The Cyprus

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


THE CYPRESS


Here once, through an alley Titanic,
Of cypress, I roamed with my soul -
Of cypress, with Psyche, my soul.

Edgar Alan Poe

 The afterworld, said Circe to Odysseus, lies at the extremity of the earth, beyond the vast ocean in a nether realm of darkened repose. Black cypress is found there and asphodel, a funerary plant of ruins and cemeteries. It is called the Grove of Persephone and it must be crossed before reaching the gate of the kingdom of Hades where Cerberus stands. In this world, the sombre density of its foliage and the solitary aspect of its form drew the eyes of men along an invisible pathway, and the cypress tree became a symbol of death and the unknown which lies beyond. It signified the immortal soul and woe unspeakable which gives way, out of its darkness, to a mystery unfathomable. Its dark presence among the ruined walls of Mycenae or the remains of ancient Thebes is like that of a lonely sentinel who watches over the coming and going of civilizations which must have seemed full of life and deathless promise to those who lived out their brief lives in them. Gloomy and forbidding but wonderfully stately, the cypress tree bears with awesome dignity the weight of the poignancy and mystery of death. The wild north wind that whips off the mountains along the rocky coast of Hellas bends and tosses their brooding heads over many a desolate graveyard where they keep their lonely vigil. The lamentations of sadly huddled people fill their branches and wail with the wind down the slopes over the beggarly tombs and out upon the endless sea.

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid.

 "Let me be laid in a casket of cypress wood (κυπαρίσσιυος) embraced by death while the breath flies away." The words of Shakespeare echo the mournful practice observed in funeral rituals participated in by Egyptians, Greeks and other Mediterranean people who buried their dead. Mummy cases and the coffins of heroes were built of strong cypress wood which, because of its resistance to decay, served to reinforce the illusion of immortality which human beings are apt to focus upon the poor cast-off clothing of the life just lived. The association of the cypress with mourning can be traced to early Greek myths like that which tells of the unhappy end of Cyparrissus, son of Telephus, This beautiful boy of the Island of Cos was loved by Apollo, who followed after him as he took to graze each day a sacred stag. Cyparrissus loved this magical animal dearly but accidently slew it with his javelin as it lay resting beneath a tree. So grieved was the boy that he wished to die and, despite Apollo's protests, wept until his body dried up - causing the great god to transform him into that Cupressean form which became the reminder of the most final of all rites of passage.

 There are many legends which trace the origin of the cypress tree to some such transformation by a god, but the Mazdean tradition lent a greater significance to it as a symbol in asserting that Zoroaster brought a shoot of the tree down from heaven to earth where he planted it. This notion of divine origin has probably not inspired those palaeobotanists who trace the physical origins of the cypress back to the Upper Cretaceous when it branched off from the pine tree, but many seem to convey a sense of something majestic in their descriptions of individual species. The Cupressus cashmerian is said to be the most beautiful and elegant of all cypress trees, but the Chinese Funeral Cypress also vies for this description, as does the Formosan Cypress, which grows at the edge of thousand-foot mist-shrouded cliffs along the rocky perimeter of that mysterious Asian isle. Older Japanese accounts describe the wild tribal people there who lived among the two-hundred-foot giants and guarded their domain against invaders below. This same species in Japan is called the God Tree and is planted, like its Chinese and Himalayan counterparts, near temples and monasteries, where they live to be as old as two thousand years.

  The cypress is an evergreen belonging to the coniferous family. All of them exude resin but no turpentine, and they have distinctive imbricate leaves which are like fish scales or tiles overlapping in four ranks. They are indigenous to North America, Southern Europe and Asia, although mortal messengers have carried their seeds and shoots to many parts of the globe outside their native climes and they have often proved to be strongly adaptable. The cones on cypresses are small and have small winged seeds which escape from the scaly triangular shields of the mature fruit. There are about fifteen species in all, having branches that spread or ascend, terminating in the sprays of closely pressed scales. The male and female flowers are on the same tree so that it can propagate itself in a variety of soils, needing only a moderate amount of moisture but definitely requiring pure atmospheric conditions. The evergreen foliage of the cypress does not fall altogether in the autumn season but goes through a constant decline and departure that spreads throughout the year. Unlike the pine, whose needles possess a degree of positioning or autotropism in relation to the movement of the sun across the sky, the stem-clasping leaves of the cypress are rigid and do not move.

