Candles for Rituals

Candles have apparently formed a part of ceremony and ritual for around 5000 years. A ritual without a candle (or a fire) burning, no matter what other offerings or symbols are on an altar or equivalent, to me is just a meditation. It might be very meaningful in itself, but there is no uplift. No Fire in its pure elemental form to create a transformation in my subconscious.

Now that M is at school, I find I have time and space to do more full rituals again – and having not managed much for a few years it is a good opportunity for me to re-examine what I do and why. (Oh the joy, and effort, of being a solitary!) However, I have been encountering two problems. Paraffin wax, which the majority of candles are made from, smells awful to me and gives me breathing difficulties even without any scents being added. Alternatively beeswax candles, a beautiful smelling natural product, are expensive especially as easily available nightlights don’t burn properly in the time a solo ritual generally takes. Unless a candle burns to its edges before being blown out, it will form a hole in the centre, making it difficult to relight. So for my typical 30 minute or so burn time, 2cm is probably the largest candle size to use. (Several years ago I bought some beeswax “birthday candles” for which I was kindly made a wooden pentacle holder, but these only burn 10-15 minutes each. Great for a spell or focused meditation, but simply too short for a ritual.)

Pagans luckily have an answer to this problem, I have recently discovered, in the form of Spell Candles. Usually around 1-1.5cm across and 10cm tall, many are made of beeswax and come in a variety of colours. Burn time varies from an hour to 90 minutes, depending on size and if they are rolled or solid. Prices vary with some people charging a premium, while others charge in proportion to the amount of wax required to make each candle. (Yes there are now many electronic effect nightlight candles around, and yes it does take fire elementals to create electricity so they would be present, but this isn’t my first choice if there is a natural and sustainable alternative available.)

So having finally established that there are suitable candles for me to buy, I then start considering candle holders. Not many are this small, and they will need to be sized fairly specifically to which candles I choose to buy. Sticking one in melted wax on a plate is basic but tempting! But there is also the question of how many candles to have, given candle holders often come in pairs.

One candle seems to me to be adequate for a ceremony, to be lit at the start, before any circle is cast, and extinguished at the end. It can represent anything and everything, and ultimately symbolises that all is one. Connected through the centre which is everywhere. However, many witches have candles for the God and Goddess, possibly in addition to a central or carried candle (which may also be used represent Fire on the altar), making two or three candles per ceremony. Some witches also like to light candles in each quarter, coloured for each element, giving a possibility of seven candles. (I am assuming any candles lit as part of a spell or a working are extras.)

At this point I spent some time in meditation. I asked, what does my ideal altar look like for use indoors?

The picture that came into my mind was this one:

Two candles at the back. That was a surprise because it isn’t what I usually do. They are equal, yet apart. Goddess and God, Mother Earth and Father Sky, female and male, dark and light, above and below, within and without, manifested and unmanifested. I realised we live in a world of duality and what I seek is balance. Then on the right side of my altar, an apple Wand (I wonder why apple? I’ll come back to this when I know… ), ready to pick up and use, while on the left, a silver (pewter) cup bearing water. In the centre at the front, my working area where I can place anything specific to that ritual, ideally on a pentagram disk of some kind, completing the five-pointed arrangement. Underneath is my portable table covered by a bright green cotton cloth. Behind on the wall is a beautiful fabric picture of a tree.

I share this because it is considerably more basic and simple than most witches use – and in fact than I normally use! Yet although I was then shown how it could be added to, the athame next to the wand, a bowl for salt next to the cup, Goddess and God statues behind the two candles, other items specific to the ritual such as gemstones, flowers, amulets, pictures, carvings etc, I realised it is perfection in its simplicity, with each item being hand made and beautiful in itself. Both male and female are present, as are all four elements, as is an ancestor connection. If my altar represents me in the higher planes, then I seem to be calm, peaceful, simple and uncluttered inside.

