November – Yew

November (Mensis November) comes from the Latin word “Novem“, meaning “nine”. In 738 BCE it was the 9th-month, of the 10-month lunar Calendar of Romulus, which began in March. In 153 BCE a revised twelve-month year began in January. November now became the eleventh month, but its name remained unchanged. Nine has long been a mystical and magical number that represents life, death and resurrection. As the highest single digit, nine is a divine number associated with “god(s)”. Inspired by the nine “moons” or months of a human pregnancy, it represents the very essence of creation. Nine is also a triple trinity (3×3=9), which equates to eternity.

The yew tree – World Tree – Yggdrasil – in Norse mythology.

In Norse mythology, the yew is the World Tree named Yggdrasil, that contained the nine realms of existence. The Norse god Odin sacrificed himself on Yggdrasil for nine nights as he traveled through these nine realms. In Christianity, both the number nine and the yew tree were symbols of death and resurrection. According to Mark 15:25 “Jesus died on the ninth hour“, yet he was resurrected on the third day. Some Christians also believe that Jesus was crucified on a yew tree or a cross made of yew. The yew’s connection with life and death is more than just myth. It’s an extremely toxic tree, that can kill humans and save lives by killing cancer cells.

An ancient yew surrounded by gravestones. Crowhurst, Surrey, UK

Trees of Life – yew trees first appeared on the super-continent of Pangea over 200 million years ago. They are slow-growing evergreens that can live to be 4000 years old. Taxus baccata, also known as Common Yew, English Yew or European Yew is native to Europe, North Africa and Western Asia. The Taxus genus belongs to the Taxaceae family. As a yew ages, its trunk often decays and becomes hollow. This stimulates the tree to produce roots within itself. When the outer tree decays a new tree is ready to take its place.

A new tree growing within an old yew.

This process of regeneration didn’t go unnoticed by the Druids, who believed in reincarnation and the immortal nature of the soul. They believed death was a necessary passage to another life. This outlook was recorded in one of the first stories of the Druids by Julius Caesar when he was the Governor of the Roman province of Gaul (France and Southwest Germany) in 54 BCE.

“The principal point of their doctrine is that the soul does not die and that after death it passes from one body into another.  The main object of all education is, in their opinion, to imbue their scholars with a firm belief in the indestructibility of the human soul, which, according to their belief, merely passes at death from one tenement to another; for by such doctrine alone, they say, which robs death of all its terrors, can the highest form of human courage be developed.”

The Druids saw yews as trees of eternal life. They often buried their dead under overarching branches of old yew trees, which served as portals for the souls.

Ancient Yew trees forming a dark tunnel in a woodland environment

Trees of Death – all nine species of yews are toxic to humans. The genus name Taxus comes from the Latin word toxicus, meaning poisoned arrows/bows. The word “toxic” is based on yew trees. The only edible part of a yew is the red fleshy berry surrounding the seed, but ingesting the inner dark seeds or “pip” can cause death with 24-48 hours. Female yews produce these red berries, which ripen in fall. All yews contain a deadly alkaloid, called taxine. Taxines are found in the bark, sap and needles of male and female trees. The common yew Taxus baccata and the Japanese yew Taxus cuspidata are the most toxic species within the Taxus genus.

All parts of the yew are toxic except the red fruit that surrounds the “pip”.

In 1962 cancer researchers turned to the Pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia, found in the Pacific Northwest. They harvested samples of bark and discovered taxanes, which inspired a new class of drugs called Taxol. Taxol is used in chemotherapy to kill cancer cells. The Pacific yew is a threatened species that was over-harvested for its wood. Fortunately a semi-synthetic formula has been created using cultivated yews.

The poisonous nature of yew was understood by prehistoric humans. A 420,000 years old spear tip made of yew was discovered in 1911, near a seaside town in the county of Essex, England. It is attributed to an extinct species of archaic humans, known as Homo heidelbergensis, that evolved from Homo erectus. They are considered to be the common ancestor between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens (modern humans).

420,000 year-old Clacton Spear at the Natural History Museum, London.

5300 years ago, Otzi the “Tyrolean Ice Man”, carried a six-foot unfinished bow made of yew, and a copper ax with a yew handle. Based on his DNA, Otzi belonged to a group of Neolithic farmers who migrated from Anatolia (modern day Turkey) into Europe.

