The yew tree is another of our native trees which was held sacred by the Druids in pre-Christian times. They no doubt observed the tree’s qualities of longevity and regeneration (drooping branches of old yew trees can root and form new trunks where they touch the ground), and the yew came to symbolise death and resurrection in Celtic culture. They were also familiar with the toxicity of the tree’s needles in particular, which can prove fatal. The themes of death and resurrection continued into the Christian era, with the custom of yew shoots being buried with the deceased, and boughs of yew being used as ‘Palms’ in church at Easter. Yew trees have in fact established a popular association with old churches in Britain, to the extent that very old specimens of yew trees are now relatively rare outside of church grounds.
Making deductions about its distribution from place names bearing its Gaelic name of iubhair or euair is difficult as these words can also refer to juniper, which was occasionally known as mountain yew. Some places such as Iona (probably derived from Ioua, the Pictish word for yew) and Kilneuair (Church of the Yew), being religious and spiritual places, are almost certainly a reflection of such places’ affinity with yew trees.
Yew sticks were used for divination, Ogham script written on rods of yew by Druids; a yew tree grows from the grave of the doomed lover Baile Mac Buain and an apple from Aillin’s grave, they are cut down to make writing tablets & when brought together at the High King of Tara they sprang together and were never separated; also associated with sanctuary in its trunk; linked to female warriors & kingship.
Lugh obtained the Spear of Assal as fine imposed on the children of Tuirill Piccreo , according to the short account in Lebor Gabála Érenn which adds that the incantation “Ibar (Yew)” made the cast always hit its mark, and “Athibar (Re-Yew)” caused the spear to return.
In traditional Germanic paganism, Yggdrasill was often seen as a giant ash tree. Many scholars now agree that in the past an error has been made in the interpretation of the ancient writings, and that the tree is most likely a European yew (Taxus baccata). This mistake would find its origin in an alternative word for the yew tree in the Old Norse, namely needle ash (barraskr). In addition, ancient sources, including the Eddas, speak about a vetgrønster vida which means “evergreen tree”. An ash sheds its leaves in the winter, while yew trees retain their needles.
Conifers were in the past often seen as sacred, because they never lose their green. In addition, the tree of life was not only an object from the stories, but also believers often gathered around an existing tree. The yew releases gaseous toxins (taxine) on hot days. Taxine is in some instances capable of causing hallucinations. This has some similarities with the story that Odin had a revelation (the wisdom of the runes) after having been hanging from the tree for nine days
The tree is associated with death and resurrection. But also with truth and knowledge coming from the afterlife.
The word yew is from Proto-Germanic *īwa-, possibly originally a loanword from Gaulish *ivos, compare Irish ēo, Welsh ywen, French if . Baccata is Latin for bearing red berries. The word yew as it was originally used seems to refer to the color brown.
It is a small to medium-sized evergreen tree, growing 10–20 metres tall, with a trunk up to 2 metres diameter.
Taxus baccata can reach 400 to 600 years of age. Some specimens live longer but the age of yews is often overestimated. Ten yews in Britain are believed to predate the 10th century. The potential age of yews is impossible to determine accurately and is subject to much dispute. There is rarely any wood as old as the entire tree, while the boughs themselves often become hollow with age, making ring counts impossible. There are claims as high as 5,000–9,500 years, but other evidence based on growth rates and archaeological work of surrounding structures suggests the oldest trees (such as the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, Scotland) are more likely to be in the range of 2,000 years. Even with this lower estimate, Taxus baccata is one of the longest-living plants in Europe. One characteristic contributing to its longevity is that it is able to split under the weight of advanced growth without succumbing to disease in the fracture, as do most other trees. Another is its ability to give rise to new epicormic and basal shoots from cut surfaces and low on its trunk, even at an old age