The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

An American Ley Line Network: A Ritual of Creation May 7, 2018

This past weekend, we had a delightful time at the 2nd OBOD Mid Atlantic Gathering of US(or MAGUS). It was a wonderful weekend full of positive energy, community, and celebration of the land. I was involved heavily in the ritual planning and work this year and was the gathering’s keynote speaker, and we once again did a Galdr ritual (a chanting ritual) using Ogham (sacred trees). This year’s theme was “Sacred Time, Sacred Space” and as part of this work, we decided to re-enchant the land by establishing a new ley line network. We are co-creating a new ley line network across the land.

 

Motherstone at Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary

Motherstone at Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary

The overall goal of this ritual was to re-enchanting our landscape, connecting sacred spaces and creating sacred spaces across the landscape, and connecting our broader druid community. The work involves empowering, connecting, and eventually, dispersing a set of stones to the broader landscape. I wanted to share parts of our ritual and work here as part of my “Sacred Landscapes” series. I say “share parts” because you can certainly talk the magic out of something, and I think that this is key for this particular ritual moreso than some others we have done in the past.  However, I will share enough that others interested in this work have a blueprint for building their own ritual and the foundation of their own energetic work.

 

Overview of the Work:

The most simple way of creating a sacred ley line/energetic network is to think about linking one or more places together.  These could be any number of things:

 

  • Sacred points you create along a landscape on a piece of property, say, between a sacred grove, spring, and shrine at  tree
  • Sacred points you create along a larger landscape: say, your sacred spot in a nearby forest and a nearby meditation spot you use regularly
  • Sacred points between two outdoor stone circles (shared between friends)
  • Sacred points connected between many groves and individuals (what we did at MAGUS) with a central “hub” (the Stone Circle at Four Quarters).

 

Even connecting two or more points is a good start to think about how the energies might flow between the two sites, enriching them and exploring the magic and energy that can flow between that connection. And this can be really simple: a standing stone you set up on a hill to bring down the solar current, connected to a sacred grove deep in the woods. Many ley lines of ancient times were only a few miles in length–in today’s age, without whole cultures behind us, doing smaller things is totally appropriate.

 

So if you’d like to try this out, let’s first go through two kinds of background information and then onto some specific things you might do.

 

Background: Ley Lines and the Telluric Currents

In order to prepare for setting up even a small ley line network, we need some background information.  I’ve shared this in my blog before at various points, but here is an overall summary:

 

Sacred Mandala as part of our MAGUS 2018 Ritual

Sacred Mandala as part of our MAGUS 2018 Ritual

Ley Lines and the Re-Enchantment of the World: As I’ve discussed in previous posts in this series, re-enchanting the land is, I believe, part of what we can do as druids, particularly druids in North America. The basic premise is this: at one time, humans across the globe recognized the sacredness and enchantment present in the land and worked, in collaboration with nature, to bring that sacredness into manifestation through various earth works, stones, and old straight tracks (ley lines). They did this both physically on the landscape throughout the world and energetically using various magical and ritual techniques. This was not done by a single group of human ancestors, but by many of them over a period of millenia. The specific ley lines, rituals, and beliefs obviously took on their own local flavor, but several key aspects were consistent across time and culture:

 

  • The sanctity of “straight lines” as a sacred feature on the landscape
  • The use of various kinds of sacred features and alignments across the landscape (sacred sites, stone circles, earthworks, connected by paths, marker stones, etc)
  • Usually, some kind of “central point” from which energy radiated outward
  • The relationship between energy flows/land healing/blessing and  physical markers on the landscape
  • The use of nature-based augury for conditions to set the lines and ensure right placement (birds, weather patterns, astrology)
  • The ability of people, over time and space, to shape these energy flows and enhance the magic of the land.

 

If we take these six premises, we have a roadmap that our ancient ancestors offer us for the kind of re-enchantment of the world and creating sacred landscapes for here and now.  There is so much we could do with this.

 

Telluric and Solar Currents: A third piece of our Galdr ritual this year is the interplay and work between the Telluric and Solar currents. I described these in much more detail in an earlier blog post, but will briefly talk about what they are and how we are working them there. Most peoples, save modern Western Civilization, have some concept of “energy” and how it flows across the land. The model I’m describing here is based in conceptualizations from the Druid Revival tradition, but you’ll find that other traditions offer similar or complimentary understandings. In this view, we have two main sources of energy: the solar and the telluric, and one that is created through a synthesis and harmonious combination of these (the lunar).

