Corpse Roads, Yew Trees & Foolish Flames

Yithian

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I watched this wide-ranging and very interesting lecture as it was broadcast live last night:

This lecture explores how digital landscape modelling can help unlock the secrets of Britain’s ancient pathways. Focusing on “corpse roads”, pathways taken by coffin bearers over the countryside before the Enclosures, it discusses the significance of such routes, and how a mapped understanding of factors such as slope, elevation and distance can shed light on the stories behind them.


The topic is intimately linked with the topic of 'Corpse Candles', those candles being originally carried by the coffin bearers as they traced the aforementioned routes. These lights later took on a supernatural aspect and several beliefs and traditions arose about them:

https://forums.forteana.org/index.php?threads/corpse-candles.47320/#post-1783505

There's much on graveyards, lay-lines, yew trees, lychgates, archaeology, cartography and traditional beliefs surrounding life and death.

The lecturer, Dr Stuart Dunn (KCL), is, alas, of the modern 'read aloud' school, but I can't fault either his research or his material.

Strongly recommended to those interested in British folklore.
 

Min Bannister

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We walked a corpse road on Lewis a few years ago. It was very rough and boggy and that was with improvements done to it. It must have been very difficult carrying coffins along it but I suppose people were much tougher in those days.
 

Yithian

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Just to add, one of my favourite parts mentioned in that lecture is the myth that the roots of the yew tree in the graveyard radiate beneath the ground and grow into the mouths of all the bodies buried there.

The idea, I presume, is that death nourishes new life and all those who have left this mortal coil are, in a sense, united in communion and promised rebirth.

This page suggests that it was a Breton belief:

This capacity for age is given the Yew by its peculiar form of growth. Its branches grow down into the ground to form new stems, which grow to become trunks of separate but linked growth. In time, the central trunk becomes old and the insides decay, but a new tree grows within the spongy mass of the original. So the Yew represents great age, rebirth and reincarnation. The Yew is the fountainhead of youth in age and of age in youth, the new year that is born from the old, the new soul sprung from ancient roots in a seemingly fresh new body. In Breton Legend, the tree is said to grow a root into the open mouth of each corpse buried in the graveyard. This root is a symbol of rebirth with the spirit reborn in much the same way as the tree itself is reborn (Murray).
Source:
https://yewtreeblog.wordpress.com/2016/01/07/3-yew-trees-in-graveyards/amp/

More on this diverting subject in this book extract:

It is “beneath the yew-tree’s shade” that “heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,” as Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” puts it. Taxus baccata almost invariably casts its shadow where the dead are, on the south and west sides of the church. Like the bodies it watches over, it is rarely found on the north side, and then only in exceptional circumstances.
Some believe, suggested Robert Turner, the strange, learned, and prodigious seventeenth-century translator of many mystical and medico-chemical texts, that this is because yews’ branches would “draw and imbibe” the “gross and oleaginous Vapours exhaled out of the graves by the setting Sun.” They also might prevent the appearance of ghosts or apparitions. Unabsorbed gases produced the ignes fatui, the “foolish fire” like that which travelers saw over bogs and marshes, and these, in the context of churchyards, could be mistaken for dead bodies walking. Superstitious monks, he continues, believed that the yew could drive away devils. Its roots, he thought, were poisonous because they will “run and suck nourishment” from the dead, whose flesh is “the rankest poison that could be.”

https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/10/31/beneath-the-yew-trees-shade/
 

Bad Bungle

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Just to add, one of my favourite parts mentioned in that lecture is the myth that the roots of the yew tree in the graveyard radiate beneath the ground and grow into the mouths of all the bodies buried there
"A tree root that grew into a person's skull in a graveyard" : I did wonder if this was genuine, or indeed common

A tree root that grew into a person's skull in a graveyard.jpg
 

Frideswide

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Really enjoyed that. There's a good selection of other lectures on Gresham's Youtube channel too. Thanks @Yithian for the pointer!
 

Yithian

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Really enjoyed that. There's a good selection of other lectures on Gresham's Youtube channel too. Thanks @Yithian for the pointer!
They're superb. I've seen dozens of the history and politics ones.

I've been watching them for a couple of years now, but when broadcast live they typically only have a couple of hundred viewers worldwide and they rarely achieve that many views in the long run.
 

Xanatic*

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Considering how strong roots can get, I find it unlikely they would conform to the shape of a skull if growing into it.
Likely they would just split the skull apart.
 

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gordonrutter

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Sadly it was one of many peculiar images I pick up from the internet over the years and if I had provenance I would have quoted it.
However have just tracked the image one degree of separation back to reddit four years ago - I don't know if it is a genuine skull root ball, but heck why not ! (apart from the skull splitting as @Xanatic* said).

https://www.reddit.com/r/interestingasfuck/comments/3u754d
Ah but what happens when the tree root finds its way into the skull of a living person?
 

Tin

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Ah but what happens when the tree root finds its way into the skull of a living person?
One of my old neighbours had a friend that kept birds and used to blow on the food bowls to get rid of the chaff. One day a small seed landed in his eye and lodged behind his eye. Roll on a few weeks and the seed sprouted - he didn't tell me exactly happened to his friend but he said it 'weren't nice' in his thick Yorkshire accent.
 
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