 The wood of the cypress is light, easy to work and very durable. It has a strong distinct odour which repels insects and its oil is a powerful diuretic. This last characteristic produces effects in men working with the wood over a period of days, but the durability of furniture, buildings, chests and cabinets fashioned from it make it worth the extra care needed in its handling. Trees of one hundred to two hundred feet in height yield enormously lengthy timber excellent for large-scale interior construction, and the elegant palaces of the Mikado in Kyoto are largely built of it, the bark being used for roofing. Some of the most exquisite gates and transom carvings of this period were rendered in cypress and remain fresh and pure of line to this day. Reflective of its strength and despite its association with death, the cypress has several medicinal qualities. It is said that if a man ate the seeds for a long time he would become strong, healthy and young, while experiencing an increased sharpening of his senses. The fruit is supposed to be good for dysentery and diarrhoea and will stop blood-spitting and the bleeding of gums. All of these effects seem to indicate a restriction or control of the flow of energy or fluids outward from the body and their containment or even sharpening within it, which is suggestive when considered in relation to the central symbolism of the cypress.

 In tracing the meaning and function associated with the cypress throughout recorded history, we find that its sacred designations and uses overshadow the mundane. Among Buddhists, disciples of the Shinto faith and followers of the Tao, it was sacred and cultivated near pagodas and temples. Because Zoroaster was believed to have brought its original shoot from heaven, the cypress is planted at the gates of Zoroastrian temples and the Greeks and Romans held that Cupid's darts, Jove's sceptre, the club of Hercules and the pillars of Solomon's temple were all made from its wood. In the Himalayas the cypress torulosa was used for temples, images and the poles for carrying sacred arks. Chips of one-hundred-fifty-foot trees were burned as incense in the vicinity of monasteries lost to the world in valleys of hidden ranges at an elevation of nine thousand feet. Some of the treasured statues of Avalokiteshwara, the Buddha and various Bodhisattvas that were brought by Tibetans fleeing from their invaded homeland are of great antiquity and were carved from strong cypress wood.

 The cypress is sacred to a whole class of gods or Serpent-Adepts such as Aesculapius, whose sanctuary at Cos was famous for its cypress grove. It was at the Aesculapian shrine at Sicyon that the mother of the famous Aratus is said to have begotten him through mystical union with a serpent. Pausanias described a figure in the shrine depicting her as seated upon a serpent. On the hillside there, sacred serpents crawled among the ancient cypress, and it was under the shadow of one of them that she conceived. These Serpent-Adepts, who are symbolized by the sacred reptiles of such shrines, are the Kabiri and include in their ranks such Enlightened Entities as Pluto, Kneph, Osiris, Hermes, Orpheus and Cadmus. All of them are healers and givers of light and wisdom. The fact that Pluto and Yama, the Hindu god of death, are included here deepens the mystery surrounding the nature of these infernal deities and indicates a hidden dimension in the symbolism of the cypress. The etymology of the names Pluto (meaning 'wealth-giver'), Hades (meaning 'the Unseen') and Yama (from yam, meaning 'to restrain') do not immediately suggest a consistent generic meaning which can help to unravel the mystery. The various notions concerning the nature and origin of the cypress and those beings to whom it is sacred must be scrutinized and synthesized in order to discover the key which can thread together the elements of healing and death, light and darkness, wisdom and woe.

Know ye the land where the cypress and myrtle
Are emblems of deeds that are done in their clime?

