The Golden Fruit Bearing Tree

Representations of the World Tree myth in Bulgarian folklore

The myth about the World Tree has been a part of the mythological paradigms of many peoples. But what is its place in Bulgarian folklore? How do Bulgarian folk tales, legends and songs recreate it? In Folk Studio today we shall bring you more about the magic that accompanies Man’s existence on this Earth. And you will listen also to wonderful Bulgarian folk songs that have ‘encoded’ the image of the World Tree, perceived also as the Tree of Knowledge, the Cosmic Tree or simply, the Tree of Life. In Bulgarian folklore it is most often referred to as “a golden fruit bearing tree”, as a “straight tree – tall and lean”, and its branches are ‘pure silver, dotted with golden bees”.

Everything that happens on Earth bears fruit in the heavenly world. The divine force has the power to transform earthly creations. This is what the mythological outlook of the Bulgarians on the world looks like in a nutshell. The World Tree, which is an ancient and enduring symbol of organized cosmic space, replicates the mentioned notion using the three-dimensional structure of the universe. The interaction between the three parts is constant, absolutely necessary and inevitable. The World Tree has three parts arranged along a vertical axis – the tree top, the tree trunk and the tree roots. The tree top symbolizes the ‘upper’ world, the trunk is the earthly existence, and the roots are the ‘under’ or ‘nether’ world. The tree branches reaching up to heaven are the domain of God, the saints and the angels.

It is there that the magic birds make their nests. The latter come in great varieties depending on the people. For example, the ancient Slavs believed it was the Firebird, with its beautiful feathers in very many colours, glowing like flames. The Firebird is the people’s herald of the divine will. It is the keeper of the magic apple – the fruit of life. The patterns of the traditional Bulgarian fabrics, carpets, jewels and stellae abound in images of World Trees, whose branches are heavy with swallows, roosters and peacocks. But most often the supernatural bird takes the shape of an eagle or a dove. In Bulgarian popular beliefs the eagle is the symbol of the heavens above and the light. It flies freely in the sky, and reaches the fountain of ‘live water’ that has the power to rejuvenate and heal. The eagle drinks from that water whenever he wishes and that is why he never grows old. According to the popular superstitions people must not touch eagles’ nests. In some of the Bulgarian magic folk tales the eagle manages to take the hero from the ‘nether’ to the ‘upper’ world, as well as heal the hero’s wounds with live water. In Bulgarian folk songs and legends the eagles make their nests on top of sycamore or oak trees, the tree species most often perceived as representations of the World Tree in the Bulgarian tradition.

The tree trunk is where the juices of life run their course, and it is an embodiment of the earthly existence, whereas the roots planted deep into the ground are the realm of the evil spirits and the demons. They are most often seen as snakes, various kinds of fish, otters or moles. Their harmful influence was avoided by the performance of special rituals that aimed to appease them.

The Bulgarian tradition has it that the logging or breaking of branches from century-old trees is absolutely forbidden. This holds true especially for the species that have become symbols of the World Tree. In the past people used to perform rituals in awe of mythical creatures, patron saints, etc. They also used to sacrifice animals under the magnificent tree tops but first they let the blood of the slaughtered animal to sink well into the roots of the tree.

The Christmas rituals contain vivid examples of the mythology of the World Tree. There are hundreds of fo9lk songs that sing praise to the eternal symbol of life. The tree is always golden, and the Young God climbs down its branches. In one folk song a lassie asks the tree, “Oh, thou tall and lean small tree, where hast thou grown, and hast thou become so tall, and so lean?” And the tree replies,

“I am, lassie, a golden tree,
A golden tree that bears much fruit:
I shalt grow tall to the heaven,
And I shalt dig mine roots deep into the ground,
Mine leaves shalt be like tiny pearls,
And mine blossoms shalt be all silver,
And I shalt bear golden fruit!
A Young God shalt climb down on me,
And He shalt give good gifts.”

The symbolic wedding banner and the best man’s tree are also considered as a small-scale replica of the World Tree. They are a mandatory part of the wedding ritual, and are crafted with the help of a special technique, and have a key role in the ritual itself, as it represents one of the most important transitions in one’s life. Descriptions of the World Tree are found even in some of the folk songs dedicated to Christian saints.

Vey often in Bulgarian folk tales, legends and songs characters from the Old and New Testament sit under a tree. Sometimes they dine there, but often they discuss important matters. The Holy Mother of God is also sitting under a tree, which grew up by itself, as if by some kind of magic. She is holding the baby Jesus in her arms, and is summoning the Twelve Apostles to baptize Him. But we can only guess that the lyrics of his folk song refer to the Mother of God, and her Son, the Young God.

The magnificent image of the World Tree has been used as a decoration to gold artifacts, metal objects and pottery. It is also present on exquisite woodcarvings, and embroideries that look as ‘untouched by a mortal hand”. This universal life-giving image is related in Bulgarian folklore to the eternal fight for supremacy between order and chaos - the same chaos that for many centuries had evoked a feeling of insecurity and fear. But Man never for once stopped looking for ‘allies’ in this ongoing battle.

English version by Radostin Zhelev