Architecture, Mysticism and Myth, by W.R. Lethaby, , at sacred-texts.com
'Impious! the trees of vegetable gold
OF all the wonders of the Palace at Constantinople as described in 'Count Robert of Paris,' the most wonderful is the golden tree that stood near the throne, with the singing birds that moved by mechanical art. Such a tree is indispensable to the palace of Romance.
In the 'Gest Hystoriale' of the destruction of Troy, Englished in the fourteenth century, the writer does his
utmost for the splendours of Troy town and its palace. During a truce Ulysses—
and Diomedes visit the palace called Ylion, 'made all of marbyll with mason devyse.' They are astonished at its splendour, especially the great hall, in the midst of which 'was a tre that was tried all of tru gold.' It was larger than a laurel, twelve cubits high; its boughs made the circuit of the whole hall, some of gold, some of silver; with leaves, buds, and fair fruit 'that shemert as shire as any shene stonys.'
Lydgate, in the 'Warre of Troy,' brings forward, without discount, the description of such desirable properties when he tells
The genealogy of this tree probably descends through the romance of Alexander. Alexander having in India jousted with a Sultan for a kingdom, finds in the palace so won, along with other treasures, a vine of gold, with leaves of emeralds, and fruit of other precious gems. Just such a tree as is described by Sir John Maundeville, 'Of the great Chan of Cathay, of the royalty of his palace, and how he sits at meat.' 'Within the palace, in the hall, there are twenty-four pillars of fine gold; and all the walls are covered within with red skins of animals called panthers,
fair beasts, and well smelling; so that for the sweet odour of the skins no evil air may enter into the palace. The skins are as red as blood, and shine so bright against the sun that a man may scarcely look on them. And many people worship the beasts when they meet them first in a morning, for their great virtue, and for the good smell that they have. . . . The hall of the palace is full nobly arrayed and full marvellously attired on all parts, in all things that men apparel any hall with. And first, at the head of the hall, is the emperor's throne, very high, where he sits at meat; it is of fine precious stones, bordered all about with purified gold and precious stones, and great pearls. And the steps up to the table are of precious stones, mixed with gold; and at the left side of the emperor's seat is the seat of his first wife, one step lower than the emperor, and it is of jasper bordered with gold and precious stones. And the seat of his second wife is lower than his first wife, and is also of jasper bordered with gold, as that other is. And the seat of the third wife is still lower by a step than the second wife—for he has always three wives with him wherever he is. And, after his wives, on the same side, sit the ladies of his lineage, still lower, according to their ranks, and all those that are married have a counterfeit, made like a man's foot, upon their heads, a cubit long, all wrought with great, fine, and orient pearls, and above made with peacock's feathers, and of other shining feathers; and that stands upon their heads like a crest, in token that they are under man's foot and under subjection of man; and they that are unmarried have none such.
'And after, at the right side of the emperor, first sits his eldest son, who shall reign after him, one step lower than the emperor, in such manner of seats as do the empresses; and after him other great lords of
his lineage, each of them a step lower than the other, according to their rank. The emperor has his table alone by himself, which is of gold and precious stones; or of crystal bordered with gold and full of precious stones; or of amethysts, or of lignum aloes that comes out of Paradise; or of ivory bound and bordered with gold; and each of his wives has also her table by herself, and his eldest son, and the other lords also; and the ladies and all that sit with the emperor have very rich tables alone by themselves; and under the emperor's table sit four clerks, who write all that the emperor says, be it good or evil, for all that he says must be held good; for he may not change his word nor revoke it.
'At great feasts men bring before the emperor's table great tables of gold, and thereon are peacocks of gold, and many other kinds of different fowls, all of gold, and richly wrought and enamelled; and they make them dance and sing, clapping their wings together, and making great noise; and whether it be by craft or by necromancy, I know not, but it is a goodly sight to behold. But I have the less marvel, because they are the most skilful men in the world in all sciences and in all crafts; for in subtilty, malice, and forethought they surpass all men under heaven; and therefore they say themselves that they see with two eyes, and the Christians see but with one, because they are more subtle than they. I busied myself much to learn that craft; but the master told me that he had made a vow to his god to teach it to no creature, but only to his eldest son.
'Also above the emperor's table and the other tables, and above a great part of the hall, is a vine made of fine gold, which spreads all about the hall; and it has many clusters of grapes, some white, some green, some yellow, some red, and some black, all of
precious stones; the white are of crystal, beryl, and iris; the yellow of topazes; the red of rubies, grenaz, and alabraundines; the green of emeralds, of perydoz, and of chrysolites; and the black of onyx and garnets. And they are all so properly made that it appears a real vine bearing natural grapes.
