In the middle of October 2016, I packed my car, said goodbye to my family and headed off, across the Welsh border to Abergavenny. I was excited about what lay ahead of me that weekend, full of anticipation of what may unfold.
When I arrived I would be joining a group of people who had gathered together to partake in a weekend workshop with a man who I knew I must learn more from the moment I listened to a podcast interview with him a few years previous. This man was Michael Dunning, also known as the Yew Shaman and I was travelling to Wales to learn more about the wisdom of the Yew Tree.
In the summer of 2013 I experienced what some might call a shamanic awakening. A personal tragedy and a spell in hospital set me firmly on a new path and there was no turning back. A couple of years later, after training as a shamanic practitioner, I found that my art, a passion that had been with me since a child, was developing and becoming what I now refer to as shamanic art. As well as painting shamanic drums for people I love connecting with the spirits of nature and trying to express this through my art. I truly believe that healing can come about through art and this is the theme of the shamanic art workshops I run where I fuse art with shamanism.
I sometimes find that Spirit will present me with a fully formed image, given to me as a gift in my mind’s eye. This was what happened to me when I found myself in the ancient yew grove in the churchyard at Llanfeugan. We had been taken here as part of the workshop with Michael. It is a truly amazing place. Twelve ancient yew trees encircle the thirteenth century church. There is little doubt in my mind that, like many yews, they were there first and the church was a later addition. As I walked in this place the image of “Unity” came to me, fully formed. It would be some time later before I finally managed to commit it to canvas, but this did not surprise me. I felt it wholly appropriate that a piece of art dedicated to the yew tree would be a long time in the making. Yew trees grow at a rate of about half of that of other European trees. They can live to be such ancient beings that their concept of time must be very different to ours, able, as they are to live for many thousands of years.
There are not many weekend workshops that you can say truly change your perspective on life. I can confidently say that attending the sacred yew workshop with Michael did just that. From when I first heard Michael’s story on a podcast, about how he had been initiated and healed by an ancient yew being, I was desperate to know more. As someone deeply invested in Norse shamanism and the ways of my Teutonic ancestors, the yew has always been special to me. In the Edda poems the world tree, Yggdrasil, is described as being a ‘winter green needle ash’. It is my belief that the tree which is referred to as the world tree of Norse cosmology is indeed the yew tree. One of the 24 runes of the Elder Futhark is also the yew rune. Eihwaz is one of the most shamanic runes there is. It is true that every part of the yew is poisonous with the exception of the red aril, the fruit of the yew tree. This is actually extremely nutritious to the human body but, of course, great care must be taken should you decide to partake of this fruit as the seeds contained within the aril are deadly poisonous! The yew also emits the semi toxic gas Taxine during hot days and this gas is capable of causing hallucinations and altered states of consciousness. Perhaps this is why it is linked with shamanism. The Hávamál in the Poetic Edda tells us that the shaman god Odin hung from Yggdrasil for nine days and nine nights before he gained the wisdom of the runes in a form of shamanic initiation.
It is also a tree associated with life, death, rebirth and immortality, also elements of the rune Eihwaz. Eya is the oldest known word for the yew tree and means “to be touched by eternity”. Indeed, it is tree written into every part of the fabric of the British Isles and the rich mythology of this land. Everywhere you look, if you look hard enough, you will find traces of the yew mysteries. Indeed, these mysteries did not die with the advent of Christianity. The fact that many churches were built on the site of ancient yew trees is testament to this. The Christians have been appropriating the yew’s power for a long time. Since the seventh century, the Archbishop of York has been signing his name as Ebor which means “Man of Yew”.
During the weekend that I was training with Michael Dunning, he described to us his process of connecting with the yew tree. This is certainly not something that can be mastered in a weekend and I look forward to the time that I can further my training with the Yew Shaman. However, I had an interesting experience when I was in the yew grove at Llanfeugan. We were left to spend some time alone connecting with the trees and I found a yew that I felt particularly drawn to and settled myself at its base. I think I was probably sucked into the yew’s world. I lost all sense of time and place. Somehow I managed to completely miss the signal to come back; I was oblivious to the people walking amongst us and banging their drums. I returned some time later, a little disorientated, to find that the rest of the group had been together for some while, under the limbs of one of the great yews, discussing their experiences.
When I painted “Unity” I wanted to show that the yew tree is neither male nor female but that it chooses to express itself as either one or the other. In fact, it is not unheard of for the yew tree to change gender even when thousands of years old. I feel that in this day and age we try to define things, to place labels onto things and people and put them into certain categories. What is apparent from my studies of the Norse myths, which surely predate the Viking period, is that this was not the mind set of our ancestors. Within the myths the boundaries are very fluid. It is not unusual to find that one type of being merges into another. Perhaps there is much we can learn from this.
I also believe that in this world of mass consumerism that there is so much we can learn from tree beings. So, I urge you to go out and spend time with the trees. They have great wisdom and healing to share and it is all there for those who want to listen.
Find Sharyn here: www.sharynturner.com