Tuesday, October 30, 2007
The Tree of Life and Death
I once said to an Air Force Christian Scientist chaplain that at that moment I felt so at peace that I didn't care if there was such a thing as eternal life or not. She replied, "There, you have found eternal life!"
“... one of what we all are: Less than a drop in the great blue motion of sunlit sea. But it seems that some of the drops sparkle. ... They do sparkle!” ~ King Arthur, Camelot by Lerner and Lowe
Two of the most potent icons that appear in different myths are intertwined. The image of the World Tree exists in most cultures --including pop culture-- and the story of the hero who dies and returns is always linked to it. Perhaps a tree's roots deep in the ground with branches reaching to the sky symbolizes our connection to the All. Its cycle of decay in Fall and Winter and rebirth in Spring and Summer represents the cycle death and resurrection. Religions tend to celebrate their heroes' or dieties' rebirth around the coming of Spring, when the world itself seems to be coming back to life.
Death and resurrection are a key theme in mythology. We want to know that we are eternal, or, at least, a part ofsomething that is. Most heroes of most myth-cycles are tasked to reaffirm this by dying and coming back. At the least, they experience a life change so profound that it is like being reborn. The Norse god Odin was nailed to the Tree Yggdrasil to gain knowledge, including the ability to enter the Land of the Dead and return. A gigantic tamarisk tree grew from the spot where the Egyptian god Osiris died; he was later resurrected by Isis after five days in the Underworld. Buddha found enlightenment sittiing under the bodhi tree. Christ died on a symbolic tree, the wooden cross, and was resurrected three days later. Arthur's mentor Merlin was associated symbolically with an oak tree. In modern myths Luke Skywalker faced his fears in the tree on Dagobah to become a Jedi Knight. It might even be said that Buffy's wooden stakes and Harry Potter's wands are shards of the great Tree. In fact, it is significant that Harry met his own death and returned amid the trees in the Forbidden Forest, and Buffy's death came on a tower that reached up like a tree.
Even without the symbol of the tree, most major popular culture heroes have an element of death and rebirth in their stories, keeping them firmly in the classic mythic tradition. Superman was sent out like a seed pod from a dying planet. The Lone Ranger was the last survivor of a band of Texas Rangers left for dead by the Cavendish gang; he even left a grave marker. Buck Rogers was overcome by an underground gas that left him in a deathlike state until he awoke in the 25th century. Denny Colt was doused with a chemical that left him in suspended animation; he was buried in a vault in Wildwood Cemetary that later became his hideout and base when he awoke and named himself The Spirit(1). Most of today's super heroes survive origins that would normally be lethal: struck by lightning, hit by a meteor, exposed to radioactive or toxic waste. It seems a hero just isn't a hero until he has met Death and lived to tell the tale.
Speaking of cycles, The Celtic celebration of the end of the harvest season and the coming of the season of death is tomorrow night. It was known in Gaelic as Oidhche Shamhna, or in modern terms Samhain, All Hallows Eve or Hallowe'en. It was the end of the year. Some traditions hold that on this night the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is thinnest. The ancients celebrated the aspect of Death because they knew that it is only part of an never-ending cycle, that while the old world died the darkness was germinating the seeds of the new. When you can see that, you've found eternal life.
(1) If you don't know the classic comic book hero, don't worry: the movie is out next year!)