By: Sasha de Beausset, B.A., M.Sc.
The elder tree and the bounty it has provided humanity for thousands of years – everything from medicine to food to instruments – is naturally a vital part of our human culture. As such – it has rich folklore tied to it, which communicates its mysterious essence and is proof of the important place it has held in the hearts, minds, and kitchens, of many.
The Elder Mother is one of the most well-known pieces of elder tree folkore.
The Elder Mother is a being that guards the elder tree and has its roots in English and Scandinavian Folklore. She is also known as the Old Lady or Old Girl in Lincolnshire, or Hyldemoer in the Netherlands.
The Elder Mother in Folklore
Charlotte Sophia Burn, in her 1914 publication of the Handbook of Folklore, she mentions two accounts of the Elder Mother in folklore.1Burne, C. (1914). Handbook of Folklore. Keissinger Publishing, LLC. Republished 2003. Retrieved from: https://www.amazon.com/Handbook-Folklore-Charlotte-Sophia-Burne/dp/0766130584/ref=olp_product_details?_encoding=UTF8&me= First, she narrates how there were several beliefs in different regions of what is now known as the United Kingdom that gave human, animalistic, of supernatural traits to the elder tree that discouraged people from cutting or burning its wood.
In Wales, as accounted by Marie Trevelyan in her book Folk-Lore and Folk-Stories of Wales, the belief was that the elder tree bleeds if it’s cut.2Trevelyan, M. (1909). Folk-lore and folk-stories of Wales. Digitized by the University of Michigan. Retrieved from: https://archive.org/details/afl2317.0001.001.umich.edu/page/n5 In Needwood Forest, burning elder wood would raise the devil. Charlotte Sophia Burn also mentions two accounts of the Elder Mother. First, she narrates:
“In Lincolnshire, they believe that the Old Lady or Old Girl is offended by cutting elder-wood without asking her to leave, which may be done thus: ‘Owd Gal, give me some of thy wood and oi will give thee some of moine, when I graws into a tree.”.
If this was not said before cutting the tree’s wood, the cutter may be under a curse of some sorts. In the early 20th century, a mother in Eastern England explained how her baby fell ill after not asking for the proper permission to cut elder wood.3Freeman, L. (n.d.). “Tree Lore: Elder.” Druidry.org. Retrieved from: https://www.druidry.org/library/trees/tree-lore-elder The Elder Mother was believed to pinch babies if their cradles were made of elder wood.
Benjamin Thorp, who compiled mythology from Northern Germany and the Netherlands, tells the story of the Hyldemoer.4Thorpe, B. (1851-1852). Northern mythology : comprising the principal popular traditions and superstitions of Scandinavia, North Germany, and the Netherlands. London: E. Lumley. Retrieved from: https://archive.org/details/northernmytholog02thor/page/n5
“The Danish peasants believe that a being called a Hyldemoer, or “Elder Mother,” dwells in the elder-tree and avenges all injuries done to it. Before they cut it, they ask her permission, thus: ‘Hyldemoer, Hyldemoer, permit me to cut thy branches.”.
The Danish version of the Elder Mother was popularized by the author Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875).5Andersen, H.C. (1845) “The Little Elder-Tree Mother”. Retrieved from: http://hca.gilead.org.il/li_elder.html In his version, the Elder Mother was not to be feared, but instead was a being who could show visions beyond time and place.
A Good Elder Mother
Some believe that the more feared versions of the Elder Mother came about around the time that Christianity came to gain momentum. Prior to that, many believe that she had more of a role of a protector, as understood by the many healing properties of the elderberries and elderflowers.3Freeman, L. (n.d.). “Tree Lore: Elder.” Druidry.org. Retrieved from: https://www.druidry.org/library/trees/tree-lore-elder
The Elder, always given a feminine attribution, had the ability to drive away evil spirits. People all across Europe would hang an elder branch in the doorway to drive away evil spirits and protect against evil. The wood had pure, blessed properties for many, as branches were used to bless people or things.6Kindred, G. (1996) “The Spirit of the Elder Tree”. White dragon. Retrieved from: https://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/elder.htm
The Elder Mother is an important figure in European folklore, though her attributes have changed from place to place, and, likely, over time. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the era of which we have most accounts of the Elder Mother, she was to be feared and respected. However, it is very possible that the elder mother had more of a role of a protector and healer before fear set in, as her fruits and flowers are well known to have healing properties.
- “The Elder Mother Tree”. 1932
By Arthur Rackman. Displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
- “Hyldemor”. N.d.
By Oskar Klever.