It never struck me why the druids called mistletoe ‘The Golden Bough’ until I saw it in flower. The small insignificant flowers turn the whole plant a dull gold in the low spring sunshine. It must have appeared magical growing from bare branches in the depth of winter suspended between earth and sky.
In popular folklore the mistletoe grows on the oak; the lightening tree – sacred to Zeus. The oak quite possibly gave the druids their name, which translates as oak-knower. In actual fact the mistletoe rarely grows on oaks – which must have made it all the more significant to the druids when it did. In fact the mistletoe prefers to grow on the sacred apple.
Throughout Europe the apple is steeped in myth and legend. It was the fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in Eden. The Apple of Discord caused the Trojan War. There were golden apples of immortality in the Garden of the Hesperides – a Greek myth which finds parallels in the Norse goddess Iethunn’s apples of youth and beauty; and the Irish and British paradise apple isles of Abalach and Avalon.
Legend has it the Druids harvested mistletoe with a golden sickle while holding a cloth underneath, so the sacred bough was not profaned by touching the ground. Sprigs of mistletoe were distributed to the people to hang up over doorways as a protection against lightning (the wrath of the gods?) and evil. Despite the fact the berry juice is poisonous (so don’t try this at home folks) the Druids called it Heal-all and used it as a remedy against poison and enchantment, and as a magical aphrodisiac to promote fertility – giving rise to the practice of kissing under it.
Mistletoe was considered the sperm of the gods because a sprig has berries that extrude a white sticky sap. (Come on people used your imagination… don’t make me spell it out.) The ancients knew man-berries (to put it bluntly) were responsible for strength, because when they were missing, as in eunuchs, males developed female characteristics such as lack of facial hair, high voices and curves in all the right places. Ancient Roman bodybuilders used to eat bull’s testicles to build muscle. Something bodybuilders still do, but now, thankfully, they are in tablet form.
The Romans called the masculine quality Vir – giving rise to the word virility and funnily enough virtue (valour, merit, moral perfection).