The Mistletoe

From Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions, 1894

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The MISTLETOE had an early reputation as a guide to the other world. Armed with that golden branch, one could pass to Pluto's realm:—

"Charon opposed—they showed the Branch.
They show'd the bough that lay beneath the vest;
At once his rising wrath was hush'd to rest."

Its connection with health, as the All-heal, is noted by the poet Callimachus, under the appellation of panakea, sacred to Apollo:—

"Where'er the genial panakea falls,
Health crowns the State, and safety guards the walls."

As the seat of the life of the Oak, as then believed, it had special virtues as a healer. The Coel-Creni, or omen sticks, were made of it, and also divining-rods. It had the merit of revealing treasure, and repelling the unwelcome visits of evil spirits. When cut upon St. John's Eve, its power for good was greatest. "While the shamrock is emblematic of the equinox, the mistletoe is associated with the solstice," says St. Clair.

The ancient Persians knew it as the healer. It told of the sun's return to earth. Farmers in Britain used to give a sprig of mistletoe to the first cow calving in the year. Forlong points out the recovery of old heathen ideas; saying, "Christian priests forbade the mistletoe to enter their churches; but yet it not only got in, but found a place over the altars, and was held to betoken good-will to all mankind." It was mysteriously associated with the dove. The Irish called it the uil-iceach: the Welsh, uchelwydd. The County Magazine for 1792 remarked—"A custom of kissing the women under the mistletoe-bush still prevails in many places, and without doubt the surest way to prove prolific." Pliny considered it good for sterility. It was the only thing that could slay the gentle Baldur. In England there are some twenty trees on which the mistletoe may grow.

Certain plants have at different times been objects of special consideration, and worshipped as having divine qualities, or being possessed by a soul. Some were thought to manifest sympathetic feeling with the nation by which they were cherished. The fetish tree of Coomassie fell when Wolseley's ultimatum reached the King of Ashantee. The ruthless cutting of trees was deemed cruel. Even if they had no living spirit of their own, the souls of the dead might be there confined; but perhaps Mr. Gladstone, the tree-feller, is no believer in that spiritual doctrine.

In Germany one may still witness the marrying of trees on Christmas Eve with straw-ropes, that they may yield well. Their forefathers' regard for the World-tree, the ash Yggdrasill, may incline Germans to spare trees, and raise them, as Bismarck loves to do. Women there, and elsewhere, found consolation from moving round a sacred tree on the approach of nature's trial. The oldest altars stood under trees, as by sacred fountains or wells. But some had to be shunned as demoniac trees.

The Irish respected the Cairthaim, quicken-tree, quick-beam, rowan, or mountain ash, which had magical qualities. In the story of the Fairy Palace of the Quicken-tree, we read of Finn the Finian leader being held in that tree by enchantment, as was Merlin by the fairy lady. MacCuill, son of the hazel, one of the last Tuath kings, was so-called because he worshipped the hazel. Fairies danced beneath the hawthorn. Ogham tablets were of yew. Lady Wilde styled the elder a sacred tree; and the blackthorn, to which the Irishman is said to be still devoted, was a sacred tree.

Trees of Knowledge have been recognized east and west That of India was the Kalpa. The Celtic Tree of Life was not unlike that of Carthage. The Persians, Assyrians, and American Indians had their Trees of Life. One Egyptian holy tree had seven branches on each side. From the Sycamore, the goddess Nou provided the liquor of life; from the Persea, the goddess Hathor gave fruits of immortality. The Date-palm was sacred to Osiris six thousand years ago. The Tree of Life was sometimes depicted on coffins with human arms. The Lotus, essentially phallic, self-produced, was an emblem of self-created deity, being worshipped as such at least 3000 B.C. Homa was the Life-tree of Zoroaster. The bean was thrown on tombs as a sign of immortality. The banyan and the onion denote a new incarnation.

The Indian and Cingalese Bo or Asvattha, Ficus religiosa, sheltered Gautama when he gained what is known as Entire Sanctification, or Perfection. The sacred Peepul is the male fig, the female being Ficus Indica. The fig entwines itself round the palm. The Toolsi, Ocymum Sanctum, and the Amrita are also worshipped in India; so are the Lien-wha, or Nelumbium, in China; the cypress in Mexico, and the aspen in Kirghizland.

Trees and plants were devoted to gods: as the oak, palm, and ash to Jupiter; the rose, myrtle, and poppy to Venus; the pomegranate to Proserpine; the pine-apple to Cybele; the orange to Diana; the white violet to Vesta; the daisy to Alcestis; the wild thyme to the Muses; the laurel to Apollo; the poplar to Hercules; the alder to Pan; the olive to Minerva; the fig and vine to Bacchus; the lotus to Hermes. The leek of Wales, like the shamrock of Ireland, was an object of worship in the East, and was associated with Virgo. The Hortus Kewensis states that it first came to Britain in 1562. The mandrake or Love-apple was also sacred. Brinton gives a list of seven such sacred plants among the Creek Indians. The Vervain, sacred to Druids, was gathered in Egypt at the rise of Sirius the Dogstar.

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