Ruis (Elder) II

“The soul of the dead was believed to pass into the tree. Herbs and flowers were fabled to grow from the blood of the dead and so to re-embody his spirit.” – George Henderson (Survivals in Belief Amongst Celts. 1911)

The Roots:

The fifteenth letter of the Ogham is Ruis, the Elder tree.

Most of the kennings, or word-Oghams, refer to the colour red[i]. For this reason, many Ogham users associate this letter to emotions or passion.

John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman interprets the phrase “strongest red” as being related to “anger.”

Caitlin Mathews likewise suggests that the kennings speak of “the blush of shame” and of “anger.” In Celtic Wisdom Sticks she says that the Elder is a tree of “endings and completions.” Caitlin Mathews reminds us that the tree is one of the better known fairy trees and as such can be very unlucky.

In Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids, Robert Ellison also lists the kennings. Instead of anger or passion, however, Ellison equates the “red” to the dye that is made from the berries. The association that Ellison has for this letter relates to the “entrance to the Otherworld and dealings with the fair folk.” Elder, he says, can also be used for protection against evil and witches.

Besides being a magical tree, the Elder has many medicinal uses. In folklore, we are told that it is the fairies that grant the trees these healing attributes.

The Trunk:

In Christian folklore, the Elder tree is often associated with evil. Apparently, this is because it was the Elder tree from which Judas Iscariot hung himself[ii].

The tree was not always evil to the Christians, however. In George Henderson’s 1912 work Survivals in Belief Amongst Celts we are told of a parish priest who came back reincarnated as an Elder tree.

Most of the negative encounters with the Elder occur only after the tree has been cut without permission from the fairies. An example of this can be found in the 1887 book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde.

“At Toome Island there is the ruin of an ancient church, where the dead walk on November Eve. It is a solemn and sacred place, and nothing is allowed to be taken from it; neither stone nor branch of the shadowing trees, for fear of angering the spirits. One day three men who were on the island cut down some branches of an elder-tree that grew there to repair a private still, and carried them off in their boat; but then just close to the shore a violent gust of wind upset the boat, and the men were drowned. The wood, however, floated back to the island, and a cross was made of it which was erected on the beach, to commemorate the fate of the doomed men.”

In W.Y. Evans-Wentz’ 1911 book the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries we discover that the fairies were believed to inhabit Elder trees on the Isle of Man. This was likely a belief shared throughout the Celtic territories and not just on the Isle of Man. Lady Wilde seems to confirm this by relaying that the tree is in fact sacred and one of “the seven great fairy herbs of power.” This common belief would seem like reason enough not to nonchalantly cut off the tree’s branches.

(Hans Baldung. Witches. 1508)

There are many stories, however, in which the Elder tree was used to an advantage without ever having been asked first. In J.F. Campbell’s 1890 encyclopaedia Popular Tales of the West Highlands we are given the examples of an Elder club and of an Elder shinny stick. The users of these items appear unscathed.

Lady Wilde also shares the story of a magical butter churning dash made from Elder:

“One day while churning, the handle of the dash broke, and nothing being near to mend it, one of the brothers cut off a branch from an elder-tree that grew close to the house, and tied it to the dash for a handle. Then the churning went on, but to their surprise, the butter gathered so thick that all the crocks in the house were soon full, and still there was more left. The same thing went on every churning day, so the brothers became rich, for they could fill the market with their butter, and still had more than enough for every buyer.

“At last, being honest and true men, they began to fear that there was witchcraft in it, and that they were wronging their neighbours by abstracting their butter, and bringing it to their own churn in some strange way. So they both went off together to a great fairy doctor, and told him the whole story, and asked his advice. ‘Foolish men’ he said to them, ‘why did you come to me? For now you have broken the spell, and you will never have your crocks filled with butter any more. Your good fortune has passed away, for know the truth now. You were not wronging your neighbours; all was fair and just that you did, but this is how it happened. Long ago, the fairies passing through your land had a dispute and fought a battle, and having no arms, they flung lumps of butter at each other, which got lodged in the branches of the elder-tree in great quantities, for it was just after May Eve, when butter is plenty. This is the butter you have had, for the elder-tree has a sacred power which preserved it until now, and it came down to you through the branch you cut for a handle to the dash. But the spell is broken now that you have uttered the mystery, and you will have no more butter from the elder-tree.’

“Then the brothers went away sorrowful, and never after did the butter come beyond the usual quantity. However, they had already made so much money that they were content. And they stocked their farm, and all things prospered with them, for they had dealt uprightly in the matter, and the blessing of the Lord was on them.”

The moral of the story here doesn’t seem to be not to harm the Elder tree, but instead comes across as a suggestion to count your blessings and keep your mouth shut.

The Elder tree’s leaves can also be used as a type of talismanic magic against evil “witches and sorcery.” In the Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man, for example, Elder can be used to “protect houses and gardens” as this quote illustrates:

“Its leaves, like those of the Cuirn, were picked on May-eve, and affixed to doors and windows to protect the house from witchcraft.”

The Foliage:

There are several spells found within Celtic folklore in which the Elder tree is a chief component. The following two examples are taken from Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde:

“For epilepsy take nine pieces of young elder twig; run a thread of silk of three strands through the pieces, each piece being an inch long. Tie this round the patient’s neck next to the skin. Should the thread break and the amulet fall, it must be buried deep in the earth and another amulet made like the first, for if once it touches the ground the charm is lost.”

If a curse or “evil spell” is cast upon an individual, then the Elder tree can be used as part of the remedy. To do this, one is to take the roots of an Apple tree – that produces red apples – and the roots of an Elder tree. These should be boiled together. The person that intends to drink this should have fasted beforehand. When drank, the potion is said to “expel any evil living thing or evil spirit that may have taken up its abode in the body of a man.”

 

“I have been a circumference, I have been a head. A goat on an elder-tree. I have been a crane well filled, a sight to behold.” – W.F. Skene translation (Book of Taliesin. 1858)



[i] http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/ogham.html

[ii] A.W. Moore. Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man. 1891.

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About Shanon Sinn

The Spirit of Vancouver Island. Nature Beings, Shapeshifters, Ghosts & Ancestor Spirits. The Earth is Sacred.
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