The Holiness of Trees

“Trees in particular were mysterious and seemed to me direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life. For that reason the woods were the place where I felt closest to its deepest meaning and to its awe-inspiring workings.”

C.G. Jung, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections”


A book The Hidden Life of Trees; What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben was to me deeply comforting and rather alarming in equal measure. The alarming part had to do with a realization that trees are too often treated by humans as objects, forests – as lumber factories.  The comfort I found among the book’s pages was a certainty, a scientific fact proven rigorously by the author, that trees are receptacles of the deepest mysteries of life. Wohlleben may be a scientist but he approaches his subject with affection, even devotion. In another book I have been reading in parallel to The Hidden Life of Trees, Alexander von Humboldt is portrayed as a cold-hearted measurer of the world but when he encounters an ancient dragon tree on Tenerife, his cold heart cracks open, if only for a brief moment:

“It had been here before Christ and Buddha, Plato and Tamburlane. Humboldt held his watch up to his ear. It carried time within itself as it ticked away, while this tree warded off time: a crag against which its river broke. Humboldt touched the deeply corrugated trunk. High above, the branches opened out, and the twittering of hundreds of birds pierced the air. Tenderly, he stroked the bark. Everything died, every human being, every animal, every moment. Only one thing endured. He laid his cheek against the wood, then drew back and glanced around horrified in case anyone had seen him.”

Daniel Kehlman, “Measuring the World”

The wealth of information on trees contained in Wohlleben’s book is staggering. He starts by emphasizing the fact that most tree species are communal beings. Forests are “superorganisms” which can be likened to ant colonies. There, nutrients are ceaselessly exchanged, and no member of the community is abandoned in times of need. Why are trees so protective of each other? The author explains:

“Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer. Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover.”


Caspar David Friedrich, “Forest in the End of the Autumn”

The primary means of communication among trees is scent. On the Savannah, acacias warn other trees when giraffes start feasting on their leaves. This enables the trees next in line for the predator to emit toxic substances and thus keep the giraffes off. Signals between trees are transmitted by means of fungal connections. Wohlleben uses every opportunity to stress that artificially planted forests (unless they are organic plantations) do more harm than good because they seriously impair trees’ ability to communicate:

“Thanks to selective breeding, our cultivated plants have, for the most part, lost their ability to communicate above or below ground—you could say they are deaf and dumb—and therefore they are easy prey for insect pests. That is one reason why modern agriculture uses so many pesticides. Perhaps farmers can learn from the forests and breed a little more wildness back into their grain and potatoes so that they’ll be more talkative in the future.”

Communication of trees happens both below and above ground. The former is effectuated by means of roots, which for trees extend twice the spread of the crown. Apparently, roots send sound waves (220 hertz) to other roots to communicate about danger. Roots have been compared to brain-like structures; they are neural pathways that transmit both chemical and electrical impulses.  How strange that still many scientists refuse to call plants intelligent. Wohlleben reflects:

“The distinction between plant and animal is, after all, arbitrary and depends on the way an organism feeds itself: the former photosynthesizes and the latter eats other living beings. Finally, the only other big difference is in the amount of time it takes to process information and translate it into action. Does that mean that beings that live life in the slow lane are automatically worth less than ones on the fast track?”

A walk through an old-growth forest reduces blood pressure and has a calming effect. Tree plantations do not have the same effect. What is more, forests that have experienced no intervention from foresters, grow more harmoniously:

“Because of the deep shade, wild flowers and shrubs don’t have a chance, so the color brown (from old leaves) predominates on the natural forest floor. The small trees grow extremely slowly and very straight, and their side branches are short and narrow. The old mother trees dominate, and their flawless trunks stretch to the sky like the columns in a cathedral. In contrast to this, there is much more light in managed forests, because trees are constantly being removed. Grass and bushes grow in the gaps, and tangles of brambles prevent detours off the beaten path. When trees are felled and their crowns are left lying on the ground, the debris creates further obstacles. The whole forest presents a troubled and downright messy picture. Old-growth forests, however, are basically very accessible.”

Within the same species, trees do not follow the principle of survival of the fittest. Rather, they “synchronize their performance so that they are all equally successful.” They make it so that they all produce an equal amount of sugar per leaf regardless of their strength or age. Again, it is the roots which are responsible for this equalization of the rate of photosynthesis, as “whoever has an abundance of sugar hands some over; whoever is running short gets help.” In a natural forest trees grow close to one another. This “huddling together” is an advantage for the whole community since “a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.” However, a lot of foresters remove what in their opinion in an excess of trees. Again, such acts prevent trees from communicating with each other, leaving them at the mercy of predators.

In order for a tree to live a long life, it needs to grow slowly. To that effect, older trees purposefully deprive the young of light so that the rate of their growth becomes restricted. Modern forestry with their eyes on the profit margin does not promote steady and slow growth of trees. Trees are felled before they reach maturity in Europe, where we have lost almost all of true old-growth forests. One example is the primeval Bialowieza Forest on the border of Poland and Belarus, the exclusive refuge of the lowland bison. The Polish government has started logging parts of the forest in recent months, which was met with a public outcry over a destruction of the 10 000- year-old ecosystem.

Ancient trees are crucial for the ecosystem, explains Wohlleben:

“…Dr. Zoë Lindo of McGill University in Montreal researched Sitka spruce that were at least five hundred years old. First of all, she discovered large quantities of moss on the branches and in the branch forks of trees of this advanced age. Blue-green algae had colonized the trees’ mossy cushions. These algae capture nitrogen from the air and process it into a form the trees can use. Rain then washes this natural fertilizer down the trunks, making it available to the roots. Thus, old trees fertilize the forest and help their offspring get a better start in life. The youngsters don’t have their own moss because moss grows very slowly and takes decades to get established.”