 

  • The Solar Current: Is the energy of the sun and the celestial heavens. The solar current comes down to the earth, and, as the ancient lore suggests, can be channeled and brought to/in/across the earth in various ways: through a properly set standing stone (see John Michael Greer’s Druid Magic Handbook), through a properly aligned temple or church (see John Michael Greer’s Secret of the Temple), or through a properly aligned ley network (see Pennick and Devereaux’s Lines On the Landscape, final chapter.). The solar current brings life, energy, vitalization, and power.
  • The Telluric Current: Is the deep energy of the earth, rising up from the earth’s core. The Telluric Current comes up from the earth, and, as the ancient lore suggests, can be purified and enhanced with the Solar current. The earth’s energies are disrupted now, particularly with so many destructive activities taking place below the earth’s surface, fracking being the absolute worst of these.

 

Most of the time in various cultures and in various ways, these energies were shaped and enhanced through human activity to bring healing, vitality, and abundance to the land. And that, too, is a primary goal with our Galdr ritual and Ley Line Network here we are creating through the MAGUS gathering.

 

Background, Part II: Raising Energy through Sacred Chanting and Tree Energy

There are countless ways you might raise energy for the purposes of creating even a small ley line or alignment on the landscape. Here are two kinds of energies that we’ve been working with at MAGUS for the last two years that have worked particularly well for this purpose:

 

Galdr / Sacred Chanting:. We again used the idea of “Galdr” (which is a Norse word for “chant” or “incantation”) using our voices, chanting in unison to raise energy to enact a specific purpose. For us as druids, chanting Ogham (sacred trees) is more appropriate  than the runes, so that is exactly what we used. I offered many more details on the Galdr and its origins in my first post from the 2017 MAGUS gathering, so I will direct your attention there. The Galdr chanting works well with a group of any size; with 70+ druids at this gathering, we used the Galdr chanting in four separate groups to raise a network of interrelated energies. If you had a smaller group, or individual, you might use a series of chants in succession. The point here is simple: you can use chanting (and we used sacred tree names) to raise up energy and direct it for the purposes of establishing a sacred network of sites, stones, or anything else.

 

Four Sacred Trees and Ogham: Our ritual again uses Ogham (the Celtic tree alphabet, adapted to North American trees) for raising and shaping the energy of the ritual. These trees, using their sacred names, are chanted to raise energy. The two ritual co-creators (myself and Cat at the Druid’s Well) sat for many months with sacred trees to see who would aid in our work.  Since that is part of the “magic” of the ceremony, I’m not going to reveal much more here–but those wanting to do something similar should find four dominant and powerful trees on their own landscape that can aid in this work. One should be a tree that invokes peace between humans and the land, one should have some deep connection to spirit/otherworld to help create the network, one should help support that work, and one should serve as a container/strengthener to help hold the space.

 

Ley Line Chants

For our gathering, Loam Ananda, an incredibly amazing composer, wrote a ley line chant, which I have permission to share here. This is part of how we raised energy and brought everyone together.

 

You can hear the full chant on Soundcloud here. Here is the melody to the chant (for one person or a small group).

Singing up the Ley Lines Chant

Singing up the Ley Lines Chant

If you have more than one person, this is the chant for a larger group, with four harmonious parts. We have our four sacred trees in the bass part, but you can replace that with any other energies you are working to raise energy and connect space. This chant was taught to everyone prior to our main ritual and used both when we placed our stones for blessing/connecting/empowering during the gathering and also when we removed them to take home.

Singing up the Ley Lines

Singing up the Ley Lines – Group Chant

 

Now that we have a framework and some ways of raising energy–one possible framework among countless others–we can look at two ways we can directly do some of this work. One would be in a larger group setting and one would be something individuals could do.

 

A Simple Approach: Connecting Sites and Energies

Individuals can certainly do this work of establishing ley lines and sacred landscape features on their own, thinking about the connection between two or more sacred sites.  The layers of complexity come in depending on how far you want to go, how many sites you want to build/connect, and the number of people you might get involved.

