Ioho (Yew) II

(Yew Tree Farm. 1936 postcard[i])

“A yew-tree, the finest of the wood, it is called king without opposition. May that splendid shaft drive on yon crown into their wounds of death.” – Charles Squire (Celtic Myth and Legend. 1905)

1) The Roots: Background information

2) The Trunk: Celtic Mythology and Significance

3) The Foliage: Spells using the Plant

The Roots:

The 20th letter of the Tree-Ogham is Ioho[ii], the Yew tree[iii].

Yew is the tree found most often in mythology as the Tree of Life or the World Tree[iv].

Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom said that Ioho (Idad) is the few of longevity, reincarnation, the ancestors, history and tradition. Laurie also said that the Yew is the tree of immortality[v].

Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids said that the Yew represented “death and rebirth.” He also called it “the Ancestor Tree.”

John Mathews interprets the word kennings taken from the Ogham Tract[vi] in his book the Celtic Shaman. There, the phrase “oldest of wood” was given the quality of “wisdom.”

In Celtic Wisdom Sticks Caitlin Mathews said that the Yew “is often found in churchyards, where its association with death and longevity are living symbols of mortality.” She also said that the tree shared the same status as the Oak in Ireland. In her divination system, Caitlin gives the interpretations for the Yew tree as broadening horizons, standing tall, deep memory and observation.

The Trunk:

The Yew is the hollow tree spoken of in folklore and fairytale. In fact, it is one of the most commonly mentioned trees within those Celtic stories.

The Yew tree is often associated with death, dying and the dead. There’s an old Breton legend that said that the roots of the Yew tree grew into the open mouth of each corpse[vii]. Yew branches were also said to have been buried with the dead[viii].

The Aspen may be seen as the tree of death and finality within an Ogham divination system. The Yew, on the other hand, can be seen as the tree of rebirth.  The Yew does not simply represent change, however. The Yew represents the rebirth that follows death. This is an important distinction.

Lady Wild spoke of the Yew tree as being “sacred” within the 1887 book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland.  In the 1904 Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory we are told that the Yew was “the most beautiful wood.” In 1877, Lady Charlotte Guest stated in her Mabinogoon notes that the Yew tree was “sacred to archers.”

Alternately, powerful creatures of nature – like the Yew tree – were just as likely to be shunned as embraced. In British Goblins by Wirt Sikes, 1881, we find the following tale:

“Near Tintern Abbey there is a jutting crag overhung by gloomy branches of the Yew, called the Devil’s Pulpit. His eminence used in other and wickeder days to preach atrocious morals, or immorals, to the white-robed Cistercian monks of the abbey, from this rocky pulpit. One day the devil grew bold, and taking his tail under his arm in an easy and degagee manner, hobnobbed familiarly with the monks, and finally proposed, just for a lark, that he should preach them a nice red-hot sermon from the roof-loft of the abbey. To this the monks agreed, and the devil came to church in high glee. But fancy his profane perturbation (I had nearly written holy horror) when the treacherous Cistercians proceeded to shower him with holy water.”

Elsewhere in the same text we are told of couples dancing beneath the graveyard Yew in relatively recent times. These couples would dance beneath the branches on the side of the tree that people were not buried beneath.

Jacqueline Memory Paterson in Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook said that, “Ghostly faces seen on the trunks of peeling graveside Yews, were thought to be signs of the rising spirits of the dead freed from earthly restraints.”

(Estry Yew in Normandy. Photo by Roi.Dagobert[ix])

The Yew is not just a tree of rebirth, though. It has a direct connection with the Ogham in John Rhys 1900 Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx.

“Take for instance the Irish story of a king of Erin called Eochaid Airem, who, with the aid of his magician or druid Dalan, defied the fairies, and dug into the heart of their underground station, until, in fact, he got possession of his queen, who had been carried thither by a fairy chief named Mider. Eochaid, assisted by his druid and the powerful Ogams which the latter wrote on rods of Yew, was too formidable for the fairies, and their wrath was not executed till the time of Eochaid’s unoffending grandson, Conaire Mor, who fell a victim to it, as related in the epic story of Bruden Daderga, so called from the palace where Conaire was slain.”

In some versions of this story there were only three Yew Ogham sticks, or few. In other texts there were four[x].

The Yew tree was also often symbolic of romance. 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 over her love, becomes a swan as well. The two are then able to fly off together, back to his kingdom[xi].

In Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race by Thomas Rolleston written in 1911 we are told that Cuchulainn would meet with the fairy maiden, Fand, beneath a Yew tree. The lovers meeting beneath a Yew tree in Celtic folklore was a recurring theme. Dead lovers would also often reconnect with one another after death. This was often accomplished by a touching together of branches between these two growing Yew trees.

