Thursday, December 22, 2011


Mistletoe/Mistelten Viscum album
photo Paris, October 2009: stig bachmann nielsen, Naturplan Foto

Flora and Fauna
The Old Norse word for mistletoe is mistiltein. The evergreen 20-70 cm high bushy plant is a parasite, in Denmark found especially on apple, hawthorn, poplar and birch - the stalks are bifurcated and articulated with oblong leatherlike leaves, the small yellow-green flowers are in the bifurcate-corners, the berries contain a sticky juice. It is planted in many gardens and parks, in Knuthenborg park at Lolland (southern DK-island) is a large growth - from here are sold twigs for gardeners and flower-shops at Christmas time.The mistletoe immigrated about 7000 years ago. Pollen analyses show that the mistletoe was common in DK in egetiden (the oak-period), but declined between Bronze and Iron age - it might later have disappeared, but was brought back in the Middle Ages with the improved sweet-appletrees from Middle Europe. The plant was considered a sickly excrescence and was therefore destroyed in many places by people in present times.

The word Mistletoe is synonym with the Greek word mysterion, and the plant mistletoe was always wrapped in superstition, mystery and fascinating imaginations. It had a symbolic significance connected to purity and innocence, and it was able to keep away evil, misfortune and witchcraft - therefore people hung it over their doors by midwinter to protect themselves against the evil demons who feared the Green - but the evergreen plant was also a symbol of people's welcome to the increasing light after winter solstice.

Elmer Boyd Smith 1902, Balder
Although many sources say that kissing under the mistletoe is a purely English custom, there is another explanation for its origin that extends into Norse mythology. It's the story of a loving if overprotecting mother. The Norse god, Balder, was the best loved of all the gods. His mother was Frigga, goddess of love and beauty. She loved her son so much that she wanted to make sure that no harm would come to him. So she went through the world, securing promises from everything that sprang from the four elements, fire, water, air and earth - that they would not harm her beloved Balder. But then Loki turned up, a sly, evil spirit, and he found the loophole. The loophole was the mistletoe. He made an arrow from its wood, and then he revealed his nasty and treacherous mind. He took the arrow to Hoder, Balder's brother, who was blind. Guiding Hoder's hand, Loki directed the arrow at Balder's heart, and he fell dead. Frigga's tears became the mistletoe's berries. In the version of the story with a happy ending, Balder is restored to life, and Frigga is so grateful that she reverses the reputation of the offending plant - making it a symbol of love and promising to bestow a kiss upon anyone who passes under it.

Mistel (Mistil) is together with tidsel (tistil) and a little kiste (kistil = box) mentioned in a magic formula upon a rune stone found at Gørlev in northwest Sjælland. A branch placed in the stock of the gun abolished a witchcraft which caused no shot to hit target - at Christmas and New Year's Eve the plant was hung upon fruit trees, which then would bear much fruit. The plant became a symbol of purity and innocence, to kiss under the mistletoe was a sign of love. The girl who did not get a kiss under the mistletoe, would not be a bride the following year. On Christmas Eve it was allowed to kiss every girl who came to you under a mistletoe. The custom origins from England. In the year 1888 the mistletoe was used for the first time in a Danish Christmas - and since then it was often used as a Christmas symbol. Misteltoe is especially imported from Italy.

The folklore and the magical powers of this plant blossomed over the centuries. To burn the herb banished evil, and a magic quality like invisibility was achieved by wearing the herb around the neck. A sprig placed in a baby's cradle would prevent the child from being mixed up or abducted by the fairies. Put under the pillow at night mistletoe promoted sleep and beautiful dreams.

Druids cutting Mistletoe, Henri Paul Motte 1895
From the Celtic tradition the Mistletoe was known as the golden bough, and it was held sacred by both the Celtic Druids and the Norse. The plant was used in forms of immortality conditions and in order to open locked doors, and the Druids used mistletoe in a very special ceremony, held around the sixth day after the New Moon in the new year. The Druids had to cut the mistletoe from a holy oak tree with a golden sickle and let it fall down upon a white cloth. This scenery is also known from Asterix! The priests then divided the branches into many sprigs and distributed them to people, who hung them over their doorways as protection against lightning strikes and other evils. The power of the mistletoe lasted until the Twelfth Night.

Mistletoe was once called All-heal, and it was used in folk medicines to cure many ills. Wearing a ring cut in mistletoe prevented illness, and women wore the herb in order to conceive. The use of mistletoe in Denmark goes back to what was written in Antiquity about the plant in southern Europe, where it was considered to be fertilizing. Giving a sprig to the first cow calving after New Year would protect the entire herd. The plant was also known to give good luck in hunting, and if enemies by chance met in a forest where mistletoe grew, they laid down their arms and maintained a truce until next day. If it was plucked in March at new moon and hung around the child's neck it would protect the child against epilepsy. Simon Paulli said in 1648: crushed mistletoe alone or mixed with peony seeds and roots drunk in lily-of-the-valley-water on every change of the moon against epilepsy - some women added gold dust filed from heritage or from their wedding ring - and they felt protected from this terrible and bad disease.

The plant was considered to counteract nightmares and protect sheep against Fasciola hepatica. Stalks, leaves and berries were written into the Danish Pharmacopoeia in 1772-1850; in Danish pharmacies was still in 1922 used a formula collection with mistletoe, mixed in a means against epilepsy, and "Markgrevindens pulver" (the powder of a countess)  was in pharmacies as late as in 1950. From the berries were, cooked together with linseed oil and white spirit, made a birdlime catching little birds, (now forbidden). And cooked with lye-salt the berries gave a good soap.

Source: V.J.Brøndegaard, Folk og Flora, Dansk Etnobotanik, 3, 1979


Wanda..... said...

Mistletoe grows here in Southern Ohio, but I have never come across it myself. Enjoyed reading all the folklore and strange uses of it, Grethe.

Thyra said...

Hej Wanda! I thought the mistletoe was very Christmas-like! I have brought a post before in two different versions but I revised it for now. I have never seen mistletoe here in Denmark.
Merry Christmas Wanda!
Grethe ´)

Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas, Grethe! You are one of my favorite bloggers. I hope you have the brightest year ahead and very fortunate. ~ Jack

Thyra said...

Hej Jack! I hope you'll have a lovely Christmas time too. I'm very glad for your comment and good wishes.
I always look forward to reading your great posts. The last one about juniper and cedar was very interesting. Their history is exciting - and now you've made me research juniper!!
I hope to see you lots of times in the next year! A good and happy New Year to you, Jack, from Grethe in Denmark.´)

Anonymous said...

The American Heritage Dictionary reports that the word in Old English was misteltan, which was closer to the Danish form. Apparently Old English speakers began to interpret tan as the plural of the word ta that meant toe, and so English ultimately ended up with the modern form mistletoe.

Thyra said...

Hello Wild Flowers,
Thank you, this is interesting. Since your comment I have actually found so much material about the mistletoe that I need to change my post! I've just discovered that the Danish form: Mistelten origins directly from English. I guess they should have written: Old English. They also say it comes from the word mistletoe, but it must origin from the word you mention, the Old English: Misteltan.
We can discover so much from the languages, there are many Danish-like words in English. Still after a 1000 years!
Thank you for your comment!

Grethe ´)