The truth of the tree; Do metaphor archetypes (proto-metaphors) exist?

Some words are very old in that they can be traced back over 3000 years or more. Sometimes the meaning is also preserved especially for words describing material things as opposed to concepts. Archetypes of these things exist such that an apple is recognized as an apple regardless of variation in shape, color or taste. What’s interesting is that metaphorical archetypes also seem to exist, and we can observe this in words with metaphorical connections developing from either in words where they share a common root or not. If we examine the concept of truth and the word tree in different languages, we can discover some interesting patterns.

The word truth in English is derived from the word tree. There is a phonetic overlap but it’s not overly apparent. The derivation may sound like a stretch but the word “true,” conveying the meaning of correct, upright, steadfast and representing reality, is derived from the Old English “treo” or “treow” which conveyed this meaning. It was understood to be good faith, trust (also a related word to “true”), a pledge or promise, but it also could mean tree. The meaning of truth is metaphorically related to the uprightness of tall and straight tree, the steadiness of strong tree, or the fidelity of an orchard providing its fruits year after year. The Old English word itself is derived from the Proto-Indo-European word “deru” with the root meaning also meaning to be firm, solid or steadfast, but also conveying the meaning of tree or wood.

The word “Druid,” referring to a high class of the Celtic (better pronounced with a “k” sound) peoples especially to their spiritual leaders, is derived from the same root. They were probably called druwids/druwides and their name literally meant “oak-knower” or “oak-seer.” While the Celts were known to worship trees, a common pagan practice, this word coveys that these people had a more transcendental relationship with the tree i.e. special knowledge. While the word “druw” refers to the trees and specifically oaks, it can also covey the meaning of strong and firm, although it’s uncertain which meaning was the initial one in Proto-Celtic.

These examples have been for words that are part of a larger language family and that also share the same root. However, we can find an example of words in another language family that don’t share the same root for the word but do carry the metaphoric meaning. We can look at the famous story of the forbidden tree in Paradise as mentioned in the Quran and the Torah. It’s known as the Tree of Life or Tree of Knowledge and in the Jewish tradition is debated if they are two or one in the same (that’s another story). While they do have different names in the texts, both trees feature as having a transcendental quality holding some Divine secrets and forbidden knowledge.

“Tree” in Hebrew, as mentioned in the Torah in a general sense as well as specifically the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:16 and 2:17 respectively), is called “ ‘as” (עֵץ). In Arabic in the Quran it is mentioned in a general sense as well as specifically the tree of life (20:120) as called “shajara” (شَجَرَة). The Hebrew (ע and ץ) correspond to the Arabic (ع and ص) and interestingly these roots (no pun intended) are connected. The staff of the Prophet Moses (Musa in Arabic; see the Quran 20:18) which we also assume is wooden is called “ ‘asaa” (عصا) derived from the same root as the Hebrew and carries the meaning of supporting one upright. What’s interesting is that this staff, in addition to fulfilling that role, also manifests Divine proofs as mentioned in the Quran including turning into a snake (26:32; 7:107; 27:10; 28:31), exposing the deceptive illusion of the Pharaoh’s magician (26:45; 7:118), gathering rocks to gush forth water in the desert (2:60; 7:160) and splitting the sea (26:63).

The Arabic root of (شَجَرَ) has a complicated meaning but includes the meaning of branching, rooting and propagating trees, so it’s more specific to trees, but nonetheless also carries the meaning in the Quran of truth both as the tree of “everlasting life and dominion” (20:120) and the “Sidr” tree at the edge of Heaven (53:14), what can be seen as the boundary of Divine knowledge, where the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, is said to have “seen the greatest signs of his Lord” (53:18). It is mentioned in a Prophetic narration that he said “Then I entered the Seventh Region, and behold, I saw Abraham…. After that I was taken up to Sidrat al-Muntaha [Lote Tree of the Uttermost Boundary]… And Gabriel said, ‘This is Sidrat al-Muntaha.’ And I saw four rivers there; two concealed [batiniya] and two revealed [zahiriya]. I said to Gabriel, ‘What are these?’ He said, ‘These two concealed rivers are in Paradise, and the two revealed are the Nile and the Euphrates’ ” (Musnad of Imam Ahmed).  Imam al-Ghazali expanded on this idea of the concealed and revealed truth and said “The outward symbol is a real thing, and its application to the inward meaning is a real truth. Every real thing has its corresponding real truth.” In addition the Quran mentions the parable of the good word as “a good tree whose roots are firmly planted and its branches stretch forth to the sky” whereas the evil word as “an evil tree uprooted from the surface of the earth having no stability” (14:24 and 14:26).

We have seen how metaphoric meanings or archetypes have branched out along with words to new languages and language families and perhaps even interchanging the apparent and metaphorical meanings, in our case with the words tree and truth. However, we have seen in other language families that words with the same and different roots maintain the same metaphorical meanings. Are there proto-metaphors? Is this just normal or to be expected? Have I gone of the deep end here? Let me know what you think in the comments and please share other examples.

Photo by Johannes Plenio from Pexels


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