Mythical Monday: The Old Lady of Elder Trees by Mae Clair

It is a common belief that trees have spirits. In the case of elder trees that spirit is an old woman, frail and bent over, aided by a cane cut from an elder branch. Rarely glimpsed by humans, her presence is customarily acknowledged by doffing one’s hat when passing by an elder tree. Her spirit resides in all of them, infusing each tree with life and power.

Occasionally, the old woman may be spotted in the spring when the trees are bedecked with lacy white flowers, or later in autumn when plump black berries adorn the branches. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of her hobbling along beneath a harvest moon, her shawl a lacy white covering, the cap on her head as black as the elder tree’s ripe berries.

bigstock-Russian-Peasant-Woman-2715310Elder trees have a rich history in folklore.

It’s whispered that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from an elder tree — perhaps why it is considered unlucky to use the wood for any purpose. A notable exception to this rule is the crafting of a magic wand or similar artifact. Ideally to kill a vampire, the stake should be whittled from the trunk of an elder sapling.

A few things you should never do:

Never shore up a house with timbers from an elder tree for it will bring ill fortune. Furniture crafted from elder tree wood will warp and collapse, and a baby placed in a cradle of elder wood will sicken and never thrive.

If, however, the wood from an elder tree is the only material available, the Old Lady’s power can neutralized with the following plea:

“Old Lady of the Elder Trees, please give me some of your wood, and when I grow into a tree you may have some of mine.”

I find it curious that someone depicted as being so old and frail can wreak such awful havoc. It’s also interesting to note that elder tree leaves and berries are commonly used in teas and medicines for wellness. While the spirit of the tree might have mischief in mind, the fruit, flowers and leaves are often beneficial for health.

Have you ever tried any recipes or teas that use elder tree flowers or berries? Are there any wellness teas you like?

22 thoughts on “Mythical Monday: The Old Lady of Elder Trees by Mae Clair

  1. Intriguing — yet confusing. I’m sure I’d mix up what I was supposed to use, and not use, and well, there would certainly be calamity! I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an elder tree, come to think of it. Thanks for adding to my knowledge base, as usual. 🙂

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    • I like your way of thinking, Donna. I’d probably be the same…which was the safe thing to do, which was the thing NOT to do? These old tales never made it easy on poor villagers, did they? I am, however, glad to keep adding to your knowledge of the mythical! 🙂

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  2. I think this old female is a version of the Crone, part of the tripartite vision of the goddess. She is the representation of age and wisdom. I think that’s where the muddled message comes from, it’s a mix of folk memories of what once was common belief that is no longer now main stream.
    There is also the idea that she represents old age, a thing that can bring the strongest to their knees, and something feared by many. Sorry, my thoughts are rambling today. As always I love your Monday posts.

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    • Rambling thoughts are welcome, Daisy! 🙂 I’ll share a few of my own…Interesting comment about old age being something that brings the strongest to their knees. My mother (who lived until she was 89) often used to say “old age isn’t for the weak.” As a society, I think we tend to view the elderly as frail but they have a resilience of spirit that often surpasses ours.

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  3. I also find it interesting that the spirit of an old woman is said to have such power. Usually the old are forgotten and marginalised, but not here. This old woman has respect and authority.

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  4. I had to look up a picture of an elder tree first! I’m not so good with my tree species! Looks like a tree that could inspire myth and be home to plenty of fairies, too! The flower I recognized but had no idea it was from the elder tree. Huh.Your blog always inspires me to learn a bit more each day! Thanks Mae!

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    • Don’t feel bad. I get my trees confused too. The only ones I know for certain are willows, oaks, maples, pines and rowans. I had to google images of the elder tree flowers and berries too and then I was like “Well of course! Duh!” 😀

      Glad to hear today’s Mythical Monday was educational too 🙂

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  5. I knew about the elder wand, heard the myth about Judas, but never heard about the stakes. Note to self…when my inner slayer kicks in, look for elder saplings. If, however, my uterus beats my inner slayer to the punch…stay away from elder cradles. LOL!

    As for the whole “frail old lady” thing…think about the old lady that approached Snow White with the apple… evil often hides itself behind what could outwardly be perceived as weak (mostly because people forget to put their guard up when they don’t see an overt threat). Hmmm… this may be why folks freak at the sight of a pitbull, but ooh and ahh over the more aggressive Chihuahua. 😉

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    • Great observations, Kitt. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I admit I have a pre-disposition to both pit bulls and chihuahuas but I never put it in this context before. You’ve given me an eye opener.

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  6. Very intriguing post Mae. I agree that it’s interesting that such an old and frail woman can cause so much damage. I’ve loved St. Germain’s which is made from elderflowers. It always feels so invigorating mixed in with champagne or riesling. 🙂

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  7. Pingback: Tree Spirits | Flossie Benton Rogers

    • Thanks for sharing, Flossie. It’s amazing the images our imaginations can conjure from the ordinary and mundane. I’m so glad you enjoyed my post…especially enough to share 😀

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