Long ago in ancient times, Frigga, goddess of beauty, love and marriage and wife of powerful Odin, sat working at her loom toward the end of winter solstice. This was the time of year when the hours of sunlight began to grow longer as the new year arose, the time when Frigga worked hardest. And this particular solstice was a bounteous time for the goddess, for it was when she gave birth to her most beloved child, Baldur.
Now Frigga's gifts and strengths were many. She looked after animals, and when she shook her blankets, snow fell. She wove the clouds, creating rain and thunderstorms, and she also wove the fates of men and gods and divined their futures.
Frigga had a tender and nurturing nature, and when her son was born, it was not only she who rejoiced. Everyone loved the beautiful young god, and everyone celebrated his birth.
Then one day Frigga discovered her son was going to die a young man.
While Frigga could indeed see the future, she could not tell others of their fate, nor could she change fate. Frantic, she decided she must do something, and so she ran about extracting a vow from everyone and everything that none would play a part in Baldur's death.
Frigga raced to the forest, sat at the foot of the trees and begged. "Protect my son," she cried, and the trees promised. She ran to the rivers and demanded their protection, and they too promised. She looked to the sky, to fire and iron, to every other metal to give its oath. "Promise none of you will harm my son," she cried, and everyone and everything so vowed.
"What else?" she wondered, looking about her, and then she called upon every disease, upon each beast and bird, upon every imaginable poison and everything that crept and crawled. "None will do harm to Baldur," she cried.
"We will spare him," they answered.
And seeing this, the gods were amazed. "He is the safest among us," they said, and so they sought amusement by hurling darts and stones and rocks at him, but no matter what they cast at the young god, he walked away unharmed.
After awhile this became a favorite sport among the gods. They would fling stones, attack with swords, throw axes at the young man, and no matter what anyone did, Baldur walked away, unscathed, not a mark upon his beautiful skin.
Soon tossing their spears and knives at young Baldur became a way of honoring him.
Now Loki, the mischievous god, watched the play, and he began to tremble with jealousy. "Why should Baldur be so fortunate?" he asked. "Surely someone can hurt him."
Determined to find out, Loki wrapped himself in a disguise as a young woman and went to Fensalir, Frigga's palace.
"Good day," Frigga greeted the woman.
"Good day," said Loki, in disguise, as he bowed to the goddess. "I came to say I worry for your son. The gods throw sticks and stones and rocks at him. I fear for his safety, and so I have come to warn you he may be harmed."
Frigga waved her hand. "Sticks and stones will never hurt my son," she answered, "for I have made everyone swear they will never hurt Baldur."
"Everyone?" Loki asked. "And everything? How is that possible?"
The goddess smiled. "I traveled everywhere."
"And everyone promised?" Loki prodded her.
"Everyone and everything except a little plant growing on the eastern side of Valhalla. It is so young and weak, it never could hurt a soul."
The moment Loki heard this, he departed. Turning himself back into familiar form, he raced to find the plant Frigga described.
"This," he said, seeing the mistletoe growing upon a tree. He cut a branch and, clutching it to his chest, returned to the sacred playing fields.
There he looked around and saw Hodur, god of winter, standing alone. Loki came to his side and gently asked, "Why do you not play with your brother Baldur? Surely you would like to join in these games."
"I cannot play," Hodur answered. "I am blind and I cannot hit him. Besides, I have nothing to throw."
"Come, I will help you," Loki said, and he placed the sharpened mistletoe branch in Hodur's hand. "Now," Loki said, "I will guide your arm."
And so, with Loki's help, Hodur cast the branch at his brother. The instant it hit Baldur, it pierced his skin. He fell to the ground, and everyone stared in silence and shock as Baldur died.
The sky at once turned deathly pale, and the world stood still as stone. Never had anyone seen such a vicious and terrible deed, and now everyone and everything began to weep and to wail.
Frigga heard these lamentations, and she hastened to the field. When she saw her son lying dead, she screamed in disbelief and collapsed in despair, for she saw that the fates had trapped her son in their grip.
Now some people say that after this, every element on Earth tried, for three long days, to heal their beloved god, and all this time, they say, Frigga sat and wept. Some say it was Frigga's tears that turned into the white berries that grow upon the mistletoe. And some say, too, that when Frigga placed these berries upon Baldur's breast, he came to life again.
And so, they say, Frigga praised the mistletoe as a symbol of love and of peace, and she promised that, forever afterward, whoever stood beneath this plant would be offered a kiss and forever protected.
The traditional Norse version of the myth of Baldur's death is more complex and ends differently, but throughout the world mistletoe is praised for its curative qualities. In his famous "The Golden Bough," Sir James Frazier thought the mistletoe was the golden bough because when it became old and withered, it took on a golden hue. Others say the mistletoe was brought to rest in trees by a flash of lightning, and so it carries within it the seed of fire.
In Japan, the Aino regard mistletoe as sacred, best if growing in a willow tree. In some parts of Europe, mistletoe is most revered when it is knocked down from a tree with stones, and in Switzerland, mistletoe is harvested when the sun is in Sagittarius and the moon is waning. In Wales it is gathered on Midsummer Eve.
Though beliefs about mistletoe vary, most consider it a protector. In Australia, a sprig placed on the threshold prevents nightmares; in Wales, if placed under a pillow, it induces dreams of omen. The Swedes used rods of mistletoe to make divining rods, and in Greek myth Persephone opened the gates of Hades with mistletoe berries.
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