[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

This webpage reproduces an article in the
Vol. 32, No. 2 (Apr. 1957), pp250‑261.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

 p250  Runes, Yews, and Magic
by Ralph W. V. Elliott


The part played by the yew tree and its associated magic and superstitions in Germanic runic lore, readily acknowledged by some scholars,​1 has never to my knowledge been more fully investigated. The two questions which this paper seeks to answer are (1) how runes and yew magic became associated, and (2) whether any elements of such association can be found to survive in later folklore and popular superstitions.

The connection between Germanic runic writing — the fuþark as a script — and magical or ritualistic practices connected with runes has long been accepted as a commonplace. A. Bæksted's recent challenge to this view, however, demands that it be vindicated at least for the purposes of the present study.2

Bæksted's basic contention is that runes were as secular, practical, and utilitarian a script as those of the classical world, and that any magic associations are later accretions due to the antiquarian or romanticising tendencies of subsequent generations no longer in touch with the living usage of the fuþark. Dividing his material into three sections — (1) "Den epigrafiske og litterære runetradition," (2) "Runerække og alfabetmagi," and (3) "Runetalmagi" — Bæksted proceeds to argue that there is no firm basis in any of these for assuming runes to have been considered primarily as instruments of magic. Few will quarrel with the view that runes were certainly used for practical purposes, notably in the numerous Scandinavian memorial inscriptions of the Viking and Middle Ages; but Bæksted himself allows that this was not always the case when he admits that runes, although "only in very few instances . . . afford evidence of having been conceived as possessing special magic properties."​3 How this came about in primitive communities is not difficult to conceive: even if the (still disputed) origin of the fuþark was wholly a secular and practical matter, the mere fact that runes "were employed for recording not only profane and secular utterances but also utterances of sacred and magic character"​4 is a sufficient starting point for popular ascription of magic qualities to the symbols themselves. When runes were used for religious or ritualistic purposes, as in divination or casting of lots, on amulets or pagan tombstones, the primitive mind would not distinguish as readily between the magic import and efficacy of the inscription and the symbols employed as does the modern scholar in his study. Some of Bæksted's own evidence can be adduced to illustrate this point. When the Anglo-Saxon translator of Bede renders "litteras solutorias" as "alysendlecan rune" he does so because even in his century runes and magic were still instinctively associated.​5 Again,  p251 the appearance of complete fuþarks on finds widely separated in space and time can support arguments either way, but the burden of proving that such inscriptions are "purely practical" or simply ornamental rests with those who doubt magic import. Bæksted does not, to my mind, prove this satisfactorily by suggesting merely ornamental reasons in the case, for example, of the Thames scramasax, and one returns with more conviction to Krause's view: "Wahrscheinlich verfolgt auch das Futhark des Themsemessers magische Zwecke: Zu Lehr- bzw. Lernzwecken würde man diese kostbare Arbeit auch wohl ebensowenig verwendet haben wie zu reiner Spielerei."​6 Similarly, I find it hard to consider the Kylver fuþark, for instance, in a purely secular light.

The question of numerical magic in runic inscriptions, to which Bæksted devotes much space, does not concern us here, particularly as in Anglo-Frisian inscriptions the additional runes of the English fuþorc inevitably upset any numerical magic that may have attached to the common Germanic fuþark of twenty-four runes. For our present purpose all that is required is the, to my mind, irrefutable assumption that runic usage does in certain cases afford evidence of magic association, an assumption granted, as already quoted, by Bæksted himself. To delve any further into this question within the context of this paper would be both unnecessary and irrelevant.


If we grant the assumption of runic and magic connection, the question now to be considered is how and where such rune magic was reinforced by the stream of superstitions and magico-ritualistic associations attaching to the yew tree, so that by a combination of runes with yew wood magic efficacy was believed to be enhanced. Two streams may here be distinguished: on the one hand an Indo-European tradition of beliefs concerning the yew tree, which the Germanic peoples among others inherited, but which was not primarily related to runic usage, except that the name "yew" was given to one of the twenty-four common Germanic runes. On the other hand, there is strong evidence that among the Celts in particular the yew played an important role, and it is here, I believe, that the most likely sources of runic and yew magic association are to be sought.

