Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Magic of Mistletoe…

The legend behind its use…

Hi Guys,

Today I thought I would look at another festive ingredient that makes everyone think of Christmas, Mistletoe, which from the earliest times has been one of the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants within European folklore.

In older times it was considered to bestow life and fertility, as well as being a protection against poison and also an aphrodisiac. The plant is a parasitic growth, which grows on the branches or the trunk of a tree sending out roots that then penetrate inside the tree and take up its nutrients. However mistletoe can also grow of its own accord, as it can an produce its own food by photosynthesis, like other plants.

The much rarer species of mistletoe that grows about the oak tree was especially sacred to the ancient Celtic Druids, when on the sixth night of the moon white-robed Druid priests would cut the oak mistletoe with a golden sickle. This reminds me of the Asterix tales, especially the one about Asterix and The Golden Sickle. Two white bulls would then be sacrificed with prayers said to the effect that the recipients of the mistletoe would prosper.

Later, the ritual of cutting the mistletoe from the oak represented the ascendance of the old King by his successor and it was though of as both a sexual symbol and also as the "soul" of the oak.

It was gathered at both mid-summer and mid-winter solstices, and the custom of using mistletoe to decorate houses at Christmas is a continuation of the traditions of the Druidical and other pre-Christian Pagans. The ancient Greeks also thought that it had mystical powers and there too, down through the centuries, it became associated with many folklore customs.

In the Middle Ages and in later centuries, branches of mistletoe were hung from ceilings to ward off evil spirits, much like the use of garlic in Vampire tales, nowadays. In Europe they were placed over house and stable doors to prevent the entrance of witches. It was also believed that the oak mistletoe could extinguish fire, although this is not something I would like to test out personally. This seems to stem from a much earlier belief that the mistletoe itself could come to the tree during a flash of lightning. If only the lottery numbers could do the same, eh?

These traditions, which began with the European mistletoe and its legends were then adopted in American and given over to this similar plant with each progressive stage in the process of immigration and settlement of the European peoples.

Kissing under the mistletoe is first found associated with the Greek festival of Saturnalia, yes it’s that Pagan festival again, with its drunken, feasting and partying, and later it became associated with ancient marriage rites too.

The act of kissing under the mistletoe quite possibly originated from two beliefs, one being that it had the power to bestow fertility and the other that it was also believed that the dung from which the mistletoe grew would also possess "life-giving" power.

In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses would kiss and make-up. I guess the Vikings didn’t use it too much if that was the case in the former use.

Later, in 18th Century England it was credited with a certain magical if a young woman was kissed under a kissing ball. Traditionally during the Christmas period a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe, which was usually brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons, and ornaments, could not refuse to be kissed. Such a kiss could mean deep romance or lasting friendship and goodwill, or even marriage. If the girl remained un-kissed, she could not expect to marry the following year. In some parts of England, due to this legend, the Christmas mistletoe is even burned on the twelfth night in case all those who have kissed under the ball never marry.

Whether we believe it or we don’t, it is always seen hanging in homes and you will always see someone, usually young women, with it tied in some way to their hair and it always makes for lots of festive fun and frolics at many Christmas celebrations.

Even if the pagan origins have long since been forgotten, the customary exchanging of kisses under the mistletoe sprig can still be found in many countries.

The mystical power mistletoe has long been at the very core of many folklore tales. A Norse myth says that Mistletoe was the sacred plant of Frigga, who was the goddess of love and the mother of Balder, and also the god of the summer sun.

Balder had a dream of death, which frightened his mother, for should he die, Ragnarok would be brought about and that would mean that the gods would die in the final battle and, as a result of this, all life on earth would end.

In an attempt to keep this from happening, Frigga went at once to the elements of air, fire, water, earth, and every animal and plant seeking a promise from each that no harm would come to her son. Balder now could not be hurt by anything on earth, or under the earth.

Balder had an enemy, however, Loki, god of evil and, being the slyest of beings, knew of a plant that Frigga had not seen in her efforts to keep her son out of harms way. It was not grown from on the earth nor from under it, but it did grow on apple and oak trees and its name was mistletoe.

So it was that Loki created an arrow tip from the mistletoe, which he then gave to Hoder, the blind god of winter, tricking him into shooting it, thus striking Balder dead. The myths tell that the sky paled and all things in earth and heaven wept for the sun god and that for three days each element tried to bring Balder back to life.

Balder was eventually brought back to life by his mother, the goddess, Frigga. The myth goes on to say that the tears she shed for her son then turned into the pearly white berries on the mistletoe plant and that in her joy Frigga kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew. Again there is a cross reference to the story of Jesus and the crown of holly and his spilt blood creating the colour of the holly berries and the legend of the kissing under the sprigs too from other Pagan legends.

The Norse myth ends with a declaration that who should ever stand under mistletoe, should have no harm befall them, only a kiss, a token of love.

It could be argued, what better way to translate the spirit of this old myth into a Christian way of thinking and accept the mistletoe as the emblem of a Love, which conquers even Death?

Whatever the real roots of the tradition, I am sure this season will be no different and will witness lovers around the globe doing just as they have for centuries and that is to kiss under the mistletoe.

Until next time have fun!

Tim Perkins…

December 22nd 2009

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