The Yew in Myth, Magic and Legend

Little in nature has played so important a role in so many cultures, in so many countries and for so many millennia as the Yew. It is perhaps no coincidence that one of the world’s oldest surviving objects fashioned from wood is the Clactonian Yew spear head – so called because it was discovered in, yes, Clacton-on-Sea! It is so old – at least 400,000 (sic) years – that it was made not by man but by one of our distant ancestors, Homo Erectus. More recently, the Yew has been a constant facet of our imagination as well as our practical lives. Here are just a few examples:
• In Norse mythology, the centre of the universe was occupied by Yggdrasil, a giant tree where the gods met daily. For centuries, this tree was thought to be an ash, but the latest scholarship points to it being a Yew just like the Sacred Tree at the Temple at Uppsala, Sweden
• The Yew was sacred to the pre-Christian Druids – a symbol of regeneration based on the Yew’s seemingly mystical ability to grow new trunks from branches that touch the ground
• The Yew’s longevity has been known for thousands of years and early Christians across Britain, Ireland, France and northern Spain planted Yews in the churchyards as a symbol of long life and resurrection – and its well-known toxicity also stopped farmers, shepherds and drovers letting their animals wander onto church land.
Yew branches were commonly used instead of palms on Palm Sunday
• In Irish mythology, a yew – the Tree of Ross – is one of the five sacred trees brought from the Otherworld at the division of the land into five parts to bring lasting plenty to Ireland. And in the Book of Lismore – an Irish manuscript from the early 1400s – the age of creation is described in terms of the Yew: “Three lifetimes of the yew for the world from its beginning to its end.”
• According to legend, Pontius Pilate was either born under or played in The Fortingall Yew of Glen Lyon, Perthshire
• From the 4th to the 6th centuries in Ireland, texts were set down in the Ogham alphabet. Comprising letters formed exclusively of straight lines (for ease of carving), it has survived primarily on standing stones. However, it was also used by Druids to inscribe magical spells and incantations onto staves of Yew
• The Scots also fashioned longbows out of Yew and Robert the Bruce won the battle at Bannockburn (1314) with the aid of bows cut from the sacred yews at Ardchattan Priory in Argyll
• Still in Scotland, water drawn from The Yew Tree Well in Easter Ross was believed to have healing powers thanks to the adjacent and eponymous Yew