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Mistletoe

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In Britain, we've had the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe for a long, long time and although there are stories of Norse gods and druids, it's most likely that people were intrigued by the way that the plant, a hemi-parasite, grows without soil and remains green throughout winter. It may be from this that the magical reputation grew.

How did mistletoe come to be associated with love and snogging?

Well, the most interesting of the mistletoe myths comes from the Prose Edda, a document compiled in the 13th century, by the Icelandic philosopher and ruler, Snorri Sturluson. If you can find a translation, it's a cracking read and the ultimate Nordic noir, with treachery, violence, lust, love, courage and selflessness. So, here's the mistletoe story according to Snorri.

It concerns Baldr, the son of the god Odin and the benevolent goddess, Frigg.

Baldr was renowned as a brave, generous and popular man but before long he began to have terrible dreams of awful misfortune. His father, Odin, rode into the underworld disguised as a traveller to consult a long-dead wise woman. The underworld hall was dressed for a large celebratory feast and without knowing who he was, the wise woman told Odin that the feast was in honour of Baldr. She also told how Baldr would meet his end to arrive in the underworld. Finally, she recognised Odin but it was too late.

Odin returned to Asgard, the home of the gods, and told Frigg of Baldr's fate. She was desperate and travelled throughout the universe, seeking oaths from everything, not to harm Baldr. Frigg was successful and Baldr seemed invincible.

Baldr's invincibility amused the gods and for fun, they pelted him with rocks and sticks, all of which had no effect.

The tricky shape-shifter, Loki, seized on the situation for mischief and disguised as an old woman, he asked Frigg if everything had sworn an oath. The answer was that everything had except mistletoe, a small and insignificant plant.

While the gods were enjoying pelting Baldr, Loki found a mistletoe shaft and handed it to Hodr, the blind god who could not take part in the fun and guided him to throw the branch at Baldr as a test of invincibility. Not seeing that it was mistletoe, Hodr threw the shaft and killed Baldr.

Frigg was heartbroken and she and Odin asked Hermod, another son of Odin, to go to the underworld to retrieve Baldr. After many terrifying adventures, he reached the throne of Hel, the death goddess and saw Baldr sitting by her. Hermod pleaded with Hel, telling of the universe's sorrow for the loss of Baldr. Hel told Hermod that if that was so, then everything should weep for Baldr.

Everything did, except for the giantess Tokk, who was really Loki in disguise and Baldr remained in the underworld, not to emerge until after Ragnarök, when he and his brother Hodr would be reconciled and rule the new earth together with Thor's sons.

In another, happier version, Frigg's tears become white mistletoe berries and Baldr is restored to life. In gratitude, Frigg makes mistletoe a symbol of love and promising to give a kiss to anyone passing beneath it.

If this was one way that mistletoe passed into kissing mythology, then in England, we took it a step further by believing that you first had to remove a berry before kissing someone. Of course, when there were no berries left, the kissing had to stop. Shame, eh?

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