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In Worship of Trees

  Written and Compiled by George Knowles

 The Elder Tree

“Elder Is the Lady's tree - Burn it not or cursed you'll be”.

The Elder tree (Sambucus nigra) is a member of the Honeysuckle family and is one of the sacred trees of Wicca and Witchcraft.  According to the Celtic Tree Calendar, the Elder is the thirteenth tree of the year and dates from the 25th November – 22nd December, as such the Elder tree is associated with Yule - the Winter Solstice, which generally occurs around the 21st December.

The word Elder is derived from an old Anglo-Saxon word ‘aeld’ meaning fire, an association given to the Elder because of its use.  The soft pith of an Elder branch pushes out easily and the tubes formed were once used as pipes for blowing up fires, later bellows were made from Elder for the same use.  From this followed the folk names Pipe-Tree, Bore-tree or Bour-tree, the latter is still being used in Scotland and is traceable to the Anglo-Saxon term Burtre.  Other early names include Eldrun or Ellhorn, and then later in the fourteenth century it became known as Hyldor or Hyllantree.  In Germany it is known as Hollunder.

The botanical name for the Elder - ‘Sambucus’, occurs in the writings of Pliny and other ancient writers.  Adopted from the Greek word ‘Sambuca’, a musical instrument much favoured and used by the Romans, it is thought that Elder wood was used in its construction due its hardness.  There is difficulty in accepting this however, because the Sambuca was a stringed instrument, while anything made from Elder would most likely have been a wind instrument similar in the nature to Panpipes, a Flute or even a Sackbut, the renaissance equivalent to the modern trombone.

Sambuca a stringed instrument 

Pliny also records the belief held by country folk that the “shrillest pipes” and the most “sonorous horns” were made from Elder trees, but only those grown in areas away from human habitation and away from the sound of a cocks-crow.  Young children would make whistles, popguns and peashooters from the Elder, which Pliny notes:  "were manufactures many centuries old".  Culpepper another old master declared:  It is needless to write any description of the Elder, since every boy that plays with a popgun will not mistake it for any another tree”.  In modern time’s, Italian peasants construct a simple musical pipe from the Elder called a ‘Sampogna’.

In the summer with its flat-topped masses of fragrant white blossoms, followed later in autumn by drooping bunches of purple-black berries; the Elder is a familiar and much loved sight in the English countryside.  It grows in abundance with a minimum of soil and can be found in wastelands, woods, hedgerows and gardens.  Mostly the Elder grows as a shrub, bush or small tree, and rarely exceeds nine meters (30ft) in height.  Wild in nature the Elder re-grows damaged branches with ease and can root rapidly from any of its parts.  Cuttings or twigs broken of the tree and stuck in the ground will soon produce masses of fruit.

A peculiarity of the Elder is its method of growth.  At the base of a sapling, stems appear each growing upright, then after awhile as if under weight they bend over creating a curve on top of which a new bud appears.  From this bud a new stem grows upright for a while until it too bends over and so its growth continues.  The Elder’s trunk therefore is not formed by one upwardly growing mass like the trunks of other trees, but is a patchwork mess of curving drooping stems.  This is why the Elder is neither elegant nor reaches any great height.  The stems can sometimes reach nearly two feet in diameter, a size indicating several or more score of years, today however we are lucky to be able to find one growing half that size.

The bark of the wood is rough, corky and light brown to grey in colour, its branches are smoother and its twigs a pleasing bright green, but these are pot-marked with small brownish spots caused by the tree’s lenticels.  The wood of the main stem is hard and heavy, white with a fine close grain.  It is easy to cut and polishes well, and was often used for making butchers skewers or small toys for children.  Other uses include shoemaker’s pegs, fishing rods, and needles for weaving nets and combs.  It being a hard wood, technical instruments and several different musical instruments were made of Elder.  The pith from its branches was sliced and used as floats for fishing, while pith from younger stems being exceedingly light, was cut into balls and used for electrical experiments.  In medicine, it was used to hold small objects for microscopic sectioning.