Old trees are stronger than young ones; they also grow faster. Thus, they are our most powerful allies in the fight against the climate change. Even dead trees have an important role to play, as a fifth of all animal and plant species depend on them for survival. A felled tree trunk can even serve as a cradle for young trees, especially in the case of young spruces. This process is called “nurse-log reproduction.”

On other continents, the pivotal role of ancient trees is recognized and respected; in fact, it is only in Europe where ancient forests do not receive adequate protection:

“In the United States, forest preserves, such as the Adirondack and Catskill parks in New York State, keep economic interests out of the forests. According to the state constitution, the preserve ‘shall be forever kept as wild forest lands,’ and the timber shall not be ‘sold, removed or destroyed.’ In the wilderness areas of these preserves, most structures are not allowed, power vehicles are banned, and chainsaws require special permits. What started as a measure to ensure that excessive logging in the nineteenth century didn’t lead to soil erosion and silting up of the economically important Erie Canal has turned into a resource dedicated to the forest itself and visitors who ‘leave no trace’ as they pass through. Even more remote is the Great Bear Rainforest in northern British Columbia, which covers almost 25,000 square miles along the rugged coast. Half of this area is forested, including about 8,900 square miles of old-growth trees. This primeval forest is home to the rare spirit bear, which although it is white, is not a polar bear but a black bear with white fur. First Nations in the area have been fighting since the 1990s to protect their homelands. On February 1, 2016, an agreement was announced to keep 85 percent of the forest unlogged, though it does allow for 15 percent of the trees, mostly old growth at low elevations, to be removed. After a long hard struggle, some progress, at least, has been made in protecting this very special place. Chief Marilyn Slett, president of Coastal First Nations, is well aware of the forest’s importance: ‘Our leaders understand our well-being is connected to the well-being of our lands and waters… If we use our knowledge and our wisdom to look after [them], they will look after us into the future.’ The Kichwa of Sarayaku, Ecuador, see their forest as ‘the most exalted expression of life itself.’”

It is no wonder that trees are happiest in the balmy forest. An especially eye-opening chapter of the book was dedicated to “street kids,” that is the trees which live in cities. They suffer very harshly because of the temperature being too high for them, due to the dryness of the air and its pollution. Their bark gets burned and their roots rot because of dogs’ urine. They get damaged heavily by winter salt. Some species of trees suffer more than others when they are torn away from the protective forest. Others, such as poplar, quaking aspen, silver birch and pussy willow are born pioneers and actually enjoy striking out on their own and colonizing new territories. Their seeds can fly longer distances. They often grow alone in wide-open spaces. Therefore, their bark is often lighter in colour to protect them from sun scald. Birches and other lonely wolves among trees typically live more intensively and shorter than oaks, beeches or redwoods which prefer the familial atmosphere of the forest.

I found Wohlleben’s book awe-inspiring. It made me think how it seems that we humans cannot help applying our short-term thinking to beings, which are radically different from us. Trees are slow, still, majestic and, at least compared to us, eternal. They were here before us and will outlive us. Their symbolic meaning is vitally connected with the totality of life processes in the universe: “its consistence, growth, proliferation, generative and regenerative processes,” as Cirlot wrote in his Dictionary of Symbols. The tree represents “absolute reality” positioned at the centre of the world. It is a world-axis connecting the above with the below. There were two trees in Paradise: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. Living and knowing, notices Cirlot, are two distinct and parallel processes. The tree of Life is usually depicted in full bloom, the tree of Knowledge, which brought people death and awareness, is shown as dry or on fire. It is a marvellous coincidence that in scientific taxonomy the endings of the names of trees are masculine whereas their gender is feminine. The tree is a central symbol of totality that connects microcosm and microcosm, the feminine and the masculine, life and death, change and permanence, and other opposites.


William Morris, Tree of Life tapestry

Hermann Hesse offered the following beautiful reflections on trees:

“A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. . . . Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.”

Hermann Hesse, “Bäume” (Trees)


Arnold Böcklin, “The Sacred Grove”

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“Happiness” by Louise Glück 

Georgia O’Keeffe, “Abstraction White Rose”

“A man and a woman lie on a white bed.

It is morning. I think

Soon they will waken.

On the bedside table is a vase

of lilies; sunlight

pools in their throats.

I watch him turn to her

as though to speak her name

but silently, deep in her mouth –

At the window ledge,

once, twice

a bird calls.

And then she stirs; her body

fills with his breath.

I open my eyes; you are watching me.

Almost over this room

the sun is gliding.

Look at your face, you say,

holding your own close to me

making a mirror.

How calm you are. And the burning wheel

passes gently over us.”

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Hatshepsut: the Woman Pharaoh and Her Rise to Power


Hatshepsut, a woman pharaoh from the renowned eighteenth dynasty, reigned very successfully for twenty-two years. Her rule brought enormous wealth and prosperity to her country. She did not wage unnecessary wars but focused on extensive building projects (she was the first ruler to use sandstone and granite instead of mud bricks) and establishing trade routes instead. She had reached for power resolutely, yet without resorting to violence or bloodshed. This was an unprecedented move on a part of a woman. The moment she passed away, her male successor proceeded to systematically erase her legacy, defile her statues and get rid of all evidence of her power and achievements. Not only was she maligned by her successors but she was also vilified by Egyptologists well into the twentieth century. Kara Cooney, an Egyptologist, archeologist, and professor at UCLA, has written a book dedicated to Hatshepsut, in which she looks at the double standards at play in relation to men and women in power:

“Women in power who do everything wrong offer great narrative fodder: Cleopatra, Jezebel and her daughter Athaliah, Semiramis, Empress Lü. They are dangerous, untrustworthy, self-interested to a fault. Their sexuality and powers of attraction can bring all to ruin. History has shown that a woman who pushes the envelope of ambition is not just maligned in the history books as a conniving, scheming seductress whose foolhardy and emotional desires brought down the good men around her, but also celebrated in infamous detail as proof that females should never be in charge.

