Yew has a long association with death in European cultures. Ancient Celts made funeral wreaths dedicated to Hekate with this herb, and in Roman religion, black bulls to be sacrificed to Hecate were wreathed in yew. Yew branches are laid upon the graves of the dead to remind us that death is a door. In some types of Christianity, yew is planted around graveyards not only to remind visitors of eternal life but to keep the dead from wandering from their graves before Judgment Day. Some Norse Pagans believed that precisely because yew stood between two worlds, it could trap unwary souls inside itself. Burning yew as an incense is still a traditional means for raising the dead and thus in a sense, entrapping them.
As a Go-Between
Yew's name comes from Eihwaz, the rune for the World Tree, Yggdrasil. The herb is associated with Yule, because as the Tree of Death as well as the Tree of Life, it represents a cusp between life and death, just as those two ideas dominate the holiday. Here we can clearly see the Saturn aspect of this plant in its preoccupation with borders (or in this case, with erasing those borders). Yew is also connected to Mercury, the teacher/trickster, especially in his capacity to travel between. It is used ritually for work involving transformation, astral travel, necromancy, contacting ancestors, and in its connection to Mercury, for the acquisition of knowledge and skill with words.
Yew is commonly recommended for making runes, wands, and bows, and its wood is often beautifully figured. But yew is exceedingly poisonous. In the Middle Ages, John Baptist Porta recommended yew as a means for killing wolves, an arrow poison is made from it that kills animals instantly, and people who have drunk wine stored in yew barrels have died (after reading that story, I shuddered to see a yew goblet depicted on one site). This is one herb you should never ingest in any form, as it can easily be fatal, and you should burn it only in a well ventilated place, preferably outside.
Uses in Witchcraft & Magic:
© 2004, 2015 Harold A. Roth; No reproduction without permission