Yew lore as such has probable Indo-European beginnings; it is embedded in the folklore of widely scattered peoples. In some parts of the northwest Himalayas the yew tree ("God's tree") is held in great veneration and its "branches are carried in religious processions in Kamaon, and in Nepal the houses are decorated with the green twigs at religious festivals."​7 In Roman literature we find the common European associations of the yew with poison, death, and the underworld,​8 and of its wood with bows.​9 In Spain yew branches are believed to protect against lightning.​10 "Sie [the yew] soll auch der "Totenbaum" der Eburonen gewesen  p252 sein . . . Auch in anderen Ländern gilt die Eibe als zauberwehrend, so bei den Wenden, in Bosnien."11

On the Continent the yew must at one time have been very widespread, much more so than at present. Caesar tells of Catuvolcus, who hanged himself on a yew tree, "cuius magna in Gallia Germaniaque copia est."​12 German place names as far apart as Ibenhorst (East Prussia), Iburg (Hannover), Ibach (Württemberg), and Eibsee (Bavarian Alps) witness to the original spread of yew trees and forests in Central Europe, while others show how common the tree must have been.​13 The yew clearly impressed itself no less vividly upon the Germanic than upon the Celtic imagination: its somber appearance, together with its poisonous qualities, suggested associations with death and funerary rites, while at the same time its evergreen nature made it a symbol of immortality. Belief in the magic potency of the tree dates far back into pre-history and was strong enough to survive well into modern times. In Thuringia the ancient superstition that yew wood protects against demons and witches survived until the end of last century, and the proverb "Vor den Eiben kann kein Zauber bleiben" is still current in parts of Germany. I can find no evidence that the sacred groves of Germanic tribes consisted of or included yew trees; here the oak appears to have been predominant; but it is significant that after the coming of Christianity the evergreen yew was frequently used for palms and is associated with numerous customs and superstitions that smack of pagan ancestry. Mannhardt nowhere mentions the yew, but there can be no doubt that it is included in his frequent references to evergreens.14

For our purposes a significant piece of evidence is the inclusion of the Germanic name *eihwaz 'yew' in the naming of the twenty-four common Germanic runes. It lives on in the eoh of the Old English Runic Poem.​15 The heterogeneous nomenclature of the Germanic runes has, admittedly, never been explained to everyone's satisfaction, but my own belief is that these names reflect a great deal of what was important, indeed vital, in the Germanic Weltanschauung, the only restricting factor being the acrophonetic necessity of catering for all the sounds required, while allowing for only one rune name even where other important words competed for inclusion. The choice of *eihwaz thus points to the role played by the yew within Germanic cult and superstition. There is also the additional factor that yew wood was popular for making bows; and this, too, found its way into runic nomenclature. Old English ȳr signifies a "bow made of yew wood," aptly described as "fæstlic on færelde fyrdgeatewa sum" in the Runic Poem. The word derives from the same Germanic root, *eihwaz, but found its way to  p253 England from Scandinavia at a time when a name was required for the additional y‑rune. Already classical sources, as has been mentioned, confirm the ready use of yew for making bows owing to the hard and durable quality of the wood. The tradition lingers in Scandinavian literature​16 and in English from the Middle Ages to Conan Doyle's Song of the Bow. Shakespeare rings echoes of yew magic as well in his "bows of double fatal yew."​17 Unmistakable tribute to the esteem enjoyed by this weapon is paid by the Welsh proverb "Mwy nag un bwa yw Ynghaer" (There is more than one yew bow in Chester).

Neither of these rune names, however, points directly to a fusion of runic and yew magic, although the inclusion of "yew" in the fuþark is at least an indication that runic lore and the yew cult were already beginning to be associated at the time when runes were first named.

When and how a closer fusion was eventually effected must remain somewhat hypothetical, but the attempt to indicate probable Celtic influence in this seems to me worth making. Two possibilities are open to us: (1) Celtic influence by way of continental contacts between Celtic and Germanic tribes; or (2) Celtic influence by way of British druidism upon Anglo-Saxon runic lore and thence to the continent, especially to Friesland.

