Yew the sacred and the mystical

 

close up berry-Taxus_baccata_MHNT

The evergreen yew with dark green, needle-like leaves and red berries has commonly symbolized immortality in the Indo-European imagination as it is the longest-lived entity, often lasting more than 1,000 years, to be found in the European environment.

-yew-Harlington-1000 years
Yew tree believed to be more than 1,000 years old in the churchyard of St Peter & Paul Harlington, near Heathrow Airport

The yew tree has been found near chapels, churches and cemeteries since ancient times as a symbol of the transcendence of death, and is usually found in the main squares of the villages where people celebrated the open councils that served as a way of general assembly to rule the village affairs. It has been suggested that the Sacred Tree at the Temple at Uppsala was an ancient yew tree.

The Christian church commonly found it expedient to take over existing pre-Christian sacred sites for churches. It has also been suggested that yews were planted at religious sites as their long life was suggestive of eternity, or because being toxic they were seen as trees of death. Another suggested explanation is that yews were planted to discourage farmers and drovers from letting animals wander onto the burial grounds, the poisonous foliage being the disincentive. A further possible reason is that fronds and branches of yew were often used as a substitute for palms on Palm Sunday. It is still commonly planted in Christian churchyards and cemeteries.

Conifers were in the past often seen as sacred, because they never lose their green. In addition, the tree of life was not only an object from the stories, but also believers often gathered around an existing tree. The yew releases gaseous toxins (taxine) on hot days. Taxine is in some instances capable of causing hallucinations. This has some similarities with the story that Odin had a revelation (the wisdom of the runes) after having been hanging from the tree for nine days.

druids yew wand

The druids preferred yew for wand-making over their other favourite woods, apple and oak. Several Irish and Scottish place-names allude to the yew, notably Youghall [Eochaill, yew wood] in County Cork. The Irish personal name Eógan means ‘born of the yew’, so that the great Munster dynasty could be glossed as ‘people of the yew’.

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