Pagan Paths

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There are two ‘goddess’ trees that are found in the hedgerow. Hawthorn, sacred to the May Goddess, and Elder which belongs to the Crone and has so many virtues that, as we have seen, it is referred to as the ‘poor man’s medicine chest’. If there are any elder trees in your vicinity, you will soon gain one in your garden because birds drop the seeds after eating the fruit. The elder is a small tree or shrub that has a very mixed reputation in folklore. It features widely in Arthurian legends, Biblical tales and has always been associated with witchcraft and religion. In some parts of the country it is considered unlucky to take ‘ellan-wood’ into the house and to burn it would cause death within the family inside twelve months.


 Elder also has a great number of folklore associations. It features in Arthurian tales and has long been associated with witchcraft and religion, which might explain why the Christians demonised it by having Judas hang himself from its branches and thereby making it a cursed tree! It has been suggested that the name elder derives from the Anglo-Saxon eldrum, meaning fire — but this is highly unlikely since elder does not burn very well and even most country people refused point-blank to burn it on the hearth fire.


In many areas of the country, there are tales of the Elder Mother or elder spirits who both inhabit the bush and who are the tree. Any cavalier treatment of the tree may result in all manner of calamities. It was believed that if a branch was cut and blood spurted from it, then likely as not the village witch was seen wearing a bandage or walking with a limp. If elder was taken into the house, death would be in the house within a year — put a baby in a cradle made of elder and the Faere Folk would steal it. These beliefs make it necessary to take very special precautions should anyone wish to gather any wood for magical purposes. The elder should be approached with the head bare in the manner of a supplicant, with folded arms and partially bent legs — in a ‘symbolic between the worlds pose with arms and legs neither bent nor straight’.


Let’s make no bones about it, with the elder’s reputation it is well to remember that you are approaching a very real magical and extremely powerful being. Tell the elder why you require its wood and what it will be used for. Wait for permission to be given and be prepared to give some recompense for what you take. A suitable invocation would be:



Lady Ellhorn, give me some of thy wood.


And I will give thee some of mine


When it grows again in the forest.


Wait for a moment of stillness to occur among the leaves and branches — this being the sign that the tree gives its permission. If there is a violent shaking of the leaves then permission has been denied and you should not proceed. Whatever you cut should then be taken ‘wrong handed’. There are numerous modern tales of the bad luck or illness suffered by those who ignored this warning — and equally good fortune coming the way of those who show the right amount of reverence.


Despite all its beneficial uses, elder wood should never be burnt on a domestic fire and there is a definite ban on including it on the Beltaine fire because of its associations with the Faere Folk, even though it is one of the Nine Sacred Woods. Be warned: One witch tried to break the ellen-wood’s curse by arranging for a landscape gardener to cut down the tree. Family fortunes took an immediate nose-dive and it took years for both the tree and the family to recover. If you have an elder growing in the garden, let it thrive and see how your fortune changes — just have a little word whenever it needs pruning!


The name of the Elder Mother in the supplication reveals the elder’s connection with the Faere Folk and musical instruments as ellhorn literally means ‘elf horn’ i.e. pipes which suggests that the Little People used its wood for that purpose. Magically the wood is used in personal charms to turn aside curses and banish malevolent spirits from the vicinity. These charms can be placed around the inside of the home for the same purpose. Elder leaves gathered at Beltaine are especially powerful and bunches hung over the doors and windows prevent any negative forces entering. The leaves can also be dried and added to protective pouches although some people find the smell of elder offensive.


 The elder has, of course, plenty of Otherworld associations. It is the gateway between the worlds — whether the kingdom of the dead or the lands of the Faere Folk — the Elder Mother acts as the gatekeeper. This is why it was believed that sleeping beneath the tree could enable you to make contact with the Mighty Dead; this was also a risky business as it was said that there was the risk of not waking up again! Rather than run this risk but still be able to utilise the elder’s powers when astral journeying, hang a bunch of leaves above the bed and take an infusion of the flowers or berries, — or better still, a glass of elderberry wine.


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Mélusine Draco originally trained in the magical arts of traditional British Old Craft with Bob and Mériém Clay-Egerton. She has been a magical and spiritual instructor for over 20 years with Arcanum and the Temple of Khem, and writer of numerous popular books on magic and witchcraft. Her highly individualistic teaching methods and writing draws on ancient sources, supported by academic texts and current archaeological findings.


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