The idea of a Tree of Life spans aeons and cultures, as well as academic disciplines, from biology to philosophy and theology. In general it has served throughout history as a symbol of the interconnectedness of all life. Furthermore, it emphasizes that all life extends from the same ancient source (the roots, whatever they may represent in that particular society), branching outward and apart in different directions as time goes on.
Perhaps the most popular Tree of Life designs are Celtic in nature, typically ringed with the knots and ropes common to so many Celtic tattoo designs. Celtic life was greatly indebted to trees for natural resources, food, shelter, etc. – the Tree of Life stood above all these as a cosmological symbol, its roots the netherworld beneath us, the branches ascending into the heavens, and the trunk our mortal, perishable Earth, the existence that connects the two.
Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing ancient or traditional about this Celtic Tree of Life symbol aside from perhaps the sentiment behind it. It was created by Welsh contemporary artist Jen Delyth in 1990 and has become a popular folk-art symbol.
Another Tree of Life is the Yggdrasil from Norse mythology. Depictions of the Yggdrasil range from very minimalist to extremely elaborate and may also include some of the creatures that were said to have inhabited the tree – a dragon, an eagle, and some stags. The Yggdrasil was a central facet of Norse cosmology, cradling the Earth, its three roots extending to three different sacred springs that feed life into the tree. The tree itself has typically been interpreted as being an Ash tree.
This was Charles Darwin’s first sketch of an Evolutionary Tree of Life, a model representing the extinction of old species and birth of new, mapping the connections between them over time. It has popped up a few times as a tattoo, serving as an interesting representation of the fall and decline of species over time.
An even less common take on the Tree of Life comes from the Kabbalistic tradition. As Kabbalah (at its most basic, a form of Jewish mysticism) has become more well known (largely due to the public interest of certain celebrities, such as Madonna and Britney Spears), so have tattoos with a Kabbalist influence. This Tree of Life represents the process by which God created the universe (out of nothing), as well as relationships between certain spiritual characteristics and the path by which a human becomes closer to God. The connections and intricacies between the various circles (“sephiroth” or “sephirot”) are also significant and specific. The Kabbalistic Tree of Life is, in short, filled with layer upon layer of complex meaning involving faith, the nature of God’s relationship with Man, and esoteric ideas about spiritual development.
Many Tree of Life designs are completely original and not obviously inspired by any particular cultural take on the idea. This is only natural, of course; the idea of a Tree of Life is so pervasive and so basic to many cultural traditions that it is to be expected that we would constantly recreate and make new the old idea. This particular design may suggest death at the root of the world’s growth, an idea slightly darker than most, but it still retains the hallmarks of common Tree of Life designs: the ever-growing roots that feed life into a trunk that cradles the world, as well as the expansive branches.
When considering a Tree of Life design, there is a staggering number of cultural depictions one might consider investigating. Most of these are beyond the scope of this article (especially as most are not common as tattoo designs), but Tree of Life iconography exists in the Egyptian, Chinese, Mesoamerican, Turkic, and Urartu cultures as well, to name just a few. The idea is rich in deep meaning and an intriguing choice for anyone for whom the idea of the interconnectedness of life is special.