Yew: Tree of Life, Death and Rebirth

By April Thanhauser

Photo:, Nutting, Wallace: “England Beautiful” (1936)

Photo:, Nutting, Wallace: “England Beautiful” (1936)

In the British isles, the Yews standing in many ancient churchyards are believed to be  far older than the churches. For both the church builders and their ancestors, the yews were a symbol of immortality, of death and rebirth, guardians of the place between the worlds. Two of the secrets of Yew’s longevity  are: slowness of growth, and the ability to regenerate from within.  As the tree ages and some of the heartwood decays, aerial roots grow down through this rich humus, take root in the ground, eventually creating whole new trunks. A circle of new trunks may grow around the original bole, which itself may collapse in decay.  Thus there are very, very old, hollow Yew trees, impossible to date by growth rings, but  believed, some of them,  to be upwards of 2000 years old. The old churches were often built over pagan holy sites, and it may be that the Yews  now in the churchyards were planted in connection with sacred rites that  predated Christianity.

Yews are decidedly holy trees. In Georgia, Asia and in Japan, yew is called “Tree of God”.  In ancient Greece yew was sacred to Hecate, crone goddess of the crossroads. In Ancient Ireland Yew was deeply revered and held sacred to Banbha— a warrior queen/primal deity. One of yew’s names was “Reknown of Banbha”.  Other names for Yew were “Spell of Knowledge” and “King’s Wheel.”   Yews were held in great esteem by the ancient Celtic peoples and many Celtic tribal names referred to Yew. Yew trees are especially sacred to the Druids, who have associated yew with immortality, and with transcendence of time. In Ogham, the secret runic language of the Druids, Yew was named “oldest of letters” or “older than letters” and “fairest of ancients,” and “beautiful in age.”

tree yew.jpg

The Latin surname for name for Yew, however, is Taxus (taxaceae family). This derives from the Greek taxon, for bow.  Partly because of its very slow growth habit, the wood of Yew is hard, fine-grained, but flexible. Perfect for bow-making.  A 5300 year old bow has been discovered, made of yew wood. Because this wood was so desirable  for bow-making, it was in high demand by Celtic and Teutonic warriors and then by the British armies.  In England and Western Europe great stands of European  Yew (taxus baccata) were decimated for bow making.  Those old trees in the churchyards were among the few that survived.

tree yew fruit.jpg

Since  the  1980s a new kind of warfare has tapped the reservoirs of Yew.  The so-called “war against cancer” has employed the poison/healer aspect of the tree.  Botanic and herbal references to Yew are careful to point out that every part of the yew tree, except the Aril (the small red fruit encasing the seed) is poisonous. As it turns out, the Yew’s poison (taxane alkaloids) can kill some kinds of fast-growing cancer cells (the basic tactic of chemotherapy).  This time it is the Pacific Yew (taxus brevifolia)  whose warrior power has been proven and whose stands have been nearly decimated. Fortunately, though, while the cancer drug (paclitaxol or taxol) was first made from yew bark, pharmacology has discovered ways to synthesize the drug from yew leaves and many plantations of yew now provide the raw material for the medicine, giving the wild Yews a chance to survive.

So it seems that for centuries Yew has been correctly perceived as a tree of life and death. Yew’s value to humans —for both warfare and healing—has nearly led to its downfall. But its ancient power and beauty call us into the presence of the sacred. May we come into that presence humbly, with hope for the rebirth of nature consciousness and a life of true partnership between humans and trees.

The Wisdom of Trees  by Jane Giffords  New York  2000

The Meaning of Trees, Botany History Healing Lore by Fred Hageneder, San Fransisco 2005

 A Druid's Herbal of Sacred Tree Medicine, by Ellen Evert Hopman, Rochester, VT 2008