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The myths of Mistletoe
   
   By Dylan Warren-Davis





At Christmas mistletoe is brought into the house as part of the traditional decorations. Why should this rather mysterious plant be hung up indoors at this time of year? Why is it customary for lovers to kiss beneath its leaves? To answer these questions the plant needs to be placed in its Celtic cultural context.

Through the ages mistletoe has been regarded as a Solar plant. Culpeper, in his herbal The English Physitian, mentions that it is 'under dominion of the Sun.'[1] For the druids it was their most sacred plant and to see why they held it in such high esteem it is necessary to understand something of their Solar worship.

As with other cultures that practice Solar worship, the druids particularly celebrated the summer and winter solstices; the former being the time of the Sun's greatest power, the latter its lowest ebb in relation to the powers of darkness. Once past the winter solstice, the Sun gains in strength again, symbolising the supremacy of light over darkness. The brilliant golden lustre seen on the fresh plant is the reason why the druids saw it as a Solar herb and why it was the Golden Bough of classical legend. An extract by the poet Virgil captures something of this awe:

A wondrous tree shimmering with a golden light among the green foliage. Just as throughout the cold winter the mistletoe, guest of a tree that never engendered it, unfailingly displays its fresh greenery, flecking the sombre trunk with the yellow of its berries, just so do golden leaves show among the green foliage of the oak, and so would these golden leaves whisper to the gentle breeze.[2]


Like a number of other Solar herbs, eg., rosemary, bay, and juniper, the mistletoe remains green throughout the year, symbolizing the eternal light of the Sun. Mistletoe actually flourishes, reaching the zenith of its life-cycle, during the depths of winter, so its golden-green leaves can be seen shining when the rest of the leaves in the wood have fallen to the ground.

Winter is ruled by Saturn - the Lord of Darkness. Thus, the flourishing of the plant in the depths of winter symbolises the supremacy of light over darkness. To the druids the plant was particularly appropriate - both chronologically and symbolically - for celebrating the winter solstice. Further Divine reverence was attached to the plant because it has no roots, ie., not of the earth, and the druids saw it as a blessing from heaven by their gods.

The druids used only the mistletoe found growing upon the oak in their rituals. The significance of this becomes apparent when it is considered that the oak was their sacred tree. The druids were known as the 'men of the oak trees', for their rituals were held in oak groves. According to Pliny: "They performed no rites without using the foliage of those trees". He goes on to say: "it may be supposed that it is from this custom they get their name of druids, from the Greek word meaning oak".[3]

The connection between the druids and the oak is particularly well demonstrated in the Celtic tongues. For example, in Welsh the word for druid is derwydd and oak tree is dderwen, which clearly share the same word root -der. Similarly, the name derry is a Celtic name for an oak grove, places where the druids worshipped.

Traditionally the oak is ruled by mighty Jupiter; appropriately, considering the regal bearing of this magnificent tree. In human terms Jupiter signifies priests, sages, and so forth, people who communicate spiritual knowledge to the human world. To the druidic mind the expansive oak was seen to reach far into the sky, drawing the heavens down to earth. Thus the mistletoe growing on an oak was perceived as a blessing sent from heaven, and according to Pliny: "a sign that a particular tree had been chosen by God himself".

Culpeper mentions the mistletoe: "which grows upon oaks, participates something of the nature of Jupiter, because an oak is one of his trees;... because he rules the tree it grows upon, having no root of its own."

Yet Culpeper admits he does not know why the oak-mistletoe should be considered to have the most virtue. The ritual gathering of mistletoe by the druids shows their deep veneration for the plant. Pliny records that it was "gathered with great ceremony". On finding a 'blessed' oak they danced around it singing songs, as recorded by Ovid: Ad viscum Druidae cantare solebant.

The folk song with the chorus 'Hey down, hoe down, derry derry down, among the leaves so green-O', is said to have originated from one such song chanted at the base of the oak, though the verses of the song sung today have clearly been adapted to hunting deer.

According to Pliny: "they prepared a ritual sacrifice and brought up two white bulls whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion". The gathering of the mistletoe was done: "on the sixth day of the Moon, which for these tribes constitutes the beginning of the months and years" - thereby timing the beginning of their new year. The Moon has a powerful influence on the sap and virtue of plants. On a waxing Moon the sap rises, enhancing its optimum virtue, while the waning Moon has the opposite effect. This gathering of the herb on a waxing Moon obtained the herb at it greatest potency.

