The Yew Tree

The Yew, Taxus baccata , is an ancient tree species that has survived since before the Ice Age and has been revered and used by humankind throughout the ages.

big yew

“The early Hittite word for yew, Eya means to ‘to be touched by eternity.To be ‘touched by eternity’ through the yew is to be in contact with the spiritual forces of eternity that shaped the Earth and all earthly beings.”  Michael Dunning

Because of its longevity and its unique way of growing new trunks from within the original root bole, it has now been estimated that some English Yews are as much as 4,000 years old.

The Yew is associated with immortality, renewal, regeneration, everlasting life, rebirth, transformation and access to the Otherworld and the ancestors.

There are about 10 different species of Yew in the northern temperate zones of Asia, Asia Minor, India, Europe, North Africa and North America. They are all thought to have descended from Paleotaxus rediviva , which was found imprinted on a Triassic era fossils laid down more than 200,000,000 years ago.

According to pollen counts taken from peat bogs of Europe, the Yew trees grew in greater abundance at the time of the Ice Age than they do now. As the glaciers receded northwards, the great forests of Europe contained up to 80% of Yew trees, and since these times have been in continuous decline.

The Yew has been put to good use throughout the ages.  It’s slow-growing, tight-grained wood is tough and resilient and was used in the past for spears, spikes, staves, small hunting bows and eventually the famous longbows of the Middle Ages.

The entire tree is poisonous, wood, bark, needles and seed. The only part which isn’t is the fleshy part of the seed.

The Yew is sacred to Hecate, and the Crone aspect of the Triple Goddess; both are guardians of the Underworld, death and the afterlife.

Many of our ancient Yews are found in churchyards but it is likely that they were there before the churches were built. Possibly a legacy of the Druids’ sacred groves. At Amesbury in Wiltshire, there are 14 Yews in a churchyard and 18 at Bradford-on-Avon. All are growing on blind springs. The 99 Yews in a churchyard at Painswick in Gloucestershire were also found to be on nodes or springs. It seems likely that the Yews were planted with the intention of marking and protecting these powerful spots.

churchyard yew

Yew wood was regarded as especially magical to the Celts, due to its connection with the dead and the ancestors which were deeply respected.

The Yew is considered to be the most powerful tree for protection against evil.  It is said to offer a means of connecting to our ancestors, bringing dreams and otherworld journeys and as such is a symbol of the old magic. In hot weather it gives off a resinous vapour which shamans can inhale to gain visions.

Archaeologists have recently found well-preserved Yew wood carvings at ancient sites of springs and wells which were probably votive offerings. Yew would have been idea for this purpose, as it was already magically associated with the Goddess and the Gods.

The Yew tree is the last of the 20 trees in the Tree Ogham, a Celtic system in which the Druids encoded their wisdom. Each spiritual insight is represented by a tree, the first letter of which creates an alphabet system. Each letter is written as a line on, or crossing, a central stemline. These symbols can be found on the edges of some standing stones in Ireland and Wales, but they were probably, for magical and communication purposes, carved on staves of Yew.


Ogham was used as a silent communication system by the Druids, and is recorded in some medieval manuscripts. The place of Yew, or Idho , I, was at the base of the Mercury finger (the little finger) at the line which separates it from the palm. The connection of the Mercury finger with the Yew is made by Mercury’s conducting of souls to the place presided over by the death Goddess, Hecate, this mother, to whom the Yew was sacred. The Ogham symbol could also be communicated silently by using the shin bone as the central stemline and laying five fingers horizontally across it.

The Yew tree, or Yew wood, the Tree ogham Idho , is the link to spiritual guidance through our 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 knowledge we gain from the Yew makes it an extremely important tree for healing. It can help us overcome our fear of our own death and, by freeing us from this fear, bring us a greater stillness in our lives. Death heralds the ending of something. It may be a physical death, or the death of our old selves, an old way of life or an old way of looking at things. Each end, each death, is a new beginning, hope, future and transformation. Sometimes things need to end or die before the new can begin, and understanding rebirth always requires seeing beyond our limitations.

