Have you ever wondered why the most powerful wand in the world is carved from elderwood? Elder branches are hollow inside and easy to break. Elder is also not a particularly beautiful wood. So why should the strongest of all wands be carved from this light, fragile material, and why did not Dumbledore, Harry Potter’s teacher, use a beautiful mahogany stick or ivory?
Rowling had a good reason to leave the elder the honor of serving as the best of all wands. Since time immemorial, elder has been the wood used by the Germanic tribes for magic.
The elder is, as for instance the German name ‘Holunder’ says, consecrated to Hulda or Holla, which is the Germanic goddess Freia. Freia is the teacher of magic and taught the Germanic gods the art of conjuring with the wood of her plant. It is also not surprising that Dumbledore’s magic wand helped to get death off the hook. The goddess Freia is known to rise in spring after a long hibernation in a mountain. There is therefore a tradition of planting a cross made from her holy wood, the elderberry, on graves as a sign of this resurrection. In Germanic folklore, the elder wood therefore promises not only magical powers but also immortality. In practice, this is due to the fact that the broken elder stick has the extraordinary property of beginning to live and grow again. The measuring of coffins and tombs was therefore done with an elder branch and the whip of the coffin carriage driver consisted of this wood.
A very well-known story was connected with these traditions, long before Harry Potter became known. Whoever knows Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser remembers that Tannhäuser stayed with the goddess Hulda in the mountain (Freia, who Wagner puts equal to Venus) and then moved to Rome to ask forgiveness for the pagan sacrilege. The Pope replies that forgiveness can only be expected when the dry stick in his hand is greening again. Tannhäuser returns home disappointed, but pilgrims hurry after him. The Pope’s staff is indeed greening. Those who are familiar with the background definitely have the feeling that the Pope’s leg has been pulled by the old gods. The stick that is broken off and greens again is the elder branch. The wood of the Hulda.
After the explanation of this powerful magic effect of the elder bushes, it is no longer surprising that even ancient nursery rhymes have taken over the matter. In Germany one things for instance, the “Ringel Ringel row, we are three children, we sit under the elder bush and all do: “Shoo, shoo, shoo”! Three is the holy number of the Teutons and whoever sits under the Hollerbush cannot be bitten by snakes or mosquitoes according to popular belief. In Denmark it is also said that whoever sits under the elder at the summer solstice can see the fairy king.
With the old Germanic tribes, elder was the seat of good spirits and was therefore often planted close to the house. Elder was regarded as a defence against black magic and witches, protected against fire and lightning and it was said that one had to take off one’s hat before a Hollerbusch.
The elder also had a direct magic effect. Young farmers’ wives, for example, considered the wrapping of cords around an elder to be a remedy against childlessness. Toothache could be transmitted to an elder branch by biting on it, and the consumption of an elder flower fried in butter at 12 noon on St John’s Day (the day of the summer solstice) under the fireplace, the seat of the house spirits, was considered a measure to ward off fever for a year.
With Wagner, Hans Sachs in the Meistersingers also lets himself be bewitched by the lilac, as the elder was used to be call formerly, in the same night, the night of St John’s Day. “How the lilac smells to me, so mild, so foreboding…”. And from then on in that opera scene everything becomes madness.
The effect of elderberry tea, also known as lilac tea, as an effective remedy for sore throats and fever, was linked to the harvest of the flowers before sunrise. The fairy tales of the lilac mother written by Hans Christian Andersen tell equally of the bewitching effect of this tea.
With so much meaning and magic, it is not surprising that chopping out or mutilating an elder brought misfortune or death. English folklore tells that you can only do this if you apologize to the ‘Elder Mother’, the witch who lives there. Otherwise her blood could drip out. Due to the ability of witches to transform into an elder branch, no furniture was moreover made of elder wood.
The Christians seized the elder’s reputation and thought that Judas had hanged himself from an elder. The unpleasant smell of the decaying foliage should come from this.
After all the above, Rowling couldn’t find a better magic wand for Dumbledore than the one made of elder…