 

If you want to create a sacred alignment individually, you might start with these aspects:

  • Listening to the spirits. Follow your intuition and communicate with the spirits of the land about the work you’d like to do.  Get a sense of what, where, and how you might to about doing this work. This may be as simple as a gut intuition or signs from nature (remember that the Roman Augurs often looked to weather patterns, birds, and clouds to determine “right alignment”).
  • Once a site has been selected, spend time attending to the energies of the land. Before a sacred ley line can be created, you want to make sure the spirits of the land are in line with this purpose and that any land healing and energetic work that needs to be done in advance is done.
  • Using stones or other features to connect two points. Take a stone from one place and set it ceremoniously in another place, raising energy while doing so and envisioning the two points linked. (See above for how you might do this)–we used sacred trees and chanting, but you can use the four elements  blessings or any other magic you regularly practice.
  • Regularly attending to the new line. Ley lines are both physical and energetic, and so it is useful to think about how these lines might be attended to regularly with seasonal celebration and ritual. They grow with power as we, as individuals and groups, attend to them over a period of time.

 

Carving stones with ogham at our stonecarving workshop at MAGUS

Carving stones with ogham at our stonecarving workshop at MAGUS

A More Complex Approach: An American Ley Line Network – Celtic Galdr Ritual at MAGUS 2018

What we did for MAGUS this year was in the spirit of what I discussed above, but a bit “bigger” since we had six ritualists as planners as well as numberous interconnected workshops and ceremonies. But the principle is the same. I’ll walk you through some of the basics of what we did.

 

Part 1: Stone Selection and Attunement

When people came to the gathering, the ritual began almost immediately.  In an opening workshop, people a These are the activities that we did to move attendees into part I.

  • Finding a Stone, Making it Your Own: Upon coming to the gathering, each participant was asked to find a stone–a stone that they would work, as an individual and as a group, to empower and eventually take home and ceremonially place in a sacred manner somewhere on their landscape. This stone becomes one of many “nodes” of our sacred network.  In our case, since we were building something bigger, we thought it was important that the stones all come from the same place (Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary) as they will already be connected and our work would simply be to connect them further.
  • Attuning to Stones: At the gathering, participants did a variety of things to attune to their stones. We had a wonderful stone carving workshop led by Forest Green, and druid attendees were able to carve ogham into their stone. The druids were also able to spend time in the larger stone circle at Four Quarters and attune to the energy there. Druids learned about chanting through a great workshop from Tom Dannsarach and Loam Ananda. Druids learned about sacred mapping and sacred place names from Cat Hughes. Four quarters forms the central “node” in our network and so, it was critical that our stones–and participants–were aligned with this sacred space.
  • Attuning to the Four Sacred Trees: As part of our pre-ritual workshop, each attendee was able to draw an ogham to place them in their group and then spent some time, attuning to the sacred energy of the tree they were working. Each group also had an opportunity to learn more about their tree and the mythology, magic, and specific energy that tree was bringing to our ritual. Each group did this differently, as each group’s role was unique in the ritual–some sat with the tree in question, others journeyed inward to meet the sacred tree and receive a message, learning how to hold sacred space, and so on.
    •  We spent months selecting the trees and each of the “ritual leaders” spent more months researching their trees and being prepared to lead their group in raising the right energy for the ritual.
Ogham staves, attunement materials, and scrolls for our ritual

Ogham staves, attunement materials, and scrolls for our ritual

In sum, we worked to attune participants to their own stones and sacred trees, in order that we might begin to connect them and weave in the ancestral magic of the ley line.

 

Part II: The Galdr Ritual to Connect and Empower the Stones

Space Preparation: Sacred Fires and Sacred Circles

As part of the preparation for the ritual, eight fire tenders built and consecrated sacred fires (a central fire around whih we placed our stones) and four quarter fires. Further, a group of druids also created a cornmeal sacred circle using ogham prior to the ritual; this allowed us to again, place a physical manifestation on the landscape of the energy we were invoking.  The sacred circle had a number of conentric circles and lines featured both ogham as well as material from our sacred trees.

