Elderberry: harvesting darkness, brewing hope

Inspired by this wonderful post about Lughnasadh and the harvest, I thought it would be fitting to share a bit of my own harvest with you…

The elderberries in my garden are ripening exceptionally early these year, and so as my Lughnasadh harvest, I have been making elderberry syrup. I will share the recipe at the bottom of this post, but first I would like to take some time to think about the wisdom Elder herself has to offer us, and just how fitting it is in a year like this. Maybe it is more than just a coincidence that I find the berry harvest to be so very abundant this year?

Elderberry syrup is known to be a good remedy for coughs and respiratory infections. She helps us to breathe again, helps our immune system to fight off invaders. But maybe she can help us deal with darkness of the spirit as well?

So let us take a moment to ask her what wisdom she wishes to share with us at this time of year:

This is Elder

I am the dark mother. The one who shelters those who find themselves stuck in darkness. And I have a challenge for you.

My berries cannot be eaten raw. They require careful boiling, otherwise they will poison you. As in a certain story, wisdom and healing need to be worked for. Requiring that is not cruelty, but is my way to make you more aware. On good days, be aware of the blessings all around you, and remember to store some for days when life will be more challenging.

Another reason is that when making my berries into medicine, you are adding extra ingredients. Things that may seem trivial, but are actually quite crucial if you want to have a successful and healthy life. What you add is a bit of your own spirit, a bit of your own love, a bit of your own folly.

My berries are but a container, a cauldron that will help you capture the light of joy.

As you drink me, think back on that process of picking specks of darkness and transforming them with fire. Think of them as your own difficult life experiences, of the times when you had a hard time believing in yourself, believing in your ability to add anything meaningful to the world. And yet here you are. The dark liquid you poor is darkness transformed. It is the mystery of life itself, the fact that it is often your darkest moments that teach you the most about where to find joy.

And remember the lesson as you enter this season of harvest. Offer your gratitude to those plants that freely offer you their bounty and their wisdom so that it may sustain you through winter.

And when winter comes, and the land is covered in darkness, go out and look up at the sky. See the stars, and see sparkles of hope. Be reminded that no darkness is ever absolute, that night is but the precursor of dawn, and winter is but the precursor of spring. And reach out to your bottle of darkness transformed, and as you drink, allow these stars to become visible within. And find the brightest one, and allow it to be your guide.

All will be well. Joy is not the absence of darkness. It has never been so, and it never will be. It is the ability to reach out for the stars.

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And so may I suggest that when you begin to gather your own harvest, that you not throw out the bits which at first seem bitter and poisonous, but first take a moment to see what lessons they have had, and may still have for you? 

A traditional ritual for Samhain is to take these things we no longer need and burn them. But maybe in this difficult year, we might add another ritual to that, and learn to create an elixir of healing from them. And so here’s my recipe for elderberry syrup with some additional magical ingredients infused into it. 

What you will need:

  • ripe, black elderberries, stripped from the stems (this recipe is for 1.5 kg)
  • 1 liter of water (less if you want a thicker syrup)
  • herbs (I used thyme, cinnanom, cloves and allspice)
  • a sieve or nettle cloth to strain the juice
  • lemon juice
  • sugar (750 grammes)
  • containers for the syrup

Prepare all ingredients. Before you start cooking, you may want to take some time to sit with the berries, and meditate on what they mean to you. What has been your ‘dark harvest’ this year? What have been the challenges that have brought you wisdom, even though they may have sucked big time while they were happening? Also include the things that are still hurting you right now. 

As you place the berries into your cooking pot, invoke the spirit of Elder, and ask her to help you make these experience into medicine. Add the water, and focus on its cleansing and healing properties. 

Add herbs of your choice. They represent the special spark that only you can add. What is your personal strength? If you do not know, then ask Elder that She may help you become more aware of the spark you add to the world.

Bring to a boil, and allow to boil for about 30 minutes. Let cool a bit, then use your sieve to strain the liquid. The leftover pulp can be used as garden fertilizer, so don’t just discard it, but put it to good use! And when you do so, take another moment to become aware of the many ways in which our difficult experiences can enrich our lives if we allow them to.

Now let us create syrup. Add some lemon juice, then add the sugar. The sugar is a reminder that, as beneficial as darkness can be, we all need light, we all need help, we all need the support of love and friendship in your life. And so let the added sugar be a reminder of that, of the importance of self-care, and of the fact that you can and should ask for help if you have difficulties coping with life, and actually, you would do well to ask long before you risk becoming overwhelmed. As you add the sugar, make this a promise to yourself. 

Bring to a boil, and allow the sugar to dissolve. Have a taste. Now it is up to you: you can add more lemon, spices or sugar if you want, and maybe let it boil a bit longer if you would like a thicker syrup.

Meanwhile, prepare your containers: clean them thoroughly in hot water.Poor the liquid in the containers while it is still boiling, then add the lid.

Keep a little bit apart to drink right away. Congratulate yourself on your hard work, and give thanks to Elder for her gifts.

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