A Proposal to Change the Etymology of the Taxonomical Nomenclature, Sambucus

Simply put, the object of this essay is to propose an alternate interpretation of the etymology of Sambucus, and the related Italian word, sambuco. Both refer to the elder tree.

Richard Stoney of Orleans, CA, richston100@msn.com, Copyright 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010.

Kowalchik and Hylton state that the taxonomic nomenclature the elder tree, Sambucus, derives from Latin name sambuca and Greek sambuke, a type of harp or stringed instrument. Likewise an email from Diana Horton of University of Iowa reflects basically the same information, quoting Stearn's Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners and The Naturalist's Lexicon by R.S. Woods. However, this latter source did state that the stringed instrument was triangular. Basically, all of these sources repeat information from Pliny the Elder (pun intended), who said that the sambuca was made perhaps of elderwood or some other wood. It is possible, I suppose, that in Pliny's day, they used elderwood for such purposes, but all my sources say such is not the case. Bill Taylor of Ardival Harps says that in medieval harps, the sound box was carved from one block of wood. "Considering that elder doesn't tend to grow very wide (thinner than birch), you wouldn't be able to carve a [sound] box outside of the sap wood. And that means you'd always have cracking." There is eve a saying which describes the elder as "ever bush and never tree". Straight-grained hardwoods like maple are better-suited for the stresses placed on modern harps.

Bill Taylor even suggested Pliny was referring instead to the smaller lyre. Similarly, Craig Pierpont of Another Era Lutherie said that lyres have been mistakenly referred to as harps at times. Conceivably the reason for the differences in names lies in the fact that there were smaller, C-shaped harps that have no forepillars. Quoting Giovanni Comitti in Music in Greek and Roman Culture, Bill wrote, "[Harps} had little importance in the musical life of the Greeks and were regarded as alien to the Greek musical tradition and imported from foreign cultures," (1)

It seems at this point in time that Pliny did not write anything about the sambuca/Sambucus connection, according to Mary Beagon of Manchester University. Obviously someone noted the similarities. In fact, there is this quote in An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary under ellen, -es: "...sambucus=[in Greek letters] sambuke." And the resulting speculation eventually turned into repeated mis-info.

The elder is one of humanity's oldest plant sources of medicine (cf. the Welsh word for the elder, coed hynaf, oldest tree"). Its beneficial characteristics make it a veritable medicine chest in itself. Its plant parts such as leaves, flowers, berries, roots, and bark have been used medicinally as diaphoretics, diuretics, emetics, external emollients, purgatives, laxatives, anti-catarrhals, carminatives, expectorants, stomach stimulants, and febrifuges. As a vulnerary. it is an astringent to arrest bleeding and condense skin tissue; it also fights sunburn and bruises. It helps reduce headaches, sinusitis and hayfever, fight tumors and strenghten respiration and mucuous membranes, and promote better sleep, Its antiseptic properties can fight colds and the flu. And ever further, it is sometimes used in conjunction with other helpful plants. It has been used to lure birds away from fruit trees and as a spray against caterpillars and mildew. If a leaf is bruised and applied to the skin, flies will stay away. It can be turned into wine, pies, jellies, fritters or teas and makes a soothing bath solution. It supplies vitamin C and makes a good dye.

Historically, the hollow bark tubes and wood of elder have been used for wind instruments such as flutes and whistles. Ethnobotanists have documented that Native Americans used elderwood for the same purpose.

The stems of the young elder were used for blowing up a fire; the soft pith pushes out easily, and the tubes thus formed were used as pipes--hence it was often called Pipe-tree or Bore-Tree. Oxford English Dictionary contains this quote in its section on the word elder: "...a connexion of some kind with hole, hollow is plausible, as the tree might have been named from its tubular stems."

Also of relevance is the fact that Pliny the Elder wrote about how country folk believed that the shrillest pipes and sonorous horns were made of elder wood.

With all the above ethnobotanical information in mind, we now come to some German words to show a linguistical relationship with the elder:

1) In German, an elder is called a holunder, and it earlier form, holuntar, which means "hole (i.e., hollow) bush/tree".

2) Then there is holder/holderbusch, a reference to the elder tree.

