Druids Bringing in the Mistletoe by George Henry and Edward Atkinson Hornel
Mistletoe is famously connected to druidry in chapter 95 book 16 of the natural history by Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny) with the description of the ritual cutting of mistletoe from an oak in southern Gaul.
” The druids – that is what they call their magicians – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is Valonia Oak…. Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon….Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’ they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to a god to render his gift propitious to those on whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons”
This account of a druid ritual in itself shows that druids held mistletoe as a most sacred and potently magical plant. In the same book druids and other plants are mentioned but it is the mistletoe that is held in most reverence indicating that it was the most highly valued of plants.
Pliny did not mention the time of year this ritual takes places, only that it is guided by the moon which must be 6 days old following the spring equinox. It is at this time when both the sun and moon are riding high above the equator that a time of new growth is triggered as natural forces strengthen pulling the rising sap and the trees truly awaken after their winters sleep. So it is likely that it took place on the old new year’s day of the 25th March known as “Lady’s Day”.
Another link to druidry and mistletoe is “Lindow Man” believed to have been ritually sacrificed in a threefold killing, traces of mistletoe pollen were found in his stomach placing his death at around the time of the vernal equinox.
Lindow Man found with traces of mistletoe pollen in his stomach
Just as the people of the Paleolithic and Mesolithic eras (old stone age and middle stone age) had based their rituals around hunting and the worship of animal spirits so the early farmers saw divine mystery in the annual cycle of tilling, planting and harvesting. Rituals were devised to celebrate the various stages of this process, to help the deities replenish themselves in the hope that their energy would not be exhausted. The old crop had to die, to be buried before it could rise again. Something of value had to be given back.
The cycle begins with a ritual King being chosen or anointed. To make way for the new King to be anointed the old King must die the day before the vernal equinox so that his spirit can be resurrected three days later. The newly proclaimed King will then vanquish the darkness on the summer solstice and rule over the harvest before his powers start to wane at the autumnal equinox when nights once more become longer than days. Darkness overcomes the King at the time of the winter solstice when a new child of light is born later to be anointed at the time of the vernal equinox when the old King is sacrificed to make way for the new and so the cycle repeats.
Throughout his reign the King is accompanied by twelve companions and on the penultimate day of his life they all join him for a final feast where he is made drunk with the local brew; wine, mead, cider or beer laced with a mistletoe concoction.
He is then ritually betrayed by one of his companions, hooded by the priests, bound with sacred bonds and led into the centre of a circle of wooden or stone pillars (the universe – wheel), where he is laid out on a symbolic of the earth -wheel which represents the yearly cycle. The cross is this wheel in the Christianised version)
In a well recorded British ritual, at this point the king is spirited away and goes to live with a another tribe or joins the priesthood, he must never return to his own village because the people have seen him miraculously transformed into a young white bull. The bull is bound, rendered unconscious and impaled on an oak stake and its blood is caught in a vessel (which may or may not be called a grail.) The flesh of the “god” who has willingly sacrificed himself for the good of his people is then roasted on an oak fire and shared out among the members of the tribe while each adult is marked with the blood (a cross, symbol of the universe wheel, on the forehead) and then allowed to take a sip of the liquid and so, symbolically the tribe have eaten the flesh and drunk the blood of their god – king. After the feast the twelve companions are touched by the sacred fire by jumping through the flames before they lead a wild dance.
Thirteen, probably representing the thirteen lunar cycles in a solar year, was an important number in myth. Jesus had his twelve apostles, King Arthur his twelve Knights of the Round Table, Jason was accompanied by twelve Argonauts, Odin had his Twelve Berserkers, Roland and his twelve companions held back the Moorish army at Roncevalles and the body of Osiris was cut into twelve pieces.
Once the old King meets his end and the new one takes his place. The goddess sends the hare to lead him to his appointed ritual coupling with her on the summer solstice.
