Baldur and the Golden Bough

Baldur and the Golden Bough

Amongst all the gods, Baldur was the most beloved. Son of Odin and Frigg, Baldur was brave, gentle, and handsome. He was the god of light and truth. But noble Baldur began to have troubled dreams. Every night he dreamt of his own death.

Baldur’s mother Frigg, who loved intensely her beautiful son, became very much alarmed. She made a list of all the things that could possibly hurt her darling Baldur, and then set out to secure oaths from all on her list that they would never harm her dearest son.

To the dwarvish deeps she went, and begged favour of the dwarves:
“Let not stone or steel, nor metal forged dare harm sweet Baldur’s hide!”
The dwarves looked deep into the secret earth, at the ropes and rivers of gold, the sparkling diamonds promising the wonders
of the night sky, and the thousand secret riches that Baldur had woven into the iron deeps when the world was new forged
and so they swore. To the birds of the air, the beasts of the field, the whales and fishes of the deep did she go and beg safety
for bright Baldur, and as each would look to the beauty Baldur had woven into their world, they would promise his protection.
From Yggdrasil and all lesser trees did Frigga then beg favour, and one by one they all swore Baldur’s weal for the beauty
he had given them.

-John T. Mainer, The Story of Mistletoe

Yet, Frigg had forgotten one. Small, young mistletoe had been overlooked, for he was not a true tree at all, but rather a mere appendage, a hanger-on, a parasite of the tree. And thus, he was forgotten.

Now nothing in all the worlds (with the exception of mistletoe) could harm Baldur, and Baldur’s friends made a great game of trying to hurt him with different objects. They would shoot arrows at him, thrust spears towards his heart, throw rocks at him, even let ferocious bears loose in his bedroom whilst he slept. But, since all had pledged to not harm brave Baldur, Baldur was always fine, and Baldur’s good nature allowed him to simply laugh at the antics of his friends.

Baldur’s friends being jerks. By Elmer Boyd Smith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Yet, there was another god named Loki, a trickster. Loki liked to stir-up trouble. He felt envious of beloved Baldur and set about trying to find a way to surprise him. Loki travelled the worlds looking for something that had not pledged Frigg’s oath and so might still harm Baldur.

One day, Loki climbed up high in an oak tree to survey the countryside for some thing or beast that Frigg had overlooked. It was up high in the tree that Loki found mistletoe and learned that mistletoe had not taken Frigg’s oath. So, Loki carefully bound together the many small branches of mistletoe and sharpened them into a single point.

This spear of mistletoe Loki brought to Odin’s court. There he found the young men of the court engaged in their now favorite game of throwing projectiles at the apparently immortal Baldur.

Loki approached Baldur’s blind brother, Hodr, who sat alone with his wine. “You must feel left out,” Loki said, “I will help you join in their game. Take this spear, and I will guide your hand in the direction of your brother, as you throw the spear.”

Loki put the spear in Hodr’s hand, helped him aim, and Hodr threw the spear at happy Baldur. The spear sailed through the air, and pierced unsuspecting Baldur through the heart. Unfortunate Baldur fell down dead.

All were now in grief of Baldur’s death, but none was as sorrowful as Frigg. Frigg went then to mistletoe and demanded retribution.

“Where Yuletide brings the pain of loss will Mistletoe bring love, beneath my humble leaves
let love be now kindled. What fairer grave goods for the sun bright lord than the promise
of love new kindled? When two now meet beneath my leaves, let loves kiss light between them.
Let the light of love remember him that the world weeps for this season.”

-John T. Mainer,  The Story of Mistletoe

And for all the centuries since the death of fair Baldur, we bring mistletoe into our homes each Yuletide, and kiss under it, so that loves blooms in the new year rather than destruction, and in memory of the god who loved light and truth, Baldur.

Odin at his son’s funeral. By W.G. Collingwood (1854 – 1932) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This story is adapted from similar ones that are part of Norse mythology. The quoted lines are from a beautiful poem by John T Mainer found here, where you can also here the author read his poem.

Mistletoe has long been recognized as a medicinal herb, back as far or even farther than the ancient Greeks. Mistletoe was used to treat epilepsy, internal hemorrhage, menstrual cramps, and urinary disorders, along with other afflictions.

Mistletoe’s symbolic, romantic, and seasonal character in England began with the Druids. The Druids saw evergreen mistletoe as a sign of the continuance of life (and fecundity) in the darkest part of the year. Near the solstice, when the signs were right, Druids would gather mistletoe. They would bring it into their homes, and also use it as a potency aid for both beast and human alike. The practice of bringing mistletoe into the home at the time of the winter solstice, and its use as fertility aid is clearly connected to the modern day practice of kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas.

