the Yew Tree:
Yews are a
symbol of immortality. Ancient peoples were in the habit of planting yew
trees as acts of sanctification near to where they expected to be buried.
Over the centuries, it has been widely planted in churchyards as an
ornamental tree. The tree has a reputation for living longer than almost
any other species in the UK. There is an old yew at Fortingall in Glen
Lyon, Scotland which might be 2000 years old.
The trunk is erect, usually much divided, with thin red-brown
leaves and seeds of yew are very poisonous to stock. An important
anti-cancer drug is produced from yew hedge clippings. Yew is a resilient
tree which will tolerate a lot of shade and withstand smoke and salty
winds. Yew wood is amongst the densest of all conifers and is elastic so
was once used for making long bows, spears and dagger handles.
"Patriarch of Long-lasting Woods.... "
Mara Freeman, 1996
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 this 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, Dalla/n 'who made four rods of yew and inscribed them with Ogam.
Through this means he discovered that Etaine was in the si/d 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.
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.
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 Jesusí 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
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.