English Yew specimen. Everything about the tree is poisonous, except for the fleshy red part of the Yew-berry/cone.
To get the Pottermore-experience update out of the way, my unhappy time there continues– the Moments still refuse to load properly, but I can get into my Profile page, which takes about a half-hour and a couple of page-refreshes to complete. I can accept Friend requests, and look at stuff that I’ve collected, but I cannot even try to brew a practice potion, as the potion-brewing page also does not load completely. Interestingly, the practice spell page (in preparation for participating in Wizard Duels) does load, and I have so far managed to score 90 to 105 on the two spells I practiced briefly.
The one thing I really wanted to be able to access the Moments for– the extra back-story stuff that JKR has allowed to be published on the site– I cannot access at all from my home dial-up platform. Today at work, I used 40 minutes of my lunch hour and a public internet computer to try to get through as many Chapters as I could, collect as many objects as I could, and score as many Galleons and House Points as I could, while trying to find the thing in each Moment with extra (and locked) back-story that would allow me to open the locked material. I then dumped everything I opened into my Favorites folder for later perusal. I will also add that I almost froze the public computer I was using, because even with broadband access, the library computer I was on almost could not handle the pages when the graphics/animation quality was set to high. I also found that if I set it to low (to keep the CPU from making horrible asthmatic wheezing noises), I could see stuff like Galleons and other collectible items, but I could not actually collect them, so I’d briefly click back to high-mode, and try to collect whatever it was as fast as possible, before the CPU threatened to choke. I’m up around 24 House Points, having slogged my way to the beginning of Chapter 17. I’ve managed to collect a lot of potion ingredients, and some other trinkets and goodies, and I’ve collected enough Galleons to recoup most of the cost of my Screech Owl, which is nice, but not especially thrilling.
Next week, when I have a bit more time to myself, I will be sending in an email to Pottermore summarizing the problems I’ve been having, both from my home dial-up and from broadband public-use internet terminals at work. It’s just not been a smooth interface or experience any way you slice it, and my main complaint is that there is no way to opt out of the high-graphics-quality mode until you load at least one Moment to the point where you can select the low option. The site also does not remember that you selected the low setting, either– every time I come back, I’ve got to ask for the low option all over again.
Now on to something much more fun…
I was a bit surprised– though not at all disappointed– that the wood of my wand on Pottermore is Yew. It tickled me into going back through my various magickal books and herbals to re-acquaint myself with the occult properties of the wood. First, here is the little paragraph one gets at Pottermore describing Yew-wood wands:
Yew wands are among the rarer kinds, and their ideal matches are likewise unusual, and occasionally notorious. The wand of yew is reputed to endow its possessor with the power of life and death, which might, of course, be said of all wands; and yet yew retains a particularly dark and fearsome reputation in the spheres of duelling and all curses. However, it is untrue to say (as those unlearned in wandlore often do) that those who use yew wands are more likely to be attracted to the Dark Arts than another. The witch or wizard best suited to a yew wand might equally prove a fierce protector of others. Wands hewn from these most long-lived trees have been found in the possession of heroes quite as often as of villains. Where wizards have been buried with wands of yew, the wand generally sprouts into a tree guarding the dead owner’s grave. What is certain, in my experience, is that the yew wand never chooses either a mediocre or a timid owner.
This really does not give a very good insight into the mythological associations and the actual magickal and mundane uses of Yew wood, which are extremely interesting, and I think knowing about the real symbolism of the Yew tree actually explains some of the stuff that went on between Harry Potter’s Holly/Phoenix wand and Voldemort’s Yew/Phoenix one. First, here’s some general and also magickal information about Yew trees–
1. Yew trees can grow new trunks out of the original root-bole of the plant. Because of this ability to regenerate, it is estimated that some of the British Yew trees (Taxus baccata) now alive are as much as 4,000 years old.
2. Yew trees existed as far back in time as the Triassic Period, 200 million years ago. An archaic Yew, Paleotaxus rediviva, has left fossil traces in rock formations dating from the Triassic. It is believed that all 10 varieties of modern Yew developed from Paleotaxus.
3. The Yew has managed to survive great climactic and general planetary upheavals. Yew fossils have also been found that date from the Jurassic Period, 140 million years ago.
4. Pollen counts of samples taken from ancient peat bogs across Europe indicate that Yew trees were much more abundant during the last Ice Age than they are now.
5. Every part of the Yew tree is poisonous– roots, bark, needles, wood, and seed. The only thing that a Yew tree produces that is not poisonous is the fleshy part of the Yew “berry”.
6. Because the Yew is slow-growing, the wood it produces is tight-grained, resilient and tough. Many weaponry uses were found for it in the past– it was used to make staves, spear-hafts, hunting bows, and the very famous Medieval English long-bow. Arrowheads were also often treated with poison made from yew needles, bark or seed. Care must also be taken when filing, sanding or otherwise working the wood by hand– its name of Death Tree is well-deserved.
