Respect Your Elders
By David Kaiser
Published at Lughnasa 2001
Much has been written about the famous petrifaction legend associated with Oxfordshire's Rollright stone circle and the surrounding monuments. Several versions of the story exist1, but the most authoritative2 or popular version goes as follows:
An invading king was leading his troops when they met a witch who prophesies:
Confidently is striding forward the king replies:
But the witch thwarts him by raising a large earthen mound in his path and proclaims:
Analysis of this story usually focuses on the megaliths themselves, but what of the elder tree witch? Like the stones, this element of the tale surely mythologises a real element in the environment. However unlike the circle, and the hill by the outlying King Stone, the elder tree is now gone and even its location is unknown.
Over time, various elders have been pointed out as the witch. The original tree to which the tale was attached was most likely located somewhere between the outlying King Stone and the circle known as the King's Men. One such elder was mentioned by William Parry in a letter to William Stukeley in 17423, and may have grown from a hedge pictured in a drawing of the stones from 1677.
The elder tree (Sambucus nigra) generally had a sinister reputation, and it was usually banned from domestic use, especially for making and repairing cradles. It was thought to be the tree from which Christ's cross was made and from which Judas hanged himself. If burnt, if could summon disaster or the Devil. The elder was also frequently associated with witches and has been referred to as a "witch wood"4. In Ireland witches were said to ride on elder sticks.
In addition to attracting witches and other dark forces, the elder's power could sometimes be used beneficially to repel them. Elder bushes, sticks and leaves could be used to protect the home from witches and evil5. At Christmas elderberry wine was consumed in order to protect people from the spirits and witches about at that time6.
Witches were well-known to shape change and they had favoured forms such as hares, cats and elder trees. So the witch in our story was following an established pattern in her transformation.
A tale was told in Northhamptonshire of a man who cut such a stick from a tree, presumed to be an elder, at is shocked to see the tree bleed. On the way home he meets the suspected local witch with a blood-soaked bandage wrapped around her arm7. The implication is clear.
On Midsummer's Eve, when the elder trees' white flowers were in bloom, local people would gather in a ring around the King Stone. The elder tree was then cut and as it bled the king was said to have moved his head8. The practice of cutting or scratching a witch was widely believed to weaken her power, thus the king's temporary movement. Therefore it wasn't so much to identify whether the tree was a witch, as some have thought, but to lessen her powers.
Elder trees, like yew and hawthorn, are known for exuding a thick red pitch resembling blood. In Parry's letter to Stukeley he goes on to tell how boys would often cut into the elder near the stones to see if it would bleed.
However, the identification of this elder tree as the prototype of the story may be premature. In some versions of the story the invading soldiers were Danes, who were associated with the dwarf elder (Sambucus ebulus)9. Somewhat resembling the common elder, this herbaceous cousin also had some similar folk beliefs attached to it. The plant was also known as the "Danesweed" or "Danesblood". It was said to grow when Danes had been killed10 and was also said to bleed when cut11. Although the documented presence of the Danes in our story predates that of the witch12, there is no record of danesweed in association with the site.
In the story's many permutations the witch herself could be a late arrival. Before her inclusion, the story featured only an unspecified power or magician. It may be that this power originated from the elder tree itself. In England the Elder, or perhaps the spirit within the tree, was known as the "Old Gal"13. Similarly in Germany and Scandinavia she was referred to as the Elder Mother of Lady Elder14.
Permission had to be sought before cutting an elder tree by reciting "Old Gal, give me some of thy wood and I'll give thee some of mine when I grow into a tree"15. One man who failed to ask leave of the Old Gal soon came down with rheumatic fever and was left lame for life. He firmly believed that the elder was responsible for his misfortune.16
The famous Yorkshire prophetess Mother Shipton was the first recorded witch to be associated with the story, in the middle of the 19th century. She may have been linked with the site due its proximity to Shipton-under-Wychwood. However, by the latter half of the 19th century the now un-named and presumably local witch firmly became part of the tale.
This may have been due to the strength of local belief in witches. Tales of witches using the stones for their sabats go back to the Tudor era17. Well into the 20th century Long Compton and other nearby villages also had reputations as centres for witchcraft. It was said there are enough witches in Long Compton to draw a load of hay up Long Compton Hill18.
In 1875 an old woman in Long Compton called Anne Turner was killed by local labourer John Hayward in the belief that she was a witch who had cursed him. The man brutally pinned her to the ground with his hayfork and carved the shape of a cross in her with a billhook. This was a traditional method of killing a witch, possibly trying to bleed her to lessen her power and prevernt her rising from the grave19. The man, who was found guilty of murder, claimed that he was acting for the good of the community and said that there were 16 other witches in the village. The trial not only revealed his surviving belief in witchcraft, but many of his neighbours will also found to share his beliefs.20
These events happened just a year before the first recorded example of the nameless elder tree witch in our tale. But whether belief or stories about one led to the other is impossible to say. Most likely both beliefs fed off and encouraged the other.
Local belief in witchcraft doesn't seem to have ended there however. In 1945, near Lower Quinton, a hedger named Charles Walton was murdered in a strikingly similar fashion. He too was pinned to the ground with a hayfork and had a cross carved in his body. This murder remains unsolved, but many see it as a ritual murder of a suspected which. Clearly, belief in witches in this area ran deep and it is natural that they would also be associated with a prominent mysterious landmark like the Rollright Stones.
So, given all of these elements, the Old Gal, Danesblood and local beliefs in witchcraft to name but a few, it becomes difficult to extract a clear order of evolution to our story. Over time each ingredient likely contributed something to the mix that ultimately resulted in the well-known tale collected in the later 19th century. What is surprising is that with all the beliefs, rituals and taboos associated with his elder tree that somehow the tree has vanished and even the memory of its location has been lost to memory.
1.Westwood, Jennifer, "The Rollright Stones - Part 1: The Danes", 3rd Stone, No 38, and Westwood,Jennifer, "The Rollright Stones - Part 2: The Witch", 3rd Stone, No 39.
2.Evans, AJ, "Rollright Stones and their Folklore", Folk-Lore VI, 1895.
3.Lukis, WC, The Family Memoirs of the Rev William Stukeley, 3 vol., 1882-1887.
4.Baker, Margaret, Discovering the Folklore of Plants, 1996, Shire Publications, p53.
6.Raven, Jon, The Folklore of Staffordshire, 1978, Rowman and Littlefield, p134.
7.Hole, Christina, English Folklore, 1944, B T Batsford Ltd, p92.
8.Evans, AJ "Rollright Stones and their Folklore", Folk-Lore VI, 1895.
9.Westwood, Jennifer, "The Rollright Stones - Part 1: The Danes", 3rd Stone, No 38, p7.
10.Westwood, Jennifer, Albion: A Guide to Legendary Britain, 1985, Salem House, pp103-104.
12.Westwood, Jennifer, "The Rollright Stones - Part 1: The Danes", 3rd Stone, No 38, p7.
13.Hole, Christina, English Folklore, 1944, B T Batsford Ltd, p92.
14.Baker, Margaret, Discovering the Folklore of Plants, 1996, Shire Publications, p52.
15.Hole, Christina, English Folklore, 1944, B T Batsford Ltd, p92.
17.Burl, Aubrey, The Stone Circles of the British Isles, 1976, Yale University Press, p297.
18.Briggs, Katherine, The Folklore of the Cotswolds, 1974, Rowman and Littlefield, p135.
19.Pengelly, Adrian, "Charles Walton - 50 Years On", White Dragon, Imbolc 1995.
20.Briggs, Katherine, The Folklore of the Cotswolds, 1974, Rowman and Littlefield, p131.