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.

Magically the Yew is used for summoning spirits and any Otherworld communication. It is linked to Samhain, when entry to the Otherworld is easiest, dreams are most potent and access to the ancestors is most possible. The Yew is linked to the runes yr and eolh , both ruled by Jupiter and the positive benefits of transformation. According to a modern encyclopaedia of magical herbs, the Yew is feminine, its element is water and its planet is Saturn. The Yew also connects through Samhain and the water element, to Scorpio, ruled by Pluto, the planet of death and change, transformation and rebirth

Because the Yew is poisonous, there re no herbal remedies, although it was sometimes called the forbidden tree as it was used to stimulate abortions. In the north, the Yew was used for dowsing to find lost property. The seeker held a Yew branch which led them to the goods by turning in his hand when he was near them.

A strange belief in the north of Scotland concerning the Yew was that a person, when grasping a branch of Yew in the left hand, may speak to anyone he pleases without that person being able to hear, even though everyone else present can. This may have been useful if someone wished to prejudice the clan against a chief without receiving punishment for his insults.

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.

In the past Yew trees 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.

So many ancient documented trees have gone now, but in recent years there has been an upsurge of interest in the Yew, and there are several books available now which are still with us. It is possible to make a pilgrimage to visit these magnificent trees and touch the awesome connection to ages long gone.

Yew trees can be propagated through cuttings, seed, graftings or layering. It is also possible to find small trees growing near bigger trees, which transplant well. They prefer a moist, fertile, sandy loam soil, but will grow well in most soils except water-logged ground or sticky wet clay. They also grow well on chalk. They resist pollution and can flourish in the shade of taller trees, but little will grow in the shade they themselves cast.

Yew has been found to be beneficial in propagating other species. Cuttings soaked in an infusion of crushed Yew and water produce quicker and healthier root growth. Cuttings of Yew taken from lateral branches generally produce shrub-like plants, while those from erect topward branches are more likely to produce a tree.

In recent years it has been found that taxol, a chemical found in the bark of the Yew, inhibits cell growth and cell division, and as such it is being used in the treatment of cancer.

Adapted from an article by Glennie Kindred

” Three lifetimes of the Yew for the world from its beginning to its end”

The Book of Lismore


Yggdrasill is an immense mythical tree that connects the nine worlds in Norse cosmology.  Although translated as Ash it is believed that this tree is likely to have been a Yew.

Yggdrasil is attested in the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources, and the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson. In both sources, Yggdrasil is an immense tree that is central and considered very holy. The gods go to Yggdrasil daily to assemble at their things. The branches of Yggdrasil extend far into the heavens, and the tree is supported by three roots that extend far away into other locations; one to the well Urðarbrunnr in the heavens, one to the spring Hvergelmir, and another to the well Mímisbrunnr. Creatures live within Yggdrasil, including the wyrm (dragon) Níðhöggr, an unnamed eagle, and the stags Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Duraþrór.

The generally accepted meaning of Old Norse Yggdrasill is “Odin’s horse”, meaning “gallows”. This interpretation comes about because drasill means “horse” and Ygg(r) is one of Odin’s many names. The Poetic Edda poem Hávamál describes how Odin sacrificed himself by hanging from a tree, making this tree Odin’s gallows. This tree may have been Yggdrasil. Gallows can be called “the horse of the hanged” and therefore Odin’s gallows may have developed into the expression “Odin’s horse”, which then became the name of the tree.

The scholar F. R. Schröder has proposed an alternative etymology according to which yggdrasill means “yew pillar”, deriving yggia from igwja (meaning “yew-tree”), and drasill from dher- (meaning “support”).

In the poem Hávamál, Odin describes how he once sacrificed himself to himself by hanging on a tree. The stanza reads:

“I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.”

In the stanza that follows, Odin describes how he had no food nor drink there, that he peered downward, and that

“I took up the runes, screaming I took them, then I fell back from there.”

