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Yew (Taxus baccata)

Family: Taxaceae

Type species: Taxus baccata

Related genera: Amentotaxus, Austrotaxus, Taxus, Torreya, Pseudotaxus

Names: Commonly know as English Yew, or European Yew, in Germany called Eibe, Eibenbaum, Ibenbaum (short Ibaum, also Ybaum). Apparently from Eiwaz or Eihaz (reconstructed *īhaz / *ēhaz or *īwaz / *ēwaz), a Proto-Germanic word for “yew”, and the reconstructed name of the rune ᛇ. Baccata is Latin for “bearing red berries”. Taxus (Italian tasso, Corsican tassu, Occitan teis, Catalan teix, Gasconic tech, Spanish tejo, Portuguese teixo, Galician teixu, and Romanian tisă) comes from the same root as toxic.

Yew wood
Yew, red heartwood

Description: An evergreen coniferous tree with dark green needles, gray-brown or red-brown bark and red berries, which ripen from August to late autumn. The entire tree is poisonous except from the red fruit flesh, which is used in marmalade and jelly making. The heart wood is typically red. With age the stem center may die off, whilst the tree keeps growing fresh offshoots in the periphery. Old yew trees can have huge stems that are dead or split in the center with many smaller trees arising around it. Yew trees are known to become very old, e.g. the Llangernyw Yew in North-Wales is estimated to be 4000 – 5000 years old. The Yew is thus seen as a symbol of age and wisdom. It is also associated with the “alrune” (knowledge in the ‘dark’/hidden knowledge). The wood is slow-growing and thus becomes very hard. It has been used traditionally for manufacturing musical instruments, weapons, especially long bows and arrows, as well as coffins. Yew is also common to use for making runes and wands. One of the world’s oldest surviving wooden artifacts is a yew spear head, found in 1911 at Clacton-on-sea, in Essex, UK. It is estimated to be 450.000 years old. Yew is frequently planted in gardens and cemeteries, often in hedges and sometimes beside higher growing Ash trees, but occurs also solitary. Particularly in Britain and Scotland it marks ancient ritual sites and is otherwise often planted along gravesides, which adds to its reputation as a liminal tree standing at the border between life and death or the living and the dead. It is also said, from the mouths of the dead burried underneath, grow the roots of the yew and that all the yew trees are connected by their roots. Hence one yew tree is connected to all other yew trees. A yew branch is thought to posses the power to be able to raise the dead from their graves, whereby a branch harvested from a yew growing on a graveyard is considered especially potent.

According to Welsh Folklore the Llangernyw churchyard is haunted by a malign spirit, the Angelystor, who has the power to curse and who is assumed to have caused the death of a local man, Siôn Ap Rhobert, who doubted the truth of the legend and challenged the existence of the spirit one Halloween night only to hear his own name called out. He died within the year.

Magical associations:

  • Rune: Eoh/Eihwaz (13th rune in the old Futhark, represents the World Tree, Yggdrasil)
  • Letter: Y
  • Spiritual Meaning: Transformation, bridge between death and birth, change, to be true to oneself, to go one’s own way, wisdom, immortality
  • Color: dark blue
  • Plant: Alrune (Mandragora officinarum and similar)
  • Gem: Topas
  • Month: November


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