Elder - Botanicals

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005


(Sambucus nigra)

The elder, known as the “witch tree,” is powerfully identified with witchcraft, the magical arts and goddess-oriented Pagan tradition.

The elder is a threshold tree: it serves as a portal that allows souls to pass between realms. Ghosts, spirits, and elves can pass into the mortal realm via elder trees and bushes but, remember, one-way signs don’t exist in the magical, shamanic world. Elders are also portals where you can access other realms.

In order to establish contact with other realms, try burning elder bark, blossoms, roots, and wood as incense. (If gathering botanical material yourself, remember to ask for permission from the plant first and always to leave a gift in return.)

The elder is sacred to the Germanic deity, Hulda, known affectionately as Mother Holle. Hulda was once an extremely prominent, important deity, so entrenched in people’s hearts that, unlike some other spirits, she was never entirely banished. Unable to completely eradicate her, local Christian authority dubbed her a Queen of Witches, with the immediate implication that all who were devoted to this queen were witches themselves. In Denmark, the elder tree itself is called Frau Hylle or Hyllemoer, Danish for Mother Holle or Frau Holle. In Anglo-Saxon it was known as Hylder or Hylantree. As part of Hulda’s ritual, circle dances were performed around the tree.

For the ancient Germans and Slavs, old elder trees, especially those that nestled close to a house, were the home of family ghosts. Because they are threshold trees, elders are often incorporated into funeral rites.

Image Heathen Frisians buried their dead underneath elders.

Image In England, grave-diggers traditionally carried elder wood so as to protect them from any malevolent ghosts lingering in the graveyard.

Image In other areas, it was customary for the driver of the hearse to carry a whip made of elder wood.

Perhaps because of associations with Hulda, elder became identified with witchcraft. Elder bushes personified witches. It was believed that witches could transform into elders as surely as they could assume the form of a cat. One single solitary elderberry bush popping up in an unexpected spot might actually be a witch in disguise—another reason to treat the elder with respect. Perhaps in the spirit of that old saying “it takes one to know one” elders are also powerful agents used to ward off malevolent spells.

Elders have a powerful reputation as protective trees, especially for fending off malevolent witchcraft. Traditionally fingernail parings, hair or teeth are buried beneath elders so as to prevent their use in malevolent spells. Afterbirths of calves and foals are buried beneath elders so that neither the new-born animals nor their mothers can be bewitched. (These practices may also be simultaneously understood as offerings to Mother Holle, the elves or the ancestors, depending upon whose spirit resides within the particular elder.)

Elder wood is carved into amulets to prevent unwanted enchantment. Green elder branches were also buried in a grave to protect the dead from witches and evil spirits.

Elder is incorporated into many spells, especially those for love and protection. A nickname for elder sap is “blood.” Sap was understood as literally the blood of the tree, in the same way that bark is its skin and leaves the tree’s hair. Because the elder was believed to house important spirits, to embody Hulda’s essence or to even be a witch in disguise, elder “blood” was potentially incredibly powerful, more powerful than most sap. Northern European spells that cite “blood” as an ingredient may, in fact, be requesting elder sap instead.

Elder is a short, bent, crooked tree that never grows very tall, hence the constant confusion between whether it’s a bush or a tree. It is not a tall, forbidding, imposing tree. Unlike other witchcraft plants, elderberries are not toxic but tasty and nutritious—as anyone who’s had elderberry preserves or wine can attest.

Unlike so many other witchcraft plants, elders are friendly plants; they’re understood as a tree that likes people and is by nature helpful and affectionate. (Spirits residing within may or may not be as friendly and benevolent: Frau Holle and the elves both possess reputations for volatility, although this may be in response to defamation and loss of respect and offerings.)

Elder’s roots among spiritual traditions of Northern Europe and its associations with spiritual entities and ancestral spirits were so powerfully entrenched that it created a dilemma for ascendant Christian authority. Attempts were made to either taint the tree as evil and diabolical, thus to be shunned by all righteous people, or to incorporate elder into Christian tradition, so that its use could continue under proper auspices. Both methods were historically tried.

In the days before the easy availability of wax and hence cheap candles, elder was a source of light.