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Tree Symbolism

THE SYMBOLIC LIFE (Winter 2013)


In the summer newsletter I spoke about the tragedy of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman incident, addressing the point that Zimmerman imagined something, took it as real, and acted on his fantasy without reflecting on it. Zimmerman had not separated his inner fantasy life from outer reality. He took fantasy as fact, and acted accordingly out of fear.

Such tragic experiences whether they occur between individuals or between cultures are one of the critical reasons Jung felt it was so important for each of us to cultivate the symbolic life. Towards the end of his life Jung became more oriented to sharing his ideas with the general public. He gave numerous interviews and eventually penned the first chapter of a general overview of his approach to the human psyche called Man and His Symbols.

During an interview in 1957 shortly before Christmas of that year, Jung addresses our ignorance about symbolism by telling the story of an India swami who comes to the door of a Swiss villager as part of his study of local religious customs. The householder protests that they are enlightened villagers and as practicing Protestants are not on the best of terms with religious symbolism.

Suppose, Jung reports, the swami were to return to this home just before the time of the winter solstice and catch them decorating a Christmas tree. "But you told me you had no religious customs," he exclaims. "It's something we've just always done," is the reply. Jung uses this tale to elaborate on this custom and the symbolism of the tree. Sometimes our imagination can pull us into a dark destructive path, as happened with George Zimmerman. But there is another side, one that can led us towards inner wisdom, if we can realize the meaning behind the images that come alive in us.

After narrating this little vignette about the swami Jung goes on to elucidate some of the meaning of the symbolism of the tree. Here are some samplings from this interview, some solstice symbolic nuggets:

“The tree-symbol has a very venerable history: the Finnish scholar Uno Homberg, who investigated the symbolism of the tree of life, called it ‘mankind’s most magnificent legend.’”

“The tree has a cosmic significance—it is the world tree, the world pillar, the world-axis. Only think of Yggdrasill, the world-ash of Nordic mythology, a majestic, evergreen tree growing at the center of the world.”

“These and many similar ideas are not invented, they simply came into men’s [and women’s] heads in bygone times. It is a sort of natural revelation.”

"Often the tree symbolizes the numen, the psychic fate of the person, his inner personality."

“The Christmas tree is the world tree. But as alchemical symbolism clearly shows, it is also a transformation symbol, a symbol of the process of self-realization.”

“The inner man has to be fed—a fact that moderns, with their frivolous trust in reason, often overlook to their own harm. The Christmas tree is one of those customs which are food for the soul, nourishment for the inner man. And the more primordial the material they use, the more promising these customs are for the future.”


(Note: The entire article/interview is titled “Jung and the Christmas Tree” and can be found in the book C. G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, pp. 353-358. "The Philosophical Tree" is a more comprehensive treatment of tree symbolism by Jung with 32 illustrations. It is found in Alchemical Studies, Volume 13 of his Collected Works.)

Editor: Steve Galipeau

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