7. The Yew is sacred to all forms of the Underworld Goddess. It also has a Dark Lunar association because of its long-standing use as a raw material for making bows and poison for arrowheads.
8. In Britain, Yews are often found in churchyards, and it is plain from growth-dating the trees that they were there long before the churches were built nearby. There are many British churches and churchyards that once stood within a circle of Yews, and these Yew-circles are felt to be a legacy of Druidic Sacred Groves.
9. Yews are also associated with underground springs. In Wiltshire, at Amesbury, there are fourteen Yews in the churchyard that are all growing over blind springs. Eighteen yews at Bradford-on-Avon do the same. Of the ninety-nine churchyard Yews at Painswick in Gloucestershire, it has been determined that all of them are growing over nodes or underground springs. It is highly likely that the Yews were planted with the idea of marking and protecting these power-spots. Carvings of Yew-wood which were left as votive offerings have also been found during archaeological excavations at some sites of ancient springs and wells.
10. Magickally speaking, the Yew is considered the single most potent tree for protection against evil and malevolent intent. It is also held to connect one with the Ancestral Spirits, and is also held to bring dreams and access to the Otherworlds via soul-journey. Part of the probable reason for this association is that during warm weather, the poisonous resin of the tree produces a vapor that when inhaled causes torpor and in some cases, visions. The Spirit of the Yew can be invoked to assist with Otherworld journeys, and to enhance the openness of communication with the Otherworld. It also can grant an increased ability to perceive messages and other assistance being given to the practitioner by Spirit-Guides and other shamanic Helpers. It is also used for Summoning the Spirits of the Dead, and wands of the wood are particularly useful for “settling” or dispelling haunts and wraith-energy.
11. The Yew’s place on the Wheel of the Year is at Samhain, when the Veils Between the Worlds are thinnest, entry into the Otherworld is easiest, dreams are the most potent, and access to the Ancestors is most possible.
12. Modern magickal tradition identifies the Yew-energy-polarity as feminine. Traditions are split on the elemental identification, with some marking Yew as Water-associated, while others identify it with Air. It is probably safe to associate it with both elements, due to the ancient traditional planting of Yews over underground water and blind springs, and also because of the Yew’s visionary vapors, which are most definitely an Air-element trait. The Yew is also connected to the Zodiac-sign of Scorpio, which in ancient times, was not ruled by Pluto but by Mars, yet another energy-correspondence with the use of Yew wood for archery implements and other weaponry. Modern tradition planetary association identifies the Yew with Saturn, doubtless because of the Yew’s general poisonous nature, but I personally disagree with this. My own take on the energy is that it is much more Dark-of-the-Moon Lunar and thus watery in feel, mixed with a sharp and quick Mercurial vibe.
Here’s a bit more information from the Wikipedia entry on Yew trees–
All species of yew contain highly poisonous alkaloids known as taxanes, with some variation in the exact formula of the alkaloid between the species. All parts of the tree except the arils contain the alkaloid. The arils are edible and sweet, but the seed is dangerously poisonous; unlike birds, the human stomach can break down the seed coat and release the taxanes into the body. This can have fatal results if yew ‘berries’ are eaten without removing the seeds first. Grazing animals, particularly cattle and horses, are also sometimes found dead near yew trees after eating the leaves, though deer are able to break down the poisons and will eat yew foliage freely. In the wild, deer browsing of yews is often so extensive that wild yew trees are commonly restricted to cliffs and other steep slopes inaccessible to deer. The foliage is also eaten by the larvae of some Lepidopteran insects including the Willow Beauty.
Yew wood is reddish brown (with whiter sapwood), and is very springy. It was traditionally used to make bows, especially the longbow. Ötzi, the Chalcolithic mummy found in 1991 in the Italian alps, carried an unfinished longbow made of yew wood. Consequently, it is not surprising that, in Norse mythology, the god of the bow, Ullr, had an abode named Ydalir (Yew Dales). The yew longbow was the critical weapon used by the English in the defeat of the French cavalry at the Battle of Agincourt, 1415. It is suggested that English parishes were required to grow yews and, because of the trees’ toxic properties, they were grown in the only commonly enclosed area of a village – the churchyard. The yew tree can often be found in church graveyards and is symbolic of sadness. Such a representation appears in Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem “In Memoriam A.H.H.”.
The Eihwaz rune is named after the yew, and sometimes the yew is also associated with the “evergreen” World tree, Yggdrasil.
I am planning a “Part B” to this post, in which I would like to talk about the interaction between Harry Potter’s and Voldemort’s wands from the perspective of European Shamanic/Magickal practices and traditions, which I think adds an extra layer of richness to Harry Potter’s story (and I think such an exporation also helps clarify a few things about HP wandlore as well as JKR’s “writer’s intuition”), but I am tired as well as short on sleep from a very busy caregiving-and-work week, so I’ll end this here for now…