The tree symbolizes human life and development and the inner process of becoming conscious. One could say that it symbolizes in the psyche that something which grows and develops undisturbed within us, irrrespective of what the ego does; it is the urge toward individuation which unfolds and continues, independent of our consciousness. In European countries when a child is born a tree is planted at the same time and will die when the human dies. This expresses the idea that the tree provides an analogy to human life, that the tree carries life, like the lights on the Christmas tree, and that the sun rising at the top of the tree implies growth toward higher consciousness. There are many mythological stories which liken the tree to the human being, or in which the tree appears as a man-tree. The Self is the tree—that which is greater than the ego in man.
Part of our life passes like a drama written by a novelist biographer, but behind that there is a mysterious process of growth which follows its own laws and takes place behind the biographical peripeteias of life and goes from childhood to old age. Viewed in a mythological context, the greater human being, the anthropos, is likened to a tree. The motif of the human-shaped Godhead being suspended on a tree mirrors the tragedy of human existence: the conscious man constantly pulls away, trying to free himself and to act freely and consciously, and he is then painfully pulled back to the inner process. The struggle reveals a tragic constellation if it is represented in this painful form. That is why the whole philosophy of the Christian religion has a tragic view of life: to follow Christ we have to accept mortification and repress certain impulses toward growth. The basic idea is that human life is based on conflict and strives toward spiritualization, which does not come of itself but is brought forth with suffering. The same idea is represented in a more archaic form in the Wotan myth—Wotan hanging on the tree. He is the eternal wanderer who roams all over the earth, the god of impulsiveness, of rage, of poetic inspiration, that element in the human being which lives in constant restlessness, bursting out into affects, and if this god was suspended on the tree for nine days and nine nights, he consequently discovered the runes of writing by which civilization based on the written word was founded.
The symbolism of the suspended god on the tree, the gallows, and the cross is very profound. Such a fate normally overtakes that part of the Divinity most interested in man; the philanthropic part of the Godhead falls into the tragedy of suspension and has to do with the bringing of civilization—as in the Wotan myth, where after suspension on the tree Wotan discovers the runes, an implication of a progress in human consciousness.
Whenever the conscious and animal personality is in conflict with the inner process of growth, it suffers crucifixion; it is in the situation of the god suspended on the tree and is involuntarily nailed to an unconscious development from which it would like to break away but cannot. We are nailed down to something greater than ourselves which does not allow us to move and which outreaches us.
The Attis myth, which is older than the myth of the crucified God in Christianity, represents this in specific form. Attis, the beloved son of the Great Mother and himself the type of divine youth that does not grow old and decay, represents the pattern of the puer aeternus, the perenially young God, eternally beautiful, the figure which cannot suffer sadness, human restriction, disease, ugliness, and death. Like this god, most young men who have a decided mother complex feel, at some moment in their lives, that the process of life does not allow for such a state of being eternal; it has to die. In the plenitude of life, life lies ahead with its meaningfulness and splendor; but we know that this never lasts—it is always destroyed by the dark side of life. Therefore this young god always dies early, nailed to the tree, which is again the mother; the maternal principle which gave birth to him swallows him back in the negative form, and he is reached by ugliness and death.
You see this sometimes in the case of a young man who should marry or choose a profession, or who discovers that the fullness of youth is leaving him and that he has to accept the ordinary human fate. Many at that moment prefer to die either by an accident or in war, rather than become old. At the critical time, between thirty and forty, the tree is growing against them, their inner development is no longer in tune with the conscious attitude, but grows against it, and in that moment they have to suffer a kind of death; it should mean a change of attitude, but may mean actual physical death, a kind of disguised suicide, because the ego cannot give up its attitude—that is the crucial moment where they are sacrificed by a process of inner development which has turned against them. When the inner growth is the enemy of consciousness, this means that something within the man wants to outgrow him that he cannot follow, and therefore he has to die; for the self-will of the conscious personality has to die and surrender to the process of inner growth.
Another aspect of hanging as a means of killing someone is that in most mythological systems the air is the place in which ghosts and spirits roam about, like Wotan and his army of ghosts of the dead that fly through the air, especially on stormy nights. Therefore, if you hang someone, you turn him into a ghost and he must now ride with the other dead, with Wotan in the air. In the cult of Dionysus gifts were put on swings on the tree with the idea that Dionysus was a spirit and would see them; the gifts could thus be lifted up into the air and given to the spiritual beings who lived there. An expression illustrates this situation from a certain angle: we speak of suspension. When an inner psychological conflict gets too bad, life gets suspended; the two opposites are equal, the yes and the no are equally strong, and life cannot go on. You wish to move with the right leg and the left refuses, and vice versa, and you have the situation of suspension, which means a complete stoppage in the flow of life and intolerable suffering. Being stuck in conflict, nothing happening, is the most painful form of suffering. There are several, especially German, fairy tales which represent the evil spirit nailed to a tree or wall. Or the two people might in the same way allude to Christ suspended on the cross and Wotan on the tree, the good god suspended on the cross and the other god on the tree. This is not too far-fetched, because the motif of the two divine beings nailed to the tree or the cross occurs in many Christian legends and in the legends of the Arthurian circles and the circle of the Holy Grail, where Perceval has to find not only the Grail containing Christ’s blood but also the stag, or stag’s head, nailed to an oak tree, from which he has to take it down. In the main legend he does not forget and he finds the Grail before finding the stag’s head and brings it to a divine female figure; or the stag is represented as an evildoer, a destroyer of the woods and Christ’s shadow. The stag with its beautiful antlers, an unnecessary decoration which hampers its movements and whose object is to impress the female deer, suggests the idea of an arrogant creature and therefore represents the shadow of the Christian principle, an incredible arrogance and superciliousness which we have acquired and which seems one of the worst shadow attitudes spread with the Christian teaching.« Back to Glossary Index