The Tree of Life in Ancient Egypt
This morning, at the 7th symposium of Margaret Barker’s Temple Studies Group,
I listened to a fascinating presentation by Professor John Hall about the Lady in the Temple in Ancient Egypt.
One of the Lady’s symbols is the Tree of Life and this is true in Ancient Egypt as well. Professor Hall says, these are not two ladies, but one lady venerated in two places.
In the Old Kingdom, this tree was the ished tree (right), which is an evergreen tree we call the persea (Mimusops Schimperi). The names of the ascended ones are written on its leaves.
For a description of this tree, one can turn to a 16th century French book of emblems, Hadrianus Junius’s Emblemata (1565). Junius quotes Pliny as describing the fruit as either oblong or
amygdalaceus, almond shaped.
The fruit of the persea symbolized the “Sacred Heart” of Horus, and eating it gave Eternal Life and knowledge of the Divine Plan.
In Egyptian mythology, the tree is threatened by the snake god Apophis, god of the underworld and symbol of the forces of chaos, but is protected by the lioness/cat goddess Bast, lower Egypt’s equivalent of upper Egypt’s Hathor. The name Bast means devouring lady, and in its later form Bastet, perfumed oil.
A related mother goddess is Mut, whose name refers to the primordial waters of the cosmos. In their 1899 book The Temple of Mut in Asher, the archeologists Margaret Benson and Janet Gourlay give some of her titles as Lady of the Sacred Lake and Lady of Asher. Asheru/Isheru was the name for the sacred lakes of Mut such as the one in her temple at Karnak, and strongly reminiscent of the Hebrew mother goddess Asher.
Later, due to the desiccation of the land, the persea died out and its attributes were transferred to the Sycamore Tree (nehet) – not to be confused with the sycomore tree mentioned in the bible, which is a kind of fig tree. Hathor was called “Lady of the Sycamore” and the dead were buried in coffins of sycamore wood, returning them to the womb of the mother goddess. Tomb paintings show Hathor sprouting from the trunk, offering water and the fruit of the tree.
Wisdom is a tree of life to those who embrace her;
happy are those who hold her tightly.
– Proverbs 3:18
In Egypt today, sycamore trees are associated with the Virgin Mary and the Holy Family. An article by the Egyptian Tourist Board, In the Shade of Trees says that
the oldest sycamore tree in Egypt is in Mataria and is known as Virgin Mary Tree.
Mataria may take its name from this tree, as it is thought to be named after the latin mater, mother. According to legend, the Holy Family sheltered under this tree during the flight to Egypt. (Some versions of the story say that the tree opened up and hid the holy family inside itself). Mataria was a popular pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages and there is a chapel to the Virgin Mary nearby. The tree was thought to have healing properties. Pilgrims took its leaves and even stripped its bark. The present tree was planted in 1672 from a shoot of the older one and may be the third generation tree on this site. There is also a sweet-water spring which the infant Jesus is said to have caused to appear.
Mataria itself is near Cairo, in the district of ancient Heliopolis. The legend of the Virgin’s tree links to an older cult; for the ancient Egyptians venerated a tree in Heliopolis beneath which Isis was believed to have suckled the infant Horus. Note too that in the Old Testament, Joseph’s wife was a priestess of Heliopolis [Hebrew “On”] [Gen 41:45].