The Tree of Doom
November 25 – December 22
The Common, or Black-berried, Elder, a waterside member of the Honeysuckle Family, blooms with small white flowers that are at their best at midsummer, both sexes on the same tree, keeping its fruit through much of December. Although the Elder’s flowers and inner bark are well-known for their therapeutic qualities with fevers, scalds and burns, and though fine flutes and whistles are made from its twigs, the Elder nevertheless is considered unlucky and is “notoriously a bad wood for fuel.” The scent of an Elder plantation was once thought to cause disease or death; the Crucifixion-tree is said to have been an Elder, and in English folklore burning Elder-logs is akin to bringing “the Devil into the house,” just as laying a child in an Elderwood cradle means the baby will be pinched black-and-blue by fairies or simply pine away.
Since funerary flints found in megalithic burial sites are shaped like Elder-leaves, the tree’s connection with death is apparently of great antiquity. Spencer puts the Elder beside the cypress as a funereal tree; in Langland’s Piers Plowman, Judas hangs himself on an Elder-tree, and King William Rufus was killed by an archer shooting from under an Elder. In Ireland, the belief is that witches use Elder-sticks as magic horses. No doubt because the 13th tree, Elder, stood for the final moon and the death of the sacred year, the number and tree still retain their reputation for ill fortune.
The Greek equivalent of Elder was MYRTLE, an evergreen tree with sweet-scented white flowers, whose leaves and berries–sometimes called bilberries or whortle-berries, ripe in December–have medicinal abilities attributed to them. Growing best by the sea, the Myrtle was sacred all around the Mediterranean to the Love-goddess Aphrodite, one of her many titles being Myrto, or Myrtea, or Myrtoessa. In Greek myth, Myrtle is connected to the death of sacred kings and promises their resurrection: when Aphrodite sits with Adonis under a Myrtle-tree, she is promising him Life-in-Death. The Romans knew her as Venus Claucina, “she who purifies with Myrtle,” and in Botticelli’s famous painting, Birth of Venus, the goddess arrives on her sea-shell to a Myrtle-grove.
From The Song of Amerin: “I am a tide: that drags to death,” or “I am a wave of the sea,” refers to the end of the year when waves are believed to return to sea. In Irish and Welsh poetry, a sea-wave is a white “sea-stag,” and in Irish legends such gods of the year as Cuchulain or Fionn fight the “sea-stag”–fight death–with spear and sword. The Rook (Rocnat), most common member of the crow-tribe is a “raucous-voiced” bird whose blackness is appropriate to mourning the death of the year, as well as to the wisdom which the dead are said to attain. The leaves of the Elder at this time are Blood-red (Ruadh), the color symbolizing death. The famous Roman Saturnalia falls during this month (Dec. 17/18), celebrated by all, even the slaves. The Biblical jewel is Dark-Green Malachite, and was sacred to the tribe of Naphtali, “he strove,” appropriate to Palestine’s winter-rain month of plowing.
The week before and the week after the Winter Solstice (Dec. 22) make up the 14 legendary Halcyon Days of the year–proverbially “peaceful days,” as Graves wrote, “when the sea was smooth as a pond and the hen-halcyon built a floating nest and hatched out her young,” though, as Graves goes on, this legend has no basis in nature: halcyons lay their eggs in waterside holes. Plutarch and Aelian note, however, that the halcyon carries her dead mate over the seas with a plaintive cry of mourning, indeed appropriate to the death of the year. Graves derives the word from alcy-one, which means “princess who averts evil,” and concludes that the mythical halcyon represented the re-birth of the sacred king.