Otzi’s unfinished yew bow. – South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.

Coincidentally the first recorded name for “yew” comes from the Hittites of Anatolia 3800 years ago. They named it “eya” meaning “eternity”. Yew was known as “iwa” in Proto-Indo-European (PIE) languages before they split into Proto-Celtic and Proto-Germanic languages. When Roman armies began invading Europe around 200 BCE, these tree-loving people began to create secret forms of communication.

Celtic Culture – The Proto-Celtic language emerged 3300 years ago in Central Europe (France, Southern Germany, Switzerland and Austria). It spread across mainland Europe and central Anatolia, before reaching Great Britain (England, Scotland and Ireland). These Celtic and Germanic people shared a deep reverence for trees and nature.

The Druids Grove, Norbury Park: Ancient Yew Trees – by Thomas Allom 1804-1872. Image – University of Toronto Library.

The spiritual leaders of the Celtic tribes were the “tree-wise” Druids, who gathered in sacred groves of yew and oak. They planted yews in circles to create protective rings where they could teach, conduct meetings and perform rituals.

Ogham divination sticks from Spirits of Old.

The Druids also created the Ogham or “tree alphabet” as a secret way to share the wisdom of 20 different trees. A series of slashes were carved into wooden branches or directly onto trees as markers. The yew, known as idho or idad, was associated with the letter “i”.

Ogham alphabet was aligned with 20 trees.

Germanic/Norse Culture – Norse culture arrived in Scandinavia via the Germanic people c. 2300 – 1200 BCE. Their stories were shared orally by poets known as skalds. These ancient Germanic/Norse tribes worshipped a god named Woden, who evolved into the Scandinavian god Odin, the “all-father”.

Rune stones used for divination.

They created a runic alphabet called the Elder Futhark or Germanic Futhark around 150 CE. The word “rune” comes from the Proto-Germanic word runo, meaning “secret letter”. The “eihwaz” rune was associated with yew and the letter “i” along with the phonetic sound “ae“.

Elder Futhark – 24 letter Alphabet. c. 100 – 400 CE.

So much is unknown of these Germanic/Norse people because their stories weren’t committed to paper until 1222 CE. Norse mythology is primarily based on the The Poetic Edda, or “Elder Edda“, which was compiled in 1270 CE by an unknown author of mythological poems that date back to 500 CE. The Prose Edda was written in 1222-23 by Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic chieftain, poet and historian who had converted to Christianity. Christianity had become Iceland’s official religion in 1000 CE.

The yew, in Norse mythology, is associated with Yggdrasil the “World Tree”, which contained the nine realms of existence. Its trunk rose through the center of Earth and pointed toward the North Star. Its branches reached into the upper world of the gods in Asgard/Valhalla and Vanaheim, while its roots stretched down into the underworld of Fire, Ice and Hel.

Yggdrasil – by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine – c. 1886.

The Nine Worlds of Norse Mythology – based on the Edda‘s.

  • Asgard – World of the Aesir the gods and goddesses. (Odin, Frigg, Thor, Loki, Baldr)
  • Vanaheim – World of the Vanir, a group of seers and sages. (Freya, Freyr, Njord, Nerthus)
  • Alfheim – World of the Elves ruled by the Goddess Freya.
  • Jotunheim – World of the Giants.
  • Midgard – World of humans in the middleworld.
  • Nidavellir/Svartalfheim – World of the Dwarves.
  • Niflheim – World of Primordial Ice.
  • Muspelheim – World of Primordial Fire.
  • Hel – World of the dead ruled by the goddess Hel, daughter of Loki.
Odin Hanging on Yggdrasil – by Franz Stassen – c. 1920.

According to the Edda’s, Odin/Wotan was a seeker of hidden wisdom who sacrificed his eye in order to see, and pierced himself with his spear to experience death. He hung himself on Yggdrasil for nine days and nights in a trancelike state, in order to journey through the nine worlds to see the secret wisdom of the Runes.

