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’.

Celtic sacred trees – The crab apple

As the Crab apple tree was this week’s highlighted tree I thought I would include a blog about it’s mythological and sacred nature. At a later stage I will also look at the stories and symbolism associated with the Yew tree.

wild apple wood twigs

In general many types of trees found in the Celtic nations are considered to be sacred, whether as symbols, or due to medicinal properties, or because they are seen as the abode of particular nature spirits. Historically and in folklore, the respect given to trees varies in different parts of the Celtic world. On the Isle of Man, the phrase ‘fairy tree’ often refers to the elder tree. The medieval Welsh poem Cad Goddeu (The Battle of the Trees) is believed to contain Celtic tree lore, possibly relating to the crann ogham, the branch of the ogham alphabet where tree names are used as mnemonic devices.

The pome fruit and tree of the apple is celebrated in numerous functions in Celtic mythology, legend, and folklore; it is an emblem of fruitfulness and sometimes a means to immortality. Wands of druids were made from wood either of the yew or of the apple.

Hand carved druid wand from apple wood

Crab apples have long been associated with love and marriage. It was said that if you throw the pips into the fire while saying the name of your love, the love is true if the pips explode. Apple wood was burned by the Celts during fertility rites and festivals, and Shakespeare makes reference to crab apples in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Love’s Labour Lost.

To follow are brief synopsis of some legends that talk include references to the apple tree, which I found in Wikipedia.

The soul of Cú Roí was confined in an apple that lay in the stomach of a salmon which appeared once every seven years. Cúchulainn once gained his escape by following the path of a rolled apple. An apple-tree grew from the grave of the tragic lover Ailinn. In the Irish tale Echtrae Conli (The Adventure of Connla), Conle the son of Conn is fed an apple by a fairy lover, which sustains him with food and drink for a month without diminishing; but it also makes him long for the woman and the beautiful country of women to which his lover is enticing him. In the Irish story from the Mythological Cycle, Oidheadh Chlainne Tuireann, the first task given the Children of Tuireann is to retrieve the Apples of the Hesperides (or Hisbernia). Afallennau (Welsh, ‘apple trees’) is a 12th-century Welsh narrative poem dealing with Myrddin Wyllt. The Breton pseudosaint Konorin was reborn by means of an apple.