'And before the emperor's table stand great lords and rich barons, and others that serve the emperor at meat; and no man is so bold as to speak a word unless the emperor speak to him, except minstrels that sing songs and tell jests, or other disports, to solace the emperor. And all the vessels that men are served with in the hall or in chambers are in precious stones, and especially at great tables, either of jasper, or of crystal, or of amethyst, or of fine gold, and the cups are of emeralds, and sapphires, or topazes, of perydoz, and of many other precious stones. Vessel of silver is there none, for they set no value on it to make vessels of; but they make therewith steps, and pillars, and pavements to halls and chambers. . . . This emperor hath in his chamber, in one of the pillars of gold, a ruby and a carbuncle of half a foot long, which in the night gives so great light and shining that it is as light as day.'
This is quoted at length, because it is such a very well-furnished hall, 'marvellously attired on all parts,' as Sir John has it, and typical of architectural ideas here in England in the fourteenth century. It was only poverty of resource made them content with stone, and oak, and glass; marble, ebon-tree, and beryl-stone would have pleased them better. But all this glory almost dims beside the imperial palace at Constantinople under the later emperors, of which there is preserved sufficient account by contemporary writers of authority.
So vast was this palace that it was divided into different regions, known by several names, as Chalce,
[paragraph continues] Daphne, Cathisma. In the middle of the atrium of the last was a great basin of bronze and silver, with a vase of gold, on certain occasions filled with fruit, which 'all the world' might take. Beyond this atrium was a peristyle of the most precious marbles in the form of an arc, and called the Sigma. Amongst the imperial apartments was the chrysotriclinium; this, the very sanctuary of the imperial cult, was of octagonal form, covered by a cupola. From each of the eight sides opened an apse, that opposite the entrance being closed by doors covered with plates of silver. At great receptions these doors remained closed until all had taken their places; then, when everything was still, two officers threw back the silver valves, and the emperor was discovered on his throne, before whom all prostrated themselves. In the apse of another chamber was placed the throne called 'Solomon’s.' It was of gold, purfled with precious gems, and on it mechanical golden birds warbled songs; above shone an immense cross encrusted with precious stones; around were golden seats for the imperial family. On the steps were two lions of gold, which rose to their feet roaring. Thereby were golden trees, on the branches of which birds of different kinds imitated the songs of those in the wild wood.
This account is taken from Labarte's Le Palais imperial de Constantinople. Much the same may be found in Gibbon, who gives a description of an audience that Liutprand, Bishop of Cremona, had with the emperor: 'When he approached the throne, the birds of the golden tree began to warble their notes, which were accompanied by the roarings of the two lions of gold. With his two companions Liutprand was compelled to bow and fall prostrate; thrice he touched the ground with his forehead; he arose, but in the short interval the throne had been
hoisted by an engine from the floor to the ceiling: the imperial figure appeared in new and more gorgeous apparel, and the interview was concluded in haughty and majestic silence.'
This palace, it is said, was built on the model of that of the Caliph of Baghdad, brought back by an ambassador to that court, and there also we shall find the golden tree. An Arab writer quoted by Gibbon gives the following account of the reception of a Greek embassy in the year 917: 'The porters or doorkeepers were in number seven hundred. Barges and boats with the most superb decoration were seen swimming on the Tigris, nor was the palace itself less splendid, in which were hung up thirty-eight thousand pieces of tapestry, twelve thousand five hundred of which were of silk embroidered with gold. The carpets on the floor were twenty-two thousand. A hundred lions were brought out, with a keeper to each lion. Among the other spectacles of rare and stupendous luxury was a tree of gold and silver spreading into eighteen large branches, on which and on the lesser boughs sat a variety of birds made of the same precious metals, as well as the leaves of the tree. While the machinery affected spontaneous motions, the several birds warbled their natural harmony. Through this scene of magnificence the Greek ambassador was led by the vizier to the foot of the Caliph's throne.' Lane says the tree rose from a pond which was surrounded by the 'Palace of the Tree.' Without doubt it represents the vegetation of Paradise, and probably it formed a part of the treasure taken from Chosroes, as Baghdad was built about a hundred years after the Conquest. A story of a king who built a false paradise seems always to have been current in this region of Western Asia. Here Marco Polo places the paradise of the King of the Assasins.