 

The Main Galdr Ritual

The Galdr ritual itself did not have a specific “script” of words, although we certainly had a script of actions and flow, unique to this gathering and space. We begain by honoring the trees, the stones, and the fire. Then, we did a similar thing to last year’s Galdr at MAGUS, where we had participants in four groups chanting, moving, and circling.  In this case, participants were circling a sacred fire and the stones that we were blessing. After raising this energy, we left the stones in that sacred space till the end of the gathering where once again chanting, each participant was able to take his or her stone and recieve instructions for how to place his or her stone.

 

Part III: Creating the Network: Setting Stones in Sacred Homes

Once the stones were empowered, at the end of the gathering, each participant came and gathered up their stone. Each particiapnt was also given a scroll with instructions on what to do next. Each participant was asked to find a sacred place for their stone of their choosing, to establish a sacred space (using OBOD’s grove opening or any other method of their choosing), to set their stone and chant all four sacred trees, and then to envision a line traveling from their stone back to the stone circle at Four quarters. As they envisioned this, they would once again use our “singing up the ley lines” chant.  We also asked participants to “map out” where their stones went on a Google Map, so we can literally see the lines being created after the gathering.

 

Final Thoughts

There’s a lot of information here to get you thinking. The thing that I like about this is that we are responding in a positive way, building anew, something that is ours, unique, magical and choosing to see the land as the enchanted, sacred place that it is.  I hope that other individuals and groups will find the above information inspiring and I encourage you to experment and see what you develop.

 

This idea and ritual is the creation of many minds and hearts! Contributors to this ritual include Cat McDonald (blog: A Druid’s Well); Loam Ananda (blog: Loamology.com); John and Elmdea Adams; Brom Hanks; David North and Nicole South; and Dana O’Driscoll here at the Druid’s Garden.

 

Elder (Sambucus Canadensis): Sacred Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Uses of the Elder Tree March 4, 2018

Dana gathers elder as the sun rises on the summer solstice!

Dana gathers elder as the sun rises on the summer solstice!

I remember when I first found the massive elderberry patch. It was a few summer solstices ago. There is an overlook deep in the state forest lands, where the roads are more goat path than vehicle worthy, and it takes about 45 minutes to go only a few miles. The overlook is facing east and you can see across multiple counties, for countless miles. Visiting the overlook earlier in the summer, I had said to my mother how much I’d love to witness the summer solstice sunrise from that spot. And so, at 4:30 am on the morning of the solstice we got up and were dismayed to find that it was overcast and drizzling. With hope in our hearts that it would clear, we made our way up the winding path, avoiding potholes and huge rocks, and eventually to that mountain overlook.  It was still gray and overcast, the opposite of what I had hoped to witness that day. The sun was not interseted in coming out to greet us. We were a bit saddened by the experience, and began our drive back. Suddenly, something caught my eye—a whole lot of something. A massive patch of hundreds of elderberry bushes, all in incredible bloom. We had bags for foraging in the car (my family is rather obsessed with foraging and mushroom hunting; you don’t leave the house without foraging gear) and so we stopped to pick them.  It was magical.  and I made my first batch of elderflower cordial later that day.

 

That morning so dreary, and the elder was so bright. She lived in a swampy area, so my sandaled feet were covered in mud. She had brambles growing all below her, so I was scratched up from tangling with the brush. But getting to pick that beautiful cluster of flowers, and taste the joy of the elderflower cordial—it was a true delight. There is so much transition here–and transition is one of the key themes that Elder offers. And so, in today’s post, we will explore the magic, medicine, folklore, and mystery of the elder tree. This post continues my longer series on Sacred Trees in the Americas, where I explore the many aspects of trees native or naturalized to the Eastern and Midwest regions of the US. Previous entries have included Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, and White Pine. We’ll do this to understand elder’s role on the landscape and what gifts she may offer us—and how we, too, may seek her deep mysteries.

 

About the Elder Tree

The Elder tree (Sambucus spp.) has over 26 different varieties found throughout the world. Here in the Eastern US, the most common elder we have is Sambucus Canadensis, or the black elder. I will focus the remaining post on the black elder as this is the elder that I have the most experience with, but do recognize that most of what I’m discussing can likely apply to other kinds of elders. Sambucus Canadensis is known by a variety of names including the common elder, American elder, black elder, elder blow, Canada elder, sweet elderberry.  According to Grieve in her Modern Herbal, more names for Elder include Pipe tree, bore tree, bour tree, hylder, hylantree, eldrum, and ellhorn.  All of these names have rich histories and are seeped in lore and tradition.

