Fairies and elder trees

elderflower

Cicely Mary Barker, from Flower fairies of the trees, 1961

In one of my earliest postings, I discussed the curious link between fairies and elder trees.  I’d like to return to that with some fresh evidence, mainly drawn from the Isle of Man.

Elder trees are widely seen as having some sort of magical or spiritual properties.  For example, in Herefordshire there was a taboo upon burning elder wood for fear of bringing misfortune, whilst its inner rind was used to cure cows of jaundice.  Witches were said to dislike the tree, so its pith was fed to those believed to have been bewitched.   In Shropshire elder was never used as firewood as it would bring misfortune, even death, to the household.  The wood shouldn’t even be brought into the house, as it could cause a cow to lose its calf, nor should cattle be driven with an elder stick.  The juice of the plant would be used to protect the threshold and the hearth.

On the Isle of Man,  the same ideas prevailed as on the British mainland.  Whilst the tree was said to be the haunt of the fairies, it repelled witches and, accordingly, there was hardly to be found an old well (tholtan in Manx) near which there didn’t grow an elder tree, according to Agnes Herbert in a guide to the island written in 1909.  If you carried elder leaves with you, the islanders believed, you would be protected against witchcraft.

These are but the first indications of the supernatural associations of the tramman tree on the island.  The fairies live in the trees and when the branches of the trees are seen to bend in the wind at night, it is in fact the fairies riding upon them.  Given their status as fairy residences, interference with the trees can be dangerous.  Evans Wentz heard the story of a woman from Arbory parish who one dark night accidentally collided with a tramman.  She was instantly smitten with a terrible swelling which all her neighbours agreed was the consequence of offending the fays by her clumsiness.  Another local account told of a man who cut down an elder and was driven to suicide by the aggrieved fairies, Walter Gill recorded in 1932.

The Manx fairies living in the ‘tramman’ are plainly very similar to the Old Lady of the Elder tree that I described before.  It’s not clear, though, whether or not they’re identical.  The Old Lady seems to personify the tree in some way- to be its spirit- whilst the Manx fays live in, or at least gather in, the elders, but may not actually embody them.  Regardless of the detail, the supernatural associations are very clear and persistent and- what’s more-  can be seen across Northern Europe from Denmark to the British Isles.

elderberry

Cicely Mary Barker, The elderberry fairy, from Flower fairies of the autumn, 1926

8 thoughts on “Fairies and elder trees

  1. Thank you for this post it’s very interesting that the elder trees and berries retain their lore. At the height of flu season, I’m drinking a herbal matcha with elderflowers and organic elderberry flavor to help with strengthening immunity. I used to order a straight black elderberry tea from Montana in the U.S., but it was so bitter I thought I’d give this one a try. I think also in the United States the chinaberry tree from our Southern region has a similar magical lore — the idea of the birds dropping their seeds that grow and uproot houses, people taking refuge under them & the berries also used for medicinal purposes similar to elderberries which again are more mainstream. Elderberry cough drops and syrups are now sold in the U.S. in the major chain pharmacies and advertised on television, years ago, you could only find them in health/organic/specialty stores.

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    1. Dena

      Thanks for your comment. Here in England, the elder is largely a shrub of wasteland, just a very large weed to most people, so it’s only those in the know who appreciate it for its flowers and berries. I’ve made fritters from the flowers and wine from the fruit, which were both pretty time consuming jobs because you have to strip the flower heads and the berries from the thousands of little stalks…

      I always try to have an elder in my garden, but that’s more to do with the folklore. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of reciprocity with the tree- the old saying addressed to the Old Lady in the tree was “if I can have some your wood now, you can have some of mine when I’m a tree.” If you don’t make this bargain- expect something bad to happen. Irrational as it may sound, it always alarms me to see people chopping down elders.

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  2. These beliefs reach down south as well. Here in the northern Basque country, my old neighbour says you should never burn an elder tree or your livestock will die. His livestock die regularly through lack of attention and he never burns elder, but that’s another story…

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