De ligno vitae – The Tree of Life

There are a number of short poems which appear in the manuscripts and older editions of the works of Tertullian and Cyprian.  In truth their authorship is unknown, but they seem to belong to the end of the 4th century.

One of these is De ligno vitae, The tree of life.  I was considering commissioning a translation, but then I came across this lovely translation in Early Christian Latin Poets by Carolinne White in Google books.  The text itself is clearly a gem!

There is a place, we believe, at the centre of the world,
Called Golgotha by the Jews in their native tongue.
Here was planted a tree cut from a barren stump:
This tree, I remember hearing, produced wholesome fruits,
But it did not bear these fruits for those who had settled there:
It was foreigners who picked these lovely fruits.
This is what the tree looked like: it rose from a single stem
And then extended its arms into two branches
Just like the heavy yardarms on which billowing sails are stretched
Or like the yoke beneath which two oxen are put to the plough.
The shoot that sprung from the first ripe seed
Germinated in the earth and then, miraculously,
On the third day it produced a branch once more,
Terrifying to the earth and to those above, but rich in life-giving fruit.
But over the next forty days it increased in strength,
Growing into a huge tree which touched the heavens
With its topmost branches and then hid its saccred head on high.
In the meantime it produced twelve branches of enormous
Weight and stretched forth, spreading them over the whole world:
They were to bring nourishment and eternal life to all
The nations and to teach them that death can die.
And then after a further fifty days had passed
From its top the tree caused a draught of divine nectar
To flow into its branches, a breeze of the heavenly spirit.
All over the tree the leaves were dripping with sweet dew.
And look! Beneath the branches shady cover
There was a spring, with waters bright and clear
For there was nothing there to disturb the calm. Around it in the grass
A variety of flowers shone forth in bright colours.
Around this spring countless races and peoples gathered,
Of different stock, sex, age and rank,
Married and unmarried, widows, young married women,
Babies, children and men, both young and old.
When they saw the branches here bending down, under the weight
Of many sorts of fruit, they gleefully reached out with greedy hands
To touch the fruits dripping with heavenly nectar.
But they could not pick them with their eager hands
Until they had wiped off the dirt and filthy traces
Of their former life, washing their bodies in the holy spring.
And so they strolled around on the soft grass for some time
And looked up at the fruits hanging from the tall tree.
If they ate the shells that fell from those branches
And the sweet greenery dripping with plenty of nectar,
Then they were overcome with a desire to pick the real fruit.
And when their mouths first experienced the heavenly taste,
Their minds were transformed and their greedy impulses
Began to disappear; by the sweet taste they knew the man.
We have seen that an unusual taste or the poison of gall
Mixed with honey causes annoyance in many:
They rejected what tasted good because they were confused
And did not like what they had eagerly grabbed at,
Finally spitting out the taste of what they had for long drunk unwisely.
But it often happens that many, once their thoughts are set to rights,
Find their sick minds restored and achieve what they denied
Was possible and so obtain the fruits of their labours.
Many, too, having dared to touch the sacred waters,
Have suddenly departed, slipping back again
To roll around in the same mixture of mud and filth.
But others, faithfully carrying the truth within them, receive it
With their whole soul and store it deep in their hearts.
And so the seventh day sets those who can approach
The sacred spring beside the waters they longed for,
And they dip their bodies that have been fasting.
Only so do they rid themselves of the filth of their thoughts
And the stains of their former life, bringing back from death
Souls that are pure and shining, destined for heaven’s light.

I will look more at the volume.  It looks as if Dr. White has done something that should have been done a century ago, and addressed all these Latin poets who are largely neglected.

7 thoughts on “De ligno vitae – The Tree of Life

  1. It’s available on Kindle. I have a friend who’s very susceptible to that sort of thing. Mwahahaha.

  2. I desperately needed this text for my doctoral thesis and couldn’t find it in Migne’s PL on-line (the page containing cols. 1113-1114 is just missing!), so THANK YOU very much: I’ll quote you in my Sitography (that I prefer to call DIKTIOGRAPHY from Greek “diktyon” = “net”: this is a fully-Greek word, at least!)

  3. Rightso. Thanks again. By the way, did you know that the same poem (but under the title “De Pascha”) is attributed to Cyprian of Carthage or maybe the Pseudo-Cyprian (see Escolà Tuset J. M., Poemes, Barcelona 2007), while recently it has been recognized as a work by Victorinus of Pettau? I hope sincerely sooner or later somebody’s going to tell me just WHO is the author… In the meantime… Thanks and bye.

  4. Thank you for these notes. I am aware of the curious and unresolved authorship of the shoal of little poems attached to old editions of the works of both Tertullian and Cyprian, but I hadn’t got any up-to-date info on this one.

Leave a Reply