    

White flowers  -  Purple-black berries

The leaves of the Elder consist of five leaflets attached to a central stalk sitting opposite each other on its twigs or branches.  To ensure its leafing capacity, beneath its main leaf-buds the Elder produces a second smaller bud in reserve, but this will only open if the main leaves are lost due to inclement weather, and can remain dormant for a couple of years until needed.  Once the leaves have formed, its flower buds begin to grow and by June the tree is awash with thousands of tiny white flowers.

The flowers all look alike and consist of five creamy white petals, on the back of which five green sepals form a star.  In between each petal there are five yellow stamens surrounding a cream coloured ovary containing a three lobed stigma.  To allow easy cross-fertilization by flies and bees, and other insects attracted by the flowers fragrance, the stamens and stigmas mature at the same time.  Clusters of Elder flowers grow all at the same level facing the sky and viewed from beneath resemble many tiny star-spoked umbrellas.

Myths and Folklore 

There is much folklore and superstition talked about the Elder tree, much of it passed down through the old religions of the ancients, and in common with many other trees and plants, the Elder tree in particular was attributed a number of negative Christian legends in efforts to suppress earlier pagan beliefs.  One such legend as Shakespeare recounts in his “Love's Labour Lost”, is that of the traitor Apostle “Judas Iscariot” supposedly hanged himself on an Elder tree.  Reference to this myth is found as far back in English literature as Langland’s – “Vision of Piers Plowman” written during the middle of the fourteenth century:  “Judas he japed with Jewen silver, And sithen an eller hanged hymselve”.

Why Judas would have selected the Elder for his gallows, is somewhat puzzling given the small size of the tree, but Sir John Mandeville in his famous book published in the 1300’s - “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville”, tells us that he was shown:  “faste by the Pool of Siloam, the identical Tree of Eldre that Judas henge himself upon, for despeyr that he hadde, when he solde and betrayed oure Lord”.  John Gerard in his famous Herbal or General History of Plantscalls the Elder tree, “the Judas-tree - the tree whereon Judas did hange himselfe”.

    

Judas Iscariot the Apostle who betrayed Jesus.

Another old legend tells of how the Elder tree was one of several trees whose wood was used to make the "Cross of Calvary" on which Christ was crucified, and as a result the Elder tree in particular was punished, an old couplet states:  “Bour tree - Bour tree: crooked rong, Never straight and never strong; Ever bush and never tree, Since our Lord was nailed on thee”.

In most countries, the Elder tree is intimately connected with magic and witchcraft, and there are many folktales and legends telling of a Witch that live in the tree.  One such is about Hylde-Moer, the Elder-tree Mother, who lived in the tree to watch over it.  Should the tree be cut down and furniture made of its wood, many believed she would follow and haunt the owners.  As the story goes, an ignorant woodcutter once cut down an Elder tree to make a cradle for his newborn son, but each time the child was placed in it, Hylde-Moer would appear and pull the child's legs, thus allowing it no peace until it was lifted out.  To cut an Elder permission must always be gained first by asking, and not until Hylde-Moer has given consent by remaining silence, may the tree be cut down.

Another legend about an Elder Witch concerns the famous Rollright Stone circle near the village of Long Compton in Oxfordshire.  These strange and ancient monoliths are said to be the remains of an invading Danish King and his men intent on conquering England.  As the King and his men were approaching Long Compton, an old hag Witch approached them and called out a challenge:  Seven long strides shalt thou take, an if Long Compton thou can see, King of England thou shalt be”.

         

The Rollright Stone Circle

The village of Long Compton is hidden behind a low mound known locally as the Archdruids barrow.  After the King had taken his seven strides he still could not see the village, so the hag witch called out again:  As Long Compton thou canst not see, King of England thou shalt not be.  Rise up stick and rise up stone, For King of England thou shalt be none.  Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be, And I myself an Elder tree”.  With that cry the King became the lone standing stone known as the “King Stone”, the group of five upright stones huddled together are known as “The Whispering Knights”, while the stones forming the circle itself are known as the “King’s Men”.

