It’s Elder Time: The Elder Tree in Celtic Culture and Beyond
Updated: Nov 25, 2019
“What’s your sign?” Growing up in the sixties and seventies, I heard this question often. It, of course, had to do with the sun signs of Western astrology and was a not so subtle way to try to find out about a person’s personality. The Celts also believed that a person’s birth date helped to mold that person’s character. The importance of nature, particularly trees, in Celtic society is evident in the fact that their system does not have sun signs; it has tree signs. Each tree sign has a corresponding animal but the animals are not based on constellations. They are animals of the earth, the sky, the water (and maybe a little mythology). I am delighted that my sign is the Holly tree and my animal is the unicorn. But this post is not going to be a list of tree signs and Celtic animals. It will focus on the Elder tree because we are almost in the Elder time of the year (Nov. 25-Dec. 23). Not only will the post describe the aspects of personality of those persons lucky enough to be born Elders, but it will discuss the medicine, magic, and folklore associated with the Elder tree in Celtic culture as well as mention its uses in modern medicine and alternative medicine. If you were not born during Elder time and would like to know more about your sign, here are three excellent websites about Celtic Tree Signs:
So what are people born under the sign of the Elder like? They are highly intelligent,
philosophical independent thinkers. Elders are open-minded and curious. This leads them to seek adventures and to take risks. They appear to be quite lucky, but actually things often turn out well for them because they are acutely intuitive. Elders are passionate and compassionate. As a result, they get involved in causes which benefit humankind (and / or animal-kind). They are visionaries who see reality quite clearly yet remain optimistic idealists. Some sources say their animal sign is the black horse while others say it is the hawk. In either case, they love their freedom and sometimes are perceived by those born under less adventurous tree signs as a bit wild. Regardless, their generosity and desire to help others makes them a gift to humanity.
Celts considered the Elder tree itself to be a great gift. In fact, it was classified as a sacred tree, one not to be cut down. The tree symbolized transformation. Its magical properties were used for healing, gaining and maintaining prosperity, and for banishing evil, especially witchcraft. It also was used in remedies to undo malicious magic.
The tree also played a significant role in rituals. Elderflower wine was drunk on the feast of Beltaine and Elderberry wine was part of Samhain divination activities. Be WARNED though: all parts of the Elder contain poison. Do not eat or drink anything made from its leaves, flowers, seeds, berries, or bark unless you have been taught how to process the poison out.
Just as people born under the sign of the Elder are visionaries, folklore associates the tree with the ability to see beyond the Otherworldly. Flutes made from Elder wood were used by the Druids to summon spirits and Scottish folklore maintained that anyone who stood under an Elder tree on Samhain could see faeries. There is a danger to this last, however, because Celtic lore says that anyone who falls asleep under an Elder runs the risk of never waking up!
The Celts believed that a spirit of bad-tempered mischief lived inside Elder branches. Folklore warned that striking a young animal, such as a calf (or a child), would cause it to stop growing if struck with a stick made from Elder wood. Despite this, the Elder was considered a strong source of protection. Elder trees were planted around homes to protect against lightning, evil spirits, and witches. Before planting them in your own yard, however, you might wanted to consider this creepy bit of Celtic folklore: Elder trees uproot themselves at night and peer at children through their bedroom windows.
The Elder is a great protector, though, when it comes to physical health. Science has discovered that the berries contain anti-oxidants. In addition, they have an anti-inflammatory effect as well as immune system boosting qualities. The websites www.webmd.com and www.herbalremediesadvice.org report that clinical studies have shown that taking elderberry syrup can reduce the symptoms of colds and influenza and decrease the duration of those illnesses to 2-4 days. (Even better: it comes in gummy bears too!) The Herbal Remedies Advice site also says that elderflower tea has both a diuretic and a diaphoretic effect which can aid in reducing fevers and eliminating toxins from the body. [Again, elderberry and elderflower products must be made by someone with a knowledge of how to make the tea, wine, cordial, gummy bear, or whatever safely]. The anti-inflammatory properties in the berries has led to them being used to decrease pain from arthritis, sciatica, and neuralgia. The Celts stocked up on foods and medicines made from the Elder to protect them throughout the winter. Fortunately, these products are commercially available nowadays all year long. The wonderful thing is that Elderberry and Elderflower wines, teas, and so forth, not only aid physical well-being, they taste yummy!!
So curl up on the couch, sip some tea or wine and celebrate. It’s Elder time!
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Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Elder Time!