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The Story Behind Mexico’s Tree of Life

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Tree of life sculpture in Merida's Casa de Montejo
Credit: Adam63 | Wikimedia Commons

The story behind Mexico’s Tree of Life has very deep roots, as you will soon see. The Tree of LIfe is most commonly known as a clay sculpture that was initially created in Matamoros, Puebla but now is identified most closely with Metepec in Estado de México.

The forms depicted in these sculptures originally were based on biblical figures such as Adam and Eve and the story of creation. The sculptures were first made for natives in the early colonial period. Recently, though, there have been Tree of Life sculptures created with themes completely unrelated to the Bible.

But the Tree of Life has a very long and interesting history. If we look back in time, we will see that trees have been the focus of religious life for many people around the globe for a very long time. Within Mesoamerican mythology and religion, terrestrial trees were the image and likeness of their cosmic counterparts and both were revered and respected. The earth tree, sacred tree, communicator tree, bridge tree or, as we shall see, Mexico’s Tree of Life, are important to Mexico’s culture.

Trees are part of the universe of pre-Hispanic beliefs; their representations and their written and oral stories are a product and sample of the different regions and cultures of Mesoamerica. In every culture there is a heritage passed on by our ancestors and this heritage is different for every culture. However, the symbol that repeats itself is the Tree of Life.

Here in Mexico, the tree that is the physical representation of the Tree of Life for prehispanic cultures, like the Mayas and the Aztecs, is the tree called Ceiba. The tree’s habitat is the center of tropical forests in many regions of the earth, such as Central and South America, the Caribbean, West Africa, Southeast Asia and Mexico.

This tree is not like any other tree because its physiology and abundance are unique. These two characteristics have impacted different cultures in different times. They believe that the four elements – air, water, earth and fire – come together in Ceiba.

La Ceiba, known as Yaxche by the Maya, is a very large tree that can grow up to 230 feet. Its thick green trunk has a diameter of 10 feet or more. One of its beauties is that the trunk is covered with thorns, giving it a prehistoric look. La Ceiba’s flower displays different mixes of colors and patterns.

Numerous testimonies and interpretations refer to the existence of a plane on the earth’s surface that is divided into four parts with a center represented by a precious green stone. At each end of that horizontal plane was a support or column for the sky, which was usually represented as a cosmic tree. These four-column trees corresponded and were oriented to the directions of the universe. Variations equivalent to north, south, east and west not only conformed the supports of the sky but also were bonds with the gods, supernatural beings, ancestors and humans.

In their role as the central axis of the cosmos, named axis mundi, the trees served as roads through which the gods and their influences moved towards the surface of the earth. They functioned as thresholds through which the “divine messages” traveled to the world of mortals.

They also formed double routes of communication because they allowed the ascents of the deities and forces of lower levels, as well as the descents of the celestial forces through the 22 floors or levels of the cosmos, meaning the 13 skies and the nine underworlds.

In the center of the Tree of Life, green, represented by the earth, meets the dual principles of the old worldview: dark-light, female-male, death-life, moisture-dryness and down-up, among others. The so-called “Papantla fliers” trace us back to the past, as seen in different ceramic pieces from western Mexico. The representation of the flying ceremony, whose post – most likely the Ceiba’s trunk – may be the metaphorical figure of the axis mundi that arises from the center of the universe.

Among the ancient Maya, La Ceiba, was considered a sacred tree. The Tree of Life depiction shows their ancestors converted into certain trees with fruits as a symbol of the possibility of living after death. There could be no passages without important mentions and events related to the mythical trees in the great Maya holy book, the Popol Vuh (Book of Council).

The first tree, the original and central color green, was the tree that created the sky during creation. It was also conceived as the axis of the world that connected the three planes of the cosmos: Its roots were sinking into the levels of the cold and dark underworld; its trunk corresponded to the earth, where men developed their lives and branches reached different levels In the same way; and, in their communicating function, the trees represent the trees that connected gods with terrestrial beings or could be the conductors of souls of the ancestors who sought to ascend to higher levels of the cosmos.

Finally, it is interesting to know, thanks to recent studies by Yale University archeologist Mary Miller, that Tree of Life images are carved on the tombstone of Pakal in Palenque, Chiapas, confirming its cultural and religious role in Mexico’s history.

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