Yew v. Ash and Yggdrassil-- the tree and the man

I will post my main analysis on this rune tomorrow, but in the mean time....

One of the kennings of the yew tree is the "needle ash." People have assumed the world tree is a yew because Voluspa specifically states that Yddgreassil is an ash but that it is also evergreen. Yew trees (along with a few other types) were very important to many Indo-European peoples, and the same tree shows up often in Celtic myth as well.

Other similarities include:

You make spear shafts out of ash and bows out of yew.
They can both (eventually) grow to be very tall

In Norse myth, humans were created out of trees ("Ask" and "Embla"). Thereafter, trees of various types are used in kennings for man. For example, Sigurd is addressed by Sigdrifa as "Oak of Battle." I have posted before (in the discussion of Ansuz) about the idea that the World Tree is in fact the consciousness embodied in the human condition. That the tree itself is a fairly detailed metaphore for the human condition and provides answers to otherwise puzzling passages in Voluspa and elsewhere.

Many people who come to the Runic tradition find that the Runic tradition is fairly bipolar (to use Thorsson's term) in that it seeks both the darkness and the light. Darkness in this case is not to be seen as evil in any normal sense, however. I would actually put it a little differently-- that the underworld aspects are as important as the heavenly aspects.

In the mean time, one book I would recommend is "Psychosynthesis: A Collection of Basic Writings" by Roberto Assaglioli (sp?). Although my viewpoint is not identical with this writer's, I think he is on to something important. Assaglioli is one of the few psychologists who seems both interested in a psychological model of religious experience but without a tendency to try to explain it away.

Anyway, I think that, like trees, we must cast our roots down before we can send our branches up. The underworld is full of various things, from beings known for their sexual desires (Hrimgerdh, Alvis, the four dwarves who sell the necklace of the Brisings to Freya, etc) to the ghosts of those who came before. This underworld is not only the primordial world but it is also the source of learning, where both Odhinn and Vafthrudhnir* learn the Runes (see Havamal and Vafthrudhnismal. After we have sent our roots down, we can send our branches up towards the gods.

*This giant's name means "The Entangler" which is noteworthy because Odhinn is known too for his entangling abilities. In the cited story, Odhinn and this giant challenge eachother to riddles and eventually Odhinn wins, and The Entangler is beheaded.

As I said before, the darkness may be scary in many situations but it is not evil. However, one must continue to try to grow in both directions because there are forces which will seek to destroy one. The harts grazing on the new chutes, Nidhhoggr gnawing on the roots, and the bole rotting from within.

There is at the top of the tree an eagle with a falcon perched between his eyes. The Eagle/falcon, the squirrel, and Nidhhogr represent the three divisions of the world (heavens, terrestrial, and underworld) that are connected with the 3 Dumezilian functions (Priest/King, Warrior, Producer).

The serpent and the eagle again show their role in the story of the Mead of Inspiration, and this probably has some bearing on the tree as human metaphore we see. In some interpretations of this story, the auger used to drill a home in the mountain is a squirrel. Anyway, Odhinn assumes the shape of a serpent, and slides through the hole. He spends three nights with Gunloth before putting all the mead in his mouth, assuming the shape of an eagle, and flying to Asgard with Suttung in persuit. Here the serpent, man, and eagle represent the three divisions of the world and point directly to those animals found in the World Tree in Grimnismal.


Eihwaz analysis

The Protogermanic root *Eihwaz gave rise to the words for "yew" in a variety of Germanic languages including English and Old Norse.

This stave is one of two in the Futhark which is actually named after a type of tree-- the other is Berkano in the next aett. As I mentioned in previous posts, the World Tree is a metaphore for the human condition and this is more or less intrinsic to the structure of the myths.

Yew trees make good candidates for this for a number of reasons. First they are a tree associated with struggle-- one can make bows from the wood. Secondly and more importantly, it is the only evergreen tree that I am aware of which is either male or female but not both. Male trees produce tiny pollen cones, while the female trees produce bright red berries.

Ingesting these berries is not generally advisable for, although the red flesh is not toxic, the seed within the berry is deadly. Some animals are able to eat the foliage of at least some species of yew trees with no ill effects, but all species to my knowledge are poisonous to humans. I am not aware of any studies that have been done on the fumes of yew trees, but I have sat within Japanese and Pacific yew trees for extended times and never found even a slight mind altering effect from them (I have also added yew to incense). I tend to think the arguments that incense is even slightly mind altering chemically are largely modernist thinking rather than (IMO) a better approach of seeing it as a semiotic meditation aid.

