish. Formerly, the Tropic of Capricorn actually had the constellation Capricorn in it. The new sign of the winter solstice was Sagittarius the Archer. The Tropic of Capricorn now had Sagittarius in it. The Milky Way, that Tree of Life, rose up through Sagittarius the Archer, and lifted vertically into the sky like a great tree rising overhead during this time of year. To celebrate the winter solstice, the Romans performed the Saturnalia, and a tree, often carved with a face in the trunk, was carried through the streets.  --In the days of the Sumerians, the Sumerians had said that the Milky Way lifted vertically in the sky during the spring and fall equinoxes, acting as a ladder between heaven and earth.  And it did, but that was thousands of years earlier, and the sky had drifted due to precession of the equinoxes since then.

In the 1st century A.D., someone wrote the Book of Revelation used in the Christian New Testament.  In this book there is a vision of heaven overhead where there is a city of twelve gates and in the middle is the Tree of Life.

About 5th century A.D., Macrobius the Roman poet and astronomer points out that the Milky Way is also called the Tree of Life, and it rises across the sky in the middle of the twelve houses of the zodiac.

About 1,000 A.D. or so, Nordic stories were being collected and written down. The Norse and Germanic people celebrated twelve great gods, each living in a house in the heavens. Rising up through the layers of heaven was the great tree, Yggdrasil.  The Norse say Yggdrasil appears white, because it is spattered with mud. In Njal's Saga, we learn that the Icelandic people divided themselves into twelve tribes, each with a judge/chief in charge. These twelve judges carried symbolic hammers to show they were representatives of Thor. Thor was the Nordic name for the planet Jupiter.

In the 1800's, anthropologists were collecting ceremonial gear from Siberian shamans (I forget the names of the tribes).  Some of the gear had painted pictures of the shaman climbing up into the heavens by climbing a great celestial tree.

More recently, this winter of 2015, the twelfth month of the year, I erected a tree in the living room, and decorated it with lights and placed a star on top at the time of the traditional Saturnalia, the winter solstice, or Christmas. 

Your pardon.  I do go on.  I might have mentioned I like comparative mythology. Reading multiple sources from multiple cultures often gives me insight into my own culture. I find it also explicates the stories of the culture I am reading at the time. Each of these previous people has left their mark on my own society today.There are probably many others, these spring to mind at the moment.




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Your references are fascinating and interesting with no doubt.

Of course comparison is basic for the scientific knowledge of human phenomena. The problem is that the comparative study of myth and religion has been historically associated with the search for archetypes (read: the invention of them) and for any other kind of theoretical and practical connection, giving rise to simplistic and inherently biased views in which the concern of the scholar was to inscribe individual phenomena within a pre-existent theoretical model, rather than understanding them in their individuality.

In general it's much more useful to study human phenomena in connection with other phenomena within the same historical and social context: this kind of connections will illuminate their meaning much more broadly and deeply than the comparison with phenomena that, within the context of totally unrelated cultures, may share some specific and yet skin-deep feature.

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