Sitting down to write this months Folk Tales Corner I found myself searching for a subject, then I remembered that I had rather been handed a baton by Country File (not the BBC programme but the short seasonal wildlife column in the local magazine where Folk Tales Corner starts it’s life) with the reference to The Elder Mother in a piece about fire wood. I think they had in mind that I would trot out the story, make a comment on it, job done! As usual it turns out to be much more complicated than that.
Western society is built fairly strongly on a medieval foundation and tends to see things in a very binary way. There is yes and no, good and bad, my way or the highway. Folklore, especially that which has been around for some time, often steps in to greyer areas, and there is little more ambiguous than the lore surrounding the Elder: She is a witch tree but her twigs will protect you from fairies; if you burn her wood it will bring death to your house but the medicines made from her can bring you back from the brink of death; an elder tree in the garden will keep you safe but having them all round the house will finish you off, though you should never cut one down or it will result in misery, misfortune and shrub related retribution.
The medicinal properties are in fact real. The list of medical preparations that can be made from her bark, leaves, flowers, fruit, pith and roots would easily fill several pages on their own and include diuretics, astringents, febrifuges, purgatives, expectorants, laxatives, pain relievers and sleep inducers. Most of the lore surrounding the Elder is probably a result, one way or another, of it being a veritable hedgerow chemical factory. The leaves for instance could be used to keep rats, mice and flies away as they do not like the smell. This is clearly where it got its status as a protector against fairies, the side benefits of being free from actual small pests getting attributed to being free from diminutive mythological beings.
With an entire shop full of medicines being available from one tree, the Elder would have been a regular stop for any herbalists or healers. Few trees are as blatant with their fertility as the Elder. Her white blossom and red berries obscuring her green leaves in turn. It is easy to see how such a bountiful bush would be protected by warnings of the danger and loss that would follow any careless damage: sooner or later you would suffer for your sloppiness when the remedy for your malady was no longer available. The Elder Mother then, was a giver of great gifts who should be respected and, like any mother, could bring comfort or comeuppance.
As the medieval Church defamed all knowledge that was not under it’s direct control traditional medicine became decried as witchcraft, and the Elder went from generous goddess to woodland witch, field pharmacy to tree of terror. It was an easy fit because the Elder Mother, like many pagan goddesses, already had a dark side. It is true that elder wood does not burn well, it spits, smokes and gives little flame, then smoulders in the grate. In doing so it releases many of the toxins from which it’s medicines are made. As the fire loses it’s heat it is more likely that the noxious gasses from the fuel will creep in to the room instead of exiting through the chimney, subjecting the occupants to a strong soporific which would prevent them from awakening while they breath in a cocktail of deadly vapours. If you bring death to the giver of life then you can expect to reap her revenge!