The World Tree In Classical Shamanism

Karen Kelly
January 1996

The World Tree is a common image in accounts of shamanic experiences from both traditional societies and in modern shamanic groups. The World Tree forms an integral part of the shamanic cosmos, linking as it does the world of humanity with the world of the spirits. Its appearance in numerous tales of shamanic ritual and its depiction in the shamansí power objects both reflect its importance to the shamans themselves.

The World Tree and Shamanic Cosmology

The universe of the shaman can be broadly divided into three zones - the Upper, Middle and Lower worlds, or heaven, earth and the underworld. The World Tree is the bridge that connects these three worlds; it is the axis mundi about which the universe of the shaman extends. And it is on the Tree that the spirits pass from one world to another.

Probably the most familiar example of the World Tree to a European audience is Yggdrasil, the great ash tree found in Nordic mythology. Yggdrasil grows between Asgard, the realm of the gods, Midgard, the realm of humanity and Hel, the realm of the dead. Odin, the Nordic god of death and wisdom lives in Asgard at the top of the Tree. Each day his ravens Hugin and Munin fly out across the realms of the Tree and bring back knowledge to Odin of what happens in the lands below. This is a classic example of a World Tree and its ìuseî by a shaman and his spirit helpers.

It is clear that in this Nordic example, Yggdrasil lies at the centre of the world, indeed of the universe. This is an essential feature of the World Tree and can be found in numerous shamansí accounts of their encounters with the spirit world. One of the most famous of these is Nicholas Black Elkís vision which is the mission statement of the Flowering Tree Federation. ìAnd I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of the many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the centre grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father, and I saw that it was holy.î

So the World Tree is the centre of the world, but in a typical piece of shamanic paradox, the centre of the world is also everywhere. It is this thinking that allows the shaman to know that the birch tree located outside his door is the World Tree. ìRepresentationsî of the World Tree often feature in shamanic rituals. In shamanic ritual or performance, the shaman operates in an altered state of consciousness with one foot in both realities. In this state, the ìrepresentationî becomes the World Tree in fact and the place the ritual is taking place in becomes the centre of the world.

Nepalese shamans use song and drumming to reach a trance state in which they see a certain pine tree out in the forest. They then send other members of the village out to the location they saw, to cut down the tree, strip it of its branches (except for a few pieces of greenery at the top) and bring it back into the village. There it is placed upright in a hole and as a focus in ritual initiation.

Wallace Black Elk, in a recent article describing Kablayaís vision of the Sun Dance, speaks about the tree which stands at the centre of the ceremony (about wehich the dancers dance) . ìIn this new rite which I have just received, one of the standing people has been chosen to be at our centre; he is the wagachun (the cottonwood); he will be our centre, and also the people, for the tree represents the way of the people. Does it not stretch from earth here to heaven there?î In the Sun Dance, The cottonwood tree found by the medicine person is brought back to the Sun Dance site, stripped of all but its topmost branches and set up in a way which closely resembles the Nepalese shamansí tree described above.

So in bringing the World Tree into the village, the shaman identifies his community as being the centre of the universe ( whihc is of course everywhere) and reinforces the communityís links to the spirit world. In this role he is re-affirming the community as central to the lives of the people of which it is made up, but also as part of the greater cosmos of which the human world is but one part.

The World Tree as Bridge to The Land of Spirits

The World Tree is also a bridge between worlds and is the classic gateway used by both the shaman and his spirit helpers to travel from one world to another.

In Chile the shamanesses of the Mapuche tribe shamanise from the top of carved ladders which are topped with leafy branches and a sculpted head. In some parts of the world, spirit ladders are interchangeable with the World Tree. From the top of the ladder the shamaness begins to beat her drum, seeking to visit heaven and to carry her peopleís prayer to the Mother-Father of all things. When she falls into trance, her spirit flies free and her body falls to the ground to be caught in a blanket by the villagers.

One of the gateways I personally use between the worlds is a great silver birch tree, whose roots I can climb down to the shores of the River of Death and whose upper boughs lie in the realm of Sky Woman, far above. Sometimes when I do healing work I see the birch tree in the centre of the room I am working on and see my spirit teacher in the form of a great white owl perched in its branches.