Now, for the Rune Poems. Both the OERP and the ONRR refer to the heat that yew creates when it burns. This is probably owing to the resinous and hard nature of the wood.

The ONRR also notes that this tree is the greenest tree in winter.

The OERP also notes that the yew is a steadfast tree, and holds hard into the earth. It is worth noting two more facts about yew. The first is that they are very slow growing and very long lived. The second bit of modern lore is that we can trace Yew species (as the modern Taxus genus) back to the mid-Jurassic period. The ancestor of the yew genus (Paleotaxus) goes back to the Triassic (200 million years ago).

OIRP is probably the most interesting. You have three lines and each refers to weaponry:
bent bow
brittle iron
[giant's name] of the arrow

The first appears to be a reference to a bow, and the last either to a bow or to yew poison which was sometimes added to arrows. The middle one deserves further explenation, though I find it odd that such a metaphore would have persisted for 300-400 years after pattern welding of iron was rendered obsolete by advanced steel forging technologies.

Pattern welding of iron was a technique developed by the Celts in the early iron age which used varrying grades of iron and primitive steel to create weapons of great quality. The basic process was that one would start with two grades of metal: A soft, malleable, set of narrow wroght iron rods, and a narrow bar of a harder, more brittle iron or primitive steel. The wroght iron rods would be case hardened in a charcoal fire so that the outside of each rod turned to a carbon steel. These rods would be twisted into a coil which would form the interior of the blade and the tang. The narrow brittle bar would be bent into a narrow V and used as the edge of the blade. The components would be hammer welded together. The blade would be ground down to shape and often acid treated (the acid would also bring out the patterns caused by the steel layers in the iron).

This technique was quickly adopted among the Germanic peoples and spread throughout Europe during the Gothic invasions. The same process was also used for things like spears, and there is reason to think that a far. While the Norse moved to homogeneous steel swords somewhere in the 7th or 8th century, the rest of Europe continued using pattern welded iron until after the conversion of Scandenavia, when it became acceptable to use their technology. However, as the metaphores of swords from the earlier era continued to propagate (as we see in the Volsungs' Saga), I see no reason to think that such a metaphore should be disqualified from consideration due to technological enhancements.

I think that one likely interpretation of "brittle iron" as it relates to this stave is the brittle, hard iron used in pattern welded swords and spears to make a robust cutting edge.


More on the yew

Here are some articles on the yew - including its medicinal and esoteric uses, and its lore.

In the light of the interesting post on brittle iron einhverfr wrote above, I found it interesting to note that yew could be substituted for iron or steel because of its hardness. Apparently Viking longboat nails were made of yew. So the association between yew and iron appears to be multi-fold.

Yew is poisonous - but it's poison has very good properties too. It's still used in homeopathy today. It seems to be a good purgative - and also useful against other poisons and snakebites - presumably on that old medical wisdom that you fight a poison with a poison!

But the most interesting fact I read on that website was the use of the inside of yew bark to treat breast and ovarian cancer. The substance paralyses the cancerous cells by 'imprisoning' them within a cage of microscopic tubules, so they can't split and spread.

This idea of paralysis - of curing a condition by closing it in - I find very interesting from a spiritual and magical viewpoint too. Don't have much to add at this stage - except that the OERP might be reinterpreted in light of this use (OK, it's anachronistic, but bear with me):

Yew has a rough bark without
but holds the flame within:
deeply rooted, it graces the land.

The "fire within" could be seen as the fire of cancer that cannot spread, imprisoned within the bark of the yew - and by extension, of any moral, emotional or spiritual cancer affecting us. But imprisoning or paralysing the cancer is only one step - we can only thrive if we are deeply rooted, and if we "grace the land" - that is, if we draw strength from below and above (I see "gracing the land" as a description of the sight of tall elegant yews).

The fact that yew is only used on cancers that have not responded to chemiotherapy, and that the patient is staring death in the face, brings this use of yew very close to the spirit of the rune Eihwaz - as much in its association with the death/life continuum, in its representation as Yggdrasil (since disease and fighting disease are both facts and metaphors of the human condition - I am following einhvrfr's view of Yggdrasil as the human condition, I like that very much), as in its link to weaponry and fighting. We often talk of "fighting" and "defeating" cancer - and what better metaphor for it that the bow and arrow, focussed and deadly, loosed to kill the poisonous giant Cancer?