Lord Byron

 The funereal cypress becomes almost black with advanced age and seems to provide a likely emblem of that grim lord of death, Pluto. He is described as 'the Reaper' who seizes fecundity in the person of Persephone for one half of the year. Many have heard the story of how he stole her and brought her weeping into his gloomy nether world. It is not difficult to imagine the dark pyramidal sentinels that line the lonely pathway leading down to Hades, where the souls of countless dead must have trembled in their shadow. But Pluto is also the god of riches, who was believed to receive buried treasure and to be associated with agricultural wealth. From the centre of the world he exerts his influence upon cultivation and crops through his spouse Persephone, who enrichs men with the fruits of the world. If this daughter of Demeter had not made her home with the nether lord, one sees that the Mother Earth could not have yielded up the treasures of her womb, and life as we know it might have been insupportable. Pluto and Yama and the other Kabiri are described as Titans who are depicted in Greek mythology as chained within the realm of Tartarus and who invented letters (devanagari - the language of the gods), laws, legislature, architecture, modes of magic and medicinal plants. As Pluto, Hermes, Orpheus and others, they are the producers of wheat, corn and agriculture, who pay for their gift to men as did Prometheus, who brought the fire of the gods to earth. It is held in Greek tradition that during the rule of Ouranos, the elder Titans had begotten many children, including Thanatos and his brother Hypnos. They were the twin sons of Nyx, the 'dry sea or night', and Erebos, 'darkness', and they became couriers of Hades, bringing him his subjects and visiting upon them the oblivion of sleep. The cycles moved on and the Titans receded into the hidden realms along with 'the Unseen One', Hades, but still men are linked to them by night and by the approaching mystery of their own death.

  Yama, Pluto and Osiris are the lords of the infernal region, identified with the Pit, the Great Dragon and the Flood. They are the Spirits of the Earth who, in the earliest texts, have nothing to do with the punishment of the wicked. They are, like Yama - who is called Pitri-Pati or Lord of the Pitris and Judge of Mortals - linked to the function of recording and overseeing the effects of karmic action. Like the Lipika who are spiritual scribes on a more cosmic scale, they are the Guardians or Planetary Spirits that support the world. In the Hindu teachings, Yama is considered to be one of four such Loka-palas whose domain is at the southernmost of the four cardinal points. Before the nether lords stand recorders like Chitra-Gupta or, in the Greek tradition, Charon, who read out the accounts of every soul's life from the register kept open. Their eyes are sharp and miss not a detail, their very names indicating the penetration of their function: Chitra-Gupta means 'hidden or concealed brightness', while Charon means 'sharp brilliant eyes'. The Zoroastrians alluded to this brilliance in terms of the Guardians themselves, whom they called Amshaspends or Serpents of Wisdom. These Dhyan-Chohans of Mazdean belief were in their celestial reflections star yazatas (angels), or 'the Shining having efficacious eyes', the Fathers or first Preceptors of mankind.

 Poe was intuitive when he wrote of a titanic alley of cypress trees, for indeed the identification of these Preceptors with 'the Divine Giants' of old is fused to the arboreal symbol which they hold in common. Occultism teaches that the Hermes fire of Apollo's burning torch is the fire-flame of Pluto's helm. This is the eternal fire of the bottomless pit or Akasa, and Pluto may be seen as a personification of Cosmic Fire, which consumes, at its lowest level, the wasted energies of mortals who have not become capable in life of entering the realm of the Fire-Mist. In the Rig Veda, Yama is described as being originally a form of the Sun (or his offspring), who is the guardian of immortality and whose world is Svar (Swar). Svar is one of three vyabritis or mystical worlds.

  They are three luminous essences, "produced from the Vedas by heat", of which bhur is the earth, bhuvah the atmosphere and svar the sky. This world of Yama is said to be "the world of divine solar light to which we have to ascend and which is revealed by the release of the luminous herds from the nether cave and the consequent uprising of the divine purified mind". The fiery light of Truth that resides there is released symbolically into the world in the form of pyramidal teachings and structures and medicinal plants of great power like the cypress tree. Its timber forms the pillars of Solomon's temple, around which lies the darkness of earthly death, and its flame is locked in its lofty tapered form and its darkened scale-like foliage. The pillars represent the right and left sides of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, the Sephiroth of compassion and of justice, balanced and synthesized in the neutral rod which emanates from Kether, the Crown.

