Symbol of the underlying oneness of life itself, with countless texts and images in every civilization showing the transition from vegetable to animal, to human, to divine - and the reverse process. Trees grow from men’s stomachs, women conceive through grains of corn, angels grow out of trees, girls are changed into laurels and so on. There is a constant circulatory movement between the higher and lower levels of life. Folk stories have dramatized the permutations between plants, animals and humans and on these an ethic has been grafted. However, the cosmo-biological symbol appears to have preceded its explanation in moral and psychological terms.
Vegetation is also a symbol of the cyclical character of all being - birth, growth, death and transfiguration. Festivals centred upon the plant kingdom, their ceremonies varying according to culture and culminating at the Summer solstice, honour those cosmic forces. They make themselves manifest in these annual cycles, themselves the images of narrower or broader cycles which comprise the vast canvas upon which is painted the evolution of the created universe. In Ancient Greece, nearly all the goddesses, Hera, Demeter, Aphrodite and Artemis, protected crops, as did such gods as Ares (Mars), the god of war, and Dionysos, the god of love.
Vegetation naturally enough symbolizes evolution and the potentiality realized from the seed or germ, as well as from undifferentiated matter represented by the soil. This realization takes place in what Guenon terms ‘the sphere of vital assimilation’. From this derives the symbolism of the primordial garden. It is the symbolism of the lotus blossoming upon the surface of the waters, and of the tree which in the Gospels (Matthew 13: 31-2) sprang from the grain of mustard-seed and on the branches of which perched birds, which are symbols of higher spiritual states. In China, little distinction was drawn between human gestation and plant germination, the fertility of the corn being inseparable from that of the woman. Crops were also linked to the notion of cyclical revolution and the same ideogram, men, was used both for ‘year’ and ‘harvest’. It is the fount of all biological development.
Plants grow from the Earth and so, according to Genesis, does mankind. The Koran agrees: ‘God made you to grow from the earth like a plant.’ Islamic esotericism identifies vegetation and the growth of gnosis (haqiqat). The seed becomes ‘a Tree, nourished by Earth and Water, with branches which overtop the Seventh Heaven’ (Lahiji).
Born of Earth, the plant has an underground root (mula) which delves deep into the materia prima and this is why Hindu tradition gives it a subhuman ‘asuric’ nature. Now the asura were supposed to have pre-existed the deva and Guenon observes that in Genesis the plants were created before ‘the lights in the firmament of the heavens’ (Genesis 1: 11-14). This is because the plants in the Garden of Eden stand for the development of seeds deriving from the preceding cycle and also because the root precedes the stalk. In fact, the root aspect contrasts with the fruit aspect, the latter’s nature being solar and celestial, as is that of the branch aspect, a symbol, when it remains green, of resurrection and of immortality. The part of the plant exposed to the air is the tree of Life, from which is drawn the sap, which is the beverage of immortality.