There are many more examples of the Yew found in folklore. Some of these can be found in the previous Ioho (Yew) post[xii].  This previous post also contained tales of death, fairy abduction, and the story of the passing of “neopagan” father of Ogham, Colin Murray.

The Foliage:

The following spell is found within British Goblins and is used to bring someone back from “fairyland.” The missing person was taken in the early hours of the morning from beneath a magic Yew tree. It was there that he had been sleeping. This particular magic tree was found at the very center of the forest:

“The conjuror gave him this advice: ‘Go to the same place where you and the lad slept. Go there exactly a year after the boy was lost. Let it be on the same day of the year and at the same time of the day; but take care that you do not step inside the fairy ring. Stand on the border of the green circle you saw there, and the boy will come out with many of the goblins to dance. When you see him so near to you that you may take hold of him, snatch him out of the ring as quickly as you can.’ These instructions were obeyed.”

 But these sorts of things don’t always work out so well, at least not in this tale:

“Iago appeared, dancing in the ring with the Tylwyth Teg, and was promptly plucked forth. ‘Duw! Duw!’ cried Tom, ‘how wan and pale you look! And don’t you feel hungry too?’ ‘No,’ said the boy, ‘and if I did, have I not here in my wallet the remains of my dinner that I had before I fell asleep?’ But when he looked in his wallet, the food was not there. ‘Well, it must be time to go home,’ he said, with a sigh; for he did not know that a year had passed by. His look was like a skeleton, and as soon as he had tasted food, he mouldered away.”

Maybe his friend should have just left him dancing?

For a more practical use of the Yew, Robert Ellison said that the tree could be used in divination or in spells. The Yew, he said, represented the ancestors, re-birth, death, and could be used “for its powers to cast an arrow a great distance, with strength.”


“And at the same time the poets of Ireland were gathered at the Yew tree at the head of Baile’s strand in Ulster, and they were making up stories there of themselves.” – Lady Gregory (Book of Saints and Wonders. 1906)

[ii] Ioho was the Murray listing. Most Ogham users spell this letter Idad.

[iii] The Ogham is not a tree alphabet, but many use it as such. For more information on the Ogham see previous posts.

[iv] A most common misconception is that the Norse world-tree was an Ash but this was a translation error from the Eddas. Yggdrasil is described, through translation, as either “winter green needle-ash” poetically or as “winter green needle-sharp” as being more literal. I discuss this further 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.

[v] Laurie does not use the Ogham as a “tree alphabet” but shares some tree-meanings in her book for those that do.

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

[x] John Rhys also proposed that these translations that used the Ogham to find the queen might be referring to actual messages sent in Ogham to other druids during the search for the missing bride – as opposed to the magical divination system usually assumed to have been used.

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

Nuin (Ash)

“The Ogam gives us patterns for beginnings and endings, for the attainment of right livelihood and the achievement of right relationship. It illustrates ways in which energy and objects are used for good or ill, and the way in which our actions generate reactions in our relationships and our life.” Erynn Rowan Laurie (Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom)

The Roots:

Nuin, the ash tree, is associated with the connection of all things.

Liz and Colin Murray state that the ash is both “macrocosmic and microcosmic”. The god-like world tree is commonly believed in European mythologies to be an ash tree and is thought to link the three worlds together[i]. The Nordic people called this tree Yggdrasil.

Laurie tells us that Nuin is the fork that supports the weaver’s beam and thus connects us to all in the universe, “We are related to each thing in the universe around us, from sparrow to star”. The ash then reminds us that we are all truly part of one greater, and unfathomable, being.

Nigel Pennick points out that the seeds of the ash resemble keys and thus, “Have the power to unlock the future”. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the ash tree is so often intimately associated with the druidic shape-shifting god Gwydion?

Nuin, the ash tree, is a symbol that we are all one and that we are not separate beings. For this reason Nuin is also often associated to peace.

The Trunk:

In spiritual reflection the concepts of oneness and separation are commonly found in many traditions and practices.

In the great religion of science we are reminded that we are made up of billions of particles which are molecules. These are made up of the atom, which is a nucleus surrounded by charged electrons. The nucleus is then made up of charged protons and negativly charged neutrons. These basic fragments can be viewed as energy.

When we cease to exist, or die, this matter and energy within us will not cease to exist but will break apart into fuels for new beings in many various ways. These will in turn become fuels for other creatures, and the millions of parts of us will then become a myriad of other life forms.

The microscope gives us a view of worlds not so very different than those now found by looking through the most powerful telescopes on earth. The celestial heavens take on the same shapes as those particles that make up our very bodies.

