Elderberry in myth and legend

A little while ago, I took a brief look at the prodigious folk-medicinal uses of the humble elder plant. Even after touching on applications as diverse as the common cold and influenza, anaemia and menstrual irregularity, in reality the article only scraped the surface of the elder’s utility – and completely omitted its place in myth and folklore. So let’s take a little wander through the forest of legends surrounding this remarkable plant.

Faeries and fairy tales
Much of the knowledge attached to the elder plant is mystical, and bound to the faery realm. In western Europe, the elder tree is known as a gateway to the Underworld of the faeries, and is often associated directly with the Queen or King of that realm. Children are subject to dire warnings not to fall asleep under an elder tree, lest they be spirited away to the faery kingdom – perhaps forever.

The elder tree haunts the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. A tale called The Little Elder Mother is recounted by herbalist Matthew Wood: “The [elder] tree serves Andersen as a metaphor for the poetic genius, the origin of fairy tales. A little boy who has been sloshing around in puddles all day is given a cup of Elder tea by his mother and sent to bed. The old man boarding upstairs drops by and is implored to tell a fairy tale. It is not entirely clear whether he tells a story or the boy falls into a light dream. The Little Elder Mother takes him on a journey to faraway lands in the south. When the story is over, or the boy awakens, he comments that it is hot in the southern regions. His mother, noting the perspiration on his skin, agrees that he has been to hot countries and is satisfied that her herbal tea has done its work.”

The wrathful Elder Mother
The Little Elder Mother may not be quite as benign as her name suggests. Northern European legend tells of the Hylde-Moer, otherwise known as Lady Ellhorn or the Elder Mother. This female entity demanded an offering – on pain of penalties including death – in return for permission to pick her plant, the elder. This Mother undoubtedly meant business.

Myth echoes medicine
At times, the elder’s folkloric personality echoes its uses in traditional medicine. The very name ‘elder’ comes from the Old English word ‘aeld’ or ‘fire’, supposedly because the hollow stems of the elder plant were used to blow on fires during kindling or as a smoking tube. Here, we recall  that the overarching medicinal signature of the elder plant is its ability to ‘open the tubes of the body’ to increase urination and sweating, regulate menstrual flow etc. Continuing this line of thinking, the derivation of ‘elder’ from ‘aeld/fire’ could even be a reference to its fever-clearing properties. On a slightly different level, some shamanic practices associate herbs with tubular stems, such as angelica or elder, with the journey to the underworld.

Teachings of the elder
And here we end our brief ramble through the extensive undergrowth of folklore surrounding the elder plant, emerging once more into the sunshine of a garden brimming with life. Here we find the elder taking a central role in coordinating the garden’s activities, this time as a ‘garden teacher’ – a guiding hand among plants whose wisdom is shared among its peers, helping to ensure strong growth and a healthy community. Even its somewhat unpleasant stench plays a role, Shakespeare’s ‘stinking elder’ helping to deter unwanted insects. Mother and teacher, opener of the channels and consort of faeries, the elder is far less humble than she appears.

Adam Newbould-Smith

Adam Newbould-Smith

Herbalist & Naturopath


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