Folklore and Magic – Elder (sambucus nigra) Witches’ Tree – By Jane McCormack
Elder grows all around my garden and surrounding areas and I have to confess to occasionally having cut it back for which I now feel profoundly guilty and for which I feel I must make amends in this confession. I undertake to protect this old spirit from others’ desecration and feel slightly panicked about my husband’s propensity to cut and tame! This tree can never be tamed nor should we ever wish it to be. She is the wise old woman, our grandmother filled with the power and wisdom of ages and charged with eternal power and energy.
Elder has always been valued for its medicinal properties and old hedge layers would not cut it when they trimmed the rest of the hedgerow. Known as ‘the medicine chest of country people’ it has always been revered by our ancestors who were more in tune with Mother Earth than we have become. Chopping elder branches was considered downright dangerous because of the ‘elder mother’ who inhabits this shrublike tree.
Its hollow stems were said to have been used by Prometheus to bring fire to man by the gods and the Saxon word ‘aeld’ may have been the derivation of its name as it means ‘fire’. It was also said to have made Pan’s pipes as the hollow stems make good flutes. Pan protects animals and growing things and it is fitting that his pipes were made from this powerful plant.
Elder is faerie and pagan. If you are in the company of the tree on Midsummer Night you will see the King of the faeries ride by. Another version of the derivation of the name is ‘Hylde Moer’ the elder or Earth Mother. When elder chooses to plant itself in your garden the Earth Mother is protecting your home and family from harm.
The Church vilified elder because of the power that the pagans invested in it and gave it the negative associations of being the tree upon which Christ was crucified and the tree upon which Judas hung himself – highly improbable as its branches are weak and hollow! God allegedly cursed the elder by making its once large, black berries tiny and its branches twisted. Robert Chambers in his ,’Popular Rhymes of Scotland’ 1847, says:
‘Bour-tree, bour-tree, cookit rung,
Never straight, and never strong,
Ever bush and never tree,
Since our Lord was nailed t’ye’
And a bigger load of rubbish I’ve never read! To me the elder’s flexibility and protective veiling as well as its enormity of healing powers gives the lie utterly to this sort of dangerous propaganda. Another rhyme went:
‘Hawthorn blooms and elderflowers
Fill the house with evil powers.’
reminding people never to bring it in to the house. Its smell is often cast negatively as one of sweat and cat’s urine. Another thing with which I profoundly disagree. To me, elderflower is redolent of a British summer and is soft and alluring.
It is associated with sex and death which are huge taboos in our culture. It has always engendered a battle ground between being a tree of life, yet a devil’s tree. It was needed and yet feared so it was a witch’s plant.
Planting elder in the corner of a herb garden is considered beneficial to the other medicines growing there because the spirit of the elder teaches the spirits of the other plants. Traditionally offerings would be made when picking leaves, flowers and berries from the plant or an undertaking is made with the elder mother that one’s body will eventually return to the earth. In England, elder wood crosses were placed on graves to bring peace to the souls of the dead. Crosses were also placed on doors or windows to ward off evil.
Elder is thought to be a door to the underworld or magical faerie realm and it is thought to be dangerous to fall asleep under the tree because you could be taken to the ‘other world’ and never returned.
It is early March 2012 as I write this and I have been out and spoken to the myriad elder growing around us. I have apologised abjectly for my previous ignorance and I have thanked Elder Mother for choosing to stay and multiply despite my stupidity. She is protecting us come-what-may and for that I am extremely grateful. Her leaves are bursting forth from her grey, well-worn branches. They are distinct in their full form but only about 2 cm across at most. I very much look forward to a long and close relationship with this very magical plant.
Hedgerow Medicine – Julie Bruton Seal and Matthew Seal ( Merlin Unwin Books 2008)
The Book of Herbal Wisdom – Matthew Wood ( North Atlantic Books 1997)