• Elder Tree Folklore: Part 1

July 11, 2014

The Elder Tree and Elder Tree Folklore has a distinguished past. Currently the elder tree is known for its fragrant flowers and berries, which are abundant in antioxidants. The elder, however, is not a new herbal fad, but a plant steeped in history and folklore. Archeological discoveries date the use of the elder tree back to the Neolithic age (2000 B.C.).

Many Names, One Elder Tree

Used for a variety of purposes ranging from musical instruments to magic, the elder tree appears throughout history. The etymology of the plant’s generic name, Sambucus, is difficult to determine. Some argue that it comes from the Greek word sambuke, an ancient instrument made from elder wood. Others believe that Sambucus comes form the Latin sambuca, a type of harp. The flexibility of the elder’s wood makes it a great material for instruments. The sambuke and sambuca were harp-like and the hallow nature of the elder made it best instruments of the wind family.

In spite of the confusion surrounding the generic name for the elder tree and its use for musical instruments, the elder tree was also employed for medicinal purposes. Sambucus was often cited in the writings of ancient healers and scholars. Hippocrates, an ancient physician, and Pliny the Elder, a naturalist, both cite Sambucus as a plant useful for its potential to relieve numerous maladies.

There are many other names for the elder tree. The English elder comes from the Anglo-Saxon words, aeld and eldrun, meaning fire and furnace. Although it was taboo to burn the wood of an elder (more on this later), its branches were hallowed and used to blow on a fire to increase its flame. Modern words for the elder are hylde in Danish, Holunder in German, saúco in Spanish, and sureau in French.

Some Elder Tree Folklore: The Elder Mother and A Sacred Tree

Anglo-Saxons, the Danish, and other old European societies believed the elder tree was sacred. According to Elder Tree Folklore, this sacredness came from the spirit or goddess believed to reside in the plant. Hylde Moer, in Danish, or the Elder Mother, had the power to protect and to harm. The power of the Elder Mother turned the plant’s natural gifts (flowers, berries and wood) into blessings. From the Elder Mother, the various parts of the tree were imbued with power. For example, the leaves could protect a home or a person from evil spirits when dried and hung in a doorway or around the neck. It was a particularly good omen if an elder grew near a dwelling, as the tree’s proximity to the home would protect the household.

Taking parts of the elder for ritual, herbal or protective use required asking the Elder Mother for permission. If the Elder Mother was not asked, it was believed she would seek revenge on the offending person. To ask permission of the Elder Mother involved making an offering to the tree, kneeling with head bowed and speaking the following words:

“Lady Ellhorn, give me of thy wood,
And I will give thee of mine,
When I become a tree.”

Regardless of asking for permission, it was still seen as unwise to cut down an elder or burn its wood for fear of upsetting the Elder Mother or releasing her spirit from the plant. Imagine if your life was guide by folklore as in the case of Elder Tree Folklore.

The Elder and Christianity

As Christianity spread across Europe, it associated traditional folk practices with negative connotations in order to deter the “pagan” beliefs. The elder tree became associated with the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Christian lore claimed that the elder contributed its wood to the construction of the Holy Cross. This belief is evident in a couplet from Scotland where the elder tree is called the “bour-tree.”

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

However, the story of how Jesus bore a heavy cross on his trek to the crucifixion site contradicts the idea that elder wood was used, as it is light and porous.  It seems Elder Tree Folklore is not exempt from misguided intentions.

In William Langland’s The Vision of Piers Plowman, which is dated to the middle of the 14th century, the elder is the tree that Judas Iscariot hung himself out of guilty for betraying Jesus. The passage reads, “Judas he japed with Jewen silver and siten an eller hanged hymselve.” Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour Lost” also refers to the use of the elder by Judas. This claim, along with the one about elder wood being in the crucifixion cross, has no evidence.

Elder Tree Folklore Used to Make Old Practices Repulsive

As the Church Christianized communities it persecuted the older folk traditions of the peasantry. These traditions threatened the growing political power of the Church established in the conversion royalty and nobility. To solidify its power, the Church required the conversion of the whole population. By connecting folk beliefs, such as those about the elder tree, to Jesus’ death and evil, the Church attempted to make the old practices repulsive. This approach did not always work and the Church tried to blend older traditions with Christianity. This mixing of practices can be seen in the use of the lunar calendar to determine the date of certain Christian holidays, such as Easter, or the continued use of elders shaped into a cross at graves to ward off evil.

These tales about the elder tree are only highlights of the rich Elder Tree folklore surrounding this special plant. From musical instrument to a goddess’ home, the elder tree serves a distinct place in cultural history. To learn more about the folklore of the elder tree and its delicious berries and flowers, stay tuned for the second installment of the Elder Folklore series. Part two of this series will explore the folklore and use of elderberries and elderflowers in Great Britain.

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