At the weekend we joined some other heathens and went for a potter in the Pewsey Vale, visiting the Alton Priors yew. This ancient and impressive tree, hollow and divided in two, stands in the grounds of All Saints church, just a few yards from a natural spring.
There are many churchyard yews in Britain. They get more light and space than in ancient woodlands, and are some of our oldest trees, often actually older than the churches themselves.
Some are close to Pre – Christian burial sites (Adam’s Grave, a neolithic long barrow, is at the top of the hill, just north of Alton Priors) and are often near a holy well or spring, like the Hope Bagot yew in Shropshire.
In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil, the world tree, is described as an ash, but it is also evergreen, and so some heathens prefer to the think of ‘Odin’s horse’ as a yew.
Yggdrasil stands by the well of Wryd, the well of Mimir, and the spring Hvergelmir, and supports the many worlds. In the Poetic Edda, it is said to be decaying, suffering, bitten from above and below. Through its name, and through the story of Odin hanging on the tree, sacrificing himself to himself, it is associated with death, as well as life.
Yew trees are poisonous, but often seen as a symbol of regeneration, due to their longevity, and their ability to grow roots from cut or fallen branches. There are stories of yew beams, built into houses, sprouting with new growth years later.
The name of the Eiwaz rune is meant to be a proto – Germanic word for yew. In the Anglo – Saxon rune poem –
The yew is a tree with rough bark,
hard and fast in the earth, supported by its roots,
a guardian of flame and a joy upon an estate.
– it is described as a ‘guardian.’ In Northern European folklore, ‘warden trees’, like ‘fairy trees’, are associated with luck; it’s bad luck to harm one, and perhaps good luck to look after them and maybe drop them the occasional offering.
If you check out the Ancient Yew Group page (link below), there are seven ancient trees listed in Wiltshire, and many more veteren and notable examples. Take a look at the map to see where your local yew might be 🙂
Thank you to everyone who came to share a horn of wine with the Alton Priors yew with us, to the Barge Inn, and to Rowan Welch for the use of the photos. We hope to see you all again soon!