You tell me that the beginning of herbs goes back to ages we cannot picture. So it is with the gathering and the charms. There was a day when the Lady let Her servants know of Her presence. They say that the wells and stones remember. In that time the prayers were real, and I do think that without the prayers now, the herbs would be less good, and some magic lost from them. …Some of the herbs are special to Her. Nine of them are sacred–waybread, mugwort, stime, maythen, wergulu, crab apple, chervil, fenkel and alterlothe. On these She has laid Her hand. In these later days we see only the last glimpses of Her, like the long train of Her skirts after She has passed. But in other days She was more clear. She leaves us now with the knowledge, and with the stones and wells, where the old worship hangs in the air. …Elder was important to the strange, serious boy. It had a holy significance as the home of the Lady who protected all herbs and plants.
—Chris Hunt, Thornapple (1989)
I first became aware of the potency of the Elder and Her berries through the old film, Arsenic and Old Lace, a tale of two dear sweet old ladies with a most unforgettable vintage of elderberry wine in their cellar. In recent days I have been giving thanks for the gifts of the Elder as I have been dosing some symptoms most likely attributable to pollen irritation with soothing spoonfuls of Elderberry syrup. The Lady of the Elder, or Elder Mother, sometimes spoken of with a note of fear and respect as the Elder Witch, bears wisdom and healing that has returned to us in these strange unhinged days. Perhaps Her gifts can help us find our way back to a state of greater balance and integration.
The folk-tales and anecdotes that survive about the Lady distill into easily understood language and imagery the spirit of respectful cooperation between humans and plant (and other) Kingdoms. Ask Her permission and all will be well. The old woodsman’s charm of asking Old girl, give me some of thy wood and I will give thee some of mine when I grow into a tree is straightforward and pure-hearted. I felt this in a different way at a Beltane rite last May. I went to the Grove where the Spring of the Land has Her pool, and I sat by Her waters and let them play through my fingers, feeling Her presence. I carefully gathered some of the water for the rite. And at the end of the rite, the water was returned to the Land She nurtures, feeding it and completely the circuit of Love and Power.
If due respect is not given to the Lady, trouble will ensue, and perhaps even … reprisals. Think of it as showing due respect to Life-force. As I move forward, threading my practice through the days and nights of my life, I see Life-force and She Who Stands at the Crossroads of Death and Rebirth as among the most significant Divinities we honor. Which is why so many of the Old Ones embody the blessings of both Sex and Death. Two sides of the same energetic matrix. Just as the Feasts of Beltane and Samhain are in one way of thinking a pair of Divine Twins. The Light Year and the Dark Year. One cannot exist without the other. There was a saying that if one failed to ask the Lady of the Elder her blessing, the wood taken would go twisted and gnarled and whatever was made of it would be ruined. There is a humorous tale of some unlearned individual having an attack of what sounds like hives as a result of molesting an Elder without permission. In this case, the person was healed because of an old woman who knew of the proper remedy to apply. Prayers to the Old Lady may have been muttered or half-sung over the posset, but if so, these, like so many of our ways and traditions and lore, are not a part of the written record. Only fools think that because not written down, their existence should be called into question.
May Her Blessings be with those who seek them and who seek greater understanding.