Ioho (Yew)

“The Irish Druids made their wands of divination from the yew-tree; and, like the ancient priests of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, are believed to have controlled spirits, fairies, daemons, elementals, and ghosts while making such divinations.”  – W.B. Evans-Wentz (The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911)

The Roots:

The 20th letter of the Tree Ogham is Ioho, the Yew tree.

The Yew is the tree most often found in mythology to be the Tree of Life or the World Tree[i].

Nigel Pennick in Magical Alphabets calls the Yew the “Tree of Eternal Life.” He also claims that the tree is sacred to divinities of death and regeneration.

Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam:Weaving Word Wisdom says that Ioho is the few of longevity, reincarnation, the ancestors, history and tradition. Laurie also says that the Yew is the tree of immortality.

Liz and Colin Murray, in the Celtic Tree Oracle, state that Ioho represents great age, rebirth, and reincarnation. Robert Graves within the White Goddess calls the Yew “the Death Tree.”

John Michael Greer says that the Yew represents “enduring realities and legacies”. He also says that the tree represents that which abides unchanged and the lessons of experience.

The Yew is found in many myths involving tragic lovers such as Deidre and Naisi or Iseult and Tristian. In the legend of the Wooing of Etain Yew is connected directly to the Ogham and to divination. Ioho is also related to tales of hollow trees, the Irish goddess of death Danba, Thomas the Rymer, Cuchulainn and the fairy maiden Fand, and the hidden resting place of Owan Lawgoch. The Yew is also related to the swan through the shapeshifting story of Ibormeith (Yewberry) found in the tale the Dream of Oenghus, and to Oenghus himself who tries to win her love. The age of the Yew is also used as a reference when it is compared to the age of the Cailleach in an old Irish proverb. There are many tribes, names and places named after the Yew throughout the Celtic world. In present day the Yew is still strongly associated to graveyards and, through association, to the Christian Church.

Ioho, the Yew, represents old age, the ancestors, divination, death and reincarnation or rebirth.

The Trunk:

Yew is one of the most important trees found in Celtic mythology.

The Yew tree is often associated with death, dying and the dead. There is an old Breton legend that says that the roots of the Yew tree grow into the open mouth of each corpse[ii]. Yew branches were also often buried with the dead[iii]. Jacqueline Memory Paterson, in Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook, links the Irish goddess of death Banbha to the Yew tree[iv]. According to Paterson, the Yew was sacred to the goddess and became known as ‘the renown of Banbha’.

The Yew tree is also associated with the fairies and to the Otherworld. As a Yew tree becomes very old its insides melt away making it stronger. It is the “hollow tree” that appears in fairy tales and folklore.

Owan Lawgoch, who we spoke of within the Ivy blog, is a sleeping warrior-king like Arthur. Owan is supposed to awaken and return to rule someday. In Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland, 1825, Thomas Crofton Crocker shares a story regarding Owan Lawgoch’s resting place. Apparently there is a hill on that very spot with a lone Yew tree that stands upon it. When a person approaches the hill, the Yew tree vanishes and will only reappear as the person withdraws once more.

Thomas the Rymer was a Scottish prophet who received his gifts by being the lover of a Fairy Queen[v]. Thomas, like Owan Lawgoch, also waits to be reborn. Folklore marks the location of his second coming as a Scottish Yew grove[vi].

In the Irish myth the Tale of Oenghus the beautiful Ibormeith(Yewberry) transforms into a swan every second year during Samhain. Oenghus in order to win her love becomes a swan as well and they are able to fly off together back to his home[vii].

Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race by Thomas Rolleston written in 1911 has some interesting mythical details regarding the Yew. The first account is of the great hero Cuchulainn, who we discussed briefly within last weeks blog. When Cuchulainn would meet with his fairy maiden, Fand, it was beneath a Yew tree.

Another story, which is also told by Jacqueline Memory Paterson and Robert Graves, is of the tragic lovers Naisie and Deidre. Naisie was betrayed and murdered in an act of broken hospitality. His wife, the beautiful Deidre, was then shared as a concubine-like prize between two of the killers. Deidre, in her shame, finally threw herself headfirst from a chariot and was instantly killed. In that way the men could no longer have her. The two lovers were then (miraculously) buried near one another within a common ground. Some stories say that they were in the same graveyard, while other stories claim that a church divided them. Either way, Yew trees sprang forth from each of their graves. Their tops then met above the ground where, “none could part them.”

