"Yggdrasil" an ash or yew?
- Image1: Approx. 1000 year old yew tree in the churchyard in Beltingham England.
In research, one often finds the view that the Nordic world tree in earlier times could not originally have been an ash, but a yew (Taxus). I would like to get to the bottom of this thesis in more detail!
Basically, the transformation from yew to ash can be explained, for example, by the fact that both trees did not grow at all in Iceland, where the Nordic Edda texts were written, and the tree species were therefore simply confused in ignorance.
Yggdrasil the World Tree is described in the Edda texts as follows:
“Near this temple is a great tree, spreading its branches far and wide, always green, winter and summer. What kind is the same, no one knows.”
- Image 2: Green yew branches covered with frost in winter.
Adam of Bremen : Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, IV 26, Scholion 134
The almost identical description of the world tree in the Song Edda suggests that the sacred tree at Uppsala embodied the mythical world tree. Here is what it says about Yggdrasil:
"I know an ash tree, it's called Yggdrasil, a tall tree [...]
She stands evergreen above the fountain of the Urd.”
Voluspa, verse 19
- Figure 3: Symbolic representation of "Yggdrasil" resp. of the so-called world tree or tree of life
The European ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior) is known to be not evergreen! A well-known, native, evergreen tree species that could still grow in this part of Sweden and is associated with countless myths and legends is the yew.
- Image 4: The common ash (fraxinus excelsior).
The yew is an extremely long-lived conifer, probably the longest-lived tree of all. It is therefore still very often found as a hedge in cemeteries and next to churches today due to its symbolic connection between life and death. The Celts as well as the Romans celebrated death ceremonies near Eiben.
The oldest specimens still in existence today can therefore easily be found where the temples and holy places of the so-called "pagans" used to stand. Their faith was a threat to the Catholic Church and needed to be eradicated. This is how the early Inquisition worked. The shrines and sanctuaries of the pagans were either destroyed or annexed and repurposed for their own interests.
- Image 5: The more than 1000 year old yew tree in the churchyard of St Bartholomew's Church in Much Marcle, Herefordshire, England .
What remains of the old pagan beliefs to this day is the reference to the yew trees themselves, which are sacred to the Celts and Normans. In addition to the classic cemetery hedge, it is not uncommon to find extremely old yew trees, mostly next to churches! Especially in England and Wales there are numerous such specimens.
In many cases, the trees could never be dated 100% correctly due to the "hollow core". Today, thanks to novel DNA analysis, there are new ways of dating the age of the yew trees. Many of the ancient yew trees have subsequently turned out to be much older than previously assumed! However, there is still no consensus about the actual age of the yew trees!
- Image 6: Probably the oldest tree in Europe, the over 3000 year old yew tree in the churchyard of St Michael's Church, Discoed, Powys, Wales (GB)
Let's turn our attention to Norse mythology again!
If we look at the 24 runes of the futhark, we find that one rune, rune 13, the EO rune, also called the YR rune, is dedicated to the world tree.
- Image 7 and 8: The 24 runes and the rune stone on Oland in Sweden
"The EO rune leads up from the clogged depths of the earth into the sublime expanse and stillness of space" (Thorolf Wardle).
- Figure 9: Representation of the EO/YR rune with yew tree
The Anglo-Saxon runic sayings say: "EO is a tree that is not smooth on the outside, hard, and solid in the earth"
The Norwegian runic sayings say about the EO rune: "YR is the wintergreenest tree"
Accordingly, the world tree should be a coniferous tree with rough bark, hard wood and strong roots. This immediately reminds you of yew trees, doesn't it?
- Image 10: The root system that yews form is surprisingly strong and complex compared to other tree species!
Even more obviously it says in the Icelandic runic sayings: "YR is a drawn bow, brittle iron and the arrow's journey".
Here it becomes very clear again, it's all about bow and arrow! From which wood was this hunting and war equipment made over the centuries? So could it really be that carelessness in translation or a mistake in thought led to the ash becoming the symbol of the world tree?
The yew owes its current rarity in our forests mainly to the strong overexploitation for the production of weapon wood for bows and arrows in the Middle Ages. No other wood has always been as important for progress and victory as yew wood, especially in the Middle Ages.
In the Hundred Years' War between England and France, the rich yew stands in Germany and Austria were almost completely cut down, so that they have never been able to recover to this day. It even went so far that the English no longer traded with any merchant ships that did not carry any yew blanks for bow making. And this should pay off for the English!
The English defeated France in the Hundred Years' War clearly outnumbered and in several battles only thanks to their longbows made of "German yew"!
But let's see if there is more evidence for this thesis:
In the beliefs of the Nordic peoples and Germans there are two groups of gods, the Aesir and the Vanir.
Asen gods are eg Odin, Frigga, Balder.
Wanen gods are eg Ullr, Nerthus, Freyja.
- Image 11: Odin, the father of the gods, with a spear
As in other beliefs, certain attributes have been assigned to the gods. For example, the Asen god Odin carries a spear, while the Vanen god Ullr carries a bow and arrow.