A permanent altar with lots of things on it is not something that feels right to me because I live with non-Pagans who would have no use for such a thing and not treat my tools as sacred; when I am not using them, they (bell, athame, swan feather, cups, offering plates, etc) are safe inside my desk, along with all the other sacred objects, talismans, divination aids, space clearing tools etc that I possess. Our ‘seasonal displays’ on the mantleshelf act as a permanent focus with the various quilt tops I have made changing for each sabbat – they are based around the pagan year, which is of course the solar year so easily understood by all including visitors to the house. Our two dining candles live there when not in use, creating a parallel with my altar. I also have various locations in the house where there are power items that are left out all the time, and a place where I leave offerings in the garden. So after a bit of thought and experimentation, I find a really simple altar inside gives me the freedom to set it up quickly and easily when I want it (and dismantle it again before collecting M from school), and I have the flexibility to add any statues or symbols or flowers etc that are befitting to the ritual.

The loss of some tools does, however, feel like I am breaking a lot of rules! I clear space before casting a circle, so these tools are kept nearby, but I won’t now be putting them on my alter after use. My wooden athame I made has not seen much use, and it was interesting while exploring altars and candles to read other people’s comments that they don’t use an athame outside for fear of upsetting elementals – any blade is objectionable, not just an iron one. (I wondered if some witches used knives originally so that they had one to hand in case protection is needed. Also I suspect only rich witches in times past would have had a spare knife for magical purposes! Another area to come back to…) Incense I don’t use because I can’t cope with smoke – but I do sometimes use natural sprays while cleansing the space so I’ll have to find a way to work these in. Also my apple wand will need consecrating when I have made it, so I’ll have to find a way of doing this that doesn’t involve smoke!

I am amused that I started out just trying to work out what candles to buy, and have ended up redesigning my altar, and probably the whole way I celebrate. Sometimes all it takes is a small thing for us to make the big changes that we simply couldn’t see before.

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Reflections

Janus looks both ways, forwards and backwards, reminding me that both matter. So as the new year begins, I am reflecting back on how much is different to what I had imagined. I have written already about my tendon injury. While it continues to heal, I have changed. I am no longer dreaming of all the physical things I hope to achieve; instead I am grateful for each thing or outdoor experience that does happen. Possibly this is self-defence, in that I don’t want to get my hopes up again. Yet I have found an inner peace and happiness in just being. I no longer feel there is always more I could or should be doing.

My rhythms are constantly changing, dictated to me by outside forces. A year ago I promised to meditate more; had I not managed this I would be lost. Yet within that there are times when I have plenty of meditation space, and other days or weeks that feel crowded by activity. Somehow everything gets done, even if never in the way I plan it.

Writing is something I have long dreamed of spending more time doing, and yet when I had three weeks of enforced hip rest and no interruptions I quickly ran out of things to say. Staring at a blank page of fiction suddenly felt self-indulgent and I realised my family needed me. I no longer need to prove to myself that I am ‘somebody’ because I write; I have a job as a homemaker, decorator, gardener, seamstress, cook, mother, lover … and am loved and valued for it. Even my blog has taken second place at times – if I didn’t have something to say that fits the very broad definition of either pagan or crafting, then I decided to ease up on myself. Once or twice a month is sometimes what I can manage, if I am concentrating on other things.

Looking back, there are two things that have changed me. One was realising my happiness depended on what stories I told myself. I had the power to be happy or not in any situation, depending on how I interpreted it for my conscious self. (See my comments about happiness under Samhain Quilt in October 2017.) The second was some recent journeying experiences of being some kind of woodland elf. Most people have had past lives, to which windows are sometimes opened, usually revealing a previous human existence or series of existences. Mine, so far, are not. They are of living as an advanced elemental in freshwater, or in woodland, the two environments I am most at home in, that give healing to me just by being there. (Unlike the ‘seaside / blue skies’ pictures or holiday places generally recommended to get healing and calm.) I do not fully understand these memories / experiences yet so haven’t written much about them (the first was 2-3 years ago, most were 2-3 months ago), but I am wondering if this life I am now in is about learning to be a human being. I often feel myself in this life as a hazel tree going off in all directions with no strong central trunk, but all weaving together to build a strong support. I would often prefer to be single minded, an expert at something, yet this is never the way things work out and it doesn’t seem to matter. Believing what I now do it makes some kind of sense and also deepens my love and respect for the Great Spirit that is in everything and knows all.

So looking forwards, I have no plans, and no strong desires. I will simply trust that everything comes in its own time, and that there is more to come.
If there is one challenge to set myself this year, it is to love more, to see the good in everyone and every situation, even when I am not feeling calm inside. In other words, be a good human being.

