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Elder Tree

Elder Tree

Many superstitions and legends are associated with the elder tree and shrub (genus Sambucus ). In some cultures, it is identified with the tree on which Judas hanged himself as well as with the wood used for the Cross. In some parts of Scotland and Wales, it was believed that the dwarf elder grew only on ground that had been soaked in blood. Elder was not used for a child's cradle because it could cause the child to pine or be harried by fairies. In Germany it was considered unlucky to bring an elder branch into a house, because it might also bring ghosts, or, in England, the Devil himself.

However, elder was also believed to protect against evil, and it was thought that wherever it grew witches were powerless. In England gardens were sometimes protected by having elder trees planted at the entrance, or in hedges around the garden. In some parts of the United States, an elder stick was burned on the fire at Christmas Eve to reveal witches, sorcerers, and other evil wishers in the neighborhood. In the Tyrol, it was believed that an elder stick cut on St. John's Eve (June 23) would detect witchcraft.

Many old gardens in Britain retained into the twentieth century some of the protective elder trees. The folklorist James Napier recalled:

"In my boyhood, I remember that my brothers, sisters, and myself were warned against breaking a twig or branch from the elder hedge which surrounded my grandfather's garden. We were told at the time as a reason for this prohibition, that it was poisonous; but we discovered afterwards that there was another reason, viz., that it was unlucky to break off even a small twig from a bourtree bush [old name for elder]."

In some parts of Europe, this superstition was so strong that before pruning the elder, the gardener would say, "Elder, elder may I cut thy branches?" If no response was heard, it was considered that permission had been given, and then, after spitting three times, the pruner began his cutting. Another writer claimed that elderwood formed a portion of the fuel used in burning human bodies as protection against evil influences, and drivers of funeral hearses had their whip handles made of elder for a similar reason.

In some parts of Scotland, people would not put a piece of elderwood into the fire. Napier observed one instance where "pieces of this wood were lying around unused when the neighbourhood was in great straits for firewood; but none would use it, and when asked why? the answer was: 'We don't know, but folks say it is not lucky to burn the bourtree."'

Elderberries gathered on St. John's Eve were believed to ward off witchcraft and to bestow magic powers. If the elder was planted in the form of a cross upon a new grave and it bloomed, this was a sure sign that the soul of the dead person was happy.

Various magic powers against illness were claimed for elder. In Massachusetts, elder pulp in a bag worn around the neck was thought to cure rheumatism. Elsewhere elder was also used as an amulet, small pieces being cut up and sewn into a knot and hung around the neck or sewn in a knot in a piece of a man's shirt. Elder was also believed to be of medicinal value for deafness, faintness, strangulation, sore throat, ravings, snake and dog bites, insomnia, melancholy, and hypochondria.

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