In Ireland, the elder was considered a sacred tree and, like the hawthorn, it was forbidden to cut one down. The elder tree was prized for its many uses culinary, medicinal and mystical.
Both the flowers and berries of the elder can be used to make wine. Elderflower wine was said to be drunk at the Beltane celebrations and elderberries were made into a wine at Samhain which was consumed to promote divination and hallucinations.
The seeds, bark, leaves and flowers of the elder can be poisonous as is the unripe fruit so special care must have been taken when preparing such beverages.
The superstition of never cutting down an elder bush was not unique to Ireland. In Denmark, peasants never chopped an elder because Hyldemor, The Elder Mother, lived in the trunk.
This belief was possibly brought to the East of England by the Vikings and, even today, in Lincolnshire people ask permission from ‘The Old Lady’ before taking cuttings from the tree.
Christians gave elder a bad reputation
Christians believed that the elder tree was the tree that Judas hanged himself from, therefore making it unlucky. Some also believed the cross was made of elder wood. In fact the Christians gave the elder a bad reputation in general.
It was during Christian times that the elder became most associated with witches and many stories of ‘elder-witches’ spread throughout Ireland and Britain. This developed into an association with the devil.
To burn elder wood in your fire would bring the devil into your house.
Celts believed it protected the from evil spirits
It seems more likely that rather than a tree to be feared the elder was a highly respected tree in the old Celtic land. It was said to protect from evil spirits as well as inviting them.
Cradles were built from elder wood to protect babies and elder bushes were often planted around cattle to keep them healthy. It was believed that planting an elder near your house would also protect it from lightning.
At the same time, a flute made of elder could be used to summon spirits and, in Scotland, if you stand under an elder tree at Samhain you will be able to see the fairies riding by.