Elder Tree Folklore – Great Britian
In this installment of Elder Tree Folklore we head to the isles of Great Britain. The elder tree has long played a part in the various cultures of these lands. From pre-historic use in funerals to Victorian marriage superstitions, the wood, the berries and the flowers of the elder have been used in the United Kingdom.
The Spirit World
The elder tree, as mentioned in Part 1, has many names. In Scottish Gaelic, the tree is called droman, troman, tramman or ruis. These names are still used in parts of the British Isles, such as the Isle of Man where the elder is thought to be the home of elves. Ruis may have older origins than droman as some people connect the word to the 13th symbol of the Ogham alphabet. Ogham was an old Irish language used from the 4th-6th centuries, but believed to date as far back as the 1st century. This script can be seen on stone relics across the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Ruis was associated with the spirit world, most likely due to the various tales surrounding the tree. In Scotland, during the time of Samhain (around Halloween), it was said that standing under the elder tree allowed you to see the faery king. This practice may also be associated with the belief that rubbing the green juice of the tree’s wood into the eyes (not recommended) gave one the ability to see faeries and witches.
The elder’s association with the spirit world was not limited to faeries. Magical abilities were also attributed to the tree. As mentioned in Part 1, the elder leaves were thought to protect a home or a person from evil spirits when dried and hung in a doorway or around the neck. A folktale from the Isle of Man, “Old Nance and the Buggane,” recounts the tree’s protective power. The tale opens:
There was once an old woman living at Laxey, and her name was Nance Corlett. Clean and neat her house was, with the thatch all trim and trig against the winter storms, the tramman tree by the door, to keep of witches, and the little red cocks and hens wandering in and out of the open door. There wasn’t a word going a-speaking against old Nance, in all the Island.
A Symbol of Birth and Death
For the Druids (a class of Celtic people), the elder tree’s protective power came from a spirit – the White Goddess. This goddess was the guardian of the underworld, establishing the tree’s association with death. Archeological findings have confirmed the use of elder wood in funerary rites. Funeral flints and carvings in the shape of elder leaves have been found in the megalithic long barrows of the United Kingdom and Ireland.
This relationship with death can also be linked to the Celtic calendar. The 13th month or moon (approx.. Nov. 25-Dec. 23) of the year was associated with the Elder. This was the darkest time of the year and, according to one story, was the time the Celts believed their sun spirit was held prisoner, symbolizing death. Yet, this time of the year was also associated with creativity and renewal as the end of the Elder moon meant new life. The elder tree was a symbol of the cycle of life – death to birth to death.
The connection between the elder and death led to the tree being a symbol of grief. The offensive smell of the elder leaves (not the flowers) also connected the tree with grief. In Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, Arviragus pronounces:
And let the stinking elder, grief, untwine
His perishing root with the increasing vine!
The historical relationship between the elder tree and death may not actually be historical accurate. Some scholars link the origin of this belief with the book “The White Goddess” by Robert Graves. “The White Goddess,” published in the 1940s, was an outline of a poetic approach to the study of mythology. Specialists, however, think that Graves may have emphasized the poetry over the mythology that could be grounded in archeological findings.
Nonetheless, the elder tree remains associated with the cycle of life for some neo-pagans. In fact, the question can be asked –- does the origin matter if the myth holds power?
British Tradition and Elder Tree Folklore
Although the origin and uses of the elder tree in British folklore are varied and sometimes unconfirmed, the plant remains a key part of tradition. More recently (I use this word loosely), the elder tree has been referenced in the writings of English herbalists, the British pharmacopoeia and in Victorian superstitions. Not all you see are Elder Tree Folklore related.
Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), a botanist and herbalist, made frequent reference to the elder in his writings. He elaborated that the elder was such a common part of society that its description was unnecessary. Culpeper also described the use of elderberries as a dye. “The hair of the head washed with the berries boiled in wine is made black,” written in Culpeper’s Complete Herbal.
The Harris Tweed Industry also practiced the use of elderberries as a dye. Harris used the berries for blue and purple coloring, the leaves for green and yellow and the bark for black. This historical company still operates today, even though they may no longer use the elder to produce the dyes for their tweed.
John Evelyn (1620-1706), a famous gardener and herbalist, strongly believed in the power of the elder to remedy illnesses. He wrote, “If the medicinal properties of its leaves, bark and berries were fully known, I cannot tell what our countryman could ail for which he might not fetch a remedy from every hedge.”
Based on historical folk remedy, the elder maintained a spot in the British Pharmacopoeia for many years. This book, published since 1864, provides the “official standards for pharmaceutical substances and medicinal products” in the United Kingdom. In the 2014 version, the elderflower can be found in section 14-169, connecting current practices with traditional remedies.
In Victorian times, the elderflower held other powers than its medicinal qualities. An elderflower infused ale had the ability to bring about a marriage. It was believed that this ale if shared between a man and a woman would lead to a wedding within a year. Although this superstition is no longer widely held, it may not hurt to make some elderflower syrup to add to a cocktail and share with your sweetheart.
Certain traditions and beliefs in Elder Tree Folklore, such as the tree’s spirit goddess, may no longer carry weight, but the elder remains an important part of British tradition. It is a symbol that links the past with the present, and connects the people with their land. This attachment to the elder can still be seen today as the tree grows in hedges in the countryside and in the expression, “an English summer has not arrived until the Elder is in full bloom and ends when the berries are ripe.”
Are there any Elder Tree Folklore we’ve missed you thing worthy of inclusion as a Part 4? Are you a Elder Tree Folkore expert or writer? If so we would love to hear from you.
Elder Tree Folklore Series is part of the Elderberry Facts Category and courtesy of Norm’s Farms.