Janis Fry’s The Cult of the Yew Tree of Life, Mystery and Magic provides an excellent and expansive introduction to the importance of the yew tree historically, spiritually, and magically. Fry’s compelling voice introduces the reader to her own connection to the yew tree through a personal journey that began nearly five decades ago. In addition to her own revelations and work, references to others who contributed to the other iconic works about the yew, such as Chetan and Bruetan’s The Sacred Yew (Penguin Books, 1994) make a clear distinction that Fry simultaneously represents a lifetime’s devotion while being another work by one devotee in a long line of individuals called to the path of the Yew.  As Fry notes in a gripping introduction, the path of the Yew is indeed a calling: “Embarking on this journey to discover the secret and mostly forgotten history of the sacred yew as it was and continues to be a quest which once begun, will not allow the reader to remain indifferent. Either you will join me in this quest, be gripped by the unfolding story and the extraordinary importance of this sacred lost knowledge and the power of this ancient tree, or you will discard it. It is not for everyone. If your journey of discovery and meaning on the path of the yew begins and transports you, you will find there is no going back. The yew tree chooses its people, and you are honoured and privileged if you are to be one.” (p.2).  

Overall, the strength in the work  lies in its accessibility for those who believe and those who wish to learn about the history of the quest found within the Yew and its path.  Composed of Fry’s chosen revelations of specific mysteries of the yew, this work draws in those interested in a detailed explanation and approach to the path of the Yew as cult in the best sense. A second strength is found in the length and detail of the work. Starting with the Invocation, the name of the Yew by Jehanne Mehta, Patrick Curry’s foreword that passionately exhorts the wisdom of remembering that “[a] culture which fails to honour the yew, which cannot even see it as such, is doomed. The extinction of the yew and of humanity are inseparable, in a common Necrocene. (p. xv). Per Curry, a Tolkien specialist, the solution is story.  This foreword acquaints the reader with the style that Fry presents so eagerly in this text beginning with the introduction and continuing through twenty-three chapters. The primary, but minor weakness lies in the bibliographic format. 

Fry begins with Egyptian culture in the first chapter, “From Egypt to Eden” where the reader is introduced to the past connection between the yew tree and eternal life (p. 8),  the reality that crucial knowledge probably was lost by that time,  and the ancient practice of seeing trees as gods. (p. 10).  The second chapter, “The Tree of Life, the Fruit and the Serpent” which looks at the historical context of the sacred Tree of Life including its role in the Garden of Eden and other locations – that the “Tree of Life is a yew, a particular yew with its powers for healing, death and immortality and a certain bloodline. Some believe that this sacred tree is the monitor and the watcher and may hold the fate of the human race.” (p.39): “The Tree can bestow death, sickness and poisoning but also life, prosperity and healing.” (p. 32). chpater Three, “The Dragon Serpent Tree Gods” delves into myth, Chapter Four “The Hittites and the Eya Tree” examines the historical presence of   trees in the land including the sacred Turkish Yew. Chapter Five, “. From Mesopotamia to Britain” explores the yew culture historically throughout those territories and time periods ancient to modern. Fry begins her discussion of the nemeton (plural of nemeta) in this chapter before continuing in next chapter, “Nemeton, the First Shrine of the Sacred Tree”. In this sixth chapter, the reader is treated to the beginning in verse followed by a serious inquiry into what exactly makes a site sacred (p. 112). Although this text responds to this question through an examination of the sacred yew in many locations and guises, including the transportation of the trees, where trees were found, and a variety of cultural practices regarding land and spaces that were considered sacred.  Contemporary society continues to look at this question of what makes a site sacred including location, what is included or not included in the site, and characteristics of the site, albeit not necessarily the sacred tree. 

The longest and most detailed chapters are Chapter Seven “Pre-Christian Yew Sites” followed by Chapter 18 “The Golden Bough and the Golden Fleece”. These longer chapters lend authenticity with pictures, cross-cultural references within each chapter, and Fry’s voice simultaneously weaving historical references with connections to modern time. Such an approach draws the reader through making it easier to grasp the basic concepts.  These middle chapters brings the yew fully alive in these chapters.  Fry brings alive British Isle locations for more than one fourth of the book, especially in the middle to late chapters.

I found the interweaving of mythological tales, various strains of Yew trees, and sacred practices both ancient and modern to be one of the most attractive parts of this text. This book is best savored one chapter at a time and one geographic region at a time. The pictures and reference to a wide variety of examples of yew and historical representations of the Tree of Life lends itself to taking the work at a slower pace to maintain complete awareness of the lessons gained from learning about and following the path of the yew, of the Tree of Life. 

The final sections consisting of the Yew Mysteries, Last Words, About the Author, and Bibliography punctuate the air of mystery gently returning the reader to a new awareness of story, life, and the overall purpose of the Yew path.  The chapter entitled Yew Mysteries gathers fourteen verse pieces from a variety of authors, each with the yew as its centerpiece; the final piece is not in word but visual affectation. The reader who explores this far into the work is struck by the haunting beauty of Janis Fry’s sketch entitled “The Heart of the Yew”. The stark black and white background draws the reader into the visualization of the strength of the Yew path, just as Fry’s work uses story, history, and magic to present the path in its fullest sense. The author portion circles back to the introduction as a reminder to the reader about Fry’s qualifications and as a guide to understanding the cult of the Yew Tree.

The Cult of the Yew Tree of Life, Mystery and Magic draws the reader into a journey through the Fry’s inquisitive desire to inspect and to learn about the historical, cultural, and magical importance of the Yew Tree.  From the wisdom she has gained, Fry’s guidance, tone and practical information encourage additional exploration and engagement with the Yew Tree, its traditions, and connections to the current climate change crisis. Janis Fry continues a tradition of excellent works covering the topic of the Yew Tree, including her contributions to the cannon in Anand Chetan and Diana Brueton’s (1994) work The Sacred Yew: Rediscovering the Ancient Tree of Life Through the Work of Allen Meredith, as well as her own previous publication of The God Tree (2012).  The Cult of the Yew Tree of Life, Mystery and Magic provides for beginners and advanced a intriguing journey for those wishing to know more about the spiritual importance of yews, the overall role and representation of the Tree of Life culturally and historically through the ages, and the magical connection present on the path of the Yew Tree.  

~review by Clio Arjana

Author: Janis Fry
Moon Books, 2023