The Tree of Life is one of the oldest sacred stories known to us from antiquity. It is found in ancient traditions throughout Eurasia, North Africa, and America with characteristics so similar as to be inconceivable that they originated independently. The theme also occurs prominently in most major religions: It is a massive tree located at the center of the world, bearing fruits of immortality, and guarded by a serpent. How this story spread so widely, and indeed, what it ultimately signifies, has been a subject of intense debate for centuries.
In recent years psychological explanations have gained ground, postulating a collective unconscious mind, mentally or spiritually accessible to all human beings. But such theories have never been able to account for the absence, in isolated areas like Australia and sub-Saharan Africa, of many myths common to Eurasia and America. If the collective mind were truly universal, as proponents claim, then one would expect to find similar myths everywhere. Equally problematic is the immense complexity implied by such an amorphous mental structure, including its location and the details of its communication network. Even if there were answers to these questions, they would be impossible to verify by ordinary scientific methods.
In contrast, Gregory Haynes offers explanations that are simple and straightforward. In his view, the Tree of Life reflects a tangible, physical phenomenon, observable everywhere, which corresponds in minute detail to the sacred traditions preserved from the past. He is guided in this inquiry by a reinterpretation of archaeological artifacts, mythological texts, and artistic representations from a multitude of cultures. The arguments he proposes are as fascinating and intriguing as they are cogent and persuasive.
But the results of Haynes’ investigations are far wider than an analysis of the Tree of Life theme. He convincingly demonstrates that many cultures represented the same natural phenomenon using widely varying anthropomorphic or zoomorphic images. These variations gave rise to many of the innumerable gods and goddesses, composite animals, and highly imaginative episodes described in the myths. Consequently, a detailed understanding of this natural phenomenon, and of the many guises in which it appears throughout the world, provides for the first time, a simple and powerful key to world mythology.
Scientific theories can be judged by two basic factors: their power and their elegance. Their power consists in how much of the world they make comprehensible, and their elegance consists in their simplicity. By this standard, Tree of Life, Mythical Archetype is a major contribution to the study of mythology. Building solidly on the work of previous scholars, it creates a synthesis that organizes the otherwise chaotic world of myth into a coherent picture. But Haynes makes no claim to completeness. He is a generalist whose wide perspective provides an organizing principle, challenging future scholars to fill in the many details. Much work remains to be done in each field of specialization to verify his findings, to amplify the scope of available evidence, and to further investigate mythological themes not addressed here.
Of special interest is his treatment of symbols, especially those found on artifacts at ancient Troy. These have eluded any comprehensive interpretation since their discovery by Schliemann nearly one hundred forty years ago. The suggestion, offered here, is that these represent essential elements of the Tree of Life cult, which is generally known to have been worshipped during the millennia proceeding our present era. His remarkable discovery of the Tree of Life’s identity in the natural world actually proceeds from this interpretation of the Trojan symbols.
Of these, the most enigmatic is the swastika. It appears in the archaeological record as early as eight thousand years ago, but its meaning is still not understood well. Haynes presents a new interpretation of the swastika symbol that, if correct, is shocking in its implications. He suggests that the swastika is a geographical symbol that presupposes detailed knowledge of the Atlantic Ocean in antiquity. Notwithstanding the elegance of this theory, it implies very early knowledge of American geography, a knowledge which, so far, is not supported by sufficient archaeological finds. Therefore, this derivation of the swastika should be considered an intriguing suggestion for further study. Without doubt, it merits serious consideration by scholars since, if it proves correct, this would radically change the way we look at ancient history.
In conclusion, Tree of Life, Mythical Archetype provides the most plausible explanation yet offered of that ancient religious conception known as the World Tree, or Tree of Life. Presupposing nothing that cannot be comprehended with an intelligent mind and observant eye, it breaks new ground in our understanding of mythology and comparative religion. Above all else, it achieves this with true elegance and a simplicity that is persuasive.