Sacred plant of the ancient druids, mistletoe has, for centuries, been highly prized for its supposed medicinal virtues. Here in Brittany, this pretty parasitic evergreen has traditionally been associated with love, luck and the promise of the New Year.
The first century Roman author Pliny wrote that the druids held nothing more sacred than oak mistletoe and that they never performed their religious rites without employing branches of it. Gathering the mistletoe was done with much solemn ritual; it was cut down with a golden billhook by a druid clad in white and received by others upon a stretch of white cloth. These rites were said to have been immediately followed by the sacrifice of two white bulls. Pliny tells us that this ceremony took place on the sixth day of the moon, the day which, in the Celtic calendar, marked the beginning of their months and years. On this day, the waxing moon was considered particularly auspicious.
Mistletoe is a semi-parasitic plant that, in addition to utilising photosynthesis, grows by taking water and nutrients from its host. Unusually, the plant grows in all directions at once and forms a fairly spherical ball that can reach up to one and a half metres in diameter. Its leaves are thick and quite tough; small flowers give rise in autumn to sticky white berries. The seeds contained in these berries are spread on the branches of trees by birds regurgitating or excreting the undigested fruits. Mistletoe can be found on any tree but mostly prefers soft woods such as apple, sycamore, ash and poplar; rarely is it found on oak trees.
Pliny claimed that the druids believed that everything that grew on an oak had been sent directly from Heaven and that the mistletoe that grew upon it was proof that the tree had been selected by God as an object of His especial favour. We cannot be certain of Pliny’s source for this claim nor who this deity might have been, nor indeed do we know whether the mistletoe gathering ritual was but a part of a much broader ceremony.
Similarly, we do not know why mistletoe was regarded as a sacred plant by the druids. Some have suggested that a ball of mistletoe mimics the celestial orbs or that, as an evergreen, its ability to grow in winter and survive on dead trees might have symbolised eternal life. Others have thought it significant that it was likely the only flora then known by the Celts that could grow and thrive without being rooted in the earth or that it was the only native plant that produced white fruits.
Pliny’s account of the druids is not a first-hand testimony but likely drawn from lost works by the Greek polymath Posidonius who, like Julius Ceaser, actually visited the Celtic domains over a hundred years before he started writing. Pliny tells us that the Romans also collected mistletoe on a stretched canvas and believed that it cured female infertility. It is therefore worth highlighting that the word mistletoe has been used to refer to a large number of plants from the Viscaceae and Loranthaceae families and that, for a Roman, mistletoe was not the Viscum album (white mistletoe) of Gaul and Britain but Loranthus europaeus (European yellow mistletoe); both plants look alike but Viscum carries white berries while those of the Loranthus are yellowish. The latter is a common plant in the warm climes of Italy and regularly found on chestnut and oak trees there.
The mistletoe gathering ceremony described by Pliny contains several interpretable elements, particularly if we accept that the oak was regarded as a sacred tree by the Celts; the mistletoe that grew upon it was thus sanctified by its life-giving host. Even today, the oak rightly symbolizes longevity; the trees can live for a thousand years or more. Oaks are one of the most populous trees in France but a study in the last century found just fifteen mistletoe bearing trees across the whole nation; a ratio of roughly one mistletoe oak per 10,000km² of forest. Oaks are special trees and those upon which mistletoe has been able to flourish are the rarest of specimens and it is perhaps this scarcity that made oak mistletoe so magical.
The druids cut the mistletoe with a golden billhook but gold is a soft metal with which it is almost impossible to cut anything. Possibly the billhook was made of polished bronze or brass or some other alloy that merely contained a trace of gold. Only secondary twigs of mistletoe could reasonably be cut with such a tool and as long as a few leafy branches were left, the mistletoe could regrow and be re-visited in later years. It seems that the use of iron was prohibited in the religious and magical practices of the Celts; the proscription is noted in later writings. Perhaps because it was the metal of weapons but possibly because it is a very variable metal which blackens and contaminates the plants that it cuts.