There is no doubt that from early times the yew occupied a very special place in Celtic superstition and ritual. The name itself signifies the yew tree in Celtic and Germanic where other Indo-European languages diverge considerably in the trees denoted by the same root word.​18 Although our evidence derives mainly from the British Isles, where yews play their part in Celtic folklore and saga and place names, the conclusion seems permissible that among continental Celts, too, the yew was considered a tree apart. Some surviving superstitions add weight to this belief: In Brittany it is said that out of the mouth of each corpse buried in the churchyard there grows a yew root to support the customary large solitary yew. Care is taken not to cut down these churchyard yews or to pick their leaves.​19 Classical references to continental druidism​20 make no mention of the yew, but their common emphasis on druidic magic, divination rites, and belief in immortality, allows one to believe that yew lore was involved as well, especially in view of the evidence available from British sources. The fact, however, remains that there is not enough material on which to base a case for fusion of yew lore and rune magic by way of continental Celtic influence. The case is quite different for our second suggestion, the facts being these: There is evidence of the role played by the yew in British druidism and of the association of yew and ogham. Anglo-Saxon runic usage shows Celtic influence, for example, in runic cryptography. There was continuous contact between the Anglo-Saxons and the Frisians, while our only extant runic inscriptions on yew wood are Frisian, some of them clearly influenced by the Old English fuþorc.

Celtic yew lore was certainly firmly established in Britain at the time of the  p254 Anglo-Saxon settlements. That the yew was a common tree is attested by Anglo-Saxon place names ranging from the southern chalk downs to the north country: Ifield, and Iwade (Kent); Iridge (Surrey); Ewhurst, Ewshott, and Iwode (Hants); Uley (Glos); Yewdale (Lancs). The abundance of yews in Ireland, evident also from numerous place names, was noted by Giraldus Cambrensis "maxime vero in cœmeteriis antiquis, locisque sacris, sanctorum virorum manibus olim plantatis."​21 The venerable age of some surviving trees takes us back to Norman and possibly Saxon times, although opinions on the age of yews differ greatly and are probably sometimes exaggerated;​22 thus the age of the famous Fortingall yew in Perthshire has by some been estimated as over 2,000 years. But already in Anglo-Saxon times the venerable age of yews was noted, as in a charter of 985 which refers to "ðone ealde iw."

Yews play their part in Celtic folklore and saga. Conchobar's palace was built of yew wood; Ibor (meaning 'yew') is a name that occurs several times in the Cuchulinn sagas; Lemke (section VI) draws attention to the ancient Welsh legend centered on the yew tree of Mathafarn near Llanwrin in Montgomeryshire. More interesting for our purpose is the use of wands of yew for divination, linked as this must have been to beliefs in the particular significance of the yew: "Circumstantial evidence is convincing that before the conversion of South Britain to Christianity, Yews were sacred trees. . . . And in Wales the tradition lingers that the Yew is a symbol of immortality."​23 In such divination rites ogham characters were inscribed on wands of yew, as in the tale of King Eochaidh Airemh and Queen Edain, where the king's chief Druid, Dallan, sent to find out the queen's fate, "cut four wands of yew, and wrote or cut an Ogam in them; and it was revealed to him, 'through his keys of science and his ogam, that the queen Edain was concealed in the palace of the fairy chief, Midir, in the hill of Bri Leith."​24 In this Irish tale we have a significant instance of the combination of yew wood with an obviously magic inscription, just as there appears to be evidence of the secular use of ogham in a similar manner.​25 It may well be that the Celtic practice of using yew wood inscribed with ogham for magic or divinatory purposes was copied by the pagan Anglo-Saxon invaders, who would naturally use runes. Unless one subscribes to the view that ogham script derives from runes, there are no chronological objections to this view, if we accept Professor Jackson's suggestion that the ogham alphabet was invented in Romano-Celtic Britain in the late fourth century.​26 Surviving ogham inscriptions in this country are most numerous in the west and southwest, areas which the Anglo-Saxon expansion embraced from the middle of the sixth century onwards. The Anglo-Saxons  p255 who settled in these regions were still pagans, all the more ready, no doubt, to adopt some of the magico-ritualistic practices which they observed among the native population, among whom Christianity does not seem to have long survived the departure of the Romans.​27 The very word drȳ 'magic' is an adoption into Old English from the Celtic drū whence our "druid."​28 Such a view as here suggested allows both for the spread of ogham script before the invasions and for the association of yew magic and runes to spread gradually among the Anglo-Saxons and thence to the Frisians; our earliest runic yew-inscriptions from Friesland probably belong to the first half of the seventh century.