Posterity cherishes the idea that there is something oppressive and distrustful about women who rule over men—that their mercurial moods have the power to destroy, that their impolitic natures ruin carefully tended alliances, that their agenda on behalf of their children will endanger any broader political interests.

If a woman does not renounce ambition for ambition’s sake, she will be viewed as twofaced or selfish, her actions fueled by ulterior motives.”

Hatshepsut believed firmly that Amun-Re chose her to rule over Egypt. When she seized power she was a young woman in her early twenties. Over the years, she gradually forged a masculine identity for herself since at that time (approximately 1479 to 1458 BCE) it was inconceivable for the pharaoh to be a woman. The highest position a woman could have hoped for was the First Wife of the King. This title belonged to Hatshepsut’s mother. Egyptian kings had sizeable harems of women at their disposal, destined to produce male heirs. Hatshepsut’s mother failed to do so. Consequently, the throne passed to a two-year old Thutmose III, whom Hatshepsut’s father had with a lesser wife. Hatshepsut became the boy’s co-regent, but eventually assumed the full power of the pharaoh.


As her reign began, she confidently portrayed herself as a female ruler with all the images commissioned by her openly showing her gender. She identified herself with powerful goddesses, particularly with Mut, as well as lioness war goddesses – Sekhmet and Bast. She propagated a myth about her birth from a lioness. However, as the years passed by, uncertainty and ambiguity crept in. With time, all her images became completely masculine, though she still kept the feminine forms in hieroglyphic texts, as Cooney explains:

“To those elites who could read hieroglyphic text and participate in complex theological discourse, she presented the full complexity of gender-ambiguous kingship. There was no need to hide her feminine self from these learned men and women anyway because of their close access to her and her palace. But for the common man or woman who could not read and who might not understand such academic explanations, Hatshepsut presented a simplified and unassailable image of idealized and youthful masculine kingship. For them, she became what everyone expected to see—a strong man able to protect Egypt’s borders and a virile king able to build temples and perform the cult rituals for the gods.”

She had amassed enormous power despite the heavy odds against her. Still, her countrymen were not ready to acknowledge that real power knows no gender. They erased her name from the official list of kings. But the truth about her kingship eventually came out, as the meaning of her name had foreboded: Hatshepsut – Foremost of Noble Women.


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Dark Matter


Peter Doig, “Pelican (Stag)”

“You’re sitting here with us, but you’re also out walking

in a field at dawn. You are yourself

the animal we hunt when you come with us on the hunt.

You’re in your body like a plant is solid in the ground,

yet you’re wind. You’re the diver’s clothes

lying empty on the beach. You’re the fish.


In the ocean are many bright strands

and many dark strands like veins that are seen

when a wing is lifted up.

Your hidden self is blood in those, those veins

that are lute strings that make ocean music,

not the sad edge of surf, but the sound of no shore.”

Rumi, “The Diver’s Clothes Lying Empty”

Consider this: over ninety-five per cent of the universe is invisible. The existence of the so-called dark matter and dark energy cannot be measured or observed directly; we can only rely on the gravitational effects caused by them. Dark matter, which outweighs standard matter five times, has mass and gravity but it does not reflect or absorb light. What is essential is invisible to the eye. And yet it is fundamental to the whole universe. It initiated its creation. It anchors galaxies, making them stable instead of full of celestial objects spinning around precariously. Becoming conscious of these unconscious processes active in our universe requires a shift in perspective. As Jung noted in Mysterium Coniunctionis, “the conscious mind is usually reluctant to see or admit the polarity of its own background, although it is precisely from there that it gets its energy.” Or as Rumi said, “life’s water flows from darkness.”

More on dark matter:

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Stephen Mitchell on Love

“…love is a fusion in the sun’s core. Love is a blurring of pronouns. Love is a subject and object. The difference between its presence and its absence is the difference between life and death.”

Stephen Mitchell, “The Bone Clocks”


William Turner, “Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning After the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis”

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Symbolism of Gardens

I.”The men where you live,” said the little prince, “raise five thousand roses in the same garden–and they do not find in it what they are looking for.” “They do not find it,” I replied. “And yet what they are looking for could be found in one single rose, or in a little water.”

II.”It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince


Salvadore Dali, “Enigma of the Rose”

The rich minimalism of the Little Prince’s wisdom brings to mind the apparent simplicity of the Japanese karesansui (dry-mountain-water) gardens, known as Zen gardens in the West. The origins of those gardens are long lost in historical obscurity, but most probably they go back to Shinto – the Japanese native religion, which founded the sacred in elements of nature such as rocks, trees, mountains or rivers. The wavelike patterns of the raked gravel are believed to evoke currents of running water, while lone-standing rocks could be viewed as mountains rising out of the ocean, but one would be fooled to trust such limiting interpretations. The dry garden, always viewed from inside a room and composed like a painting, is first and foremost a place of contemplation; it is meant to startle the mind of the observer into a spiritual state by purifying it from pre-conceived ideologies.


