Yew has long been associated with the Underworld and Death and are often found in graveyards though, usually, judging by the age of the tree their presence predates the churches built there, possibly indicating that they were built on an already sacred site. Yew is often linked with Hekate most probably due to its roots being well and truly in the Underworld, one of Her domains, but the literary evidence for such a link is sparse.
There is a reference in Thebaid of Statius:
“Let her lead them with torches of flaming yew; let her give three swings of her mighty serpent; and do not let the heads of Cerberus be obstacles to those deprived of light.” 81
It was also connected to Hekate in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The three witches are seen to put “gall of goat, and slips of yew, silver’d in the moon’s eclipse” into their cauldron 82, along with other ingredients, before She appears to critique their work. It would appear that Shakespeare would often uses yew in his plays when talking about poison. In the book Taxol: Science and Applications 83 Matthew Suffness (Ed) writes that,
“Greeks held the yew to be sacred to Hecate… Her attendants draped wreathes of yew around the necks of black bulls which they slaughtered in her honor and yew boughs were burned on funeral pyres. The yew was associated with the alphabet and the scientific name for yew today, taxus, was probably derived from the Greek word for yew, toxos, which is hauntingly similar to toxon, their word for bow and toxicon, their word for poison. It is presumed that the latter were named after the tree because of its superiority for both bows and poison.”
81 Mozley, J.H. trans. 1928 Statius, Thebaid, Achilleid. Loeb Classical Library Volumes. London: William Heinemann Ltd.
82 d’Este, S. and Rankine, D. 2009. Hekate: Liminal Rites. London: Avalonia, pg 99.
83 Suffness, M. ed. 1995. Taxol: Science and Applications. USA: CRC Press, pg. 28.
The Symbols of the Goddess Hekate