The extent of Celtic, including Irish, influence upon the earlier generations of Anglo-Saxons has too long been underestimated, perhaps owing to the paucity of direct Celtic adoptions into the Old English vocabulary. Recent scholar­ship has thrown some healthy doubts upon this view, and we are now able to detect such influence in several directions, thereby helping to strengthen the suggestion I have made. Professor Jackson writes that "there is some reason to think that very early in the invasion period there were intermarriages between the Saxon royal houses and the Britons."​29 Several of the Old English charms betray traces of Irish influence,​30 and there are good grounds for believing that Anglo-Saxon runic cryptography owes a similar debt: "Secret writing on this basis [i.e., the isruna tract] may have existed at an early date, but it was probably developed on the model of the Old Irish ogham and its cryptographic variants."31

A further step in this story was taken when the association of runes and magic with yew wood and yew lore was exported from Anglo-Saxon England to the Continent, more especially to Friesland. Close contact between Anglo-Saxons and Frisians existed, if we are to believe Procopius,​32 at the time of the invasion of Britain; and it continued both before and after the Anglo-Saxon missions. Trade relations between them are attested by Anglo-Saxon coins found overseas and by incidental allusions like that of Bede in the well-known story of Imma sold to a Frisian merchant in London.​33 In Friesland Germanic paganism held out longer than it did in England, providing fruitful soil for the runic yew magic which we believe to have been brought across from England by superstitious Frisian traders or sailors (cf. Westeremden B, below). Even after the conversion of the Frisians had begun pagan rites continued to flourish: "the casting of lots, the sacrifices to the dead, the drawing of omens from groves and springs, the use of amulets, spells, magic, and sacrilege."34

 p256  Our most tangible evidence of the Frisian association of rune magic with yew lore are the extant runic inscriptions on yew wood whose survival was ensured by their fortuitous interment in Frisian terpen. Both the wooden "sword" of Arum and the yew piece of Britsum belong most probably to the earlier part of the seventh century. The Arum "sword" bears only the word edæboda which may be a personal name or mean something like "renuntius, return-messenger"; but the short handle of the "sword" and the material used indicate, as Arntz rightly suggests,​35 symbolic, possibly magic, rather than practical purposes. One is reminded of the messenger function of the rune-inscribed wood in the Old English poem The Husband's Message.​36 The Britsum yew piece is more illuminating. Most commentators agree in seeing in the main portion of the Britsum inscription a direct injunction always to carry this piece of yew.​37 Thus Bugge: "Always carry this yew! Therein lies virtue";​38 Arntz: "Always carry this yew! Therein lies strength";​39 Buma: "Always carry this yew in the host of battle."​40 There can be no reasonable doubt that Britsum is an amulet patently embodying belief in the joint efficacy of yew and runes, and that it is of Frisian origin.41

The two remaining Frisian runic yew inscriptions are both later. Both were discovered at Westeremden, Province of Groningen, and both use runes of the later, extended Anglo-Saxon fuþorc, carried to Friesland from England most probably in the course of the eighth century. The weaving-slay (Westeremden A) is inscribed with what are most probably two personal names, Adugisl and Gisuhild,​42 and was presumably meant for practical use. That yew was used for it, the hard, durable nature of the wood sufficiently explains. There is no reason here to suppose magic import; household utensils made of yew wood can be viewed in the British Museum, and buckets made of yew have been discovered in Anglo-Saxon graves. Lemke (Section IV) cites an impressive list of objects made of yew wood from pre-historic ages to the present century, and ranging all the way from Armbrust to Zuckerdosen. But the case is different with the yew wand (Westeremden B), which bears one of the most fascinating of all runic legends. This is not the place to examine critically the various problems raised by the runes, or the possible relation­ship of the inscription with Amluþ (Hamlet). What we may regard as certain is the occurrence of the word iwi 'yew' and probably also the ascription to the inscribed yew piece of magic powers to control the waves (ōst, ūst 'surf'). Arntz tentatively interprets the legend as follows: "Amluþ nahm auf Opheim Stellung. Vor (seinen) Eiben hat sich die Brandung geduckt. Vor (dieser) Eibe ducke sich die Brandung!"​43 This will not be the last  p257 word on this inscription, but it probably points along the right lines. If so, we have yet another valuable indication of the fusion of runic and yew magic, late indeed, but, as already mentioned, the Frisians held on to many pagan practices and superstitions long after the first English missionaries went across in the seventh century.


