The modern custom of standing under the mistletoe waiting to be kissed has its roots in ancient pagan civilization. However, its original value was medicinal, not its modern romantic affiliation.
Mistletoe was gathered at the beginning of the New Year by Druids donning ceremonial robes after receiving a vision that the time for cutting the sacred plant was upon them. They believed mistletoe protected them from evil and that the great oak trees from which it was gathered were likewise sacred and provided them with the curative mistletoe.
In 50 CE, one of the ancient world’s most notable Greek physicians and herbalists, Dioscorides, wrote “De materia medica,” which became the premier pharmacological work of its time. In it he described how mistletoe cured his patients of external tumors: “It has the power to disperse, soften, drawing and assisting tumors of the parotid glad and other lesions.” Dioscorides was to pharmacopeia what Galen was to the advancement of medicine.
The historian Pliny the Elder, also in the first century CE, wrote about the Druids and mistletoe. Though criticized by some modern historians as being fanciful, his account of the ceremonial ritual is the only account by classical authors. Pliny tells about the sanctity of mistletoe as a curative agent as well as aiding fertility.
Medicinal action and uses
In 1720 Sir John Colbatch published a pamphlet, “The Treatment of Epilepsy by Mistletoe,” wherein he prescribes mistletoe for the disease. He further describes gathering it from lime trees in Hampton Court, powdering the leaves, and giving “as much as would lie on sixpence” in black cherry water every morning as a tonic. It was also given for convulsions, delirium, hysteria, neuralgia, nervous debility, urinary disorders, heart disease and many other complaints arising from a dysfunction of the nervous system. Like the Druids, later prescribers recommended it for sterility.
Archeologists report mistletoe is beneficial for insomnia, high blood pressure and certain malignant tumors. Because the plant’s motif appears in early Celtic art, its symbolism must have been greatly revered. Mistletoe’s likeness appears on jewelry and stone monuments. It was so worshipped that it adorned the faces of Celtic priests and gods, according to Miranda Green in “Exploring the World of the Druids.”
The winter solstice was a well-documented festival of the Romans. Similar to Christmas, the celebration included exchanging gifts during the weeklong celebration. Even slaves got the week off. Courts were closed and fertility rituals to Saturn, the god of agriculture, were thought to ensure an abundant harvest the next year. Music, dancing and all kinds of frivolity took place under the mistletoe. But mistletoe has not always been revered—it fell out of favor thanks in part to a Christian myth.
Clearly the ancients had a better concept of the properties of mistletoe than some who followed them, later using religion to corrupt the elegant mistletoe that had proven to be valuable and sought after medicine. As Christianity spread throughout Europe and the Roman Empire was losing it grip on the world, a myth circulated in France that the crossdied upon was made of mistletoe. This of course was impossible, but it was the fifth century and the power of myth and religious dogma prevailed in a population holding on to superstition. As a result, the plant was forbidden to grow from the earth and relegated to forever being a parasite, which is the Roman world’s method of answering scientific questions with their own mythology. Still, the value of mistletoe as an herbal medicine cannot be denied—not to mention the other powers ascribed to it by perhaps the world’s first physicians, the Druids.
Botanical.com describes the reverence with which the Druids held mistletoe and the positive references to it in folklore and literature:
“The curious basket of garland with which 'Jack-in-the-Green' is even now occasionally invested on May-day is said to be a relic of a similar garb assumed by the Druids for the ceremony of the Mistletoe. When they had found it they danced round the oak to the tune of 'Hey derry down, down, down derry!' which literally signified, 'In a circle move we round the oak. ' Some oakwoods in Herefordshire are still called 'the derry'; and the following line fromrefers to the Druids' songs beneath the oak:
“‘—Ad viscum Druidce cantare solebant—.’”
“Shakespeare calls it 'the baleful Mistletoe,' an allusion to the Scandinavian legend that Balder, the god of Peace, was slain with an arrow made of Mistletoe. He was restored to life at the request of the other gods and goddesses, and Mistletoe was afterwards given into the keeping of the goddess of Love, and it was ordained that everyone who passed under it should receive a kiss, to show that the branch had become an emblem of love, and not of hate.”
This year, if you happen to be the fortunate soul under the mistletoe, give thanks to the Druids who revered it for its value to humans, as well as for the kiss you are enjoying this holiday season.