Mistletoe - Botanicals

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005


(Viscum album)

Other names: Witch’s Branch; Witch’s Broom

Mistletoe is native to a region stretching from Northern Europe to Northwest Africa and east all the way to Japan. Wherever it is found, mistletoe is considered holy, sacred, powerful, and magical.

Mistletoe is unique: it was understood as a plant that wasn’t a plant—a sort of magical plant. Mistletoe doesn’t grow in Earth; it’s a parasite that attaches itself to trees and eventually may kill them. (Identification of mistletoe with witches wasn’t always meant positively. Other inferences were also intended.)

Mistletoe’s poisonous berries look like tiny golden full moons. In German, these berries are known as “witch’s berries.”

Mistletoe may be the golden bough that inspired Sir James Frazer’s influential book of that name. Mistletoe was sacred to the Greeks and Romans, who believed that it originated when lightning struck trees. For them, mistletoe represented life energy and generative, magic power. If Frazer is correct, mistletoe was sacred to Diana, Queen of Witches.

The Celts nicknamed mistletoe “thunderbroom,” uniting male and female sexual symbolism. No other botanical is as profoundly associated with Druid magic. The Druids believed that it was inauspicious for mistletoe to ever touch the ground and so created an elaborate method of harvest, which involved plucking it from the tree, using a golden sickle, with nets to catch it before it landed.

In Germanic tradition mistletoe is under the dominion of Freya, and brings blessings of love and fertility. Of course, Freya has two sides: she’s a love goddess but also a death goddess.

Mistletoe’s most famous appearance in mythology occurs when it is the object responsible for the death of Lord Balder. Balder has disturbing dreams; his imminent death is indicated. To forestall this tragedy, his mother, Frigg, travels about the Earth seeking assurances from every living being that they will never harm her son. Because mistletoe is so small and puny, she doesn’t think it’s necessary to ask. The moral of the story is an important one in herbalism: the most innocuous plants sometimes are the most lethal.

Mistletoe is used in various medicinal preparations that can only be safely prepared or administered by a master herbalist. Because of its pagan associations, and because of this needed skill, mistletoe became associated solely with witchcraft medicine and the magical arts, except for once a year on Christmas Eve, when this formerly sacred plant is hung from the ceiling to stimulate kissing, love, and romance.