Magical Uses 

As with most trees, one of the main properties of the Elder is that of protection, and when located near to the home, helps to protect it from negative energy and lightning attacks.  Crosses made of Elder twigs were hung over stables and barns to protect the livestock.  People buried objects, items of clothing and even their milk teeth in its shade, to protect the owner from evil spells and disease.  Spells were also used to divert illnesses from a sick person into the Elder bush.  Pieces of Elder wood worn close to the body will protect against illness, however many people still believed it was dangerous to place Elder in a cradle, fear was that the tree fairies would see this as a sign they could take the child away.

Elder trees can commonly be found growing in old country gardens and cemeteries, for wherever the Elder tree grew was considered sacred space protected by the Elder Mother.  The flowers of tree have a slightly narcotic smell and it is considered unwise to rest under it too long, for if you fall asleep you may never wake up.  Because of this the Elder has a long association with death.  The dead were often laid out on Elder branches and its wood was used to make crosses for graves.  In some countries branches of Elder are still put on graves today, and if they sprout, it is a clear sign that the departed person is happy and has been welcomed into Elysium, the blessed realm of the dead.

Elder tree in bloom

If you bathe your eyes with dew collected from the Elder tree, you will be able to see fairies and witches.  In the Isle of Man, Elder trees are the main dwelling-place for elves, and in Scotland if you stand under an Elder-tree at Samhain, you can see the fairy host riding by.  Scattering Elder leaves in the four winds will bring protection and when used to form a circle, helps to create sacred space.  During ritual a flute or whistle made from an Elder can be used to summon spirits.

Medicinal Uses

The Elder has long been noted for its healing properties and was mentioned in the oldest of British Pharmacopoeia’s.  To the physician and the wise-woman of old, it was considered to be “the medicine chest of the country” to those who knew its secrets.  Most all parts of the Elder were used in drinks, healing poultices and ointments. 

John Evelyn (1620–1706) a prolific English writer, gardener and diarist wrote in praise of the Elder, saying: 

“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, either for sickness or wounds.  The buds boiled in water gruel have effected wonders in a fever, the spring buds are excellently wholesome in pottages; and small ale in which Elder flowers have been infused is esteemed by many so salubrious that this is to be had in most of the eating houses about our town”. 

Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) popularly regarded as the father of alternative medicine, states in his books:  The English Physician (1652) and The Complete Herbal (1653) that: 

The first shoots of the common Elder, boiled like Asparagus, and the young leaves and stalks boiled in fat broth, doth mightily carry forth phlegm and choler. The middle or inward bark boiled in water and given in drink worketh much more violently; and the berries, either green or dry, expel the same humour, and are often given with good success in dropsy; the bark of the root boiled in wine, or the juice thereof drunk, worketh the same effects, but more powerfully than either the leaves or fruit. The juice of the root taken causes vomitings and purgeth the watery humours of the dropsy”. 

Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) another noted English physician and writer tried to reconcile religion with scientific knowledge, in his Religio medici (1643) he states: 

“The common people keep as a good secret in curing wounds the leaves of the Elder, which they have gathered the last day of April.  The leaves boiled soft with a little linseed oil were used as a healing application to piles.  An ointment concocted from the green Elderberries with camphor and lard, was formerly ordered by the London College of Surgeons to relieve the same complaint. 

The leaves are an ingredient of many cooling ointments:  Here is another recipe, not made from Elder leaves alone, and very much recommended by modern herbalists as being very cooling and softening and excellent for all kinds of tumours, swellings and wounds:  Take the Elder leaves 1/2 lb., Plantain leaves 1/4 lb., Ground Ivy 2 oz., Wormwood 4 oz. (all green); cut them small and boil in 4 lb. of lard in the oven, or over a slow fire; stir them continually until the leaves become crisp, then strain and press out the ointment for use”. 

John Gerard (1545- 1612) in perhaps the most famous of the English herbals “Herbal or General History of Plants” first published in 1597 and republished in 1633, states that: 

The jelly of the Elder otherwise called Jew's ear, taketh away inflammations of the mouth and throat if they be washed therewith, and doth in like manner help the uvula”. 