 

Elder typically grows in areas that are damp or wet such as ditches, flood plains, near streams and lakeshores, but I’ve also seen it growing in typical moist forests as well, either along the edges or as an understory species. It can grow in full sun or part shade, but shade will likely reduce the number of flowers and berries produced. In The Book of Swamp and Bog, John Eastman describes the cup-shaped fungus (auricularia aricula) that grows on elder in the spring and fall. This mushroom, called a “Judas ear” or “Brown ear” is a delicious culinary treat. In rich wet soil with ample sun, elder can produce an amazing amount of flowers and berries that provide habitat and foraging for over 40 species of birds along with a host of mammals including squirrels, foxes, mice, and groundhogs. And, as anyone who has gone to gather elderflowers at midsummer knows—ample insect life. Not to mention, delicious flowers and berries that humans can enjoy.

 

Edible Qualities of the Elder

Elderflower gathered at the summer solstice

Elderflower gathered at the summer solstice

Elderberry is an incredible food and medicine for humans, and we have long cultivated a rich relationship with elder. As a food, Elderberry is high in Vitamin C, as well as A, Iron, Calcium, and Potassium. However, fresh from the bush, elderberry has a bit of rankness or skunkyness; this is completely eliminated by drying or canning. Some sources suggest that the fresh elderberries should not be eaten raw because they can sometimes cause an upset stomach. I’ve read this statement in a lot of books, and maybe it is true, but I’ve never heard anyone who has actually gotten a stomach problem from them. As a child, my cousins and I enjoyed them every year and ate them fresh from the bush. We were fine, but we are also hardy mountain people!  It may be that this is true of Elder species other than Sambucus Canadensis.

 

The fruits and flowers both are culinary treats, used in creating beverages as well as jams and jellies. In Stalking the Wild Asparagus (which is, to this day, one of my very favorite foraging books), Euell Gibbons describes his version of elderberry jelly, to which he also adds staghorn sumac. I’ve modified his recipe as follows to be a lower-sweetener/sugar version employing Pamona’s pectin (for low sugar canning) rather than normal pectin. First, you begin by stripping the berries of stalks (the easiest way is actually to freeze the berries—then they pop off of the stalks easily). You don’t want the stalks as they are not edible. Next, cover the berries with water and simmer for 30 min, mashing them as they cook in the water. While the berries are simmering, take several heads of staghorn sumac, break them up, and soak them in water for 10 or so minutes). Strain both elderberries and staghorn sumac. Combine 1 cup of staghorn sumac juice to 3 cups elderberry juice (or any higher amount, using this ratio) with between ¼ or ½ cup sweetener (I use honey or raw cane sugar) per cup of liquid (so this recipe would call for a minimum of 1 cup sweetener and up to 2 cups sweetener). Add 4 teaspoons of Pamona’s pectin and 4 teaspoons of calcium water (which you make with the Pamona’s pectin) and bring the whole mix to a hard boil for one minute. Mix these very well, then add to sterilized jars and hot water bath can them for 20 minutes. Gibbons also offers a “juice” version of this that uses no pectin, but in similar ratios to the above to taste. I want to make a note about the pectin used here—Pamona’s pectin is a special low sugar pectin that allows you to “set” jams and jellies using very low amounts of added sugar; normal pectin requires high amounts of sugar for setting.

 

 

Another recipe Gibbons offers is an “Elderberry Rob”, which is where you take a quart of the elderberry juice (prepared in the manner I described above) and add 1 stick of cinnamon, six cloves, and a whole nutmeg. You boil this for 30 minutes, and then add a cup of sugar or honey (if you add honey, you can also use this as a cough syrup). If you are adding raw honey, wait till it cools down so that you also get the medicinal benefits of honey. Finally, a recipe I have yet to try is Gibbon’s “Old time face cream”, where you add 1oz lanolin, 8oz cocoa butter and a handful of elderflowers in a double boiler, then strain and pour into small jars. I like the sound of this!  Elderflower is slighty asringent, so it would make sense that this cream would tone the face beautifully.