In acting as a bridge between the realities of the ordinary world and the worlds of spirit the Tree reflects the role of the shaman as intermediary between men and the spirit world. This is one of the most important parts of the shamanís job: to use his knowledge of the spirit world to help human beings in their interaction with spirits, be they spirits of illness or animal spirits in the hunt. Similarly, he also helps the spirits by speaking for them in this reality. In this way, the World Tree might be considered a non-ordinary aspect of the shaman him or herself. We shall return to this concept at the close of this article.

Living on the World Tree

So the World Tree is a path for the spirits between the worlds. But it is also part of the spirit world itself and has its own inhabitants. Stories tell of numerous animal and bird spirits living in or on the tree.

Nordic myth is rich with stories of animal spirits that are associated with Yggdrasil. We have already spoken of Odinís ravens. Ellis Davidson gives the following account of the Treeís other inhabitants, chiefly derived from Snorri Sturleson. ìThe tree was continually threatened, even as it grew and flourished, by the living creatures that preyed on it. On the topmost bough sat an eagle, with a hawk perched on its forehead: the same eagle, perhaps, of whom it is said that the flapping of its wings caused the winds in the world of men. At the root of the tree lay a great serpent, with scores of lesser snakes, and these gnawed continually at Yggdrasil. The serpent was at war with the eagle, and a nimble squirrel ran up and down the tree, carrying insults from one to the other. Horned creatures, harts and goats, devoured the branches and tender shoots of the tree, leaping at it from every side.î

In Siberia, the tree is widely reported to be the home of bird spirits, which in that part of the world are very closely associated with a shamanís power. Among the Yakut, the initiation of a shaman is marked by his soul being carried off by the Mother Bird of Prey to her nest in the Tree deep in the underworld whilst his body is being dismembered by spirits of disease and sickness. Other tribes report that tehre are the nests of eagles and ravens amongst the Treeís branches.

In an interesting extension of this some Siberian accounts tell of human souls being nurtured on the Tree. The Tungus shaman Semyonov Semyon interviewed in 1925 reported: ìUp above there is a certain tree, a tree where the souls of shamans are reared before they attain their powers. And on the boughs of this tree are nests in which the souls lie and are attended. The name of the tree is Tuuru. The higher the nest in the tree, the stronger the shaman will be who is raised in it, the more he will know and the further he will see. ì

So whilst the Tree is a gateway between the Worlds, it is also a world of its own with its own inhabitants and powers. Many of these animals are closely connected to the spirits that lend their power to shamans. Where the Eagle is said to be one of the main sources of a shamanís power, the Eagle is found in the World Tree. Where serpents are important, they coil around the Tree. This link between the inhabitants of the
World Tree and a shamanís power is reinforced by the Tungus story recounted above.

Working With the World Tree

As well as bringing direct representations of the World Tree into the village, shamans often depict it on their sacred objects. Sacred objects are again a bridge between this world and the other - bringing power from non-ordinary to ordinary reality. Throughout Siberia the shamanís costume is covered with images of his spirit helpers. There are several examples which depict the World Tree in a central position.

Drums too often carry the image of the World Tree. Semyon, the Tungus shaman quoted above, also spoke about his drum thus: ìThe rim of a shamanís drum is cut from a living larch. The larch is left alive and standing in recollection and honour of the tree Tuuru, where the soul of the shaman was raised.î As well as being made from the wood of the Tree, drums are also often painted with images of the World Tree. Sami drums tend to have the universe of the shaman painted onto them, and in a central position can often be seen a tree. Since the shamanís drum is made from the wood of the Tree and bears its image, the shaman, through drumming, projects his soul to the vicinity of the Tree.

In Celtic lore a maiden bearing a silver branch meets with Bran Mac Febal and describes the Land Of Women which lies in the far West. The silver branch was one of the insignia of poets in Ireland, however it in some ways functions like the drum, calling the hero to the otherworld.

The Tree of Initiation and Fate

The World Tree is closely associated with shamanic initiation. Stories of shamanic apprentices climbing trees can be found throughout accounts of shamanic experiences from Taisha Abelarís accounts of hanging in a tree in Mexico to Siberian stories of climbing the World Tree to attend a school for shamans run in heaven by the ancestors.