Pliny continues: "A priest in white vestments climbs the tree and with a golden sickle cuts down the mistletoe which is caught in a white cloak." White is the colour of purity, hence the druids, by wearing white, were careful about soiling it by their presence which could result in a loss of the herb's potency. The sickle made from gold is very important for it is the metal traditionally linked to the Sun. Any other metal would have been seen to mar the herb's Solar properties. Catching the plant in the cloak too was very important, for if it fell to the ground it also lost its potency. If this happened it was taken as a bad omen that some disaster would befall them that year for losing the blessing of the gods. Thus consecrated, mistletoe was regarded as an antidote to all poisons and a remedy for promoting fertility.


At first glance these uses of mistletoe might seem a little far fetched, but deeper reflection on the Solar symbolism shows how they arrived at these uses. Just as the Sun is the source of heat and energy in the sky, so the Sun symbolised the source of Vital Spirit in the body. The mistletoe's Solar virtue was visualised as potentiating the Vital Spirit. Though written many centuries after the time of the druids, the following extract from Culpeper illustrates how these connections were made:

The Vital Spirit hath its residence in the heart, and is dispersed from it by the arteries; and is governed by the influence of the Sun. And it is to the body, as the Sun is to Creation; as the heart is in the Microcosm, so is the Sun in the Megacosm; For as the Sun gives life, light and motion to Creation, so doth the heart to the body; therefore it is called Sol Corporis as the Sun is called Cor Coeli, because there operations are similar. Herbs and plants of the Sun wonderfully fortify it [the Vital Spirit]. [4]


The Latin name Viscum is said to have been derived from the viscous, sticky juice of the berries, used as the base of bird-lime - a sticky glue formerly used to trap birds. However, seeing that Vis is the word root which means 'force or strength', its name more likely alludes to how the plant was seen to strengthen the Vital Force. This is further supported by the Greek name for mistletoe Ixias which is derived from lschus meaning 'strength'.

Mistletoe

With these ideas in mind, it is interesting to consider the advice given by the physicians of Myddfai - the legendary Welsh herbalists - on the use of mistletoe:

In any case of bodily debility, whether in the nerves, joints, back, head, or brain. stomach, heart, lungs or kidneys, take three spoonfuls of the decoction, and mix with boiling water, ale, mead or milk; then add to a good draught thereof a spoonful of the powder, which should be drunk in the morning fasting. Half as much should be taken the last thing at night. It is good for any kind of disease of the brain, nerves, and back, epilepsia, mania or mental infirmity of any kind, paralysis, all weakness of joints, sight, hearing, or senses. It will promote fruitfulness, the begetting of children, and restrain seminal flux. The man who takes a spoonful thereof daily in his drink will enjoy uninterrupted health, strength of body, and manly vigour.[5]


Here is reference to the herb's reputation as an aphrodisiac: by strengthening the Vital Force, the vitality of the generative organs is also enhanced, thereby promoting fertility and potency. The custom of lovers kissing under a sprig of mistletoe at Christmas combines its use for celebrating the winter solstice along with its reputation as a fertility herb.

From the above quotation by Culpeper we can see that a Solar plant was visualised as strengthening to the heart. One of the most important uses of mistletoe today is its action on the heart. Specifically, it markedly slows down the heart rate, in turn lowering the blood pressure. One of the substances present is a cardio-active polypeptide - viscotoxin, which by stimulating the vagal nerve (which slows the speed of the heart) induces a slowing and steadying action on heart rate.

This action of the herb might be considered somewhat contrary to the stimulatory nature of the Sun. However, it is interesting to note that the growth of the mistletoe is exceedingly slow. In the summer it is shaded by the leaves of its host tree while in the winter, though more exposed to light, it has to endure low temperatures which inhibit the metabolism. A single section of stem with its leaf pair and apical flowering bud is a year's growth. A clump, O.5M in diameter, could take five years or more to grow. Its slow and concentrated growth seems to be parallel to its slowing and strengthening action on the heart.