A white cloth was used to prevent the plant from touching the ground; this helped to maintain the purity of the mistletoe and thus its all-important magical properties. Pliny tells that the harvesting was done at night and one cannot but note the symbolic resemblance of the golden billhook with the crescent of the moon at this period of its cycle.
These few details from Pliny are the basis for our popular image of Celtic druids as men clad in white Roman togas gathering mistletoe in sacred groves. It is an enduring myth but could just as easily be the imaginative writings of a Roman armchair geographer transposing local practices onto the mysterious northern savages of legend. Let us not forget that the Romans of the time also collected mistletoe on the new moon without letting it touch the ground. The widespread notion that these rites were only undertaken during the winter or summer solstices is purely the speculation of recent centuries.
According to Pliny, the druids called mistletoe by a Celtic name which meant ‘the all-healing’ – the plant, when taken in drink, was believed to make barren animals fertile and to be a most effective antidote for all poisons. In today’s Breton it is known as uhel varr, literally ‘high branch’ but in some areas it was once known as uhel vad or ‘high good’. Perhaps an etymological echo of the veneration once accorded this plant which was also known here as dour derv or oak water?
Oak mistletoe has always been considered a plant with powerful therapeutic properties. In Ancient Rome, mistletoe berries were typically boiled in water and drunk, or else de-skinned and eaten in the belief that it helped disperse tumours. Such berries were also used as a poultice to heal inflammations, suppurating sores and even for rectifying malformed nails.
The plant is found in traditional folk medicine across the world, particularly in relation to treating problems with the female reproductive system and menstrual difficulties; in some cultures it was used as a cure for excessive menstruation and in others to treat amenorrhea (the absence of menstruation). The bark, leaves and berries of the mistletoe were also used in remedies to combat diseases of the immune and nervous systems. To treat jaundice in 18th century Brittany, nine balls of mistletoe were soaked in the urine of a male child and put into a cloth sachet placed on the patient’s head. Mistletoe taken from a hawthorn was believed to alleviate colic and cure a fever. The plant was also widely used to treat convulsions in children and epilepsy; belief in its efficiency was still strongly held at the turn of the 20th century. Interestingly, recent scientific research seems to indicate that the traditional use of mistletoe to treat epilepsy and other convulsions might actually have some merit.
The plant’s popularity with traditional healers and licenced apothecaries, coupled with a strong seasonal demand for it in London and, to a lesser extent, Paris ensured a healthy demand and price for this sought-after plant. The medicinal use of mistletoe extracts once again found favour in the 1920s when supporters of anthroposophic medicine explored its use in treating cancer with the subcutaneous injection of fermented mistletoe. As yet, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that mistletoe is any more successful in treating cancers than the more conventional therapies.
In some parts of Europe, mistletoe is still used to treat cancer, as well as a wide range of ailments from mental exhaustion to diarrhoea and from high blood pressure to haemorrhoids but in France it is now included in the list of traditional medicinal plants whose potential adverse effects are greater than the expected therapeutic benefit. The bark, leaves and berries of mistletoe are highly toxic and just half a dozen berries are enough to bring on serious stomach upsets in humans.
In Europe, the plant’s magical association stretches back to Virgil’s Aeneid where the eponymous hero carried a golden branch as a powerful talisman during his voyage to the Underworld. Mistletoe’s magical qualities are found scattered throughout the folklore of Brittany where some legends claim that the Celts of Gaul could not fight under a ball of mistletoe and that it was only cut during the winter solstice while making a certain invocation seeking a fruitful wheat harvest while others say that it was cut during the night of Midsummer.
The Breton author François-René de Chateaubriand evoked the importance of mistletoe in the life of the druidess, Velléda, in his epic tale The Martyrs. Some 150 years later, another Breton writer, Théophile Briant, beautifully wove the plant into the funeral of the enchantress Viviane: “Merlin had said it; the sting of the snake was without remedy. Viviane was dead. The fairies led by Mona-La-Cendrée, the fairy of heather and farewell, surrounded the coffin of the enchantress. The trees of the forest, silent, tilted their green plumes. At midnight, when the moon was in the middle of the sky, Merlin stripped a tuft of mistletoe from the clear water of the Druid’s Fountain, in the hollow of which Viviane’s body now rested.”
