The significance of the Tree of Life as a symbol is deep-rooted into various religions and mythologies. Most notably, Celtic.
In Celtic culture, trees were a vital element of life. In fact, the Celts considered many types of trees to be sacred. But the Tree of Life was different. It was believed to watch over all life on Earth. And this theme held true even in other cultures.
Looking back into our history, it seems ancient civilizations were naturally drawn to the concept of a Tree of Life. And it’s hard to blame them.
Before our ancestors got a firm grasp on the engineering and agricultural sciences, they depended heavily on the structural integrity of tree trunks and the fruits that they bore. It’s no surprise that they fostered such deep appreciation.
In addition to trees providing for our constant need for shelter and sustenance, the aesthetics of trees have a mystifying effect. The way each branch diverges into its own set of fractals—it’s a trait that can be commonly seen in nature but is rarely ever noticed, such as in the formation of lightning and snowflakes.
Its natural beauty is one of the reasons why the Tree of Life is such a popular motif. Even in ancient times, it was a symbol commonly found on pottery and other decorative items. Even now, it’s a popular design choice for things like wedding rings and, most importantly, tattoos.
But the Tree of Life’s appearance is obviously not what draws people in. It’s the rich symbolism and culture cultivated over millennia.
So what does the Tree of Life represent?
For the people of old, trees held much greater significance other than just being inanimate objects to be foraged for food and transformed into shelter. Trees were sacred.
A charming piece relating to family, by @bigstartattoosbykyal on Instagram
Trees were more than just a resource that people cut down for survival. Their value surpassed that of mere physiology. They also held great social and spiritual importance.
by @karollarte on Instagram
They were places where communities could gather. People performed special ceremonies here and treated these trees like holy shrines. They were held in high regard and were attributed with spiritual connections to ancestors and deities.
An illustrative piece, by @tattoosbythomgreen on Instagram
In other words, they were a means of connection.
The Tree of Life symbol is commonly depicted as a large tree with roots that spread inward to the ground, and branches that spread outward to the sky. This represents the interconnected nature of all things in the universe; an eternal bonding of the physical realm we are rooted in, and the spiritual realm we are reaching for. The Tree of Life serves as a reminder of our universal connection to the Mother Earth, and our dependence on her to grow and flourish.
Another interesting thing is that the association doesn’t stop there. Trees are universally used as an instrument to symbolize connection. We often use family trees to illustrate our ancestry. In this way, the Tree of Life also represents our connection to family, where our shared roots link us to our ancestors and descendants.
Magnificent dotwork piece illustrating each of the four seasons, by @strang_art on Instagram
Strength, Power, Honor, and Longevity
In most representations of the Tree of Life, you’ll see it illustrated as a mighty oak tree. The reason for this is because people of old revered the oak for the numerous positive qualities it possessed.
Rather than the typical oak tree, this piece uses a sakura tree to symbolize rebirth, by @cbroukztat on Instagram
Interestingly, the oak can live up to 300 years. This longevity is what makes the oak a life-affirming symbol. Meanwhile the towering height and great expanse of oak trees is associated with qualities like strength, power, and honor.
by @hendraadiw on Instagram
These distinctive characteristics which are associated with the Tree of Life represent our uniqueness, strength, and personal development as individuals. Just as the branches of the tree strengthen and grow ever upward, as do we.
by @david.zombi on Instagram
The life of a tree was of great interest to our ancestors, particularly the Celts. They looked at it as a perpetual cycle of rebirth.
by @alex_davidson2142 on Instagram
As the seasons approach autumn and winter, its leaves start to fade into a faint orange before slipping into a death-like hibernation, baring itself of its leaves.
Roots run deeper than they may seem on the surface, by @dallasconte on Instagram
But come springtime, the seeds of last season sprout into tiny buds before blossoming into life. The cycle of trees represents the different phases that we experience in life. We are born, experience seasons of light, then dark. And it is only until we overcome the dark that we are reborn.
In Native American culture, hummingbirds represent good luck and are considered healers and bringers of love, by @heidi_jansen_tattoos on Instagram
In this way, the Tree of Life represents our individual journeys — all the branches of negativity and positivity, our hardships and triumphs, and new beginnings.
by @the_one_tattoostudio on Instagram
Even though the Tree of Life is more commonly known as finding its origins in Norse and Celtic culture, the Tree of Life actually predates them both. It first found its roots in ancient Egypt.
An illustrative piece with geometric elements, by @erromis_tattoo on Instagram
The trunk of the Tree of Life, in Egyptian mythology, represented the World Pillar (Axis Munde) around which the heavens revolved. It was the center of the universe.
Two trees intertwine and envelope the sun and moon, representing duality and balance, by @kriyaluna on Instagram
It was one of the most important religious symbols in ancient Egyptian mythology. It was located in the sun temple dedicated to the supreme sun god, Ra in the City of Heliopolis. And its fruit guaranteed eternal life and knowledge of the “divine plan”, a map of destiny.
by @tmantattoo on Instagram
Because of the power that the fruit of the tree held, it was withheld from the reach of mortals. It was only made accessible to them during eternity rituals wherein the gods would refresh Pharaohs. Because of its importance, the Tree of Life was heavily guarded by Mau, the great cat, said to be a personification of Ra.
by @westcoastinkbali on Instagram
To learn more about the Tree of Life in Ancient Egyptian mythology, read more about it on this link.
In Norse mythology, the Tree of Life is called Yggdrasil. Its trunk rises at the geographical center of the Norse spiritual cosmos, around which the entire world orbits and is held together by its branches and roots.