There is a similar tragic love story involving the Yew.  The following version of the story is found in Jacqueline Memory Paterson’s Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook.

(Tristan and Isolde by Herbert James Draper, 1901)

“Cornish legend tells of Mark, a king of Cornwall who was wedded to Iseult, a lady of Ireland who did not actually love him. After their wedding, as they sailed from Ireland back to Cornwall, unbeknown to anyone Iseult’s mother prepared a draught of wine for the wedded pair, in the hopes that a spell would make her daughter fall madly in love with her husband. Unfortunately the wine was drunk by Iseult and Mark’s nephew Tristain, and the two fell passionately in love with one another. The love spell lasted some three years, during which the lovers took many chances to sleep together. Many times they were discovered and reported to the king, whose love for them both pulled him apart. Likewise his kingdom slowly fell apart because of the situation and the gossip it aroused.

“After many partings and tricks of fate the lovers died in each other’s arms. Mark gave them a ceremonial funeral, for he had truly loved them both… within a year yew trees had sprouted out of each grave. The king had the trees cut down but they grew again. Three times they grew and three times he cut them down. Eventually, moved by the love he had felt for both his wife and his nephew, Mark gave in and allowed the trees to grow unmolested. At their full height the yews reached their branches towards each other across the nave and intertwined so intensely they could nevermore be parted.[viii]

The most interesting story concerning the Yew tree is found in the tale the Wooing of Etain.

Eochy is tricked by a fairy prince, or king, named Midir after he lost a board game to him. Midir, who could choose any gift, requested a kiss from Eochy’s wife Etain. Eochy was forced by his honour to grant the request. Midir then left saying that he will return for the prize. Eochy decided against this and tried to protect his wife but she was spirited away.

Eochy did not find his wife, even after exhaustive searches throughout the countryside. He eventually consulted the druids as he was desperate to know her whereabouts. A druid cut three yew staves, or in some stories four[ix], and wrote some Ogham letters upon them. These were then cast upon the ground. Through divination the exact fairy mound where Etain was being hidden was determined. After nine years of digging and fighting, Etain was rescued back from the land of the fairies. It is said that this was the war that finally diminished the fairies into a weakened race.

The Celtic myths are ripe with symbolism. For the astute observer the stories hold deeper meanings. They speak to us of relationships with the gods, the seasons, to the earth and ultimately to each other. These stories teach us about living and about dying. Perhaps they teach us of being reborn as well.

In the age of legend there were beings of great power and might. These are found in all of the surviving legends of the Celts. From the 1700s through to modern day we find the newer diminished spirits and fairies. These beings had been reduced in size and were no longer taken seriously in many of the tales. They had lost both their great power and their unsurpassed beauty.

The two theories often put forth by folklorists as to the explanation for what fairies were both pertain to other types of entities. The first explanation is that of diminished gods and the second is that of the spirits of the dead. In either case, a diminishing of size and power is more than slightly symbolic.

All that diminishes and dies will return eventually, in one form or another.

This is the story of the Yew.

The Foliage:

This week I watched starlings gorge themselves on yew berries in a local park.

It is one of my favourite places. The Pacific Yew has its branches entangled with those of a Holly tree. On one side of the pair, nearest the Holly, is an old Oak tree with a spiralling trunk. On the other side, nearest the Yew, is a sickly looking Hawthorn that also has a spiralling trunk.

The starlings would leap from branch to branch, excitedly, while filling their bodies with the ripe fruit. The birds would then quickly disappear into the protective foliage of the Holly if they were startled.

The Yew relies on birds to carry its seed to the hopeful birthplaces of patiently growing saplings not yet realized. This is unusual for needle trees, which usually rely on other means for seed dispersal.  The red fruit and lack of sap of the Yew, however, make the Yew an evergreen that is not a true conifer.

Besides being one of the oldest of trees, the Yew is also incredibly poisonous except for the fruit. The seed within the berry and all other parts of the tree are poisonous. The starlings and other birds seem to be able to tolerate the seed. Maybe the seed doesn’t get a chance to break apart completely enough inside of them to pose any real threat?

