As we move from the old year to the new, here are some messages from the Yew, the Tree of Death, Rebirth and Everlasting Life.
Oldest of all our trees, you’ll find many ancient yews growing near churches, usually on the north side. No one is quite sure how long they can live, but we do know that some are several thousand years old. So they have much wisdom to impart.
Yews are unusual in that they can reproduce by allowing their branches to sweep to the ground. Where they touch it, a new tree will spring up, each one connected to the other. They can also grow up from “within themselves”, a new trunk emerging from within the husk of the old. So it is not surprising that they have long been revered as living emblems both of the interconnection of all things and of the endless cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. They can literally resurrect themselves.
Our ancestors often chose for their sacred sites places where Yews were growing. If there were none nearby, they planted Yews in places where they wished to worship (see my last post for more on sacred sites), most churchyard Yews being far, far older than the buildings that have sprung up beside them.
Why the north door? Look inside the north door of churches and you’ll often find an old pagan image of some kind carved into the stone above it: a green man, or a sheaf of corn. These were put up in order to pay tribute to the old ways. The north door was “the devil’s door”: not because evil things lurked outside, but because it represented an acknowledgement of the power of nature, the call of the wild, which The Church wished to demonize.
When the early missionaries were sent to “convert” Britain, the pope urged them to use the old places of worship as their own and to appropriate existing religious days as holy-days. Hence the midwinter Feast of the Unconquered Sun became Christmas, the Feast of the Unconquered Son and the spring Festival of Eostre, goddess of the dawn, became Easter, the date of Christ’s resurrection.
It was a smart move, helping The Church to take a hold in a way that it might not have done. But the old traditions have great sticking power and they still won’t let go! Even today we collect Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe at Christmas: the evergreens valued so highly by the druids and many before them!
The word Yew comes from the Anglo-Saxon “Giuli” which is the stem for our word “Yule”, the time when the wheel of the year turns from old to new. In the Celtic Calendar, the Yew Tree sat at this turning point on the wheel, where the old year became a new one. The Yule Log was originally a piece of Yew. Set on the hearth, it burned for 12 days over the midwinter season, spanning this time of change.
Yew wood is hard, bright orange and has a heady scent. Once treated, it is almost impossible to damage it, so it has long been regarded as a symbol of everlasting life. At the same time it is also known across Europe as The Death-Tree. Perhaps this is because its bark, foliage and fruit are all poisonous. Birds will eat the red flesh of the berries, but not the stones. Death and Everlasting Life walk hand in hand in the Yew Tree.
In Ancient Irish lore, the Yew Tree was one of the Five Magical Trees and was sacred to Banbha, the death-aspect of the once-supreme Triple Goddess. In Britain it was also associated with Hecate and so is dear to witches. Shakespeare calls the Yew “twice-fatal” and chose its juice as the poison which Hamlet’s uncle pours into the king’s ear in order to bump him off. So, it is a tree with quite a reputation!
Famous as the wood from which English bows were made (another association with death), Yew was also favoured by druids for making ogham-sticks and for their staves. My guess is that Gandalf’s staff would have been of Yew.
With their long association with both death and rebirth, Yew Trees give us a timely reminder at this time of year of our contact with the spirit world and with our ancestors. One Old Belief that I particularly like is that the roots of churchyard Yews intermingle with each other and reach into the mouths of those who are buried there, giving voice to the spirits. It is said that this accounts for the reddish colour of the bark as well as the berries.
I once lived near a small wood made up entirely of Yew Trees. I would crawl under the branches of the outer trees and then stand up and walk inside a world that was hushed and dim, but never frightening. Sometimes I would sit propped up against the trunk of the oldest tree, listening to the whisperings of root and branch and twig.
As the Tree of New Year’s Eve, the message of the Yew is for us to live life and enjoy it, to waste not an instant of our brief time here. Yet it holds a deeper message too. It tells us that death need hold no fear over us, but is itself a birth, a moment of transformation. Just as the Yew can spring up from its own dying remains, the old year passes away to be replaced by a new one that would not be the same without those that came before it and those that are to follow. And just as each Yew Tree is connected to the next, so all moments in time are linked.
Our lives are the same. We would not be who we are without our ancestors and we in turn will be ancestors to our descendants. Nothing truly ends and nothing is truly separate from anything else. Long after we are not here to sit in person beneath its boughs, the Yew Tree will be singing its song, whispering the tales of eternal spirits to those who wish to listen.
Wishing you a wonderful, enchanted and dream-filled 2012!
PS – If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy my book Tilly Greenway and the Secrets of the Ancient Keys, which includes a lot of old Tree Lore. Fin out more at any of these links. Thank you!