[This is an extract from the chapter 'Being, Kabbalah, and the Assyrian Sacred Tree' in The Sacred History of Being, published November 2, 2015]
Stylised trees were part of the iconography of religion in ancient Mesopotamia, as far back as the fourth millennium. By the second millennium B.C.E., the image of the tree 'is found everywhere within the orbit of the ancient Near Eastern oikumene, including Egypt, Greece, and the Indus civilisation’. While its precise religious significance has been unclear, Simo Parpola suggests that ‘its overall composition strikingly recalls the Tree of Life of later Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist art.’ The implication being that there is some kind of cultural continuity behind the progress of this symbol. [i]
The symbol, as it interests us here, dates from around the middle of the second millennium B.C.E. At about that time there is a new development of the symbol of the tree. The Late Assyrian form of the Tree appeared during the reign of Tukulti-Ninurta I, of the thirteenth century B.C.E. The rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the first millennium spread the symbol throughout the Near East, and it survived until the end of the millennium. This form of the tree is the one most familiar to students of Assyriology and those who have visited the Assyrian galleries in the British Museum, with its garland of cones, pomegranates, or palmates surrounding either the crown of the tree, or its trunk. The importance of this symbol is made clear by the fact that it appears on royal garments, jewelry, official seals, as well as the royal wall paintings and sculptures found in the royal palaces. Indeed in the famous throne-room of Ashurnasirpal II (now in the British Museum), it is the central motif, standing directly behind the throne. [ii] There are literally hundreds of examples of the Late Assyrian Tree motif, and they exhibit a wide degree of variation. [iii] However Parpola argues that ‘its characteristic features stand out even in the crudest examples and make it generally easy to distinguish it from its predecessors’. He describes it as follows:
Essentially it consists of a trunk with a palmette crown standing on the stone base and surrounded by a network of horizontal or intersecting lines fringed with palmettes, pinecones, or pomegranates. In more elaborate renditions, the trunk regularly has joints or nodes at its top, middle, and base and a corresponding number of small circles to the right and left of the trunk. Antithetically posed animal, human, or supernatural figures usually flank the tree, while a winged disk hovers over the whole.
Until the publication of Parpola’s paper, despite painstaking analyses of this symbol, very little was found to explain its meaning and function, largely due to the fact that there is an almost total lack of textual evidence concerning the tree. Some work by the Assyriologist Irene Winter however has shown that the Tree represents the divine world order, and that the Assyrian king maintained this order on earth as the vice-regent of the god Aššur. [iv] Parpola points out that the observation was made some time ago that the king may take the place of the Tree between the winged genies, and that ‘whatever the precise implications of this fact, it is evident that in such scenes the king is portrayed as the human personification of the Tree. [v] As personification of the Tree, then the king represented the ‘realization of that order in man… a true image of God, and the ‘Perfect Man’. [vi]
Parpola argues that the Tree symbol in Assyria had a dual function in Assyrian Imperial art. As well as symbolizing the divine world order which the Assyrian king maintained, it could also relate to the king, resulting in his portrayal as the Perfect Man. This would account for the prominence of the Tree as an imperial symbol, providing legitimation for the rule of Assyria, and justification of the king as absolute ruler. [vii]
Since there are no references to such an important symbol in contemporary written sources, this ‘can only mean that the doctrines relating to the Tree were never committed to writing by the scholarly elite who forged the imperial ideology but were circulated orally.’ [viii] Parpola also suggests this implies a stratification of knowledge in Assyria, and that ‘only the basic symbolism of the Tree was common knowledge, while the more sophisticated details of its interpretation were accessible to a few select initiates only. [ix]
Parpola argues that ‘the strictly esoteric nature of Kabbalah and the fact that its secret doctrines were for centuries, and still are, transmitted almost exclusively orally are the principal reasons why next to nothing was known about it until the late Middle Ages. The esotericism of Kabbalah and its fundamentally oral nature are stressed in every Kabbalistic work, ancient and modern’. He suggests that beyond the parallel of an esoteric and oral aspect to both Mesopotamian and Kabbalistic lore, there is also a strong parallel between the Assyrian Tree and the Sefirotic Tree. [x] He also suggests that the entire doctrinal structure of Kabbalah revolves around the diagram of the Sefirotic Tree, which ‘strikingly resembles the Assyrian Tree’. [xi]
As we shall see, it is probable that they are two products of the same body of ideas, the first traceable to the 13th century B.C.E., and the latter with a less clear early history, resurfacing in the Middle Ages of our own era.
The Sefirotic Tree is so-called on account of the elements known as Sefirot (countings or numbers) which are represented in the diagram by circles, numbered from one to ten.‘ They are defined as divine powers or attributes through which the transcendent God, not shown in the diagram, manifests himself.’ [xii] Parpola describes the tree thus:
The Tree has a central trunk and horizontal branches spreading to the right and left on which the Sefirot are arranged in the symmetrical fashion: three to the left, four on the trunk, and three to the right. The vertical alignments of the Sefirot on the right and left represent the polar opposites of masculine and feminine, positive and negative, active and passive, dark and light, etc. The balance of the Tree is maintained by the trunk, also called the Pillar of Equilibrium.
The other two pillars are known as the Pillar of Judgement, and the Pillar of Mercy.
Parpola suggests that the Sefirotic Tree has a dual function, like the Assyrian Tree.
It is both a picture of the macrocosm, giving an account of the creation of the world, accompanied in three successive stages by the Sefirot emanating from the transcendent God. It also charts the cosmic harmony of the universe upheld by the Sefirot under the constraining influence of the polar system of opposites. In short, it is a model of the divine world order, and in manifesting the invisible God through His attributes, it is also, in a way, an image of God. Its other function is to refer to man as a microcosm, the ideal man created in the image of God.
[End of Extract]
[i] Parpola acknowledges that the question of the existence of the concept of the Tree of Life in Mesopotamia has been disputed, resulting in the use of the ‘more neutral term’ ‘sacred tree’ when referring to the Mesopotamian symbol. ‘The Assyrian Tree of Life: Tracing the Origins of Jewish Monotheism and Greek Philosophy’, in JNES 52/3 (1993) p 161 n.4.
[ii] Details of instances of the appearance of the sacred tree are given by Parpola in footnotes 9-13, p163, JNES 52/3 (1993)
[v] The King is representative of the god Aššur, who is indicated by the winged disk which hovers above the Tree.
[vi] JNES 52/3 (1993) p 167-8, & n. 34, where Parpola tells us that ‘Perfect Man’ is well attested as an Assyrian Royal epithet eṭlu gitmālu . Similar phrases are known, such as ‘perfect king’ šarru gitmālu , and the phrase ’what the king said is as perfect as the word of god’ in the text LAS 144 r. 4f. (Letters of Assyrian Scholars) . Parpola points out that the concept of the ‘perfect king’ goes back to the early second millennium. In n. 33 it is noted that the king was often referred to as the image (şalmu) of God. Phrases such as: ‘the father of the king my lord was the very image of Bel, and the king my lord is likewise the very image of Bel,’ LAS 125: 18f., and ‘You, O king of the world, are an image of Marduk.’ RMA 170=SAA 8 n333 r.2 . Also: LAS 145: ‘The king, my lord, is the chosen of the great gods; the shadow of the king, my lord, is beneficial to all…. The king, my lord, is the perfect likeness of the god.’
[x] JNES 52/3 (1993) p 169. See also n. 41.