by Janis Fry
It was at the turn of the millennium, on Christmas Day 2002 to be precise, that the Golden Bough, was discovered growing on an ancient Yew at Defynnog near Brecon in Wales. Several years later in 2017 it still grows on the same tree, like a flame growing larger and brighter with each passing year, the yew meanwhile sprouting new golden sprigs, up in the branches, as well as a nest of golden twigs, like a golden fleece in its sister tree next to it, part of the original tree (proved by DNA) which seems to have split off and walked away from the main trunk.
The mythology and legends of a ‘Golden Bough’ are well known. Until recently, the last time it was seen and heard of, was 3,000 years ago, immortalised by Roman writers such as Virgil, 2,000 years ago, in connection with the Trojan hero Aeneas, who appeared in both Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ and Homer’s ‘Iliad’. These classic writers were recording events that had occurred a thousand years before them.
Aeneas was the son of the Prince Anchises and the goddess Venus (Aphrodite), the second cousin of King Priam of Troy. Aeneas features in both Greek and Roman mythology. In the Roman, he is celebrated as their first true hero. Aeneas was a warrior and in Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’, we learn that he was one of the few Trojans who was not killed or enslaved when Troy fell. Troy was on the northwest corner of what was Anatolia, Hittite country, now modern Turkey. When, in Homer’s ‘Iliad’, he fell under the assault of Achilles, the central character of the Trojan war, in Homer’s ‘Iliad’, the god Poseidon, notes that Aeneas, though from a junior branch of the royal family, is destined to become King of the Trojan people. At the end of the Trojan War, there were few survivors. Aeneas escaped from Troy to Italy and decided he must see his dead father, Anchises. Protected by the Golden Bough, his talisman, and with the help of the Sybil, he journeys into the Underworld where he meets both his dead wife Dido and his father who shows him the future of his descendents and thus the history of Rome.
So this, in brief, was the story of the Golden Bough as immortalised in legend. And this was the last that was seen of it, until now, 3,000 years later. Its reappearance is one of the most unexpected and extraordinary, mystical events of our time. Since the Golden Bough was found, growing on the ancient yew at Defynnog, possibly the oldest tree in Europe, it has appeared on a dozen other ancient yews in Britain. The yews that bear it are remarkably, all trees of some historical importance, possibly planted originally by those who knew they were special and different. The reappearance of the Golden Bough at the beginning of the new millennium, almost as if it was programmed to do so, felt highly significant and raised questions as to its purpose and meaning, particularly when other yews began to follow suit.
The Golden Bough is the stuff of dreams. Virgil said it was always a rare sight and called it ‘The fateful brand, unseen for many years.’ All the evidence as to why the Golden Bough was never the mistletoe, nor the Holme Oak, as has been wrongly thought, is detailed in Janis Fry’s book, ‘The God Tree’. The Golden Bough, described by Virgil as ‘a fatal branch’ grows from the ‘double fatal tree in a gloomy vale’. A tree referred to in these terms, could only be a Yew, the tree connected with Fate since ancient times. Virgil writes of ‘The lurking gold upon the fatal tree’ and says, ’Conduct my steps to find the fatal tree’. His reference to ‘double fatal’ or ‘double tree’, concerned the double aspect of the yew with both its death dealing poison and its life giving properties. He describes the tree as ‘The double tree that bears the golden bough’ However the Yew on which this fatal golden branch grows, is not just any old yew tree but a most special Yew, for it is only on one tree in the sacred grove at the entrance to Avernes, the Underworld, that this Golden Bough could be found. Another important thing to note is that this rare bough was not growing on the tree like mistletoe but was actually part of the tree itself.
From ancient literature, we learn that the search for the Golden Bough was a great adventure, a dangerous mission, which few would undertake. Some of the main themes and elements of this quest, conjure up scenes you might encounter in a Steven Spielberg movie such as the Underworld, the River Styx, the ferryman, the Triple Goddess, the Sybil, Tartarus, a talisman, the Gloomy grove and the Fateful Tree. In Virgil’s classic poem, it was the Sybil who commanded the quest and discovery of the sacred bough to be carried by Aeneas when he entered the Underworld, for without such a bough, from the wondrous tree sacred to infernal Juno, none could enter Pluto’s realm. And when Charon, the ferryman, refuses to carry Aeneas across the Stygian lake, the Sybil presents the Golden Bough from her bosom, making it clear, that the Bough is the passport to Hades. Thus one of its primary functions was to enable the bearer to descend into the Underworld and return with certain knowledge from the realms of the gods and the dead.