Kioto, Ryoan-ji

“The dry garden at Ryoan-ji consists of fifteen rocks distributed in five groups across a rectangular field of coarse sand, surrounded on three sides by a rustic wall that shuts out the world and on the fourth by a narrow veranda from which you view the garden, raised several feet above it. You cannot enter, but only contemplate it. There are no plants, unless you count the moss growing at the feet of some of the stones, or the trees looking over the wall from outside, which barely enter your field of vision and which you might notice for the first time looking at photographs afterward. There is no water, except that some people count the raked sand as a sea, from which the stones poke up like islands. The rocks are rough and uncarved, quite wild when you focus closely on them, but don’t fill much of the space. It is a place stripped practically bare, much more empty than full. Distances between the groups can seem vast, even cosmic, the dark punctuation of the rocks a heavenly constellation. The sand is more prosaically likened to clouds from which mountain tops poke up. Ryoan, in the name of the temple, means ‘Dragon Peace’; the rocks are also described as a tigress and her cubs swimming across a river. Maybe all these narratives that translate rocks and sand into something else are weak-minded efforts to get over the discomfort of an assertion of pointlessness that is at the same time inexplicably beautiful. The wall draws a clear line round the experience and says the random grouping forms a whole, but the parts will always look like fragments. You might come to accept that the fragments make sense or that the disturbance can be tolerated, even enjoyed, but you cannot escape entirely from the feeling that something is out of place. The most wonderful interpretation of Ryoan-ji known to me occurs rather late in a film by Yasujiro Ozu called Late Spring in English. The father (a widower) and the uncle of the main character (a daughter who cannot bring herself to leave the nest) sit for a long time in front of the stones without speaking, and then discuss the question of the daughter’s marriage. The distances between the stones correspond to the distance between even the closest human beings. They convey this with a soothing remoteness but without fudging; they are immovable; there are truths we cannot argue with or change. No one says anything like this, but the camera looks at the two men’s backs and then at the rocks standing there, and the stones are momentarily individuals enduring their lots, a fleeting perception from which we soon turn away.”

Robert Harbison, Ruins and Fragments: Tales of Loss and Rediscovery


Kyoto, Ryoan-ji

The central symbol of the Zen garden is the stone. For Jung, it signified “something permanent that can never be lost or dissolved, something eternal that some have compared to the mystical experience of God within one’s own soul;” for Cirlot it is “the first solid form of the creative rhythm —the sculpture of essential movement, and the petrified music of creation.” Stones are pure and perfect in their simplicity, yet powerful, mysterious and inscrutable like the gods.


Abraham Bosse, “Geometric Garden”

In Shinto the purified places where spirits or gods gathered were called “niwa” – a word which means “garden.” Spiritual purification, a return to soulful simplicity, seems to be a unifying idea behind all Eastern gardens. At last that was the impression I got from an exhibition dedicated to the history of gardens, which I have seen recently ( An inscription next to an installation dedicated to a well-known Korean g reads:

“Yang Sanbo became disillusioned with politics at the imperial court and retreated to his father’s country estate, where he made himself a garden. Called a Hermit’s Garden, it is surrounded by a bamboo forest. Through the middle of it, a mountain stream crashes down over a rock. Its Korean name Saswaewon means ‘the garden in which the spirit is refreshingly cleansed just as bamboo leaves are cleansed by the rain of a thunderstorm.’”

The following video shows the garden’s beauty:

Ruth Ammann, a Jungian analyst, in her book dedicated to a psychological meaning of gardens, traces the roots of the word to the Indo-Germanic word “ghordo” – fence, enclosure, stockade, hence denoting a fenced-in or enclosed area. She marvels at a coincidence:

“Incidentally, ‘paradise’ has the same meaning, originating from the Old Iranian words ‘pairi’ (enclose, surround) and ‘daeza’ (wall). Thus, paradise is first of all a place or site surrounded by a wall. However, it encloses a particularly sacred place, namely the Garden of Eden, the garden of bliss.”


“The Garden of Earthly Delights (by Hieronymus Bosch) mimics the physical form of a sacred image and presents religious content, but its extraordinary central panel looks like nothing else in this world. When closed, the triptych presents a grisaille view of creation as it happens, formless void taking form beneath the crystal sphere of the firmament, moved by God, encased in his own tiny bubble in a space beyond the universe, as he holds open the book that contains the text of universal history. The plants and geological shapes brewing beneath the glassy dome of heaven are fat and swollen, bursting as Thomas Aquinas might have it, with their potential to come into being. When this double panel of amorphous forms is opened, a universe crowded with figures is revealed in a burst of color. The left-handed panel of the open triptych shows Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a Christlike God joining them in marriage. … Behind the First Couple, crazily fertile plants sprout gigantic shoots in improbable pastel colors, carrying out God’s injunction to be fruitful and multiply. The spotted cat carrying a mouse in its teeth in the left foreground, like the lion attacking a stag in the distance, is usually interpreted, like the serpent that coils discreetly around a tree in the middle ground of the panel, as an indication that evil is already present in Creation. But the book of Genesis never specifies that the animals God created in the Garden behaved otherwise than the animals we know; instead, we read that ‘God saw that it was good.’ The cat is being a good cat, doing what a cat is made to do, and so is the lion.” Quoted from “The Mystery of Hieronymus Bosch,” Ingrid D. Rowland, The New York review of Books, August 18, 2016 issue

At its root, a garden and a paradise are one and the same thing. Ammann points out that the garden is enclosed and bounded on the horizontal plane, but it is open on a vertical plane, that is, “unbounded toward the sky and the depths of the earth.” It connects heaven and earth, the mundane changeability with the eternal permanence. The existence of the fence makes a garden akin to a hermetically sealed alchemical vessel. It is a receptacle, where the raw “materia prima” of the chaotic nature is transformed and cultivated through the gardener’s dedication, hard work and respect for nature and its creative divinity. “Half a proper gardener’s work is done upon his knees,” wrote Kipling in his poem “The Glory of the Garden.”


Both in the East and the West, our ancestors performed sacred land-taking rituals, which, as Ammann writes, placed “the garden or the enclosed plot of ground under the protection and mercy of a godhead that represented much greater power than that available to any individual.” The gardener is responsible for attending to and nurturing his or her garden, but its ultimate prospering may in fact lie beyond the gardener’s power. That brings to mind the concept of “borrowed scenery” used by East Asian Garden designers. It involved incorporating background landscape, such as mountains or a lake, into the composition of a garden. Perhaps it is worth remembering that the whole garden is “on loan” from the mighty nature, which may claim it back at any moment. How wild should the garden be is a matter of individual taste. I cannot decide whether I prefer the wilder English garden or the geometric grace of the French one.


