The tradition that the ancient druids used mistletoe is well-known and usually regarded as factual – despite being based on very little information.
We only have the writings of the Romans (mostly Pliny the Elder) to draw on, and much of what we think we know about the druids is actually ‘re-interpretation’ of them during the 18th century.
According to Pliny the druidic priesthood valued, worshipped even, mistletoe where it grew on their sacred trees, particularly their oaks (on which European mistletoe is, actually, very rare). They would climb the tree to harvest it, cutting it with a golden sickle, then let it fall naturally to be caught in a hide or cloak before it touched the ground. If it did reach the ground it would lose its special powers. The special harvest would then be used in ritual or in medicine.
How accurate is this story? No-one knows – but, judging from the far-fetched nature of some of Pliny’s other stories, it is possible that it is a little embellished or inaccurate! Nevertheless the story is fixed in popular imagination, not least because of the efforts of William Stukeley, the 18th century antiquarian, who took a keen interest in all things druidic and succeeded in reviving their traditions.
For an overview of druids, and their place in British history and mythology, try this book, Blood and Mistletoe: a history of the Druids in Britain, by Ronald Hutton, in which he assesses the ongoing reassessment and re-invention of druidry.
Modern druid groups (and there are many, have a look at the Druid Network) still take an active interest in mistletoe, including a particular interest in mistletoe on oak.
In 2004 a new Druid initiative called the Mistletoe Foundation was established to review and rekindle interest in the mistletoe ritual described by Pliny. The group is open to all, druid or non-druid, and they have events each year in the Tenbury Wells area.
More information about the Mistletoe Foundation and their current events is available from their website and there are accounts of most of their winter ceremonies on Jonathan Briggs’ Mistletoe Diary too – for a selection of druid-flavoured entries click here.
There are a few famous fictional druids that use mistletoe too – including Getafix, the druid of the Asterix cartoons.
Getafix harvests in the way described by Pliny, cutting the mistletoe with his golden sickle and using it to make special potions – which, in the case of the Asterix books, famously give the Gaulish tribe superhuman strength.
There is no evidence that mistletoe can really give you extra strength – but if you’re interested in mistletoe’s potential in medicine visit our mistletoe medicine pages.