Avernus or Avernes which concealed the entrance to the Underworld, was a thick yew grove, as we know from the Roman writer, Statius and is where the Golden Bough was to be found. Although Aeneas can be pointed in the right direction to look for it, he has to find it for himself and pluck it from the tree, for the Bough cannot be taken from the tree unless it is his fate to do so. He is thus helped by the Sybil, prophetess, seer and guardian of the sacred wood, to find and take this prize to the goddess Proserpina as a gift. Only in this way can Aeneas be permitted to enter the realms of the dead. Once there, our Trojan hero must reach Proserpina’s palace and plant the Golden Bough on her threshold or his safety is not assured.
Other Roman writers such as Ovid wrote about the Golden Bough and we find there are common themes and factors to do with the character of this sacred branch. ‘There is a shelving path, shaded with dismal Yew which leads through profound silence to the infernal abodes. Here languid Styx exhales vapours….’ He also speaks of ‘the gloomy funeral yew which leads to the Underworld of Tartarus and the sluggish Styx’. In ‘Metamorphoses’, Ovid describes how the Sybil (the prophetess or seer), shows him where the Golden Bough grows in the glade of Juno Averna (Persephone) and bids him break it from the trunk if he is to visit the Underworld and present the Bough to the Goddess.
Since it is quite clear from these and other statements by the Roman writers, that the Yew plays a major role in the whole adventure of the Golden Bough and entering the Underworld, one wonders why there has ever been any doubt as to the nature of the Bough and the species of tree it grew from. Further confirmation that the Golden Bough comes from the yew, is presented by the fact that the Goddess Persephone is depicted in ancient mythology as holding a Yew bough! The custom of placing branches of yew in graves is still carried on in parts of Wales and the West Country, to ensure the recently deceased a safe passage through the Underworld to the next world. Statius elaborates on this proceedure in ‘Thebaid’ where he tells of Amphiarus, King of Argos, who also tried, less successfully, to gain admittance to the Underworld. Amphiaraus is depicted on an ancient vase dating from around 460 B.C. which shows the ‘golden fleece’ protected by the Yew goddess Athene. All this is too much of a coincidence. It seems obvious, that the highly prized ‘golden fleece’ is actually the Golden Bough, and the 2 things are sought after in epic journeys, with the same single minded determination.
Virgil writes of the dark abode of Tartarus, the Underworld in ‘The ‘Aeneid’ and describes one bough hidden on a tree with ‘ductile rind and leaves of radiant gold’ a ‘shining bough’ of ‘ruddy rind’, ‘glittering’ with ‘lingering gold’. This is a remarkably accurate description of the present day Golden Boughs with their bright golden yellow leaves and extraordinary, copper gold lustred branches. The description here of the ‘ruddy rind’ meaning reddish bark, is a variation of the previous quote where the bough bears the ‘ductile rind’. There are few trees which have ‘ruddy’ or reddish bark, the Yew being one of them. ‘Ductile’ refers to a jewellery making process where gold is drawn out into pliant wires or threads of gold which resemble twigs. ‘Rind’ means bark. So here it is spelt out that the Golden Bough bears twigs like metal. The modern Golden Boughs vary from young small twigs to an entire branch or bough, an inch or more thick. Extraordinary as it sounds, the larger of today’s Boughs do indeed glitter and glisten with a kind of red gold lustre, more reminiscent of metal than wood.
Hecate and Athena were both known as ‘triple goddesses’ as were others, such as Hera, Demeter and Proserpina or Persephone. These goddesses are all linked with the Underworld and the passage known as Tartarus by the gloomy banks of the River Styx or Cocytus, the lifeless stream where the yew tree, sacred to the triple goddess, grows. It is worth noting that what is triple about both the goddesses and the yew tree is the concern with life, death and eternity. Hecate, has a direct association with the yew tree. Anciently depicted with a yew branch, she was celebrated at festivals with garlands of yew. The Norse Valla, similar to the Sybil, is also depicted holding a yew branch. They, along with the Furies, were the ‘go betweens’ the humans and the Goddess. ensuring that the Golden Bough was found, taken and eventually presented to Persephone, Goddess of the Underworld. In another version of the Underworld described by the Roman writer, Seneca, it states that here, ‘The leaves shudder, black with gloomy foliage, where sluggish Sopor (Hypnos), sleep, clings to the overhanging yew.’ (Hypnos is depicted holding a yew branch) Yew foliage on a dismal winter’s day in Wales, can look black and the early classical writers when referring to a ‘gloomy branch’ connected with the Underworld were invariably describing a yew.
But the Romans were not the only ones to pass down the legend of the Golden Bough. As we move north to colder climes, we come across the Norse legend of the World Tree, Yggdrasil. which strangely enough, also makes reference to the Golden Bough. Here in Asgard, before the doors of Valhalla, there stands a grove called Glasir. The needles or leaves of Glasir are described as gold and the 12th century Icelandic poet, Snorri Sturlusson, tells us that the old name for Asgard was Troy! So here is an astonishing link and surprise connection with Aeneas, the Trojan hero and his Golden Bough!