In his book The White Goddess, the author Robert Graves proposed that the mythological figure of the Holly King represents one half of the year, while the other is personified by his counterpart and adversary the Oak King: the two battle endlessly as the seasons turn. At Midsummer the Oak King is at the height of his strength, while the Holly King is at his weakest. The Holly King begins to regain his power, and at the Autumn Equinox, the tables finally turn in the Holly King’s favor; his strength peaks at Midwinter. Graves identified a number of paired hero-figures which he believes are variants of this myth, including Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Gronw Pebr, Gwyn and Gwythr, Lugh and Balor, Balan and Balin, Gawain and the Green Knight, the robin and the wren, and even Jesus and John the Baptist.
A similar idea was suggested previously by Sir James George Frazer in his work The Golden Bough in Chapter XXVIII, The Killing of The Tree Spirit in the section entitled The Battle of Summer and Winter. Frazer drew parallels between the folk-customs associated with May Day or the changing seasons in Scandinavian, Bavarian and Native American cultures, amongst others, in support of this theory. However the Divine King of Frazer was split into the kings of winter and summer in Graves’ work.
These pairs are seen as the dual aspects of the male Earth deity, one ruling the waxing year, the other ruling the waning year. Some commentators, following Graves’ theory, give a similar interpretation to Druid seasonal rituals. Accordingly, the Holly King is represented by holly, mistletoe and other evergreens, and personifies the dark half of the Wheel of the Year.
Human Sacrifice to Teutates, God of War Gundestrup Cauldron
The battle of light with dark is commonly played out in traditional folk dance and mummers plays across Britain such as Calan Mai in Wales, Mazey Day in Cornwall and Jack in the Green traditions in England which typically include a ritual battle in some form.
Mistletoe as the Key to the Otherworld
At around the same time that Pliny wrote his history Publius Vergilius Maro (Virgil) was writing a epic tale of the foundation of Rome and the fall of Troy in which the hero Aeneas had to travel to the underworld and back to achieve his goal. To gain access to Hades he was led by the doves of his mother, Aphrodite, to a clearing in a forest where…
“They Winged Their Flight Aloft Then Stooping Low,
Perched Upon The Double-Tree That Bares The Golden Bough.”
In this story it was the mistletoe that gave Aeneas the key to enter the Underworld or Otherworld and ensure his safety.
Sir James Frazer was inspired to name his book of the study of religion and magic after Virgil’s description of mistletoe. The conclusion Frazer came up with in The Golden Bough concerning mistletoe, is that the ancient belief was that the spirit of the tree resides in the mistletoe while the tree stands in winter’s death. With the mistletoe not being of the land or of the sky it cannot be harmed by either realm. There the spirit of the tree is safe from death and can return to the tree in the spring. If so to take the mistletoe at mid winter the tree is in danger of falling to winters grasp.
He speculates that the golden bough could be the branch after it has been cut and dried out because it then turns a golden colour but if you look to the trees in spring the mistletoe is a golden colour, partly due to the starvation of nutrients from the host trees sap through the winter and partly because of the golden coloured flowers. So if the spirit of the tree is in the mistletoe then to cut it at the vernal equinox the spirit of the tree would return to the tree and in no time at all the leaves will appear, as if by magic.
Virgil has been said to have been of Celtic decent and it is claimed that he learnt the art of poetry from druidic training in southern Gaul before moving to Rome for further education. If this is true the significance of mistletoe would have been known to him and its importance as a magical key to enter the otherworld and return unharmed.
In Celtic legend and folklore there are stories of people from the otherworld allowing the heroes of the tale to pass into their realm. They carry a branch that bares both flower and fruit. ”Cormac Mac Art” is one and “Thomas the Rhymer” another to mention the better known stories. The reward for these heroes is the gift of truth. Thomas became known as True Thomas because he could speak only truth. Cormac gained a cup of truth.
We need not to look into the otherworld to find where it is that this branch grows; it is the Viscum album, the true magical mistletoe that grows proficiently in the orchards of the land of Albion. Is it that Arthur to be healed in Avalon was taken to the All-Heal in the realm of the apple trees?
Mistletoe is regarded as a sacred plant of peace, so anytime it was spotted in the forests, honour was paid to it. This was done by warriors too. Ancient Europeans and warring Celtic clans dropped their weapons if Mistletoe was spotted in the forests where they fought and Peace was called at that moment. In a way, Mistletoe served as a “white flag” of surrender to warring clans.
