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The earliest written account of the Celts using mistletoe as part of a religious ceremony comes from the famed Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder.
Yes, before lending his namesake to a long-sought-for American beer, Pliny the Elder was famed for his first-century masterwork, Naturalis Historia. In it, he has this to say about the intersection of Celts, trees, and mistletoe:
“The Druids – for so [the Celts’] magicians are called – held nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree that bears it, always supposing that tree to be the oak. But they choose groves of oaks for the sake of the tree alone, and they never perform any of their rites except in the presence of a branch of it.”
Pliny goes on to describe the ceremony, in which a druid, clad in a white robe, climbs a sacred oak tree and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle.
The mistletoe falls from the tree and is caught in a white cloth—it’s never allowed to touch the ground. After the mistletoe is cut from the tree, a prayer is spoken and two white oxen, “whose horns had never been bound,” are slaughtered.
According to Pliny, this all takes place on the “sixth day of the moon,” i.e. during a waxing moon. The prayer and sacrifice are made to a god in exchange for prosperity, but Pliny does not reveal which god, nor does he elaborate on the nature of the prosperity said god bestows upon the ceremony’s participants. Of course, one interpretation is that the mistletoe itself could have been their divine reward.
Known by the ancient Celts as “the universal healer” or “all-healer,” mistletoe was believed to cure all manner of wounds and serve as an antidote to all manner of poisons. What’s more, a potion made from mistletoe was believed to make barren animals “fruitful.”
Among the Rhine-dwelling Teutons (who may actually be Germanic and not Celtic in origin—it’s still up for debate), a glue obtained from mistletoe was “looked upon as a panacea against the sterility of women, the ravages of diseases, the effects of witchcraft, and also as a means to catch birds.” (source: Myths of the Rhine, translated from the French of X. B. Saintine by Prof. M. Schele De Vere, 1874).
But if you’d asked MacCulloch, he’d of told you that there’s got to be more to the Celtic mistletoe rite than what Pliny recorded. As he puts it:
“We can hardly believe that such an elaborate ritual merely led up to the medico-magical use of the mistletoe.”source: The Religion of the Ancient Celts (1911)
MacCulloch proposes that the ceremony preceded the cutting down of the entire tree, as the tree was likely a representation or embodiment of a god or divine king. He notes that, at the time, gods were often equated with oak trees and daur (“oak”) was an early Irish name for god. Here’s a more in-depth explanation from MacCulloch:
“The Irish bile or sacred tree, connected with the kings, must not be touched by any impious hand, and it was sacrilege to cut it down. Probably before cutting down the tree a branch or something growing upon it, e.g. mistletoe, had to be cut, or the king’s symbolic branch secured before he could be slain. This may explain Pliny’s account of the mistletoe rite. The mistletoe or branch was the soul of the tree, and also contained the life of the divine representative. It must be plucked before the tree could be cut down or the victim slain.”source: The Religion of the Ancient Celts (1911)
Folklorist and anthropologist James George Frazer elaborates on this concept in his famous work of comparative mythology and religion, The Golden Bough, explaining the reason the mistletoe had to be cut was that it protected its host tree from harm (sort of like one of those invisible suits of armor in Dune—my simile, not Frazer’s).
“The mistletoe was viewed as the seat of life of the oak, and so long as it was uninjured nothing could kill or even wound the oak… Hence when the god had to be killed—when the sacred tree had to be burnt—it was necessary to begin by breaking off the mistletoe. For so long as the mistletoe remained intact, the oak (so people might think) was invulnerable; all the blows of their knives and axes would glance harmless from its surface. But once tear from the oak its sacred heart—the mistletoe—and the tree nodded to its fall. And when in later times the spirit of the oak came to be represented by a living man, it was logically necessary to suppose that, like the tree he personated, he could neither be killed nor wounded so long as the mistletoe remained uninjured. The pulling of the mistletoe was thus at once the signal and the cause of his death.”source: The Golden Bough (1890)
And yet, it begs the question:
How did mistletoe go from being such an important, revered object in the heyday of Celtic paganism to being a silly Christmas decoration?
And why—if oxen were originally slaughtered under mistletoe—do people now kiss under it?
Those are questions for another time.*
*And that time can be right now if you want because this article was actually an excerpt from a longer piece, “The Celtic Origins of Kissing Under the Mistletoe at Christmas.”
You can also watch the video essay version on my YouTube channel 👇
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