I'm very fortunate to live near Kingly Vale, one of the most impressive yew forests in Europe with a grove of ancient yews dated to at least 2,000 years old. It's one of my favourite places. I don't get there as often as I'd like to, but I'm determined to get there again soon. It has a sacred and peaceful energy and there are many strange tales associated with the place.
Majestic and long-lived, the yew tree is one of Britain’s few native evergreens and the oldest of our native trees. The yew has a red-brown bark that peels off easily and can reach heights of 80 feet (24 meters) and more. Yews grow in a unique way; their branches grow down and take root in the ground to form new trunks. These then join the main trunk which gives yews their huge fluted girths. The yew continues to grow even with a completely hollow trunk. This has given the yew its reputation for immortality and made it a symbol of death and rebirth.
The dark green leaves, or needles are arranged in two opposite rows in spirals along the twigs and can remain on the tree for 8 years before falling. Unlike other conifers, yew doesn't grow cones, but often has a cone-like growth caused by insects laying eggs in the branches, rather like oak galls. Yew is one of the first trees to flower in Spring with male and female flowers growing on separate trees.
The bright red fleshy berry like fruit are popular with bird; all parts of the yew are poisonous to humans and should not be consumed.
The main medical use for yew is as a source for the alkaloid taxol, used in conventional medicine to treat some cancers. Initially it was discovered in the bark and non-sustainable harvesting caused the yew to become endangered. It has since been found to be present in the needles which means taxol can be harvested without killing the tree itself.
Yew wood is very hard, yet quite elastic, and it was once highly prized for making longbows for archers in the Middle Ages. Yew bows are said to have been used to kill three English Kings: William Rufus, King Harold and Richard Coeur de Lion.
The venerable yew is often found growing in churchyards all over Europe where it is thought to protect and purify the spirits of the dead, many were there long before the churches were built on the ancient sacred sites. In Brittany it is said that the graveyard yew extends a root to the mouth of every corpse buried there.
The oldest known living yew tree in Britain is in a churchyard in Fortingall Perthshire Scotland, it is estimated to be around 3000 years old and there are many legends surrounding it. Several yews are mentioned in the Doomsday book of 1086 and one of the oldest weapons found is a crude yew spear from the old stone age.
The yew was a sacred tree to the ancient Celts who buried their elders beneath yew trees in the belief that their knowledge and wisdom would be transferred to the trees. Caesar wrote that Cativolcus, chief of the Eburones who lived in Gaul, poisoned himself with yew rather than submit to Rome.
The yew which represents death, rebirth and immortality was thought to hold the spirits of the ancestors who could be contacted through the tree; it is thus associated with the Celtic festival Samhain, a time when the veil between the worlds is thin aiding communication with our departed loved ones and guides.
The famous witches’ cauldron in Shakespeare’s Macbeth contains slips of yew 'silver'd in the moon's eclipse' and hebenon, the 'double-fated yew' is the poison that Hamlet's uncle poured into the King's ear to poison him.
An old folk tale tells why yews are dressed so darkly. When the yew was a young species, in times when there were few people, it thought all the other trees were more beautiful with their colourful leaves that fluttered in the wind. The tree pined thinking the faeries had deliberately made it unattractive. The faeries wanted to please the yew and one morning it found its leaves had become gold and its heart danced with joy. But robbers came and stripped the tree bare, leaving it confused and sad. The fairies then gave it leaves of purest crystal and the yew loved its sparkle, but a hail storm fell, and the crystals shattered. Then it was given broad leaves and it waved them in the air, only for them to be eaten by goats. At this the yew tree gave up, it realised that its original leaves were the best, for they were of permanence, of long ages and deep knowledge, and in this the tree found comfort.
Cornish legend tells of King Mark who married an Irish lady Iseult who didn't love him. After their wedding they sailed back to Cornwall, unbeknown to anyone Iseult's mother prepared a magical wine for the pair, hoping it would make her daughter fall in love with King Mark. Unfortunately, Mark's nephew Tristan drank the wine and he and Iseult fell deeply in love with each other. The couple risked many chances to be together. Many times, they were caught and reported to the King, but he always turned a blind eye as he loved the pair so much. After many partings and tricks of fate the couple died in each other’s arms. Mark gave them a ceremonial funeral and it is said that they were buried either side of the nave in the chapel at Tintagel castle in Cornwall. Within a year a yew tree sprouted from each grave, the King had them chopped down 3 times, but they always grew back. Eventually Mark gave in and allowed the yew trees to grow, at their full height the yews reached their branches towards each other across the nave and entwined so intensely that they could not be parted.
Throughout Europe there are similar tales of yew trees and references of yew being regarded as a symbol of death and regeneration. In Ireland the yew was sacred to the warrior goddess Banbha and was known as the 'Renown of Banbha', and in Greece and Italy it was sacred to Hecate. The Romans at one time sacrificed black bulls wreathed in yew branches to her at the midwinter festival of Saturnalia in the hope she would provide an easy winter.
Working with yew can help us to understand the eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth and be a powerful tool to help you in making contact with your ancestors and guides and draw on their wisdom. Because of its toxicity, it's not recommended to burn yew in any way, it's safer to stick with the wood, roots and leaves in spell work only, wands and staffs are particularly popular and favoured as Ogham sticks.
Death and rebirth, transformation, astral travel, ancient knowledge and wisdom, ancestor work.
Element: Earth and water
The tree Ogham - Glennie Kindred
Hatfields Herbal - Gabrielle Hatfield
Tree Medicine - Peter Conway
Tree Wisdom - Jacqueline Memory Paterson
The Celtic Wisdom of trees - Jane Gifford
Image - wikipedia