We know that the idea of a table top being solid is an illusion. It is made up of particles that are constantly in motion with great spaces between them. These particles exist everywhere, both in the wide open space and within the densest of materials. These are the building blocks for all plants and animals, animate and inanimate beings, and of the air that separates us as well.

The religion of science is no longer so different than the spiritual philosophies of the world. We are made up of a collection of microcosmic pieces that at their core are simply composed of energy. Everything has energy-or a spirit if you will. If everything has a spirit and if everything is fundamentally the same at its most basic level then perhaps we can more easily view the belief that we are all related through the eyes of science as well as religion?

All things have spirit. We are not separate, but perhaps are part of something bigger and more unfathomable than we could ever imagine.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution explains our many differences in full. We adapt to survive and thrive and in the process many other creatures will be pushed aside and fail. Ultimately, however, we will become more and more advanced collectively as symbiotic relationships are formed, beings become more aware of themselves and of one another, and other beings that have not obtained perfection, unlike the shark perhaps, are continually forced to evolve and become more and more specialized and sophisticated.

It is with this basis of understanding that we can look upon conflict in the world and understand its true nature. Like the classical decision making weigh-off we often see two sides to every problem; sometimes more.

As individuals, for example, we are unsure if we want to submit to a short term pleasure like chocolate or if we should resist it in order to achieve our fitness goals. Two sides of the argument exist within our head. One side promotes chocolate as an early reward for good behaviour, the other side wants to honour discipline and follow the path that has already been set.

This is a simplistic metaphor, of course, for something that happens on a grand scale every day within our society. Should we support the red party or the blue party? Should we stop buying wine or coffee from certain countries or continue to enrich our own economic growth?

When people break up into various factions and state forth their arguments they are contributing to the evolution of the collective even if it doesn’t seem like it on the surface. We braid together and evolve while our social norms and customs are shaped from thousands of little moments in which we met one another. Over decades -centuries or even longer- we decided what it was, exactly, that we wanted to believe in, stand for, or become.

Balance occurs when the separate factions find common ground; when the zoos, and the hunters, and the environmentalists, and the scientists come together and make real long lasting sustainable decisions invloving the futures of certain animals, for example.

When the farmer, and the consumer, and the seller meet upon common ground to negotiate fair trade or organic processes this also happens.

We then become part of something larger.

Simply being angry for anger’s sake is not helping anyone, for when we make this choice we are choosing to be separate. Often the “cause” driven individual is just as much a part of the separation situation as the “apathetic” individual.

Uneducated activism creates enemies, because without empathy it has no truth.

Apathy on the other hand creates monsters, because without accountability there is no change, there is no adaption and there will be no evolution.

All things must be balanced. There must be an understanding that every little thing that we do is more significant than we could ever imagine… and that it hardly matters at all.

This is the Mandela of the mundane.

The Foliage:

The ash tree is common throughout the Northern hemisphere. In British Columbia however it is listed as “red” endangered or special consideration[ii]. It is found naturally only on Vancouver Island, though there are historical references to its presence on the mainland as well.

It is now generally accepted that the Oregon Ash is a rare native species. This has been debated in the past as many once believed that the tree was introduced. It is listed in Douglas’ Illustrated Flora of British Columbia[iii] as a native species as it also is in Plants of Coastal British Columbia.

There are small pockets of ash trees on the West coast of Southern Vancouver Island most notably around Victoria and Port Alberni. The tree grows in greater abundance along the coast in Washington, Oregon and California.

Like many of the other Ogham trees the ash has been grown as a domestic or garden species in many cities throughout North America as well though. It is most easy to identify when the seeds are present upon the branches.

The Ash is both majestic and otherworldly, common and relatively plain.

“The breath and the restless mind, I saw, were like storms which lashed the ocean of light into waves of material forms-earth, sky, human beings, animals, birds, trees.” Paramhansa Yogananda (Autobiography of a Yogi)

[i] Yggdrasil was poetically described in the Eddas as the “evergreen needle-ash” but it is in fact a yew tree. This nineteenth century misconception has become so widespread that the yew is rarely even mentioned as the world tree (the Meaning of Trees). One can look no further than Robert Graves’ the White Goddess to see how prevalent this belief has become. If one were to remove this association many of his arguments relating to the ash, which build one upon another, are placed on very boggy ground. Like many things though, perhaps the most important thing for us to decide is what the belief has come to be, in current time, and not what it once was.

[iii] Described as “the definitive work for the vascular flora of British Columbia”, this eight volume series was published in 1998 by Crown Publications (B.C. Government) and each volume is still available from $35 to $55. The content is also available online through E Flora BC, the previous link given.

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