ISSN 1188-603X

No. 368 December 21, 2006 Victoria, B.C.
Dr. A. Ceska, P.O.Box 8546, Victoria, B.C. Canada V8W 3S2


From: Anatoly Liberman []

Who could have thought that the mistletoe, a relatively inconspicuous plant, would have achieved such notoriety! Yet it was venerated by the Druids, attached itself to a Scandinavian god, and, along with the holly, has become inseparable from Christmas. (It is not known how long young people have been kissing under the mistletoe, but, surprisingly, the earliest references to this custom do not antedate the 19th century: the first mention occurs in Washington Irving, and Dickens described it in glowing colors in Pickwick Papers.) The only claim of the mistletoe to worldwide fame is that it is a perennial plant, and, like quite a few other evergreens, symbolizes fertility and the indestructibility of life, even though the mistletoe, a parasite, might kill its host. The most dramatic myth of the mistletoe arose in Scandinavia.

Two collections of myths have come down to us from 13th century Iceland. Today both books are called Edda, the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, respectively. The second of them is also known as Snorri's Edda, for its author was Snorri Strurluson, the greatest writer of medieval Scandinavia. The poetic version of the myth is extremely brief and confusing. Snorri tried to make sense of his sources, and, since he was a gifted story teller, the many inconsistencies of his account are not immediately obvious. This is what we learn from the Edda's.

The shining god Baldr, the son of Odin and Frigg, is plagued by dreams foreboding his death. On Frigg's request, fire, water, iron, and all animate and inanimate objects swear that they will not harm Baldr. Only the mistletoe seemed too young to her, and no promise was exacted from it. The gods' favorite pastime was to meet at the assembly and throw stones or shoot at Baldr. Baldr remained unhurt. His invulnerability irritated Loki, a crafty god and the gods' evil counselor.

Loki disguised himself as a woman and went to Frigg's distant abode. Frigg did not recognize her guest and asked him whether he knew what the gods were doing at the assembly. Informed of their games, she said that nothing would injure Baldr, but, in answer to Loki's leading question, added that only a bush called mistletoe had been passed over in the ceremony of swearing, whereupon Loki returned to the assembly, tore it off and talked Hoedr, a blind god, into throwing it at Baldr. The bush turned into a spear and pierced Baldr, who fell dead on the spot.

Why was the mistletoe, a plant associated with "life everlasting," chosen a lethal weapon in the Baldr myth? The first answer that springs to mind is that the Scandinavians were informed about the mistletoe's ability to kill its host, but this answer would be wrong. The theme "Baldr and the Mistletoe" has been discussed dozens of times. Below I will offer my reconstruction of the ancient myth. Like everybody else before me, I hope that I have solved the puzzle.

The mistletoe does not grow in Iceland. It is known in a very limited area of Norway and is used for magic only in central and southern Sweden. However, nothing points to Sweden as the place where the Baldr myth originated. Consequently, neither the anonymous poet, whose version of Baldr's death we know from the Elder Edda (an Icelander or a Norwegian), nor Snorri had seen the mistletoe at home, and they were not familiar with its properties. The same holds for their audiences. Otherwise, they would not have spoken of a crooked mistletoe bush (or sprout) turning into a spear. It is also odd that the poet calls the mistletoe "exceedingly beautiful" (or was the most beautiful plant needed to kill the most beautiful god?). In medieval Scandinavia, the word (mistil or mistilteinn) occurred only in connection with the Baldr myth and as the name of a sword, but it was given to the sword in retrospect rather than being the source of the plant name. Mistilteinn is the only Old Icelandic compound ending in -teinn that is not a sword name. In modern Scandinavian plant lore, no other name ends in -ten (which developed from -teinn); it is very rare and seems to belong chiefly to the learned tradition of pharmacopoedia. In the few cases in which mistelten occurs in popular usage, it is applied to other evergreens, for example, ivy. Most probably, Old Norse mistilteinn is a borrowing of Old English misteltan, a word that the Scandinavians learned during the Viking raids. From England they must also have brought tales of the mistletoe's magic. To a Norwegian, mistilteinn had an ominous ring, for, as we learn from Scandinavian folklore, being lost in the mist (mistr) ended in dangerous encounters, perhaps even death. One of the valkyries (Odin's maidservants who invited slain warriors to join their master in Valhalla) was called Mist, and -teinn "twig" occurred as the second element of sword names. In a new home, the innocent-sounding Old English compound acquired the meaning "death sword."