Probably the most famous account of initiation among the branches of the World tree is the story of Odinís hanging in the branches of Yggdrasil in his search for the runes from the Poetic Edda:

I know that I hung on the windswept Tree
Through nine full nights
I was struck with a spear
And given to Odin
Myself offered up to myself.
Up on the Tree that no man knows
Whither its deep roots run
None aided me by food or drink
And down below I gazed
I took up the runes
Screaming I took them
Then I fell back

Odinís ordeal on the Tree is clearly close to accounts of vision quests in North America. Indeed sitting out in Nature as a way of seeking spiritual power is also known in Scandinavia. The avoidance of food and drink for an extended period is a common way of opening yourself to power.

I can also talk about the power of the Tree of initiation from my own experience. A couple of years ago I decided to sit out in a tree by Raven Lake in Denmark. I was that child at school who was told to just mouth the words and not to sing. I felt that it was time to reclaim my voice. At dusk I walked down to the Tree, made a circle of stones around its base and climbed up onto a long limb and leaned back against the trunk. As night settled around me, the forest and lake were thick with presences and it grew cold. After a while I started to sing and I sang every song in the book. And at last I sang the Ghost Dance song - I Circle Around. And as I sang I found my self flying up above the world through the branches of the World Tree, Raven flying with me. Me singing my journey. And that night, at the Well of Fate, I found my voice again. The next morning I sang my experiences in front of the whole circle. It was a powerful night, a night of initiation and of power.

Among the Gold Eskimos the climbing of a birch tree marks the high point of an apprenticeís initiation ceremony. The shamanic teacher climbs a birch tree and circles its trunk nine times. As he climbs, the shamanís soul ascends to the Upper World. Each circling of the Tree marks the passing of the shaman from one world to another and is described in story and song to those present at the ceremony below, including the apprentice. The shaman then returns and the apprentice and other initiates climb the Tree in turn.

An extension of the World Treeís Association with initiation is its link to fate and destiny. Amongst the roots of Yggdrasil is the spring of Urd where lies the cave of the Norns, who are the spirits who decide a manís fate. Eliade reports that amongst the Osmaili Turks the Tree has a million leaves, on each of which a human fate is written; each time a man dies, a leaf falls. I too often journey to a still pool amongst the Treeís roots to descry what is to come. It is in this still place, because of the potential bound up in the roots of the Tree, that I find I can do divinatory work most clearly.

We have already seen how the World Tree stands between the worlds, at the centre of the universe, and that it is associated with the animal spirits that share their power with the shaman. It is these characteristics that make the Tree a potent site for the shamanic initiation. It is a place that is between, and gateways and portals are always places of power, and it is this power of being between realities that the shaman takes up in his initiation.

The Death Of the Tree

If the World Tree is so closely linked to the shamanís power and to his position as intermediary between humanity and the spirit world, it is logical that injuries to the shaman and his community should be reflected in damage to the Tree.

This was brought home to me recently when I was doing some healing work for a close friend, who has herself been doing shamanic work for some time, but was feeling disempowered. When I entered the otherworld I found a lightning-blasted Tree surrounded by thorns and brambles which at first prevented me from drawing too close. And in the Treeís branches I saw an owl weeping tears of blood. Her alienation from her power was clearly reflected in the Tree. Since she dug up the brambles, and began to work with the injured Tree, this has started to shift.

The words of Nicholas Black Elk, in describing the damage done to his people by the white men: ìThere is no centre any longer and the sacred tree is dead.î In this it is clear that the Tree represents not only the shaman but also his community. If there are no longer links to the spirit world, there is no longer a Tree.


It is difficult, I think to talk of shamanic experience in terms of symbols and archetypes, these are not terms which would be used by the shamans themselves. But it is tempting to think of parallels between the shaman himself and the World Tree. Both are intermediaries between the worlds and linked to sources of power. One of my earliest teachings from my spirit teacher was that shamans should have their feet in the earth and their head in the heavens - a perfect description of the Tree. However I think it is the final words of Black Elk that reveal the nature of the link most clearly. Without a shaman, without a World Tree, humanity is cut off from the spirit world and I think we are far the poorer for it.

Written by Karen Kelly