Jew’s Ear (Hirneola auricula Judae), is a large fungus that can often be found growing on the Elder tree.  The name is a corruption of “Judas’s ear”, from the association that Judas hanged himself on the Elder.  Purplish in colour, it resembles the shape and softness the human ear, and although it sometimes occurs on Elm trees, it grows almost exclusively on Elder trees particularly in damp and shady places.

               

 John Evelyn  -  Nicholas Culpeper  -  Sir Thomas Browne  -  John Gerard

The leaves of the Elder when bruised and worn in the rim of a hat or rubbed on the face will distract flies from settling on the person.  To protect the skin from midges and mosquitoes, make an infusion from the leaves and dab it on the skin.  Gather a few fresh leaves from the Elder and tear them from their stalks, place them in a jug and pour on boiling water, cover and leave for a few hours.  When the infusion is cold, it is fit for use, pour off into a bottle and keep it tightly corked, a fresh infusion should be made often. 

Farmers particularly value the leaves of the Elder, which when spread about around barns and granaries deter mice and moles away from their usual haunts.  Sheep and other farm animals can be cured of foot rot from a decoction of the bark and young shoots.  The bark and roots of an old Elder tree was used in the Scotch Highlands as an ingredient for a black dye.  The leaves mixed with alum also produce a green dye, and the berries a blue and purple dye.

Elder Flowers and Berries have long been used in the English countryside for making homemade drinks and preserves, and are just as popular today as they were in the times of our great-grandmothers.  The berries make an excellent homemade wine and winter cordial, which improves with age.  Taken hot with sugar just before going to bed, was an old-fashioned and well-established cure for the common cold. 

Other Associations:

Gender  -  Feminine.  Planet  -  Saturn.  Element  -  Water.  God and Goddess  -  Lugh, Dagda, Diancecht, Nuada  -  Airmid, Banba, Etain, Macha, Druantia and Áine.  Magical associations  -  Exorcism, Protection, Healing, Prosperity, Sleep and Death. 

Astrologically, Elder people have a tie to the White goddess.  They are very similar to Rowan people.  They are very musically inclined and gifted.  Most Elder people will be water people as well, having water as their element or even associated with their astrological birth sign.  They are excellent healers but need to be careful not to use their gifts to sway other people's wills and choices.  They are also excellent seers. 

End

Sources:

Cunningham's Encyclopedia Of Magical Herbs - By Scott Cunningham.

Encyclopedia of Wicca & Witchcraft - By Raven Grimassi.

The Encyclopedia of Witches & Witchcraft - By Rosemary Ellen Guiley.

Tree Wisdom (The definitive guidebook to the myth, folklore and healing power of Trees) - By Jacqueline Memory Paterson.

AA Book of Britain's Countryside.

The Penguin Hutchinson Reference Library (CD cassette).

Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia (CD cassette).

Plus many websites to numerous to mention.

First published in 2002  -  Updated the Dec 2008  ©  George Knowles

Best Wishes and Blessed Be.

 

Site Contents - Links to all Pages

 

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Correspondence Tables:

 

IncenseCandlesColours Magickal Days Stones and Gems Elements and Elementals

 

Traditions:

 

Traditions Part 1  -  Alexandrian Wicca /  Aquarian Tabernacle Church (ATC) /  Ár Ndraíocht Féin (ADF) /  Blue Star Wicca /  British Traditional (Druidic Witchcraft) /  Celtic Wicca /  Ceremonial Magic /  Chaos Magic /  Church and School of Wicca /  Circle Sanctuary /  Covenant of the Goddess (COG) /  Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS) /  Cyber Wicca /  Dianic Wicca /  Eclectic Wicca /  Feri Wicca /

 

Traditions Part 2 Gardnerian Wicca /  Georgian Tradition /  Henge of Keltria /  Hereditary Witchcraft /  Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (H.O.G.D.) /  Kitchen Witch (Hedge Witch) /  Minoan Brotherhood and Minoan Sisterhood Tradition /  Nordic Paganism /  Pagan Federation /  Pectic-Wita /  Seax-Wica /  Shamanism /  Solitary /  Strega /  Sylvan Tradition /  Vodoun or Voodoo /  Witches League of Public Awareness (WLPA) /

