The Yew was a very sacred tree to our European ancestors throughout the ages. The tree is associated with immortality, renewal, regeneration, everlasting life, rebirth, transformation and access to the Otherworld and our ancestors.
It is a very slow growing tree with tough and resilent wood. It was used for spears, spikes, staves, hunting bow especially the longbows of the Middle Ages. Everyone knows the story of Robin Hood and his merry men. Robin Hood used a longbow to rob the rich. Many believe that his longbow was made out of the Yew tree. In-fact, Little John's longbow was thought to be found and was made out of Yew. It is now in the hands of a private collector. That's interesting.
Some arrow points were tipped with poision made from the Yew. The entire tree is very poisionous. It is one of the reasons why it was called The Death Tree. It was fatal to cattle if they ate any of it. Birds won't eat any of the berries, which covers the tree at Midwinter. The sap from the Yew is also red as blood. A bleeding Yew was considered a Holy Tree. During the depth of Winter the tree is still green. If you observe a the tree, you can see limbs and faces in the trunk. The tree knows nothing of old age or death and it doesn't lose it's strength. They can become hollow early in their life. They have the ability to send an internal shoot down into the hollow cavity which re-roots. This shoot becomes another trunk within the hollow. This brings the idea of an eternal tree.
Many churchyards of Europe have Yew trees somewhere. Most of the ancient Yew trees that you find in churchyards are at least 1000 years old and some maybe 3 or 4000 years old. Dating a Yew is very hard since they grow incredibly slow. A lot of these ancient Yew trees in the churchyards were there before the churchs were built. Many times throughout our ancestors history, Christianity would build over prevous pagan sites. Imagine that! Many Druids' groves contained Oak and Yew trees.
The Yew was believed to contain the spirits of our ancestors. The tree would be planted on sacred mounds of the dead so that the Yew would be their vehicle by which they would travel to the Otherworld.
The tree has been part of funerary and burial customs. Sprigs of Yew were thrown under or on top of the bodies while being put into the grave. It was sacred to the goddess Hecate, guardian of the Underworld. It was considered most protective against evil, means of connection to your ancestors, bringer of dreams and otherworld journeys. It was a symbol of the old magick. Celtic shamans would inhaled a resinous vapour which the tree gave off during hot weather, to receive visions.
In the north, the Yew was used for dowsing to find lost property because it would enlist the help of the ancestors. In Scotland, it was believed that if a person grasp a Yew in the left hand may speak to anyone he pleases without that person being able to hear, even though everyone present could. This way you could insult anyone without them hearing you. The Yew was also sacred to the Fraser Clan of Scotland. The Highlanders believed it brought them good luck and kept evil spirits away.
Many of the ancestors would actually go up to a Yew and speak to it, believing that the dead could hear them within the tree.
If was considered unlucky if Yew were brought into the house with the Christmas Eve decorations, it was a sure sign that someone in the family would die before the year was over.