Albrecht Dürer, he risen Christ shows himself to Mary Magdalene as a gardener

There is a beautiful line in The Song of Songs: “My sister, dear bride, you are a sequestered garden, a sealed fountain, an enclosed spring.” This line gave birth to the medieval concept of the Hortus Conclusus, a garden strictly shielded from the outside world, which was associated with the Virgin Mary. But perhaps the bride from the Song of Songs could also be interpreted as Mary Magdalene, the first witness of the resurrection, who mistook the risen Christ for a gardener. Or perhaps he chose to show himself as a gardener to her. In broader terms, the soul (anima) seems to have a lot of affinities with the symbolism of the garden. Saint Teresa of Avila compared a soul to a garden. Gardens are certainly places where the soul finds nourishment at the intersection of nature and culture. Whenever I stroll through a beautiful garden, I always have a feeling that it is a place conjured by my imagination, that it will disappear if I close my eyes. In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo talks to Kublai Khan in Kublai’s garden. At one point he muses:

“Perhaps this garden exists only in the shadow of our lowered eyelids. … Perhaps the terraces of this garden overlook only the lake of our mind.”


Detail from an illustration for the French translation of La Teseida (1460) by Boccaccio, via


Ruth Ammann, The Enchantment of Gardens: A Psychological Approach

Juan Eduardo Cirlot, The Dictionary of Symbols

Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols


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Krishnamurti on Strength

strength_med_c (1)

Strength, tarot revisioned by Leigh J. McCloskey, via

“Everyone in the world is concerned with the search for that Truth which will satisfy him eternally, but in that search each one contends against another; and hence there is confusion, struggle and pain. They lack the certainty of purpose which will determine their course through life and so rely on another for their comfort, well-being, and understanding.

Because they admit that they are weak, because they maintain that they cannot stand without the support of another, they have been given crutches that will support them momentarily, instead of developing their own strength to go forward in search of the pure waters of Truth.

If you would find that Truth you must put aside all those things upon which you have leaned for support and look within for that everlasting spring. It cannot be brought to you through any outward channel.

In search of the Truth that shall sustain, uphold, and guide you, you have looked outwards and sought for it objectively, and thus have been lost in the shadows of manifestation. To find that spring of Truth you must look within, you must purify your heart and mind.

You say to me, ‘You are different; you have attained, and because you have attained, these comforts are unnecessary for you.’ No, friend, because you desire to attain, these things are unnecessary for you. Because I have leaned on crutches to support me, I know the uselessness of crutches. When you have passed along a dangerous narrow path, and you have often slipped, and had to climb again, surely you would say to your fellow travelers, ‘Beware of these things, do not walk on the edge, walk rather in the middle, keeping your balance, and do not be led away, so that you fall over the precipice.’

Because I know that your comforts only weaken you, I tell you to throw them away. Because I have been entangled in complexities, because I have been held in bondage, I urge you to escape into freedom. Because I have found a simple and direct path, I would tell you of it. If I had relied for my happiness on others, if I had been caught up in grandiloquent phrases, or in the worship of images, or persons, in the shadows of temples, I should not have found that Truth which I sought. Not in the worship of externals do you find the spring of Truth, but in the adoration of Truth itself.

Because you imagine that without all these complications of beliefs and systematized thoughts which are called religions, you cannot find Truth, that very thought is preventing you from finding it. If you would climb to a great height, if you would go far, you do not carry on your shoulders great burdens. In like manner, if you would attain liberation you do not cling to the burdens which you have accumulated throughout the ages. You must put aside those things which you have gained and reach out for further understanding.

In search of the waters that shall quench your thirst, if you are wise, you will not act in haste. Through haste you find nothing. By patient understanding, by careful watching that you may not be caught up in things that are trivial, non-essential, you find that which you seek. It is difficult for you to realize that your own understanding dwells within, that your happiness lies within yourself, because you have been accustomed to look to objective things for your understanding and your Truth.

Invite doubt; for doubt is as a precious ointment: though it burns, it shall heal greatly and by inviting doubt, by putting aside those things which you have understood, by transcending your acquirements, your understanding, you will find the Truth.”

From “Life in Freedom”


Strength, Visconti di Modrone tarot (15th century)

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Mary Magdalene: the Treasure in the Heart

I.“There is something special about their relationship, something not simply reducible to teacher and devotee, and all attempts to hedge and prevaricate about its nature merely render its energy more palpable. The unspoken bond between them reverberates through even the highly muted accounts in the canonical gospels, while the Nag Hammadi gospels make no bones about naming this energy for what it is. …

With her come the cadences of gentleness and forgiveness, the sounding of that core vibration of love.”

Cynthia Bourgeault, “The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity”

II.“Finally at the heart of the Christian mystery there are only two people; this is the mystery of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.”

Michael Haag, “The Quest for Mary Magdalene”

III. “I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to Him, Lord I saw you today in a vision. He answered and said to me, Blessed are you that you did not waver at the sight of Me. For where the heart is there is the treasure.”

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene


Gustave Moreau, “Pieta”

In December 1945 a magnificent archaeological discovery was made, as it often happens entirely by accident: an Arab peasant dug out a jar containing papyrus books bound in leather. They were the Gnostic Gospels, buried in the desert by early church authorities, ready to see the light of day only in the twentieth century. Although they were written around the time or possibly a little earlier than the four canonical gospels, they were deemed so dangerous that somebody decided to make them disappear for centuries. They unveiled a hidden face of Christianity, namely its connections with Eastern mystical traditions, and a crucial role of women in early church; furthermore, they criticized the concept of virgin birth and bodily resurrection as stemming from a tendency to misconstrue what is symbolic and inner as literal and outer. But arguably the most sensational content of those apocryphal texts was related to the role of Mary Magdalene. The shocking lines of the Gospel of Philip (described as a Tantric gospel) read:

“. . . the companion of the [Savior is] Mary Magdalene. [But Christ loved] her more than [all] the disciples, and used to kiss her [often] on her [mouth]. The rest of [the disciples were offended] . . . They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’ The Savior answered and said to them, ‘Why do I not love you as (I love) her?’”