The East is the true soil to produce trees like this; there, indeed, they seem to flourish. Permit an extract describing a tree that may not properly belong to the present subject. The monk Rubruquis, sent on a mission from St Louis to Central Asia in quest of Prester John, found in the service of the Tartar Khan a goldsmith of Paris who had just fabricated what he considered his masterpiece:—
'In the Khan's palace,' says Rubruquis, 'because it was unseemly to carry about bottles of milk and other drinks there, Master William made him a great silver tree, at the root whereof were four silver lions, having each one pipe, through which flowed pure cow's milk, and four other pipes were conveyed within the body of the tree unto the top thereof, and the tops spread back again downwards; and upon every one of them was a golden serpent, whose tails twined about the body of the tree, and one of these pipes ran with wine, another with koumis, another with "ball"—a drink made of honey, and another of drink made of rice. Between the pipes, at the top of the tree, he made an angel holding a trumpet, and under the tree a hollow vault, wherein a man might be hid, and a pipe ascended from this vault through the tree to the angel. He first made bellows, but they gave not wind enough. Without the palace walls there was a chamber wherein the several drinks were brought, and there were servants there ready to pour them out when they heard the angel sounding his trumpet. And the boughs of the tree were of silver, and the leaves of the fruit. When, therefore, they want drink, the master butler crieth to the angel that he sound the trumpet. Then he, hearing (who is hid in the vault), bloweth the pipe strongly, which goeth to the angel, and the angel sets his trumpet to his mouth, and the trumpet soundeth very shrill. Then
the servants hearing, which are in the chamber; each of them poureth forth his drink into the proper pipe, and all the pipes pour them forth from above, and they are received below in vessels prepared for that purpose.'
It may be remarked that these mechanical movements were within the range of legitimate art in the Middle Ages, for Villars de Honecourt, a contemporary of Rubruquais, describes how angels might be made to bow the head at the holy name.
In the seventeenth century, Tavernier, another French traveller, saw a golden gem-bearing tree made for the Great Mogul's palace at Agra; and as he was an expert in gems, there is no doubt of his testimony. In this palace, 'on the side that looks towards the river, there is a divan, or a kind of outjutting balcony, where the king sits to see his elephants fight. Before the divan, is a gallery that serves for a portico, which Cha-Jehan had a design to have adorned all over with a kind of lattice-work of emeralds and rubies that should have represented to the life grapes when they are green and when they begin to grow red; but this design, which made such a noise in the world, and required more riches than all the world could afford to perfect, remains unfinished; there being only three stocks of a vine in gold, with their leaves like the rest ought to have been; and enamelled in their natural colours with emeralds, rubies, and garnets wrought into the fashion of grapes.'
In such collections of Hindu Folk-stories as 'Old Deccan Days,' we find these trees; indeed, in India they appear to be realised even to this day. Sir George Birdwood says: 'Trees of solid gold and silver representing the mango or any other tree, and of all sizes, are common decorations in Hindu houses. Often they are made of silk and feathers and tinsel,
and they always recall to mind the terpole or golden vine made in ancient times by the goldsmiths of Jerusalem.'
One of these golden vines of Jerusalem decorated the entrance to Herod's Temple. The gate, Josephus says, with the wall about it, was all covered with gold. 'It also had golden vines upon it, from which clusters of grapes hung down equal in height to that of a man.' This appears to have been carried on the beams of the Toran or isolated gate, and 'whoever vowed a leaf, or grape, or bunch of grapes, suspended it from the vine.' Thus adorned, the gate of sunrise must have surpassed all imagination in splendour, as the rising sun shone on the precious metal. Another vine of the value of five hundred talents called Terpole, 'the delight,' was sent to Pompey, which seems to have much impressed the people of Rome when carried in the triumph, as it is mentioned by Pliny and Tacitus.
In Mediæval and Eastern traditions there existed somewhere, difficult, but mayhap not impossible of access, the terrestrial Paradise, and there such trees expanded, their branches swaying in the perfumed air. After the discovery of America and the riches of Peru, the hope of finding this golden land seems to have revived. Even men like Raleigh appear to have been moved by the illusion; in his account of the discovery of Guiana he quotes with approval the description by the Spanish historian of the Indies, Lopez, of the state and magnificence of the Emperor who had his seat at Manoa, which the Spaniards call El Dorado. All the vessels of the kitchen were of gold, and he had the images of all beasts, birds, and trees in their due proportion and bigness all of gold. 'Yea, and they say the Ingas had a garden of pleasure in an island
near Puna, where they went to recreate themselves when they would take the air of the sea, which had all kind of garden herbs, flowers, and trees of gold and silver, an invention and magnificence till then never seen.' This agrees with the native accounts of the temple of the sun and its gardens at Cuzco, where the animals, insects, and trees were of gold (Nadaillac). Such gardens wherever found are set imitations of Paradise.
