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the tree of life or great tree

The tree of life has carved out a place in modern mythology over the years, becoming a highly recognizable symbol of the interconnectedness of all living things.  Far more interesting though, is how this potent image also featured in almost all ancient civilizations in one way or another, and how it shaped the culture of body modification through tattooing.

The concepts adherent to the tree of life mythos are very universal.  To many ancient civilizations, the deciduous trees in their native habitat were a very visible metaphor for the great cycle, representing youth (budding in the Spring), adulthood (the abundance of Summer), twilight (the weakening of Fall), death (Winter), and eventual rebirth.  Furthermore, those trees that bore edible fruit could sometimes be seen as a gift from the gods, and may have been imbued with preternatural powers.

A mystical tree that anchors the life cycle, gives life, grants immortality, or connects the world of the living to the realm of the gods is present in the spoken or written legends of ancient Persia, Egypt, India, and China.  Amazingly, this same type of great tree was also an integral part of the central folklore of the ancient Norse and Celtic societies, thousands of miles away.  And even further abroad in the Americas, many Mesoamerican cultures, including the Aztecs and the Maya, also retained powerful legends of the “world tree,” or a life tree that connects the world of the living with the domain of the gods as well as the underworld.  Even the pre-Columbian tribes of the American Northeast that later became the Iroquois nation passed down a creation myth that mentions a divine tree.

Although all of these civilizations and more acknowledged the tree of life in their central mythologies, it’s those tribes that advocated tattooing who would most shape the way such a tree was drawn or represented.  Perhaps most notably, the pagan tribes of ancient England and Ireland, collectively referred to as the Celts.  These groups were often tattooed, particularly their holy men and those of the warrior class, and the tree of life featured prominently.  Though over the centuries there were many incarnations of the tree in different styles of tattoo art, two of the most common are a blooming tree with knots in the trunk or roots, and a leafless tree whose branches and roots interconnect to form a great circle.

 life tree design variations

Following a recent resurgence in traditional tribal styles of tattooing, both of these representations as well as many more have once again become common.  Although the methods of tattooing are far different, the beauty of its symbolism remains the same, and the tree of life is likely to continue on in body art for millennia to come.

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