Mistletoe, green and vigorous even in the heart of winter. Elie plus at en.wikipedia via wikimedia commons

Mistletoe grew to became an essential part of the Christmas season in England, being especially popular in Victorian England. The tradition is that a girl who stands under the mistletoe is fair game for kissing, and if she refuses, she will have bad luck the following year. Some also include the practice of picking one mistletoe berry for each kiss taken, and when the plant is bare, no more kissing! Dickens captured a fevered scene of Victorian bacchanal under the mistletoe as young women, “screamed and struggled, and ran into corners, and did everything but leave the room, until … they all at once found it useless to resist any longer and submitted to be kissed with a good grace.” (Dickens, Pickwick Papers)

Consent much, Dickens?

Kissing under the mistletoe. The Mistletoe – A Christmas Tale, in the collection of the British Museum.

Personally, as an American, I actually don’t have any first hand experience with mistletoe. It is more a part of Christmas lore than a Christmas reality here and now, or maybe I’m just going to the wrong parties. Yet, it is still an essential element in films here, from Harry Potter to While You Were Sleeping, as well as Christmas music, from Bieber to I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, and I understand it to be more in fashion in the U.K. still.

We’ve gone from Baldur to Bieber, and while I recommend Baldur over Bieber, I also recommend some consensual snogging under the mistletoe as opposed to stabbing someone through the heart with it.

Joyful Yuletide, ya’ll!

P.S. Enjoy this nice Longfellow poem about the death of Baldur, if you so desire:

Tegnér’s Drapa

I heard a voice, that cried,
“Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead!”
And through the misty air
Passed like the mournful cry
Of sunward sailing cranes.

I saw the pallid corpse
Of the dead sun
Borne through the Northern sky.
Blasts from Niffelheim
Lifted the sheeted mists
Around him as he passed.

And the voice forever cried,
“Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead!”
And died away
Through the dreary night,
In accents of despair.

Balder the Beautiful,
God of the summer sun,
Fairest of all the Gods!
Light from his forehead beamed,
Runes were upon his tongue,
As on the warrior’s sword.

All things in earth and air
Bound were by magic spell
Never to do him harm;
Even the plants and stones;
All save the mistletoe,
The sacred mistletoe!

Hoeder, the blind old God,
Whose feet are shod with silence,
Pierced through that gentle breast
With his sharp spear, by fraud
Made of the mistletoe,
The accursed mistletoe!

They laid him in his ship,
With horse and harness,
As on a funeral pyre.
Odin placed
A ring upon his finger,
And whispered in his ear.

They launched the burning ship!
It floated far away
Over the misty sea,
Till like the sun it seemed,
Sinking beneath the waves.
Balder returned no more!

So perish the old Gods!
But out of the sea of Time
Rises a new land of song,
Fairer than the old.
Over its meadows green
Walk the young bards and sing.

Build it again,
O ye bards,
Fairer than before!
Ye fathers of the new race,
Feed upon morning dew,
Sing the new Song of Love!

The law of force is dead!
The law of love prevails!
Thor, the thunderer,
Shall rule the earth no more,
No more, with threats,
Challenge the meek Christ.

Sing no more,
O ye bards of the North,
Of Vikings and of Jarls!
Of the days of Eld
Preserve the freedom only,
Not the deeds of blood!


The Shepherd’s Pipe

Shepherd's Piping by Elihu Vedder via Flickr
Shepherd’s Piping by Elihu Vedder via Flickr

Recently, I’ve been reading about English folk music, specifically about the shepherd’s pipe. The shepherd’s pipe is a simple wooden flute with no reed, typically with 6 holes. These would be similar to the recorders and tin whistles that some of you may have learned to play in school.

Amazingly, humans have been playing this type of flute since the late Pleistocene(!). The Divje Babe Flute, made from the femur of the now extinct cave bear, was discovered in a cave in Slovenia in the 1990s. This flute is about 43,000 years old and was most likely carved and played by Neanderthals. That is awesome.

“Flûte paléolithique (musée national de Slovénie, Ljubljana) (9420310527)” by dalbera from Paris, France

Returning to our own epoch (the Holocene, for those keeping score), English shepherds carved their own flutes by hand, for the most part, but typically from wood rather than cave bear femurs. The music of the flute served both functional and recreational purposes. It was functionally used to call the flock, drive off wild animals, and to communicate with other shepherds. And it also served as a method of entertainment on long days out with a flock.

In her informative book on medieval English folk ways, Lost Country Life, Dorothy Hartley writes, “Here we try to imagine the music of the landworker when he herded his beasts on the common, or worked in penfold or field. With long hours, often working alone, he would have plenty of time to practise, and he would hear and incorporate the sounds around him.”

These are the pastoral sounds truly lost in the modern day.

In A History of European Folklore, Jan Ling writes, “The grazing fields, the mountains, and the forests used to be an exciting soundscape of calls, music, barking, mooing, and bleating.”