One of the rulers of Cairo, the son of Ibn-Tulun, who succeeded him in 883, seems to have set himself to rival the garden of delights in a 'paradise,' 'which was filled with lilies, gilliflowers, saffron; with palms and trees of all sorts, the trunks of which he coated with copper gilt, behind which leaden pipes supplied fountains which gushed forth to water the garden. Peacocks, guinea-fowls, doves, and pigeons with rare birds from Nubia, had their home in the garden and aviary. There was also a menagerie, and especially a blue-eyed lion, who crouched beside his master when he sat at table, and guarded him when he slept. But the chief wonder remains to be described. It was a lake of quicksilver; on the surface of this lake lay a leather bed inflated with air, fastened by silk bands to four silver supports at the corners; here alone the insomnolent sovereign could take his rest' (S. Lane-Poole).
We remember the garden in which Aladdin gathered from the trees the precious stones they bore, 'all of the largest size, and the most perfect ever seen in the whole world.' To the Mohammedan such a garden still exists, but hidden from human eyes. It is said that Sheddad, the third or fourth in descent from Noah, built in 'Irim of many columns' a palace, and enclosed a garden in imitation of Paradise. Southey gives the following in his notes to 'Thalaba:' 'A
pleasant and elevated spot being fixed upon, Sheddad despatched a hundred chiefs to collect skilled artists and workmen from all countries. He also commanded the monarchs of Syria and Ormus to send him all their jewels and precious stones. Forty camel-loads of gold, silver, and jewels were daily used in the building, which contained a thousand spacious quadrangles of many thousand rooms. In the areas were artificial trees of gold and silver, whose leaves were emeralds, and fruit clusters of jewels and pearls. The ground was strewed with ambergris, musk, and saffron. Between every two of the artificial trees was planted one of delicious fruit. This romantic abode took up five hundred years in the completion. When finished, Sheddad marched to view it, and when arrived near, divided two hundred thousand youthful slaves whom he had brought with him from Damascus into four detachments, which were stationed in cantonments prepared for their reception on each side of the garden, towards which he proceeded with his favourite courtiers. Suddenly was heard in the air a voice like thunder, and Sheddad, looking up, beheld a personage of majestic figure and stern aspect, who said, "I am the angel of death, commissioned to seize thy impure soul." Sheddad exclaimed, "Give me leisure to enter the garden," and was descending from his horse, when the seizer of life snatched away his impure spirit, and he fell dead upon the ground. At the same time, lightnings flashed and destroyed the whole army of the infidel, and the rose garden of Irim became concealed from the sight of man.'
The gold trees of Paradise may be found even to-day. Lady Dufferin tells us how the colossal gilt stupa of Rangoon stands on a raised plateau; all round it there is an enclosure of small topes: 'outside
these is a row of gilt trees bearing glass fruits.' The whole is symbolic of the celestial mountain of the gods.
Quintus Curtius, in the 'History of Alexander,' describes the state and splendour of the Indian monarch Musicanus: 'Golden vines twined round the silver columns of the palace, amidst whose branches artificial birds of silver in imitation of those most esteemed in India were disposed by the nicest art by the curious designer' (Maurice).
The Greeks told of a tree of gold, the handiwork of the somewhat mythical artist Theodorus of Samos, who is said to have been the first to cast bronze statues. Heredotus tells us that Pythias, a Lydian of enormous wealth, made Darius a present of a golden vine and a plane tree. Athenæus describes the vine as having clusters of jewels in form and colour of grapes, the whole spread like a rich canopy over the golden bed of that monarch.
Philostratus says that Apollonius saw the golden tree, with fruit of olives represented by emeralds, which was given by Pygmalion King of Tyre to the Tyrian temple of Hercules at Gades.
In the last resort such great achievements are 'works of fairy,' or of the immortal crafts-gods. Hephæstos who formed the shield of Achilles like the world in shape, who wrought the gold and silver dogs at the Palace gate of Alcinous like the guardians of the gate of the west, made also such a tree. 'Zeus after carrying off Ganymede to be his cupbearer, made atonement to the royal family of Troy by the present of a vine of gold fashioned by Hephæstos' (A. Lang, Myth, Ritual, and Religion).
The transition from a tree made by supernatural art to a 'natural' golden tree is but slight; such was the tree from which Æneas had to pluck the
bough before he could pass on the way to the underworld.
