“It is far easier to be sensible in cities than in many country places I could tell you of. When one walks on those grey roads at evening by the scented elder-bushes of the white cottages, watching the faint mountains gathering the clouds upon their heads, one all too readily discovers, beyond the thin cobweb veil of the senses, those creatures, the goblins, hurrying from the white square stone door to the north, or from the Heart Lake in the south.” – William Butler Yeats (the Celtic Twilight. 1893, 1902)
The fifteenth few of the Ogham is Ruis, the Elder tree.
The Elder is yet another tree with strong associations to the fairy realm. The Elder is also said to be the tree of witches.
John Michael Greer called this letter the few of, “resolutions, fulfillments, and endings.” With the completion of any path, he continues, comes the advancement of new beginnings[i]. Liz and Colin Murray likewise call the Elder the tree of regeneration. It is, they state, the essence of, “life in death and death in life[ii].”
Robert Graves calls the Elder tree, “The Tree of Doom.” He also calls it the witch’s tree[iii].
Nigel Pennick seems to agree with him, but elaborates much further. He claims that Ruis is sacred to the dark aspects of the Mother Goddess, which is the hag. Pennick also says that it is the Ogham letter of “timelessness[iv].”
Eryn Rowan Laurie -our favourite Celtic reconstructionist- calls the Elder a tree of cursing and ill fortune by some, but a “protective force” of others. She links Ruis –but not necessarily the Elder tree- to intensity, passion, guilt, frenzy, jealousy and shame[v]. These associations are strongly supported by the Ogham Tract, from the Book of Ballymote, as being valid. Ruis is stated there as a the letter of “shame,” “blushing,” “redness of face.” and “the glow of anger.”
Elder is a tree of the fairies and is often associated with the Cauldron of Rebirth found in legend.
While the various meanings of Ruis seem to contradict one another on the surface there is a common thread throughout.
The Elder is a tree of power and should be dealt with in a reverent fashion.
The Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology claims that the Elder is, “A tree of the fairy world.” The dictionary reports that, “many individual [Elder] trees are thought to be haunted by fairies or demons[vi].”
Perhaps it is the Elder tree’s ability to regenerate that has garnered a place for it in the realms of witchery and fairy folklore? This is a trait that led Liz and Colin Murray[vii], as well as Jacqueline Memory Paterson[viii], to associate it with the Celtic Cauldron of Rebirth[ix].
In Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland Lady Wilde says that the Elder is sacred alongside the Yew and the Ash tree. The bark of the Elder tree, as we covered previously, was also one of the, “Seven fairy herbs of great power” along with Ivy and Hawthorn. Included in Lady Wilde’s book are various spells. An example is the use of Elder and Apple roots to expel evil spirits from the body in a type of medieval pagan exorcism. Perhaps, it is these old half-remembered spells that gave the Elder its witchy reputation instead?
It would seem that Lady Wilde isn’t the only one to associate Elder with witches. Robert Graves said that in Ireland witches would ride an Elder stick -instead of the more traditional Ash- as a steed[x]. Jacqueline Memory Paterson claimed in Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook, that witches used Elder in divination. Eryn Rowan Laurie also claimed that to, “Anoint the eyes with [Elder] sap would allow the person to see in the Sidhe realm,” or the land of the fairies[xi].
Perhaps much of the folklore surrounding the tree is a result of the belief that some of the Sidhe actually reside within the Elder itself? In The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries Evans-Wentz says that in the Isle of Mann the Elder tree was inhabited by fairies. He goes on to share a tale in which a woman who merely ran into an Elder tree, experienced “immediate and terrible swelling”.
Fred Hageneder likewise included the British Isles in his list of European countries that held the Elder tree as, “The traditional guardian tree of the household and farmyard.” Hageneder reveals that, “It was said that the good house spirit of the home resided in the Elder bush, and as recently as the 19th century it was a widespread custom to bring her an offering of water, milk or beer, together with cake or bread, at least once a week and even daily[xii].”
The Elder wand, or staff, was also believed to be imbued with power.