Elegant blackwork piece by @luckygaltattooandpiercing on Instagram
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Yggdrasil is that it isn’t just a tree. If you’ve watched Marvel’s Thor before, you might be familiar with Heimdall, the guardian of the Bifrost Bridge and the Nine Worlds.
A contemporary take featuring a Norse dragon, by Michael Wiltse
Interestingly, the lore surrounding Marvel’s Thor is pretty accurate. The Bifrost Bridge that Heimdall guards is the sole means of travel between the Nine Worlds, which includes familiar locations such as Asgard and Hel, the Norse equivalents of Heaven and Hell. And by being the sole link of each of the Nine Worlds, the tether that holds together all that exists, Yggdrasil represents connection and harmony.
A tree on the thigh with tribal influences in blackwork fashion, by @spiritualjourneytattoo on Instagram
The lore surrounding Yggdrasil is very deep and expansive because it was literally central to all of Norse mythology. You can learn more about Yggdrasil and Norse mythology by clicking this link.
A unique neo traditional take placed on the calf, by @matheuslansky.tattoo on Instagram
In truth, the Celtics were heavily influenced by Norse mythology’s Yggdrasil. In the same way that the Yggdrasil connected the Nine Worlds, the Celtic Tree of Life connected the heavens to the Otherworld
A traditional representation of the Celtic Tree of Life, by @ink_imaginarium on Instagram
In Celtic mythology, the Otherworld is a supernatural realm of everlasting youth, beauty, health, abundance, and joy where deities and spirits reside.
by @studio4132tattoo on Instagram
The trunk of the Tree of Life represents the mortal world, while the branches and roots (connected by the mortal world) represent the heavens and the Otherworld.
Celtic Tree of Life, done in blackwork style with tribal elements, by @blondietattoostudio on Instagram
Interestingly, not only did the Celtics think of trees as sacred, but they viewed trees as our ancestors. They were guardians of the land and doorways to the spiritual world.
This piece complements the Tree of Life with ancient Celtic runes, by @rottenbonestattoo on Instagram
However, unlike in Egyptian and Norse mythology where the Tree of Life would have been of cosmic proportions, the Celtic Tree was more tangible.
by @kurtistattoo on Instagram
When the Celtic Druids would clear an area, settling into a new land, they would leave one tree in the center. This tree would be known as their Tree of Life and would provide food and shelter for those of need. It would also be a gathering place for high ranking members of the tribe.
by @jacque_selere_tattoo on Instagram
Contrary to what some people think, the Buddha is not a deity. Gautama Buddha was a prince born in Nepal named Siddhartha Gautama.
The Bodhi tree under which Siddhartha Gautama sat in order to reach enlightenment, by @hedonismworkshop on Instagram
Interestingly, Siddhartha didn’t start out as the religious leader that we know him to be today. He, like many who are born into nobility, indulged in a life of luxury and pleasure.
An intricate geometric design that also incorporates the lotus flower, by @error_geometrico on Instagram
When he was born, a seer told his father that if Siddhartha stayed inside the palace his entire life, he would become a great king. If he left, he would instead become a great religious leader. But because Siddhartha’s father didn’t want him to become a religious leader, he hid Siddhartha inside the palace for his entire childhood.
by @abandonedcollective on Instagram
But even though Siddhartha had everything a man could wish to have, he did not feel happy. In his search for enlightenment, he left all his belongings, including his wife and their child.
A vivid inner forearm tattoo representing duality, by @blondietattoostudio on Instagram
He tried many methods — including asceticism, wherein he nearly died trying to remove himself of all desire and indulgence. He ate 6 grains of rice a day and tried holding his breath. He became morbidly thin — skin and bones — but he was not enlightened.
A unique black-and-grey piece closely resembling yin and yang, representing duality and balance, by William Fudong Lepcha
He began to rethink his path. And he recalled sitting under a roseapple tree as a boy, where he reached a profoundly peaceful state. He tried to recreate this feeling by meditating underneath a fig tree — some say as long as 49 days, and he would not leave this spot until he reached enlightenment.
Combined with the image of the lotus flower, this piece represents purity, connection, and rebirth, by @artplvgusa on Instagram
It was under this very tree that he found the answer, six years of practicing later. He was now enlightened — Buddha, the Fully Awakened One.
A detailed geometric piece showing the different states of the Tree of Life, by @alianilercel
The fig tree he sat under is now called the Bodhi tree, most notable for its heart-shaped leaves and is known also as the Tree of Enlightenment. To learn more about Buddha and his teachings, read more on this link.
Grimmer than some, but truthful still, this Tree of Life represents darkness and death, essential steps in the cycle of life, by @michasoltattoo on Instagram
A pleasant combination of watercolor style with geometric elements, by @barisyesilbas on Instagram
by @redinktattoostudio76 on Instagram
A bonsai tree, symbolizing harmony, peace, and order of thoughts, balance, and all that is good in nature, by @martins_custom_tattooing on Instagram
Resembling veins in blackwork style, by @void.lamachineinfernale on Instagram
Mother nature, giver of life, by @aggie.q.tattoo on Instagram
by @strange_tales138 on Instagram
The Tree of Life also makes an appearance in the Lion King series. In the African countries, (where Lion King is set) the Baobab tree is an unusual sight, reaching heights of up to 30 meters and thicknesses of up to 11 meters. It is referred to as the “upside-down Tree of Life”, by @inkspiration_tattooshop on Instagram
Today, the Tree of Life is one of the most requested tattoo motifs. It’s a symbol that has been cultivated by various cultures over millennia.
Not only is aesthetically pleasing, but it’s also a symbol that is rich in symbolism, culture, and lore, which makes it a perfect tattoo design.