 

Other things of interest:

 

Gods and Goddesses (Greek Mythology) /  Esbats & Full Moons Links to Personal Friends & Resources Wicca/Witchcraft Resources What's a spell? Circle Casting and Sacred Space  Pentagram - Pentacle Marks of a Witch The Witches Power The Witches Hat An esoteric guide to visiting London SatanismPow-wowThe Unitarian Universalist Association /  Numerology:  Part 1  Part 2  /  Part 3A history of the Malleus Maleficarum:  includes:  Pope Innocent VIII  /  The papal Bull  /   The Malleus Maleficarum  /  An extract from the Malleus Maleficarum  /  The letter of approbation  /  Johann Nider’s Formicarius  /  Jacob Sprenger  /  Heinrich Kramer  /  Stefano Infessura  /  Montague Summers  /  The Waldenses  /  The Albigenses  /  The Hussites /  The Native American Sun DanceShielding (Occult and Psychic Protection)  The History of ThanksgivingAuras  - Part 1 and Part 2 /

 

Sabbats and Festivals:

 

The Sabbats in History and Mythology /  Samhain (October 31st)  /  Yule (December 21st)  /  Imbolc (February 2nd)  /  Ostara (March 21st)  /  Beltane (April 30th)  /  Litha (June 21st)  /  Lammas/Lughnasadh (August 1st)  /  Mabon (September 21st)

 

Rituals contributed by Crone:

 

Samhain / Yule Imbolc Ostara /  Beltane Litha Lammas Mabon

 

Tools:

 

Tools of a Witch  /  The Besom (Broom) /  Poppets and DollsPendulums / Cauldron Magick Mirror Gazing

 

Animals:

 

Animals in Witchcraft (The Witches Familiar) /  AntelopeBatsCrow Fox Frog and Toads Goat / HoneybeeKangarooLion OwlPhoenix Rabbits and HaresRaven Robin RedbreastSheep Spider SquirrelSwansWild Boar Wolf /  Serpent /  Pig /  Stag /  Horse /  Mouse /  Cat

 

Trees:

 

In Worship of Trees - Myths, Lore and the Celtic Tree Calendar.  For descriptions and correspondences of the thirteen sacred trees of Wicca/Witchcraft see the following:  Birch /  Rowan / Ash /  Alder /  Willow Hawthorn /  Oak /  Holly /  Hazel /  Vine /  Ivy /  Reed /  Elder

 

Sacred Sites:

 

Mystical Sacred Sites  -  Stonehenge /  Glastonbury Tor /  Malta - The Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni /  Avebury /  Cerne Abbas - The Chalk Giant /  Ireland - Newgrange /

 

Rocks and Stones:

 

Stones - History, Myths and Lore

 

Articles contributed by Patricia Jean Martin:

 

Apophyllite  / Amber Amethyst Aquamarine Aragonite Aventurine Black Tourmaline Bloodstone Calcite Carnelian Celestite Citrine Chrysanthemum StoneDiamond  /  Emerald / Fluorite Garnet /  Hematite Herkimer Diamond Labradorite Lapis Lazuli Malachite Moonstone Obsidian Opal Pyrite Quartz (Rock Crystal) Rose Quartz Ruby Selenite Seraphinite  /  Silver and GoldSmoky QuartzSodalite Sunstone ThundereggTree AgateZebra Marble

 

Wisdom and Inspiration:

 

Knowledge vs Wisdom by Ardriana Cahill I Talk to the TreesAwakening The Witch in YouA Tale of the Woods I have a Dream by Martin Luther King /

 

Articles and Stories about Witchcraft:

 

Murdered by Witchcraft The Fairy Witch of Clonmel A Battleship, U-boat, and a Witch The Troll-Tear (A story for Children) /  Goody Hawkins - The Wise Goodwife /  The Story of Jack-O-Lantern The Murder of the Hammersmith Ghost Josephine Gray (The Infamous Black Widow) /  The Two Brothers - Light and Dark