Plants often kill people in world folklore. In Scandinavia, a legendary king was killed with a reed, exactly as was Baldr (the reed turned into a spear in its flight). Another deadly plant was the thistle. Apparently, Baldr, an ancient god of light and fertility, had a plant belonging to him (a comparable case is Aphrodite and the myrtle). Let us call it reed or thistle, for the sake of argument. Whatever that plant was, Frigg passed it by in the swearing ceremony, for it was the one object in the whole world that was loyal to Baldr by definition. But an opposite tenet worked woe in mythological thinking. It was believed that a great hero or a supernatural being could perish only by its own weapon. Thus, since Baldr's destiny was to be killed, his plant, his loyal companion, almost his part, had to turn into a spear and become his destroyer. If my reconstruction has any weight, the mistletoe supplanted the reed or its other magical counterpart late, after the Old English word penetrated the language of the medieval Scandinavians. According to the Edda's, Loki put the weapon into Hoedr's hand, but in the original version of the myth, Baldr's "ontological" enemy, the blind god of the underworld, did not need a helper. Loki had no reason to hate Baldr and must have become privy to his murder at the last stage in the development of the myth. In mythology, the sky god invariably succumbs to his "dark" opponent.

[Anatoly Liberman is a professor of Germanic philology in the Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Among his books are Word Heath (Rome: Il Calamo, 1994) and Word Origins and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone (Oxford University Press, 2005). His blog ("The Oxford Etymologist") appears every Wednesday at The first volume of his new etymological dictionary of English will be published in 2007. Among its detailed entries are those on hemlock, henbane, horehound, and ivy.]


From: M. Dobbertin & A. Rigling, Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research,WSL, Zürcherstrasse 111, CH-8903, Birmensdorf, Switzerland []


In recent years unusual high tree mortality of Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris L.) has been observed in the Rhone valley of the Swiss Canton Valais (Rigling and Cherubini 1999; Rigling et al. 2004; Dobbertin et al. 2005b) and other inneralpine valleys (Cech and Perny 1998; Vertui and Tagliaferro 1998). The exact causes of the pine decline have not been established yet and are currently under investigation. In almost all reports on pine decline in the inner-alpine valleys drought is mentioned as an inciting factor (Rigling and Cherubini 1999; Bigler et al. 2006). However, Scots pine is known to be very drought resistant and other more drought susceptible trees were not affected (Rigling and Cherubini 1999).

Some authors considered the pine mistletoe (Viscum album subsp. austriacum [Wiesb.] Vollmann) as a predisposing stress factor for pine mortality (Rigling and Cherubini 1999). Scots pine trees in Valais are frequently infested with pine mistletoe that extended their upward distribution during the last century (Dobbertin et al. 2005a). Pine mistletoe occurs almost exclusively on pine species (Barney et al. 1998). Pine mistletoe is able to photosynthesize but needs to take water and nutrients from its host tree. It is a xylem- tapping mistletoe, i.e. it uses haustoria to tap the xylem water of its host tree (Calder and Bernhardt 1983).

Mistletoe infestation is correlated with higher crown transparency (Dobbertin 1999), which has been found in several studies to correlate with subsequent tree mortality. Higher tree mortality and transparency values also depend on the social status of the trees (Dobbertin and Brang 2001; Dobbertin 2005).

The objectives of this study were to test whether mistletoe infestation correlates with the Scots pine mortality in the Swiss Rhone valley and to test whether trees infested with mistletoe reacted with increased needle loss to drought stress. One long-term monitoring plot in Valais, that has recently suffered high pine mortality, was used to test these hypotheses.

Reseach Site

The 2.0-ha study site Visp is one of the Swiss long-term forest ecosystem research plots (LWF) and is located on a steep north- facing slope close to the valley floor at around 700 m a.s.l. The uneven-aged forest (30-70 years in age) is composed of roughly 80% Scots pines and 20% broadleaves (mainly Sorbus aria (L.) Crantz and Quercus pubescens Willd.). The mean annual precipitation for the comparison period 1961-1990 at the near-by Meteoswiss climate station Visp was 600 mm and the mean annual temperature was 8.6 deg. C. Years with less than 500 mm precipitation can be considered as drought years. Since 1996 around 400 pines with a diameter at breast height of at least 12 cm have been monitored. In July 1998 all trees were assessed for crown condition and each following summer all new dead trees were recorded. On a 0.5ha subplot the crown condition of all trees was assessed annually in July. The crown condition assessment included crown transparency, causes for transparency, foliage colour, dead branch and dead twig percentage, mistletoe occurrence, crown shading and social position.