This is a soundscape that is for the most part extinct. Now, even in our state parks, I hear the sound of the freeway and jets overhead.

One thing that strikes me about the shepherd’s flute is the way it celebrates a different pace of life. A time when people weren’t always busy, weren’t always concerned about turning every moment into an opportunity for productivity. I think of the shepherd in his field, whittling his pipe by hand, and then slowly, day by day, learning to play. But, with no urgency. There is no try-out or rehearsal waiting for him. He is learning to play for the simple pleasure of it (oh, and to keep the wild animals away, apparently).

I’m no luddite. I looove my phone, kind of to the point of embarrassment. But, that said, it has changed things. Just like the soundscape of calls, music, and mooing has been replaced by the freeway and jet traffic, the boredom and slowness that compelled that Neanderthal and that shepherd to craft a flute and play it has been replaced by a life of bustling, industriousness – where we are perpetually a click away from more entertainment and more distraction.

And I wonder, do we need that quiet place of boredom? Is that where creativity is born? Is that where character is built? Is it what children need to grow and adults need to heal? Who would bother to turn a cave bear femur into an instrument when Madmen is on Netflix?

Until next time, here is a professor of biology playing a replica of that cave bear pipe:

St. Nicholas Day

St. Nicholas Day 2009 - St. Mary's Cathedral - 4 by Gary Bridgman via flickr
St. Nicholas Day 2009 – St. Mary’s Cathedral – 4 by Gary Bridgman via flickr

December 6th is the feast day of St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas Day goes largely uncelebrated in the United States, but in many countries St. Nicholas is the primary gift giver of the holiday season and his feast day supersedes Christmas as the main day of gifting. Where the holiday is celebrated, children put out their freshly polished shoes or boots on the windowsill on the evening of the fifth. That night, St. Nicholas visits children’s houses and fills their shoes with apples, oranges, almonds, candies, or other small gifts.

The details of the celebrations vary from country to country. For example, in the Netherlands, St. Nicholas takes the form of Sinterklaas who arrives in the country by boat from Spain in late November. Accompanying him is his servant, Zwarte Piet, dressed in the garb of a German mercenary (Zwarte Piet means ‘Black Pete’ and traditionally has been a white man dressed in black face. There is an ongoing controversy in the Netherlands about whether or not Zwarte Piet is a figure of racism, which I am not going to get into in this post! If you’d like to read more about the controversy, HuffPost has a decent summary here.)

The historical St. Nicholas lived in the fourth century and was bishop of Myra in Lycia (present day Turkey). This is why we still see images of St. Nicholas carrying a bishop’s crosier (staff with a curl at the top) and wearing a mitre (pointy bishop hat). St. Nicholas is said to have performed many miracles, given away his vast inheritance to the poor, and rescued the city in a time of famine. More than 400 years after his death, his bones were taken from Myra to the Italian harbor town of Bari, after which his popularity began to spread throughout Europe and his feast day became a more popular celebration.

A simple St. Nicholas celebration:

If you would like to celebrate St. Nicholas Day with your children this year, it can be done quite simply. On the evening of December 5th, tell a simple St. Nicholas story. Many St. Nicolas stories an be found here:

There are a wide-range of stories varying from the religious to the secular, so you should be able to find one that reflects your family’s beliefs.

Then, have your children clean a pair of their shoes or boots with a rag and set them either outside their bedroom door or by a windowsill. During the night, St. Nicholas can pay a visit and leave special treats inside the shoes such as oranges, chocolate, candy canes, a note, poem, or whatever else is special and at hand!

Sarah Josepha Hale: The Activist Who Gave Us Thanksgiving

By painted by James Reid Lambdin (1807-1889) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
As school children, most of us were taught the traditional story of the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the pilgrims in 1621. However, what happened to the holiday in the subsequent years is a story often left untold. Following the first Thanksgiving in 1621, celebrations of Thanksgiving were irregular and disunited. Days of celebration and thanksgiving for the harvest occurred in the fall throughout the colonies, taking place anytime from late September through early December. Thanksgiving was most commonly observed in the New England colonies of Pilgrim stock, and less so in the south.

It took almost 250 more years for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday fixed on a specific day (then the last Thursday of November, now the fourth Thursday of November). Without the advocacy of writer and editor, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, Thanksgiving may well have slipped silently into the past as so many of our seasonal holidays have.

Sarah Josepha Hale was an autodidactic New Hampshire mother and writer. She wrote a much celebrated novel about slavery, published in 1827, after which she was offered the editorship of a women’s magazine, The Ladies Magazine and Literary Gazette. She was the first female editor of a magazine in the U.S. From her post as editor of this highly successful magazine, she petitioned her national audience in support of many civil, social, and patriotic causes, including women’s education and the establishment of a national Thanksgiving.

