The colorful symbolism of the "Tree of Life" vision given to Lehi and his son, Nephi, is well known and rather easily interpreted by today’s Latter-day Saints.
At first blush, the rich imagery these two Book of Mormon prophets employed combines to create a completely original metaphor for humanity’s behavior where the gospel of Jesus Christ is concerned. That is, it is a wonderful allegory, which epitomizes the various reactions and behaviors of mankind in connection with revealed truth.
While all this is correct and proper, there may be more traditional elements within Lehi’s and Nephi’s revelation that would have been quite familiar to their contemporaries in the Middle East. They employed cultural archetypes — already ancient in Lehi’s and Nephi’s day — that we modern Saints fail to recognize because they are entirely absent from our cultural traditions.
Yet mythologists, who study the beliefs and traditions of the past, are keenly aware of the sacred or celestial tree as a predominant motif in ancient cultures. "Sacred narratives everywhere describe a previous World Age in which a colossal tree dominated the celestial landscape, joining heaven to earth." (M. Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York, 1958), pp. 265-326.)
Among thousands of others, a few examples are "… the Norse mima-meither or the Tree of the golden apples of immortality guarded by the goddess Idunn, or to the similar apple tree of the garden of the Hesperides. There is the world-ash Yggdrasil, the greatest and best of all trees, whose branches spread all over heaven … It was the Tree of Life, and the judgment-seat of the gods, whose chief abode and sanctuary is at the Ash Ygg's stead (or standing place) where they hold their court every day. … It is white, like the Avestan haoma, although the whiteness must rather mean brightness, as Grimm pointed out. It is a near relation of the Innensaiile, that highest universe-column sustaining all things, universalis columna quasi sustinens omnia, which is so deeply rooted an idea in German antiquity.” (John O’Neill, The Night of the Gods, I-II, London, 1893, italics added).
"Eminent archaeologists are quite familiar with the fact that almost every race and tongue alludes to a tree now universally called the "world-tree". Were I to gather half the literature that I have found pertaining to this tree of trees, "holy trees," "life-giving trees", "winged" and "flying" trees, "trees of wisdom and knowledge", and "trees of death", it would of itself fill a volume. There was the "winged oak of Jove", known among the ancients as a miraculous tree, and Jove was the sky-god of Greece and Rome, and we must therefore put this tree in the skies. There was the star-bearing tree of the Hesperian Gardens, guarded by the world-serpent Ladon, the Soma Tree of the ancient Hindus and Parsees gave long life to gods and men, and was also a celestial tree. The Assyrio-Babylonian tree spread its shining branches over the whole heaven, and this tree was guarded by the "serpent-god of the tree of life". Then the Scandinavians had a world-tree called the "Sacred Ash" and Yggdrasil, and they said its roots penetrated to the under-world and its branches spread all over the skies. The ancient scriptures of the Hindus speak of the heavens as a tree. The far eastern races, as well as the far western, say that in the most ancient times "trees spread their supporting branches against the heavens and held the sky and earth asunder." These are all immortal survivals of the one great world-tree that stood on the bounds of the earth and ramified upward as vapor stems, and beautified the universal skies." (Isaac Vail, Eden’s Flaming Sword, 1896.)
"The tree of life is a well-known concept in the ancient cultures. An increasing number of scholars now concede that the mythical tree was essentially a symbol of the cosmic axis, the column that links the rotational poles of the earth to the poles of heaven as they appear from any place on earth." (Rens van der Sluijs, The Vortical Tree.)
Literally thousands of myths describe the world axis as a prodigious fiery or golden tree, rooted in the deepest underworld underneath the surface of the earth, whose crown touched the zenith or the pole star. This tree or world axis was a golden mountain in the centre of the world, the summit of which reached until the highest heavens. Some saw this tree as the body of a gargantuan god, the cosmic giant Atlas, whose feet rest on the earth and whose shoulders support the firmament. An endless array of metaphors – tree of life, cosmic mountain, world giant, and many others – refer to one and the same awe-inspiring object: the axis in the centre of the world.
The striking similarity between these traditional trees and Lehi’s tree is undeniable. Clearly, Lehi and Nephi drew upon symbolism familiar to all Middle Eastern peoples to interpret their revelation, in keeping with the reality that they were speaking to people for whom these archetypes and motifs were very familiar. What Nephi wrote about himself was also true for all those in Lehi’s company: "… for I came out from Jerusalem, and mine eyes hath beheld the things of the Jews, and I know that the Jews do understand the things of the prophets, … wherefore I know concerning the regions round about …" (2 Nephi 25: 5, 6.)
We, today, know almost nothing of these ancient archetypes or iconic metaphors familiar to "the regions round about" Jerusalem because our culture discarded them centuries ago as colorful and elaborate but inconsequential myth or satanically pagan imagery, unworthy of the lofty spiritual values and thinking taught by the Son of God in the meridian of time.
Had it not been for one or two references to the Tree of Life scattered about in our sacred texts, that element of this vision would have been as unfamiliar to us as the others. For example, the Tree of Life symbol is first employed in the beginning of the biblical Creation account, where it was said to have stood in Eden, "in the midst of the garden." Eating its fruit imparted the knowledge of "good and evil" to Adam and Eve.
Ironically, it was employed in the end of the biblical account, in John’s Revelation. "And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. … In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations." (Revelation 22: 1, 2.)
The imagery in these verses is unmistakable: There exists no such tree in reality. What tree can be both “in the midst of the street of it” and “on either side of the river” at the same time? It is imagery—a metaphor—just as is the tree in Eden. This tree is clearly an icon or symbol.
Notice that John brings other elements into the picture that have counterparts in Lehi’s dream: A river and a street. We see those equivalents in Lehi’s dream. "… I beheld a river of water; and it ran long, and it was near the tree of which I was partaking the fruit. … And I also beheld a strait and narrow path …." (1 Nephi 8: 13, 20.)
These verses from Genesis and Revelation are clearly examples of what Nephi meant when he wrote: "... and there is none other people that understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews like unto them, save it be that they are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews." (2 Nephi 25: 5.)
Compare these with the tree motifs of other cultures. A dispassionate and considered analysis will demonstrate that they all draw upon a common cultural heritage.
One marvels that a young man, living on the American frontier nearly 200 years ago, published a story that is faithful in every way to these ancient cultural traditions. This convergence of iconic motifs from antiquity with those from the Book of Mormon is yet another powerful witness to Joseph Smith’s claim of prophetic inspiration.
© Anthony E. Larson, 2008