The tree of heaven

U 17.1039: The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.

U 17.1139-41: That it was not a heaventree, not a heavengrot, not a heavenbeast, not a heavenman. That it was a Utopia, there being no known method from the known to the unknown.

Heaventree is a little-used expression that is not glossed by Don Gifford in his Ulysses Annotated, and yet the term is not Joyce’s invention. We might expect this, as Philip Herring’s transcription of Joyce’s Ulysses Notebooks in the British Museum (1972, p. 450) records “<heaventree & its nightblue fruit>” (also <heaventree> on p. 470), implying that Joyce copied the term from another as-yet-undiscovered source.

It is possible at this point, however, to sketch in the history of the heaven-tree, or the tree of heaven. The OED finds the term in English use from 1835, and in this case it is used as the name for a particular type of tree: “a tree of the genus Ailanthus, esp. Ailanthus altissima; a tree of heaven”. The English name comes from a Malay expression translated as “tree reaching to the sky”:

Ailanthus altissima, the heaven-tree


But Joyce is not referring to a real tree, but to a mythological one. The OED’s other definition fits this bill, defining the heaven-tree as “a mythical tree growing from the underworld, through the earth, and up to heaven, which figures in some Malay and Polynesian beliefs”. Evidence for this use is found predominantly in works of cultural anthropology, though the term is said to be “rare”. The OED’s first reference to this use dates from 1865:

In the Samoan group ... there was a heaven-tree, where people went up and down, and when it fell it stretched some sixty miles.

Edward Burnett Tylor Researches into the Early History of Mankind (1865), p. 348

It is not unusual for mythologies to make reference to a tree which crosses the divide between realms. The Scandinavian Yggdrasil is sometimes drawn into the comparison:

For instance, the swan-maidens and werewolves, the beanstalk (which is probably a form of the sacred ash of the Eddas, Yggdrasil, the heaven-tree of many myths), can be found in ever-varying combinations.

"Synopses of Noted Books: Fairy Tales" in Charles Dudley Warner Library of the World’s Best Literature (1897), vol. 44 p. 60

Sometimes the leaves of the heaven-tree are described, as in Joyce, as stars:

Resplendent stars, in purple meadow trembling;

Leaves of the great Heaven tree —

Or countless spears of angel host assembling

Throughout infinity —

Why droop ye each your sadly shining leaf,

And trail your spears in silent, sullen grief,

And twinkle tearfully?

John Flavel Mines The Heroes of the Last Lustre (1858), p. 92

The mythological spread of the heaven-tree is wider than Malay and Polynesian belief. It recurs in the scenery of numerous mythological systems, in this case with reference to Egypt:

This mountain – the solar hill of the Egyptians – we shall again refer to in the next two or three chapters. At its apex springs, the heaven tree on which the solar bird is perched.

W. R. Lethaby Architectvre, Mysticism and Myth (1892), ch. 6 p. 74

Joyce’s reading of myth was extensive. It would be good to know from precisely which text he extracted his own description of the heaven-tree.

John Simpson

The world tree Yggdrasil


Search by keyword (within this site): Myth Religion