Mythology and folklore of elder trees

As everyone knows (or ought to know), the Faery Folk love music and merrymaking. Best of all they like the music from instruments made of elder wood. Wood from the elder tree lends itself well to the making of whistles, pipes, chanters and other musical instruments. The branches contain a soft pithy core which instrument makers remove to create hollow pipes of a pale, hard, easily-polished wood. (Some of elder’s many vernacular names include bour- or boretree.)

In common with other trees with white blossom, such as hawthorn and rowan, the elder is steeped in Faery- and Goddess-centred mythology. The best time to encounter faeries was under an elder on Midsummer’s Eve, when the Faery King and Queen and their train would pass by. There are many references in folklore advising against sleeping under an elder. It is possible that the strong smell of the leaves has mildly narcotic effects.

Like rowan, people saw elder as being a protective tree. It was auspicious if it was growing near one’s dwelling, especially if it had seeded itself there. If the rowan’s place was at the front of the house, the elder’s was at the back door; people believed it kept evil spirits from entering the home. The aroma of the leaves has long been known to repel flies. So this folklore may have been borne out of the need to keep disease-carrying insects away from the kitchen. People also hung bunches of leaves by doorways, in livestock barns, and attached to horses’ harnesses. Planted around dairies people believed it kept the milk from ‘turning’. They hung cheese cloths and other linen involved in dairying out to dry on elder trees. The smell they absorbed from the leaves may have contributed to hygiene in the dairy. Elder trees were also planted by bake houses as protection from the Devil (what with all those hellishly hot ovens within!) and loaves and cakes were put out to cool under the elders. That said, any foods left out overnight under an elder were considered a gift to the faeries.

The elder is not a common tree across the Scottish Highlands, being confined to pockets of deeper, richer soils. Its Gaelic names, ruis or droman occur only rarely in Scottish place names. These include Strath Rusdale in Easter Ross and Barrach-an-dromain on Mull. The name elder may come from Hylde-Moer the Scandinavian matriarchal tree spirit and deity associated with the elder. Her indwelling spirit was said to be the basis of the protective qualities of ‘Mother Elder.’ It is also possible that the name may derive from the Anglo-Saxon aeld. This might refer to the pithy core of the wood which provided a source of tinder, or the hollowed out branches used in bellows. The wood itself makes a poor fuel, and the structure of the wood and its sap makes it scream and spit whilst burning. The belief that it was the Devil spitting from the heat of the fire reinforced the taboo against burning the wood.

Elder had negative Christian legends associated with it, to suppress earlier pagan beliefs. Many other trees and plants with pagan associations also suffered this fate. However, the elder was doubly cursed. Legend has it that it was the tree from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself. It was also one of several trees ‘accused’ of having supplied the wood for the Crucifixion Cross (aspen being another popular culprit). Given the small size of elder trees and how weak the wood is, neither of these accusations seem likely nor fair.

In spite of these negative beliefs, elder has a wide range of medicinal uses. The mediaeval herbalist John Evelyn held it in high regard and called it “a kind of Catholicon against all Infirmities whatever”. Washing her face in dew gathered from elderflowers was believed to enhance and preserve a woman’s youthful beauty. To this day derivatives of elder continue to be an ingredient in skin cleansers such as Eau de Sareau, and eye lotions.

Elderflower tea is a traditional remedy for colds and flu-like symptoms, while elderberry drinks have long been prescribed to soothe coughs and sore throats.

The leaves and uncooked berries are slightly toxic, but once cooked the fruits can be used in pies and jam. Elderberry wine, elderflower cordial and dried elderflowers are all still available in shops. A fine elderflower champagne can be made using the yeasts present in the blossoms. Dipped in batter the flowers make excellent fritters.

The Gaelic droman may have given rise to the word dromanach which is a specialised wooden peg used to secure thatch on roofs. These pegs were often made from elder wood. Despite its relative scarcity, the parts of the tree used for dying were important to the Harris tweed industry. Blue and purple dyes can be made from the berries, yellow and green from the leaves and grey and black from the bark.

 

Paul Kendall

 

References

  • Darwin, T. (1996) The Scots Herbal: the plant lore of Scotland. Mercat Press.
  • Fife H. (1994) Warriors and Guardians: native highland trees.  Argyll Publishing.
  • Frazer, J. (1993) The Golden Bough: a study in magic and religion. Wordsworth.
  • Mabey, R. (1996) Flora Britannica. Sinclair-Stevenson: London.
  • Milliken, W & Bridgewater, S (2004) Flora Celtica: plants and people in Scotland. Birlinn: Edinburgh.
  • Paterson, J.M. (1996) Tree Wisdom. Thorsons: London.
  • Vickery, R. (1995) A Dictionary of Plant Lore. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
  • https://pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?LatinName=Sambucus+nigra  (Accessed December 2020)
  • http://www.plantsoftheworldonline.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:30122169-2  (Accessed December 2020)