Some Biblical scholars have argued, however, that this is nothing new, as the extraordinarily special role of Mary Magdalene can be gleaned from the canonical gospels if read devoid of years of orthodox prejudice.  Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest and a mystic, lays a convincing claim that the four canonical gospels, if read inquisitively, make a strong case for Mary Magdalene’s special role. She was the first witness of the resurrection and the first one to announce it in public. Before Jesus died she anointed him with priceless perfume that she brought in an alabaster jar. By performing this ritual she recognized him as the Messiah (the Anointed One):

“Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”

John 12:3

Mary Magdalen 1926 by Eric Gill 1882-1940

Eric Gill, “Mary Magdalene”

Moreover, all four gospels portray her in the role of “apostle to the apostles,” not only the first witness to the resurrection, but the first to announce it publicly. Bourgeault makes a firm claim that she was first among the apostles, as the one who fully got the message and was able to reach a spiritual realization unavailable to the other followers. She is consistently portrayed as the one who “knows”, as the one who has reached the true gnosis:

“It is not just a knowing from the head; it’s a knowing with the entire being. The Hebrew term which it translates is da’ath, which is also the word used for “lovemaking” (as in “David entered Bathsheba’s tent and ‘knew’ her”). Gnosis speaks of a complete, integral knowing uniting body, mind, and heart—and by its very largeness connecting the seen and the unseen.”


The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, via Wikipedia

True Gnosis comes from the heart; it is as much of the body as of the mind. According to Bourgeault, the central message of Jesus, which was profoundly understood and embodied by Mary Magdalene, is a blending of “incarnational and Platonic elements,”  “a profoundly incarnational, warm-hearted, and hopeful path, where the realms support and interpenetrate each other and divine fullness is accessed simply by keeping the heart in natural alignment with its invisible prototype.” Bourgeault goes on to suggest that early Christianity was not in the least bit ascetic. Most of the Apostles were married, including St Peter, the first Pope, and it just stands to reason that so was Jesus. He was certainly at ease with women, contrary to the customs and taboos of his time. In a famous passage in the Gospel of John, he speaks with a woman from Samaria drawing water from a well. He converses with to her on equal terms though he is a male Jew, which for his contemporaries offered enough reasons to ignore her. But his message was about openness and inclusiveness. Further, all that Jesus taught seems to contradict the idea of celibacy, which, as Bourgeault points out, is connected with “conserving, collecting, concentrating,” its shadow side being avarice, storing up, withholding, not sharing of one’s essence. Bourgeault concludes:

“By contrast, the path that Jesus himself seems to teach and model in his life, and particularly in his death, is not a storing up but a complete pouring out. His pranic energy is quickly depleted; on the cross, as all four gospel accounts affirm, he does not hold out even until sunset, but quickly “gives up the ghost.” Shattered and totally spent, he simply disappears into his death. The core icon of the Christian faith, the watershed moment from which it all emerges, is not enstatic but ecstatic—love completely poured out, expended, squandered.”


Rembrandt van Rijn, “Christ and the Woman of Samaria”

In his fascinating book The Quest For Mary Magdalene, the historian Michael Haag carefully analyzes all New Testament passages where she appears. He offers an illuminating analysis of her name, which means “the migdal, the tower, the beacon, the saving light in the darkness.” Jesus was fond of giving special names to his followers, and thus he called Simon Peter the rock upon which he will build his church (Greek petros – rock), and Mary Magdalene he named the tower that shines in darkness.


William Blake, “The Last Supper”

She was an independent, perhaps aristocratic woman of means, who chose to support Jesus and his movement. According to the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark, Mary Magdalene may have been a sister of Lazarus, at least this is the conclusion drawn by Haag in his book. Haag writes that together with her brother she may have been helping finance Jesus’s ministry and opened their home in Bethany to him and his followers. It is important to point out that nowhere in any of the gospels is she referred to as sinful or a prostitute. She was made into one by Pope Gregory I in a sermon he delivered in the 6th century. This is clarified very carefully by Haag:

“MARY MAGDALENE FIRST APPEARS in the chronology of Jesus’ life in Galilee where she is travelling with Jesus as he proclaims the kingdom of God. ‘And the twelve were with him’, writes Luke in his gospel, ‘and certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities’. Among these women three are mentioned by name, and the first is Mary Magdalene, ‘out of whom went seven devils.’

There is a popular misconception, which was first promoted by the Church in the early medieval period, that Mary Magdalene’s condition had something to do with sin. But this is plainly not true. Wherever Jesus is driving out devils the gospels are clear that he is healing people of their illnesses, mental and physical.”

Was there conspiracy intended to write Mary Magdalene out of early history of Christianity? Admittedly, the new hierarchy was becoming increasingly male, and soon women were banned from being ordained as priests. It seems that old prejudices against women were not ready to go away, despite what Jesus had taught and practiced. St Paul, the apostle who never met the historical Jesus, completely ignores Mary Magdalene in all of his fourteen books included in the New Testament. He does not mention Jesus’s mother, either. According to Haag, Paul chose to ignore the historical Jesus and focused entirely on spreading the new faith with its main message of Resurrection.