 Yama is both the son of the Sun and the brother of Vaivasvata Manu. He is also the twin brother of Yamuna or Yami and in the Vedas is described as the first of men who died and found his way back to the ancient Fathers. In the occult tradition he is said to be the personification of the Third Root Race; the embodiment of the first self-conscious man. He was the first to be endowed with manas - without which there is neither heaven nor Hades - and it is therefore that he was the first 'man' to know death. Perhaps this association of the nether lord with self-consciousness is the reason why the Chinese cultivated sacred cypress trees whose roots grew in the form of a seated, contemplative man. Yama and Yami are twin offspring of the Sun by Sanjna (spiritual consciousness) and together represent the dual aspects of the mind. Thus Yama-Yami is both the restrainer of his own evil doings and the evil-doer himself. In one of the Vedic hymns Yama and Yami are described as dwelling in a palace of copper and iron, and Yami, at one point, urged their cohabitation for the purpose of perpetuating the race. A further clue, linking Yama with Hades and the story of Persephone, is suggested in the Puranas, which indicate that Yama had many wives "who forced him to dwell in Patala" or Myalba, the world. With this series of complex mythical circumstances, one begins to observe the character of the lords of the infernal regions shifting away from the grotesque pictures produced by man's fear of mortal death to the contemplation of great sacrifice and guardianship.

  There are three chief groups of Builders, Planetary Spirits and Lipika - each of these being divided into seven sub-groups. The Builders are representative of the first Mind-Born Entities, the great Rishis and Prajapatis who were spoken of by the Zoroastrians as the Seven Amshaspends who, like the Seven Sephiroth, are separated from the First Triad. In their synthesis they are Ahura Mazda (Ormazd) or Avalokiteshwara (the manifest Ishwara), the Logos of Platonism, separated out by the action of manifested wisdom or Mahat. In the scriptural books of the Parsis known as the Zend-Avesta, the cypress was considered to be sacred because the word of Ormazd was first carved upon it. Most scholars attempt to trace this tradition by examining texts translated into the Persian Pahlavi language, but the original arcane teachings were passed down in Zend or Zen-sar (coming from Senzar) which is the archaic mystery language of Adept-Initiates. The ancient Fathers to whom Yama found his way, extended the keynote of Wisdom born in the realm of the Fire-Mist along a great line of Guardians and Serpent-Adepts, marking their most esoteric truths as glyphs upon the cypress tree.

 One of the most important titles given to Yama is that of Dharmaraja, for he is the Guardian of the Dharma, the Law of Truth, of Satyadharma in the world. Satyadharma is the state of conscious immortality and the Lord of Death is the unseen Guardian of Immortality. He is the father of that most ethical of kings, Yudhisthira, and his names are Kritana ('the Finisher'), Samana ('the Settler'), Danda-dhara ('the Rod-Bearer'), Pitri-Pati ('Lord of the Manes') and Dharmaraja ('King of Justice'). Whereas the needles of the pine tree possess an autotropism relative to the sun, the rigid leaves of the cypress hold fast relative to a central rod (or trunk) representing Karma and unswerving justice in the world. The overlapping leaves are like immovable petals forming together a columnar umbrella of the Dharma-king. On some cypress trees they point heavenward along the path that Yama shows, and on some they spread and curve earthward like shingled scales fecundating the world with their wisdom-bearing stamen. The cone-shaped eggs nestled under their protective shield are marked with the triangle of fire and the ripened seeds sail out with the northern blast onto the rocky soil below, where some will catch hold and burrow deep in the more refined patches. The kingly foliage grows dark with approaching death, but the fiery seed never dies and so the rod of Karmic justice can never disappear from the world and he who watches the recorder's book never ceases to uphold the eternal Truth of its balance.

