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The Elder Mother, Elder Tree
In Danish folk belief every Elder Tree is inhabited and protected by a female spirit known as the Hyldemoer, and is revered as a sacred tree. This tradition may have some parallels in Britain, as I heard a similar folk belief when I was growing up in England. I was told that the tree was guarded by a female spirit and it was unlucky to bring the wood into the house.
If you wanted to use the wood you had to ask permission from the supposed spirit living in the tree. This may have originated from someone hearing the Danish tradition or may be much older tradition of the area, but is unclear as I was never able to trace the source. The Elder Lady was said to appear on moonlit nights as an old lady dressed in a black gown with a white shawl.
The tree has a wealth of traditions associated with it wherever it grows: from European folklore to Native American mythology. In Germany and England it was thought to be unlucky to bring the wood into a house as this would bring ghosts or devils into the home, and the wood was rarely used for practical applications. In Scotland however the wood was hung above doors and windows to guard against evil spirits. The wood was said to reveal sorcerers and witches in an area if burned on a particular date. Christmas Eve in North America and St John’s Eve in other locations.
In the Scottish Borders it is said that dwarf willow only grows on ground that has been soaked in blood and in Native American tradition it is associated with burial grounds. These grim traditions are mirrored in Christian mythology as it is the tree that Judas hanged himself on and is also the wood of True Cross. For those interested in vampire tradition the Elder was the best wood to carve a stake from.
The tree is associated with many ‘country’ cures including warts, epilepsy, burns and rheumatism, on a practical level the flowers can be made into fritters and made into champagne and wine while the wood has many practical uses in bush craft.
The Elder is an often overlooked tree in the wild, but it is remarkable that the traditions are similar wherever it grows, and any tree that can be used to make wine or champagne gets my immediate vote.