An Indian historian, quoted by Orme, says of Mamud of Gazna, that in the course of his conquests he found a tree growing out of the earth to an enormous size, of which the substance was pure gold; this would seem an Eastern version of the incident quoted later from the 'Romance of Alexander,' where the tree foretells his death.
In Greek stories, too, we have trees which bear golden fruit or flowers connected with the land of the blissful west, as in Pindar—'But the ocean breezes blow around the blessed islands, and golden flowers burn on their bright trees for evermore;' or Hesiod—'The Hesperian maids who guard the golden fruit beyond the ocean's sound.' And just as Hercules goes to this garden, so does the Babylonian hero Gilgames, in his wanderings beyond the gates of the sun, see a tree, which—
Count d’Alviella, in an exhaustive article, 'Les Arbres Paradiseaques,' speaks of this conception as that of 'a celestial tree carrying for fruit the planets, stars, and all the gems of heaven.' Fire and thunder were produced in its branches which cloud the sky, and drop the heavenly ambrosia. Professor Sayce and Lenormant agree in this view. The fruit of this tree, says the latter, is fire. It can hardly be doubted
that it is this same tree whose many branches we have been tracing to a common stem. The golden gem-bearing tree is the natural growth of traditions of that all-embracing world tree which carries the stars for its fruit in the dark heaven of night. Dr Terrien de Lacouperie has also devoted a special study to this cosmic tree. He sees it represented in the Tat pillar of Egypt as well as in the star-bearing tree of Hindus and Iranians, the calendar tree of China, and many others.
A similar conception is plainly expressed in the Kalevala, where Wainamoinen—
The bear was in a cradle, and the tree stood on the summit of the Gold Hill; and, as in our nursery song,
Sir William Drummond says of the tree of the Cabbalists: 'Though called a tree, it was a type of the mundane system, and in Œdipus Judaicus a fruit tree was certainly a symbol of the starry heavens, and the fruits typified the constellations. The Arabians typify the zodiac by a fruit tree, and on the twelve branches of this tree the stars are depicted as fruits. The Cabbalists represent the tree of life as marked with the emblems of the zodiac, and as bearing twelve fruits,' etc., and concludes: 'We shall hardly doubt that trees, and especially fruit trees, were
symbols of the starry heavens' (Landseer). This, may we not say, becomes certainty when the trees are golden and bear gems as fruit.
The planets were co-related to the several precious stones, as is shown in the next chapter. The fitness of the comparison between a gem and a star is at once apparent to the child, 'like a diamond in the sky.' It is curious here to remember that gold and precious stones were always thought of as self-lustrous; Homer's palaces give out a radiance like moonlight; and Cupid's palace in Apuleius was plated over with gold, so that 'even were the sun to withhold his light the palace could make a day for its own.' The columns of gold and emeralds seen by Herodotus at Tyre gave out light, and the imperial crown hanging over the throne at Constantinople, as seen by Benjamin of Tudela, lighted up the whole chamber with its brilliance. The well-designed palace of romance is always lighted, like Prester John's, externally by a carbuncle on every gable; and inside as in the Folk tale 'Childe Rowland,' where a huge carbuncle was suspended from the dome, 'spinning round and round, and this is what gave light by its rays to the whole hall.'
Many avenues lead us to the one gem-bearing tree; its branches may be said to stretch over all the earth. The story of Jason and the golden fleece is strictly parallel to that of Theseus—the imposed task, the help of the princess, the flight, and the parting. But the scene is the northern hemisphere of the heavens, not the underworld of the south pole. The golden treasure is guarded by a serpent, doubtless the cloud dragon of darkness, who winds about that tree whose stem is the axis of the heavenly revolution, just as Draco still coils about the pole.
The tree of the golden fruit of the Hesperides grows
on Mount Atlas, the sky-sustaining mountain, in the country 'beyond the north wind,' where it was guarded by the dragon Ladon. Some confusion seems to have been occasioned as to the position of Mount Atlas, which was later understood to be in the west; the complication came about, possibly, in consequence of the generally received opinion that the land of the departed was westward with the sunset, and yet on the world mountain. In other accounts the mountain paradise is north-east, or even east, a consequence probably of the westward migration of the peoples after the polar significance had been forgotten. In the Talmud, for instance, the sun is said to be red in the east because of the roses of Eden, and to glow at eve because of the fires of hell.