But Mary Magdalene’s name lived on in legends. In the Middle Ages she was called the light-bearer,and she was especially venerated in France, where she was believed to have travelled after Jesus’s death. Vézelay in Burgundy has a Romanesque cathedral dedicated to her, Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume in Provence a cave where she supposedly spent years repenting her sins and performing miracles. The French chapter was made famous thanks to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, which was based on the famous book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. It claimed that Mary Magdalene’s children with Jesus intermarried with the noble French families, leading to the birth of the Merovingian dynasty.


Le Nain Brothers, “Mary Magdalene in Meditation”

She continued to fascinate the greatest minds of the Renaissance. Next to the famous Last Supper, which may feature her as a companion of Jesus, a portrait of Mary Magdalene has been identified as done by Leonardo da Vinci as well:

“This bare-breasted Mary Magdalene has recently been identified as a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci, done in about 1515. The exposed breasts associate her with the goddess Venus and also suggest that she is preparing to consummate her marriage. She is entirely frank about her sensuality; her smile is a promise, and soon her fingers will let her robe fall away entirely. There is not an ounce of sin or repentance in this Mary Magdalene.”


Leonardo da Vinci (?), “Mary Magdalene”

For the Gnostics, Mary Magdalene, “Our Lady in Red,” played a very central role. They believed that she reached salvation through gnosis, which is, in the words of Tau Malachi, “the product of a direct spiritual or mystical experience of the Truth that illuminates and liberates the soul.” While Christ embodied the Logos, she was the Sophia. There exists a Gnostic legend in which Mary Magdalene is promised as a bride to a wealthy Babylonian merchant. On her way to Babylon she gets raped and sold to slavery and prostitution. She is trapped in Babylon. As Bourgeault summarizes:

“After a time she managed to regain her outer freedom, but inwardly she was still held hostage by hatred, rage, and darkness. At length a dream came to her telling her that she must return to the land of her birth and seek out the Anointed One, who would deliver her. She left immediately for the Holy Land, crossed the Jordan River, and found her way to the place where he was teaching.”


Hrana Janto, “Goddess Sophia”

According to Malachi, the Gnostics believe that one of the demons that possessed her soul at those dark times was Lilith, the first wife of Adam, who refused to be submissive to him. Malachi writes:

“When the Lord banished the seven demons from Magdalene, he did not banish Lilith. Rather, receiving the Holy Bride, he redeemed Lilith and Eve, and in Lady Mary, womanhood was restored to its rightful place, for in her was the Divine fullness of the Supernal Woman. … She is the consort of God and mistress of the dragon. In her holy breath is the power of creation and destruction.”

Her feast in the Catholic church is on 22 July, which is when the Sun enters the sign of its rulership – Leo. A woman of vision, inspired directly by Jesus, she bypassed all hierarchy and still continues to shatter all dogmas. She seems to combined wisdom with the gentleness and compassion of love and the fierceness of wild passion. As Sophia (Anima Mundi – the World Soul) she stands as an intermediary between the upper world and the lower world, fueling the flames of the inner vision of the heart.


Sebastiano del Piombo, Mary Magdalene and other women at the foot of the cross (detail). She came there to anoint his dead body, which only closest relatives were allowed to do.


BBC Radio 4 In Our Time – Mary Magdalene

Cynthia Bourgeault, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity, Kindle edition

Michael Haag, The Quest for Mary Magdalene, Kindle edition

Tau Malachi, St Mary Magdalene: The Gnostic Tradition of the Holy Bride, Kindle edition

Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels

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Giulio Camillo and His Theatre of Memory


Giulio Camillo was a sixteenth-century Italian philosopher, most notable for his idea of the “Theatre of Memory.” The following passage comes from chapter 6 of The Art of Memory by Yates Francis (the embedded quotes are by Camillo himself):

“The Theatre rises in seven grades or steps, which are divided by seven gangways representing the seven planets. The student of it is to be as it were a spectator before whom are placed the seven measures of the world ‘in spettaculo’, or in a theatre. And since in ancient theatres the most distinguished persons sat in the lowest seats, so in this Theatre the greatest and most important things will be in the lowest place. That there would be no room for an audience to sit between these enormous and lavishly decorated gangway gates does not matter. For in Camillo’s Theatre the normal function of the theatre is reversed. There is no audience sitting in the seats watching a play on the stage. The solitary ‘spectator’ of the Theatre stands where the stage would be and looks towards the auditorium, gazing at the images on the seven times seven gates on the seven rising grades.

Looking at our plan, we can see that the whole system of the Theatre rests basically upon seven pillars, the seven pillars of Solomon’s House of Wisdom. Solomon in the ninth chapter of Proverbs says that wisdom has built herself a house and has founded it on seven pillars. By these columns, signifying most stable eternity, we are to understand the seven Sephiroth of the supercelestial world, which are the seven measures of the fabric of the celestial and inferior worlds, in which are contained the Ideas of all things both in the celestial and in the inferior worlds. Camillo is speaking of the three worlds of the Cabalists, as Pico della Mirandola had expounded them; the supercelestial world of the Sephiroth or divine emanations; the middle celestial world of the stars; the subcelestial or elemental world. The same ‘measures’ run through all three worlds though their manifestations are different in each. As Sephiroth in the supercelestial world they are here equated with the Platonic ideas. Camillo is basing his memory system on first causes, on the Sephiroth, on the Ideas; these are to be the ‘eternal places’ of his memory.

…his memory building is to represent the order of eternal truth; in it the universe will be remembered through organic association of all its parts with their underlying eternal order.

Each of the six upper grades has a general symbolic meaning represented by the same image on each of its seven gates. We have shown this on the plan by giving the name of the general image for a grade at the top of all its gates, together with the characters of the planets, indicating to which planetary series each gate belongs.

…the second grade of the Theatre is really the first day of creation, imaged as the banquet given by Ocean to the gods, the emerging elements of creation, here in their simple unmixed form.