 

The Elusive Sambucca and Childhood Toys

As children know, you can make a simple instrument or blow gun from the Elder tree. Culpepper describes this in his herbal, “I hold it needless to write any description of this, since every boy that plays with a pop-gun will not mistake another tree instead of elder.” A youngish stalk can have the pith hollowed out to make a hollow tube. The tube can be used for a number of things including flutes, blow-guns, and even, taps for maple syrup trees (homemade spiels), as Gibbons describes in Stalking the Wild Asparagus. As the elder matures, the walls of the stalks thicken and the soft white pith gets less pliable, so younger stalks are often better for these than old granny stalks (and who would want to cut old granny stalks of elder anyways? That would just lead to bad things).

 

In fact, the etymology of the Latin term for elder, Sambucca, has an interesting history. I have found references to a Sambuca (or Sambuke in Ancient Greek) that is an ancient instrument that apparently gave Elderberry its Latin name. In The Earthwise Herbal, Matthew Wood explains that panpipes were originally made from Elder and tied to Pan, the lord of the forest.  As someone who plays the panpipes, I can attest to the truth in this statement!

 

What I haven’t been able to find in any detail is how to actually craft the panpipes themselves out of elder—but that hasn’t stopped me from trying, as panflute is my primary instrument. So far, I’ve failed primarily in the harvest department—the wood gets thicker and thicker till it’s too thick for a good tube. That’s about what I’ve learned so far—there’s a lot more work on this project to be done and someday, I will post more about it once I figure it out. There are some good instructions on making more simple elderberry flutes, for those who are interested. But, I do wonder, what does the elder flute sound like? What haunting melodies would emerge from a Sambuca? Would it only play for the spirits, or would human ears be able to hear it? Given the richness of the elder “song” in the Native American legends, I cannot wait to hear it for myself.

 

One of Elder’s anachronistic names also offers some additional insight: the Anglo-Saxon term “aeld” means “fire.” According to Grieve, Aled eventually became Elder. The original “fire” use referred to the hollow stems being used as a fire tube for blowing oxygen onto the flame. I actually think this is a really important aspect of Elder here in the US and one not to be overlooked.

 

Medicine of the Elder

The Elder is a highly medicinal tree with a range of uses for the bark, leaves, flowers, and berries. The flowers are primarily used as a diaphoretic, that is, they increase periphery circulation and are used for fever support. According to herbalist Adele Dawson, Elderflower is a wonderful support for influenza, especially for addressing the achiness that is so present in the body. Elder increases circulation and sweating, which helps rid the muscles of some of the toxins that build up during influenza.  Herbalist Jim McDonald recommends using elderflower in conjunction with boneset for supporting a healthy fever response (which is not the same as suppressing a fever). Here is a great video of Jim teaching about elder.

 

Elderberry is a strong immune system supporter and can be part of a daily herbal routine to combat regular seasonal illnesses (such as the horrible flu that goes around every year). Elderberry and Echinacea Purpea form a very powerful immune support team.  As I was taught about this plant from herbalist Jim McDonald, elderberry is best used for daily immune system support, to keep you from getting sick. Once you get sick though, it is better to take Echinacea because that stimulates an acute immune system response (through increasing white blood cells).  I actually make an elderberry elixir, a recpie I’ve shared on this blog before, and take that regularly during the year to avoid sickness and boost the immune system.

Plump Elderberries Gathered at Lughnassadh

Plump Elderberries Gathered at Lughnassadh

Matthew Wood notes that elder bark is semi-toxic, and because of this, it.can be used for an emetic drink—to induce vomiting if that is needed. How like the elder–she’ll give freely of her fruit and flowers, but take her bark and pay the price! John Eastman describes that the Onodaga would drink a brew of elder bark to try to remedy for poison hemlock poisoning (it would make you throw up the poison if you drank it quickly enough). Given that elder and poison hemlock have very similar growing conditions, this makes sense; a lot of “cures” can be found right next to the “poison” itself.  Although I think the best approach would be to avoid poison hemlock to begin with….

