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Posted by on Oct 31, 2016 in Tell Me Why |

Why Are Yews Often Found in Church Yards?

Why Are Yews Often Found in Church Yards?

Yews have long been associated with religious worship. So it is likely that churches were originally built near the sacred trees rather than the other way round.

These trees live longer than any other species in Europe and can grow to an enormous size. Many are thought to be well over 1,000 years Old. Yews were revered by the druids of ancient Britain, France and Ireland and no doubt early Christian missionaries preached in the shelter of the trees before their first churches were built.

Hywel Dda-Howell the Good- a Welsh king who reigned in the 10th Century, set a special value on “consecrated yews”. Some yews are even older than the ancient churches beside them, suggesting that the church was built on a spot already devoted to worship.

The association continued, and it became traditional for yews to be planted in churchyards. Also the great age to which yews live caused them to be regarded as a symbol of immortality and, therefore, associated with death, as man only becomes immortal after he dies.

The yew is often found in churchyards in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France and northern areas of Spain. Some examples can be found in La Haye-de-Routot or La Lande-Patry. It is said that up to 40 people could stand inside one of the La-Haye-de-Routot yew trees and the Le Ménil-Ciboult yew is probably the largest one (13 m diameter).

Indeed, some of these trees are exceptionally large (over 5 m diameter) and may be over 2,000 years old. Sometimes monks planted yews in the middle of their cloister, as at Muckross Abbey (Ireland) or abbaye de Jumièges (France). Some ancient yew trees are located at St Mary the Virgin Church, Overton-on-Dee in Wales.

In Austrian tradition and culture the yew tree has had a real link with the land, the people, the ancestors and the ancient religion. It was tradition on All Saints Day to bring a branch of a yew tree to the tombs of those who had died recently so they will find the guide in their return to the Land of Shadows.

The yew tree has been found near chapels, churches and cemeteries since ancient times as a symbol of the transcendence of death, and is usually found in the main squares of the villages where people celebrated the open councils that served as a way of general assembly to rule the village affairs.

It has been suggested that the Sacred Tree at the Temple at Uppsala was an ancient yew tree. The Christian church commonly found it expedient to take over existing pre-Christian sacred sites for churches. It has also been suggested that yews were planted at religious sites as their long life was suggestive of eternity, or because being toxic they were seen as trees of death.

Another suggested explanation is that yews were planted to discourage farmers and drovers from letting animals wander onto the burial grounds, the poisonous foliage being the disincentive. A further possible reason is that fronds and branches of yew were often used as a substitute for palms on Palm Sunday.

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.

Content for this question contributed by Christopher Gurley, resident of Cincinnati, Hamilton County, Ohio, USA