Guest Author - Phyllis Doyle Burns
Chapel in the Yew
The sacred tree, an ancient Yew
Steeped in myth and lore.
Into the tree they passed through
Where stood their chapel door.
- Phyllis Doyle Burns, December 2010
The Yew is one of the trees of which the functions and properties are central to the Druidic Religion. It is included among the Great Trees of their traditions and rituals. The Yew tree in lore and myth is considered very sacred. It is believed that the origins of the Yew date back to about two-hundred million years.
In ancient Greek mythology, the Yew was sacred to Hecate, goddess of witches, queen of the dead, who presided over the dark moon. It is believed that she could control dreams and often corrupted dreams of the youth. During the waning moon it was wise to seek protection against her powers.
Often the Druids were called upon for magical assistance in matters where one needed protection. Wands of Yew, with specific characters carved on them, were used by the Druids to dispel the powers of Hecate or other evil deities. They planted Yews around their places of worship and rituals, often near wells where sacred truths were held.
Highly skilled Druids would use parts of the Yew tree in rituals in order to achieve immortality -- they believed the tree had dominion over the realm of the dead. The poisonous attributes of the Yew are potent and were often used in ancient times to make bows which had devastating effect.
Shakespeare was aware of the poisonous needles of the yew which could be fatal -- the poisonous concoction that Macbeth brewed up contained "slips of yew, silvered in the moon's eclipse".
Deep in Glen Lyon in Perthshire, Scotland (nearly in the center of Scotland), stands the Fortingall Yew. It is within its own walled enclosure in the village churchyard. This noble and majestic tree is highly revered. Clippings of it have been taken to plant in other sacred sites around Scotland. This is considered Europe's oldest tree. There is a legend that Pontius Pilate was born under the tree and played among its branches as a child. It is believed that the tree is at least two thousand, possibly up to nine thousand years old.
The longevity of the yew is one of the reasons why the Druids held the tree so sacred. Its longevity and ability to regenerate itself symbolizes resurrection, rebirth and immortality to the Celtics. The long drooping branches of an old yew will root when they touch the ground and form new trunks.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the Fortingall Yew may have been the center of an Iron Age sacred site where a cult worshipped. During the Dark Ages, the site was Christianised, perhaps because it was already considered a sacred place.
In the early Christian era, young growth of the Yew was buried with deceased loved ones in hopes of ensuring the soul will have everlasting life. They also used boughs of the Yew in the "Palm Sunday" church services at Easter.
When archaeologists see an old Yew tree they are certain that an ancient holy and sacred site can be uncovered nearby. The Yew tree often stands as a sentinel at church yards and other sacred sites. At Chalice Well, where legends tell it may be the site of King Arthur's Court at Camelot, there are several ancient Yew trees standing guard. Joseph of Arimathea journeyed to Chalice Well after the resurrection of Jesus and planted small glass bottles of the blood of Jesus. The waters of the spring turned red and since that time, pilgrims have journeyed to the site for healing.
Since the Yew tree has been around before recorded history of humanity it is not difficult to see why it is seen as immortal and looked upon with such reverence. In lore and mythology, there is often truths to be found. If there were some way to retrieve the knowledge that ancient peoples whispered among the Yew tree the revelations would be profound indeed.
Door of the Chapel in a Norman Yew
Author: Gerard Janot, April 2008
GNU Free Documentation License
Fortingall Yew, Scotland - the oldest living creature in Europe
Licensed under Creative Commons