Elderberry (Sambucus nigra): from Natural Medicine in Ancient Times
to Protection against Witches in the Middle Ages – a Brief Historical
I. Salamon and D. Grulova
Department of Ecology
Faculty of Humanities and Natural Sciences, University of Presov
Keywords: Adoxaceae, magic, medicinal plants, mythology
In ancient times humans knew that some plants have effects on the human
body. Despite this knowledge, people at the timecould not explain this power of
plants, and thus they attributed supernatural forces to them. Elderberry (Sambucus
nigra) was one of such plants. Elderberry seeds have been found associated with
human activity by archaeologists and assigned to the Stone and Bronze Age. At that
stage people used the fruits, bark and branches of the elderberry. In their writings,
naturalists, healers and philosophers of Ancient Greece and Rome also referred to
this mysterious healing plant. Hippocrates devoted special attention to the
elderberry fruits, and Dioscorides recommended wine made from its roots as a
remedy for snake bite. In the Middle Ages elderberry was used as protection against
witches. In another period, its effects were attributed to the power of devils.
According to mythology, the spirit dwells in its trunk; while the Germanic people
believed that it was an evil spirit, in Denmark and Latvia it was a good spirit.
Unpleasant odor and the presence of the fungus, Auricularia auricula-juadae,
associated with the biblical story in which Judas Iscariot hanged himself on this
shrub, certainly add to the negative connection. We now know that different parts of
the elder have positive and beneficial effects on the human body.
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra L. subsp. nigra) is a European species with an
oceanic to sub-oceanic, cool-temperate and west-Mediterranean range. The species is
common in western and central Europe as well as in North Africa, Scandinavia and Great
Britain. Its distribution range reaches 63°N latitude in western Norway (with scattered
naturalized shrubs up to at least 68°N) and approximately 55°N in Lithuania (Laivinš,
2002; Atkinson and Atkinson, 2002). The populations in the Atlas Mountains of
Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia as well as in the Azores are introduced. Sambucus nigra is
present in the northern and western part of the Iberian peninsula, in Sicily and mainland
Greece, but is absent from Crete. It occurs sporadically in western and eastern Turkey,
particularly in the northern coastal strip. The eastern limit of its geographical range is
approximately 55°E. In mountainous regions S. nigra is absent from the higher altitudes,
such as above 1600 m in the Alps, 900 m in the Tatra mountains, 2200 m in Morocco
(Atkinson and Atkinson, 2002) and 1200 m in the Caucasus (Anonymous, 1962). Overall,
limits of the S. nigra native range are difficult to define due to its wide cultivation and
naturalization since the Middle Ages, and in many countries it is cultivated, but not
naturalized, or rare (Tutin et al., 1976). Elderberry has been introduced into many parts of
the world including North Europe, East Asia, North America, New Zealand and the
southern part of Australia (Hultén and Fries, 1986; Priedītis, 2002; Weber, 2003), and
many taxonomists consider the native elderberries of North America and Asia as
ELDERBERRY BIOCULTURAL HISTORY
American and European elderberries have been harvested by native people since
IS on Elderberry
Ed.: A.L. Thomas
Acta Hort. 1061, ISHS 2015
before recorded history and have been written about around the world for centuries,
leading to a plethora of vernacular names. The generic name Sambucus is apparently
derived from the Greek world sambuke or Latin world sambuca, which designates either a
kind of a flute that was made out of an elderberry twig, or a small harp (Charlebois et al.,
2010). “Elder” (elderberry) comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “aeld” which meant “fire”
as the hollowed out stems were used to blow up a fire, and the hollowed out tubes were
also used to fashion early smoking pipes, giving it the name of “pipe tree” (Milliken and
Bridgewater, 2004). Old names like holler, hylder, hyllantree, and the German word
holunder all refer to an ancient vegetation Goddess, Hyldemoer (“Elder Mother”), as she
was known in Denmark (Morgenstern, 2000). Elderberry must have been cultivated from
ancient periods because its remains have been found in archeological sites (Zohary and
Hopf, 2000). Elderberry seeds have been found in archeological localities dated to Stone
and Bronze Ages (3,000-4,000 B.C.) in Italy and Switzerland (Pejml, 1938; Morgenstern,
2000). Theophrastus (371-287 B.C.), a Greek native of Eresos in Lesbos, was the
successor to Aristotle in the Peripatetic school. He called the shrub “akté”. Pedanius
Dioscorides (40-90 A.D.) was a Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist, the author
of De Materia Medica, who recognized two different forms: “akté” and “chamaiakté”.
Gaius Plinius Secundus (23-79 A.D.), better known as Pliny the Elder, was a Roman
author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, as well as army commander of the early
Roman Empire. He presented a second, different species of elderberry, now known as
Sambucus ebulus L.