Colin Murray passed away in August of 1986 just days before his 44th birthday. The Celtic Tree Oracle was published by his wife Liz after his departure in 1988. The means of his death are found in Asphodel Long’s memorial article.

“[Colin] held a strong belief in reincarnation. We know that his death was caused by his eating leaves from a yew tree. In his Tree Alphabet he gives the following definition for Yew: ‘The ability to be reborn, continuously and everlastingly, the reference point for what has been and what is to come.’”[x]

The Celtic Tree Oracle brought with it a means of divination that is the mother and the father of all Ogham divination systems that came afterwards. Like the work of Robert Graves, there are many statements found within the book that do not bear scrutiny very well. We must remember, however, that without either of these pioneers’ research there would be no Ogham divination systems today.

It is appropriate then, that as we discuss the lore of the Yew -from rebirth to tragedy- that we reflect upon the myths that are both modern and mundane. I can contemplate and reflect upon the eating habits of the Starlings to try to have a deeper understanding of the meanings of the tree, but I must go deeper yet.

The Yew is a very toxic plant that is fatal if ingested. The tree presents a fruit, however, that is non-toxic, nutritious, and even has healing properties. Within the core of that fruit is a seed of life. That seed is toxic if it is digested. If it is allowed to pass through the body unharmed it may grow into another Yew tree which would also in turn be toxic and fatal if ingested. Eventually that tree would grow fruit and the cycle would begin once more. The symbolic metaphor may be seen as death in life and life in death.

Colin Murray eloquently said, “Youth in age and age in youth.”

The Yew tree is the Celtic Yin-Yang. In death there is rebirth and in birth there is death.

Many pagan new age systems of divination do not deal with death anymore. It is washed down. Even the death card of the tarot no longer seems to mean death; it means rebirth or even change. I have seen card readers not even use the word death but state that the card means “rebirth.” This avoidance of the word “death” seems to me to be yet another example of how our culture and society views our separateness from nature and ultimately to the whole world around us. Without an appreciation of death there will never be an understanding of life.

The Aspen may be seen as the tree of death and finality within an Ogham divination system. The Yew, the final original letter of the Ogham, is the tree of rebirth.  The Yew does not simply mean change.

The Yew represents the rebirth that follows death. This is an important distinction.

“Three great ages; the age of the yew tree, the age of the eagle, and the age of the Cailleach Bearra.” – Irish Proverb (Visions of the Cailleach)



[i] A most common misconception is that the Norse world tree is an Ash but this was a translation error from the Eddas. Yggdrasil is described through translation as either “winter green needle ash” as being poetic or as “winter green needle sharp” as being more literal. I touch on this as well in my Nuin (Ash) post. The Nordic World Tree is generally believed to have been a Yew by those who are aware of this original error.

[ii] Liz and Colin Murray. The Celtic Tree Oracle.

[iv] Part of the triple goddesses that includes Eriu and Fodla found in the Book of Invasions.  A mythical explanation for the three names of Ireland.

[v] Quert (Apple) blog.

[vi] Jacqueline Memory Paterson. Tree Wisdom: The Definitive Guidebook.

[vii] Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm. The Druid Animal Oracle.

[viii] This story is usually seen to have its roots in Celtic myth. The names of the characters appear in the Mabinogion. Historians sometimes disagree, however, whether this is a Celtic myth or not. The tale is also considered a prototype of the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot story.

[ix] Thomas Rollerston, for example, says that there are three staves while Caitlin Mathews in the Celtic Tradition says that there are four.

 

Ohn (Gorse or Broom)

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds, St. Stephen’s Day was killed in the furze; Although he be little his honour is great, so, good people, give us a treat. – Peter Ellis (the Druids)[i]

 

The Roots:

The seventeenth letter of the Ogham is Ohn, which is usually listed as the Gorse. According to Robert Graves, some lists use Scotch Broom instead[ii].

Gorse is also known as Sea Gorse, Furz, Furze, Furse or Whin. It is a close relative to the Broom plant belonging to the same tribe Genisteae, with the main differing quality being its sharp thorns or spikes. In Cad Goddeu –the Battle of the Trees- Broom even seems to become the parent of the Gorse -within the poem- when the story says that, “The Brooms with their offspring [arrived?]: the Furz was not well behaved, until he was tamed…”  Interestingly, though unrelated, the “Gorse” is also said to be great in battle elsewhere in the same poem[iii].