3) Now we come to hold , "favorable, propitious, kind". A different form of it is holder, as in holder Friede. And while it may be officially considered unrelated to the word holder mentioned above, its definitions just so happen to carry with it certain characteristics related to the elder and its positive, ethnobotanical uses.

In addition, the Kos'ciusko dictionary of Polish and English lists a "medicinal" word for the elder, bez aptekarski: bez, "lilac", + aptekarski, "pharmaceutical". Most likely, the significance the lilac plays in all this is its hollowness; the scientific nomenclature for its genus is Syringa (cf. Eng. syringe, used for injecting medicine, as were reeds in the past) from Greek mythology involving the goddess Syringa and Pan, who made a flute out of some hollow reeds to commemorate his affection for her. The German word flieder can refer to lilacs and elders. Cf. Ger. fliede, "phlebotomy", the practice of opening a vein to draw blood.

In fact, the elder has been known as Pipe-Tree or Bore-Tree. In summary what is stressed here is the idea of a plant that is beneficial, favorable or helpful plus hollow.

Now we come to the crux of this essay, etymology of the word Sambucus, involving two Sanskrit words. Keep in mind that Latin does not have the sound of sh in its words, and that bh and kh represent transliterations of single Sanskrit letters:

--Skt. shambhu, "kind, existing for the welfare of, benevolent, beneficent, helpful". This is also a name of Shiva, father of Ganesha, averter of evil. But there is a story from VarAha PurANa in which Ganesha was created as a complete copy of Shiva. Uma overcome by this exquisitely-formed child. Shiva became enraged by her fickleness and decreed that the child should have a potbelly and elephant's head. so in a sense, they are the same. (32);

--khah/kheh, "a hollow".

"A beneficial hollow".

The modern Spanish word for the elder is sauco. Cf. Skt. saukha, a patronymic from sukha, which originally meant "having a good axle-hole," from #5 su, "excellent" + #3 kha, "a hole".

The word Sambucus has Indic origins although it is very possible that these words also occur in other languages.

Another idea associated with this whole matter is whether the word was formed in the area of the greater Indian subcontinent. Who knows? Sambucus grows in India, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Japan, Nepal, Bhutan, Uzbekistan, Southeast Asia and Europe, according to Germplasm Resources Information Network. But for unknown reasons, the Sanskit computer banks at Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon do not contain the word Sambucus, although they do contain the scientific names of numerous other plants. In a book on trees of India (1999), C.K. Warman refers to the Sambucus nigra (that species specifically) as a magical tree of Europe and says that it was introduced several decades earlier into India. The book lists no other members of elder.

The reason for differing interpretations and possible confusion regarding the etymology of Sambucus may lie in this Sanskritic wordplay on sambuke:

--sama, "similar, same";
--bukk, "to sound";
--buka, "laughter".

What this article shows is an allegorical relationship between Sambucus and the Hindu world, especially the mythology of Ganesha.

At the very onset of his book on Ganesha, Paul Courtright offers this comment by Pietro Della Valle, written in 1624: "But I doubt not that, under the veil of of these Fables, their ancient Sages have hid from the vulgar [common masses] many secrets, either of Natural or Moral Philosophy, and perhaps also of History: and I hold for certain that all of these so monstrous figures have secretly some more rational significations, though express'd in this uncouth manner." (32) Later on page 91, Courtright asks what the significance of the Ganesha mythology is. He says that the process of reading and interpreting any story is related to the assumptions, beliefs and tastes of the reader and that there is no "true" meaning.

As an indicator of manipulation of Ganesha myths, Courtright writes (p. 134), "The Puranic texts are uncomfortably aware of the discepancy betweem the malevolent, obstacle-creating power of Vinayaka [=Ganesha] and the positive, obstacle-removing actions of Ganesha, and they attempt to disguise Ganesha's demon backround through the clever use of false etymologies fr the name 'Vinayaka'. In one case, when Shiva saw, much to his surprise, that Ganesha appeared out of the mixture of his and Parvati's sweat and bathwater, he exclaimed to her, 'A son has been born to you without [vina] a husband [nayakena]; therefore this son shall be named Vinayaka'....This etymological sleight of hand obscures the association of Vinayaka with 'those who lead astray,' which is its etymologcally prior meaning, and connects it with another kmeaning of nAyaka as leader or husband".