The second question asked at the beginning of this paper was whether any elements of yew lore associated with runes can be found to survive in later folklore and popular superstitions. It is as well to be clear right away that, as runes ceased to be employed as a script, any such survival would in nearly every case take the form of other symbols — whether Roman letters, signs, or crosses — being substituted; only rarely do we meet runes here and there surviving in conspicuous isolation. There is enough evidence to show that such substitutions took place: Some Anglo-Saxon charms, for instance, prescribe the cutting of names or Christian formulae into sticks of wood, sometimes accompanied by obviously heathen ritual, such as the shedding of blood, to achieve the desired effect.​44 The casting of lots also links runic with post-runic practice, from Tacitus' notae to the distribution of hides in English parishes (see below). An interesting example is described in an addition to Lex Frisionum, where two wooden twigs, one marked with a cross, the other unmarked, are used on a church altar to reach a decision in a murder case.​45 Although such instances may properly be regarded as examples of originally runic usages, the mere fact that runes are no longer present must inevitably render our conclusions somewhat tentative.

Certain aspects of the question, however, are firmly factual. In England the early Church displayed commendable good sense and tolerance in its attitude towards heathen practices.​46 Both yews and runes were drawn, as it were, into its service, so that their pagan associations waned in Christian employment. Runes were used for Christian tomb-inscriptions and to adorn Christian works of art like the Ruthwell Cross. Nonetheless, something of the ancient lore of the fuþark lived on, and in Cynewulf's runic passages, for example, or in some verses of the Runic Poem there are unmistakable echoes of pagan associations still clinging to rune-names.​47 The Old English Nine Herbs Charm does not hesitate to mention both Christ and Woden, the latter in a reference (lines 32‑33) that clearly implies associations with rune-magic:

ða genam Woden viiii wuldortanas,

sloh ða þa nædddran, þæt heo on viiii tofleah.

"He takes nine glory-twigs, by which are meant nine runes, that is nine twigs with the initial letters in runes of the plants representing the power inherent in them, and using them as weapons he smites the serpent with them. Thanks to  p258 their magical power they pierce its skin and cut it into nine pieces."​48 Another charm (Storms, No. 33) contains some rather garbled runes in an obviously Christian setting.

Yews also continued to be cultivated, for both religious and practical ends. Chief among the latter was the constant need of yew wood for bows, which persisted throughout the Middle Ages; "accordingly we find many enactments both for planting and protecting yew-trees. Thus there was ordered, in the reign of Richard III (1483) a general plantation of yew-trees for the use of archers,"​49 and there was, about this time, considerable trading in yew wood for bows between England and the continent; so much so that at the time of Maximilian I the yew bow was known in Germany as "englischer Bogen."​50 The view, sometimes advanced, that yews were planted in churchyards to protect the fabric of the buildings, is scornfully rejected by Lowe on the grounds that the slow and low growth of yews and the horizontal spread of their branches make the tree particularly ill-adapted for such a task.​51 But it is highly probable that traces of superstition remain here in that the sacred precincts were believed to be additionally protected against supernatural and elemental forces by the presence of yews. The churchyard yew is a common phenomenon in England:​a it is reasonable to assume that its beginnings are closely linked with heathen rites and beliefs. Already Sir Thomas Browne made this suggestion: "Whether the planting of yewe in churchyards, hold not its originall from ancient funerall rites, or as an embleme of resurrection from its perpetual verdure, may also admit conjecture."​52 Yew trees were often notable landmarks in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Britain. The yew "at the head of Baile's strand" was the trysting-place of Cuchulinn, Fand, and Eimher: a Hertfordshire legend tells of a dragon kennelled to an ancient yew;​53 and in Anglo-Saxon times yews sometimes marked places of assembly, not improbably sites of earlier pagan fanes where ritual and yew magic went hand in hand. It was on such sites that some Anglo-Saxon churches seem to have been built,​54 in accord with the policy of the early Church to adopt and adapt, rather than destroy, remnants of paganism. It is in this way that the frequent association between churches and churchyard yews most probably began. The choice of yew trees for open-air gatherings survived well into modern times. "Thus at Berkhampstead, in Hertfordshire, parishioners were accustomed to assemble beneath the churchyard Yew to welcome the coming in of the New Year. . . . At Totteridge in Hertfordshire, the Hundred Court of the district met in the churchyard beside the old Yew tree."55

