Elder is a relative new-comer in world folklore, holding her place most prominently in European history and mythos where she has been associated closely with the Celtic faerie lands and those similar otherworldly realms of various European traditions. Elder is sacred to many goddess-traditions and especially to the goddesses Venus and Holle. Most popular among pagan traditions modern and old is the myth of the Elder Mother, a spirit who inhabits the Elder tree and holds the power to work a variety of magics in this world.
Among pagan traditions, Elder has held a place of respect. The ability to protect; induce vivid dreams, particularly of the Faerie realms; to heal; and to exorcise or remove negative spells and influences are among Elder’s pagan attributes.
- It was said that to wear or carry Elder wood, leaves, flowers or berries would protect you from attack.
- Elderberry oil or water was used in blessing rituals.
- Elder leaves and branches were often hung in doorways and windows to protect those who lived within.
- Elder planted in the back yard, particularly near the kitchen, provided protection from negative influences and disease.
- Elder flowers were used in a facial wash to lighten and care for the skin.
- It was said that if you fell asleep under the elder you would dream of the faerie lands.
Conversely, amongst Christian traditions, the Elder was a fearful symbol of sorrow and death. Langland, in The Vision of Piers Plowman, claimed Elder was the tree on who’s branches Judas Iscariot committed suicide by hanging. At times, elder was also said to have been the tree whose wood was used to make the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Elder has been used in a variety of burial rituals and in various rituals for identifying and protecting against witches.
Elder wood, too, has a powerful place in folklore. Elder’s branches are hard and easily polished on the outside and they have a soft, springy core that is easily removed. For those reasons, they have often been used to make woodwind instruments that are said to produce the music faeries and similar spirits love best. Elder wood burns quickly, producing a great deal hissing and crackling, which is most likely why the gypsies held it taboo to burn Elder.
Elder’s lesson and her magic is that of the Gateway Guardian. She teaches us the gateway guardian is a mixture of strength and protection, softness and light. Her skin, bark and outer wood are strong and hard, offering protection to the soft inner core and sap that is the blood of life and the dwelling place of the spirit.
Woodwind instruments made from Elder are said to produce music most beloved of the Spirit world, hinting at Elder’s power to connect energies across the divide. If Elder has come into your life, she may be asking you to be the instrument through which two worlds may connect. Elder magic is the magic of juxtaposition, the place where opposites find synergistic expression.
That place where opposites meet creates strength and presence that can seem illogical when viewed from strictly one perspective. Elder teaches us we must learn to embrace multiple perspectives if we are to master the threshold. While she is a shallow-rooted tree, she is sturdy and strong. While her canopy is airy and light, wide and often growing so low as to touch the ground, she provides effective shelter from the elements.
A hedgerow of Elder will keep weeds at bay and prevent passage despite her airy appearance. Elder magic is the magic of synergizing power from disparate sources. She teaches us that to be effective, we must derive power from and be well-versed in both sides of the threshold we guard.
As a marker of the Gateway, Elder gives us little hints at the energies on the other side. She is an early bloomer, offering us a glimpse of the upcoming season’s light, airy energies through her sweet-scented, airy blossoms. Late, as the world is preparing for the darkness of winter, she offers up clusters of dark, tannic berries, an indicator of the darkness to come. Elder magic is the magic of tantalization and hope. When Elder has come to you regarding a specific project, she may be suggesting you give the world a taste of what is to come.
In astrology, Elder is considered a feminine tree and is governed by Venus. Her element is water.
To learn more about elderberry, read The Practical Herbalist’s Herbal Encyclopedia entry on this herb