There is a word which refers to the elder tree: bootrie. In view of the fact that some English "tree" words end in -trie, I believe the word is actually bhoot-tree: Eng. bhut ("boot") implying a ghost, demon, evil spirit from Hindi bhUt and Skt. bhUta, "gone, past, been (i.e. dead); demon, etc.; a spirit (good or evil)" + tree. How this all fits in is the fact that the elder was believed to protect against evil entities. So now consider Skt. bhUta-vRkSha, "demon-tree." Also the Hindu god Ganesha is known as Yaksa Vinaayaka, "ghost-obstacle" (18). He will be a reoccurring factor in this article. Also consider Eng. boot, "deliverance from evil, a means of help; a medicinal cure (both circa 1000 a.d.); well-being (1300)."

The word bhUta can also mean (believe it or not) "wellness, welfare, prosperity", concepts definitely attributed to the elder although A Sanskrit-English Dictionary does not apply those definitions to bhUtavRkSa.

The word bhUta comes from the root bhU, "be, exist, live" and can also refer to anything which lives whether divine, human, animal, or vegetable. It most likely can also refer to unseen things which cause illnesses. For example, viruses were not officially discovered until the 1920's.

"Elder branches were hung in doorways of houses and cowsheds. Elder can be used to bless a person, place or thing by scattering leaves or berries to the four directions and over the thing or person being blessed." (2) Likewise, Ganesha is a god of the threshold. There is mention of a time when attackers were threatening a temple, and "[t]he Archarya ["spiritual teacher"] searched and found a form of Lord Ganesha on the threshod above his head, literally the 'Torana' of the door". The attackers were eventually repulsed. Cf. Skt. toraNa, "arched doorway, festooned decorations over a doorway (with boughs of trees, garlands)." Elderwood was used in Sicily to keep thieves away. (3) Ganesha has these names: 1) DvAra VinAyaka, "door-obstacle"; 2)UddaNDa VinAyaka, "one who holds up a stick (applied to a doorkeeper)"; 3) DehalI VinAyaka, "door threshod obstacle". (19) He is an obstacle-remover but also creates obstacles. The Skt. word vinAyaka can mean "obstacle remover" but also refer to the obstacle itself.

In the city of Pune, India, there is a temple built in strict accordance with directions given in the Ganesha PurANa. According those directions, "there should be two doors, an inner one and an outr door, on three sides of the temple (mandir)[cf. skt. mandira, "temple, any dwelling, horse stable"]. The eastern side should have an (outer) lion door and an (inner) tiger door. he southern side should have an (outer) crow door and an (inner) deer door. The western side should have an (outer) horse door and an (inner) mouse door. At the south entrance should stand the two doorkeepers (dvarapalaka..." (Cf. Skt. dvAra, "door", + pAlaka, "guardian, horse-keeper.") The main sanctum sanctorum has an outer elephant door and an inner peacock. Deep inside the temple are images of Ganesha and Hanuman, the monkey. (29) (The peacock is the national bird of India, and the elephant is very highly-regarded.) To put things simply. the elderwood was placed over barns for protection and as a fly repellant on animals.

Ganesha's beheading took place on a threshold, and Grimes says this represents a change from the old to the new. (20). Elder twigs were woven into a head dress to enable the wearer s see spirits and undo evil magic. (Source unknown) Cutting an elder was associated with bleeding a spirit. This may explain the practice of asking Lady Ellhorn for permission to cut some of the tree with the promise to give her some in return when it grows in the forest (21). Elder can be easily asexually propagated using twigs. The elder rules the 13th month in the Ogham calendar, the ending of the old year and beginning of the new at Samhain.