Rowan Trees

Rowan Tree growing in the mountains near Beddgelert. (Click to enlarge.)

Rowan has long been known as a witches tree and for protection. Amusingly, it is used both by witches, and also to protect from witches; this often took the form of two sticks joined together with a red ribbon and hung over a doorway, or a branch with berries laid over the mantlepiece. Rowan was often used to protect animals; cows in their stable, or sheep jumping through a hoop at the beginning of May. Its energy qualities are light and air, and these are so strong that they can transform any darkness around them, hence the protection that follows. It certainly grows well in light and airy places, such as the sides of mountains, needing no shelter for itself but looking after other trees until they may stand alone.

Rowan is also known as the ‘quickening’ tree or Quickbeam, as its energy gives life to projects encouraging them on their way. Without a burst of energy, such as the rowan can provide, creative ideas are lost and do not manifest in the physical world, or projects are started but abandoned before being completed. I suspect I have Rowan to thank for the many things I actually manage to get finished and then write about here!

Rowan appears in many old myths and legends, being considered sacred in many different European cultures. This may have something to do with its colours, as red berries were powerful symbols of life and death. It may be because of this, or it may be its lightening and quickening properties, or it may be the flowers that were sometimes used for a visionary aid that have led it to be planted around ancient sites – such as the thickets that grow in Iceland. Rowan trees were sometimes planted in Britain on energy points instead of standing stones and in churchyards in Wales in place of yew.

Rowan trunk

So now I will return to the story I began last time, about meeting the dragon Fireball at a rather special rowan tree in Wales. This tree is growing half way up, or rather down (the direction we were walking) a mountain valley near Beddgelert. The first thing that struck me was its size; the trunk is beyond what I could get my arms around, which makes it the largest rowan tree I can remember seeing. So I stopped to spend a few minutes with it.

Rowan branch

Around the back was a branch that had been cut off at some point several years ago, and the tree had almost grown around the stump of the branch, another thing I don’t usually associate with rowan. And the third thing was a pool by the side of the tree, showing how it had grown so strongly, and also giving it a connection with other worlds in a way I might usually associate with willow or alder or occasionally oak but not rowan.

So I walked around the whole tree, stopping at a low branch to admire the bark, and who do I see but Fireball playing around the spaces between its branches. He didn’t seem to want to talk, just play, but told me I could travel here from my own rowan tree at home any time I wanted to. I suddenly understood what the concept ‘group soul’ means in practice: all rowan trees have the same basic core, which comes through in their teachings and wisdom, in their energies, but all are also connected at another level. While it is easier (for me at least) to connect with and talk to older trees, a young tree is still part of that bond and can link to the others if I make use of that link. The fact that I travel between oak trees regularly serves to emphasise to me at least how this applies to all tree species.

Rowan tree where I met Fireball, with pool to the left.

The second thing I learned while at the tree was the particular ‘feel’ of Rowan energy. I have sensed it through smelling the flowers, but since I have never come across a Rowan tree of this size before, I have never truly experienced its unique qualities. I would know it again anywhere now, even from a small tree, just like I can recognise the energy signature of oak when I can’t see one along with a few others I know fairly well (eg beech, hazel, apple, birch, willow, heather) when I make the effort to connect to them.

Later, I managed to ask Fireball about the tree, and the legends of Rowan trees and earth dragons, one supposedly marking or guarding the other. (I have read of the relationship both ways around, but I like having things confirmed for myself and explained in a way I can understand them.) However, I learned nothing about the legends on this occasion! (Well he is a fire dragon not an earth dragon…) But what I did learn was that he just loved the energies of the tree and loved playing in it, in the same way elementals played in trees or other places sometimes. He reminded me about the joy of playing, of feeling, of exchanging energies, and of a story I read long ago of a very psychic person ‘visiting’ some distant ancestors at a remote spot playing in the sea, who just liked playing and took energy from the waves, the sun. Being at one with them. Fireball has a relationship with Rowan, especially when in berry, while other elementals have relationships with different trees; each type of tree has its own friends who associate with it, like attracting like. He reminded me of the particular elementals of hazels, of birch and of oak that I have seen on rare occasions. They all work together and are happy to do so.