There are many references to the elder being the tree Judas used to hang himself
from, and one of its names is the “Judas Tree.” Other historical accounts say the Cross of
Calvary was made of elder wood, hence linking it to sorrow and death. Also Shakespeare
refers to the elder in his play “Cymbeline” as a symbol of sadness and grief (Milliken and
Elderberry has often been described as the medicine for the country people and
many of its medicinal uses are still in common use by modern herbalists. John Parkinson
(1567-1650) was apothecary to James I and a founding member of the Worshipful Society
of Apothecaries. He is celebrated for his two monumental works, the first Paradisi in Sole
Paradisus Terrestris in 1629 (a gardening book), but the second was his Theatrum
Botanicum of 1644, one of the largest herbals ever produced. A portion of this book was
dedicated entirely to the virtues of the elder tree, wherein the author sings its praises in no
less than 230 pages. That portion of the book became so popular that a booklet of that
section was published in several editions in both English and Latin. Every single part of
the plant was mentioned as medicinally useful. Its medicinal powers were deemed
effective for treating quinsy (peritonsillar abscesses), sore throats and strangulation. The
elder berries were also used for practically any ailment, “from toothache to the plague”. It
seems like a whole apothecary could be stocked solely from the many preparations that
could be made from its various parts. The list is quite exhaustive – syrup, tincture,
mixture, oil, ointment, concoction, liniment, extract, salt, conserve, vinegar, oxymel,
sugar, decoction, bath, cataplasm, and powder made from one, several or all parts of the
plant (Pejml, 1938). However, in ancient times the healing powers of a plant were not just
considered due to their phytochemical activity, instead the more esoteric, subtle energy of
the plant (as we might call it today) also played a great part in many sympathetic magical
healing operations. A favorite remedy against rheumatism, for example, came in the form
of a charm or amulet, which was made by tying several knots into a young elder twig that
had to be carried close to the body. Elder twigs were also believed to cure warts. For this
purpose the wart was rubbed with a freshly cut twig, which thereafter had to be buried in
mud and left to rot (Morgenstern, 2000). Other, more direct forms of “transfer magic”
were also common. The idea behind such practices was that sickness could be transferred
to a tree, which by the merit of its healing power could absorb and neutralize the sickness.
Various trees served this purpose, depending on the type of illness or local availability of
particular trees. A typical practice noted for the elder tree, for example, was to take a
measure of three spoons from a sick person’s bath-water and to pour this liquid onto the
roots of the tree. Many other illnesses, from epilepsy to pneumonia could be cured in
similar ways, and numerous related customs are reported from many areas of Europe. To
cure epilepsy, for example, the sufferer had to go and lie down under an elder tree upon
the first attack, whilst for pneumonia it was recommended that the person should lie face
down under an elder tree with outstretched arms. Another person should measure himself
from one hand to the other and from head to toe with a piece of string. The string was
then hung from the tree and when it had rotted away the pneumonia was supposed to be
cured. However, to dream of elder was deemed to be an omen of sickness (Morgenstern,
In addition to its healing properties, people in different regions believed that inside
the elder shrub lives good or bad spirit (Pejml, 1938). Or the shrub was said to be a
heaven for lost spirits, and therefore medieval people refused to cut it down or burn it
(Zohary and Hopf, 2000). In 17th century Schleswig-Holstein (Germany), before cutting
any parts of S. nigra, people called for the spirit “Hyldemoer” three times with clasped
hands, and poured milk on its roots before they could cut some part for healing purpose.
People from Latvia believed in the spirit named Puškaitis - Elder God, to whom they
brought gifts of bread, beer and other food (Pejml, 1938). The elder tree was also
considered sacred to Goddess, and the tree’s gifts were regarded as her blessings. It was
commonly believed that elders were inhabited by a tree dryad who was thought to
represent the soul of the tree or sometimes was seen as an aspect of the Goddess herself.
If treated well and honored appropriately, the dryad was a most benevolent spirit that
blessed and protected the people who cared for it. Thus, elders were often planted around
the house and on the farm where they served as a shrine to the Goddess whose protective
powers could be invoked by making prayers and offerings to the tree (Stoney, 2010).
Since elders never seemed to get struck by lightning, having it grow near the house was
believed to protect the house as well. There was a widespread taboo against cutting elders
down, or burning any of its wood, which lasted well into this century. It was thought that
the dryad would take out her vengeance against the offender by hunting them down and
punishing them with bad luck or, as was believed in Romania and Denmark, also with
toothache. According to ancient folk beliefs toothaches were thought to be caused by
supernatural forces and were often considered a divine punishment or else caused by evil
spirits. The only legitimate reason for cutting down an elder tree or taking any part of it
was to use it for medicine or as a protective charm and even that only with the consent of
the resident dryad (Anonymous, 2013).
