Did you know that many cultures and myths tell about the Tree of Life? And many of these stories originate from the Mediterranean, near where Lehi and his family dwelt.
The Book of Mormon brought the tree of life to our attention long before modern scholarship revealed how common the tree was in ancient history. The symbol of that tree pervades the art and literature of every Mediterranean culture from centuries before the time of Lehi until well after the time of Moroni. This fact, and the fact that Lehi and Nephi portrayed the spiritual meaning of that symbol much the same way other ancient cultures portrayed it, demonstrate that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text, not an invention of the nineteenth-century social milieu.
What, in particular, were the views of the tree of life among the ancients and how well do those views correspond with the view in the Book of Mormon?
Among the closest parallels are scenes that appear on a number of small gold plates dating from the fifth century B.C. to the third century A.D., engraved in Greek and found in Italy, Sicily, Crete, and Macedonia. These plates depict the dead, wandering in the world of the shades, and warn them to avoid a destructive spring on their left. They enjoin the souls to keep to the right, where they will encounter another spring beside a white cypress tree.
After pausing for refreshment and nourishment from the spring and the tree, the wanderers continue to the lake of memory, where, after responding appropriately to questions posed by the lake guardians, the travelers receive eternal memories and enter into the gods’ presence. The texts on many of the plates state that those who successfully complete the journey become gods themselves.
Commentators agree that the cypress tree is a tree of life symbol, the spring nearby is a spring of life, and the other spring is a source of forgetfulness and punishment. They also agree that the most likely origin for the mythology is Egypt. The similarities to the Book of Mormon account are striking, inviting comparison with the more detailed descriptions in that book of the river of filthy water, the tree that gives sustenance, the fountain of living water, the questions at judgment, and the disciples who attain exaltation.
It is difficult to say why tree of life accounts are so prevalent and why they are all similar. One possible reason is that they may have had a common source: the encounter Adam and Eve had with the two trees in the Garden of Eden.