Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Churchyard Yews

There are yews, and there are yews. Most of us in the US are familiar with the ornamental shrubbery Taxus canadensis, the ubiquitous straggling evergreen beloved of landscapers. We had them at our last property; they can grow quite tall under the right conditions, and produce abundant red berries. They also require a lot of attention to keep them looking nice in a landscape. Their nature is to sprawl and shoot out random branches.

Fortingall Yew
The yew commonly found in Europe and the British Isles is Taxus baccata, a quite different species. T. baccata is a proper tree, rather than a shrub, and can reach rather dramatic proportions. They are known for achieving rather dramatic ages, as well, with known specimens thought to be thousands of years old. The Fortingall yew, for example, is thought to be between 2,000 and 5,000 years old. It can be found in a churchyard in Perthshire. Other famous specimens can be found in Wales, Belgium, and Ireland; and notably, all are found in churchyards.

Knowlson, writing in The Origins of Popular Superstitions and Customs, has this to say about yew trees in churchyards:

Some authorities ascribe it to the adoption of ancient funeral rites; others to the prosaic notion of keeping the wind off the church; others, again, to the warlike need of bows and arrows--yew being especially serviceable. A large body of writers believe the use of the yew was symbolic--it typified by its unchanging verdure the doctrine of the resurrection. A few cynically assert that yews, being gloomy and poisonous, are rightly used for churchyard decoration; and there are not wanting writers who see in the practice a tribute to the superstitious regard men have always paid to trees. We may examine one or two of these suggestions, although no definite conclusion may be possible. We know that the ancient Britons planted yews near their temples long before Christianity was introduced into England, and this would suggest a custom on the island not necessarily Roman or Christian.

Knife with yew hilt
One of my personal tools, my curfane or harvesting knife, has a grip of churchyard yew. (I even have a photo of the churchyard and yew involved!) Given the yew's associations with death, this seems an appropriate usage.  (Note: The knife did not "harvest" the fellow next to it.) Because of the poisonous nature of even the wood itself, it is a powerful-feeling tool and one that I use with great care and respect. It is eminently suited to "sacrificing" a purposefully baked loaf, for example. In the past, I've used it on the altar in a Wican "white handled knife" context, but it felt frankly dissatisfied with the role; some tools have their own agendas, and this one clearly felt constrained by the rules that bound the WHK in that system. Now wild again, it awaits its next task--most likely, the carving of the bread I'll bake at the autumnal equinox. The harvest season is upon us, after all.

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