• Christine Dorman

The Complicated Celtic Elder in Folklore and Modern Medicine


In Celtic folk medicine, elder flowers and berries were used to treat a variety of ailments.  Modern science has proven that the berries boost the immune system.
In Celtic folk medicine, elder flowers and berries were used to treat a variety of ailments. Modern science has proven that the berries boost the immune system.

People lucky enough to have been born under the Celtic Tree Sign of the Elder are highly intelligent visionaries. They are optimistic idealists, yet they have a clear understanding of reality. Born between November 25 and December 23rd, Elders are open-minded, curious, and philosophical. But they don’t spend their time sitting still, gazing at their navels. They are adventurous risk-takers who seem blessed with luck. Actually, things tend to turn out well for them because of their acute intuition. Passionate and energetic, Elders are symbolized by the hawk or the black horse, and sometimes other people perceive them as wild.


Elders are compassionate and generous. They get involved in causes that benefit humans, animals, and nature. Their desire to help others makes them a gift to humanity. The Elder tree itself has a powerful presence in Celtic folklore and modern science has revealed that the tree, like those born under its sign, offers benefits to humankind.


The Elder’s Medical Benefits


Used extensively in folk medicine, Elder became known as “the medicine chest of the country folk.” Today, scientific studies have shown that parts of the plant can aid one’s health in a few ways. The berries contain antioxidants, which are thought to aid in preventing diseases. They also have anti-inflammatory properties and have been used in herbal medicine to decrease pain from arthritis, sciatica, and neuralgia. Elderberry’s most commonly used today as an immune system booster. While often taken to prevent colds and flu, elderberry syrup has been shown in clinical studies to reduce the symptoms of colds and influenza and decrease the duration of those illnesses to 2-4 days. In herbal medicine, elderflower is said to have both diaphoretic and diuretic properties. A tea made from elderflowers is used to reduce fever and eliminate toxins. A word of caution: all parts of the elder are potentially poisonous. Be sure to buy elderberry and elderflower products from reputable manufacturers.



According to Celtic folklore, the elder provides protection from lightning and evil spirits.
According to Celtic folklore, the elder provides protection from lightning and evil spirits.

The Elder in Celtic Folklore


In Celtic folklore, the elder has a complicated reputation. Despite its healing properties, it is a symbol of endings and death. The Druids said the elder had a spirit of mischief or bad temper in it. Folklore warns that a child or animal that is struck with an elder branch will stop growing and, possibly, die. The tree also was considered hostile to children. Irish folklore cautions never to put a baby in a cradle made from elder wood. Doing so puts the infant in danger either of sickening or being stolen by the faeries.


The above paragraph probably gives the impression that the elder is a tree to avoid at all costs. Surprisingly, though, Celtic folklore associates it with protection. The tree is said to protect from lightning and evil influences. Folklore recommends planting an elder in your backyard to keep evil spirits from sneaking into the house.


Elder was believed to have banishing properties, so its flowers were attached to horse’s harnesses and hung above barn doors to protect the animals. Perhaps this belief developed from fact that the scent of elder leaves repels flies. This may have protected food and animals from any insect-borne illnesses. The leaves have a slightly narcotic effect as well, which may account for another folk belief. It is said that, if you sleep under an elder tree, you may never wake up.



Believed to be a portal to the faerie world, the elder tree was sacred to the ancient Celts.
Believed to be a portal to the faerie world, the elder tree was sacred to the ancient Celts.

Elder branches were used to make flutes. The spongy tissue inside could be scooped out easily, leading the Irish to nickname the elder “the hollow tree.” The tree’s apparent hollowness led to the belief that it provided an entrance to the faerie world. In Scottish folk tradition, flutes made of elder were used to summon spirits. Scottish folklore further says that if you stand under an elder at Samhain, you’ll see faeries. Of course, that could be a result of drinking too much elderberry wine at the feast.

The ancient Celts considered the elder a sacred tree. It was against the law to cut it down.


Here’s a slightly creepy final bit of Celtic folklore. The elder, it is said, has the power to walk at twilight. It peers into the windows of children’s rooms to see if they’re alone. So, you might want to hold off planting that backyard elder tree until the children have left home!


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Slan go foil!

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