Elder is the tree of the caileach, the crone, the wise older woman. The image above comes from the Green Man Tree Oracle (1), but for me an earlier work, Liz and Colin Murray’s The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination (2), offers a more illuminating narrative:
“This Ogham card is linked to the eternal turnings of life and death, birth and rebirth. It represents the end in the beginning and the beginning in the end; life in death and death in life; the casting out of the devils of the old year and the renewal of creativity of the new; the timelessness of the cycle by which the fading of old age is always balanced by the new start of birth.
“The card has no reversed position. The circle will always turn afresh, change and creativity arising out of the old and bringing about the new. All is continuously linked as phases of life and experience repeat themselves in subtly different forms, leading always to renewal”.
In my sixteen tree mandala of the year (3) elder covers the period from 24 November to 16 December, following Yew and preceding Holly. If the winter quarter beginning on 1 November is a time of dying and regeneration, then elder deepens the descent into death signalled by the yew, whereas holly brings in the note of regeneration and makes the transition into rebirth. So it is not surprising to me that in Christian folklore elder provided the wood both for the cross of Christ and the self-hanging of Judas Iscariot. There was also a belief that people living in houses built in the shadow of the elder were likely to die young. Indigenous folklore, more benignly, said that to sleep beneath an elder tree is to wake in the Otherworld. If you stood under an elder tree on Midsummer’s Eve you would see the faery troop go by. Casting away fear, and whatever the weather, we may find magic in this tree.
(1) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.
(2) Liz & Colin Murray The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination London: Eddison/Sadd Edition, 1988. (Illustrated by Vanessa Card).
(3) NOTE: This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the wheel of the year from 1 November, the positions and dates of the trees are:
Yew, north-west, 1-23 November
Elder, north-north-west, 24 November – 16 December
Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January
Alder, north-north-east, 8 – 31 January
Birch, north-east, 1 – 22 February
Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 Feb. – 16 March
Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April
Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April
Hawthorn, south-east, 1 – 23 May
Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June
Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July
Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July
Apple, south-west, 1 -23 August
Blackberry & Vine, west-south-west, 24 August – 15 September
Hazel, west, 19 September – 8 October
Rowan, west-north-west, 9 – 31 October.