Mistletoe history is replete with sex, fertility, and marriage rites. How could it not be fascinating?
Mistletoe (Viscum album) is an odd plant. It's called a parasitic plant because it's most often found growing on a tree. The roots of the mistletoe worm their way into the bark and through to the living part of the tree, where it can then snatch nutrients away from the tree. The mistletoe plant can also create it's own food source through photosynthesis, like other plants, but it seems to be a bit lazy and prefers to grab food from a host source.
There are approximately 700 species of mistletoe. It's found growing wild throughout Europe, in some parts of the Mediterranean, and in North America. It has been used as an herbal remedy in Europe and among Native Americans for hundreds of years.
Over Two Thousand Years of Mistletoe History
Because of its unique growing habit, mistletoe has long been revered by cultures ranging from the ancient Celts, the Norse, and the Greeks. Mistletoe history includes legends and myths from Europe and Greece, as well as medicinal uses in Europe and North America. Today, much of the folklore around mistletoe survives in our Christmas customs, including kissing under the mistletoe, a remnant of the times when our ancestors hailed the mistletoe as a plant of fertility and love.
Celtic Mistletoe Customs
Mistletoe actually grows on two types of trees: apple trees and oak trees. It's rarer on oaks, and it is for this reason that the Celtic Druids revered mistletoe growing on an oak. According to legend, the mistletoe growing on oak trees represented the oak's heart or soul. The Druids used a golden sickle, or knife, to slice off the mistletoe during a special ceremony held twice a year. The ceremony was held on the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, and the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year.
It is this ritual which survives to modern times in the form of hanging mistletoe up at Christmas, and using mistletoe as a design symbol around Christmastime - which coincides with the Winter Solstice. Later on, the more brutal ritual of the physical emasculation of the old king was replaced by the symbolic. Cutting mistletoe from the oak represented the former ritual, probably much to the relief of the monarchs!
Greek mythology also contains references to mistletoe history. The Greeks thought of mistletoe as a life-giving plant, a symbol of sexuality. Mistletoe was used during their special holiday of Saturnalia, a winter holiday which also coincided with the Druidic Winter Solstice festival time. Later on, because mistletoe was thought to impart fertility, it was used as part of the ancient Greek marriage rites.
Norse Mythology and Mistletoe
Mistletoe history plays a significant role in Norse mythology. According to legend, a mistletoe-tipped arrow killed Balder, one of the hero gods. His mother, Frigga, wept tears that turned into mistletoe berries.
Use as an Herbal Remedy
Mistletoe history as an herbal remedy extends back to ancient times. Because of its association with love, it became known as a heart tonic. Its action as a stimulant nicely ties in the myth with reality.
Native American Medicine
Mistletoe history includes its use by Native Americans as a therapeutic agent. The North American mistletoe was brewed into a liquid, and people suffering from headaches bathed their heads in the resulting tincture. It's interesting to note that mistletoe's folkloric use in Europe includes treatment of headaches and seizures, even though a different type of mistletoe grows in Europe.
European Herbal Uses
Mistletoe has been used throughout Europe for centuries to treat a variety of conditions. Processed mistletoe has an unusual effect upon the circulatory system, and has been used to treat angina and heart ailments. First, mistletoe acts as a stimulant, increasing blood pressure and heartbeat. However, both blood pressure and heartbeat can fall rapidly after mistletoe use. Researchers have isolated a chemical called phoratoxin that causes these changes in heartbeat. Please use mistletoe teas, extracts and tisanes only under the guidance of a qualified herbalist or a naturopathic physician.
In Germany, researchers studying mistletoe today believe it may contain compounds useful to fight cancer. One compound, galactose-specific lectin, may improve the quality of life and treatment outcomes for people undergoing chemotherapy. Uses on its own as a treatment for cancer, however, mistletoe's laboratory and clinical trial results demonstrate mixed results. Many of the clinical studies that use mistletoe as a therapeutic agent do not conform to recommended protocols, and so the results are not usually accepted as accurate.