Tree Lore: Yew

by Mara Freeman

Yew - Ioho - 
Taxus
Patriarch of Long-lasting Woods....

In early times, the darkly glorious yew-tree was probably the only evergreen tree in Britain. Both Druids with their belief in reincarnation, and later Christians with their teaching of the resurrection, regarded it as a natural emblem of everlasting life. Its capacity for great age enriched its symbolic value. The early Irish regarded it as one of the most ancient beings on earth. Yew is the last on a list of oldest things in a passage from the fourteenth century Book of Lismore: ‘Three lifetimes of the yew for the world from its beginning to its end.’

The yew's reputation for long life is due to the unique way in which the tree grows. Its branches grow down into the ground to form new stems, which then rise up around the old central growth as separate but linked trunks. After a time, they cannot be distinguished from the original tree. So the yew has always been a symbol of death and rebirth, the new that springs out of the old, and a fitting tree for us to study at the beginning of the new year. As the days now grow longer with the beginning of a new solar cycle, we move into the future on the achievements of the past, new creativity springs forth grounded in the accomplishments of the year gone by.

In Irish mythology, the yew is one of the five sacred trees brought from the Otherworld at the division of the land into five parts. Known as the Tree of Ross, it was said to be the ‘offspring of the tree that is in Paradise’, and it brought lasting plenty to Ireland. In the Brehon Laws, it is named as one of the Seven Chieftain Trees, with heavy penalties for felling one. Ownership of a yew-tree is the cause of a great battle in the twelfth century tale, ‘Yew Tree of the Disputing Sons’. The tree's high status is also shown in an Irish tale from the Historical Cycle in which a swine herd dreamed he saw a yew tree upon a rock, with an oratory in front of it. Angels ascended and descended from a flagstone at the threshold. He told a druid who interpreted the dream to mean that the rock would be the seat of Kings of Munster from that day forth, and the first king would be he who kindled a fire beneath the yew.

Staves of yew were kept in pagan graveyards in Ireland where they were used for measuring corpses and graves. In the tragic love story of Baile and Ailinn from the Historical Cycle, Baile dies of grief for the beautiful Ailinn. When he is buried, a yew-tree grew out of his grave, and ‘the likeness of his head was in the branches’. After seven years, poets cut down the yew and made writing tablets out of it.

Another use of yew-wood by poets is recounted in a tale of Conn of the Hundred Battles, who with his druids and poets, lost his way in a mist and came to a supernatural world where a druid was recording names of every prince from Conn's time onwards on staves of yew. In the Bardic schools, poets used staves of yew to help them memorize long incantations. We hear tell how the poet Cesarn cut (the words) in Ogam into 4 rods of yew. Each was 24' long and had 8 sides.

Staves of yew were also used for carving Ogam letters for magical use, according to the evidence of early literature. In The Wooing of Etaine, the beautiful heroine was abducted from her husband, Eochaid, who searched for her for a year and a day to no avail. Finally, he sought the help of his druid, Dallahd who made four rods of yew and inscribed them with Ogam. Through this means he discovered that Etaine was in the sihd of Bri Leith, with the faery king, Midir.

Veneration of the yew continued into Christian times where they have always been associated with churchyards. An early medieval Irish poem fragment refers to a yew outside an early Celtic Christian cell:

There is here above the brotherhood
A bright tall glossy yew;
The melodious bell sends out a
clear keen note
In St. Columba's church.

Although from Ireland, this verse may refer to the Isle of Iona, the sacred island of St. Columba off western Mull, Scotland, which is said to derive its name from the Gaelic word for 'yew-tree', Ioho or Ioha. The island was once a powerful Druid centre, planted with sacred groves of yew, and the traditions of Iona traditionally involve rebirth and reincarnation. On mainland Scotland, St. Ninian, a priest in Roman Britain, planted numerous yews in the churchyards, including the famous Fortingale Yew in Perthshire where Beltane fires were lit each year in a cleft of the trunk. A rhyme about this tree states:

Here Druid priests their altars placed,
And sun and moon adored.

For yew was one of the nine sacred trees for kindling Beltane fires, and the old Scottish rhyme about the need-fire calls it 'the tree of resilience’. Another famous Scottish yew stood at the Tobar an luthair, the Yew Tree Well in Easter Ross. Its presence lent healing qualities to the water, until someone cut the tree down. Whoever did the deed must have regretted it, for an old curse stated:

Well of the Yew Tree, Well of the Yew Tree,
To thee should honour be given;
In Hell a bed is ready for him
Who cuts the tree about thine ears.

A similar fate awaited an individual at the church of St. Kevin of Glendalough, in County Wicklow, Ireland, who was cursed because, as a rhyme states:

He cut down the Sacred Yew
That holy Kevin planted.

After the Norman Conquest a spate of church building led to the planting of many churchyard yews. Some still thrive today, although over 900 years old. Fortunately their function as icons of everlasting life had been forgotten by the 17th century, or they would have probably not survived destruction by the Puritans. The yew trees were usually planted in a deliberate manner: one beside the path leading from the funeral gateway of the churchyard to the main door of the church, and the other beside the path leading to the lesser doorway. In early times, the priest and clerks would gather under the first yew to await the corpse-bearers. The remains of Anglo-Saxon churches suggest that the early English planted yews in a circle around the church, which were usually built upon a central mound.

There is also a tradition that the Cross was a yew tree, perhaps because of its symbolism of immortality. A verse from a traditional carol from Herefordshire, The Seven Virgins, runs:

Go you down, go you down to yonder town,
And sit in the gallery:
And there you 'II find sweet Jesus Christ,
Nailed to a big yew-tree.

The famous yew-trees of Nevern in Dyfed, Wales, are said to bleed a red substance every year in sympathy with the Christ. Branches of yew were borne in Palm Sunday processions instead of palm or olive and the altars of many churches were traditionally decked with branches of yew on Easter Day. The yew is also associated with another time of resurrection -- New Year's Day, where in some parishes, villagers would gather beneath the churchyard yew to see in the New Year.

In later times, only the death side of the Yew's symbolism remained in the popular mind. Shakespeare wrote of ‘the dismal yew’ and his witches bore ‘slips of yew slivered in the moon's eclipse’. 19th century naturalist Gilbert White described the trees as ‘an emblem of mortality by their funereal appearance’. A dark-canopied grove of yews was often regarded as a place to be shunned, and a bough brought into the house portended a death in the family. The cemetery is nowadays looked upon as a place of fear rather than a sacred place of return to the ancestral realm.

So let us return to the wisdom of the Druids and remember at the turning of the year the teachings of the sacred yew: that darkness is the matrix from which light springs forth, and that out of death, life arises.