• Elder Tree Folklore - Part 3

August 14, 2014 0 Comments

Elderberry Facts - Elder Tree Folklore Series

In Part 3 of the Elder Tree Folklore series, we explore the role of the elder in Denmark. From ancient goddesses to tales of the human experience, the elder tree was a special plant in Danish society.

Goddess in the Tree

The Danish, like the British, believed the elder tree was sacred. The spirit who lived in the tree was called Hyldemor or Elder Mother. It was the presence of this spirit that made it forbidden to cut down the tree without performing a ritual. The specific steps of this rite to ask Hyldemor for permission vary in different accounts. One version involved spitting on the ground three times and reciting, “Old Nanny, Hyldemor, if I may, I must take a bite of your forest.”

It was believed that if a part of the elder tree was cut without permission that Hyldemor would exact her revenge. This revenge commonly took the form of bringing misfortune on the culprit and making them feel as if someone was pulling on their legs.

Hyldemor may be the primary name for the Elder Mother in Denmark, but she was associated with other spirits and goddesses. Hulda, a form of Hylde and Hilda, was the mother of elves.

The connection between Hulda and Hyldemor is evident in more than name. Hyldemor was also associated with magical creatures, just as Hulda was with elves. It was believed that the king of faeries was revealed to any who sat under the tree at Midsummer’s Eve.

Freya, a Scandinavian goddess, was also associated with the elder tree. According to some, Freya could be understood as the equivalent of Aphrodite. Freya was the goddess of love, fertility, battle and death. Just like Hyldemor, Freya was said to live in the elder tree.

Though there are many names for the spirit living in the elder, it is clear that the Danes held the plant in high esteem. The spirits made the tree sacred and it was important to respect their wishes, as demonstrated by the ritual for permission.

Elder Tree As A Part of Life

In Denmark, the elder tree was more than just a piece of mythology. The plant could be found everywhere -- in forests, parks, hedges and private gardens. The large presence of this plant throughout the country made it a popular ingredient in daily life.

The Danish often consumed elderflower tea. In Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “Hyldemor,” the mother gives her son elderflower tea to warm him. The tea was to ward off a chill she fears her son will get from wet feet.

The elder wood also served a purpose. It was said that a twig of elder wood could cure a toothache. The remedy included placing the elder twig in the mouth for a few minutes (make sure to ask Hyldemor for permission before cutting it down!). Afterwards, the twig was supposed to be stuck in the wall of your home while saying “Depart thou evil spirit!”

Elder branches also helped with animals. Farmers would create a garland out of elder wood and place it around the neck of a horse. The strong smell of the branches would keep the flies away.

The elder tree was such an important part of Danish life that a saying developed. “Where the elder won’t grow, man cannot live.” Or, in Danish, “Hvor hylden ej vil gro, kan mennesket ikke bo.”

Hans Christian Andersen and the Elder Tree

Perhaps the most famous reference to the elder tree in Denmark is the story by Hans Christian Andersen. H. C. Andersen, a Danish author, is famously known for his fairytales “The Little Mermaid,” “The Ugly Duckling,” and many others.

Andersen’s “Hyldemor” story is a tale about the Elder Mother and a little boy. The Elder Mother takes the boy on a trip throughout Denmark in the shape of a young girl.

“They were only riding around and around the grass plot [outside the boy’s cabin], yet the little boy seemed to see everything…”

The Danish adventure occurs after a tale about an old couple reminiscing about their lives beneath an elder tree. Then, the story comes full circle as the boy, now old, tells his love about the adventure with the girl. At the end, the boy awakens in his bed with a cup of elderflower tea.

In Andersen’s tale, the elder tree holds a central role as a sign of love between the couples and the little boy and his mother (she gives him elderflower tea to make him better).

The Elder Mother also reminds the older couples of their lives together and, in this way, symbolizes memory. The Elder Mother says as much at the end of the story.

“Some people call me Elder-Tree Mother, and some call me the Dyrad, but my real name is Memory.”

Andersen’s story uses a Danish folk image in a new way. He turns the tree into a symbol for a person’s and the nation’s memory.

The Elder Tree has a long history in Denmark. Its berries, flowers and wood were a part of Danish life as teas, treatments and tools. The tree itself was home to a Danish goddess, Freya. Now, thanks to Andersen, the elder connects the Danish people to their history as a symbol of memory.

Want to find some contemporary Danish recipes that use elderberries and elderflowers? Use the following words to find authentic Danish uses of the elder:
  • elder (hylde)
  • elderberry (hyldebaer)
  • elderflower (hyldeblomst)
Try this hyldebaersaft (elderberry juice) recipe.  And be sure to sign up for our newsletter -- use the form below -- to stay apprised of new elder-related content!

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