The use of yew branches in Palm Sunday processions probably represents another  p259 such Christian adaptation of earlier heathen practices, especially funerary rites. The yew, as has been noted, was symbolic of both death and immortality, hence particularly fitting for Palm Sunday. Again, this custom persists throughout the Middle Ages. Thus John Myrc writes in the Festial, "we have non olyfe þat beruth grene leves, we takon in stede of hit hew and palmes wyth, and beruth abowte on procession," and Caxton makes a similar observation in his Direction for Keeping Feasts all the Year. Such "palms" were often retained afterwards from a belief in their protective powers against a variety of possible evils, notably the devil and witches, lightning and fire.​56 In the Forest of Dean a yew stick nailed behind the door prevented a witch from entering the house,​57 and in the Hebrides the custom persisted of keeping yew branches in the house as a preservative against fire.​58 This custom spans more than a thousand years, if we recall that in the Old English Runic Poem the yew is described as hyrde fyres, perhaps to be taken in the sense of "guardian against fire" rather than as "the guardian of the fire," referring to a yew log on the hearth.​59 In this connection must be noted also the interesting fact that in Baden yew branches, more especially yew branches used as "palms," are sometimes called "englisch Riis."​60 It is not inconceivable that in parts of southwestern Germany, where Anglo-Saxon influence was at one time strong, echoes linger of an ancient indebtedness to England for the yew lore and its runic and later Christian associations whose history we have been trying to trace.

It is where yew wood was inscribed with signs or words that we come closest to original runic practice. The Old English charms and Leechbook remedies show how quickly Christian incantations took the place of earlier runic formulae like that of Britsum. The wood used also varies. Sometimes it is unspecified; sometimes oak, hazel, elder, or poplar take the place of yew. But in a few cases, both secular and magical, something of the original association seems to have survived. The most interesting example of the latter is the German Tollholz, an implement made of yew wood which consists of a die with signs or letters cut into it; this was used for marking cakes which were then given to mad dogs in order to cure them of rabies. A variant of this existed in East Prussia: "In der Sympathie-medizin wurde gegen Tollwut ein Butterbrot, in das magische Zeichen geritzt wurden, und das mit geschabtem Eibenholz bestreut war, eingegeben."​61 In England a similar remedy existed against the bite of a mad dog; here an apple or a piece of fine white bread was inscribed with a magic formula, but I can find no traces of any association with the yew.​62 There is, however, a remarkable parallelism  p260 between the formula recorded by Duer and a Polish "recipe" which involves yew wood. Dyer writes: "Against the bite of a mad dog — write upon an apple, or on fine white bread, 'O king of glory, come in Peace.' Pax. Max., D. inax. Swallow this three mornings fasting; Also, Hax, Max, Adinax, Opera, Chudor." The Polish "recipe," used until the middle of last century, is quoted by Marzell​63 and gives the formula pax‑max-y-vy‑vax. This recurrent mixture of gibberish and disfigured Latin may be mere coincidence; on the other hand it is not impossible that there existed a European commonwealth of yew lore which was here and there reinforced by Anglo-Saxon contributions, at one time connected with runes, and ultimately derived from the British Celts.

The casting of lots for hides in certain English parishes (e.g., in Sussex and Oxfordshire), as well as in Germany from the Rhine to the Baltic, provides another, though wholly secular, link with ancient practices of sortilege. Different marks, some of them runic, were cut into wooden sticks or other objects, including (in Somerset) apples, and the lots drawn accordingly. Some older English merchants' and masons' marks also show runic forms, e.g., ᚫ, ᚩ, the latter a distinctively English rune, while in Germany the yew rune ᛇ was common as a Hausmarke as well as a foresters' and huntsmen's mark.64

Such sporadic survivals do not, admittedly, add up to very much, but they suggest a lingering association of an originally much firmer fusion of yew and magic and sortilege with symbols originally runic. Runic amulets of yew wood, like Britsum or Westeremden B, could only survive accidentally under exceptional conditions; but there is no reason to disbelieve that at one time they were much more commonly used. Where small pieces of yew wood were worn as protection against bewitching or other threats, such as drowning; where yew sticks and "palms" were superstitiously treasured, it is not unnatural to assume that at first runes were frequently added to enhance their efficacy, other symbols (crosses and the like) gradually taking their place as the fuþark receded into the past.

