The Cult of the Yew: Tree of Life, Mystery and Magic, by Janis Fry
Moon Books, 1803411538, 480 pages, April 2023
Artist and yew tree specialist Janis Fry was first initiated into the yew mysteries in the fall of 1974, when she stumbled upon the Aberglasney Yew tunnel while exploring the overgrown hedges surrounding an old dilapidated country house in West Wales. The bent boughs of the ancient yews had fused together, forming a magical cathedral-like archway that drew her into a lifelong spiritual quest for the secrets of the legendary Tree of Life.
Fry is now one of the foremost authorities on yew trees and advocating for them has become her life’s work. Her native Great Britain has the largest treasury of ancient yew trees in the world. There are at least 174 ancient yews in the United Kingdom, and many of them are over 2,000 years old.1 Some of the UK’s most precious arboreal treasures are even estimated to be 5,000 years old, such as the Defynnog Yew in Wales and the Fortingall Yew in Scotland. Many of these ancient yews preside over churchyards, where they should be safe and well maintained.
However, Fry laments that there are no legal protections for these sacred trees and many suffer from neglect, becoming strangled with ivy and more vulnerable to breakage during storms, or having limbs amputated that should have been left alone to take root in the ground and regenerate.2 The hollows of some church yews are even used as storage sheds for groundskeeping supplies such as lawnmowers and oil tanks.3 Even if the clergy does take proper care of their sentinel yews, the trees are still in danger if the church closes down and developers purchase the land.
“Most people assume that ancient trees are protected,” Fry says, “but this is not the case unless someone has gone out of their way to have a Tree Protection Order placed on a particular tree and even if a tree has a TPO, the level of protection offered is not much of a deterrent to a developer who will often simply include the cost of the fine in the cost of the development.”4
A petition that Fry created on change.org to save Britain’s ancient yews has gained over 300,000 signatures so far. Her sense of urgency comes from the heartbreak of seeing so many of them become firewood. “Over 500 ancient Yew trees have been destroyed since the Second World War,”5 she says on her petition.
While Fry’s activism focuses on the physical preservation of yews, her artwork and books illuminate the otherworldly beauty of the yew and its spiritual significance as the Tree of Life. Fry feels she has a telepathic connection with yews, and they communicate with her visually, through imagery and symbolism, which she channels into her art. Many of her paintings are haunted by yews—the cover of The God Tree (2012) featured an acrylic painting of the selfsame title depicting red humanoid shapes emerging from the thick bark of a graveyard yew, their arms stretched skyward, rising like flames in the night. The blurred watercolor silhouette of a moonlit yew reflected in a rippling triangular pool, titled “Yew and Well,” graces the cover of her latest book, The Cult of the Yew: Tree of Life, Mystery, and Magic (2023).
“The phenomena known as ‘Yew’,” Fry says in the introduction, “is far more than a tree. It is a holder of wisdom, a keeper of knowledge and quite possibly a creator god and watcher of the human race. The Tree of Life, the Otherworldly tree, is a conscious entity, a tree that can bleed like a human, change sex and produce the enigma of the Golden Bough.”6
In The Cult of the Yew, Fry expands upon her previous research in The God Tree and aspires to track down a royal bloodline of sacred yew, called Taxus Sanctus, which descended from the original Tree of Life. She believes the offspring of this fabled tree were propagated by members of a yew cult who traveled long distances carrying cuttings, roots, and branches as staves or wands and planted them throughout Britain. Fry traces the original holy tree back 15,000 years, to the temple of the sun god Atum Ra in the ancient Egyptian city the Greeks called Heliopolis, and suggests that the ankh, the Egyptian symbol for eternal life, represents a branch taken from the Tree of Life. After a severe flood, she thinks an offshoot or cutting of the tree was rescued, taken to the Sumerian city of Eridu, and transplanted in the Garden of Eden.
Fry asks her readers to keep an open mind as she presents controversial theories that will be a stretch of the imagination for the more incredulous members of her audience. In the third chapter, titled “The Dragon Serpent Tree Gods,” she subscribes to the ancient astronaut fringe theory that human beings were a hybridization of primate and alien DNA created by reptilian extraterrestrials to be a slave race.
She quotes proponents of the theory such as Zechariah Sitchin (Earth Chronicles, 2004), who posited that the Annunaki gods of the Sumerians came from a hypothetical planet called Nibiru and created humans to mine gold for them in South Africa. According to one Babylonian myth, before the creation of humans, the Annunaki had enslaved a race of younger gods called the Igigi. One of these beings, Kingsu, led a rebellion and was ritually sacrificed by the god Marduk, who then created humanity from clay mixed with Kingsu’s spilled blood. We therefore inherited our rebellious nature from the Igigi gods.