- Image 12: The winter, hunting, bow and yew god Ullr with arrow bow
The homeland of Ullr is (according to Grimnismal 5) Ydalir , which means "Eibental" in German.
Odin's spear, on the other hand, is made of the wood of the Ask , which is ash wood.
When young, ash trees have smooth, straight, strong trunks. Even in the past, people made spears and lances because of the "long fibres" of the ash wood. Even today, the handles of shovels, rakes, hammers, brooms and other tools are mainly made of ash wood.
Yew wood, on the other hand, is better known for being very tough, hard and yet flexible wood, which is why it has always been used to make bows. A yew bow could therefore accelerate arrows up to 160 km/h and thus give them tremendous penetrating power!
The approximately 4000-year-old glacier man "Ötzi" from the Ötztal Alps carried various tools and weapons made of yew wood with him.
- Photo 13 and 14: Replica of the glacier man "Ötzi" with a stick made of yew wood and his axe.
And also later the Romans preferred to cut down the yew trees growing in Germania. And this only because of their suitability for making bows and arrows!
Historically, this was also the fatality of Saint Sebastian. This was executed by yew arches. The illustration below clearly shows that the longbows must be made of yew with a white sapwood and the typical red heartwood.
- Image 15: Representation of the execution of St. Sebastian by the Romans in 288 by means of "death by bow and arrow" so that he ended up looking "like a hedgehog". Painted between 1493-1494 in Cologne, Germany
The fact that the mythical world tree was possibly intended as a conifer is supported by the use of the word "barr" twice in the Edda:
"Four stags enter the branches of [Yggdrasil] and bite off the leaves [barr]."
"What is the name of the tree [barr] that spreads its branches over all lands?"
Fjölsvinnsmál, verse 19
That's because, while Old Norse "barr" can be translated as tree or leaf, it could just as easily be conifer or needle!
From both texts it can be interpreted that it is a tree that is (was) widespread throughout Europe and occurs frequently.
Well, the yew is the oldest known native tree species in Europe and dates back to the Tertiary (155 million years ago), so it existed before the Ice Age. This is proven by several fossil finds!
- Figure 16: Natural occurrences of the yew today. (1992)
In addition, it is the most shade-tolerant tree species in Europe, which used to be found in all forests of Central and Northern Europe, under the so-called "umbrella" of other trees, just as it still does today, but unfortunately it is much less common today!
There is also talk of deer penetrating the branches of Yggdrasil and feasting on the branches. However, ash trees usually grow very tall (>30m) and the idea of deer penetrating the branches makes little sense.
However, even in old age, the yew trees tend to reach down to the ground with their branches!
From today's point of view we also know that there is no other tree species that is bitten more by deer and deer than the yew! It is precisely this factor that makes natural regeneration and re-spreading of the yew so difficult.
The idea of deer pushing into the branches is therefore much easier with a yew than with an ash!
- Picture 17: Deer attack yew trees on the "Albis chain" in the canton of Zurich, Switzerland!
About the tree Mimameid in the Song Edda, which is equated with Yggdrasil, it is said:
"The tree is particularly significant for the women among the people"
According to one translation, "sickly women" are meant, according to another understanding, women with difficulties giving birth. A fire should be made with the fruit of the tree, and with it drive out of them what is in them. Accordingly, the illness or the child to be born. Again, this is much more reminiscent of yew than ash. It is widely known that the yew was used as a medicinal, laxative and abortifacient because of its toxicity.
It goes on to say about the Mimameid tree:
"No one knows from what roots it grows."
Fjölsvinnsmál , verse 20
You can also interpret another fascinating property of yew and not ash from this. Namely the unbelievable ability to regenerate and durability resp. longevity of the yew. Ashes can very well get old, but in this respect the yew surpasses all known tree species in Europe! It is believed that yew trees can easily live more than 3000 years.
- Picture 18: An old yew forms knots for vegetative regeneration.
It is also very interesting that, in relation to other trees, yews develop their root system much more than other types of trees. They almost form root networks, giving the impression that they have a root/crown ratio of 1 to 1 - just like "Yggdrasil" has always been represented!
- Picture 19: Another yew tree that confirms "No one knows what roots it grows from!"
In addition, yews can absorb additional nutrients that are not yet accessible through root suckers and the formation of knots, as well as bring about a complete rejuvenation of the yew tree. When trees fall, vertical branches often sprout immediately. Branch parts that come into contact with the ground begin to sprout roots. It is not yet known exactly how often this process can be repeated. But what could be better suited for a symbol of "immortality" than the yew tree with the ability to rejuvenate itself? Isn't that exactly how the Tree of Life, World Tree or Yggdrasil was portrayed?
The yew probably embodies everlasting, eternal life since "eh" and "jeh", also linguistically speaking.
Eternity means "aevi" in Old Norse or "ewa" in Old High German
The Old High German "iwa" , the Middle Low German "iwa" , the Anglo-Saxon "eow" or "iw" and the English "yew" are all called Eibe!
The name yew obviously derives from the same basic meaning as the word - eternity - which would make perfect sense considering the unique properties of the yew trees!
What do you think? Is Yggdrasil a yew tree or is it the ash tree?
Let me know what you think about it in the comments!