Mythology and folklore of elder trees

As everyone knows (or ought to know), the Faery Folk love music and merrymaking, and 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, as the branches contain a soft pithy core which is easily removed to create hollow pipes of a pale, hard, easily-polished wood. (Some of elder’s many vernacular names include bour- or boretree). The most auspicious time to encounter faeries was under an elder bush on Midsummer’s Eve, when the Faery King and Queen and their train could be seen passing. There are many references in folklore advising against sleeping under an elder and it has been suspected that the strong smell of elder leaves may have mildly narcotic influences.

In common with other trees with white blossom, such as hawthorn and rowan, the elder had strong associations with Faery- and Goddess-centred mythology. Like rowan, the elder was thought of as being a protective tree, and it was auspicious if it was growing near one’s dwelling, especially if it had seeded itself there. If the rowan’s place was traditionally at the front of the house, the elder’s was at the back door, to keep evil spirits and other negative influences from entering the home. The aroma exuded by the elder’s leaves has long been known to repel flies, so this folklore may have been borne out of the need to keep such insects, and the diseases that they carried, away from the kitchen and food. Bunches of leaves were hung by doorways, in livestock barns, and attached to horses’ harnesses for the same reason. Elder was traditionally planted around dairies and it was thought to be efficacious in keeping the milk from ‘turning’. Cheese cloths and other linen involved in dairying were hung out to dry on elder trees, and the smell they absorbed from the leaves may have contributed to hygiene in the dairy. Elder trees were also traditionally planted by bake houses as protection from the Devil (what with all those hellishly hot ovens within!) and loaves and cakes put out to cool under the elders. Any foods left out overnight under an elder however were considered a gift to the faeries.

The name elder may have been derived from Hylde-Moer the Scandinavian matriarchal tree spirit and deity associated with the elder, whose indwelling spirit was said to be the basis of the protective qualities of ‘Mother Elder’. It has also been suggested that the name may derive from the Anglo-Saxon Aeld, meaning fire, possibly referring to the pithy core of the wood which was used as tinder, or the hollowed out branches used in bellows. Certainly 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 further reinforced the taboo against burning the wood.

In common with many other native trees and plants with potent pagan associations, the elder subsequently had negative Christian legends associated with it, to suppress earlier beliefs.The elder was doubly cursed as being the tree from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself, as well as being one of several trees ‘accused’ of having supplied the wood for the Crucifixion Cross (oak and aspen being other popular culprits), though the small size of the elder trees and the fact that Jesus would not have struggled under the weight of a crossbar made of such a lightweight wood as elder make this highly unlikely.

Notwithstanding these negative beliefs, elder continued to be put to such a wide range of medicinal uses that the mediaeval herbalist John Evelyn 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, and derivatives of elder continue to be used in skin cleansers such as Eau de Sareau, and eye lotions. Elderberry wine, elderflower cordial and dried elderflowers for infusion are all still commercially available. A couple of cups of hot elderflower tea before bedtime helps to bring on a cleansing sweat to combat cold and ‘flu-like symptoms, and elderberry drinks were formerly prescribed to sooth throat complaints. A fine elderflower champagne can be made using the yeasts naturally present in the blossoms, which can also be dipped in a batter and eaten as fritters.

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, such as Strath Rusdale in Easter Ross and Barrach-an-dromain on Mull. Droman may have given rise to the word dromanach which is a specialised wooden peg used to secure thatch on roofs traditionally made from elder wood. Despite its relative scarcity, the parts of the tree used for dying were important to the Harris tweed industry, with blue and purple dyes being derived from the berries, yellow and green from the leaves and grey and black from the bark.

Paul Kendall