As already seen, the druids regarded the mistletoe as an antidote to all poisons. Such use of the herb may well sound extravagant until it is considered how poisons were regarded. In medieval medicine poisons were not classified into different types as in modem toxicology, instead all poisons were thought to have the common property of depressing the vital Spirit of a person, so threatening their life. Poisons were generally linked to Saturn - the Lord of Death - and seen to weaken the Solar Vital Spirit.

With Saturn ruling the depths of winter, the time of greatest darkness when the sunlight is weakest and living organisms struggle to survive, the flourishing of mistletoe showed the druids that its Solar nature was able to resist and counteract the Saturnine forces of darkness. The herb was therefore deliberately chosen to strengthen the Vital Spirit of the sufferer, thus countering the effects of the poison and prolonging their life.

Mistletoe also contains oleanolic acid which has been shown to have an anti-hepatoxic action in rats. The saponin is noted for enhancing the regeneration of the hepatocytes (liver cells) damaged by various poisons.[6] One function of the liver is to breakdown and eliminate toxins from the body. This action is enhanced by the presence of oleanolic acid, for if the liver cells have been damaged by a poison, this substance would help the hepatocytes to return to normal, so restoring the liver's ability of eliminating the toxins from the body.

Additionally mistletoe has been found to contain several protein fractions that collectively are able to powerfully stimulate the immune system - the cells that fight infection. [7] If there is a microbial component to the toxic state of the body this stimulation of the body's defence mechanisms will help the body fight the infection. Scientifically then, there is some very strong evidence to support the ancient druidic belief that the plant was an 'all-heal'.


Mistletoe and holly

¯ Most Christmas plants such as holly and ivy are used in the decoration of churches, with the exception of mistletoe, which by a long tradition should never be brought inside a church at any time of the year. The reasoning is probably due to its strong heathen significance and because it never quite lost its pagan and magical associations.
¯ In some parts of England, it is considered unlucky to cut mistletoe at any time except for Christmas.
¯ Until recently it was customary to keep a bunch in the household from one Christmas to the next as a protection against evil. If a sprig from such a bunch was given to the cow who calved first after New Year's day, the prosperity of the herd was thought to be assured.
¯ Kissing under the mistletoe originated entirely from England. A girl who stands under mistletoe can expect to be kissed and, by custom, has no real right to be refused.
¯ Mistletoe is also a plant of peace, under which enemies had to cease all quarrels, at least for the time being.
¯ One of its names was All Heal, because it was believed to cure so many diseases, promote fertility, avert misfortune and nullify the effects of poison.
¯ No doubt because of its link with the Oak tree and Jupiter, in most places where it grows it is associated with thunder, and regarded as a protection against fire and lightning for any house that contains it.


Notes & References:

  1 ] N. Culpeper, The English Physitian, 1653, section on mistletoe.
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  2 ] Virgil, Aeneiad, 11.
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  3 ] Pliny, Natural History, trans. M. Rackham, 1945.
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  4 ] N. Culpeper, Astrolo go-Physical Discourse, 1653.
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  5 ] Physicians of Myddvai, trans. J. Pughe, Section 796.
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  6 ] Planta Medica, 50 - 1984. Anti-hepatoxic actions of Triterpenoid Saponins.
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  7 ] Duke, Handbook of Medicinal Herbs.
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Dylan Warren-Davis has been practising herbal medicine (naturopathy) for 25 years, qualifying as a prize-winning student with the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (UK) in 1982. Since completing his herbal training, Dylan has researched the lost European metaphysical teachings, upon which Western herbal knowledge is based. He has also been engaged in the commercial production of herbal tinctures and has been a consultant on the manufacturing of herbal tinctures to the herbal industry in Britain. In addition to seeing clients, he is currently promoting glyconutrition in both the UK and Australia.

He may be contacted by email at dylanwd@norex.com.au


 In this series:    Valerian & Fennel: Two Contrasting Mercurial Herbs
 In this series:   Garlic: The embodiment of a Martial herb
 In this series:    Dandelion: The embodiment of a Jovial herb
 In this series:    Comfrey: The embodiment of a Saturnine herb
 In this series:    The Myths of Mistletoe




© Dylan Warren-Davis
This article was published in issue 19 (January 2000) of the Traditional Astrologer Magazine of which Dylan was an associate editor. Published online, December 2008.

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