Yet Fireball is not an elemental. He has nothing to do with the growth or development of the tree. His only reason for being there, as far as I can tell, was in his role as teacher. To show me the place, and to help me become more aware, and to enjoy Just Being as well.

Stone Circles in Derbyshire

I have started a new project recently, one I have been cogitating since the start of the year. My aim is simple – to photograph and meditate at all the stone circles in Derbyshire. Needless to say, it gets more complicated from there!

The first question I looked at is why stone circles, and should I include anything else? Most stone circles can be reasonably dated to the Bronze Age from finds within the circles – but there are also huge numbers of other Bronze Age sites in Derbyshire which include cairns, burial mounds, carved stones etc as well as evidence of settlements. However, Derbyshire has been inhabited since at least the last ice age, with various pieces of evidence from limestone caves in the north of the county as well as near the river Trent in the south – and there are two older (Neolithic) henges, one of which (Arbor Low) also includes stones. Did any of these have an influence on the Bronze Age circles, and if so how? Then of course there are the later Iron Age hill forts, not to mention all the Roman roads and forts through which these circles have survived, and which the circles may have had some influence over. There are also other complications: some circles do not exist any more; some recorded as circles may have been ring cairns rather than stone circles; and there are also several standing stones, age generally unknown, which are even less clear in their purpose than stone circles but which are sometimes more dramatic than a circle with one small stone remaining.

So my first meditation was to answer these simple questions.

A circle, I realised, is something special. The energies flow in particular ways, it is very feminine in form, it is related to the circle witches cast, and it is healing in its centre. For some reason these are apparently all things I need right now. Many also have alignments to the sun at different times of the year following the larger cycles of our lives, so it would be good to visit them at their appropriate times if I can.

Stone Circles in Derbyshire

Stone Circles in Derbyshire, with rivers.
(Click to enlarge)

The beginnings of my map, shown here, includes 34 ancient circles, of which 8 destroyed (yellow) leaving 26 (green, darker for better preserved) to be found and photographed. Two of these are henges (double circles), one with stones and one without. There are also three modern circles (brown squares) to investigate – two apparently built new but using old rocks, the other entirely modern as a public space – to see if anything of a genuine ancient circle is created.

It is of interest to me how all the Derbyshire circles are concentrated in a small area mainly following the Derwent valley. They appear to be features of hilly areas where there are naturally rocky outcrops – yet sometimes the rocks were moved some distance from these outcrops. (There is no great concentration of stone circles just over the borders into Yorkshire, although there are larger numbers roughly following the Pennines north, as well as in other upland areas further west such as Cumbria, Wales and the South West. Very few stone circles exist in the East of Britain until you get to Northumberland and Scotland.)

Those known to be lost were possibly in more intensively farmed areas – whether there were more circles at one time is impossible to know, although my feelings are that it is unlikely since we would be talking about pre-enclosure days, when few would have worried about some rocks in the way of their sheep! What is more likely is that there were wooden circles built in lowland areas which simply would not have survived.

Saying Goodbye

This week I have been feeling sad as I say goodbye to a parent and toddler group I have been a member of almost since M was born. Now she is moving on to the next stage as she becomes more independent, and I find myself no longer belonging. It is not as if I will never see any of these people again, but we will meet at the gate as we collect our children, not spend a morning sitting, discussing, drinking herbal teas, and relaxing with no pressure from anyone to have to ‘be’ or ‘do’.

It is the first time in my life I have ever belonged to such a group of mutually supportive women. (Well, the occasional Dad has joined us…) It has been a very useful experience for me, as a socially awkward person, in learning how to talk to people beyond the initial meeting and discovering children are the only thing you have in common. I have watched others arrive stressed and leave happy; I have seen those who shy away from others and are easiest to engage in conversation in the garden; and watched those who ‘work’ the whole group every time they come and always make time for a chat with everyone present. Some even manage to do this smoothly and gracefully, excusing themselves politely to talk to another instead of breaking off mid-flow leaving me baffled by what I might have said to upset them. One or two simply bring an aura of calm with them, apparently needing no one but being generally friendly should anyone approach. The group often feels better just for their presence. And of course if any advice is needed, out of the 5-10 Mums present on any one day there will be someone who has experienced something similar.