Mistletoe as a funerary garland was also noted as a custom in northern Brittany where twigs of mistletoe and laurel were traditionally pinned to the sheets of the funeral chapel. In times past, a sprig of mistletoe was often hung on the door of a house when a barrel of cider was drilled and in some parts of northern Brittany, a bunch of mistletoe betokened the door of a tavern. In the south of the region, a branch of mistletoe was hung from the door of stables to protect the animals against the mischief of the korrigans and contagious diseases. Even into the 20th century, sprigs of mistletoe were hung from Breton farmhouses and left there until time had changed the colour of the berries, leaves and branches to a golden yellow and thus converted the clutch of white mistletoe into a golden branch.
The ability to bring on good fortune was another powerful attribute thought to have been possessed by mistletoe in Brittany. A branch picked the night before the draw for military conscription was said to have provided a good number to avoid the draft. However, to be effective as a lucky charm, the mistletoe must not have been in contact with iron nor have touched the ground or another person. Some even said that it was necessary for the plant to have been taken without the knowledge of the owner of the tree. In the east of the region, around Rennes, people believed that the plant’s sap brought on bad luck, regardless of the metal used to cut it, and so they preferred to tear off the mistletoe branches.
Near the northern town of Lamballe, it was once said that there was a plant which only grew in the hollow of oak trees. If one ate this plant while holding a bunch of mistletoe and verbena, they were immediately granted the power of becoming invisible at will and of being able to travel instantly from one place to another. Another strange legend from southern Brittany tells that the woman who ate the leaf of certain oaks was assured to have a child.
Here, in times past, mistletoe was cut and offered, on New Year’s Day, as a symbol of long life and prosperity, usually accompanied by a formula to assure their onset. Children would run joyously through the streets with a cry proclaiming: ‘On Mistletoe, the New Year’. Even into the early 20th century, beggars and children would call from house to house offering a little mistletoe and their best wishes for happiness for the household over the year ahead; being rewarded with a little food or some coins for their efforts.
In several north European traditions, mistletoe was a symbol of fertility and in some places, young women once placed a sprig of mistletoe under their bed in expectation of seeing their future husband in their dreams. In Brittany, kissing under the mistletoe, as a mark of love and affection, was a New Year’s Day tradition and a ceremony that often announced a proposed marriage. Mistletoe was considered to be the plant of love and its harvest constituted a significant event. In its first edition of 1897, a French weekly magazine reported on the Feast of Mistletoe in western Brittany:
“Parisians may be neglecting the druidic flower but in the depths of Brittany it has always kept its faithful. I know of a small village around Quimper, where every year, at Christmastime, the mistletoe festival is celebrated with great pomp. Girls and boys, especially those who have a feeling in their hearts and who dream of marriage, put on big clogs and go off, arm in arm, in search of mistletoe. They get lost, two by two, in the dark forest and seek the mistletoe of the oaks; the only one that has the magical virtue of helping lovers and warding off evil spells.
Whoever first brings back a tuft of mistletoe to the village is proclaimed King of the Forest. He is led in triumph to his home and enjoys the right to kiss all the women and girls who pass by his door. Then we sit down, for all popular rejoicing is not without a feast; we cook chestnuts under the ashes, we sprinkle them with cider, we dance. Everyone goes to bed with the awareness of a great duty accomplished. The superstitious young girls, who desire marriage, keep the ashes of a branch of charred mistletoe in a sachet; they expect that this talisman will bring them love.”
These days we tend to regard kissing beneath the mistletoe as one of those slightly strange Christmas traditions whose origins are lost in the mists of time. Perhaps, fittingly, it is now a custom likely destined to remain wonderfully obscure.