The tradition of the Elder has even gained a foothold within the popular culture of present day. In J.K. Rowling’s incredibly popular Harry Potter series, it is an Elder wand that is one of the three Deathly Hallows found in the book of the same name. What is perhaps even further revealing, the wand is also known as “Deathstick” or “The Wand of Destiny”. Rowling has often been acknowledged as having used the mythology of the Celts within her stories as a source of inspiration[xiii].
Like many other goddess trees, such as the Blackthorn or Hawthorn, the Elder carries a white flower in the spring and a dark fruit in the fall. Maybe this physical feature is the reason for the trees mythological status?
Maybe it is the trees association with passion and revelry that makes it a most ideal associate to the fairy kingdom? For where else do mortal men, women, and children meet with the fairy than in the places of celebration? It is a well known fact that the fairy of legend like to dance and to feast, so perhaps it is in this state that the two kingdoms become the closest? For it seems that when humans and the Sidhe are dancing side by side -parallel to one another in sisterly realms- that the bridge is crossed and the worlds become one.
Whatever the cause may be for the tree’s grand status within the realms of legend, it is important to note that the Elder is another tree that can both protect us and harm us. It is for this reason that Ruis should be dealt with reverently. It is for this reason that Ruis -the tree of regeneration, protection, ill luck and passion- has always been both feared and respected.
Elder has been called the Country Medicine Chest by many[xiv]. The list of healing properties attributed to the Elder tree is extensive. Jacqueline Memroy Paterson calls Elder the “Queen of Herbs”.
Folklore remedy lists are exhaustive in nature.
There are several pages dedicated to Elder in almost any herb book. In the Healing Plants Bible the leaves are listed as diaphoretic and diuretic, aiding in the treatment of wounds and bruises. With St. John’s wort and soapwort, the extract inhibits both the influenza and Herpes simplex viruses. Elder also has uses for ulcers, colds, fevers, bronchitis, coughs, skin complexion issues, sunburn, and can help protect against infections. It is also anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antibacterial and helps reduce the damage of bad cholesterol. The same book also says that, “as an immuno-stimulant, the juice is beneficial to AIDS patiants”. It has recently been shown to have promise as an additive in weight reduction supplements. The oil is also believed to help alleviate the pain of arthritis.
According to Lesley Bremness in Herbs, Elder bark is given for epilepsy and the roots treat lymphatic and kidney ailments. “In Chinese medicine the leaves, stems, and roots are used to treat fractures and muscle spasms.”
A leaf tea can also be used as a more natural insecticide in gardening.
It would seem that Ruis, the Elder tree, truly is the Country Medicine Chest.
Caution: It should be noted here that the Elderberry fruit growing naturally in the Western parts of North America is toxic. The toxins can be removed through cooking according to the British Columbian Nature Guide. Parts of various other types of Elder are also poisonous and the use of the plant should be with the guidance of an experienced mentor only or by using previously prepared remedies by an accredited herbalist.
“How full of a mystic antiquity are the names of the lotus, the olive, and the ash! Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Scandinavia spring to our minds as the words are heard. The syllables seem haunted to this day by the dryads that the Greek mind saw in every tree. They carry us back to the age of the nymphs who made their home in pools and seas. There was a time when nature seemed to man but as the garment of some large sweet presence that lived and breathed within it. Alas, that age is gone. Irish elder and quicken still point to the neighbourhood of the Neolithic doorsill, but no longer are they held to guard the village with their mysterious benedictions.” –Sister Nivedita (Studies From an Eastern Home. 1913)
[i] The Druid Magic Handbook.
[ii] The Celtic Tree Oracle.
[iii] The White Goddess.
[iv] Magical Alphabets.
[v] Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.
[vi] James MacKillop.
[vii] The Celtic Tree Oracle.
[viii] Tree Wisdom: The Definitive Guidebook.
[ix] In Celtic legend the Cauldron of Rebirth, or Pair Dadeni, is a magical item found in the second branch of the Mabinogion and is attached to the legend of Bran, “the Blessed”. The item can revive the dead back to life if they are placed within it. The cauldron is eventually destroyed during a great battle –the same battle that has Bran ask that his head be cut off- when Bran’s half brother pretends to be dead and is placed inside of it.
[x] The White Goddess.
[xi] Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.
[xii] The Meaning of Trees.
[xiv]Fred Hegeneder, Helen Farmer-Knowles, etc.