Like Atlas the Indian Mount Meru bore a tree, Parajita, which perfumes the whole world with its blossoms; and India is called Jambu-dwipa, the land of myrtle blooms, from this tree, which grows at its centre. Its earthly position was hidden among the Himalayas, 'mountains of heaven.' In the Veda it is the heavenly Soma tree, dropping nectar for the gods. In the Avesta of the Persians the details are amplified, but the scene—the world, mountain of paradise—and the tree are the same. 'Haoma, golden flowered, that grows on the heights, Haoma that restores us, that drives death afar.' There is also a companion tree, and two birds roost on their branches. These mythical birds—'the two eagles of the sky, Amru and Chamru—are invoked as helpful powers. They nestle on the tree of life in the heavens.' On the highest peak grows the Haoma; from the sea of heavenly waters grows the other tree, which bears all seeds. 'When Amru sits on this tree the seeds fall down, and Chamru carries them away,' and they are rained down on the earth with the showers.
[paragraph continues] So all earthly trees as well as all the waters come to us from the central heaven, where all life originated (Duncker's Hist. Ant.). The more modern Persian Simurgh in Firdausi is the counterpart of the bird of the tree of life.
The northern world-ash, the high seat of the gods and prop of the sky, had the stars for fruit; around its stem was coiled Nidhogg the serpent, and on the topmost branch the eagle sang of creation and destruction. A tree like this is the fit habitation for such a bird as is well known in old fables under different names: and so in Eastern story the Garuda perches on a wonderful tree, from which it flies to seize the rhinoceros or elephant in its grip and bear them away.
In old Japanese lore there is a vast metal pine tree which grows in the north at the world centre. Our Saxon forefathers told of Irminsul the column of the sky—the 'Pole' in the double significance. The golden apple tree appears frequently in Folk Stories, usually in connection with a visit to the other world. In a Bohemian story an immense tree grows past the clouds. A princess desires to have of its fruit. Hans, the youngest son of a peasant—the male parallel of Cinderella, scorned but successful—after all have failed, makes the essay. He starts, taking a number of wooden shoes to drop one daily. After climbing some days, he sees a light glimmering; it is the dwelling of a very old woman; he asks how far it is to the top, and she answers: 'Thou hast yet far to go, I am only Monday. Thou must come to Tuesday, Wednesday, and so on to Saturday.' In his long journey upwards all this comes to pass. After leaving Saturday, he comes to a stone wall, into which the stem of the tree had grown. He goes through a little door, and in a golden meadow there is a golden city, with splendours unendurable to human eyes,
golden creatures leaped in the pasture, and the fruit of the tree was all of gold. 'Hans believed he was in heaven, and he stopped there; others say he came down again to earth and related this story.' Monday, Tuesday, and the rest occupy the planetary spheres; the wall is the firmament.
There is a remarkable agreement in these legends of the Greek, Babylonian, Hindu, Norse, and Finnish world mountain. It stood at the North Pole, 'in the country of the Hyperboreans;' it was of gold and precious stones, or of crystal, like the dome-shaped mountains of glass in Folk Tales. At its apex grows the great Tree of the Heavens, whose stem and branches of gold carry stars of precious stones for fruit, and on whose highest point perches the solar Phœnix. Here is the Earthly Paradise, the Garden of the Sun, as is perfectly understood in the following, extracts from the Romance of Alexander,' from Sir John Maundeville, and from Dante.
In India, Alexander and his army came to two paths, eastward and north; they try eastward, but it is impassable, and they go back and attempt the other to the north, by which at last they reach a cliff covered with diamonds, with hanging chains of red gold. Two thousand five hundred steps there were, which they ascend, and reach the clouds and 'wait for wonders,' They see 'a palais, one of the precioussest and proudest in earth, and built, as the book says, with two broad gates and seventy windows, of gold, carven, and clustered with gems.'
There was a temple surrounded by a garden of golden vines full of great fruit of carbuncle stones; it was the 'house of the sun' and paradise. Alexander enters, and on a gorgeous bed he finds a god, who asks him if he would have his future known by inquiry
of the trees of the sun and moon; on his consenting, they approach two enormous trees, that of the moon was silver; the tree of the sun was gold, and on its crest sat 'a proud bird.' 'All gilded was her gorge with golden feathers.' 'Yon is a fearless fowl, a Fenix we call.' It is predicted that Alexander will never return.
'Of Paradise,' says Sir John Maundeville, 'I cannot speak properly, for I was not there. It is far beyond; and that forthinketh me, and also I was not worthy. But as I have heard say of wise men beyond, I shall tell you with goodwill. Paradyse terrestre, as wise men say, is the highest place of earth that is in all the world, and it is so high that it toucheth nigh to the circle of the moon there as the moon maketh her turn.' There, also, is the Well of Paradise, many precious stones, much lignum aloes, and much gravel of gold.
