Celtic elder art and tree calendar art - plus a dive into the folklore, history and meaning of the elder tree...
Celtic Tree Calendar: 24 November to 23 December
Elder has long been associated with the otherworld in our traditions, and also has an intriguing association with an elderly woman – the ‘elder’ perhaps?
In Scandinavian, Germanic and British folklore and beliefs, the elder tree was linked to the figure of the ‘Elder Mother’ also known as ‘Lady Elder’ or ‘Lady Ellhorn’ – she was the protector and guardian of the tree – so you should always ask permission of the Elder Mother before you touch or cut her tree.
In Denmark, the Elder Mother is called the ‘Hyldemoer’ and she was believed to live amongst the roots of the elder tree – she was mother to the elves.
The Elder Mother was once seen as a powerful and benign protector but as time went on, she started to become more feared as a witch and was associated with the tradition of the ‘old woman’ crone goddess and the wise woman of winter, the ‘Cailleach’, who guarded the gateways between the earthly world and the otherworld.
So the Elder Mother became linked to the roles of midwife and childbirth (which were seen as closer to death in earlier times), women and children, death and guardianship of souls.
Elder is also the tree of the Germanic goddess Holda (or Frau Holda) who brings unborn children to their mothers. She protects the children and rocks their cradles at night. She is the guardian of women’s crafts and helps those women who keep a clean and well-ordered home.
Holda is also the ‘old woman of winter’ and leads the Wild Hunt to guide souls into the otherworld. She’s also known as Frau Woden or Frau Odin.
As well as being a ‘crone goddess’, Holda is a beautiful young seductress – a fairy woman and a forest spirit called a ‘huldra’ with a hollow back like a tree trunk and a cow’s tail. She’s seen as a kindly spirit and protects men of the forest, charcoal burners and woodsmen, as well as dairy maids – and sometimes appears in the form of a dairy maid.
Elder trees were often seen growing at sites of sacred springs and pools – gateways to the otherworld – and were often planted outside homes where the inhabitants hoped to gain the protection of the Elder Mother.
Like other ‘wise women’ of the times, the Elder Mother was sorely needed for her protection and healing – but at the same time her power was feared and she was hated as a ‘witch’.
It was said that witches could transform into elder trees, and in Ireland, it was believed that witches rode elder sticks (rather than broomsticks). While in Denmark, it was said that the elder trees actually came to life and crept around at night peeping through people’s windows in a menacing manner.
It’s said that an elder witch turned a Danish king into stone as he sought the English crown – he and his men became the Rollright Stones on the Warwickshire/Oxfordshire border and the witch became their guardian elder tree…
“Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be
And I myself an elder tree.”
People would dance around the stones with elder in their hair and seek out the elder witch at Midsummer’s Eve – but in later years, they came to cut the tree and ‘bleed’ the witch from fear at her power.
In areas of Europe, including Britain, elderly country folk would sometimes still doff their hat when they pass an elder tree to acknowledge and show respect to the Elder Mother.
At one time, elder was never used as firewood and it was believed that burning elder ‘raised the Devil' and brought death and disaster.
Elder was also said to taint water in wells, taint food which was prepared with implements made of elder, or that had been cooked over an elder fire. Elder furniture was said to creak, warp and break and could spitefully splinter anyone unlucky (or foolish!) enough to be using it.
It was said that pregnant women should avoid stepping on elder leaves for fear of miscarriage – and a baby in a cradle of elder could be pinched and bruised by the Elder Mother.
Farmers would not use elder wood with their livestock – they would not even whip or drive their animals with elder. An animal or child whipped with an elder withy would, it was said, “fade away and never thrive.”
But hearse drivers would make their whip handles from elder – due to the association with elder as being able to guide and protect the soul en-route to the otherworld.
Elders growing on graves were said to the signify that the dead were happy – and more importantly, would not walk abroad!
Elder was often seen as a symbol of death or the afterlife – and was linked to the wood of the crucifixion cross and also said to be the tree that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from.
Romany gypsies called the elder tree the ‘Devil’s Eye’ (Yakori bengeskro). And it was said that witches would stir a bucket of water with an elder twig in order to call up storms or bad weather.
In the Irish Celtic tale of ‘The Headless Phantom’ the hero Fionn mac Cumhail faces monsters as he spends the night in an otherworldly house where elder logs are left burning through the night.
It was believed that you could slip into that otherworld by sleeping under an elder tree – perhaps stolen away by fairies! You should be particularly careful on Midsummer’s Eve when the fairy folk are about and the gateways to the otherworld are open!
But elder was used for protection too – and specifically protection from witchcraft. People planted elder trees close to their home to protect them from evils, lightning and witchcraft – and with the link back to Holda and the Elder Mother, in order to bring fertility.
Elder crosses were hung over doorways and windows for protection. Elder leaves gathered on April 30th were said to protect from witches and also had healing properties. And elder berries were also gathered, especially on St John’s Eve, to protect from witchcraft.
While in Wales, women stencilled around elder leaves as they washed their floors, to give protection from witches.
Elder was also used widely for healing – including for winter coughs, colds, fevers, and catarrh, as well as for toothache and rheumatism.
The leaves could be used to help heal wounds and the berries were useful both for constipation and diarrhoea.
Elderflower water could be used for fevers, flus, and rheumatism, and externally as a facial cleanser and skin conditioner and eye lotion.
A green elder stick could be rubbed on warts and then buried, and a similar remedy was also used for fevers – but take care if you ever dig up an elder stick as it could pass that same fever (or wart) to you!
It’s said that elder berries collected on St. John’s Day could cure baldness – but if you already have hair, you might prefer to use them as a black hair dye, as the Celts once did, or even to dye wool or other textiles.
Elder leaves were said to repel all kinds of pests, from mice, rats, flies and fleas – and crops would be whipped with elder leaves to avoid being lost to blight.
Elder in your pockets could save you from saddle sores and also remove temptation to adultery.
Elder flowers were often used in weddings to bring good luck to the happy couple.
And the hollow elder sticks were made into musical wind instruments which give the elder its Latin name ‘Sambucus’ after the Italian musical pipes made of elder ‘sampognas’ or the stringed elder musical instrument ‘sackbut’.
As a flower essence, elder is used for balance between this earthly world and the otherworld and its meaning is connected to a balancing of energies, the otherworld, protection, wisdom (like the elder wise woman), healing, and responsibilities in society. Elder is cooling and brings calm thought along with the wisdom of years.
Creating my Elder Art
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Explore more Celtic art here and more Celtic tree art here..
Learn all about the Celtic Tree Calendar and see my other trees here...
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Please note that the information in this piece is for entertainment only and should not be used to diagnose or prescribe for health purposes.
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