Norse, Greek & Roman

Norse, Greek & Roman mistletoe traditions

It’s not all about kissing, or even about cutting mistletoe from your sacred oak. There are many other ancient mistletoe traditions.  Some of best-known are the Norse, Greek and Roman legends.

Baldr the Beautiful

Balder slain by the mistletoe spear, depicted in an Icelandic Saga

In Norse mythology (specifically the stories relating to the Æsir) there is a famous story about the god Baldr (also spelt Balder and Baldur) who was slain, through treachery, by a weapon made of mistletoe.

There are many versions of this tale, but most agree on the main points that Baldr, son of Frigg (and possibly a son of Odin) was one of the most popular gods, known as Baldr the Beautiful. But he was plagued by dreams foretelling his death and so, in an effort to reassure and protect him, his mother made everything, plant, animal or rock, living on or growing in the earth swear never to harm him.  As a result he became invincible, and the other gods began to take advantage of his good nature by using him for target practice.  He always survived.

But Loki, a jealous and mischievous god, realised that the mistletoe had been overlooked in the oath-taking, as it didn’t actually grow in the ground. He contrived a weapon from some mistletoe – variously described as an arrow, dart or spear.  Rather than do his own dirty work he persuaded Hod, Baldr’s blind brother to strike with this weapon, ensuring that Hod took the immediate blame. Baldr died from this single wound, and all the gods mourned for him.

In some versions of the story he is brought back to life, but most agree about the outcome for mistletoe – Frigg’s tears became its pearlescent berries, still seen today and Frigg decreed that, instead of being punished, mistletoe should become a symbol of peace and friendship evermore.

Aeneas and the Golden Bough

Aeneas finds the Golden Bough

In Greece, Aeneas was guided to the abode of the dead by plucking the ‘Golden Bough’ of mistletoe.

In Greek myth, Aeneas, a survivor from Troy who has many adventures (told in Virgil’s Aeneid) before settling in Italy and founding the community that was to become the Roman Empire.  In one of these he searches for his dead father Anchises who his father, who shows him a vision of his future and the founding to Rome.

Where does mistletoe come into this?  Well, to visit his father he must visit the abode of the dead, and to get there from Avernus he is advised . In order to make his way to and from Avernus, he was advised by the Sibyl that he must first seek and pluck the ‘golden bough’ from a tree in the forest.

A title page from Sir James George Frazer’s Golden Bough

He was guided to the bough by doves sent by Venus (his mother), found the golden bough,  successfully visited his father, and returned.

 

This ‘golden bough’ is assumed by many writers and scholars to be mistletoe. Certainly our European Mistletoe, Viscum album, often appears golden in the winter months.

The ‘Golden Bough‘ became famous as a symbol of myth and legend when Sir James Frazer used it as the title of his monumental work on magic and religion in 1922.

Romans – peace and saturnalia

New text and pictures following soon…

 

 

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