From this perspective, the Biblical serpent represents our reptilian blood and the tree our earthly roots. Norse mythology even identifies the first human beings as trees, and Fry considers the possibility that the yew and the serpent are one. As a tree god, the serpentine yew thus symbolizes the hybridization of celestial blood and primate clay used to create humanity.
The duality of the yew makes it a prime candidate for the tree of knowledge. “We must not forget that like the viper or serpent, the tree carries deadly poison which can and does kill and has no antidotes,” Fry says. “On the other hand, it also provides Taxol that heals cancer. This is a tree of opposites, of contradictions, a tree of good and evil.”7 She also says that the yew “was described in ancient times as ‘the snake that swallowed itself, referring to the yew’s habit of putting down an aerial root inside the old tree to make a new tree inside it.” 8
In summer heat, the yew sweats toxic vapors that can induce a shamanistic trance state. This alkaloid poison is called taxine, and inhaling the vapors can stimulate visions and facilitate communication with the dead. Fry says of the yew that “One of its functions is to act as a portal in time and space and another is to enable some to cross kingdoms, other realms and dimensions that run parallel to our own.”9
Fry attests to the supernatural power of yews to distort time and transport one to other realms. “On a personal level,” she says, “I have experienced a kind of rapid downloading of information and visions of things from times past at ancient yew sites.”10 She suggests that one might be able to step inside the hollow of a yew and time travel through dreams and visions.
Another theory Fry presents is that the ancient Egyptians brought the sacred yew to Britain. As evidence of Egyptian migration to Ireland and Scotland, Fry references a 13th or 14th century Middle-Irish manuscript titled The Settling of the Manor of Tara, which relates how Diarmait, the High King of Ireland, held a great weeklong feast in Tara every three years, and was considering reallocating the Manor of Tara for cultivation in order to cover the expenses.
Before making a decision, he summoned the wisest men in the land to advise him, who in turn referred him to an even older and wiser man, named Fintan son of Bóchra, who had been alive for 5,500 years and traced his ancestry back to Noah. The king asked Fintan if he had any historical information that would help him settle the Manor of Tara. Fintan then told him the story of how a heroic giant named Trefuilngid Tre-eochair came to Ireland from the west at sunset on the day of Christ’s crucifixion, carrying a golden branch of Lebanon wood. The giant attended an assembly of the people of Ireland and their king, Conaing Bec-eclach, in which the king related the history of his people.
King Conaing told the giant that after “the confusion of tongues”11 his people were invited into Egypt by the Pharaoh, but left when the Israelites escaped, because they feared being enslaved in their place, and migrated to Ireland. Trefuilngid Tre-eochair remained in Ireland for forty days and nights, advising the people on how the land should be apportioned. Before leaving, he gifted Fintan son of Bóchra some berries from the branch he carried so they could be planted throughout Ireland. Fintan said that Trefuilngid “was an angel of God, or he was God Himself.”12
Fry interprets this manuscript as proof of Egyptian migration and claims that the branch of Lebanon wood is in fact yew instead of cedar, which is what scholars have previously assumed Lebanon wood to be. Fry suggests that Fintan himself was a yew tree, since one can live for over 5,000 years and could have survived the Great Flood. While this document is fascinating, I suspect that a medieval manuscript alone is not viable evidence because it only proves that the writer was captivated by the magical allure of Egypt and felt inspired to trace a mythical vein of Irish ancestry back to the Nile.
Fry also posits that the Ankerwycke yew beside the Nile-like River Thames may be one of the trees brought to Britain from Egypt, and that the name Ankerwycke may be derived from the Egyptian Ankh, which she believes to represent a “sacred branch from the Tree of Life.”13 Fry mentions that there is evidence of an Egyptian burial in Tara, Ireland, and advises the reader to refer back to her former book The God Tree for details on this topic and others she explores in greater depth, but unfortunately it is out of print, and may not be easy for the earnest reader to acquire.
In Nevern, Wales, there is an avenue of rare bleeding yews, which shed a substance that resembles congealing human blood. Why they bleed is a mystery, and Fry offers a spiritual explanation by connecting them to Christ, whose blood, she asserts, is the blood of the sacred yew, and is an elixir of immortality.
Fry claims that Jesus was not crucified, but hung on a living tree that was planted on Adam’s grave at Golgotha as atonement for Cain’s murder of Abel. She says that “the sacred Tree of Life, the one Jesus hung on, was no doubt a bleeding monoecious yew”14 (monoecious trees are hermaphroditic, having both male and female reproductive organs), and it was Constantine who changed the living tree to a post of dead wood.
