I have literally just stopped myself running down yet another rabbit hole of related things because “it might be important and I have to try to give a complete picture.” Nope, I don’t. In fact I physically can’t, there is far too much for one modest little, madly meandering blog post. So I have hauled myself back here before I end up talking myself out of yet another writing evening. I am going to, for now at least, ignore a fascinating slow fall through taxol, its promising interest to cancer research and all the entrancing beckoning hyper production with fungi is doing towards me. I am here to talk about the yew tree. They are related, but dear whatever, stick with the plan, pull some threads, explore some memories, throw in some things that pop up while thinking about it and if I fall into cliché so be it, with a subject so old it’s sort of inevitable.
The yew is not second on Brehon Law assigned list of trees, it is in fact number 4. I’ve leapfrogged over hazel and holly for now because it occurred to me that in terms of the trees that I tend to be most drawn to or interested in I’d already spoken about the oak and the other two happen to include yew and birch. Not by very much, all trees are, to understate, fantastic, but there is something about that particular trio that my metaphorical maiden, mother and crone particularly respond to. Let’s be a bit more inclusive; youth, parent(al figure), elder? I’m not here to add to the already server busting quantities of speculation about magic or druidry or any of the very many things I certainly do not know enough about to comment on, but I find the idea pleasing, for myself. Watching my teenage son try to pick a single thing to identify hard with has been educational, I can remember doing similar things. Wandering through a mental arcade of tiny stalls offering to package up your soul in one easy to identify (and hopefully cool) element, colour, rune, band, planet, space program, film genre or .. the list went on and on and on. I’ve collected an enormous amount of little personality trinkets, postcards from my early self, bottles of glitter with fascinating stoppers and boxes of sun faded papers that trail a faintly desperate mustiness whenever I open them.
In these, my somewhat wiser, years I accept there is no one size fits all, but I gravitate to the things my little girl heart did; the wild things, the open spaces and, above all else, the trees. I don’t need to pin absolutes on anything any more but it tickles me to consider I am in an oak age journeying towards yew because what else is metaphor for if not to wrestle big things into discreet meaning packages to help us talk about them?
What is yew, then? what is a yew age? I suspect my notion of many of Ireland’s trees comes more from my mother than from the wider Irish culture. My mother fears no tree, no plant. I got not a whisper of suspicion about hawthorn or yew. In the jumbled up perceptions of child and teen, the yew became an ambassador between worlds, ageless, to be respected as dangerous, but also admired for the dense gorgeousness of the timber or the deep green of leaf in winter and the pretty jewel pink that – like the bright red of the holly – birds could eat but I could not. There was never any doubt that the yew meant death, that’s what poison is to a child, there aren’t really any perceived levels of toxicity. Poison = death. As it turns out the berry/fleshy cup or aril as it is called, isn’t poisonous but the seed inside is very. Apparently in the UK this aril has been called red snot, snotgobbles and slobberygob (eeooiiuuu) I’ve never eaten one, nor do I intend to and they always looked far too pretty to me to have such disgusting names, but again, haven’t tried them. Everything else about the tree is poisonous, including dead foliage and sawdust, and yew is perfectly capable of killing a human.
There was no way any child with the smallest amount of pattern matching couldn’t spot the yew and graveyard connection. I know I was told – or more likely read somewhere – the usual story that graveyards had yew trees because archers needed the wood for truly excellent bows and the church provided some sort of protected and community accessible space? I certainly had a notion that yews were grown as protectors of the dead and a path to the afterlife and I have absolutely no idea where I heard/read that or came to think it, but I have solidly believed it all my life. Yews are the evergreen death in the silence, fastened hard to the landscape through time, beacons for generations to find their dead. The prompt for my little soujourn into the land of cancer therapy research came from landing on a quote from a book called Taxol: Science and Applications
Greeks held the yew to be sacred to Hecate… Her attendants draped wreathes of yew around the necks of black bulls which they slaughtered in her honor and yew boughs were burned on funeral pyres. The yew was associated with the alphabet and the scientific name for yew today, taxus, was probably derived from the Greek word for yew, toxos, which is hauntingly similar to toxon, their word for bow and toxicon, their word for poison. It is presumed that the latter were named after the tree because of its superiority for both bows and poison.Taxol: Science and Applications, CRC Press, 1995, p. 28.
