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Kissing Under the Mistletoe

Norse Myths and the History of Mistletoe

Kissing Under the Mistletoe Derives From Norse Myths

Tracing the history of mistletoe-induced kissing means going back to ancient Scandinavia -- to custom and the Norse myths: "It was also the plant of peace in Scandinavian antiquity. If enemies met by chance beneath it in a forest, they laid down their arms and maintained a truce until the next 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. Baldur's death and resurrection is one of the most fascinating Norse myths and stands at the beginning of the history of mistletoe as a "kissing" plant. 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. The demise of Baldur, a vegetation deity in the Norse myths, brought winter into the world, although the gods did eventually restore Baldur to life. After which Frigga pronounced the mistletoe sacred, ordering that from now on it should bring love rather than death into the world. Happily complying with Frigga's wishes, any two people passing under the plant from now on would celebrate Baldur's resurrection by kissing under the mistletoe. It goes without saying that, if we were to peel off the layers of custom and myth surrounding "kissing under the mistletoe," 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 in the Norse myths. 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"! Those trying to ascertain how to get rid of mistletoe can find information online in the Clemson Extension paper, "Getting Rid of Mistletoe." 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.
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