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THINGS AS THEY ARE, WERE ARE TO COME

Lehi’s Tree of Life
ANTHONY E. LARSON

who study the beliefs and traditions of the past. Eliade. 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. “Sacred narratives everywhere describe a previous World Age in which a colossal tree dominated the celestial landscape. pp. While all this is correct and proper. That is. bright column reaching from the earth up into the heavens. is well known and rather easily interpreted by today’s Latter-day Saints. 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. Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York. At first blush. which epitomizes the various reactions and behaviors of mankind in connection with revealed truth. joining heaven to earth. Larson THINGS AS THEY ARE.Lehi’s Tree of Life Copyright © 2008 Anthony E. a few examples are “… the Norse mima-meither or the Tree of the golden apples of immortality guarded . Those traditions describe the world tree as an enormous. 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. are keenly aware of the sacred or celestial tree as a predominant motif in ancient cultures. Yet mythologists. it is a wonderful allegory. 1958). Nephi. T he colorful symbolism of the “Tree of Life” vision given to Lehi and his son.) Among thousands of others. 265-326. WERE � ARE TO COME Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life in the Book of Mormon coincides with traditions and myths of a world tree from around the world.” (M.

Then the Scandinavians had a world-tree called the “Sacred Ash” and Yggdrasil. although the whiteness must rather mean brightness. “winged” and “flying” trees. and Jove was the sky-god of Greece and Rome. whose branches spread all over heaven … It was the Tree of Life. and “trees of death”. say that in the most ancient times “trees spread their supporting branches against the heavens and held the sky and earth asunder. as well as the far western. known among the ancients as a miraculous tree. 1893. 1896. and this tree was guarded by the “serpent-god of the tree of life”.) “The tree of life is a well-known concept in the ancient cultures. whose chief abode and sanctuary is at the Ash Ygg’s stead (or standing place) where they hold their court every day. The Night of the Gods. italics added). The Assyrio-Babylonian tree spread its shining branches over the whole heaven. London. and the judgment-seat of the gods. “Eminent archaeologists are quite familiar with the fact that almost every race and tongue alludes to a tree now universally called the “world-tree”. the Soma Tree of the ancient Hindus and Parsees gave long life to gods and men. Were I to gather half the literature that I have found pertaining to this tree of trees. Eden’s Flaming Sword. and we must therefore put this tree in the skies.” (John O’Neill. It is a near relation of the Innensaiile. it would of itself fill a volume. like the Avestan haoma. and beautified the universal skies. The far eastern races.” 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. There is the world ash Yggdrasil. I-II. and they said its roots penetrated to the under-world and its branches spread all over the skies. “trees of wisdom and knowledge”. and was also a celestial tree. … It is white. “holy trees. An increasing number of scholars now concede that the mythical tree was essentially a symbol of the cosmic axis. There was the “winged oak of Jove”. or to the similar apple tree of the garden of the Hesperides. the column that links the .Lehi’s Tree of Life 3 by the goddess Idunn. that highest universe-column sustaining all things.” “life-giving trees”.” (Isaac Vail. The ancient scriptures of the Hindus speak of the heavens as a tree. There was the star-bearing tree of the Hesperian Gardens. which is so deeply rooted an idea in German antiquity. as Grimm pointed out. universalis columna quasi sustinens omnia. the greatest and best of all trees. guarded by the world-serpent Ladon.

Clearly. it was employed in the end of the biblical account.” Eating its fruit imparted the knowledge of “good and evil” to Adam and Eve. Had it not been for one or two references to the Tree of Life scattered about in our sacred texts. cosmic mountain. 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. whose crown touched the zenith or the pole star. … wherefore I know concerning the regions round about …” (2 Nephi 25: 5. The striking similarity between these traditional trees and Lehi’s tree is undeniable. that element of this vision would have been as unfamiliar to us as the others. What Nephi wrote about himself was also true for all those in Lehi’s company: “… for I came out from Jerusalem.) We. the Tree of Life symbol is first employed in the beginning of the biblical Creation account. This tree or world axis was a golden mountain in the centre of the world. and mine eyes hath beheld the things of the Jews. and I know that the Jews do understand the things of the prophets. whose feet rest on the earth and whose shoulders support the firmament. “in the midst of the garden. Some saw this tree as the body of a gargantuan god. the cosmic giant Atlas. in John’s Revelation. unworthy of the lofty spiritual values and thinking taught by the Son of God in the meridian of time.Lehi’s Tree of Life 4 rotational poles of the earth to the poles of heaven as they appear from any place on earth. An endless array of metaphors – tree of life. today. The Vortical Tree. 6. For example.) 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. “And he shewed me a pure river of water of life. world giant. Ironically.” (Rens van der Sluijs. Lehi and Nephi drew upon symbolism familiar to all Middle Eastern peoples to interpret their revelation. where it was said to have stood in Eden. and many others – refer to one and the same awe-inspiring object: the axis in the centre of the world. . in keeping with the reality that they were speaking to people for whom these archetypes and motifs were very familiar. the summit of which reached until the highest heavens.

mormonprophecy.” (2 Nephi 25: 5. 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. One marvels that a young man. “… I beheld a river of water. living on the American frontier nearly 200 years ago.” (Revelation 22: 1.com/ For online classes.) These verses from Genesis and Revelation are clearly examples of what Nephi meant when he wrote: “. and on either side of the river. A dispassionate and considered analysis will demonstrate that they all draw upon a common cultural heritage. newsletters and published books exploring this material in depth: http://www. proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. save it be that they are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews.com/ Your questions or comments are welcome: anthonyelarson@gmail.Lehi’s Tree of Life 5 clear as crystal.. … And I also beheld a strait and narrow path …. which bare twelve manner of fruits. 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.) Compare these with the tree motifs of other cultures. 2. videos. 20.com . and there is none other people that understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews like unto them.blogspot. and it was near the tree of which I was partaking the fruit. Notice that John brings other elements into the picture that have counterparts in Lehi’s dream: A river and a street. … In the midst of the street of it. For more essays from this series: http://mormonprophecy.. This tree is clearly an icon or symbol. and it ran long. was there the tree of life. We see those equivalents in Lehi’s dream.) The imagery in these verses is unmistakable: There exists no such tree in reality. published a story that is faithful in every way to these ancient cultural traditions.” (1 Nephi 8: 13. and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

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