Apparently the Norse people had previously lived in Aeneas’ part of the world but migrated from there as a result of war. Could this have been the Trojan War one wonders? Snorri Sturlusson, says:- ‘Behind him came a priest who carried a miniature palm tree with gold leaves.’ (Those familiar with the Yew’s history know, that the palm was often confused with the Yew). Snorri asks ‘Why is gold called the Needles, or leaves of Glasir?’ He describes the leafage or needles, (as Yew leaves are often called), as all red gold. So did the people from Troy perhaps take the Golden Bough with them, to be planted at their new home where it grew into a golden tree, or perhaps a tiny tree already grown from it? Ancient peoples are known for taking their sacred trees with them. From the Hibbert Lectures 1886 we learn some further detail as to what kind of tree, the tree of Glasir with golden foliage was. It was an evergreen tree with wide-spreading branches, said to have stood in close proximity to the temple of the gods in the ancient town of Uppsala, This mythic tree called ‘Glass’, was described as standing with leaves of gold before the hall of Sig-tyr, the Norse Zeus. To those of us who know the Yew so well, the description of ‘an evergreen tree with wide spreading branches’, is a perfect description of the yew tree.
The special limb of the sacred tree in Valhalla, was called Laeradr. Laeradr means ‘giver of protection’, i.e. acting like a talisman, just as Virgil’s Golden Bough did. It is accepted that the World Tree of the Norse people, Yggdrasil, the ‘needle ash’, was in fact a Yew. In the Norse Vega of the Prose Edda, it is made very clear that Laeradr is a branch of Yggdrasil. We therefore must conclude that over a thousand years ago, a Yew known as Yggdrasil, had a branch which bore twigs of gold and that branch of Yggdrasil known as Laraedr, was not singled out because it gave protection, because the whole tree did, but because Laraedr was the Golden Bough.
There is one last thing to consider. Were the Golden Bough trees of Britain, brought here originally as cuttings or staffs taken from these legendary trees in ancient times? The most recent discovery of the manifestation of a golden fleece type Golden Bough (which is often the way it grows when it first begins to sprout), is on an ancient yew in the churchyard at Llanelltyd. The significant thing about this is that Saint Illtyd who the church at Llanelltyd is dedicated to, was one of 3 saints, along with Cadoc and Peredur ,given the title of ‘Keepers of the Secret of the Grail’ in the Welsh Triads (a collection of folklore and history, the earliest surviving collection dated to the 13th century). The earliest and most authentic statement left to us of what the grail actually was, is that of the 12th century writer, Wolfram Von Eschenbach who disclosed it to be ‘the perfection of Paradise, root and branch’, in other words the Tree of Life.
Illtyd a 5th century saint of Druid descent, would have carried a yew staff. Such early Celtic saints were known to have planted their staffs, some of which were brought from the Holy Lands. There are many stories of these staffs which then grew into trees. In Wales there is a tradition of ‘Taxus Sanctus’, Saint’s yews or sacred Yew trees. The Golden Bough Yew at Llanelltyd is of an age and position in the churchyard which makes it likely it was one of these trees, planted by Illtyd himself and placed here in order to preserve the lineage of the tree from Paradise. One can only speculate as to what properties such a tree would have.
So what are we to conclude from the fact that the Golden Bough has returned once more to claim our attention? In it’s presence I feel something sacred, magical and not of this dimension. The Golden Bough, ‘unseen for many years’, hangs between the sky and the earth, the gods and our world. It is a thing of light and beauty that feels like a good omen, a flame in the darkness. The purpose of the Golden Bough 3,000 years ago was to act as a talisman ensuring the safe passage of the querent in their descent into the Underworld, for the purpose of bringing back the knowledge they sought. My hope is that the Golden Bough has returned in our time to act as a talisman for the human race, so besieged by darkness, that we may learn something that transforms the way we live and reconnects us to the natural world and the sacred.
The God Tree Janis Fry, researched with Allen Meredith. 2012
The Golden Bough JG Frazer 1915
Translation from Virgil’s Aeneid Robert Fagles 2009
Virgil’s Aeneid Michael Paschalis 1997
The Ancient Secret and Norse Vega of the Prose Edda Flavia Anderson 1958
The Landscapes of Literary Reception Stuart McIntyre 2000
The European Sky God Arthur Bernard Cook 1906
The Masque of the Apple James Rendell Harris 1920
Themis Jane Harrison 1912
Janis Fry is the author of ‘The God Tree’ and other books on the mythology and history of the yew, the Tree of Life. She is a painter as well as a writer and teacher and has an exhibition, ‘The Sacred Yew’, that is available for show. She also runs Ancient Yew Tours in Wales. Janis believes the Yew is a sentient being, guardian of our planet and ultimately decider of our destiny.