However, I have become aware of how change seems to be allowed or even expected in children as they grow and develop, yet not in adults. Opinions are formed early on, and it can be hard to change these even if people have changed – as I would like to think I have. Yes, many people arrive stressed and a few months later turn into happy, relaxed, confident parents. But sometimes there is more than that. This has been a very formative time for me, continuing on from the previous few years of expanding my consciousness, and yet if I suggest I am not the same person I was 10 or 20 years ago, I am met with scepticism and non-belief. Luckily I have a few people I have known for many years who forgive my past mistakes and remain loyal, but I realise that in general it is easier to continue to change our friends to fit with who we are at each point in our development than it is to change our relationship with old friends. Moving on is required from time to time. To resist it would be the same as trying to resist any other change in our lives.

So I know it is the right thing to let go, and I feel confident that somehow, somewhere, I will meet a new group of people who fit with who I am going forwards from this point in time. (As well as those friends I will carry with me, or meet again at the school gate!) But I’m also realising I am glad that thanks to the approaching Winter Solstice I have a bit of time and space in the dark of the year before doing so, that I may properly acknowledge and mourn what has gone. Thanks to all you wonderful people who have given me an unconditional welcome, support and friendship over these early motherhood years. I’ll miss you!

Twisting Backwards

When I was a child I had a great deal of trouble learning to tie bows and bowlines. I did eventually learn, but mostly by doing it my own way in understanding the shape of the knot and the way it was formed rather than following rote instructions like “the rabbit goes up the hole, round the tree…” for a bowline. (A bowline can be made perfectly every time by knowing you have to tie a reef knot but come out the ‘wrong hole’ at the end, but most people don’t seem to do it this way.) Many years later I finally understood why I couldn’t follow the usual instructions – because I twizzle my spaghetti backwards.

This may seem a strange connection. However, if the hole is made backwards for the rabbit, it falls apart at the back of a tree. Similarly every time I tried to twizzle spaghetti, I could never follow instructions or hand guidance – and I eventually realised that I could naturally wanted to twizzle in the opposite direction to everyone else. Now I have discovered I swirl drink in my glass backwards to other people as well. (I am right handed but naturally swirl anti-clockwise.) I also have trouble doing anything with a screw thread the right way unless I work it out each time.

In times gone by, this would probably have marked me as a witch. They were probably right… I have noticed I naturally move around a space in a clockwise direction – which is great for casting a circle or building energies. Apparently over 90% of people who enter a shop turn to the right first – and shops are laid out with this in mind. By going clockwise this takes me to the left and usually gets me to the part of the shop I want much quicker, eg basics or underwear rather than expensive outfits, in the average department store. Even my supermarket wants me to turn right first, with the checkouts to the left!

Exploring this topic makes me wonder what left-handed people do, who were of course labeled as ‘sinister’ – meaning evil and threatening, while right-handers are supposedly the just, correct and proper way to be. I have been intrigued to discover left-handed pencil sharpeners and corkscrews exist…

Crafting Ceremonial Tools

Every witch or book on witchcraft will tell you that tools are not needed to direct energies or to do magic – it comes from within, and a finger can work just fine. (Is seven years as an active, circle-casting witch a record for still using a finger most of the time?)

The other great wisdom often quoted is that you can find tools anywhere, and they will feel right to you. Well I have looked many times, but none of the huge number of ‘witches tools’ offered for sale have ever felt right to me.

Tools I have looked for include a wand, a chalice, and an athame. I have acquired various knives for ceremonial cutting of plants or for whittling, dedicated several household objects I already had and loved for use in ceremony, such as a suitable bowl for water, plate for offerings, and candle holders, and even created an altar cloth, clothes and jewellery to wear. It was only in the last month or two however that I realised the best person to make the tools I want to use is me – so that they may be crafted in harmony with the natural materials around me, and full of the intentions of the use to which I wish to put them.

As with previous craftings, I am not going to show photographs of any finished items I use in ceremony. However here is my mostly finished athame I have been whittling out of a Prunus Pandora tree that is very special to me, and which had to be pruned this month. There were really too many side shoots for a perfect blade, but that is the way cherry grows. My first attempt was actually in Holly which was much smoother and more even, but just too hard for my knife to work. I may have kept it too long before starting, or it may simply not have been the right wood for me for this purpose. One day I may find something even better, but until then I am really enjoying using the cherry and it fits nicely in my hand.

