The Thirteen Trees
Ogham Moon Calendar
The Five Trees
The Half Year
The Sacred One
Original artwork © Ruby Clark 2010
Jump straight to 'Elder Magic, Charms and Beliefs'
Elder – a common sight on waste ground, in hedgerows and scrubby woodland all over the British Isles has one of the strongest reputations for faery and witch superstitions and magical protection of all the Ogham trees.
If it’s growing near your house, don’t cut it down without plenty of thought – especially if it chose your land and self-seeded there.
Traditionally, substantial protection for a home is granted by having a Rowan towards the front door and an Elder near the back. (And yes – I do!)
The tree grows best in slightly damp, fertile but neutral soil which is disturbed – so you often find it by roadsides and along banks where there are rabbits, badgers and foxes and in cemeteries. Wherever it once grew, the space was considered to be sacred as it is protected by the Elder Mother. It can grow to about 30ft, but to attain this rare size it needs plenty of light.
In late spring it is easily recognised for its huge saucers of white flowers, anything up to 9 ins across. This head is actually a cluster of tiny white petalled, yellow centred flowers which are much sort after, even in these days, for elderflower cordial (see recipe on my Hedgerow Cooking page), syrup or champagne. They have a slightly odd scent which many people and animals don’t like.
The flowers are followed in autumn by masses of small, deep purplish-black berries
The trees have opposite, pinnate leaves about 9 inches long, again with an odd scent which is rumoured to be able to keeps rats and mice away if spread on the floor of storage barns! The bark is smooth and slightly notched on young stems, becoming rough and deeply etched on the trunk and was used for a black dye.
The wood polishes up to a high shine and can be made into pretty beads. The stems are hollow and filled with a white pith that’s easily removed and have been used for centuries to make musical pipes and whistles – another proof of magic!
The pith, taken from bigger stems and sliced into rounds, was once soaked in oil and when lit could be floated in a dish of water.
from Robert Graves' version of 'Cad Goddeu' -'The Battle of the Trees' See my Ogham Intro page.
Is the Elder your Ogham
Here is a beautiful Elder leaf pendant, hand-crafted in solid silver from the
Click link for more details
21st century tests on elder berries show that they contain powerful antioxidants which protect cells against damage and may help stimulate the immune system.
The berries and leaves have plenty of vitamins A, B and a large amount of vitamin C.
Elder as a cure is mentioned by all the early 16th century herbalists including Culpeper who swore by decoctions of the bark or leaves for dropsy and piles and by Gerard in his “Herbal or General History of Plants” ….
'…. The tender and green leaves of the elder tree with barley meal parched, doth remove hot swellings and is good for those that are burnt or scalded, and for such as be bitten with a mad dog and that they glue and heal up hollow ulcers.'
Both flowers and berries were made into an ointment by boiling in lard and used to cool burns, insect bites or skin wounds and infections. The flower water was used as a skin tonic for brightening the complexion and as an eyewash.
Tonics from the water strained from boiled leaves and flowers or berries, depending on the time of year, were well proven and relied on to help in cases of fevers, flu’s and colds. Because it's a diuretic, this decoction was also used in cases of intestinal inflammation and kidney problems. Many concentrated modern syrups can be bought as cold remedies. (Click picture to see where to buy)
Hot elderberry wine, with plenty of sugar is still used for relief of colds and sore throats. .
All stems should be removed from leaves, and great caution used with bark or roots (even though they were recommended as purgatives and emetics in the old herbals). They are now considered to be poisonous.
An infusion of the leaves, made quite strong can be dabbed onto the skin as an insect repellent, and bunches of leaves left hanging to dry in the house are supposed to deter flies. A small bunch of flowers and leaves bunched and hung from a horse’s bridle will fulfil the same function.
Elder Religion, Spirituality and Folklore
Element: Water Ruling Planets: Venus, Saturn Gender: Feminine
Illustration from for Hans Anderson's story
There are many folktales of elder and witches – they are said to shape-shift into gnarled elder trees when they want to escape notice and this is why 'blood' drips from its stems when they are ceremonially gathered on midsummer eve.
