Yew – Primeval Tree, World Tree, Guardian of Life

Posted by Fred Hageneder
27 February, 2013

The World Tree (or Tree of Life) is doubtless one of the oldest symbols of the mystical union of human and nature.

All life is sacred

All streams of life unite in the World Tree and form a single organism which brings forth all living things – among them plant, animal and human – as its leaves, flowers and fruits. The Tree of Life is a manifestation of divine powers. It is sacred, and because everything in the biosphere is a part of it, all life is sacred.

This can also be seen as the very heart of all truly ecological consciousness. And it is as old as the cave paintings of the Middle Stone Age! The mythological image of the Tree speaks to our heart: we protect life because we love it, because we are part of it, and not because some cold voice of ‘reason’ tells us in the newspapers that we have to save the planet if we want to survive. It’s not about survival, it’s not about us, us, us. It’s about listening to the heart. And to the Earth.

And the Earth speaks – among other channels – through trees. Ancient trees in particular hold deep lessons for us. What they can teach is not mine to relate, you have to go and listen for yourself.

The journey through eternity

Throughout the ages we find evidence for the yew’s pronounced association with the World Tree. During the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods the spirit of yew was revered in many places across the whole of Eurasia in the guise of a goddess, most often a goddess of birth and a goddess of death, for both transitions are the gates between this world and the other, and the yew was the trusted helper and guardian at these gates.

The branches may swing in the winds of time but the centre of the World Tree, its trunk, does not move as the world turns. It is the calm centre of absolute silence and ultimate peace. It is the gate to eternity. When you sit beneath an ancient yew tree, note the sounds from the world around you, noises from far and near, and compare them to the peaceful silence emanated by the tree. Calm your thoughts and delve into that refreshing silence.

The link between yew and eternity is also reflected in its name. The English word yew derives from the Old High German iwe, iwa, which is closely related to ewi, ewa, meaning ‘eternity’. All yew names stem from the Indo-European root word ayu, ‘life force’, indeed a fitting association because yew is a tree of extraordinary life force: not only is it an evergreen, but it is the only tree (in Europe) that photosynthesises throughout the winter months and hence is the only tree that does not hibernate but is ‘awake’ at the winter solstice – the most important date in the sacred calendars of ancient tribal Europe.

Vitality and long life

Yew has a number of biological strategies to secure its survival and prolong its life span. One of them is the capability of branch layering, i.e. lower branches arch down to the ground, take root and produce shoots some of which may develop into ‘new’ trees, whether still connected to the parent tree or not. Hence a single tree can form an entire grove. This ability is most remarkable for a conifer.

The most astonishing feature, however, is that of interior roots. As the trunk of an old yew inevitably hollows out (with the help of fungi), the cambium produces roots that grow from the top of the trunk all the way down. Over centuries, such an interior root can develop into a new trunk that increasingly takes over the crown of the tree while the hollow shell of the original trunk begins to drop away. Thus the yew can renew itself from the inside out and live another life.

Yew is unique in many other botanical respects too, and botanists all over the world are fascinated by this species. And in the distant past, when people did not care about science, they saw the tree from an emotional viewpoint – as the symbol of the regenerative force of nature, and a reminder of constant flux, transformation and rebirth.

Ecological implications

It becomes apparent that this ancient cosmology has strong ecological implications: (1) All life is sacred and all sentient beings participate in that. They have a birthright to live a happy and fulfilled life, according to their own needs, not just as slaves to human whim in factory farming, labs and plantations. (2) Earth’s biosphere is a multitude of life forms and complex relationships; it is not just there to please the human being in its self-centeredness. (3) We were never meant to be the ‘crown of creation’ as in executing arrogant superiority over all life forms, but as loving custodians of the most beautiful planet we know; the whole biosphere is the Garden of Eden. (4) And Britain is a Noah’s Ark for the majority of the ancient yew trees that survived the turbulent last millennium or two. They have no legal protection (yet) so let us take care of them and celebrate them.

© 2013 by Fred Hageneder.

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