The yew tree’s resume is quite interesting and one-of-a-kind. For a long time, it was known that the Celts considered them to be sacred. Many experts now think that Yggdrasil—the world tree in Nordic mythology where Odin was hung—was a yew instead of ash like people previously thought.
Yew tree symbolism is a fascinating topic that has many meanings, both historically and in the present. Yew trees are associated with death, passing, rebirth, longevity, and eternity. In addition to this symbolism coming from folklore, Yew trees have also been used to make dye as well as medicinal remedies accompanied by ritualistic practices.
The Yew tree holds special importance due to its connection with Saturn’s power – with all parts of the Yew being poisonous it should always be approached with caution. Yews were found planted near churches and cemeteries in Ancient Europe often to mark gravesites. Yews, therefore, remain an important symbol of respect for the dead even today.
Tree of Life, immortality, rebirth, protection
The Great Goddess (Neolithic), Odin (Norse), Dione (pre-Greek), Artemis (Phrygian and ancient Greek), Astarte (Syrian), Persephone, Hecate (ancient Greek)
Saturn and Pluto
The earliest mention of the idea that someone might die from sleeping under a yew tree comes from the Greek physician Dioscorides in c77 CE.
The great English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–82) sometimes rested under the great yew in St Mary’s churchyard in Downe, Kent. This is where he wanted to be buried; however, public opinion preferred a high-status burial for him at Westminster Abbey in London instead.
About Yew Trees
The yew tree has been a source of confusion for botanists since the early days of plant classification. Its leaves are needle-shaped, but it cannot be called a conifer because that would mean it is “cone-bearing”, and yews do not produce cones — instead they have red, fleshy fruits. Furthermore, the tree contains no resin.
Although there are still seven or eight species of yews listed globally, experts know that all evidence points to them being regional varieties of a single species: The European or Common Yew, Taxus baccata.
Yews are trees with lots of branches. They’re often wider than they are tall, and usually, only grow to be about 50 feet (15 meters) high. But in some forests in Turkey and the Caucasus Mountains (Georgia, southern Russia), there are yew trees that reach a height of 70 to 100 feet (20–30 meters).
The long, thin leaves are between half an inch and one and a quarter inches (1.3-3 centimeters) and are dark green on top and pale green underneath, spiraling around the stem or in two rows. The reproductive organs grow in small round clusters called inflorescences at the leaf axils.
Both male and female flowers open in early spring, but they usually grow on different trees. The seed has a bright scarlet casing called an aril that is fleshy and surrounds only part of the seed. Birds, particularly thrushes, disperse these seeds most often.
Many yews have interior roots which can be seen inside their hollow trunks. A small root grows downward through the old hardwood, but it takes centuries for this new “root” to become a trunk that stands inside the shell of the old tree.
The old tree will eventually be taken over by the new one, and this renews the yew from the inside out. Yews grow slowly – at about half the rate of other European trees.
Slower-growing trees are not only found in parks and churchyards, but also wild areas like forests or rocky regions such as southern France. Trees die when they have outgrown themselves, so slow growth is a key ingredient for longevity–something that the yew tree excels at.
It is notoriously difficult to appraise the age of a yew tree. The primary reason is that trunks of older trees almost always become hollow over time. This is not an indication of waning strength or impending decay–quite the opposite.
A hollow tube is much stronger and more flexible than its solid counterpart (just ask any engineer). But unfortunately, this process also destroys the growth rings that would enable us to determine the tree’s age.
Eventually, a root growing inside an old tree trunk will turn into a new trunk that takes over supplying the crown. When the old shell withers away centuries later, nobody will be able to guess that the young tree had an entire life before, and is older than its girth suggests.
Even though dendrochronological testing isn’t exact, it generally proves that yews can live much longer than was assumed. For example, there is a yew in Borrowdale (Cumbria, England) that the tests date back 1,500 years.
Additionally, Professor Pridnya from Georgia says some yews could be even older than 2 millennia.
Yew wood is highly sought after by many cultures due to its slow growth, hard but flexible qualities, and fine grain. Yew is also known as “iron wood” because yew fence poles are said to outlast metal ones.
Some of the oldest man-made artifacts are made from yew, including a spear dating back 200,000 to 300,000 years ago. In ancient Ireland, everyday household items such as bowls and spoons were often carved from yew wood.
The yew longbow is an ancient weapon, with one example dating back 5,300 years. However, it was between the 13th and 16th centuries when professional archers using this weapon helped win important battles against Scotland and France for England.
English monarchs had to import yew wood from other countries in Europe because of how quickly the British Isles’ supplies ran out due to intense trading. Unfortunately, European populations of yew never recovered after this period.
The yew is poisonous, except the red aril. Even eating just 1¾-3½oz (50-100g) of chopped leaves can be deadly for an adult. Although taxicantin poisoning is rare, all ten reported fatal cases in the 20th century were intentional ingestion.
The early 1960s saw the discovery of paclitaxel (formerly taxol), a substance derived from yew bark, as a potent anti-cancer drug. This put immense pressure on yew populations in the United States, which were almost destroyed by pharmaceutical companies.
However, a newly-discovered method of part-synthesizing the drug from related leaves took some pressure off these trees.
Unfortunately, as demand increased in the 1990s, most yews in Asia were destroyed for their foliage—particularly those located in northern India. The USA and China have been growing cloned yew trees in plantations by the millions since then.
Folklore, Myth and Symbol of the Yew Tree
Many ancient Celtic peoples and tribes named themselves after the yew, which points to how significant and sacred this tree was (e.g., Eurobones and Eburovices in Gaul). The Ibero-Celts, originally from Spain, got their name by merging with non-Celtic neighbours, the Iberians (from ibe, meaning “yew”).
