Elderberries have been used around the world as everything from a curative medicine to a delicious food for longer than most textbooks can remember. It has a rich history steeped in mythology, religion, and folklore that we’d like to delve a little deeper into. Here we’ll go over the elderberry tree and it’s place throughout the world in history.
Note: This article speaks mostly of the black elderberry tree as it is usually the most commonly referenced and used. Keep in mind while reading that in many places there are two differing opinions as to how the elderberry played it’s part in shaping the world we know today. This article will do it’s best to lay out the facts that have survived the test of time and remain unbiased.
Two of the longest surviving stories about the elder tree are the ones pertaining to it’s role in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the death of Judas Iscariot afterward.
During the death of Jesus we all know he was forced to carry a cross that he would later be crucified upon. Popular belief is that this cross was made from elder wood although there is no actual proof and the Bible does not go into depth about the kind of wood used. If elderberry was indeed the wood used in the making of the cross it likely would have been that of the black elderberry as it is the sort that grows in the areas around Jerusalem where Jesus was said to have been crucified. It is said that because of the elder trees part in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ it was cursed to be short and never able to stand straight.
The other famous elder tree related biblical story was that Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus hung himself (Matthew 27) on an elder tree, according to Sunflower Press. There are various differing viewpoints on how Judas killed himself or was killed and not all of them involve hanging or the elder tree. Acts 1 speaks of him falling down and his body breaking open although many people believe this to have been postmortem and as a result of his body rotting off the tree. Many also believe it was not an elder tree from which he hung himself but a Cercis siliquastrum, which is more commonly known as the Judas Tree. However, this could be because of the way the flowers hang from the tree or even just a simple mispronunciation of the original French name Arbre de Judée, meaning tree of Judea, which refrenced the trees origins not its history.
Going back even further in time we’ll see that the elder tree was considered a sacred part of the vegetation goddess Hyllantree.. She was said to live in the tree and either bless or punish those who came across her. If you asked an d then were granted permission to take fruit or wood from an elder tree it was a huge blessing and the products were considered Hyllantree’s gift to you. However, if you took without asking it would only bring trouble.
The correct way to ask the tree for some of it’s fruits was even specific in how you said it. A common way to phrase your question was, “Old Woman, give me some of thy wood and I will give thee some of mine when I grow into a tree.”
One such story of being punished for taking without asking was that a man took wood from an elder tree without asking first . He then took the wood home to build a cradle for his infant son. Hyllantree came every night and pulled the child’s legs to make it cry until the father so exhausted from lack of sleep, finally gave in and took the wood back.
The wood of an elder tree was also said to imbue protection upon people (assuming you had permission to obtain the wood) such as keeping away evil spirits if hung above your door.
There was also a common ban on cutting down an elder tree completely that has only just recently fallen out of favor. It was said that if you did actually cut down an entire tree the spirit that lived inside would hunt you down and either punish you with bad luck or, as the Romanians believe, with toothache.
In pagan mythology it was believed that the spirits who lived in the elder tree were evil and malevolent. Even simply sleeping under an elder tree was said to cause dreams of death.
In medieval times the elder tree had a variety of uses in the home and outside of it. It was said that you could use elder twigs to cause sorcerers and witches to show themselves or even to entice the Devil himself to do your bidding.
Elderberries and the trees they come from were also referred to as the country man’s medicine chest. This was because of the wide range in which elder fruit and wood was used to cure ailments or altogether ward them off.
In 1644 a book was even penned that sand many a praise to the elder tree and all of it’s useful parts as a medicinal cabinet in and of it’s self. It was said that it could cure anything, “from toothache to the plague.” In 233 pages the book details how you can go about curing anything at all if you just know how to use the plant.
Every part of the tree was used in these preparations to make medicine. You could make a variety of things the book says such as, ‘a rob or syrup, tincture, mixture, oil, ointment, spirit, water, liniment, extract, salt, conserve, vinegar, oxymel, sugar, decoction, bath, cataplasm, and powder’ using one or several of the parts of the elder tree.
This book became so very popular that it was translated from the Latin version to English and ran through several editions in both languages.
However, in these days where illness was as much spiritual as physical so to were the remedies. The elder tree was also used in a variety of charms and amulets that were said to cure everything from rheumatism to warts.
Some even said that you could transfer your illness from yourself to a tree who would be able to neutralize the sickness with its healing properties. To do this you simply need to take three spoons full of a sick person’s bath water and pour it over the roots of the elder tree.
While many of these medicinal uses have long since been disproved some are still very widely used today.
While all parts of the elder tree are medicinally active the roots, bark and leaves are no longer used since heroic medicine fell out of fashion.
While the Black Elderberry Tree is steeped in rich history both fact and fiction it is still amazingly useful today. A history this rich just goes to show that while fairies, gods, and goddesses may or may not have had anything to do with it, the people of olden times knew something was worth having with this tree.