Tree Lore: Elder

by Mara Freeman

Elder - Ruis - 
Sambucus

The elder is a small but bountiful tree, covered with edible fragrant blossoms in summer and juicy purple berries in autumn which country people have used for centuries in jams, jellies, medicinal syrups and wine. Its hollow branches have proved useful for all manner of pipes and bellows; in fact, its name probably originates with the Anglo-Saxon 'eller', meaning a kindler of fire. In Ireland elder was a sacred tree, and it was forbidden to break even one twig.

Like the willow, it seems to have strong feminine associations. In Denmark, peasants would not cut down an elder for fear of Hyldemor, the Elder-mother, who dwelt in its trunk. This belief is also found in Eastern England. In Lincolnshire until quite recently, it was important to ask permission of the ‘Old Lady’ or ‘Old Girl’. The correct way to approach the tree was to say: ‘Old Woman, give me some of thy wood and I will give thee some of mine when I grow into a tree’. If this procedure was not adopted, ill-luck could befall. Earlier this century, a writer visited the mother of a sick baby, the mother explained:

It were all along of my maister’s thick ‘ead. It were in this ‘ow: t’rocker comed off t'cradle, and he hadn’t no more gumption than to mak’ a new ‘un out on illerwood (elder wood) without axing the Old Lady’s leave, and in course she didn’t like that, and she came and pinched the wean (baby) that outrageous he were a’most black in t’ face; but I bashed un off, and putten an eshen (ashen) on, and the wean is gallus (well?) as owt agin.

Unfortunately, the Elder-Mother, who had probably once been a powerful female figure venerated for the healing properties of her tree, became feared as a witch in Christian times. In Ireland, witches were thought to use elder boughs as magic horses, while in England the crooked-branched tree was thought to be the form of a bent old witch, who would bleed if she were cut.

A folk-tale about an elder-tree witch from Somerset is worth repeating here. It tells of a farmer who discovered his cows were being milked by a witch disguised as an elder-tree. The farmer loaded his gun with a silver bullet to shoot her, but missed, and the witch chased him back to his cottage. He hurtled in through the front door and his wife shot the iron bolt, but the farmer’s coat-tails were caught in the door and he struggled pathetically there while the witch prowled around outside! Luckily, the old granny saves the day. She takes,

a girt shovel of burning coals and she say to the girl, ‘Open the back door wide!’ And she did and ran back to her mother, but the old Cranny she just stood there, and when the elder-tree came straight at her, and a-leaping and a-shrieking, she just up and throw all they red-hot coals at her, and come in and shut the back door. Then they all see blue flames flicker and hear tree crackling into cinders.

After a bit Granny she took the ashen cattle-goad and go out and there was a girt heap of ashes, cold already and they women all made a criss-cross on the ashes with the ashen-goad, and they ran and opened shutters and front door again and farmer were able to free his coat-tails and go out to his cows.

An elder-tree witch features in the legend of the famous Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire. A king and his army were marching across the land, when a witch approached him and called out a challenge:

Seven long strides shalt thou take,
If Long Compton thou can see,
King of England thou shalt be.

Now, the village of Long Compton is just hidden behind a low mound known as the archdruid’s barrow. After the king had taken seven strides, the witch called out:

As Long Compton thou canst not see,
King of England thou shalt not be.
Rise up stick and rise up stone,
For King of England thou shalt be none.
Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be
And myself an eldern-tree.

The king became the lone stone known as the King Stone, while his men huddle together as ‘The Whispering Knights’, a group of five stones to the east. The stone circle itself is known as the King’s Men.

The elder's reputation went from bad to worse with a Christian legend that claimed that the crucifix was made from its wood and Judas Iscariot was said to have hanged himself on the eider. An old carol called, ‘The Twelve Apostles’ tells the story, and in the last verse denounces the elder, which stands as an outcast from the other trees (any group of trees was known colloquially as the ‘Twelve Apostles’).

The twelve apostles they were standing by,
Their roots in the river, and their leaves in the sky,
The beasts all thrive wherever they be.
But Judas was a-hunged on an elder tree

And in Scotland, where the elder is known as the ‘bour-tree’, an old rhyme points to the tree’s small stature and crooked branches as punishment for its part in Jesus’ death :

Bour-tree, bour-tree, crookit rung,
Never straight and never strong,
Eer bush, and never tree,
Since our Lord was nailed t'ye

Soon the much-maligned tree became synonymous with the Devil himself. Many feared to burn elder-logs for fear they would ‘bring the Devil into the house’. Aubrey tells an amusing story about this, concerning a ‘good old gentleman’’ called Mr. Allen, who was reputed to be a sorcerer. This gentleman acquired a watch in the days when such instruments were rare. When a couple of maids entered his room and heard the watch ticking in its case, they thought it must be his familiar or even the Devil himself. They took it by the chain and threw it out the window into the moat, hoping to drown him. But by chance, the chain caught on an elder tree that was growing out of the bank, which confirmed their opinion that it was indeed an instrument of the Devil! Fortunately, this meant Mr.. Allen got his watch back again.

In other parts of the British Isles the elder was less feared, but still retained its magical associations. If the eyes are bathed in the green juice of the wood, you might see fairies and witches. If you stand under an elder-tree at Samhain in Scotland, you can see the faery host riding by. Elderberries plucked on Midsummer’s Eve confer magic powers. In the Isle of Man, elders are the main dwelling-place for elves.

Also in the Isle of Man, an elder tree outside the cottage door actually kept witches away, according to a Manx folk-tale called, ‘Old Nance and the Buggane’. In other places too it was viewed favourably as a benevolent, protective tree. A 17th century manuscript gives a recipe for a protective amulet made from plucking an elder twig in October, just before the full moon. The wood between the knots must be cut into nine pieces, which are bound in a piece of linen and hung around the neck so that they touch the heart. They hang there until the thread breaks, at which point the amulet has to be buried where it may not be found.

In some parts of Scotland it ranked only second to rowan in its ability to ward off evil spells and witchcraft. Crosses made of elder twigs hung over stables and barns to protect the livestock. Drivers of hearses carried whip-handles made of elder to ward off evil influences.

Elder has been prescribed throughout the ages for healing ailments from blindness to epilepsy. The leaves gathered on May Eve had the power to cure wounds, and warts could be removed by rubbing them on a green elder stick and burning it: as it rotted away, so did the warts. In Denmark a cure for toothache consisted of placing an elder twig in the mouth and then sticking it in a wall, saying: ‘Depart thou evil spirit!’. The herbalist John Evelyn declared:

If the medicinal properties of the leaves, bark, berries, etc. were thoroughly known, I cannot tell what our countryman could ail for which he might not fetch a remedy from every (elder) hedge either for sickness or wound.

In Ireland, it was one of the magical trees carried in procession at Beltane. If you celebrate this merry month, let the EIder-Mother once more take her place in summer’s bouquet as this ancient Beltane song declares:

Holly and hazel
eIder and rowen
and bright ash
from beside the ford