Freya, Odin’s wife, was known as a volva or practitioner of seidr. Seidr is an ancient shamanic tradition that originated with the indigenous Sami of Northern Scandinavia. They called their shamans, healers and seers the Noaidi. The Noaidi shared their teachings with the Norse women, who became known as Volva’s. Freya taught Odin the secrets of seidr, which allowed him to travel through the upper, middle and lower worlds of Yggdrasil.

Sami noadi with a Sami drum used for journeying and divination. – by Knud Leem – c. 1767.

Yggdrasil, also known as “Odin’s Horse”, supports the shamanic practice of traveling through trees to gain wisdom. The rune for horse is “ehwaz”, while yew is “eihwaz“. Odin, the “all father”, was associated with the “anzuz” rune. Anzuz also meant oak and ash tree, the mouth and breath of Odin/Wotan. The Anglo-Saxon’s later split the “ansuz” rune into three vowel sounds: “o” (mouth of Odin), “a/ac(oak) and “ae” (ash). Yew, “eihwaz” was associated with the vowel “i” and the phonetic “ae“. This meant that both ash and yew were associated with “ae“, which formed the words aether “divine breath” and Aesir “the gods of Asgard“. This overlap between yew and ash may have caused the yew to be mistaken as an ash tree (Fraxinus). Yews were also called “needle ash”, based on the similar yet different shape of their leaves. Throughout the Edda’s, Yggdrasil is identified as an evergreen tree, while Ash is a deciduous tree.

The Norns Urd, Verdandi and Skuld under the World-tree Yggdrasil” – by Ludwig Burger. – c. 1882.

Yggdrasil was tended by three female seers known as Norns, they were masters of seidr. Urd represented the past, Verdandi the present, and Skuld the future. Together they wove the fate of the cosmos and the gods. They carved the runes and divined fate, which no one could influence. The Norns tended Yggdrasil by gathering water from the magical well(s) of fate that flowed beneath its roots.

“Ragnarok – Battle of the Doomed Gods” – by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine – c. 1882.

Ultimately they could not stop the great battle of Ragnarok, that brought death to the cosmic tree, as well as the sun, moon and stars and all of earth’s inhabitants, including the gods. The word Ragnarok has been interpreted as “fate of the gods.” Many see Ragnarok as a metaphor for the death of the “old ways” and the Norse gods, which were placed by the Christian “god”.

The Celts, Norse and Saxons had long worshiped their “gods” among living trees, not temples. They honored yews as guardians who protected them during the seasons of the year and the circle of life. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, the Church tried to merge the nature-based beliefs of the Celts and Norse.

Yew trees growing around the door of St. Edwards Church in Gloucestershire, UK.

Soon churches were built on or near a sacred guardian yews or groves of yews. The worship of the “old gods” was seen as “heathens”. The old shamanic traditions were labeled as “sorcery” and their nature-based beliefs were denounced as “pagan”. The word “heathen” means “dweller on untilled land, as one who lives on the heath”. Pagan, means “country dweller, as one who lives in nature”. These derogatory words were used to change the perceptions of the old stories and myths, which tried to separate people from nature. Yet it is nature who gives us life.

The yew tree has been a silent witness in our evolutionary history. Yew reminds us to reconnect with our ancient and ancestral roots. It also challenges us to see life and death as continuous cycle.

Ancient Yew Tree in Beltingham Churchyard – Northumberland, England

Yew are living symbols of immortality, that tend to the souls of the living and the dead. They help us to understand that the inevitability of death is a reminder to appreciate the life we are living.

November is a month when the winds turn cold and the days grow dark in the Northern Hemisphere, yet the exact opposite is happening in the Southern Hemisphere. As we transition into the darkness of Winter, others are transitioning into Summer. As the last month before the end of the year, regardless of where you live, November is a time of preparation and gratitude as we cycle through the seasons of life.

Ideas for November:

  • Look to see if a yew tree lives near you.
  • Visit a yew and imagine how old it might be.
  • Take in the wisdom of yew, but do not ingest any part of it.
  • Learn about your ancestral roots and their stories.
  • Walk through a wooded cemetery and feel at peace.
  • Give thanks to your ancestors and their stories.
  • Light a candle and imagine what you wish to manifest or release.
  • Plan a meal and invite your closest friends and or family.
  • Prepare for winter, depending on where you live.
  • Practice gratitude.

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