Athame made from Cherry

Athame (not finished) made from Cherry

One of the side shoots left a hole in the handle, which I turned into the centre of a triple moon symbol; there will be some carving on the other side as well. I found it was an interesting wood to whittle, being a novice at this type of woodworking, quite hard but straight grained and with thicker bark than I anticipated. When freshly cut the bark was very pale and green inside, but on exposure to the air turned this richer brown colour. It is not the black of traditional athames, but is dark enough for me. I originally started making it as a single bladed knife, changing my mind as I realised a dagger shape would make better use of the hardest wood down the centre of the knife; the point is surprisingly hard and capable of cutting a candle should I wish. Also being symmetrical it has the advantage of directing energy straight down the centre line of the branch. However the blade will need some protection, such as oiling it, if I wish to dip it into liquids regularly. (I anticipate doing a bit more smoothing too, before it is declared finished and ready for consecrating!)

It occurs to me that a boline would be great fun to whittle, if I found a suitably curved branch of light-skinned ash or similar! Meanwhile I may look out for some wand material, and I’ve always wanted to carve a bowl in the shape of a leaf… The tool I use all the time though is a staff, which I really should complete one day! I have used a particular staff when journeying in the lower worlds ever since I found a hazel pole about five years ago. When I journey it is always complete, in ordinary reality it isn’t. And recently I have acquired a second staff for mainly upperworld journeys – which I am told I should use for ceremony as well. So I have two to make now! Watch this space, as they say…

Conscious Participation

I have been exploring the idea of conscious participation over the past few weeks, inspired by a comment I read from Laurie Cabot (Salem, Massachusetts witch and writer) suggesting there is no such thing as a passive observer; you are always a participant.

This makes a lot of sense to me, as the human influence can be seen working at every level: in quantum physics where light can behave as particles or as waves depending on which you are looking for; in mind experiments controlling where a ball falls; in dowsing where clear results come for anyone openminded enough to believe in the possibility – and frequently not working at all for people convinced it won’t.

At a group M and I enjoy, the person who runs it thanks everyone for being there at the end of each session. Not for coming, for being there. I found this odd the first time, that she should be thanking us rather than the other way around, but now recognise that she is acknowledging how each person’s presence influences the group and is welcome. I notice how I learn different things and have different experiences depending on who is there and how they are being, and it is frequently precisely whatever I am needing at the time.

In canoeing there is an often repeated phrase for swimmers (ie those who are unintentionally parted from their boat in whitewater) that they are not a victim, they are an active participant in whatever rescue is needed. I have been on both sides of this, rescuer and swimmer, many times, and know there is nothing to be gained except a feeling of helplessness if I don’t take an active part when needed. Sometimes that job is to observe, especially in a group situation, as signals might need to be passed up or down river. But passive observation it is not! Alternatively, even at the distance of a few years since I was last in a boat, for any rescue I can remember (and there are a few!) I can still picture every person who was there, even if they were merely passing along the footpath. Sometimes I made use of complete strangers, having to use intuition for who I could trust to help.

Similarly, in any situation of performing in front of an audience: musicians, actors, dancers, speech givers, and in every situation from concert halls and theatres to office boardrooms to the street, every person present or passing by is a participant if only they knew it! The most uninterested or bored observers will have an effect on the performance just as much as those clapping or cheering.

This is also true in witchcraft. I would never invite anyone to ‘observe’ a spell or healing I was doing, but if I felt their energies were positive might ask them to participate – the intentions of each person present and assisting will influence the outcome. After all, we ask the stars and planets to aid us in our magic, just as I am discovering many do in biodynamic gardening, which is a pretty subtle influence – as are other correspondences such as crystals or herbs used. But they can all add up to a very powerful whole.

So as this weekend was Beltane, I have of course been celebrating. Some folk might talk of ‘observing’ a festival – but this is not the pagan way. For several years now I have actively created a ritual at each Sabbat so that I may learn something from it. These are generally solo and thus fairly simple meditations and activities that I have used to give my life greater depth and meaning, connecting to the Earth as the seasons progress. However this weekend I have finally understood why many pagans talk (or write) of helping to keep the wheel of the year turning. It is not that it would stop without our efforts, (actually it might if Earth enters a higher state of consciousness, but that is a different story!) it is more that by actively participating in the celebration of the seasons, I become part of it too. By showing my love to each sign of Spring I add my consciousness. I am not a mere ‘audience’, I add my appreciation and encourage the flowers, the birds, the sheep and other field animals, the bees, the ladybirds, to greater efforts. I have become a co-creator with nature: an active participant, part of the turning wheel. That to me is something worthwhile.