There’s a lot more to say about the medicine of the elder—I just detailed several of many uses.  You can see Jim’s video (above) and the link to Grieve’s entry on Elder here for more information.

 

 

Magical Uses of the Elder in Western and American Magical Traditions

Because of its place as an Ogham tree and potent magic, Elder has long been recognized as an important plant ally and has an incredibly rich tie to magic and folklore.

 

Elder is one of the 22 trees in the Ogham, the Celtic tree alphabet. It is distinguished by five lines and is tied to the Ogham letter “R” and “Ruis.” The Elder, as an Ogham tree, has strong connections to the fairy realm (as both a gateway as well as the tree representing the Queen of the Fairy, in some tales).  In Ogham, the general divination meaning of Elder is tied to Venus (as a water-loving plant) and to the element of water. Her meanings are many, but are often tied to transformation; regeneration; life, death and rebirth; endings; and fate.  In the Celtic Tree Oracle, for example, Liz and Colin Murry tie this “rebirth” quality to the Pair Dadeni, the Celtic cauldron of rebirth, which is said to be able to revive the dead (as described in the second branch of the Mabinogi).

 

Like any powerful magical plant, Elder has both beneficial aspects as well as warnings to heed, as with any other very potent plant ally. In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer describes Elder as both “harmful” and “helpful” depending on how it is used. As long as elder is kept out of the house, it can bring a host of magical protection. People have planted elder outside of their houses, for example, for deflecting hostile magic; similarly, elder was planted in cemeteries to allow the dead to rest in peace.  Elder was used to fasten doors shut or tied to windows and doors to keep out the fey as well as other kinds of hostile magic and also used in barns for this same kind of protection.  If the elder was gathered on Beltane eve, it was particularly potent for this purpose. In Hoodoo, likewise, elder pegs were dressed (rubbed) with High John the Conqueror oil  and driven into the earth around a business or home to keep the law away (see Yronwode, Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic, for more details).

 

All of these good and protective qualities, however, go away if you take Elder indoors in most cases—the tree spirit gets a bit angry and feisty. If you burn elder wood, you summon evil spirits. A baby crib made of elder for example, angers the tree spirit and the spirit pinches the baby till it is bruised and crying. Similarly, napping under an elder tree is a very bad idea; it is believed to cause madness (probably because of its association as a gateway to the otherworld and fairy traditions).

 

Elder bush in full flower

Elder bush in full flower

In the American Hoodoo tradition, it is similarly used as a protective herb; when leaves, berries, or roots are carried they offer protection, particularly against illness. In Hooodoo Root and Herb Magic, Cat Yronwode shares a particularly interesting ritual involving elder.  First you cut a fresh elder stick, draw a circle in the dirt around you, standing inside the circle, and make your wish or prayer.  Hoodoo practitioners don’t seem to have the prohibitions against elder being indoors that the Old World magical traditions seem to have.  For example, hoodoo practitioners use pieces of it inside the house to protect the house from thieves, shield one from prying eyes, and proved physical and spiritual protection. I wonder if this has to do with the different nature of the otherworld on American soil vs. European soil—or perhaps Sambucus Canadensis is simply more friendly than its European counterpart, Sambucus Nigra.

 

Matthew Wood, in the Earthwise Herbal describes how the North American Indians and Europeans were in the tradition of making offerings to the elder.  North American Indiana made offerings at each elder plant when picking them for use. Europeans believed Elder was the “elder mother” or “hylde moer”, who was Queen of the Fairy or Queen of the Underworld—a powerful and potent force. Each elder tree had a “little elder mother” that lived there; they would make offerings at the base of the elder tree, to the little elder mother, to encourage good harvest and potent medicine from the elder.

 

Elder in Native American Mythology

Native American mythology offers us some additional insight into the magic of the elder tree, as it manifests on the soil here in the Americas.

 

In one Miwok legend, How Tol-le-loo Stole Fire, Tol-le-loo has an elderberry flute that he takes with him to a village. Tol-le-loo has the intention of stealing the villager’s fire; to further his goal, he plays his flute and all of the villagers start to fall asleep. Wit-ta-bah, a robin, sees what is happening and spreads his wings over embers to protect it, but the flute eventually puts Wit-ta-bah to sleep as well. Tol-le-loo cuts a hole in Wit-ta-bah’s wing to get at the fire, steals the fire embers, and puts the fire in his flute for safekeeping while he climbs up to the top of a mountain. The fire stays in the flute till he takes it out.