In later English literature the various traditional associations of the yew persist, from the obviously magical of Shakespeare's "slips of yew / slivered in the moon's eclipse" (Macbeth, IV, i, 27‑28) to the plainly secular use of yew trees in ornamental gardening: "His head, once shaven, was covered with stubble, uniform with his chin, like a clipped yew in a neglected garden" (Evelyn Waugh, Scoop). The majority of poetic figures embodying the yew, however, are funereal, as may be judged by some of the epithets used: "dismal" Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, II, iii, 108; "solemn" (Jonson, Elegy on the Lady Jane Pawlet); "blasted" (Johnson, Rambler, 44); "gloomy" (Wordsworth, Yew Trees); "sullen" (Tennyson, In MemoriamII); "chill" (T. S. Eliot, Burnt NortonV).65

To sum up our conclusions briefly: Yew lore was a common Indo-European  p261 heritage, particularly strong among the Celts. Its eventual connection with rune magic probably derives from the Celtic association, in Britain of yew with ogham inscriptions for divinatory and other magic rites, copied by the pagan Anglo-Saxons, runes taking the place of ogham. From England runic yew magic spread to the continent by way of Friesland where especially favorable conditions, in terpen, ensured the survival of our only extant runic yew inscriptions. After the conversion of England and the continental Germanic peoples to Christianity pagan beliefs and rites originally involving yew magic and runes lives on in popular superstitions and practices. As regards inscriptions on yew wood, runes were gradually replaced by magic symbols or other letters as the fuþark ceased to be employed, especially in "popular medicine" largely derived from ancient charms and primitive remedies where herbalism went hand in hand with magic. Longest of all to survive are the funerary associations of the yew tree, intensified as these are by the churchyard yew, itself undoubtedly the heir to primitive pagan rites and the age-old acceptance of the yew tree as symbol of both death and immortality.

University College of North Staffordshire

The Author's Notes:

1 Thus H. Arntz, Handbuch der Runenkunde, 2nd ed. (1944), p208.

2 A. Bæksted, Målruner og Troldruner: Runemagiske Studier (1952).

3 Op. cit., p317 (English Summary).

4 Op. cit., pp318‑319.

5 Bede, Hist. Eccl., IV, 22. Cf. Bæksted, op. cit., p56.

6 W. Krause, Runeninschriften im Älteren Futhark (1937), p439. Cf. Bæksted, op. cit., pp131‑132.

7 J. Lowe, The Yew-Trees of Great Britain and Ireland (1897), p98. Cf. also Folklore XIII (1902), 201.

8 E.g.Virgil, Georgics, II.257; Pliny, Natural History, XVI, ch. 20.

9 E.g.Georgics, II, 448.

10 Burne, Handbook of Folklore (1914), p32.

11 Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens (1927‑30), s.v. Eibe.

12 De Bello Gallico, VI, 31: "taxo . . . se exanimavit" suggests hanging rather than poisoning, although either is possible.

13 For details see E. Lemke, "Die Eibe in der Volkskunde," Zeitschr. d. Vereins f. Volkskunde, 12 (1902), section II. I am most grateful to Dr A. Leonhardi of Dortmund and his publishers, Verlag Lensing, Dortmund, for making this valuable article available for me; as the copy I received was typewritten, my references must be to sections rather than pages.

14 W. Mannhardt, Der Baumkultus der Germanen und ihrer Nachbarstämme, Pt. I (1875), esp. ch. iii.

15 And thus the yew becomes the only coniferous tree to figure in Old English poetry.

16 E.g.: Grimnismál 5, Guðrúnarkviða, II, 18, Egils Saga 60, etc.

17 Richard II, III, iii, 17.

18 Cf. J. Hoops, Waldbäume und Kulturpflanzen im germanischen Altertum (1905), p127.

19 Cf. Sébillot, Folklore de FranceIII (1906), p406.

20 See T. D. Kendrick, The Druids (1927), ch. iii and Appendix (pp212 ff.).

21 Topographia Hibernica, III, 10.

22 Some such claims are probably based on calculating the annual rings of two or more stems grown together, a not uncommon phenomenon in the growth of yews. Cf.e.g., Der Grosse Brockhaus, 16th ed. (1953), s.v. Eibe, which claims that the yew "soll bis über 3000 Jahre alt werden."