 Yama is 'the Restrainer', and in the spiritual discipline (sadhana) of Raja Yoga his essential condition is the first of the eight-limbed methods of union with God. Yama or self-control comprises the qualities of non-violence, not stealing, continence in thought and act, and non-covetousness in thought, word and deed. Like the cypress tree, one is expected to be able to recognize that one bears the male and female powers of regeneration within oneself and must never look covetously outside oneself at others along the path. The self-control required to succeed in this is epitomized in the form of the erect trunk and densely contained foliage of the dark cypress standing at the gate of death and immortality. In the Vishnu Purana it is said that Yama will be conquered by the Kalki Avatar, but among men as they are he dispenses death to those not fit for immortality. He endures, like the cypress wood which repels the lower forms of decay, but he is conquered by the fully enlightened man and he opens wide to him the gates of Svar, which is said to be the supreme heaven above the starry vault and earth. In this supracelestial realm shines the illimitable light of supramental justice and immortal beatitude, the light which in its substance and constituent reality is the light of unchanging Truth. Like the funereal sentinel watching over the grove of the earth, Yama with the brilliant unswerving eyes must be met face to face in order to pass out of the cemetery gate. He was the collective First Man who died and he knows every bend and cobble of the cypress-lined path that leads back to the Ancestors, the Fire-Givers who gave us the spark. He knows the records of souls and the fearful regrets of those momentarily stripped of their skewed illusions before they pass on to Kamaloka. He is 'the Grim Reaper' who witnesses the reaping of the harvest sown in a lifetime and who neither hides the thorn nor lovely flower but guards unceasingly the action of the Law. He is incorruptible and takes all without exception, but his very incorruptibility is synonymous with the unchanging purity of Truth, A penetrating folk-wisdom is revealed in the sayings of men who lament that there is only one thing anyone can be sure of in this world - and that is death.

 To merge the qualities of healing and death, light and darkness, wisdom and woe, man must transcend the division between life and death and leave beside the pathway all attachments to that aspect of himself which fears the earthly flames of the funeral pyre. To achieve this divine perspective one must rise like a king striding through the sacred grove towards the gateway of death and falter there not a hair's breadth as one continues on into the realm of Satyadharma. Knowing this, wise men have taught that man should revere the lord who shows the way through death to immortal life. The beautiful Hymn to Death in the Rig Veda counsels us:

Honour the King with thine oblations, Yama, Vivasvan's son,
Who gathers men together,
Who travelled to the lofty heights above us,
Who searching out and shows the path to many.

Yama first found for us a place to dwell in;
This pasture never can be taken from us.
Men born on earth tread their own paths
That lead them whither our ancient Fathers have departed.

Our Fathers are Angirases, Navagas, Atharvans,
Bhrigus who deserve the Soma.
May these, the Holy, look on us with favour,
May we enjoy Their gracious loving kindness.

Go forth, go forth upon the ancient pathways
Whereon our sires of old have gone before us.
There shalt thou look on both the kings enjoying their sacred food,
God Varuna and Yama.
Meet Yama, meet the Fathers,
Meet the merit of free or ordered acts, in highest heaven.
Leave sin and evil, seek anew thy dwelling,
And bright with giory, wear another body.

Offer to Yama holy gifts enriched with butter,
And draw near:
So that he grant that we may live long days of life
Among the gods.

Rig-Veda, Book 10: Hymn XIV     

  Men know they live with death at every moment of their daily lives, but the yogi who walks Yama's path fearlessly has become like the cypress tree whose foliage does not decline and fall altogether but through all the seasons is replaced by perennial new growth. The Mahayogin Lord Shiva who dances amongst the flames of the graveyard is mirrored in the disciple who balances perfectly in consciousness the dual force of life and death, for his eye is fixed upon the realm which lies beyond heaven and hell. He walks on his sutratmic journey along the stony paths of this world, crossing the boundary of the cypress gate times without number, and he pauses not beneath the bright gaze of Yama, for he has shaped his own will to reflect the Law personified by the Dharmaraja. He moves in and out of the realms of heaven and earth with the ease of the thread-soul passing through the eye of a needle. He knits together in his many vestures the world above and that below until he stands like a tall and stately witness upon the mountainside, buffeted by wind and feared by men - he is a Master of Life and of Death.

Thy sharp and brilliant glance
Does penetrate my soul, O King,
And great courage rushes up
To fill my eyes.