James Frazer, in the Golden Bough, says that in folk rituals the Furz and the Broom were often interchangeable. This may be why some of the Ogham lists use Broom instead of Gorse. It may also be why Robert Graves left Broom out of his Ogham list as the plant for Ngetal[iv] and instead replaced it with the Reed Grass. Perhaps he thought that the Broom and Gorse were too similar to one another to each have a letter in the Ogham? Another possibility that I have mentioned before is that he may have chosen this placement more to support his tree calendar theory than for any other historical or mythological significance.

Liz and Colin Murray in the Celtic Tree Oracle said that Gorse represented the collecting together of various objects for ones journey. They compared the Gorse to the magpie, which is a highly intelligent bird believed to collect shiny objects for its nest.

John Michael Greer agrees saying that Ohn is the few of attracting, of combination, possibility, growth and potential[v].

Nigel Pennick also believes similarly that Ohn is the letter of continuous fertility, collecting and dispersal[vi].

Robert Graves reminds us that Furz is one of the very first flowers to be visited by bees collecting nectar and pollen in the spring. It is a plant, he claims, that is also good to use against witches[vii].

Eryn Rowan Laurie says that Gorse is the plant for foundations and the journey. Ohn is also related to ones path, choices, direction and intention. The energy of the Broom plant, on the other hand, is of healing and of wounding[viii].

The Broom is listed in the Ogham tract as associated to healing and physicians. The Gorse is associated to the wheel of the chariot, and by extension to travelling[ix].

Both the Broom and the Gorse have strong connections to witches and to the fairies. The Gorse in particular has a connection with the Cailleach, the great hag Goddess who is sometimes named the Queen of the Fairies.

Ohn is the few of journeys and of the preparation for the mission at hand. The Gorse speaks of darker tools and attitudes needed to succeed upon the path, while the Broom reminds us that we must be ready to heal and create if we are called upon to do so.

The Trunk:

According to James Frazer in the Golden Bough, “old straw, furz or broom was burned in Scotland for Beltane fires “a little after sunset.” Broom was also burned to repel witches.

The connection of Gorse, or Furz, and Broom to witches, fairies and protection seems to radiate throughout many myths. It is never entirely clear however if the plants are beneficial or harmful. Perhaps they are both.

The Golden Bough tells us that Gorse was burned as a sort of smudge to bless and protect the cattle from witches on the Isle of Mann.

In the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W.Y. Evans-Wentz, 1911, we are told that Furz fires were sometimes built as a gift to the fairies to keep them warm. The book also says that any gifts of gold given to a person by the fairy may turn to Furz blossoms if that person told another of the source of their newfound wealth.That was if their telling didn’t outright kill them!  Eryn Rowan Laurie also speaks of the gold found beneath the Gorse.

The same text gives us a story from the Isle of Mann. There was apparently a “strange woman” who was seen to have materialized within the Gorse bush and walked over it, “where no person could walk”, and touched one of the cows that belonged to the witness. A few days later the heifer fell over dead. Witches and fairies seemed to have always been after the cows in those days, as well as the milk and butter that they produced, as this was the wealth of the Celtic ancestors. It seems to have been a common belief that witches and fairies coveted this wealth.

In the Fairy legends of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825, we are also told of an apparition that growled like “burning Gorse.”

The Broom plant seems to be a little lighter.

The most famous story involving Broom was previously covered when we discussed Duir, the Oak, and that is the story of Blodeuwedd, “flower face.” She was created by Gwydion and Math to be the wife of Lleu who had a curse placed on him, by his mother, to wed no mortal woman. This story is found in the Mabinogion. The plants used to create Blodeuwedd are listed as the flowers of Oak, meadowsweet and Broom. She was created from vegetation and was thus not mortal and a suitable wife for Lleu. In this highly symbolic and charged tale Blodeuwedd ends up betraying Lleu with Gronw Pebyr, a passing hunter. Gronw is eventually killed and Blodeuwedd is made into the owl, a bird which is hated by all, by Gwydion to punish her.

