It is the plant that inspires a holiday kiss beneath where it hangs. Its historic symbolism has been celebrated for generations. Associated with the Norse goddess Frigg, and the death of her son Baldr, mistletoe is firmly an evergreen part of Scandinavian lore. The account of Baldr’s misfortune with mistletoe is a particularly popular tale. As the legend goes, Frigg sought an agreement from every living being an assurance that no harm would come to Baldr; however, believing that the mistletoe was too young to present a threat to Baldr, it was the one thing left that offered no blessing of protection upon him. It is of relevance to note the aspect of animism appearing here, as Frigg sought out each living being, human and otherwise, in order to solicit their protection for her son. Loki, the Norse god of mischief, after discovering that the mistletoe was the only being that had made no promise to protect Baldr, sought to have an arrow made that contained parts of the plant. As the other gods attempted to test Baldr’s inability to be harmed Loki went to Hodur, Baldr’s blind brother, and had him shoot the mistletoe arrow at the Shining God which proved to be fatal. In some of the later folkloric accounts, the white berries that form on the tips of mistletoe are referred to as the tears of Frigg.
While this well-known story features prominently into Norse lore, and the mythical cycle, mistletoe has additionally enjoyed a long presence in folklore in many other cultures as well. Mistletoe was used by the Egyptians, Romans, and Celts! Scholar Francis X. Weiser, while writing on traditional feasts and celebrations of early people, wrote the following concerning mistletoe and the Druids in Britain:
“The mistletoe was a sacred plant in the pagan religion of the Druids in Britain. It was believed to have all sorts of miraculous qualities: the power of healing diseases, making poisons harmless, giving fertility to humans and animals, protecting from witchcraft, banning evil spirits, bringing good luck and great blessings. In fact, it was considered so sacred that even enemies who happened to meet beneath a mistletoe in the forest would lay down their arms, exchange a friendly greeting, and keep a truce until the following day. From this old custom grew the practice of suspending mistletoe over a doorway or in a room as a token of goodwill and peace to all comers.”
Further, ancient Romans incorporated mistletoe into Saturnalia, a significant festival that celebrated Saturn and centered itself around the winter solstice. The event included an exchange of gifts as well as turns of social roles and societal norms all spanning throughout the communities in a weeklong celebratory event. As the Romans eventually came under Christian rule, many elements that were customary in various rites and traditions were adopted by the new religion and continued to be a feature of holidays in ways that are recognizable to us now. As Saturnalia occurred close to the date of the winter solstice, and what some people now celebrate as the time of the modern Christmas holiday season, familiar aspects appear that reflect a much earlier time in history, such as the Yule log and the use of evergreens for decorative purposes.
Plants and trees, along with many other examples found in nature, are heavily focused topics throughout European folklore. They typically reflect their immediate geographical landscape and social climate, as well as the worldview of those who dwell within them. Stories involving plant rituals, medicine, and even charms like that which is found in the Nine Herbs Charm, are early historic representations of how a particular culture viewed the world around them. As we know, mythology reflected worldviews of people and these views included their religion and ritual structure.
The Norse gods do not live eternally in Scandinavian mythology, and their mortality is reflected throughout the lore in a variety of ways including that of Baldr’s death and return. This is appropriate for a culture who existed in a world that was largely divided into times of planting and harvest when the world was bright, and times of bitter winter weather when days were short and months of cold insisted that they be prepared to survive the harsher elements to come. Mistletoe is an evergreen, which in itself presents a symbol of life during the winter – evidence that life does go on even during times of cold and darkness. In the story of Baldr, we are presented with the Shining God, who descends into the dark underworld, the domain of the goddess Hel, only to reemerge and return evergreen to a world that had fallen into darkness. The return of the sun was an important time to early agrarian people and was a significant part of their livelihoods.
As modern heathens apply early traditions to their own hearth practice, hanging mistletoe during the time of Yule can take on an especially relevant function and serves as a reminder that, just as it did with the early arch-heathens, the light will once again return. Old traditions are made new, and the symbolism that was once held by ancient cultures forms bridges into the lives and celebrations of those who aim to reconstruct them. Warmth and light from the sun begin to last longer after the winter solstice. Wassailing takes place among neighbors, Yule logs are burned to introduce light back into the hearth, presents are exchanged, feasts are held, evergreens adorn doorways and mantles (of an important note: mistletoe of both the American and European varieties can be poisonous to some pets; display with caution). These are signs of continuing life, community, friendship and prosperity and they echo the significance of seasonal changes and how mythical time is reflected in the lore. The seasons turn as part of a great natural cycle that both ancient and modern people have come to expect and appreciate. This time of year, the rites that are incorporated into feasts and celebrations, as well as the retelling of stories from the past, all serve as reminders that the passing of time brings new hope for a prosperous year ahead. As we serve our ciders and ale, as guests are welcomed, as we gift each other and make our offerings, may our actions be those of hospitality, generosity, and lasting significance.
Enjoyed this article? You can help support this author by clicking the button below and becoming a Patron of Huginn’s Heathen Hof!