With the rise of Christianity and the subsequent persecution of any form of tree
worship, the sacred elder tree became a tree of witches and the old stories were soon
distorted and turned around to suit the preachers of the new religion. The Church
portrayed the elder as a tree of sorrow because Judas Iscariot supposedly hanged himself
after betraying Jesus (Morgenstern, 2000). The fungus Auricularia auricula-judae occurs
on elder trees and is said to symbolize Jesus’ betrayal by Judas (Pejml, 1938).
Nevertheless, some of the older beliefs persisted, and people carried on pinning
elder leaves on their doors to ward off witches, demons and other evil influences. During
the Middle Ages such folkloristic magic was practiced all over Europe and many curious
customs evolved from the eventual merging of pre-Christian and Christian beliefs. For
example, it was thought that witches and sorcerers could be revealed by cutting the pith of
elder stems into flat disks, dipping these in oil, setting them alight and floating them in a
glass of water, if performed on Christmas Eve. The author (Morgenstern, 2000) of this
recommendation does not specify how the demons would manifest under these
circumstances, though. On the other hand, one could also use elder to entice the devil for
one’s own purposes. On the 6th of January (Bertha Night) when the devil apparently “goes
about with special virulence”, one could try to obtain some of his “mystic fern seed”
which was believed to give its owner the strength of 30 or 40 men, keep worms out of
furniture, repel snakes and mosquitoes and cure toothache. To obtain this magic substance
it was essential to protect oneself by casting a magic circle, the boundary of which must
not be broken under any circumstances. Further protection in this instance was offered by
carrying some elderberries that had been gathered on St. John’s night. But since there are
no elderberries to be found on St. Johns Day (21 June) this recommendation appears to be
impractical. A more likely version of this ritual recommends casting the circle with elder
branches as a magic wand (Pejml, 1938; Morgenstern, 2000).
The elder’s reputation to offer protection against evil spirits seems to be common
everywhere, from Russia to Romania and from Sicily to Scotland. Cut hair, nails and
broken teeth were many times placed under the roots of elder tree as a protection against
witches, who used these in their practices (Pejml, 1938). A less common custom comes
from Serbia, where elder twigs were believed to bestow good luck to a newly-wed couple
if introduced at the wedding ceremony. This old pagan custom may have been the basis of
a more recent belief, common in Britain during Victorian times. According to this belief a
man and woman would marry within a year if they were to drink together from an ale
(beer) that had been infused with elder flowers.
In pre-Christian times the ancient vegetation Goddess presided over the cycle of
life, namely birth, fruition, death and regeneration. This rhythm was reflected in the
waxing and waning of the moon, the cycles of the season, and naturally was also thought
to govern the lives of women. Thus, in one of her aspects, she was revered as a Goddess
of the Underworld, who guarded over the souls of the dead. Green twigs of elder were
often placed into coffins or buried in graves to offer protection for the deceased on their
journey to the Otherworld. Elsewhere Christian and pre-Christian beliefs merged into a
new brand of compound folk customs bearing elements of both traditions. In Tyrol for
example, elders were planted onto graves and trimmed into the shape of a cross. If the
tree started to flower, the soul was said to be happy.
An interesting custom from Romania allows a deeper glimpse into the old folk
beliefs. At Easter it was customary to sacrifice a pig for the festive roast. The pig’s
inedible remains were given a ceremonial burial and it was thought that in the following
year an elder tree would grow from them. The Easter/spring equinox is the time of
regeneration, the time when the power of the Earth-Goddess reawakens the land and
blesses the people with her abundant gifts. Both pigs (being an image of self-sacrificing
motherhood and the nurturing principle per se) and elder trees were sacred to this ancient
Goddess on account of their obvious attributes of abundance and fertility.
Elderberry still counts among the most useful medicinal plants available to
modern herbalists. All parts of the plant are pharmacologically active and in times gone
by, a myriad of different remedies were prepared from the different parts. Since
traditional medicine has somewhat gone out of fashion these days, elder bark, root-bark
and leaves are no longer used. Uses for these parts are cited here merely for the sake of
historical completion. As their action is very powerful, caution is advised and self-
medication is not recommended.
The world interest for elderberry plants and for products derived of them remains
steadfast and increasing. This is well encapsulated by one of our old proverbs: “There is
not a plant without use”, and modern scientific research can decisively contribute to
continued modern-day exploitation of the properties of this plant species which has
benefitted mankind for eons.
The research was supported by the Ministry of Education SR, the project: The
Isolation of Plant Natural Components by Lyophilisation Processand Modification of
their Qualitative-Quantitative Properties (No. 00162-0001 /MŠ SR-3634/2010-11/).
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