Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Sacred Yew of Yule

Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the bettle, nor the death moth be 
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl 
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries.
~Keats: Ode on Melancholy~

Robert Graves in his book The White Goddess, says that the yew was a death tree, sacred to Hecate in Greece and Italy. When black bulls were sacrificed to Hecate, so ghosts could lap their blood, they were wreathed with yew. The Yew and Hecate, embodying the Triple Goddess; both are guardians of the Underworld, death and the afterlife. On this solstice day, conjuncted as it is with a New Moon, the psychic tides of the Dark Mother reach their peak and begin to recede, evergreen yew trees and their red berries are prominent in their regenerative and transformative power, presenting a life- in death aspect.

The Yew tree, or Yew wood, the Tree ogham Idho , is the link to spiritual guidance through your ancestors, guides and guardians in the Otherworld. The Yew is here to remind us that there are other levels of existence beyond this material plane. By understanding the illusionary nature of the life we have created for ourselves, we can live our lives more consciously. Often death is fraught with a sense of loss, but the Yew can teach us to see death as a form of transformation and that it is never final.

The Yew can be used to assist Otherworld journeys and to increase openness of communication with the Otherworld, through an increased ability to understand and receive the messages which are being given to us by our guides and helpers. By opening ourselves to intuitively interpreting these messages, and trusting our intuitions to act on what we receive, we can make some real progress as the wheel turns and the death of one situation heralds the birth of another.

The yew has an interesting growth pattern. It grows very slowly, at about half the rate of other trees, and thus lives a long time. The interior of the trunk often crumbles so the trunk becomes hollow. Thomas Pakenham, who photographed many beautiful old yews in his marvelous book, Meetings with Remarkable Trees, describes the hollow interior of the old yew at Crowhurst thus: “New wood in an old yew tree accumulates like coral. The old room now resembles a cave flowing with pink fretted rock.” Sometimes an aerial root grows down inside the hollow trunk and becomes a new trunk, thus the imagery of life in death. Yews also grow outward because branches sprout new roots when they hit the ground, thus creating tangles of branches and trunks. Like expanding rings of fairy mushrooms, Yews could at least in theory continue to self propagate indefinitely although there is much dispute about the age of yews since they cannot be dated like other trees (by counting rings because the oldest wood, in the interior of the tree, is missing). Instead scientists study records showing the girth of the tree at various historical periods and estimate the age by noting the slow rate of growth. Estimates range from 1,500 to 4,000 years old (a new system of dating Yews suggests that some of our most ancient and protected Yews are 4,000 years old and not 1,500 years old as previously thought). This poem provides a glimpse of their great age:

The lives of three wattles, the life of a hound;
The lives of three hounds, the life of a steed;
The lives of three steeds, the life of a man;
The lives of three eagles, the life of a yew;
The life of a yew, the length of an age; 
Seven ages from Creation to Doom. 
~Nennius, Seven Ages~

Anand Chetan and Diana Brueton in their book, The Sacred Yew, hypothesize that yews were planted in neolithic times on sacred sites and on top of barrow graves as symbols of death and life. Early Christian missionaries recognized the sacred nature of the trees and built their churches near them. Monks and hermits were also said to live in the hollows of yew trees, again a recognition that yews marked sacred sites. In tenth-century Wales, the penalty for cutting down a consecrated yew (does that mean a yew growing in a churchyard?) was one pound, more than most people earned in a lifetime.

Yews are often found in growing in churchyards and cemeteries. Some ancient Welsh churches were ringed by circles of yews. After the Norman Conquest, cemeteries were more likely to be rectangular and marked with a yew in each of the four corners. Chetan and Brueton note that the oldest yews were usually male trees planted on the north side of churches. The north was considered the direction of death.

So many of the ancient Yew trees we have in our country are protected by the churchyard, and reports of their great girths, and therefore great ages, are documented throughout historical texts. In the past they were used as landmarks, because of their size and longevity, and their dark branches would make them stand out in the landscape. Yew groves planted by the Druids were common by ancient ways, on sacred sites, hilltops, ridgeways and burial grounds. Tribal leaders were buried beneath Yew trees, in the sure belief that their knowledge and wisdom would be joined with the Dryad of the Yew and therefore still be accessible to the tribe for generations to come.

Yew has long been part of funerary customs, which may vary from country to country and district to district. They mainly involve carrying sprigs of Yew which are either thrown in the grave under the body or of being thrown in on top of the coffin. In Suffolk it was considered unlucky if some Yew came into the house with the Christmas Eve decorations and a sure sign that someone in the family would die before the year was out. In Derbyshire, however, care was taken to include the Yew in the evergreens brought into the house at Christmas, although it was on no account to be taken from the churchyard, and to be used specifically as part of the decorations around the window. Yew is also put around the well-dressing pictures, a tradition of making pictures from petals and placing these by the old wells and springs, which is still practised in Derbyshire today.

As the Yew is associated with immortality, renewal, regeneration, everlasting life, rebirth, transformation and access to the Otherworld and our ancestors, it resonates with the message of the Winter Solstice when in the midst of darkness the Sun is born again.

Web Refs:
The Yew: Sacred Tree of Transformation and Rebirth by Glennie Kindred (1997)
Living in Season: Waverly Fitzgerald of School of the Seasons.

by North Utsire

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