Apparently witches use nine magical herbs, one of which is the elder, "of which the peasants make wreathes, which, if they wear on Walpurgis Night [a pre-Christian event], they can see the sorcersses as they sweep through the air on their broom, dragons, goats and other strange steeds in the Infernal Dance... [Ganesha happens to be known as "Dancing-Leader-of-the-Flock," wherein this flock consists of grotesque, impish, malignant and mischievous creatures(8) His steed is a mouse] 'Yea, and I know one fellow who sware unto men, that by means of this herb [elder] he once saw certain witches churning butter busily...'" (6) Elder is known as Borral (meaning unknown) Buttery Wood and Buttery Wood Tree. Well, there is also this quote from a poem about Ganesha: "One who performs sacrifices offering wood, with clarified butter as oblation, obtains everything, he obtains everything...Whoever offers burning wood with clarified butter into a Vedic fire while chanting [a certain] hymn gains all worthwhile things" (7) Trouble is, Gypsies and Europeans were opposed to the burning of elder, for unknown reasons. In some countries, the burning of elderwood was outlawed. Again, we come to the idea of Ganesha being VinAyaka, the obstacle itself.

Shiva Bhairava is an ash-covered ghoul who frequents the crematory grounds. Of relevancy is this webpage on Shiva and "Ring Around the Rosy".

The use of elder as a cure specifically for toothache has been well-documented. It should be mentioned that in the gypsy spell the next morning the cloth with the elder-bark must be thrown into the next running water. To cure toothache the Transylvanian gypsies wind a barley-straw round a stone, which is thrown into a running stream, while saying: '...Oh, pain in my teeth/Trouble me not so greatly!/Do not come to me,/My mouth is not thy house/I love thee not all,/Stay thou away from me;/When this straw is in the brook/Go away into the water!.'" (4) Consider, perhaps, a name for Ganesha, Dantahasta VinAyaka, "tooth-hand-remover" (14).

Ganesha is known as Ekadanta, "The Single-Tusked One": Cf. Skt. eka, "one" + dantaH, "tusk, tooth". "The two tusks denote the two aspects of the human personality, wisdom and emotion. The right tusk represents wisdom, and the left tusk represents emotion. Ganesha's right tusk is broken [later thrown at the moon]. This broken tusk is symbolic of knowledge, as it is with this tusk that he wrote the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. The depiction of a broken tusk is interpreted by some as indicative of the fact that we should not be trapped beteen pairs of opposites like pleasure and pain, but that we should make concious efforts to break its grip on us" (5).

In some of the rural Midlands, it is believed that if a child is chastised with an elder switch, it will cease to grow." (22) Ganesha is known as Kharva VinAyaka: kharva, "dwarfish," + vinAyaka, "impediment". One species of elder in Europe is Sambucus ebulus. the Dwarf Elder.

The elder tree is also known as boon-tree/bountry/bountrie, etc. The word boon refers to a request for something favorable. "Thus Elders were often planted around the house and on the farm where they served as a shrine to the goddess whose protective powers could be invoked by making prayers and offerings to the tree." (10) According to Grimes, Ganesha is Varada, the boon-giver. (11) Dancing under Boon-tree/Kalkpavrksha/varada =Walpurgis?

Elder has been used to fight dropsy, which is a build-up of bodily fluids, and when the liver is involved, the build-up can result in a distended stomach (12). Ganesha is pudgy all over and is also known as Lambodara VinAyaka, "potbelly-remover" (13). Sambucus was also applied as a poultice to fight dropsy, which can also cause swelling of the legs. Ganesha is also known as SthUlajaGgha VinAyaka, "Large-Bulky-Shank-Remover" (17). Some statues of him show the fatness of his legs.

People were know to have an elder tree in front of their house as protection against lightning. Ganesha is known as Arka VinAyaka (15), "flash of lightning-remover/obstacle." It is interesting to note that Navahos used Sambucus neomexicana to fight lightning infections, according to Dan Moerman.

Elder was used to remove freckles and spots, clean the skin and beautify faces. Ganesha is known as Sumukha VinAyaka, "Fair-faced-Remover" or simply Sumukha (16).

Ganesha has the epithet of Matta, "intoxicating; any intoxicating drink". The use of elderberry wine is legendary.

