“Are Yew talkin’ to me…?”

Yew trees unfolding...
Yew trees unfolding…

The mighty, majestic, mystical Yew.

I’m not like Dr. Seuss’ Lorax, speaking for the trees, or your modern Druid type, literally hugging trees as a matter of course, and chatting up their spirits and such…but I’m totally in favor of trees in my own general, ongoing way, and I have a special high regard for the Yew tree in particular.

Why the Yew?  What sets this one tree apart from all the other lovely examples of the tree archetype that populate our world?  Well, like I said in that first sentence above, it’s the mystical nature of the Yew that so appeals to me…

The Yew manages to spread itself across space, gracing multiple continents, but it also seems to defy time more than most other trees.  Most experts agree that the Yew lives to be hundreds of years old, and can even attain lifespans of up to two millennia…other sources even go so far as to claim that the Yew can live up to nearly five times that amount of years.  The interesting thing to note here, though, is that the mysterious Yew cloaks itself in the raiment of the unknowable on this point: it tends to grow hollow over time, so the traditional method of counting rings to determine the age of a tree is rendered pretty much impossible.  So…we don’t know how old a huge percentage of these trees really are, and we likely never will.

Then get this: the Yew can even span sex/gender.  Some varieties can exhibit the characteristic of being what’s known as monoecious — these trees actually change sex over time.

And as many cultures have noted, the Yew seems to span both life and death.  It’s not just the longevity thing here, either…  The Yew is an evergreen, so it retains its appearance of growth and health even in the dead of winter.  It also bears bright red berries to which people have long ascribed the essence of “the blood of life.”  The Yew grows in both sunlight and shade, light and dark.  It’s also traditionally been hailed as bestowing upon its human neighbors just about the finest wood in existence for use in the construction of longbows (which can then of course be used in hunting, which yields food for the hunter that extends her or his life while simultaneously bringing death to the hunted, and bows are obviously also used in warfare, again bringing prolonged life to the victor in such conflicts and death to the vanquished).  Almost every part of the Yew is highly toxic, which is another very life/death thing, and then a certain extract taken from the Yew is used in creating anti-cancer/chemotherapy medication: bringing a small variant of death to bear in the war on the scourge of cancer, another phenomenon that lands people in the life/death arena.

The Yew is also found rather often in Europe pushing up out of churchyards and cemeteries.  Did our predecessors there intentionally plant the Yew in such places — places that speak of life, death, and afterlife — or did the Yew somehow understand what was happening on such ground, and decide to itself take root there…?  I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for sure, but my own worldview allows for the idea that maybe it was a bit of both…

Want more mystical vibe from this remarkable tree?  The Yew is also said, on warmer days, to give off a hallucinogenic gas — this would indicate that the Yew bridges our more mundane, everyday world, and the worlds generally left accessible only to our more altered states of consciousness.  The realm of the shaman springs to mind here — it does for me, at any rate.

The old Norse people recognized the mysticism embodied in the great Yew.  One indicator of this can be found when studying the Runes they left behind.  This is their ancient alphabet, used not only for pure communication (your basic reading and writing), but also for divination and magic.  The Runes were said to have been won by their chief God, the great Odin himself, after he endured a self-imposed ordeal lasting nine days and nights, in which he wounded himself with his enchanted spear, Gungnir, and then hung himself on a great tree (more on this in a moment…) without food or drink, until finally, the Runes materialized beneath him, granting him greater wisdom and magical power, and marking him as a god of (among many other things!) communication, naming, and language.  And one of the Runes — the one known as Eihwaz, which sits at the center of the string of letters — signifies the Yew.

Eihwaz, the 13th Rune: "Yew"
Eihwaz, the 13th Rune: “Yew”

Eihwaz can represent the concepts noted above: the bridge across space, or across time…across gender, or across life and death.  It can signify the bond that unites the subconscious with the conscious, or the natural with the supernatural, or the underworld with the everyday world with the heavens.  It can indicate the human spine, or the vertical ladder of chakras running up it that’s recognized by various schools of thought.  Eihwaz is intensely mystical, and if I have to choose, I’d most likely name it as my personal favorite among the Runes, and the one with the most directly personal meaning for me.

And one take on Eihwaz is that it also represented for the Norse the great world tree, Yggdrasil, that sits at the center of their cosmology.  The Norse recognized nine separate worlds, each connected to the overall system by Yggdrasil, each hanging from the great Tree like magnificent cosmic flowers or fruit…

Yggdrasil, by Jacob Thompson
Yggdrasil, by Jacob Thompson

Most tales have Yggdrasil as actually being an Ash tree, but speculation also persists that it may alternatively have been a Yew or an Oak, and no definitive sources remain to settle the question once and for all.  And even if Yggdrasil is an Ash, and even if Eihwaz is strictly an indicator of the Yew, there’s no reason why we can’t still take Eihwaz to have as one of its more symbolic and less purely literal meanings that of the great World Tree.  Also, while similar uncertainty surrounds this following point, too, there are those who strongly believe that it was Yggdrasil itself upon which Odin hung himself when undergoing his great, self-imposed ritual and trial that led to the manifestation of the Runes, and not just some other large but random tree.  I do tend to like this viewpoint myself, for whatever that might be worth…

So there you have it: from a self-described non-Druid, there’s a sincere love letter to the mystical Yew.  Go hug one today, if you have one nearby!

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