23 V. Cornish, The Churchyard Yew and Immortality (1946), pp17, 19.

24 Eugene O'Curry, On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish (1873), II, 192 ff. Cf. also Sir John Rhys, Celtic Folklore (1891), II, 421.

25 K. H. Jackson, Language and History in Early Britain (1953), p152.

26 Op. cit., p156.

27 Ibid., p248.

28 In this connection might be mentioned the fact that in the so‑called "tree ogham" the name of i (idad, ibar, ibhar) and possibly of e (edad, edhadh) means 'yew,' from Old Irish é(o). Cf. Howard Meroney, "Early Irish Letter-Names," Speculum, XXIV (1949), 34‑35.

29 Op. cit., p249.

30 G. Storms, Anglo-Saxon Magic (1948), pp303, 309 ff., 315 f.

31 R. Derolez, Runica Manuscripta: The English Tradition (1954), p161.

32 De Bello Gothico, IV, 19.

33 Hist. Eccl., IV, 22. See also W. Levison, England and the Continent in the Eighth Century (1946), esp. ch. I and III, and F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 2nd ed., (1947), p56.

34 E. S. Duckett, Anglo-Saxon Saints and Scholars (1948), p409. Cf. Pope Gregory's Epp. 41 and 43, and Levison, op. cit., pp47‑48.

35 H. Arntz and H. Zeiss, Die einheimsichen Runendenkmäler des Festlandes (1939), p111.

36 Cf. my "The Runes in The Husband's Message," JEGP, LIV (1955), 1 ff.

37 Von Grienberger, ZfdPh, 41 (1909), 419 ff., is an exception.

38 ZfdPh, 40 (1908), 174 ff.

39 Arntz and Zeiss, op. cit. pp154 ff.

40 "Das Runenstäbchen von Britsum," Beiträge, 73 (1951), 306 ff.

41 Cf. P. C. J. A. Boeles, "Zu den friesischen Runendenkmälern," Runenberichte, 2/3 (1941), pp121‑122.

42 Arntz and Zeiss, op. cit., pp382 ff.

43 Arntz and Zeiss, op. cit., p409. I have slightly rearranged the word order.

44 Storms, op. cit., pp46, 52, 237, 255 ff., 287.

45 Cf. Boeles, op. cit., p122.

46 Cf.e.g., Bede, Hist. Eccl., I, 27, 30.

47 Cf. my articles in English Studies, XXXIV (1953), 49 ff., 193 ff.

48 Storms, op. cit., p195.

49 Lowe, op. cit., p103.

50 Lemke, op. cit., Section IV.

51 Ibid., pp102 f.

52 Urn Burial, ch. 4.

53 Folklore, XII (1901), 303 ff.

54 Cf. E. A. Philippson, Germanisches Heidentum bei den Angelsachsen (1929), p184.

55 Cornish, op. cit., pp34 f., where further examples are cited.

56 Cf. Mannhardt, op. cit., pp286‑288, 291‑292.

57 Folklore, XIII (1902), 175.

58 Ibid., p32.

59 E. V. K. Dobbie, The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, VI (1942), 156.

60 H. Marzell, "Die deutschen Bäume in der Volkskunde. 4. Die Eibe, Taxus baccata." Mitt. d. Deutschen Dendrologischen Gesellschaft (1928), p110.

61 Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens, loc. cit. Cf. also Martin, "Geschichte der Tollwutbekämpfung in Deutschland," Hessische Blätter f. Volkskunde, 13 (1914) 62 ff.

62 Cf. T. F. T. Dyer, English Folklore, 2nd ed. (1880), p144.

63 Marzell, op. cit., p109.

64 C. G. Homeyer, Die Haus- und Hofmarken (1870), pp144 f. and plates.

65 Also: "The moment of the yew-tree" (Little GiddingV) and the suggestion of sanctified ground in The Dry SalvagesV.

Thayer's Note:

a For good details and a photo, see "Yew Trees in Churchyards", in Antiquities and Curiosities of the Church (William Andrews, ed., London, 1897).

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 29 Aug 12