The Tree of Life motif is recognized by cultures all over the world. The symbol often relates to myth and cosmology, emphasizing strong ties to mother earth and a living landscape connecting earth to the heavens. Ancient Tree of Life myths often revolve around creation and immortality. The motif can be found on all types of materials throughout history, including paper, wood and textiles.
Myths and History
Ancient China’s Tree of Life depicts a phoenix and a dragon; the dragon stands for immortality. Egyptian mythology shows Isis and Osiris emerging from the acacia tree, their Tree of Life. Egyptians also honored the Holy Sycamore, which spanned the space between life and death, connecting two worlds. Much of Norse lore revolves around a massive yew or ash tree. Variations of this motif are deeply embedded in cultures around the world and artisans continue to weave, stitch and print this important image into their traditional textiles.
Cultural Expression in Textiles:
On the Coromandel Coast of India near the Bay of Bengal, kalamkari dye-painted fabrics with Tree of Life imagery were produced and exported around the world. The example above shows an antique Tree of Life print from the 18th century with curvy trunk and flowering branches growing from a pile of rocks. The image includes peacocks and other exotic birds and combines elements from Persia, China, Europe and India. This unique imagery continues to inspire artisans and designers still today.
A tree is a magnificent symbol of the natural world and an eternal cycle of seasons and life, given by sun, rain, earth and air. The traditional dress in this region of Mexico and throughout Central America is the woman’s huipil with motifs tied to region and ethnicity. The El Arbol del Escarabajo design is the Tree of the Scarab Beetle. After the Spanish overcame the indigenous population, weavers created the scarab beetle huipil to represent the rot of the culture.
Small trees and shrubs, often with birds perched in their tops have been woven into huipils since ancient times and connect to the Maya Tree of Life that symbolizes the importance of lush trees and the sacred rituals that were held below their branches. On one ceremonial huipil, an elaborate woven symbol has 42 leaves, symbolizing passing the warp thread or organizing the thread before weaving. The tree reflects the arduous work of the weavers and acknowledges the able and talented hands that give life to these symbols.
The Navajo Tree of life design often portrays a tree or cornstalk growing from a basket. Birds of many colors perch on branches, fly around the Tree of Life or hop on the ground around the basket. Butterflies, rabbits, squirrels are sometimes included along with bright flowers and vines. Backgrounds are light to show off the colorful birds, cardinals, jays and woodpeckers, surrounded by a dark border.
Tapestry weaving has an ancient history in the Andes and was especially strong in the Wari culture (AD 500-1000). This tradition has been revived in Ayacucho, which is near the ancient Wari capital. The weavers have adapted many ancient symbols to use in their contemporary tapestries. In the Andean highlands, tapestry is woven in the village of Pitumarca and the images are reminiscent of Colonial tapestries, which can still be found in the old churches.
Tree of Life Exhibition Coming!
A new Tree of Life exhibition is coming to Honolulu this June. Edric Ong and Manjari Nirula have been working together on the tree-of-life motif used in the traditional craft for many years. Now they have joined forces to curate an epic exhibition, Pohan Budi, of more than 200 works that explore the tree-of-life motif in world craft cultures. Ong is founder of Society Atelier and Senior Vice-President of World Crafts Council – Asia Pacific. He is a powerful force in Asian textile arts, not only producing his own stunning designs in natural dyes, but supporting platforms for craft development in the region.
Tree of Life at ClothRoads
ClothRoads just received four new tapestries from the Pitumarca weavers of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco. These naturally dyed wool and finely executed pieces are completely reversible. They range in size and motifs, each with a unique story.