The third grade will have depicted on each of its gates a Cave, which we call the Homeric Cave to differentiate it from that which Plato describes in his Republic. In the cave of the Nymphs described in the ‘Odyssey,’ nymphs were weaving and bees were going in and out, which activities signify, says Camillo, the mixtures of the elements to form the elementata ‘and we wish that each of the seven caves may conserve the mixtures and elementata belonging to it in accordance with the nature of its planet.’ The Cave grade thus represents a further stage in creation, when the elements are mixed to form created things or elementata.

 With the fourth grade we reach the creation of man, or rather the interior man, his mind and soul. … this grade (has) as the leading image to be depicted on all its gates the Gorgon Sisters, the three sisters described by Hesiod who had only one eye between them…

 On the fifth grade, the soul of man joins his body. This is signified under the image of Pasiphe and the Bull which is the leading image on the gates of this grade. ‘For she (Pasiphe) being enamoured of the Bull signifies the soul which, according to the Platonists, falls into a state of desiring the body.’ The soul in its downward journey from on high, passing through all the spheres, changes its pure igneous vehicle into an aerial vehicle through which it is enabled to become joined to the gross corporeal form. This junction is symbolised by the union of Pasiphe with the Bull.

‘The sixth grade of the Theatre has on each of the gates of the planets, the Sandals, and other ornaments, which Mercury puts on when he goes to execute the will of the gods, as the poets feign.

‘The seventh grade is assigned to all the arts, both noble and vile, and above each gate is Prometheus with a lighted torch.’ The image of Prometheus who stole the sacred fire and taught men knowledge of the gods and of all the arts and sciences thus becomes the topmost image, at the head of the gates on the highest grade of the Theatre. The Prometheus grade includes not only all the arts and sciences, but also religion, and law.

Thus Camillo’s Theatre represents the universe expanding from First Causes through the stages of creation. First is the appearance of the simple elements from the waters on the Banquet grade; then the mixture of the elements in the Cave; then the creation of man’s mens in the image of God on the grade of the Gorgon Sisters; then the union of man’s soul and body on the grade of Pasiphe and the Bull; then the whole world of man’s activities; his natural activities on the grade of the Sandals of Mercury; his arts and sciences, religion and laws on the Prometheus grade.

The Theatre is thus a vision of the world and of the nature of things seen from a height, from the stars themselves and even from the supercelestial founts of wisdom beyond them.

Though the Ficinian influence is everywhere present in Camillo’s Theatre, it is in the great central series of the Sun that it is most apparent. Most of Ficino’s ideas on the sun are set out in his De sole, though they also appear in his other works. … On the Banquet grade of the Sun series, Camillo places the image of a pyramid, representing the Trinity. … Camillo’s arrangement is completely Ficinian in spirit, in its suggestion of a hierarchy descending from the Sun as God to other forms of light and heat in lower spheres, transmitting the spiritus in his rays.

The Theatre presents a remarkable transformation of the art of memory. The rules of the art are clearly discernible in it. Here is a building divided into memory places on which are memory images. … The religious intensity associated with mediaeval memory has turned in a new and bold direction. The mind and memory of man is now ‘divine’, having powers of grasping the highest reality through a magically activated imagination. The Hermetic art of memory has become the instrument in the formation of a Magus, the imaginative means through which the divine microcosm can reflect the divine macrocosm, can grasp its meaning from above, from that divine grade to which his ‘mens’ belongs. The art of memory has become an occult art, a Hermetic secret.”


From Astrological Mandalas by A.T. Mann: the sign Gemini imagined as Memory Theatre (more at

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On the Permeability of Borders

Although scholars differ in their estimation of the number of words and phrases that Shakespeare introduced into English, they all agree that he transformed the language tremendously. He referred to himself as “a man on fire for new words.” As Melvyn Bragg wrote in The Adventure of English,

“Comparisons are entertaining: the King James Bible of 1611 used about ten thousand different words. The average educated man today, more than four hundred years on from Shakespeare with the advantage of the hundreds of thousands of new words that have come in since his time, has working vocabulary of less than half that of Shakespeare.”

In the world in which the tendency is to close borders and build walls, languages know no barriers; quite the contrary, they are in flux and rather permeable, no matter the efforts of regulatory bodies. Shakespeare’s language borrowed heavily from French, Spanish and Latin, at the same time travelling freely across the social strata, using the language of the court, street slang as well as his own dialect. He would bend and break rules and, as the linguist David Crystal put it, dared to do things with language.

Naturally, there were those who opposed the influx of alien elements into the English language, but history has taught us that they lost. A beautiful poem by Wislawa Szymborska called “Psalm” comes to mind:

“How leaky are the borders of man-made states!

How many clouds float over them scot-free,

how much desert sand sifts from  country to country,

how many mountain pebbles roll onto foreign turf

in provocative leaps!


Need I cite each and every bird as it flies,

or alights, as now, on the lowered gate?

Even if it be a sparrow—its tail is abroad,

thought its beak is still home. As if that weren’t enough—it keeps fidgeting!


Out of countless insects I will single out the ant,

who, between the guard’s left and right boots,

feels unobliged to answer questions of origin and destination.


If only this whole mess could be seen at once in detail

on every continent!

Isn’t that a privet on the opposite bank

smuggling its hundred-thousandth leaf across the river?


Who else but the squid, brazenly long-armed,

would violate the sacred territorial waters?


How can we speak of any semblance of order

when we can’t rearrange the stars

to know which one  shines for whom?


Not to mention the reprehensible spreading of fog!

Or the dusting of the steppe over its entire range

as though it weren’t split in two! Or voices carried over accommodating air waves:

summoning squeals and suggestive gurgles!


Only what’s human can be truly alien.

The rest is mixed forest, undermining moles and wind.”

Translated by Joanna Trzeciak, via


Georgia O’Keeffe, “Starlight Night, Lake Georgia”


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