“The truth,” she says, “is that Jesus was hung on the Tree of Life, despite the later myth-making which turned Jesus’ death into a crucifixion with the Romans in charge rather than the Jews, whose tradition it was and who planned it all. The events leading up to Jesus’ death led to a ritualistic death for which he would have been prepared all his life and which would have been managed by Nicodemus and Arimathea.”15 Fry believes that Joseph of Arimathea, who was Jesus’ uncle according to Talmud, brought a branch from the Tree of Life, upon which Jesus hung, in the form of a staff to Britain.
A source Fry cites for the true cross being a tree is The Epistle of Barnabas16, an apocryphal gospel written in Greek between 70-132 CE that was named after the reputed author Barnabas, a companion of the apostle Paul. The Epistle was included in the fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus, or Sinai Bible, but was later removed from the canon. “It was Barnabas who wrote about Jesus being hung from a tree and not crucified,” Fry writes before quoting Barnabas 8: “‘the reign of Jesus is on the tree’.”17
Fry’s case for Christ being a bleeding yew god is compelling and holds mythopoeic appeal. It reminds me of the early eighth century Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood, a medieval dream vision honoring the sacrifice of the living tree that became Christ’s cross (rood is an archaic word for the cross upon which he was crucified). The rood and Christ suffer as one, as both are pierced by nails, tortured, and ridiculed. I can’t help but wonder if this poem betrays a residual belief in the true cross being a living tree, and I’m surprised Fry didn’t mention it in this book.
Another intriguing insight Fry shares is that Jesus was depicted with a wand in early Christian art. The image of Jesus evolved from a clean-shaven young man with short hair wielding a wand to a bearded and long-haired man crowned with a halo. Over time, the halo gradually replaced the wand, which disappeared altogether by the end of the 5th century. Fry, of course, suggests that Christ’s wand was made of a yew branch taken from the Tree of Life, which she says the early Christians believed was the Egyptian ankh. Or perhaps, if there was no physical wand, that he himself was the embodiment of the eternal life it represented, since the Gnostics called Christ the Tree of Life.
In modern times, the mythical Golden Bough, or Golden Fleece, has miraculously emerged on evergreen yews in clusters of gilded needles that resemble sheep’s wool. Ever since the first one sprouted on the Defynnog Yew in 2002, others have manifested on at least twenty British yews, and Fry is hopeful that they herald a new Golden Age for humanity reconciling with nature.
I was astounded to learn that the Golden Bough of Greco-Roman mythology may have been inspired by the appearance of golden boughs on yews in ancient times. In the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid, the Trojan hero Aeneas obtains the Golden Bough as a gift for Proserpina, the Queen of the Underworld, in order to gain clearance into her realm and speak with the shade of Anchises, his dead father.
In Greek mythology, the Golden Fleece was the fabled golden wool of the winged ram of Poseidon that rescued the Boeotian prince Phrixus from his wicked stepmother, who plotted to kill him, and carried him to Colchis, where he was received by King Aeëtes, son of the sun god Helios. In gratitude to Poseidon, Phrixus sacrificed the ram, which was immortalized as the constellation Aries. Phrixus then gifted the Golden Fleece to the king, who hung it on a tree in the sacred grove of the god Ares in his realm, guarded by a vigilant dragon. Later Jason and the Argonauts stole the fleece with the assistance of the witch Medea, the king’s daughter.
“The ancient kingdom of Colchis where the Golden Fleece is found is one of the most important areas of ancient yew forests in the world,”18 says Fry. These myths reveal that the Golden Bough is a symbol of divine kingship, spiritual authority, and a golden ticket that grants safe passage to the Underworld and back, which leads Fry to suspect that the Golden Bough is a magic wand.19
In her reverence for the Tree of Life, Fry is like a druidess, initiating readers into her yew-centric worldview with artwork and writing that captures the hallucinogenic quality of her god tree. Her wild theories enliven the imagination and compel critical readers to do their own research. Fry hopes this work will inspire her audience to seek out the Golden Bough and restore humanity’s sacred bond with the immortal yew. The poignant message of The Cult of the Yew is that the eternal Tree of Life is a living, breathing, sentient being whose underground current of salvific wisdom will open our eyes to greater truths when all of nature once again becomes our Eden.
Rachel Christina McConnell is a witch, tarot reader, intuitive astrologer, and writing spider. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University in the City of New York. Her short stories have appeared in Dark Moon Lilith Press and Minerva Rising Press’s The Keeping Room. Links to her publications are available here: https://rachelchristinamcconnell.wordpress.com