We’ve mentioned previously that mistletoe was prominent in the traditions of the Druids and the lore of northern Europe. The Druids used the mistletoe of their sacred oak as part of their ritual five days after the new moon following the Winter Solstice. In the middle ages it was hung from ceilings or placed above stable and house doors to drive off evil spirits and to insure fertility.
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on trees. Phoradendron flavescens or Viscum album sends its roots into the tree’s bark and derives its nutrients from the tree itself, though it does engage in photosynthesis.
The word can be traced back to 2nd century Anglo-Saxon “mistel” for the word dung and “tan” for twig, mistletan being the Old English version of the word. This suggests the belief that mistletoe grew from birds, though we know now that it is the birds’ droppings in trees or the seeds’ sticky nature that adheres to tree bark.
Some would trace the tradition of kissing under mistletoe back to the Roman Saturnalia, indeed the Greek goddess Artemis (Roman: Diana,) patron of the city of Ephesus (New Testament – Acts 19:24-41) wore a crown of mistletoe as an emblem of fertility and immortality. However, the most fully developed myth regarding mistletoe comes from the Norse mythology of the Vikings. Mistletoe’s curative powers and the belief that it can raise humans from the dead relates to the resurrection of the Norse god Baldar.
The story goes as follows. Baldar, the Norse god of the summer sun, saw in a dream his death. Frigga, his mother and the goddess of beauty and love — and from whom we get the name Friday — compelled the elements, plants and animals not to kill Baldar. But she neglected to extract this same promise from the unique mistletoe. The mischief god Loki (brother of Thor) realizing that mistletoe grows on trees and has no roots in the ground fashioned a poisoned dart from mistletoe and with the aid of Baldar’s blind brother Hoder shot the mistletoe missile to kill Baldar. His death brought winter and his mother’s lamentation.
Frigga’s tears over her son changed the red mistletoe berries white and raised Baldar from the dead. From her gratitude she blessed with a kiss everyone who walked beneath mistletoe, declaring that the mistletoe must forever after bring love rather that death into the world.
Later Christian customs called it Herbe de la Croix or Lignum Sanctae Crusis for “Wood of the Sacred Cross” because of the belief that it was used to supply the wood for Christ’s cross. For its role, mistletoe was condemned to be a parasitic vine. Further penance for the plant was that it bless everyone who walked beneath it.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian