From November 24th-December 23rd, Elder rules the Celtic Tree Calendar. In honor of this magickal, medicinal plant, gather round for a story about Elda Mor, the Elder Mother.
Once upon a time, in the Danish countryside, a boy came down with a terrible cold. That year, winter had blown in earlier than expected. Even though it was barely November, one needed to stay warm and dry, lest the coldness seep into their bones. So when the boy came home from school with wet feet, his mother acted quickly – she started a fire, tucked him into bed, and brewed a pot of elderberry tea. And just as the boy was about to protest his mother’s care and refuse her brew, the local storyteller knocked at the door.
He too had wet feet from a day spent wandering the hills and collecting stories, and desired a warm fire and the Elder Mother’s medicine. The man pulled up a chair next to the boy’s bed and said:
“On the topic of the Elder Mother – would you like to hear a fairy tale?”
The man tapped the teapot's lid, and a friendly grandmother emerged from the spout. At first, she was the size of a delicate bouquet but kept growing until she stood tall as a tree. The boy stared at the grandmother. At first, he thought he was dreaming, but when he asked the old man if she had a name, he introduced her as Elda Mor, The Elder Mother.
The storyteller explained that the Romans and Greeks labeled her a dryad, others called her Old Nanny, but it was the sailors who named her the Elder Flower Mother. The seamen warned that although resting in her shade is delightful, one must also pay attention to the tree’s stories and listen when she speaks. For she is quite the storyteller…
“In fact, she shared this very tale with me,” said the old man. “And now, I will share it with you.”
Although neither of them could remember how they’d met, an old woman and an even older man celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. As they sat in the garden, reminiscing on their good fortune, they relived childhood memories and the thrill of chasing one another through windswept hills. They talked about romantic summer evenings spent courting, that heartbreaking day he left her for the sea, and the unforgettable day he returned. They talked about his life as a sailor, hers as an artist, and while the grandparents sat beneath the great tree, they laughed about the first garden they created from a pile of old sticks stuck into the ground.
“I remember,” said the Elder Mother. “And after a few weeks of watering, roots emerged from that stick, and it grew to be the size of a tree. Because it was a tree, it was me.”
But even as the Elder Mother spoke and rested her hands atop the grandparents' shoulders, their eyes never left each other’s. Soon, their children and grandchildren came by to wish them well – for everyone knew it was their anniversary. The children danced in circles around the tree, and the Elder Mother held them in her branches. She rested a flower atop each of their heads and shook with glee when the next breeze transformed them into elaborate crowns…
“This isn’t a fairytale,” interrupted the boy from his bed.
“No?” said the storyteller. “Perhaps you do not yet understand that the greatest fairy tales are rooted in truth. Here, let the Elder Mother tell the story. Her memory is better than mine.”
Before he could protest, the Elder Mother lifted the boy out of bed. She wrapped him in her green gown and flew up and through a curtain of stars. When they emerged on the other side of the veil, they were running, holding hands in a field of wildflowers. The boy looked toward the Elder Mother as if to ask, how is this possible, but the grandmother had transformed into a beautiful maiden. And to his delight, on this side of the curtain, the boy was no longer a sickly child but a young man in the spring of his life. The sweethearts exited the field, skipped around the port, and headed into a familiar house. The backyard had a small garden comprised of a few sticks, sad-looking trees, and not much else. A blonde child ran up to the pair and offered them his walking stick. Although it was likely his elderly nanny’s, the child had been using the cane as a hobby horse.
As soon as the maiden took hold of the plaything, it twisted and gnarled in her hands. It grew four legs and a velvety snout with big, brown eyes. Moments later, the young man and his love were riding a stallion toward a castle. The castle was a beautiful sight, but the horse took them beyond the impressive walls and through the neighboring fields and farms and the blacksmith’s fires. The young man knew he could go anywhere so long as the maiden was by his side, but she suggested they stay near home and watch the seasons change.
They watered their horse in a field as the maiden rearranged a few flowers on her gown. She scattered a handful of Elder seeds and said – oh, how beautiful these spring days when we plant new things and pray for roots. And when it got warmer, and the bees came to visit – oh, how beautiful these summer afternoons when the soul inhales and reaches for the light. And in that same field, when the harvest commenced – oh, how beautiful these autumn evenings when we realize the strength of community. Finally, when the earth went to sleep beneath her frosty blanket, oh, how beautiful these winter nights when we remember the weight of endings.
The young man blinked – the field was no more, yet the maiden remained by his side. Despite her tears and aching heart, she embraced him. The sea beckoned to the young sailor, and even though he promised to return, that decision was up to the Fates. Before he boarded the ship, the maiden removed one of the flowers from her gown and tucked it into his prayer book. Over the next several months (which quickly turned to years), the sailor lay on his cot writing letters to his sweetheart. One night, on the verge of sleep, he inhaled the bookmark’s sweet scent and heard an even sweeter voice whisper, oh, how beautiful these spring, summer, autumn, winter days…
The sailor opened his eyes – the maiden had returned! She was much older, as was he, and over the moon about their golden anniversary. She was so enamored with her storytelling that she paid no attention to the tree spirit looking over her shoulder.
But the man saw. And this time, he listened.
The Elder Mother told him that for as long as she could remember, she’d been called a dryad, a flower fairy, Old Nanny, or Grandmother. But in this reality, his reality, her true name was Remembrance. If someone wanted to keep their memories alive, they’d be wise to sit beneath her branches and listen.
“Speaking of remembrance, where is your prayer book?” asked the Elder Mother.
The old man retrieved the prayer book from his lap and opened it to his favorite passage. Inside sat an ancient, well-loved elderflower.
Upon seeing this, Remembrance glowed bright as the sun and squealed in delight.
Her shriek startled the boy awake – or so he thought. In reality, the ear-piercing squeal didn’t come from the Elder Mother but from a whistling teapot.
The boy sat up in bed and rubbed his eyes as the storyteller slipped out the door. His mother took the storyteller’s seat and poured herself a cup of elderberry tea.
“Mother, I have been to warm places,” he said. “And I feel much stronger from my journeys.”
The boy was still wondering if he’d dreamt the entire adventure when his mother said, “That is the gift of Elder, my dear. She can keep us warm on our coldest nights."
“But where is the Elder Mother?” asked the boy, “I don’t see her anywhere.”
“I have her right here,” said the woman as she peered into her steaming mug. “In the spring, we’ll sit in her shade and listen for a new story, but until then, the Elder Mother lives in our teapots.”
This story was inspired by and adapted from The Elder Mother by Hans Christian Andersen.