Elder Lore

With cold and flu season upon us, it seems like a good time to talk about the Elder tree or Elderberry. Elderberry has become trendy in the medicine aisle thanks to studies that suggest that it may help fight influenza, but its use in medicine goes back to ancient times in Europe, parts of Asia, north Africa, and North America. It’s also an important feature in European folklore – a bringer of healing and also of death.

Elderberry (Sambucus) is an interesting plant – a large (12 feet/4 meter+) shrub with pretty umbrellas of tiny white flowers in the summer and dark berries in the fall. In the wild, it often grows along streambanks, but it can also be fairly drought tolerant and does well in a variety of soils (it grows well in my yard, which has sub-optimal soil, water, and sun conditions). It likes sun but will grow in part shade, and survives in both hot and cold climates. Elderberry is a survivor. It has hollow stems that have been used for pipes and bellows, but be careful – most of the plant is toxic! Some Native American peoples used the plant to induce vomiting. Only the flowers and berries of certain species are edible (black elderberry is most commonly used), and even then, it’s safer to cook them before using them (and don’t forage berries unless you are 100% certain they come from a safe source).

The flowers can be used to make a tea that’s popular outside the United States. The black berries range from very tart to sort of sweet and are made into jams, syrups, and wines. Some people swear by the syrup as a way to stay healthy in the winter, and some studies have found that people who take elderberry syrup recover faster from influenza, while other studies have found no effect, so the jury is still out as far as an official recommendation. The berries of the edible species are fairly healthy regardless, with plenty of fiber and vitamin C as well as other vitamins and minerals, and the syrup tastes yummy on pancakes.

The contrast between the healthy berry and the poisonous leaves, stems, and seeds of the Elder might be why the folklore around elderberries is so varied. Many European cultures believed that the Elder provided protection from dark magic and other evils when planted near the house or when a small piece was carried with the person. But don’t take a piece without asking! The Elder tree was supposed to be protected by a spirit or Elder Mother who would curse you if you cut the plant without her permission. Luckily, you can ask for permission, and if there’s no response, then you’re allowed to cut (I’ll admit it – I’ve asked, and I’ve never heard a peep in response 😉 ). But you don’t want to use the Elder wood in your house or your cooking fire because you’ll invite in the Fair Folk that honor the tree – I’ve wondered if that piece of lore came from poisonous fumes from the smoke, but I’ve never found a clear answer and never tried burning the wood myself.

Despite its potential protective or healing powers, the Elder tree was associated with winter, darkness, and death in many European cultures. Sleeping beneath the Elder might let you glimpse the Faeries or their home, which was sometimes associated with the land of the dead. Medieval stories said that the Elder was cursed for being either the tree from which Jesus’s cross was made or the one where Judas hanged himself. The Elder isn’t really large or strong enough for either of those purposes, but perhaps its more diminutive nature is part of the curse – there’s a similar legend about the dogwood tree.

Still, with all respect to my Celtic and Norse ancestors, I continue to associate the Elder with summer when its flowers bloom after the spring blossoms have faded, and it’s hard to think of it as cursed when it survives everything the Utah mountains can throw at it. But maybe its association with winter is appropriate if it turns out that it can keep colds and flus away.

Wishes and curses

You may know that the tradition of tossing pennies into wells or fountains to make a wish goes back to ancient times when offerings were thrown into bodies of water to gain favors from the gods (if you didn’t before, you do now). But did you know that people also threw curses into sacred waters for the gods to enact? These curse scrolls or tablets were written asking for justice or revenge, and they give us a fantastic glimpse into the everyday life – and the gossip – of people who lived two thousand years ago.

The scrolls in these pictures are from the Roman baths in Bath, England. Sadly, my camera isn’t high resolution enough to capture the very faded writing on the lead tablets, but I did take a shot of the transcriptions as well (most of them are in Latin). The “tablets” themselves are pretty small, just a couple of inches across.

Faded and cracked thin, lead plates.
Latin transcriptions of the curse tablets above with an explanation that they are about the theft of a hooded cloak, the theft of a bracelet, and two instances of the theft of six silver coins.

Some of the translations say things like, “I have given to the goddess Sulis the six silver coins which I have lost. It is for the goddess to exact from the names written below: Senicianus and Saturninus and Anniola.” An interesting take on revenge, telling the goddess that she can have the coins if she gets them back from the thieves. Another is more specific, saying, “Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their minds and eyes in the goddess’s temple.” I guess he really liked those gloves, though it is a pretty infuriating feeling to have something stolen.

In some cases, people would write the curse backward, maybe to make it stronger or easier to read on the “other side,” and sometimes they added magical symbols or shoved nails through the scrolls to reinforce their curse.

One of the scrolls is in what scholars believe to be the only (known) written example of ancient British-Celtic.

A small fragment of a lead tablet.

There’s no translation of this tablet because British Celtic is an as-yet-untranslated language. The words read, “Adixoui Deuina Deieda Andagin Uindiorix cuamenai,” though the scroll and the message are incomplete. There are a couple of suggestions about what this might mean, but if you can figure it out, let us know (and the rest of the world)!

To end on a cheerful note, archeologists have also fished a lot of beautiful items out of ancient wells and ponds, and I would love a modern replica of this ancient Celtic brooch found at Bath.

A circular brooch with a long pin for holding a clock or tunic, with swirling designs on each end of the circle.