Elderberries are actually, contrary to popular belief in Buentoille, eminently edible. There are recipes from as far back as the first century which detail how to make elderberry jellies and wines, and if cooked, the poisonous elements of the berries are destroyed. Even if you eat one or two, perhaps by accident, the chances are that you won’t suffer any noticeable harm; you’d need to eat a significant amount of berries for the poisonous compounds to build to a dangerous point. This is not an endorsement of eating raw elderberries.
Whilst we have no way of accurately pinpointing the moment at which elderberries became quite so maligned, the chances are that it happened over a long period of time, and in particular as a fearful reaction to the Coven of Irah, the group of witches who claim to be descended in some way from the berries, the ‘darkening’ aspect of the elder tree, which ripen just before the autumnal equinox, the point after which nights will be longer than days. This day (occurring on the 22nd of September this year) is also a time of great significance for the Coven, but today is perhaps more important as today they will harvest the elderberries before they are all eaten by birds and squirrels. The corrupted reputation of the berries amongst humans is rarely challenged by the Coven, as it gives them something of a monopoly on the boughs laden with clusters of reddish-black fruit.
There is something distinctly blood-like about elderberries; it is as if they are blood pooling on the underside of a butcher’s table, slowly forming into drops. Perhaps this is what makes them appealing to the Coven, a group which has never made comment on the accusations of animal sacrifice. Much like their ‘brightening’ counterparts, the Infused Sisterhood, there are various rituals which the Coven observes before and during harvesting the produce of the elder tree, yet unlike the Sisterhood, these witches do not spin or dance or sing. They move with determined grace, remaining seemingly completely still between motions. They never speak above a whisper. They wear long black garments of silk, and keep their faces covered with sheer black veils.
They begin under the light of the crescent moon. Yet whilst they do not dance per se, these witches do move with a certain rhythm, almost mechanical in their practised motions. They glide up to each bushel they wish to harvest, surround it in a circle, then place their right hand on the shoulder of the person on that side. They lean over, theatrically, in a wave that travels around the circle, and whisper something in their sister’s ear. With their left hand they then, all at once, knock on the elder wood, and appear to listen closely to it for a few moments. Finally, they produce a small silver blade from their cloaks, with which they deftly slice a cluster of berries from the tree. Below, they are caught by younger witches, who crouch low and move with similar arachnid grace.Each witch whispers something inaudible throughout the entire sequence, which is repeated numerous times throughout the night, at different elder plants.
Quite what potions and ointments the Coven of Irah use their cropped fruit for is a closely held secret, though it is likely that they crush the juice out of them before doing anything else, as otherwise they spoil quickly once harvested. If you are out in the fields after the harvest tonight, which generally occurs in Stone Burrow Field where there are a great quantity of solitary elder trees, or ‘witch bushes’ as they are sometimes known; the Coven of Irah’s harvest methodology means they cannot use those plants growing in hedgerows; you might have opportunity to see how they put much of their harvest to use; in the Bleeding of the Lesser Daughter.
It begins with one of the younger witches removing her black cloak and revealing a milky-white lace dress beneath. She gathers up many of the elderberries the witches have harvested and places them in a small sack made from a porous fabric. She holds this close to her, and then the eldest witch comes up behind her and places one hand on her head, the other in the small of her back, as if wielding an invisible knife. The younger witch then squeezes the bag and, as the red liquid steadily drips out from within, the other witches quickly move towards her, their practised grace and head coverings gone, and begin covering their hands in the stream and covering their faces and arms in it. They push and shove, trying to cover themselves fully whilst jostling in this way. A fearful susurration of half-heard whispers fills the studied silence that existed moments before.
Unlike the blood of the Lesser Daughter that the juice symbolises, it dries on the skin a deep purplish blue, not the bright red you might expect. This isn’t a wise thing to point out to the witches, however, who believe that Irah, their progenitor who was created in the blood that flowed from the first Bright Witch when she was killed by her mother for being unfaithful, is physically present upon their skin. By covering themselves in this way, they cement their supposed loyalty to the Elder Mother (the Infused Sisterhood would argue this point), the first witch who resides inside every elder tree, the being to whom the knock is addressed. For new witches this is an initiation, the moment they first become part of the Coven.
Other festivals happening today:
- The Festival of Enduring Hate
- The Festival of Game the Hunter
- Ranaclois Up and Down Festival