What do scythes, yew trees, and beans have in common? They’re all symbols of death. (But we’ll bet you were as surprised by the beans as we were!)
The season of the dead is approaching, between October 31 and November 2, and it gives us a rich opportunity to make peace with death, the only thing about life that is truly inevitable. Find out why beans have something to do with it, and learn more about the fascinating life/death/life lore surrounding this great mystery, here:
The yew tree is sacred to Hecate (The dark aspect of the moon) in Italy and Greece, the tree of death in ancient Europe, planted in graveyards and churchyards all over England and the Celtic countries. The berry of the yew is bright red and gelatinous–like blood–and it seems to drip off the tree. The branches provide dense cover and seem dark and forbidding to the viewer. The yew tree was used to make bows, and it also carries a poison with which arrows were smeared, which gave it another association with death. The Latin word for the yew, taxus, is connected with Greek toxicon, meaning “poison;” specifically, the poison smeared on arrows. Today, a relative of the European yew, Taxus brevifolia, provides a cancer medication called taxol and so, interestingly, a chance for life is emerging out of the tree of death.
The scythe is the tool of the harvest; we reap the wheat and grain with this tool. Like John Barleycorn in the folk song–”Then they sent men with scythes so sharp and cut him off at the knee. . . they served him most barbarously“–the harvest is the symbol of the death of the barley god. The new grain is planted in the early spring and cut down at the harvest with great joy and anticipation of Barleycorn’s rebirth in the beer mug. Barleycorn then experiences resurrection when he becomes a source of joy and nourishing food, which transforms his death in the field in to life in the glass and within your body. John Barleycorn’s story is the celebration of the cycle of life and death, in which death is the natural consequence of life as life springs up anew from death.
The Romans believed that the souls of the dead lived within the bean. Romans used beans as charms connected with the dead. They threw beans behind their backs for ghosts, hoping to insure the families’ redemption in the next world, and they also spit beans at ghosts as a charm against them. The connection of the bean to the realm of ghosts seems to be that it grows in a spiral and that its white flowers were symbolic of the purity of the bleached bones of death. Because breath is the evidence of life, the eating of the bean and the flatulence it causes were thought to be proof that the living souls of the dead were inside the lowly bean. The Latin word for soul and breath were the same: anima>.