Nancy Sherer

he use of Mistletoe as a party symbol is a mystery. Throughout Europe and as far east as Japan, it was known as ‘All Heal’. Concoctions, decoctions, poultices and charms made from mistletoe were used to treat ulcers, epilepsy, and open wounds. Some mythographers claim that it was a fertility symbol of male genitalia cut from the savior/god, but others say it was a fertility gift from the Queen of Heaven. Its harvest was ritualized and sacred, but other than a herbal remedy or protective charm, it was never used for much of anything. It apparently doesn’t even have hallucinogenic properties. Except for its well documented quality of giving people an excuse to kiss, it seems to be the humble, harmless plant that Frigga overlooked in the matter of her son’s well being.

Myths about Balder and Aeneas appear to be confused versions of each other, so perhaps there are some clues to the mystery there. Balder, a northern European sun hero, was killed by a sprig of mistletoe wielded by his blind twin, Hodur. Balder’s father, the one-eyed Odin, went to the land of the dead bearing some unnamed magic bough to save his son’s life. Aeneas, in his descent to Hades, bore the golden bough. The twins, Romulus and Remus were his descendents.

In addition to being All Heal, mistletoe was the key that opened all locks. For this reason, Charon was compelled to take the still-living Aeneas across the River Styx. Was this the same magic bough that allowed Odin into the land of the dead? Usually these types of dream quests require hallucinogens that mistletoe apparently doesn’t have. However, in both cases there is the unmistakable symbolism of death. Death heals all ailments. The key to all doors must also be the key to that one last door, death’s door.

This brings us to the Druids. Modern science has ascertained that human sacrifices took place on the alters of the henges. The druids’ veneration of mistletoe was part of their semi-annual solstice festival. According to Robert Graves, the tanist sacrificed the solar hero at the summer solstice with an arrow, while at the winter solstice, the tanist became the sacrifical victim in turn. While it is certain that the modern notion, ‘if you ever meet you doppleganger, you will die’ came from the ancient religious reality, it still gives no clue as to what mistletoe has to do with it.

Mistletoe is a solstice symbol. Many superstitions surrounding it are found in Midsummer rituals. Its connection to winter solstice has never been lost in spite of christian religions’ efforts to banish it. It is easy to come up with rationalizations for fertility symbols or fire charms. As for its curative properties, just look around at the modern day superstitions about exotic plants and concoctions. As we all know, just about anything is an effective charm for keeping demons away.

Sir James Frazer's exhaustive study of comparative religion, The Golden Bough, was arranged around one simple idea. The golden bough that priests fought and died for in the groves of Nemi was mistletoe. He documented this thesis meticulously. What remains mysterious is why mistletoe was the symbol worth dying for.

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Nancy Sherer

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