Two thirds of the trees were infected by mistletoes and almost 20% with medium to high mistletoe rating. Of the 411 pines alive in 1996, 179 (44%) had died by 2002 and 241 pines (59%) by 2004. In comparison, only 15% of the deciduous trees have died during the same time period. Mortality was highest between July 1998 and July 1999 and between July 2003 and July 2004). Both years followed drought periods. The logistic regression found crown transparency, percent of dead branches and twigs and mistletoe infection rating to be significant. Mortality probability increased with increasing scores of transparency, mistletoe infection and dead branches. Using the estimated mortality probability that predicted the closest actual number of dead trees as a threshold, we classified trees with a higher probability as dead and the others as alive. The overall prediction accuracy of the model was 78%. Crown transparency increased with mistletoe rating. For trees in the same transparency class, trees with medium and heavy mistletoe infection were two to four times more likely to die than trees with no or only low mistletoe infection.

For the surviving trees we found that trees with mistletoes showed a significantly higher increase in transparency in the year following a drought than trees without, while in a drought year the opposite was true. At the beginning of the observations no significant differences in transparency had been found between the trees with and without mistletoe. However by the end of the observation period trees with mistletoe had significantly higher crown transparency.

We used the trees that survived to see if mistletoe infection or severity has changed over time. Between 1996 and 2003 the number of infected surviving trees increased from 38% to 58% and the mistletoe rating more than doubled from 0.38 to 0.85.


The findings in our study that trees without and with low mistletoe infection rates had very similar transparency rates, while trees with medium to high rates had much higher scores, and that transparency of infected trees increased following drought, suggest that mistletoe is causing the needle loss. In one study Viscum album subsp. austriacum had been found to have a three times lower wateruse efficiency than its host Pinus sylvestris (Schulze et al. 1984) explaining possible negative effects on trees during or following drought. At the same time, given the same transparency, trees with mistletoe infections were more likely to die than others.

Viscum album infection can therefore be considered both, as predisposing factor by increasing needle loss and thus reducing the tree's photosynthetic capacity and predisposing it to subsequent stress factors, and as contributing factor by increasing water stress during drought. The observed increase in mistletoe infection rates in Scots pine trees poses therefore an additional thread to these trees in the Swiss Vallais.


This work was carried out within the Swiss Long- term forest ecosystem research (LWF), which is part of the Forest Investigation Programme, a joint programme between the Swiss Federal Office of the Environment (BAFU, Bern) and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL (Birmensdorf). Parts of the data originate form the Scots Pine Project carried out within the framework of the Research Program "Forest Dynamics" of the WSL coordinated by T. Wohlgemuth.


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From: Gordana Lazarevich []


Day 1. Place wheat kernels in pot filled with cold water and let stand overnight.

Day 2. Drain the wheat, rinse in cold water, fill the pot with fresh water to generously cover the wheat and cook uncovered at very low heat (once it comes to a boil, turn heat down to 3) and cook for two or more hours. The wheat mass doubles in quantity, so more water may have to be added. Stir the mass frequently, as wheat kernels have a tendency to burn easily. Before draining the water, make sure that the kernels are very soft.

Day 3. Grind the walnuts into a powder. In a Cuisineart or a meat grinding machine combine the ground walnuts, wheat kernels, sugar, vanilla sugar, and the nutmeg. Grind the whole mass until all is well blended and the consistency of the zito is that of cooked, pureed, dense porridge.

By the way, the soft wheat kernels can be obtained in a health food store. There is an organic store in Victoria, British Columbia, which sells this soft wheat, at "Seeds of Life", 1316 Government Street.

MERRY CHRISTMAS, HAPPY HANUKKAH, QUIET WINTER SOLSTICE ... or whatever you would like to celebrate, and ALL THE BEST IN 2007 !

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