Infinite Tree and Eternal Spring

In December of 1995 NASA chose a dark and uncluttered pin-point of sky in Ursa Major and directed the eye of the Hubble Telescope towards it. Over a period of ten days or approximately 150 orbits NASA photographed this pin-point of sky, layering the images as they went. The goal was to peer into the deepest well of space in hopes of glimpsing farther than science had ever seen before; perhaps to see even the distant rim of the universe? The image that the Hubble Telescope slowly produced astounded even the most prosaic and skeptical of minds. First bright swirls and globs appeared: galaxies! Then, innumerable dots began to fill in the dark spaces, until a grand canopy was painted by a telescopic lense. Each dot was not a star, but a galaxy containing billions and billions of stars. The image is called the Hubble Deep Field. In it NASA did not find the edge of the cosmos, but glimpsed an unexpected and mind-numbing view of an eternal cosmos.

Hubble Deep Field

Hubble Deep Field

Eternity is an uncomfortable idea for modern science. Numerous theories are afoot predicting the size, mass, and shape of our universe. Surely there is an end, a perimeter, something that can be seen and measured? Until recently, the estimated number of stars in the universe was thought to be about the number of grains of sand on one earth-bound beach. But a recent study by Dr. Simon Driver, an Australian astronomer, has pushed this number to at least 70 sextillion (a seven followed by 21 zeros) or more than ten times the number of sand particles in all the beaches and deserts on our world. Even this number, Driver admits, might be a drop in the bucket: “The actual number of stars could be infinite” (CNN.com July 23, 2003). To date, the whole grand architecture of the cosmos–its size, mass, and shape, and how it works–is still mired in profound mystery.

As incomprehensible as these images and numbers are, it is perhaps even more astounding  that in the ancient past a few inner-searching minds had already intuited the deep fields of cosmos–above and below. In ancient mythology this grand and apt understanding was represented by the Cosmic Tree, often called the World Tree or Tree of Life. Eliade traces the ancient and mythic image of the Cosmic Tree to every continent on the planet. He writes:

The most widely distributed variant of the symbolism of the Center is the Cosmic Tree, situated in the middle of the Universe, and upholding the three worlds as upon one axis…. It may be said, in general, that the majority of the sacred and ritual trees that we meet within the history of religions are only replicas, imperfect copies of this exemplary archetype, the Cosmic Tree. Thus, all these sacred trees are thought of as situated in the Center of the World. (Eliade, Images 44).

According to Eliade the Center is the mythological space that is the sacred point of orientation for a society–its axis-mundi. The sacred center is the point in which a “break-through from plane to plane [heaven and earth] has become possible and repeatable” (Eliade, Sacred 30). This ancient notion was fundamental to culture and civilization, thus every act of settlement or new founding was a cosmogonic act, a planting of a new World Tree in the garden of cosmos. Eliade describes that the Scandinavian colonists, for example, viewed the cultivation of new land as “only a repetition of a primordial act, the transformation of chaos into cosmos by the divine act of creation” (Eliade, Sacred 31). Furthermore, it appears that the ancient state itself was sacral in nature, and every city, town, and village was built around a sacred Center–a temple, an altar, a grove or tree–in cosmological repetition of the mythological structure of the universe.

The Cosmic Tree was a symbol of the universe–not just the visible universe of which the Hubble Telescope attempts to reveal–but of all the planes and possibilities of existence. The Tree thus represented the underworld by its roots, the material world by its trunk, and the heavenly world of gods and powers by its branches. The Tree also represented the point of creation, the place where all energies meet to transform thought into form. In this light, the Cosmic Tree was also compared to the “Divine Egg, Hidden Seed, or Root of Roots”, the “Pillar or Pole” and the “Cosmic Mountain or primeval mound” (Cook 9).

Numerous pages and volumes could be written about the Tree symbolism in ancient civilization, but what concerns use here is the fact that the Cosmic Tree in ancient myth is often associated with a spring, well, or source of living waters. These two images are oft times synonymous, or are analogous in space and time; thus the Tree is often growing over the top of a well, or is literally planted by a spring or river.

Egyptian TOL

Egyptian Tree of Life

The World Tree of the Norse was named Yggdrasil and had at its base a stream and surrounding it a river. Zeus’s oak tree was planted on Mount Olympus and had the same water features; likewise the tree atop Mount Meru of the Hindus; as well as the tree in the Hebrew Garden of Eden. The Cuna Indian’s Saltwater Tree could be added to the list, as well as the sacred cedars and palms of Egypt growing forth from the Nile; or in the Book of the Dead, the great life-giving lotus rooted in the eternal well underneath the throne of Osiris. Wherever we look in myth the Tree and the Spring are wedded.

Not only in mythology are these cosmic images bound, but in the mythological requirements of mortar, stone, and sacred space of ancient temple architecture. Lundquist writes that ancient temples are “often associated with the waters of life that flow forth from a spring within the building itself… or as having been built upon such a spring” (Parry, ed. 98). This is so because the temple is most often associated with either the primordial hillock or the Cosmic Tree, both of which rise out of the waters at the primal cosmogonic moment. The great Eninnu Temple built by Gudea is called the “foundation of the abyss”, and this is similar to the Jewish temple on Moriah, which too was built over the abysmal waters (Parry, ed. 83-91).