Ganesha is depicted as having a noose, one of his weapons. He is known as Pas'apani VinAyaka: pAs'apaNi, "having noose in his hand" + vinAyaka, which can refer to the name of particular formulas recited over weapons (sic). The elder is the tree from which Judas hung himself. with his ill-gotten coins scattered on the ground (24).

pagans used the elder as a barrier against snakes. Ganesha has the name of NAges'a VinAyaka (26). Cf., I believe, nAga, "snake", + Is'a, "lord", + vinAyaka, "obstacle". Lord-of-the-Snake-Obstacle?

Ganesha is associated with the color red; "Red, with a large belly and whose ears resemble a grain-winnowing basket/wearing red garments, whose body i smeared wih redpaste and worshipped with red flower". His complexion is red, and he is described as being red like the sun's rays and smbolizes spiritual fire. He is known as rakta-tuNDa, "he of the red trunk." (25)

Ganesha is the presiding deity of the red-flowered mUlAdhAra cakra, "a mystical circle above the generative organs." Within this circle is a triangle is the seed of desire which is fundamental to all manifestation, transformation and dissolution (27). Interestingly enough, it is possible to take the word mUlAdhAra, spell it minutely differently (the first a), then dissect it, and come up with these results: mUla, "thicket", + dhAra, "stream". The elder grows in moist areas. The Celtic word word for the elder is ruis, which is associated with redness (there is the Red Elder). And there is the story in which Ganesha fights the red demon SindUra ("a type of tree; red cloth" from root syand, "to flow (liquid"). Ganesha then assumes the redness when he becomes like the demon. (34)

The website of crystal Forest says that the elder is assocated with death, rebirth and evolution . There was the practice of creating circles with elders branches as magic wands (28). (See the section above about Ganesha being the protective doorkeeper with a stick.) This resembles, perhaps, the German nursery rhyme involving three children who are sitting under an elder tree, conceivably in a triangle.

There is a period known as kali yuga, and during it Ganesha will incarnate as DhUmraketu: dhUmra, "smoky, smoke-colored", + ketu, flame, aparition, shape." During this time, humans will be short-lived and have negative feelings. There will be chaos with very few noble thoughts. Humans will act like demons and barbarians. To restore peace and righteousness, Ganesha will appear with an ash-colored complexion and will be riding a horse. (Sounds like Armageddon.) As for the elder, there was a long-standng prohibition against burning it because it was believed that smoke fom the fire would conjure up evil demons and spirits of death. (30)

"Among the Slavonian and gypsy races all witchcraft, Fairy- and Folk-lore rests mainly upon a belief in certain spirits of the wood"... and has much in common with gypsy mythology which is apparently in a great measure directly of Indian origin. Quoting Wlislocki, Leland says that southern Slavonian and gypsy deities retained their forms and roles much intact, while those of northern and western Europe had their roles and forms altered. (9) I suppose this is the result of Christianity's tampering with them when Christianizing pagan rites.

There are musical performances called VAtApi GaNapatim. VAtApi means "wind-swelled". Elders were used for flutes, wind instruments. (33) These performances can involve wind and stringed instruments.

Footnote: 1) pp. 63-4, John Hopkins Univ Press, 1991).
2) Daughters of Earth and Water.
3) Sringeri.
4) Leland, p. 31.
5) "Ganesha: The Affable Elephant-Headed God".
6) Leland, p. 30.
7) Grimes, pp. 32, 35.
8) Grimes, p. 21.
9) Leland, pp. 67-8.
10) Sacred Earth.
11) Grimes, p. 5.
12) "Dropsical Affections/Oedema"
13) Grimes, p. 53.
14) Grimes, p. 53.
15) Grimes p. 53.
16) Uihealthcare.com
17) Homeoint.org; Grimes, p. 53.
18) Grimes, p. 53.
19) Grimes, p. 53.
20) Grimes, p. 74.
21) Botanical.com.
22) Botanical.com.
23) Grimes, p. 53.
24) Grimes, pp. 53, 84; s6.invision.com.
25) Grimes, pp. 92-3.
26) Sacred Earth; Grimes p. 53.
27) Grimes, p. 92.
28) Sacred Earth.
29) Grimes, p. 100.
30) "Black Elderberry myths"; Grimes, pp. 104-5.
31) Courtright, p. 3.
32) Courtright, pp. 46-7.
33) caitlin, p.155.
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