A few summers ago me and and a friend were walking towards her house when we saw the neighbours’ toddler eating berries from a plant in their frontgarden. That wouldn’t be very alarming if it weren’t for the fact that these berries, or arils as they really should be called, came from the yew, a very toxic tree. The girl ended up fine – the flesh of the arils is the only part of the tree that isn’t toxic, though you still have to be careful with the seeds. But isn’t it ironic that a tree that is ancient, strong and dangerous is nowadays mostly known as a nice looking hedge tree?
Life and death
Yew is a mighty tree that is a killer as well as a healer. Almost all of the tree will kill you when it comes in your body. Note that this counts for humans and cattle, but not for wild animals like deer. Even the vapors are toxic; if you come to close to a yew tree on a hot day, you might start hallucinating…As said above, only the flesh of the fruit is edible – but beware, because the seed is still toxic! As a death tree, yew can often been found growing in graveyards. Then again, taxol, which comes from the yew tree, is used for curing cancer.
Darkness is a friend to yew. Not that it prefers shadow per se, but yew is remarkable tolerant towards it, for a tree. It is perfectly able to grow in environments with very low light intensity, and more light doesn’t make a difference – yew grows slowly anyway. Among trees, yew is also known for its strong and dense root system. From a young age, yew invests most of its energy in growing and strengthening many roots, whereas most other trees put their energy somewhere else. Isn’t this fitting for a tree that is so much associated with death and darkness? It also makes me think of the roots of Yggdrasil.
Yews can be considered ancient, or maybe even timeless. They are considered to be amongst the oldest trees known on our planet. They certainly grow very slow and because the are so strong, can be many centuries, even millennia, old. The real age of an ancient yew tree is hard to find out. Old yew trees tend to become hollow, so annual rings disappear. Yews also tend to renew themselves, so that truly old material will be long gone. What’s more, their branches can grow back down into the earth and sprout new trees – creating yew groves that are really just one tree. Another possibility is that the yew grows roots from their ancient hollow trunk into the soil, creating a new trunk while the old one withers away. This is a tree that not just symbolizes but really lives the cycle of life, death and rebirth.
Bows for hunting and war
The wood is flexible and hardly splinters since its slow growth makes it very strong. This is why since ancient times yew has been found perfect for creating bows. We know that this has been done since at least the Copper Age; Ötzi, the ancient ice mummy found in Italian Alps in 1991, had a bow made of yew among his possessions.
In the late Middle Ages the English used longbows in large numbers for war. As a consequence, so many yews were cut down that they almost disappeared from the landscape. Yew forests didn’t really exist – they mostly grew amongst other trees. Damage to yew trees therefore often meant damage to other trees as well. The pillage for yew wood started in the late 13th century and only stopped in the 16th century – by then great damage had been done to European forests.
Most ancient yews nowadays can be found in graveyards, especially in Britain. These places were considered sacred and even though their wild cousins all died to become instruments of war, the yews that grew near churches and the dead were spared. The trees, many centuries old, are revered and cherished by many.
Like many trees, yew has a part in European mythology. One of these parts is a bit controversial. According to Norse mythology, Yggdrasil the world tree is an ancient, evergreen tree. As of old, Yggdrasil is thought to be an ash, but ash is neither ancient nor evergreen. Yew is both however. Also, think again of the deep, strong root system of yew and then again think of Yggdrasyl roots, which stretch to different worlds. Still, Yggdrasil is also supposed to be a very tall tree, and this is more a mark of the ash – yew isn’t a tall tree at all. Still, because of its symbolsim there are many people who think of Yggdrasil as a yew tree, including myself. The consfusion may have arisen from an Old Norse word for yew, barraskr, which translates as ‘needle-ash’.
It’s peculiar that, apart from stone, relatively many Rune- and Ogham-texts that we know of, have been carved out in yew wood. It appears that many of these texts might have a ritual or talismanic function, and yew might have strengthened this. Go the the runes-page for some examples.
The people of the yew
The importance of yew can possibly even be found in ancient tribe names. The tribe of the Eburones lived in the borderdlands of what is now the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. It is not certain whether they were Germanic or Celtic – even Julius Caesar, who vanquished the Eburones, didn’t know which they belonged to. Based on etymological research, the Celtic (Gallic) name is now favored. The name might then stem from Gallic *eburo-, which means ‘yew tree’, and the Eburones are the ‘Yew people’ or the ‘People fighting with yew’. Caesar mentions how one of the leaders of the Eburones, Catuvolcus, commits suicide by eating from the yew.
Clerinx, Herman. Kelten en de Lage Landen. Leuven: Davidsfonds. 2005. (Second print.)
Renswoude, Olivier van. ‘Eeuwen leven de uwen’, on Taaldacht. 5 oktober 2015. https://taaldacht.nl/2015/10/05/eeuwen-leven-de-uwen/