In Dante's system the point under the zenith of our northern heavens is occupied by Jerusalem; the antipodes of this is Mount Purgatory, which rises from the seas of the southern hemisphere, the land being drawn up to the mountain, leaving the sea all round. It is in the form of the Babylonian terraced pyramid of seven stages; the top is the earthly paradise, and he passes thence to the circle of the moon.
Such was Beatrice's welcome, and then he sees—
It is thus as a light-bearer, a candelabrum, that the artificial tree would best fulfil a symbolic function in the representation of the great mysterious tree whose canopy forms the firmament and bears the light-giving stars as its fruit—a symbolism which we appear to perpetuate, as year by year at the winter solstice we light the candles on the Christmas tree. In the East, where tradition 'lingers last, as loath to die,' the lighting is properly by means of a lamp-tree. 'There is in the Prince of Wales’ collection a remarkable candelabrum in silver gilt from Shringar, shaped like a conventional tree, and ornamented all over with the crescent and flame device and hanging fishes, its design being evidently derived through Persia from a Turkoman original. The candelabra seen in Hindu temples constantly takes this tree form without the addition of the symbols of the sky and ether.' And not only in temples; 'the high brass tree, like candelabra, with a number of branches bearing little lamps filled with oil, and having a wick in each, are a marked feature in great houses in Lahore' (Birdwood, 'Indian Arts'). In the Indian Museum at South Kensington are several of these lamp-trees, one of which, figured on next page, is a very fine design; it has not very many leaves, but monkeys climb on the boughs. In another example the lamp bowls are shaped like birds.
The classic bronze candelabra that fill our museums almost universally follow the same thought through many modifications of design. Sometimes where there is but one stem it has vestiges of lopped branches, or leafy appendages at intervals; or the top bowl rests on the fork of three branches which have been cut off. Others again, perfectly plain, have an animal chasing a bird up the stem; still others, with or without an otherwise clearly defined tree form, have a snake coiled round the stem. There are examples of all of these
in the British Museum, two or three of each show that they are types, not accidents. Close to these candelabra
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is a bronze Hercules standing by the tree of the Hesperides; the guardian serpent being coiled around
its trunk, exactly like the serpent on the candlesticks. We may hardly doubt that this bronze tree is a candlestick, the branches of which bore suspended lamps. A tree candelabrum found at Pompeii has hanging lamps in the form of snails. These classic
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Figure 10. Greek Lamp Tree
'The shafts are often fluted, or twisted, or knotted like the stem of a tree. It was a favourite conceit to introduce a cat or squirrel chasing a bird up the shaft, and the bowl above has often little birds around it, as though it were a nest, so that the whole is then intended to represent a tree. Sometimes a boy or monkey is climbing the shaft, or a snake is coiling round it. It often terminates above, not in a bowl, but in a number of branches, from which lamps were suspended.'
Dr Smith's Dictionary gives a similar account of the Greek examples. Even the later Roman marble candelabra carry forward the tradition.
A parallel custom was for the lamp to have seven nozzles, the number of the planets, like an example of Roman work in the British Museum, and this became a very general form, and still seven lamps burn before the altars of many churches. We may also while speaking of the symbolism of lighting, remark that the hanging crowns of light in Christian Churches, of which that at Hildeshiem is such a fine example, were
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understood to symbolise the New Jerusalem with its twelve towered gates. Mr Morris, with fine insight, makes the solitary lamp in the 'House of the Wolfings' 'The Hall Sun.' That these should all be undying flames is, of course, of the essence of the symbolism.
Nor can we forget the seven-branched candlestick in the Temple, of gold, ornamented with 'knops and
flowers;' the seven lamps symbolising to Josephus the seven planets. It seems to have been understood in the Middle Ages that this was a tree, for a fourteenth century poem on Bible history makes the birds flutter among the leaves when the golden treasure from Jerusalem is exhibited at the feast in Babylon. Mr Robertson Smith sees in the candlestick such a symbolic tree, the motive being taken from the almond.
Following the Jewish was the Christian candle tree. The description of Durham tells of a great paschal candlestick that rose even to the high vault, nearly as broad as the choir below, with seven flower-shaped branches for tapers. Great seven-branched candlesticks are frequent; those of Hildesheim and Vienna are the best known from the casts at South Kensington; the latter is called the 'Virgin's tree.' It appears from Mr Walcott's 'Dictionary of Archæology' that all important churches had a seven-branched candlestick, and 'in some churches there was a magnificent series of branches grouped together called the Tree.' In Sta. Sophia, as finished by Justinian, were placed many candelabra in the likeness of trees; the whole effect was 'like a wood.'