While Yggdrasil is not mentioned by name in the poem and other trees exist in Norse mythology, the tree is near universally accepted as Yggdrasil, and if the tree is Yggdrasil, then the name Yggdrasil directly relates to this story.

In the poem Grímnismál, Odin (disguised as Grímnir) provides the young Agnar with cosmological lore. Yggdrasil is first mentioned in the poem when Odin says that, because the “bridge of the Æsir burns” and the “sacred waters boil,” Thor must wade through the rivers Körmt and Örmt and two rivers named Kerlaugar to go “sit as judge at the tree of Yggdrasill.” In the stanza that follows, a list of names of horses are given that the Æsir ride to “sit as judges” at Yggdrasil.

Odin  furthersays that Yggdrasil has three roots that grow in three directions. He details that beneath the first lives Hel, under the second live frost jötnar, and beneath the third lives mankind. The poem further details that a squirrel named Ratatoskr must run across Yggdrasil and bring “the eagle’s word” from above to Níðhöggr below and describes that four harts named Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Duraþrór consume “the highest boughs” of Yggdrasil.

Odin says that more serpents lie beneath Yggdrasil “than any fool can imagine” and lists them as Góinn and Móinn (possibly meaning Old Norse “land animal”, which he describes as sons of Grafvitnir (Old Norse, possibly “ditch wolf”, Grábakr (Old Norse “Greyback”, Grafvölluðr (Old Norse, possibly “the one digging under the plain” or possibly amended as “the one ruling in the ditch”, Ófnir (Old Norse “the winding one, the twisting one”, and Sváfnir (Old Norse, possibly “the one who puts to sleep death”, who Odin adds that he thinks will forever gnaw on the tree’s branches.

Odin says that Yggdrasil “suffers agony more than men know”, as a hart bites it from above, it decays on its sides, and Níðhöggr bites it from beneath. Odin provides a list of things that are what he refers to as the “noblest” of their kind. Within the list, Odin mentions Yggdrasil first, and states that it is the “noblest of trees”

The existence of nine worlds around Yggdrasil is mentioned more than once in Old Norse sources, but the identity of the worlds is never stated outright, though it can be deduced from various sources. The identity of the nine may have varied from time to time as the emphasis changed or new imagery arrived. It is unclear where the nine worlds are located in relation to the tree; they could either exist one above the other or perhaps be grouped around the tree, but there are references to worlds existing beneath the tree, while the gods are pictured as in the sky, a rainbow bridge (Bifröst) connecting the tree with other worlds.

There are parallels between Yggdrasil and shamanic lore in northern Eurasia:

The conception of the tree rising through a number of worlds is found in northern Eurasia and forms part of the shamanic lore shared by many peoples of this region. This seems to be a very ancient conception, perhaps based on the Pole Star, the centre of the heavens, and the image of the central tree in Scandinavia may have been influenced by it…. Among Siberian shamans, a central tree may be used as a ladder to ascend the heavens.

The notion of an eagle atop a tree and the world serpent coiled around the roots of the tree has parallels in cosmologies from Asia and  further the Germanic peoples worshipped their deities in open forest clearings and therefore a central tree was a natural symbol for them also.

Continuing as late as the 19th century, ‘warden trees’ were venerated in areas of Germany and Scandinavia, considered to be guardians and bringers of luck, and offerings were sometimes made to them. A massive birch tree standing atop a burial mound and located beside a farm in western Norway is recorded as having had ale poured over its roots during festivals. The tree was felled in 1874.

These rituals to ‘warden trees’ confirming the position of the tree in the centre as a source of luck and protection for gods and men.  The gods are described as meeting beneath Yggdrasil to hold their rituals, and the pillars venerated by the Germanic peoples, such as the pillar ‘Irminsul’, were also symbolic of the center of the world.

Adam of Bremen describes a huge tree standing next to the Temple at Uppsala in Sweden, which he describes as remaining green throughout summer and winter.

It has been commented that behind ‘Irminsul’, Thor’s Oak in Geismar, and the sacred tree at Uppsala “looms a mythic prototype, an Yggdrasil, the world-tree of the Norsemen”