History of Mistletoe
Mistletoe is a plant that has an extensive magickal history. Tied to Druidic, Norse, and Greek mythology, mistletoe has long been associated with fertility, protection, peace, and love. In Europe, mistletoe is connected to the Winter Solstice/Yule as well. Magically, mistletoe is very powerful and can be used (non-internally) for fertility, protection, love, and healing. Let’s look more closely at this parasitic, toxic, and mysterious plant.
What is Mistletoe?
Most of us have heard of mistletoe. We may have stood beneath it during a Christmas party (probably a faux version), or even more likely we’ve seen it depicted in movies or cartoons. Few of us probably know what mistletoe actually is in it’s natural state though right?
It may surprise you (I know it surprised me), to know that mistletoe is a hemiparasitic plant that grows on other trees, sometimes in a strange, ball-shaped form. Known in officially as Viscum album, mistletoe in English gets its name from the Old English tan (“twig”) and mistel, an Anglo-Saxon (or possibly even Old German) word for “dung”. What’s really fascinating about this etymology is that it shows that these older cultures had an idea of how mistletoe grew. You see, birds eat the seeds and when they, errrr go poo, the seeds drop down and attach themselves to the host trees. Mistletoe then grows from that spot and grows as a half parasite, using the tree for energy and nutrients.
Mistletoe is evergreen, meaning in the winter you will see it as a bright green growth on an otherwise dead tree. This perhaps accounts for why it has been associated with winter; it would stick out against the otherwise colorless landscape and inspire thoughts of strength and magic. Mistletoe is toxic if eaten, although not usually responsible for deaths (you know, just blurred vision, diarrhea, vomiting, and cardiac problems).
Mistletoe is found in myths and legends of many different cultures. Some of the associates are quite sexual in nature. Pre-Christian and Celtic cultures apparently regarded mistletoe’s white berries as representative of semen.
In Rome, mistletoe was associated with the Saturnalia festival, and Romans hung mistletoe over doorways for protection. They also believed mistletoe was associated with love, peace, and understanding. People may have ended up kissing under the mistletoe during early marriage rights, a precursor to the more modern practices.
To the Druids, mistletoe was sacred. It was used in the Ritual of Oak and Mistletoe, a ritual which was recorded by Pliny the Elder in the 1st century. This is his account:
We should not omit to mention the great admiration that the Gauls have for it as well. The druids – that is what they call their magicians – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard-timbered oak [robur].. Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon…. Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’ they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to a god to render his gift propitious to those on whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons. (Plinty the Elder, Natural History)
The Norse had an extensive mythology around mistletoe, and it is their stories that also helped shape the use of mistletoe in popular Christmas customs. The Norse story is as follows:
The story goes that Mistletoe was the sacred plant of Frigga, goddess of love and the mother of Balder, the god of the summer sun. Balder had a dream of death, which greatly alarmed his mother, for should he die, all life on earth would end. Balder could not be hurt by anything on earth or under the earth. But Balder had one enemy, Loki, god of evil and he knew of one plant that grew neither on the earth nor under the earth, but on apple and oak trees. It was lowly mistletoe. So Loki made an arrow tip of the mistletoe, gave to the blind god of winter, Hoder, who shot it, striking Balder dead. For three days each element of universe tried to bring Balder back to life. Frigga, the goddess and his mother finally restored him. It is said the tears she shed for her son turned into the pearly white berries on the mistletoe plant and in her joy Frigga kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew. The story ends with a decree that who should ever stand under the humble mistletoe, no harm should befall them, only a kiss, a token of love. (Source)
In the Middle Ages, mistletoe continued to be tied to fertility and luck, and hung in doorways for protection as well. In more modern European-based cultures, mistletoe is known as a Christmas decoration under which people kiss.
So as we can see from these many myths and ancient customs, the more modern customers came directly from them. Hanging mistletoe in the home during Yule, the Winter Solstice, Christmas, or whichever holiday you choose harkens back to the ancient practices. Kissing under the mistletoe goes back to ancient Rome, and just the association with love, peace, or even sexuality goes back to the Druidic and Nordic myths.
In Magickal Workings
The magickal properties of mistletoe are closely associated with its history. However, like belladonna, mistletoe is toxic and should not be ingested. If you have children or pets, and you want to work with real mistletoe, take care not to leave it out where they might ingest it. With that said, here are some magickal properties of mistletoe:
- Winter Solstice/Yule rituals
To me, mistletoe is similar to belladonna in that you probably won’t go out and get it to work with. However, using a faux version, using literature/poetry/spells with mistletoe imagery, or even creating a representation can all bring in the properties of this ‘herb’. You can then use this representation or these magickal words about mistletoe to perform spells or rituals needing the above energies.
So, this is more of a meditation or sacred reading activity. I think it will help you get in touch with the energies of mistletoe from the myths above. My personal choice is to do this with the Druid ritual, but you could also do it with the Norse myth.
*This is a ‘religious’ practice, but the process is amazing for connecting to a piece of ANY literature. (I got this idea from Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast). Below is from the source linked above. Simply replace the biblical phrases with elements from the Druid ritual. Listen to my podcast episode for a detailed breakdown for the Druid passage.
- Select a passage from one of the Gospels in which Jesus is interacting with others.
- Recall what one is doing in engaging with the Word of God and what one desires from this encounter. God is present and because God is present one relies on God.
- Read the Gospel passage twice so that the story and the details of the story become familiar.
- Close one’s eyes and reconstruct the scene in one’s imagination. See what is going on and watch the men and women in the scene. What does Jesus look like? How do the others react to him? What are the people saying to one another? What emotions fill their words? Is Jesus touching someone? As one enters into the scene, sometimes there is the desire to be there. So a person can place oneself in the scene, perhaps as an observer, as one lining up for healing, or as one helping others to Jesus.
- Some people’s imaginations are very active so they construct a movie-like scenario with a Gospel passage. Others will enter the scene with verbal imagination, reflecting on the scene and mulling over the actions. Vividness is not a criteria for the effectiveness of this kind of prayer. Engagement is and the result is a more interior knowledge of Jesus.
- As one finishes this time of prayer, one should take a moment to speak person to person with Christ saying what comes from the heart.