I’ve also come across theories about yew being used to poison arrows in medieval times but I couldn’t honestly tell you where I heard it, it’s probably one of those “They say…” kind of statements. But anyway, Hecate.. well I could digress for many, many blogs worth of detail but for now lets go with the simple reminder of what’s associated with Hecate: Thresholds, magic, the souls of the dead, the night, poison, medicine, triple manifestations.. you get the drift. Yew was said to purify the dead as they entered Hades; I found an excellent article in The Paris Review by Thomas Laqueur (he talks about necrobotany, it’s grimly cool) and it quotes the poet Statius as saying that Amphiaraus was snatched so quickly from life (after Zeus threw a thunderbolt at him) that “not yet had the Fury [who lived in a yew grove] met and purified him with branch of yew, nor had Proserpine marked him on the dusky door-post as admitted to the company of the dead.”
Robert Turner was a translator of mystical, medical and chemical texts and in 1644 suggested that yew would “draw and imbibe” the “gross and oleaginous Vapours exhaled out of the graves by the setting Sun.” Absorbing these gases might also prevent ignes fatui, “foolish fire”, wisps that could be perceived as spirits, ghosts or uneasy souls. He attributed the poison of yew as resulting from the poison of death and decay. According to Niall Mac Coitir people in Brittany believed roots of the yew spread through the graveyard to each corpse. I’ve never really dwelled on that aspect of death and recycling, I’m perfectly aware of it, but for me the idea of being recycled by a tree is actually appealing. I’m not alone, I presume, since there are companies that facilitate this as a service.
Two of the secrets of Yew’s long life are just how slowly it grows and and the ability to regenerate from within, to drop an “aerial root” and have it take root and grow, which eventually creates these fantastic whole new trunks. A circle of new trunks may grow around the original, even long after it is gone.
What a cool Yew trunk pic.twitter.com/GqnS03AarM— ballyhoura mushroom (@irishshiitake) March 4, 2021
This is one of the reasons it is associated with resurrection as well, along with it’s evergreen leaves. For many years I was totally confused how a yew could be a yew and the palm on Palm Sunday at the same time. Not a lot of palm trees in Ireland.
I’m reading Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake at the moment and I’m reasonably sure he mentioned a reason yew was planted in graveyards was to protect animals who might eat fallen yew detritus, which even dead is poisonous to them. That’s an aside, really, because of course I think my liking of the idea of being recycled by trees comes a lot from my research into fungi and the whole idea of enmeshed and entangled life.
But back to the living. For me as an awkward-bodied person with a stomach churning inability with heights, many of the yews I encountered as a kid life provided me with a tree I could sit in the same way my younger brothers – infinitely better climbers – could. Sure it meant my hands acquired the mental fuzz my brain assigned to them when they needed, urgently, to be washed, but it was worth it for those climbs. I loved the mini forests within a tree that old yews tend to make, I loved the gashes of reds and greens, the always different textural splits and stretches, stripping and scaling of yew bark, that distinctive and the way the truck could mould smooth sinews through itself, like something Gaudí tried to emulate in Casa Batlló. I loved their palpable age. They felt like my gran-aunt and uncle, lovely people with fantastic things in their houses, always too far away through time to be properly communicated with. We grinned at each other and gave each other treats, in my case usually their own stuff from their own back garden because it had _treasures_ from ancient times and maybe they had just misplaced them. A yew is another time, another whole world, a whole different way of understanding. They feel like marking stones in the fabric of time, their red soaked wood dense with the effort of storing ..what?
I am not alone in my fancies. Yews are notably long lived. In Irish mythology and history if you wanted to claim your longstanding place in the tides of time you may well have referred to a yew. In Suidiugud tellaig Temra, commonly known as the Settling of the Manor of Tara, an expert with long memory is required to partition the Manor of Tara. It’s an Irish story so of course there is lots of sending for someone with much introduction and their family history who then arrives and says they can’t but to go fetch another more able and so on and so forth. I strongly suspect filí earned coins for every name they dropped in these things. And oh my, the food bill from hosting the number of impressive people and retinue must have been *huge*. Anyway, eventually Fintan son of Bóchra, son of Bith, son of Noah is suggested, he appears along and “makes a lay” to basically give his credentials. I am not going down a rabbit hole of trying to second guess the 1910(? I think) translation by R.I Best at least right now, and if you’re interested it can be read in full here. His history to prove he knows the country accurately since the “beginning of the pleasant world” features The Flood (Deluge), time spent with Parthalon “from the Grecian land”, time spent living with the Fir Bolg, the Fir Galion and the Fir Domnann, then with the Tuatha Dé “in clouds of dark mist”, then the sons of Mil … Impressive right? anyway eventually he gets to the bit I want:
“One day I passed through a wood in West Munster in the west. I took away with me a red yew berry and I planted it in the garden of my court, and it grew up there until it was as big as a man. Then I removed it from the garden and planted it on the lawn of my court even, and it grew up in the centre of that lawn so that I could fit with a hundred warriors under its foliage, and it protected me from wind and rain, and from cold and heat. I remained and so did my yew flourishing together, until it shed its foliage from decay. Then when I had no hope of turning it even so to my profit, I went and cut it from its stock, and made from it seven vats and seven ians and seven drolmachs, seven churns, seven pitchers, seven milans, and seven methars with hoops for all of them. So I remained then and my yew vessels with me until their hoops fell off through decay and age. Then I re-made them all, but could get only an ian out of a vat, and a drolmach out of an ian, and a churn out of a drolmach, and a pitcher out of a churn, and a milan out of a pitcher, and a methar out of a milan. And I swear to Almighty God I know not where those substitutes are since they perished with me from decay.”The Settling of the Manor of Tara, Suidigud Tellaig Temra, Trans. R.I. Best
We’ll get back to the vessels very shortly, but he’s saying he outlasted a yew and all the vessels and remade vessels that came from that tree after it died and it is sufficiently awe inspiring as proof of his great memory of how the land should be that he’s asked to divide the land.
My dad turns and carves wood. I do a bit too but I’m very much a beginner. Yew is a gloriously complicated, rich reds and browns, tans and creams patterned timber, hugely striking, not at all for the faint hearted. It is dense, finely grained and hard wearing. It feels lovely in hand. As we said before, even the dust from working with it is poisonous. Why did people work it and why did they make vessels for food and drink with it? There are many, many absolutely gorgeous examples of yew work, buckets and methers and bowls, I was in awe seeing several pieces in various Irish musuems. And in awe that anyone would eat or drink from yew. I honestly don’t have an answer about that one and I don’t have time this evening to try to find out. (I looked briefly, nothing jumped out yet)
Niall Mac Coitir quotes Iubhdan’s lay, which details the best woods to burn and which to avoid. It is, I think, noteworthy that there is no suggestion to burn yew, instead
“Senior of eternal woods, yew of the learned feast, make with it now brown vats of the best.”Niall Mac Coitir in Ireland’s Trees pg 12
The Brehon Law document that makes yew (Ibar) the 4th ranking Noble tree does so for “its noble artefacts”. According to Fergus Kelly ” There is frequent mention of the use of yewwood in the manufacture of domestic vessels, and a law-text on status includes the sai
ibrorachta “expert in yew-work” as one of the categories of craftsman. In later legal commentary this tree is described as int eochrann aicdide “the yew-tree of artefacts”. I kind love that my brain ascribes much greater meaning to artefacts here than is intended. It thrills my little heart to hear of runed yew wands, (I have Runes, Yews, and Magic by Ralph W. V. Elliott on my to read list) , great methers, book boxes, wax tablets and shrines. Carefully engraved yew wax tablet with a yew stylus to communicate with the afterlife anyone? How epic is the death of a king “in aine na nibharsciath”, in the clash of yew-wood shields? In that context how evocative a ground red with yews?
In a strange way that sort of flavours my appreciation of the more mundane understanding of artefact. Given toxicity it makes sense to say something like “they mostly made yew things for ceremonial/significant purposes” but I don’t believe that to be entirely true, unless I think of various kings playing yew poison chicken with visiting royals. Iocaine powder battle of wits come to mind.
As a metaphor for the Yew age I quite like the idea of reaching a time where I produce threshold spanning artefacts and acquire the ability to staple some thoughts into the fabric of being. I am very certain I intended saying a lot more, but this is all I have for now. Talk soon.