The yew tree figured prominently in ancient Germanic legal and ritual symbolism. References to yew tree appear in sacred ritual and legal texts of the pagan Germanic people, perhaps because of yews evergreen properties and extraordinary longevity.
For example, the judge’s staff was made out of the yew tree. Reference to yew particularly appears in a text that asks for a long reign for the warrior/priest kings while invoking the tree’s longevity.
In the Germanic runic lore, rune Eihwaz, Anglo Saxon Eoh is a symbol inspired by yew tree. It is also believed that the World tree called Yggdrasil (also called Irminsul) in the Norse mythology was originally a yew tree.
An Anglo Saxon Rune poem reads:
Eoh byþ utan unsmeþe treow,
heard hrusan fæst, hyrde fyres,
wyrtrumun underwreþyd, wyn on eþle.
The yew is a tree with rough bark//
Hard and fast in the earth, supported by its roots//
A guardian of flame, and a joy upon an estate//
One reputable hypothesis derives all the potential words for yew from a Proto Indo European root *hiei– “brilliant red color, reddish.”
The Persian word for yew tree is in fact, sorkh-dár literally “the scarlet tree.” Persian dár “tree” comes from the Avestan daûrû, and is a cognate of Russian дерево (dérevo); Polish drewno; Greek δόρῠ (dóru); Gothic triu; Old English trēow “tree.”
Sorkh-dár is one of the exclusive trees species of Hyrcania province, literally the land of “the wolves” in North Eastern Iran (called Gorgān in Persian.) It is mentioned as Varkána– in the Behistun inscription of Darius the Great. (2.92.)
There are only a few forests of yew tree in all over the world, and some of the outstanding forests are in Hyrcania in North Eastern Iran. The yew also flourishes in Anatolia and the north Caucasus. Even the thickest trunks in all other forests are not comparable with the amazingly thick yews in Hyrcania.
In old days, its wood was used in buildings instead of iron. Even today, one can see yew as part of the building material in many old villages of the Gorgán province, especially in some of the old nationally registered houses in the Gorgán city.
In the poetic gathas, sûḵrá refers to the “bright red glow” of the fire. The Zoroastrian sacred lore called Avesta, invokes five categories of fire, (See Yasna 17.11.) “The most joyous” fire called ûrvázišta radiates in ûrvar (arbor) trees. Yew tree is the very tree that embodies the “bright red glow” of this sacred fire.
Aventan sûḵrá “bright red glow” is a cognate of Vedic śukrá light, bright, blazing flame, TocharianB śukye “shining.” The Greek word for SWAN “the white one” is also a cognate. The reconstructed Indo European root is *keuk “to shine brightly, glow.”
Fire was used judicially in ancient Zoroastrian Iran. There are said to have been some 30 kinds of fiery trials in all. Those accused of lying or breach of contract were required as an ultimate test to establish their innocence by submitting to a solemnly administered ordeal by fire.
Thus the illustration of the World tree Yggdrasil (also called Irminsul) in Norse mythology by yew tree would be far more appropriate. For a tree that is a guardian of flame would best symbolize the renewal of the worlds through fiery trial.
In conclusion, I shall add that the scientific name for YEW is taxus baccata. TAXUS is a cognate of Latin taxus “yew,” Russian tis “yew,” that comes from Scythian taxsa “bow.”
YEW had diverse ritual uses including providing the raw material for bows, as the Scythian term suggests. The Scythians, made archery a quintessential aristocratic skill, using the word taxsa (taxs in Medieval Persian) that is cognate with Greek tóxo occurring about twenty-five times in Homer, including the climactic scene in the Odyssey.
It has often been presumed that the Greek word was borrowed from the ancient Iranian, either during the initial contacts between Greek colonists and ancient Iranian steppe nomads north of the Black Sea in the seventh century BC or after Scythian archers later served as the Athenian police.
It has often been assumed that the Greek word is borrowed from Scythian, sometime after the founding of Greek colonies on the northern shore of the Black Sea (Olbia, Tanais, etc.). Athens was known for having a police force of Scythian archers.
Special Thanks to My Friend Didier Calin for his notes on Yew Tree and the rune Eihwaz