Tree Stories 11 – Elder

Elder is now published on its own page, under Tree Stories or click here.

Elder tree

Elder tree

Technically Elder, Sambucus nigra, should probably be a shrub rather than a tree. It does have a bole where the roots and branches meet but it scarcely has a trunk, its branches are hollow, and it is currently classified as being in the Adoxacae family along with Moschatel. (Previously it was with honeysuckle and snowberry in the dipsacale or teasel family.) However Elder towers over most other shrubs and grows to the size of a small tree, so in folklore it is a tree.

The name is thought to come from the Anglo-Saxon aeld, fire, as its hollow sticks were used for encouraging a good blaze. They also called it ellaern, meaning hollow tree. Other names include Ellhorn and Bour (pipe) tree.

Elders like to grow in full sun and will romp away in a hedge overshadowing the hawthorn, but are also frequently found in damp shady areas of woodland forming part of the understory. It has a very strong life force and great powers of regeneration, being quite hard to remove should you wish to. However not much will grow under it so it is difficult to place in a garden.

A wide range of wildlife lives off elderflowers and berries, hence it will often grow near rabbit or badger setts after they have helped the seed along its way. Caterpillars also like the foliage. Elderberries can be mildly toxic to humans unless cooked, particularly if still unripe. Medicinally, however Elder is a very valuable tree. The berries and also the bark were used as a purgative, for rheumatism, or for colds and flu or sore throats and for asthma; breathing through a hollowed out stick was also a remedy for asthma. The leaves are good for bruises, sprains and strains or chilblains, or for insect repellant as a bunch to keep flies out of the kitchen or off horses, or soaked and the liquid used on the human body against midges. The flowers are good as a tonic or for epilepsy or sinusitis.

Other uses from the tree include: berry juice as a blue or purple dye, or for making wine, pies, jams, vinegar, chutney; flowers for sparkling wine or cordial, or in salads or cakes; bark for black dye, leaves for green; sticks for blowpipes, whistles, pegs, skewers, or making small whittlings; and the pith for fishing floats or to hold samples on microscope slides. The wood polishes up well when the bark is removed, and the bole is very dense.

In folklore elder was inhabited by the Elder Tree Mother, Hylde-moer, who needed to be appeased before any part of the tree was cut. She would haunt any timber from the tree, not necessarily in a good way, so making furniture from it was generally avoided. Witches were said to be able to turn into elder trees at will. However as protection elder was apparently great for driving away evil spirits or witchcraft, so branches were hung over doorways and buried in graves. Flutes made from elder were used to summon spirits, while twigs woven into a headdress are said to enable the wearer to see spirits. Alternatively they will undo evil magic; a necklace made from elder beads can also be used for protection. To have a self sown elder tree near your house was regarded as particularly auspicious, and they were often planted by bake ovens to keep the devil away. Fairies are said to particularly like the music from elder pipes or flutes, but it is generally advised to avoid sleeping under an elder tree unless you wish to be taken by them. Food left under elder trees overnight will be considered to belong to the fae.

To me the elder is a tree I have always been a little ambivalent towards, and the many contradictions in its character and uses are possibly the reason why. However, I then found a transcript of a conversation between an elder tree interpreted by Verena Stael von Holstein, and Wolfgang Weirauch, which showed me how the strength and spiritual gifts of this species come from precisely this contradictory nature. The many connections the Elder has with spirits and otherworld beings may not be entirely coincidental. As a witches tree, it is without parallel.