 

In  a second Miwok legend, the Birth of Wik’-Wek and the Creation of Man, there is but a single elder tree, the lah’-pah, in the world at the dawn of time.  This single elder tree was located “where the sun gets up” in the east, surrounded byt a den of rattlesnakes.  The passage from the story is so beautiful, I want to share it here:

 

“Its branches, as they swayed in the wind, made a sweet musical sound. The tree sang; it sang all the time, day and night, and the song was good to hear. Wik’-wek looked and listened and wished he could have the tree. Near by he saw two Hol-luk’-ki or Star-people, and as he looked he perceived that they were the Hul-luk mi-yum’-ko–the great and beautiful women-chiefs of the Star-people. One was the Morning Star, the other Pleiades Os-so-so’-li. They were watching and working close by the elderberry tree. Wek’-wek liked the music and asked the Star-women about it. They told him that the tree whistled songs that kept them awake all day and all night so they could work all the time and never grow sleepy. They had the rattlesnakes to keep the birds from carrying off the elderberries.

 

So in the first legend, the song of the elder flute put people to sleep, but in this case, the song of the elder tree allowed the star-people to keep working and created the “soft whistling song of the elderberry tree.” But these people aren’t normal people, they are star-people and chiefs, so that might be part of the difference. Eventually, Wik’-wek is able to secure a piece of the elder tree and plant it all over the country to offer the Indian people food, music, and medicine. In another tale, which talks talks about this same legend from a book called Tower Legends, the author notes that since all of the elderberry trees came from that singing tree, elderberry trees sing even when there is no wind.

 

In the Tsimshian Texts, a brief note is indicated that Elderberry bush gave birth to her children before little stone, and this is part of why Indians do not live as long. There is not more than this short story, but it does also give the “life and death” theme we find above.

 

Elderflower in hand....ready to make into medicine. Thank you, elder!

Elderflower in hand….ready to make into medicine. Thank you, elder!

Finally, in the Hoo’-Koo’-E’-Ko legend, “How O’-Ye The Coyote-man Discovered his Wife”, O’-ye the Coyote man is the creator of the world.  The world was covered in ocean, but eventually the waters receded and there was enough land. O’Ye planted the most important trees to the people: buckeye, oak, and elderberry with many other plants in order to help make the world.

 

Conclusion: Sacred Meanings of the Elder Tree

The Elder is a tree richly steeped in lore and mysticism around the world. Given all of the above, here are several magical and divinatory meanings, based on the tree’s role here in North America:

 

  • Elder is a tree of transitions.  Elder is a boundary tree; she gaurds the boundaries between life and death, between sickness and health, between this world and the otherworld.  Like any transition point, this can be a dangerous road to travel, but can also lead to rich rewards.

 

  • Elder “sings” and offers a magical spirit song that can be used for a variety of purposes. Elder’s long associate with woodwind instruments (sambucca, flutes in the Americas) as well as the many legends about the elder trees in song suggest that a magical sound comes from the tree herself as well as any instruments created from elder branches.  These instruments, always some kind of flute, can be used to slow things down (putting people to sleep, into a revere, into a quiet meditation) or to speed things up/raise energy.  It is all in the intention of the tree or the musician.

 

  • Elder requires caution and wisdom in use. In both of the magical uses above, Elder has two sides: a healing and a harming side; a side of death and a side of life. Knowing how to use her well, how to seek her as a guide, is something that requires wisdom and knowledge of her inner workings.  Here, I also point to the elder’s use as a fire blow stick–she is a lot like the fire itself.  Tend and respect the fire carefully and you have a warm house and a hot meal.  Fail to respect her, and she will burn your house to the ground. And so, failing to use her medicine and magic wisely can end you in a lot of trouble (being caught in the rattlesnake den, trapped in the otherworld, or being tortured by the spirit of the little elder). Tread carefully, friends.

 

As the new spring season is quickly upon us, you might see if you can seek some elder this year–and learn the many things she has to teach.  Blessings!