At Delphi there was a bronze palm tree surmounted by a gilt statue of Athene, on it there were owls and imitations of fruit. Plutarch also describes, in the same temple, a sacred palm-tree of bronze with frogs in relief around the base. Almost certainly these would be lamp bearing trees. Gerald Massey cites a description of a temple in Cambodia where a bronze tree, about which coiled a serpent, rose from a pool of water.
Athenæus says, 'Euphorion in his historical commentaries says that the young Dionysius, the tyrant of Sicily, dedicated in the prytaneum at Tarentum a candlestick capable of containing as great a number
of candles as there are days in the year.' Like a many branched tree, it overhung the sacred hearth in the skylike tholos.
Pausanias describes the light before the statue of Athene in the Erechtheum: 'And Callemachus made a golden lamp for the goddess. And when they fill this lamp with oil, it lasts for a whole year, although it burns continuously night and day, and the wick is of a particular kind of cotton flax, the only sort imperishable by fire; and above the lamp is a palm tree of brass, reaching to the roof, and carrying off the smoke; and Callemachus, the maker of this lamp, although he comes behind the first artificers, yet was remarkable for ingenuity, and got the name of Art Critic, whether his own appellation, or given him by others; From Pliny it is apparent that this is no isolated artistic whim, but that it was well understood that the temples should be lighted with trees bearing lamps, like the golden fruit of the heavens. Candelabra (lychnuchi pensiles), he says, were placed in the temples, or gave their light in the form of trees loaded with fruit; such is the one, for instance, in the temple of the Palatine Apollo, which Alexander the Great, at the sacking of Thebes, brought to Cyme, and dedicated to that god. An instance this of Greek workmanship of considerable, perhaps of remote, antiquity.
A slab recently discovered in Rome, showing the Mithraic sanctuary, has on each side trees; one carries the sun as a demi-figure with a halo, and the other the moon with a crescent. Curiously enough, in St. Mark's at Venice there is such a representation in the mosaics; two lofty pillars are figured supporting each a chariot and horses; in the one is Phœbus, in the other Diana with the crescent, and against them is written, 'Stata Solis,' 'Stata Lunæ,' a conception
entirely the same as is found thousands of years before on Babylonian seals.
Dr Isaac Taylor says that the primitive Chinese symbol for light was the sun on a tree. In Japanese religious processions, sun and moon are carried about in trees. The sacred trees of Greece, Apollo's laurel at Delos, the olive of Athene in the Erectheium, and the oak of Dodona, may have belonged to crude tree worship, a subject treated at length by Mr Frazer in the 'Golden Bough.' Duncker, however, saw in Dodona another localisation of paradise with its mount, tree, and the water of heaven.
The slabs and gems of Assyria repeatedly and variously show us the sacred celestial tree, the complete composition having the tree in the middle, above it the winged sun disc of Asshur, and on either side guardian genii. It bears fruit, and is called 'The Shining Tree,' or 'Tree of Great Light.' There is no doubt that its image was set up in the temples; for a slab in the Louvre, figured by Perrot, shows the king standing before a tree of artificial construction; and such, too, was the graven image of the grove' that the apostate King of Israel placed in the Temple (2 Kings xxi. 7). It is also shown among the Temple furniture carried in processions. It was an ingeniously designed tree of metal, of great splendour; the fruit of that shown so clearly in the beautiful slab figured by Perrot (fig. 45, Vol. II.) was doubtless of jewels. It has been pointed out, by Layard and others, how the number seven enters into their composition.
In Assyria, at an age unknown, the copy in the Temple of the golden gem-bearing tree of the sky was probably first set up. In Egypt, however, we also meet the legend of the heavenly prototype, and farther we cannot strain our gaze into the past. Nut, the goddess of the heavenly ocean, whose body is
decked with stars, has her abode in such a tree; the pilgrim to the lower world eats of its fruit, and the goddess, leaning from the tree, pours out the water of life. This was in the west, on the way travelled by the dead. To the east there was another tree, with wide radiating branches bearing jewels; up it the strong morning sun, Horus, the first giant killer, climbs to the zenith of heaven—
'The beautiful green tints on the horizon at daybreak and at the sunset are mythologically represented by the "Sycamore of Emerald," through the midst of which the sun god advances into the firmament' (Renouf, 'Hibbert Lectures').