Elder Tree: “For human beings there are various paths to seek initiation into the world of spirit: firstly through thinking, clarity of thought; then the path which corresponds more to me is a path rooted in one’s own culture. … On the one hand such a person needs to be formed in a relatively gnarled way, but on the other hand he needs an unimpeded lightness – as you find in my timber. From the outside my wood looks completely gnarled, but inside I am almost cotton-like. As trees we need a harder exterior form, but within I’m the opposite of heaviness: a matter that is almost dissolving. This shows I’m a kind of connecting radiance between this world and the world of spirit. … This permeation with spirit informs my whole being and substance.
On the one hand my substance is very stable, on the other it is in dissolution. For instance, see the feathery quality of my pinnate leaves, through to the tips of each leaf, which are pointed and dentate, or toothed. Due to my transitional and gateway function, my leaves are flame shaped. In the flame you meet the world of spirit in tangible form.

A sulphurous quality comes through [the smell of my leaves.] The world of spirit does not necessarily smell very good for earthly senses. You would need to completely refashion your sense systems to really endure spirituality. If you want to develop your clairsentient faculties of smell, you can school your senses with the scent of crumbled elder leaf. On the other hand, my blossoms give of a fragrance that you probably find wonderful, which has an intoxicating effect and which you use to make sparkling wine. The scent serves at the same time as a warning not to get intoxicated.

As for the berries being poisonous when green and only edible when fully ripe:

Elder tree: “When you are still green you should not pass across to the other side, for then spirituality can endanger you. You first have to attain a certain soul maturity to cope with the full reality. The guardian of the threshold and I have a very close relationship. Wherever elder grows you can encounter your guardian.

Elder has a cleansing effect on the body. You can’t cross over the threshold in an impure state.

I belong to the cultural inheritance of northern Europe, and thus to the forces that come from the North and Teutonic cultures. I belong to people of the central European cultural epoch and their roots. … I am not so important to Asiatic peoples.”
Q: “There are said to have been times when people took off their hats as a mark of respect when passing an elder tree. Why did they do this?”
Tree: “Because they knew unconsciously that the place surrounding an elder tree is sacred. That’s why they removed their hats in the same way as going into church. At the same time people knew unconsciously that higher beings were connected with the elder tree, such as the guardian of the threshold, or Mother Holle, who is a fairytale image of the figure of the guardian.”

From: Nature Spirits of the Trees.

The strange thing to me is that I never liked the taste of elderberry, just the flowers, so I have most of a box of ‘medicinal’ tea on my shelf that I save for when I have a bad cough or cold. However, since writing this story and becoming closer to the tree, I have found I now rather enjoy it.

Ripening elder berries

Ripening elder berries

Collecting memories

It appears to be a fact of modern life that technology becomes obsolete by the time you have opened the box. Our computer is now over six years old, security updates are no longer automatic, websites don’t always work properly and films over an hour in length freeze up in the middle. It is time for a complete system clearout and software upgrade – so if there is no post from me next week, we are still rebuilding…

Just as I like to tidy a room every few years and clear out what has become ‘clutter’, I have spent the last week going through my computer files. It is amazing how many folders remain untouched since the last clearout, that may as well be moved into ‘Archive’. A few thousand emails have been deleted, while a handful of wonderful ones have now been stored in appropriate folders to make me smile again at some point in the future. Photos of nieces and nephews remind me of when they were small. Good wishes or news from friends who live overseas. Memories and video clips of canoeing trips.

I am reminded how those who have lost all their possessions treasure the personal, the photographs, the keepers of memory. As the reward for this process of clearance, I will have a new printer that can do colour, so that I may collect a few of the most treasured pictures into a book. Something tangible that may be worth rescuing. Am I crazy to fill my physical shelves as well as the computer files? Well probably, but which will M enjoy looking at in years to come? Also I expect there will be at least two more computer rebuilds before she becomes an adult…

There are other, more pagan- or possibly witch-specific uses for physical photographs as well. While I am not a great one for spells, especially those involving living people, using photos for connecting to recently deceased ancestors is much simpler than trying to get hold of relevant objects to represent them. I have had a frame for some time now waiting for pictures to be printed out and inserted so that it may stand on a side table.

It seems to me that human nature hasn’t changed much; for thousands of years we have painted our memories, first directly onto our walls, then on wood, leather, canvases or parchment. We may puzzle at the exact meaning today, but we still value the pictures. However just as we have hidden files in silicon crystal that may be accessed in the future, so did the ancients, in the form of quartz crystals. Meditating with a stone, or even a skull, can reveal all kinds of truths and memories that have been stored there.