At the heart of symbolism

The World Tree, unity and duality

The World, Middle and inverted Trees

The tree is a symbol common to various traditional forms. It is represented under varied appearances because of its double nature:

  • The trunk links the roots plunging into the earth to the top rising in the air; it depicts the vertical link, the Axis between Earth and Heaven;
  • The lateral branches represent the division, the separation in comparison with the common trunk.

The lateral branches figure duality coming out of the common trunk that unites them. The tree gathers at once unity through its vertical trunk and duality through its horizontal branches. This double nature can be found in various trees proper or common to different traditional forms.

Tree, unity and duality

Trunk of the divided treeTrunk of the divided and then reunified treeThree trees united by their rootsThe ideas of unity and duality are even more explicit in Chinese symbolism. The Chinese, for instance, represent trees where the trunk or the branches separate or rejoin themselves after having been divided. In the first case, everything is coming out of unity and deploying in the duality of the universal manifestation process. In the second, everything is coming out of unity, manifested in duality before rediscovering the lost unity.

Instead of sticking to a unique tree, it is also possible to represent a set of three trees united through their roots. in this case, the middle tree symbolizes unity whereas the two lateral ones correspond to the manifestation of duality. We rediscover here something similar to the description of Jesus's crucifixion. Christ's cross was placed between the crosses of the good thief on his right and the bad one on his left. The cross, or more precisely its vertical branch, and the Middle Tree symbolize the Middle Path, the way of union beyond antagonisms.

The picture of the three trees, of unity and duality, can notably be found in Biblical and Hebraic traditional forms:

  • In the biblical symbolism, the “Tree of Life” matches the “Tree of knowledge” of good and evil;
  • In the Kabbalah, the “Sefirotic Tree” is composed of the “middle” column located between the “right” and “left” ones depicting duality.

Many other traditional forms use the image of the tree in relation to their own world representation. Let us quote for example:

  • In the Sufi form, the universal tree is viewed in its harmonious and total development from the principial seed to the complete manifestation;
  • In the Buddhist form, Gautama found illumination and showed the way to his disciples at the foot of the “Bodhi” tree.
  • In the Chinese form, the “Kien Mu” has nine branches and nine roots respectively reaching nine Heavens and nine sources where the dead are resting;
  • In the Nordic form, “Yggdrasil” is a gigantic tree; its branches bear nine worlds split into three domains and its three roots draw the water from three sources;
  • In the Celtic form, the sacred trees are numerous and representatives of the region where they are venerated.
  • In the Hindu form, “Agni”, the igneous principle, is also known as Vanaspati or the Lord of Trees;

Even when they are associated with known species, these trees symbolize the World Tree and their trunk the World Axis within the various considered forms. As the World Axis, the World Tree can only be located at the World Centre.

The branches of the tree spreading in a horizontal plane represent the various modes associated with the development of the World in a given state. These modes can appear to complement or oppose each other as in any manifestation process based on duality. The portion of the common trunk to these embranchments characterizes the centre of this state where the various modes are unified. The totality of the trunk, the Axis consequently represents the set of the centres of the World states from the most terrestrial to the most celestial.

All these states are deploying themselves from the roots of the tree which constitute an image of the Principle at the source of manifestation. Just as the World Tree, the Principle represents the World Centre.

Inverted tree

The straight and inverted treesThe representation of the tree that rises from the roots to the top conveys a metaphysical vision starting from the Principle (roots) to the deployment of the manifestation (branches). The inverted vision starting from the manifestation (branches) and going back to the Principle (roots) corresponds to a cosmological vision associated with the representation of the inverted tree. The later is the reflection of the previous one in the mirror of the waters separating the world beyond, of the Principle, from the world below, of the manifestation. These two trees are only linked through the one and unique Principle and can schematically be represented by the opposite picture. Seen bottom up, i.e. from the manifestation point of view, the tree is inverted. Seen top down, i.e. from the Principle point of view, the tree is set upright.

The two trees not only offer an image of two inverted views of the World (macrocosm), but also of the being living inside (microcosm).

It follows that the tree also symbolizes the manifestation of the celestial unified being into his terrestrial divided state (descending path) and the reintegration of the terrestrial being into his celestial state (ascending path). Then, the being rediscovers his original state, the state of the “Primeval Androgyne”.


  • René Guénon:
  • “Symbols of Sacred Science”, Sophia Perennis Publisher, 2004;
  • More specifically, chapter 51 on “The World Tree”.
  • “The Symbolism of the Cross”, Sophia Perennis Publisher, 2002;
  • Particularly, chapter 9 on “The Tree in the midst”.