These Celts were the first to invade Ireland–back when it was called “Yew Island.” Additionally, a second kingdom also called Iberia existed during medieval times in Georgia, Asia; where people still refer to the yew as “The Tree of God.”
If you cut down a consecrated yew in tenth-century Wales, you’d be fined one pound– more money than most people earned throughout their lifetimes. The trees referred to are found in Christian churchyards that sit on sites once sacred to older religions.
Many small churchyards in the British Isles, especially Wales, feature a circular and elevated landscape which dates back to Bronze Age tumuli or Neolithic burial mounds. The religious importance of yews is as old as the Stone Age.
The 13th rune in the old Norse futhark is called either ihwaz or eiwaz, both meaning “yew”, and representing death and rebirth. A second rune associated with this tree, “yr”, later used in Scandinavian cultures as part of a younger set of runes, shares an identical symbol to the Stone-Age depiction of the roots for the Tree of Life.
The Nordic Tree of Life, Yggdrasil, not only represents the central pole and unity of the universe but is also connected to the spiritual search for divine knowledge. In Icelandic scriptures, Yggdrassil is referred to as a “winter-green needle-ash”. Unfortunately, this has been interpreted over time to mean that Yggdrasill was an Ash tree.
However, ash trees are not evergreen nor do they have needles. Additionally, while “askr” can mean ash in medieval times it also meant wooden bowl more frequently. So it is speculated that Yggdrasill is a yew tree.
In myths, Odin, the god of wisdom, is known to climb Yggdrasil’s branches in search of knowledge and understanding. For nine days and nights, he hangs from the tree to gain a powerful vision that will teach him runes – the magical alphabet. Once he has learnt this sacred information, he returns to share it with humankind.
Consequently, yew trees have been connected with creator gods throughout Eurasia and Japan for many centuries – often being referred to as ‘the Tree of God’.
Yggdrasil is the “steed of Odin”, but it can also be interpreted as “I-carrier”. The yew tree has been mentioned in many ancient European texts, and its name is derived from the Germanic “iwe”. In Anglo-Saxon, the word “ih” means both “I” (the conscious self) and the yew tree.
In addition, “iwe” is closely related to “ewi” (in modern German, “ewig”), which translates to “eternal”. Another name for the yew tree in Anglo-Saxon, “eo”, comes from Old High German eo–with the same meaning as “eternal” and “always”. For some inexplicable reason, the yew tree has always been symbolic of eternal awareness.
The Germanic people tied the yew to the winter solstice on December 21. The Saxons honored the three longest nights of the year as modraneht, or “mother nights,” out of respect for the dark and calm womb of the Great Goddess who gives birth to all things on Earth. The Norse celebrated solstice over an even longer stretch – Yuletide’s 13 nights.
The Celtic calendar associates the yew with Samhain, a festival taking place on November 1st. On this day, it is said that the barriers between our world and the afterlife are more porous. The ancient Greeks held a similar belief about the yew being the gateway to another realm.
This motif appears cross-culturally in various cultures; which explains why you often see yews near ancient burial mounds and contemporary graveyards. The yew, contrary to what some 18th- and 19th-century poets called it, is not the “tree of death”.
It is instead known as the Tree of Life. In fact, in ancient times the yew was just as important in rituals celebrating birth and life. The yew serves as a guardian of gateways.
The female aspect of God has always been associated with transformation and rebirth in the history of religion. In Judaic myth, Channa or Anna represents divine mercy; in Christianity, Mary is the mother of Jesus.
Older religions pay homage to the Great Goddess, whose associations with the yew can be found on all continents. She gifts us with justice, compassion, forgiveness, contemplation and inner peace among other things.
Yew Tree Meanings and Symbols
Some people think that yew trees release gas on hot days that can cause hallucinations. It’s been speculated that this may be how the Norse god Odin saw things during his vision quest. Instead of being just a story, maybe it was real and he travelled to another level of reality with the help of yew tree gas.
In a similar vein, the 1881 volume British Goblins by Wirt Sikes tells a tale of two “farm servants” who become enveloped in mist while in a yew forest. They then find themselves bathed in an unworldly light and subsequently fall asleep under a yew tree.
After one of the farmhands wakes up to find the other missing, they eventually locate him in fairyland–where he was taken during the night.
Yew trees are very slow-growing and can live for thousands of years. It’s difficult to determine the exact age of the oldest yews because they have hollow trunks with no rings, but some are quite old.
Therefore, if your goal is endurance, it would help to spend time with a yew tree and ask for its energy. This covers not only physical endurance but also the staying power of factors like businesses, relationships, and careers.
In ancient times, yew trees were considered sacred by pagans and they often grew in the center of old churchyards in Europe.
In some cases, you can find chapels that were built from the hollow trunk of the tree with a door placed at the border. The tree is aligned with eternity and serves as an anchor for places of worship.
Death, Rebirth, and Eternity
The yew has long been associated with death, rebirth, and the divine realm in many cultures. The Celts considered it a guardian of the veil between worlds, and the yew is closely aligned with the famed Eleusinian mysteries of ancient Greece.
Not only does it stand as a symbol of birth and death themselves, but also as a representation of eternity itself -the space beyond time.
The yew tree is a magnificent creature that has withstood the test of time. Its symbolism has been pondered over for centuries and its meanings are as varied as they are significant.
If you find yourself attracted to the yew tree, take some time to consider what it might mean for you. Chances are, there is more to it than meets the eye.