The story goes that Mistletoe was the sacred plant of Frigga, goddess of love and the mother of Balder, the god of the summer sun. Balder had a dream of death, which greatly alarmed his mother, for should he die, all life on earth would end. Balder could not be hurt by anything on earth or under the earth. But Balder had one enemy, Loki, god of evil and he knew of one plant that grew neither on the earth nor under the earth, but on apple and oak trees. It was lowly mistletoe. So Loki made an arrow tip of the mistletoe, gave to the blind god of winter, Hoder, who shot it, striking Balder dead. For three days each element of universe tried to bring Balder back to life. Frigga, the goddess and his mother finally restored him. It is said the tears she shed for her son turned into the pearly white berries on the mistletoe plant and in her joy Frigga kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew. The story ends with a decree that who should ever stand under the humble mistletoe, no harm should befall them, only a kiss, a token of love.
The power of the sacred mistletoe is that of protection, truth, the ability to cross boundaries, fertility, peace and healing.
By the magic of the mistletoe “let the all-heel heel all.”
The name “mistletoe” is given to semi-parasitic plants that produce their own food through photosynthesis and use a root system called haustoria to take in water and nutrients from the xylem tissues of their host plant.
There are 1500 different shrubs and trees around the world that feed in this way. Most of these live in the canopy of the rainforests of Asia, Africa and South America. In North America there are approximately 10 different varieties of Mistletoe and in Australia and New Zealand around 100.
In Western Europe, a red berried mistletoe, Viscum crucitatum, is native to Southern Spain and Eastern Portugal, but the most widespread species throughout Europe, Scandinavia and Britain is, Viscum album. This is the Mistletoe of legend and tradition.
Western European Mistletoe is a dioecious (having the male and female organs in separate and distinct plants) woody shrub. A slow growing deciduous evergreen that has continuously growing branches and leaves. Unlike other plants Mistletoe grows throughout the winter months by taking it’s nutrients from the sun.
It has a yearly expotential growth cycle and a biannual fertility cycle. It takes nearly two years from the flowers beginning to grow, to a ripe and “ready to germinate” berry.
The female mistletoe plant, which carries her young in the viscous translucent berry, flowers in spring when the berry is ripe. The female plant bares the fruit only if, twelve months earlier, the flowers have received pollen from a male plant.
The flowers pollinate from around February to April. The flower of the female plant is dainty by comparison to the resplendent male.
The male plant, flowers in great profusion and attracts the pollinating fruit fly with the scent of decaying oranges.
Male catkins below female flowers – Mistletoe – Viscum album
The female depends on the Mistle Thrush and the Black Cap. These birds find the white berries most appealing and will devour the flesh in great quantities. The Mistle Thrush excretes the mistletoe seed in its faeces while the Black Cap wipes it’s sticky beak onto a convenient branch.
Once the skin of the berry is broken, the new plant, which is already photosynthesizing inside, will instinctively send out suckers to attach itself to the nearest surface. The preferable surface would be the young branch of a suitable host tree, such as apple, lime, poplar, hawthorn, rowan or any accepting hardwood tree that it finds itself upon.
When the suckers have taken hold, the new plant sends down a sinker, which penetrates the bark and sources nourishment from its new mother. This tap root seeks out the xylem layer and thus suckles from the host to aid its growth. If it cannot do this in time, the mistletoe plant will shrivel up and die.
The timing is most important. As the Sun moves above the equator at the Vernal Equinox, and the subsequent new moon moves into the tropical constellation of Aries, the sap rises in the trees and new growth is seen all around. The mistletoe takes advantage of the changes in celestial gravity and begins to grow.
If you look between the leaves of either sex in the spring you will see two pairs of leaf-shoots protruding from either side of the flower.
Between Beltane and the summer solstice – the time of new growth when the sap in the host tree is rising most vigorously – these will grow out followed by a twig and open out – between these new leaves will be next spring’s flowers – this year’s leaves fall as new growth breaks their hold and berries sit between the stems.
May The Magic Of The Mistletoe
Show Us TRUTH
And In That Truth,
Bring Its HEALING
And Through The Healing
Find Its PEACE
And Within That Peace
Share Its LOVE
To Bring Knowledge, Respect And Understanding To The World.