Saturday, December 24, 2011

All About Mistletoe!

From Barbara G. Walker's The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, all about Mistletoe!!!  I confess I was surprised (how about shocked, even) by some of this information.  All the years I've been reading about the Goddess, myths and customs around the world and I do not recall coming across some of this information before, I'm sure I would have remembered it!

Mistletoe, image from How Stuff Works (see below, about
early beliefs that mistletoe sprang from birds visiting trees --
but actually the seeds were spread by bird droppings!)
Mistletoe was the Golden Bough that gave access to the underworld, according to pagan belief.  The gold color of dry mistletoe was seen as a symbol of apotheosis [becoming as a god, or becoming a god oneself], as was gold metal.  The living plan was viewed as the genetalia of the oak god, Zeus or Jupiter or Dianus of Dodona, consort of the Moon-mother Diana Nemetona, lady of the Grove.  At the season of sacrifice, druidic priests ceremonially castrated the oak god by cutting off his mistletoe with a golden moon-sickle, catching it in a white cloth before it could touch the ground, so it remained like every sacrificial deith "between heaven and earth."(1)

The phallic significance of mistletoe probably stemmed from the notion that its whitish berries were semen-drops, as the red berries of its feminine counterpart, holly, were equated with the Goddess's menstrual blood.  Among Indo-European peoples generally, castration of the god was customary before his immolation.

Sacred-oak cults continued throughout the Christian era.  In the 8th century A.D. the Hessians worshipped the oak god at Geismar and gave his holy tree the name of Jove (Jupiter).  As late as 1874, an ancient oka-tree shrine in Russia was worshipped by a congregation led by an Orthodox priest.  Wax candles were affixed to the tree, and the celebrants prayed, "Holy Oak Hallelujah, pray for us."  A drunken orgy ensued.(2)  Modern customs of kissing under the mistletoe are pale shadows of the sexual orgies that once accompanied the rites of the oak god.

To Nordic pagans, mistletoe symbolized the death of the savior-god Balder, son of Idin, whose Second Coming was expected after doomsday, when he would return to earth to establish the new creation. [Does that sound familiar to Christians out there?]  Balder was slain by a spear of mistletoe wielded by Hod, the Blind God, another name for Odin himself.  Or, some said Hod was Balder's dark twin, corresponding to the light-and-dark year-gods Set and Horus in Egypt.(3)

Some derive the Saxon mis-el-tu from Mas, the Sanskrit "Messiah" (Vishnu), and tal, a pit, metaphorically the earth's womb.  Thus it stood for the god's entry into his Mother-bride.  Norsemen's word for mistletoe was Guidhel, the same "guide to hell" as Virgil's Golden Bough.(4)

After they were converted to Christianity, Saxons claimed the mistletoe was "the forbidden tree in the middle of the trees of Eden," i.e., the Tree of Knowledge [of Good and Evil], which was popularly supposed to have furnished the wood for Jesus's cross.(5) [Now that's an interesting legend, since I thought the Garden of Eden which contained said Tree of Knoweldge of Good and Evil was closed off forever to mankind and fiercely guarded by angels wielding firery swords!  I imagine it would have been destroyed, in any event, at the time of the Great Flood of Noah's day, and all knowledge of its location was lost forever.]

The phallic meaning of the mistletoe made it the "key" that opened the underworld womb, key and phallus being interchangeable in mystical writings.  Some treatises said, "All locks are opened by the herb Missell toe."  Combined with the "feminine" herb Aleyone, it "makes a man do often the act of generation."(6)  [The secret to Viagra???]

The pagan's interpretations of mistletoe were still understood in Renaissance times, when it was adopted as an emblem of the new Messiah and "carried to the high altar" of English churches on Christmas Eve.  But some Christian writers insisted that the mistletoe "never entered those sacred edifices but by mistake, or ignorance of the sextons; for it was the heathenish and profane plant, as having been of such distinction in the pagan rites if Druidism."(7)


(1)  Frazer, G.B., 763-73, 816.
(2)  Spence, 78, 108.
(3)  de Lys, 60.
(4)  Hazlitt, 412.
(5)  Mile, 153.
(6)  Wiedeck, 189.
(7)  Hazlitt, 413.

So, now I think I fully understand about the power of combining holly and mistletoe together in arrangements!  I would expect the combination to be particularly powerful at the time of the Winter Solstice, that precise time when we turn the corner on cold and darkness (despite the Wisconsin climate which insists upon giving us winter for four more months after) and the days once again start getting longer by a few minutes each day.  Joy!  I really do wait for the Winter Solstice to come around, particularly the older I get, the more I seem to be affected by the cold and those long dark hours.  It's like if I can make it to the Winter Solstice, the worst is over, even though I may have to endure weeks of below zero weather and tons of snow.  So far this year, however, it's been abnormally warm and no snow to speak of around Milwaukee County! The frenzy of preparation for and engaging in celebrations at this time of year make perfect sense to me, too, psychologically speaking, as we seek to distract ourselves from the cold and darkness.

But that only works for the northern hemisphere.  The "lower half" of the globe has winter and darkness just the opposite of ours as the Earth seems to tilt this way and that in its annual journey around the Sun!  So, how do those old Indo-European myths and practices refined over eons for the northern hemisphere apply there?  (At least, among native populations; it's probable that European-descended peoples have settled in most of the known world in the southern hemisphere and have contaminated native beliefs and customs with "Christianized" practices...).

Fascinating, absolutely fascinating.  If anyone can add some information, please do so! 

Back to mistletoe:

This website says the name of mistletoe is derived from bird poop!

[t]he Anglo-Saxon words, "mistel" (dung) and "tan" (twig) -- misteltan is the Old English version of mistletoe. It's thought that the plant is named after bird droppings on a branch [source:].
One of the beliefs in the early centuries was that mistletoe grew from birds. People used to believe that, rather than just passing through birds in the form of seeds, the mistletoe plant was an inherent result of birds landing in the branches of trees.

An English custom I've read about over the years in passing when I engaged a passion for Regency Romances is the Kissing Bough.  A typical kissing bough could include mistletoe, holly, and ivy, as well as other evergreens and in Victorian times, fruit such as apples and oranges. 

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