The Meaning of the “Tree of Life” Design Motif in Antique Rugs
Tree of Life Meaning — The “Tree of Life” is a popular motif in oriental carpets, pottery and other decorative items. Since the symbol is found in many different cultures around the world, its exact origin is obscure. However, scholars believe it originated in ancient Mesopotamia, although the tree’s features have transformed over the centuries.
The earliest known Mesopotamian “Tree of Life,” which dates back to 2,500 BCE, depicts a Sumerian god standing in front of two sacred trees. A black steatite cylinder seal from the same period shows a goddess picking fruit from a sacred palm tree. This could have been the inspiration for the story of the forbidden fruit in Genesis.
The Babylonians, who conquered the Sumerians, believed that the Tree of Life was a magical tree that grew in the center of paradise. They believed that the water that flowed out of its roots irrigated their land. In the epic of Gilgamesh, the hero acquires a plant that has the power of rejuvenation; but he loses it to a snake, which acquires the ability to renew itself by shedding its skin.
In the first half the first millennium BCE, the Tree of Life concept spread all over the near east, and presumably from there to the rest of the old world. As it spread, it took on many different shapes and meanings:
• In the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the Tree of Life symbol featured prominently on royal garments, official seals and wall paintings.
• In Egyptian mythology, the first couple on earth, the god Osiris and goddess Isis, emerged from an acacia tree belonging to a primordial goddess called Lusaaseta.
• In ancient Armenia, it was a religious symbol drawn on the walls of fortresses and carved on the armor of warriors.
• In Georgia, the Borjgali is a symbol made of the sun with seven rotating wings over the Christian Tree of Life, symbolizing the continuity between the past, present and the future.
• In Turkic and Mongolian mythology, the Tree of Life, drawn like a birch tree, is the cosmic axis between the earth and the sky and regarded as the creator deity Bai Ulgan.
• In Norse mythology, the Tree of Life appears as Yggdrasi, the world tree. It’s usually represented by an oak tree, which was sacred to Thor, the thunder god.
• In Greek mythology, it was represented by the oak tree which was sacred to Zeus, the king of gods. Priests in ancient Greece would interpret the rustling of the oak’s leaves to make divine announcements.
Many other cultures around the world, including the Yakuts, Tatars and other ethnic groups of Siberia, Navajos and other native people of North America, and various ethnic groups of Eastern Europe and Asia have their own versions of the “Tree of Life”. But it can be surmised that they all have their root in ancient Mesopotamia.
Thus, the concept of “Tree of Life” predates Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. In its purest form, it stands as giver of life. However, Oriental rug weavers adapted the design to reflect the meaning compatible with their own local religion and culture. In every tradition in which this motif is found, it is an important symbol of life and abundance. Nazmiyal Antique Rugs is pleased to have a number of antique rugs depicting this well-known design in our inventory.