Mistletoe: From Toxin-Laced Darts to Fertility Symbol

December 25, 2019

Christmas and mistletoe: have you ever simply asked yourself … why? I have studied plant parasites like mistletoe for almost ten years, and I’m here to tell you that the answer is absolutely fascinating.

In Norse mythology , Baldur (younger brother to magic-hammer-wielding Thor), was the subject of a premonition from his mother Frigg, who could see the future:  he would be killed . Frigg tackled this head on, extracting an oath from every object on Earth, to avoid harming her son. This was agreeable to all … except mistletoe, which was overlooked.

Loki, the god of mischief, exploited this loophole and used mistletoe to create a toxin-laced dart, giving it to Hod (blind brother of Baldur), who he tricked into killing Baldur. It turns out that Baldur was practically invincible at this stage, and got his kicks by letting the other gods shoot arrows and darts at him. Of course, he hadn’t factored mistletoe into his thinking.

The mythology scatters after Baldur’s death, but in many versions of the story, Frigg’s tears became the pearlescent berries of mistletoe, which were hung over doors as a reminder and mark of respect.

Other versions recount that the gods were able to negotiate Baldur’s release from Hel, the goddess of death. Frigg, keen to sweep her mistletoe faux pas right under the carpet, declared the plant to be a symbol of love rather than scorn, and vowed to kiss everyone that passed underneath.

It is thought that the Baldur incident, and later adoption of mistletoe as a symbol of fertility by Celtic druids, were responsible for the cultural collision of mistletoe with the modern day Christmas period, and its association with the act of kissing.

In the 1800s, the author  Washington Irving  wrote that “young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under [mistletoe], plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases.” The symbolism and act of privilege has become more nuanced since then, but the association remains.

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