On the Elm: The Twelve Sacred Trees of North America — Part Ten

The American Elm (Ulmus americana), also known as the White Elm, was once one of the more common trees in the Eastern half of the United States. Unfortunately, in a situation remarkably similar to the American Chestnut, a disease (Dutch Elm disease) almost wiped out the species. From the 1930s on, this disease was responsible for the death of millions of elm trees, and currently the U.S. National Arboretum is in the process of developing breeds of elm that have proven resistant to the disease in an effort to help this beautiful tree make a comeback.

Elm wood is rather pliant and water resistant, making it a good choice for bows and boats, though its bendy nature does not lend well to house construction. Hollowed out elm branches were even used as early water pipes to help transport water! Elm could also be relied upon to give an indication as to when it was good to begin planting crops, with an old saying intoning:

When the elmen leaf is as big as a mouse’s ear, Then sow barley never fear.”

Elm wood was also said to be a tree of the dead, that as long as it was living it was a friend of humanity, but a diseased or dead elm was a vengeful thing, much like a human revenant. An elm tree hiding its sickness could drop heavy boughs on people without warning, leading to the saying “Elm hateth man, and waiteth.” Its wood was also used to make coffins, with the water-resistant nature of it meaning that the dead could be put out on display in coffins for awhile without fear of the seeping liquids causing the wood to warp and ruin.

It is perhaps unsurprising that this tree has a history of being associated with death. Fans of modern horror will know that its name is linked to Freddy Krueger, but in older stories the association is more kindly. It’s said that elms grew in natural arches close to entrances to the underworld, inviting the dead to pass peacefully beneath its cathedral-like archways to enter death serenely. In a nod to this, some were planted at the gateways of cemeteries, inviting the living to visit these liminal places, too, in peace and protection.

If you wish to take up necromancy, you would be well-advised to make an ally of this tree. After developing a relationship with a local elm that is free of disease or blight, make an offering and collect four thin branches from its boughs. Anoint the branches with your blood, and make a “spirit door” by tying the lengths together into a rectangle with red yarn. When you wish to summon spirits to your workings, lay the door down on the ground and smack the flat of your palm against it three times. Later, to dismiss the spirits, fold your palms over the door as if closing a set of French doors, and making a locking motion with your dominant hand. In this way you “seal” the door and prevent its usage from spirits when you have not granted them permission to enter.

[Written by Ashley Nicole Hunter.]

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