The Elder Mother - Elf Mother - Ellhorn the Wisewoman (who certainly is not a wicked witch) makes her shelter among the roots and protects the land nearby. (See more in my May - June Diaryblog June 7th)
Because of these superstitions, and its association with magic musical pipes, female deities, fire and light it is still considered highly unlucky to cut down the tree. If you MUST do it, ask permission respectfully of the tree and explain why it's necessary! Give the spirit time to move before cutting and NEVER bring the wood into the house to burn!
The only time that you may cut branches to burn without permission is on Twelth Night (Jan 6th) and then only if you spit on the ground near the roots and into the hearth three times.
Any last elder berries, some say gathered at Samhain, some say in December (these are rare and a gift from the Goddess) – can be made into the most potent of sabbat wines – ritually a few drops to be drunk to aid clairvoyance, particularly at the Yule Solstice or the December Full Moon.
One folktale, often recounted and telling of a witch changing into elder, is
“The Legend of the Rollright Stone Circle”.
The stones are at the border of the counties Warwickshire and Oxfordshire. They are still felt to be a place of magic and peace, used now as they have been for centuries for rituals and meditation.
I will tell it again here ...….
This painting of the Rollright Stones is by Oxfordshire artist Jane Tomlinson - find her gallery here
Once, in a time long ago and far away, there came to middle Britain a King across the seas from the dark and northern land of Denmark. He travelled with his many armoured men and he wanted the land for his own.
After marching for many a day, they crossed a barren field track towards the village known as Long Compton. There an old, old woman met him on the steep path.
As the King’s army approached, the crone stood in their path, and looking at the King with defiance she spoke –
"Seven long strides shalt thou take,
If Long Compton thou canst see,
King of England thou shalt be!"
The King, taking this to be a good omen, began his pacing, but as his final long step was taken, looking up he saw that his view was blocked by the crown of the hill.
The witch smiled to herself and spoke again –
"As Long Compton thou canst not see,
King of England thou shalt not be.
Rise up stick and stand still stone,
For King of England thou shalt be none.
Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be
And myself an eldern tree."
A gusting wind howled across the landscape and the army passed into a circle of uncountable stones. The lord knights, whispering to one side, etched into tall rocks, whilst the King stood as a monolith all alone.
The crone turned straightway into an elder tree and hid herself there for a while in the nearby hedgerow.
Another tale tells of how a farmer mended an old birch rocking cradle for his new baby with a piece of elder wood cut from outside his door. A witch, who lived in the roots, rose up at midnight and pinched the baby black and blue. This didn’t stop til the wife discovered what her husband had done and sent him to find more birch wood to replace the rocker.
The trees are associated with the realms of the dead, and shoots were planted on graves. If they blossomed, the soul was believed to have gone to Elysium. (Which is well, as a cut shoot will easily take root). Take care though, if you’re in Scotland and shelter under elder branches on the night of Samhain, you will see the Wild Hunt go by!
* Form nine small elder twigs into a fan shape (echoing the shape of the tree's roots) bind and thread with red wool or ribbon and wear as a necklace when making any magic needing powerful elemental beings to be present.
* Make a string of elder beads and wear them, or hang outside the back door for protection from angry spirits. (Simply strip the bark from a thinnish elder stem (ask!) and divide this into little pieces. (See Make an Elder Bead Necklace on my spells and charms page.)
Remove the pith from the hollow beads and smooth with sand paper. Polish them well).
* A straight stem, sanded and polished will make a fine wand for use in its true Elder Ogham ruling time.
* Bury the children’s milk teeth, or any other special talisman, under the roots of the elder tree to prevent malicious spells or illness.
* Make an elder whistle to attract spirits and faere folk.
There's a brilliant, easy to follow tutorial for this here
at Jon's Bushcraft Site. See Jon's elder whistle picture - right.
* A cross made of Elder twigs and tied with red thread can be hung over stables and barn doors to protect the animals.
* To see the faere folk, bathe your eyes under a full moon with the dew collected from elder flowers.
* Burn the bare branches of elder on your winter home-fire if you dare - and the devil will come and sit on your chimney enjoying the smoke! (A superstition from Leicestershire)
* Make an amulet from an elder twig with two knots cut at full moon. Cut it into nine pieces (seven for fairies), scrape out the pithy centre and thread them together.
State your magical intention and wear it until the thread breaks, then bury it where it can never be found.