(E. Wallcousins. From Celtic Myth and Legend. Charles Squire, 1905)

While the Broom’s most famous story is one of creating a beautiful woman the Gorse’s most relevant tale seems to speak of old age, death and destruction.

A most interesting story is told of the Cailleach in the Carmina Gadelica that relates to the Gorse. The Cailleach, the great hag, is often seen as the goddess of winter. In the first week of April she would use her magic wand to keep the vegetation from growing by swinging it back and forth over the struggling signs of new growth. Eventually, she would be overpowered by the elements of spring. She would eventually admit defeat and fly off in a rage screaming:

“It escaped me below, it escaped me above,

It escaped me between my two hands,

It escaped me before, it escaped me behind,

It escaped me between my two eyes,

It escaped me down, it escaped me up,

It escaped me between my two ears,

It escaped me thither, it escaped me hither,

It escaped me between my two feet.

I throw my druidic evil wand

Into the base of a withered hard Whin bush,

Where shall not grow ‘fionn’ nor ‘fionnidh,’

But fragments of grassy froinnidh.”

This chant extracted from Visions of the Cailleach by Sorita d’Este and David Rankine gives the reason why other plants do not grow beneath the Gorse[x]. It is also a clue as to the harnessing of the powers of winter, to witches to come, through the use of a wand of Gorse.

Whether the Gorse or Broom is seen as either positive or negative, it is clear that these plants are flora of a once highly respected magical tradition.

The Broom seems to offer wealth, healing, and manifestation.

The Gorse or Furz seems to offer wealth, destruction, and protection from manifestation.

Both plants could have been seen as powerful allies, upon the road that one was to journey upon.

The Foliage:

When one considers that the Gorse and the Broom both grew, and continue to grow, out in the open and needed to be tamed -by our ancestors- then the parallels between the two plants becomes apparent. Both plants were often burnt back by shepherds and farmers to preserve the land from being overwhelmed. Gorse on the one hand had spiky thorns while the Broom was softer but just as prolific.

In the Ogham Tract[xi] the trees and plants of the Ogham are listed according to their rank. Some trees are seen as chieftain trees, some are seen as peasant trees and some are seen as shrub trees. Interestingly enough, the Furz is listed as a chieftain tree but -as Whin- is listed again as a peasant tree[xii]. It is also assumed that Broom is listed as a shrub tree in this particular order by its absence. Under Brehon law[xiii], however, both the Broom and the Furz are given the lowest rank of “bramble” trees.

The listing of Gorse as a chieftain plant during these earlier times probably had a great deal to do with the respect that was given to it. There seems to be a common theme in the tree and plant mythology of the Celtic ancestors and that was that the thorn plants –Hawthorn, Blackthorn, and Blackberry- were protected by the fairies and thus were sacred, feared, or both.

According to Eryn Rowan Laurie the Gorse was used in some parts of Ireland instead of the Hawthorn as the May bush. This could have only been possible if the Gorse was a greatly respected plant of the times, for it to have been used in this way.

Unrecognized and powerful, like the ivy plant, the Gorse and Broom are considered in many places to be invasive and aggressive plants that threaten the native growth of local flora. Today these weeds have sought out the attention of millions of dollars in a bid to remain acknowledged and recognized.

Perhaps, this is merely a coincidence.

“Our outer world is progressively diminished and corrupted by abuse of technology, greed and indifference to the welfare of other orders of life, and romantic adventurers often complain that there is nothing left to explore, no liberating challenge or experience. But liberation comes from within, both within ourselves and within the Underworld that is the original source and image for our planet.” –R.J. Stewart(Earth Light, 1992)



[i] Another version of this old Irish song is found in the Golden Bough by James Frazer.

[ii] The White Goddess.

[iii] D.W. Nash translation. Ibid.

[iv] Ngetal is the thirteenth letter of the Ogham.

[v] The Druid Magic Handbook.

[vi] Magical Alphabets.

[vii] The White Goddess.

[viii] Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.

[ix] http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/ogham.html

[x] A similar tale found in the same book has the Cailleach throwing a black hammer instead of a wand, and having it land beneath the Holly tree instead of the Gorse. Again, this is the reason given for the scant vegetation found beneath the Holly.

[xi] http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/ogham.html

[xii] Robert Graves believed that this was a mistake and should have been Holly instead.

[xiii] Irish law. The White Goddess.