Moses Standing at the Well Before the Temple

Moses Standing at the Well Before the Temple

According to Varner this practice dates as far back as the megalithic age. Varner notes that a well or water source is found many times in stone circles (Varner 14), and Janet and Colin Bord in their landmark study of sacred wells in the British Isles quote Burl: “Wherever an avenue of stones is associated with a stone circle it almost invariably leads from a source of water, indicating the importance of water in the ceremonies that took place in the rings” (Bord and Bord, qtd. 11). Varner also observes that the standing stones of circles or sacred avenues are themselves symbolic representations of trees (Varner 14).

These associations are no coincidence. The Cosmic Tree is the archetypal paradigm for both the structure and potentiality of all cosmic processes. Wherever there is a moment of creation, a point of creation, there is an organization of form (the Tree) predicated upon cosmic laws, rules, and energies which endlessly bubble up from the depths (the Waters). Perhaps, and ironically, these associations also intuit the leading edge of modern physics and Chaos Theory, which posits that wherever there is chaos there is also an underlying geometric pattern. This understanding is revealed through fractals. In other words, chaos is not just disorder and particle bedlam–but rather a non-harmonic field of possibility (the Waters) which, due to the Mandlebrotian nature of chaos, finds nodes or spikes of energy in which harmonic forms can be created (the Tree).

Ancient mythology is not finished with these images, however. The Cosmic Tree and the Living Waters certainly represent an understanding of the material world and of mythological relationships within that world. Perhaps more surprising, is the fact that these images were also used to describe man! Whatever can be represented in the macrocosm is also reflected in the microcosm, for both share the same roots.
The universe was the macrocosm. Man was the microcosm. What existed in one existed in the other, as the ancient mysteries explained, “As above, so below.” Macrocosm and microcosm were linked in what Jacob Needleman calls a “hierarchy of purposeful energies” (Needleman 18) which ordered the cosmos from the cosmic tree branches to the primordial waters. In this hierarchy man was a fulcrum point, both created and creator. This concept of microcosm is no idle metaphor, but an essential paradigm of ancient thought. Paraclesus writes:

Man is heaven and earth, and lower spheres, and the four elements, and whatever is within them, wherefore he is properly called by the name of microcosmos, for he is the whole world…know then that there is also within man a starry firmament with a mighty course of planets and stars that have exaltations, conjunctions and oppositions. (Young, qtd. 12)

If the cosmos has deep fields like the Hubble telescope reveals, and is always associated with the primordial waters of creation and chaos through the fount, spring, or well, then man too has these features (exaltations), shares in this structure (conjunctions), and participates in these energies (oppositions). This notion is not lost upon Carl Gustav Jung, who was an avid reader of Paracelsus. Jung writes, “Not only is the image of the macrocosm imprinted upon him [microcosmic man] as a psychic being, but he also creates this image for himself on an ever-widening scale” (Jung, Undiscovered Self, 43).

Jung understood that man as microcosm meant that there was a cosmic correspondence, metaphorically speaking, between the tree and the spring or well within him. Like Needleman, Jung sees man at the fulcrum point of this cosmic picture. Jung explains, “In my picture of the world there is a vast outer realm and an equally vast inner realm; between these two stand man” (Jung, Modern Man, 122). Jung sees these realms as polarities: man can only view one realm at a time at the sacrifice of the other. Yet as polarities, both rely upon the energies of each other in the form of tension. This tension is beautifully illustrated through the metaphor of cosmic processes. Thus Jung deliberates that the psyche is a “star-strewn night sky, whose planets and fixed constellations represent the archetypes in all their luminosity and numinosity. The starry vault of heaven is in truth the open book of cosmic projection, in which are reflected the mythologems, i.e., the archetypes” (Jung, Psyche, 125).

Here Jung lays out the diagram of inner man. There are both “planets” and “fixed constellations” that move upon the firmament that is man’s psyche. It is helpful, in fact, to know a little astronomy when interpreting such language. The night sky is a place of grandeur, to be sure, but also a place wherein it is easy to get lost. To help define all those blinking dots a band of sky called the zodiac was created by ancient civilizations and divided up into constellations. These constellations are fixed groupings of stars along the plane of the ecliptic. This is important because the plane of the ecliptic is that band in the sky where all the moving luminaries transit, i.e. Jung’s “planets”. In fact, the sun, moon, and inner planets could all be tracked along this plane and their movements measured against the background of fixed constellations or zodiac.

Jung uses this metaphor of both moving and fixed luminaries in the midst of the firmament in microcosmic man to describe what is occurring within him. The fixed constellations are the ever present deep well of space from which the transiting “planets” are measured and moved towards man’s psyche. In other words, the zodiac in man is the collective unconscious–that communal realm from which the moving luminaries emerge.

The Hubble Deep Field is an analogous image which posits every galaxy is a Tree, yet behind every pinpoint of darkness exists a deep well, an “ever widening scale” of possibility, beyond which science has not the ability to measure or even understand. Meanwhile, inner man is also such a place. Every harmonically integrated point in consciousness is a microcosmic Tree, yet behind every pinpoint of darkness within the psyche there also exists a grand stellar firmament from which fixed constellations and planets conjunct and move in an ever flowing current of archetypes and energies. In elegant yet efficient symbolism, the Cosmic Tree and the Spring or Well remind us of the connections within ourselves; connections which share so much with what is above and below.

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