 

Old Masters of Academia:

 

Pliny the ElderHesiodPythagoras

 

 

Biographies

 

Witches, Pagans and other associated People

(Ancient, Past and Present)

 

Remembered at Samhain

(Departed Pagan Pioneers, Founders, Elders and Others)

 

Abramelin the Mage /  Agrippa Aidan A KellyAlbertus Magnus - “Albert the Great” Aleister Crowley - “The Great Beast” /  Alex Sanders - “King of the Witches” /  Alison Harlow /  Amber KAnna FranklinAnodea JudithAnton Szandor LaVey /  Arnold CrowtherArthur Edward Waite /  Austin Osman Spare /  Biddy Early /  Bridget Cleary - The Fairy Witch of Clonmel /  Carl " Llewellyn" Weschcke Cecil Hugh WilliamsonCharles Godfrey Leland /   Charles WaltonChristina Oakley Harrington Damh the Bard - "Dave Smith" /  Dion Fortune /  Dolores Aschroft-Nowicki Doreen ValienteDorothy MorrisonDr. John Dee & Edward Kelly /  Dr. Leo Louis Martello /  Edward FitchEleanor Ray Bone - “Matriarch of British Witchcraft” Eliphas Levi /  Ernest Thompson Seton /  Ernest Westlake /  Fiona Horne Friedrich von Spee /  Francis Barrett /  Gavin and Yvonne Frost and the School and Church of Wicca /  Gerald B. Gardner - The father of contemporary Witchcraft /  Gwydion Pendderwen Hans HolzerHelen Duncan /   Herman Slater - Horrible Herman /  Isaac Bonewits Israel RegardieJames "Cunning" Murrell - The Master of Witches /  Janet Farrar and Gavin BoneJessie Wicker Bell - “Lady Sheba” /  Johannes Junius - "The Burgomaster of Bamberg" /  John Belham-Payne John George Hohman - "Pow-wow" /  John Gerard /  John Gordon Hargrave and the Kibbo Kith Kindred /  John Michael Greer /  John ScoreJoseph John Campbell /  Karl von Eckartshausen /  Laurie Cabot  - "the Official Witch of Salem" /  Lewis SpenceMargaret Alice MurrayMargot AdlerMarie Laveau - " the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans" /  Marion WeinsteinMatthew Hopkins - “The Witch-Finder General” /   Max Ehrmann and the "Desiderata" /  Monique WilsonMontague Summers /  Nicholas CulpeperNicholas RemyM. R. SellarsMrs. Maud Grieve - "A Modern Herbal" /  Oberon Zell-Ravenheart and Morning GloryOld Dorothy Clutterbuck /  Old George PickingillPaddy SladePamela Colman-SmithParacelsus /  Patricia CrowtherPatricia Monaghan /  Patricia “Trish” TelescoPhilip HeseltonRaymond Buckland /  Reginald Scot /  Robert CochraneRobert ‘von Ranke’ Graves and the "The White Goddess" /  Rosaleen Norton - “The Witch of Kings Cross” /  Ross Nichols and the " Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids" (OBOD) /  Rudolf SteinerSabrina Underwood - "The Ink Witch" /  Scott CunninghamSelena Fox - founder of "Circle Sanctuary" /  Silver RavenwolfSir Francis Dashwood /  Sir James George Frazer and the " The Golden Bough"S.L. MacGregor Mathers and the “Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn” /  Starhawk /  Stewart Farrar /  Sybil LeekTed Andrews The Mather Family - (includes:  Richard Mather, Increase Mather and Cotton Mather ) /   Thomas AdyT. Thorn CoyleVera ChapmanVictor & Cora Anderson and the " Feri Tradition" /  Vivianne CrowleyWalter Brown GibsonWilliam Butler YeatsZsuzsanna Budapest /  

 

 

Many of the above biographies are briefs and far from complete.  If you know about any of these individuals and can help with additional information, please contact me privately at my email address below.  Many thanks for reading  :-)

 

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