On Page 1 we gained a sense of the historical importance of mistletoe. But what of the history of mistletoe pertaining to kissing under it? Tracing the history of all this caressing means going back to ancient Scandinavia -- to custom and the Norse myths. The traditional custom, according to Dr. Leonard Perry, was that if, while out in the woods, you happened to find yourself standing under this plant upon encountering a foe, you both had to lay down your arms until the following day.
This ancient Scandinavian custom led to the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. But this tradition went hand-in-hand with one of the Norse myths, namely, the myth of Baldur. The story of Baldur's death is one of the most fascinating Norse myths for those interested in the "kissing" plant, because it is central to the history of mistletoe.
Baldur's mother was the Norse goddess, Frigga. When Baldur was born, Frigga made each and every plant, animal and inanimate object promise not to harm Baldur. But Frigga overlooked the mistletoe plant -- and the mischievous god of the Norse myths, Loki, took advantage of this oversight. Ever the prankster, Loki tricked one of the other gods into killing Baldur with a spear fashioned from mistletoe. Hermódr the Bold was appointed to ride to Hel in an attempt to bring Baldur back. Hel's condition for returning Baldur was that absolutely every last thing in the world, living and dead, had to weep for him. Failing that, he would remain with Hel. When this condition was put to the test, all wept except for a certain giantess, believed to be Loki in disguise. Baldur's resurrection was thus thwarted.
The ancient source for the foregoing Norse myth is the Prose Edda. But variations on the story (or addenda to the story) about Baldur and the mistletoe have come down to us, too -- although I cannot supply the ancient sources for all of them. For example, some relate it was agreed, after the death of Baldur, that thenceforth mistletoe would bring love rather than death into the world, and that any two people passing under mistletoe would exchange a kiss in memory of Baldur. Others add that the tears Frigga shed over the slain Baldur became the mistletoe berries.
It goes without saying that, if we were to peel off the layers of custom and myth surrounding "kissing under the mistletoe" in an attempt to discover its true history, we would find ourselves in the midst of ancient erotica. Mistletoe has long been regarded as an aphrodisiac and fertility herb. It may also possess abortifacient qualities, which would help explain its association with uninhibited sexuality.
The unusual botanical history of mistletoe goes a long way towards explaining the awe in which it was held by ancient peoples, as reflected in the Norse myth. For in spite of not being rooted in the soil, mistletoe remained green throughout the winter, while the trees upon which it grew and upon which it fed did not (the European mistletoe often grows on apple trees; more rarely on oaks). The fascination this must have exerted over pre-scientific peoples is understandable.
Most types of mistletoe are classified as hemiparasitical (i.e., partial parasites). They are not full parasites, since the plants are capable of photosynthesis. But these mistletoe plants are parasitic in the sense that they send a special kind of root system (called "haustoria") down into their hosts, the trees upon which they grow, in order to extract nutrients from the trees.
Various types of mistletoe grow all over world, so it is difficult to generalize about the plant. Mistletoe is in the Loranthaceae family. The flowers of tropical mistletoes can be much larger and more colorful than the small yellow flowers (later yielding whitish yellow berries) that Westerners associate with the plant. The mistletoe common in Europe is classified as Viscum album, while its American counterpart is Phoradendron flavescens.
The U.S. is also home to a dwarf mistletoe, called Arceuthobium pusillum. The latter is not something that you would want growing on your landscape, since it does do harm to the trees that it uses as hosts. Even the hemiparasitical mistletoes are far from beneficial to their hosts. But Arceuthobium pusillum is fully parasitical, having no leaves of its own. And since there are no leaves to harvest from this plant, dwarf mistletoe is even useless as a Christmas decoration for "kissing under the mistletoe"! Read Steve Nix's article on controlling mistletoe to learn about prevention.
While partyers focus on kissing under the mistletoe, and while botanists and landscapers concentrate on distinguishing hemiparasitical mistletoes from the fully parasitical, the medical profession has begun to investigate the alleged benefits of mistletoe to human health. Actress Suzanne Somers increased public awareness of the research taking place on mistletoe as a possible cure for breast cancer and gave mistletoe history a new twist. Somers opted to treat her breast cancer with Iscador, a drug made from a mistletoe extract. CNN followed up this report with another, however, which was highly skeptical of the efficacy of mistletoe as a cancer cure for humans.
We turned to Scandinavian custom and to the Norse myths to explain the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. But how did people come up with the name "mistletoe"? On Page 3 we'll find the answer, plus learn about the literary history of mistletoe....