Starting in 1846, she began her advocacy work toward making Thanksgiving a national holiday. Over the next 17 years, she would write thousands of letters, petition five different U.S. presidents, and publish numerous articles in her magazine all in support of creating a national holiday of Thanksgiving.  Hale hoped that the establishment of a shared national day of Thanksgiving might prevent the outbreak of war between the increasingly fractious North and South. “There is a deep moral influence in the periodical seasons of rejoicing,” she wrote, “in which whole communities participate. They bring out…the best sympathies in our natures.”

Hale finally found an ally in President Lincoln. She wrote him many letters and eventually visited him in person at the White House. Three months after the battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln ordered a proclamation establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. In his proclamation, Lincoln wrote:

And I recommend to them, that while offering up the ascriptions due to Him for such singular deliverance and blessings, they do so with humble penitence…commend to His tender care those who have become widows, orphans, or mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, and Union.

Although possibly influenced by Hale, Lincoln’s motivations for the establishment of a national Thanksgiving were likely complex. Godfrey Hodgson, author of A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving, contends that the proclamation was, “…probably motivated by the need to maintain the civilian morale of a Union whose ultimate victory might now be inevitable, but where the costs and travails of the war were bitterly discouraging. Lincoln was always acutely aware of the connection between civilian morale and military victory in a great citizen army, and he was particularly sensitive to the moral sensibilities of the New England Christian intelligentsia and to that New England Protestant tradition from which, after all, the nation owed Thanksgiving in the first place. The decision to make Thanksgiving a national holiday illustrates the two sides of Lincoln’s genius: the moral prophet and the shrewd politician.” Whatever the motivation behind Lincoln’s proclamation, Hale’s influence on the President, local governments, and everyday Americans was instrumental in forging the idea of a national day of Thanksgiving. And that is something we can all be thankful for.

The Sad and True Story of the American Chestnut

An American chestnut (Castanea dentata)
By United States Forest Service [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Chestnuts have a long association with the holiday season. Whether roasted on an open fire (do you hear Nat King Cole singing?) or used in desserts, they are one of the flavors that many associate with the winter holidays. However, in America, the now humble chestnut once meant much more. At the turn of the century, the American chestnut was one of the most populous and vital trees in the country. Its range stretched north-south from Maine to Georgia and east-west from the coast to Illinois and Arkansas. An estimated four billion chestnut trees stood within this expanse, making up a quarter of all hardwood trees. In her book The American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree, Susan Frienkel writes, “Legend has it that a squirrel could travel the chestnut canopy from Georgia to Maine without ever touching the ground. Along the way it would pass over at least 1,904 places with ‘chestnut’ in their names.” The American chestnut was essential to the lives and livelihood of many in this range, providing them with food, fodder, and shelter. Chestnuts were also a crucial part of the ecosystem, providing food and shelter for wildlife. However, in a single generation this towering and useful tree was almost completely annihilated.

In 1904, chestnut blight was found on some imported chestnut trees on Long Island, New York. The blight quickly spread to the American chestnuts, which had no resistance whatsoever. The blight spread at a rampant pace throughout the huge chestnut population, killing each tree it came in contact with. Within 25 years, billions of trees had been killed; within 50 years, the American chestnut was on the brink of extinction. Only a handful of isolated trees remained alive, out of an initial population of four billion. Frienkel calls the chestnut blight, “…one of the worst blows to the continent’s ecosystem since the Ice Age.”

Campaigns to restore the American chestnut have been underway since the 1930s. Efforts are now focused on crossbreeding the American chestnut with other chestnut species that are more resistant to the blight. Restoration efforts have met with limited success. Within a few years new saplings succumb to the same blight that afflicted their long dead ancestors. Some older secluded American chestnuts still live scattered throughout the country and number of hybrid saplings are currently in the New York Botanical Gardens.

The chestnuts we eat in the United States today are almost entirely imported, mostly from Sicily. Chestnuts can be eaten raw or roasted. If roasting, score the flat side of the chestnut using the tip of a knife. If not scored the chestnut will explode like popcorn. Chestnuts, being substantially larger than popcorn kernels, are not things you want flying like arboreal missiles in your home or oven. You can roast over a fire or in the oven at 400 degrees, for approximately 20 minutes. Peel while still warm and enjoy.

St. Clement’s Day: Explosions Upon the Anvil and Singing for Treats

November 23 marks both the traditional first day of winter (now recognized as the twenty-first of December) and the feast of St. Clement. St. Clement is the patron saint of blacksmiths. Why Clement has this honor is a matter of some disagreement. Some legends claim he was martyred by having an anchor tied around his neck and cast into the sea, thus becoming to the patron saint of anchor-smiths. Other legends claim he was the first man to refine iron from ore. His feast day may also have melded with that of Wayland the Smith of Norse mythology.

Blacksmiths and their apprentices typically took this day as a holiday. The evening of “Old Clem’s Day” would be marked by the tradition of “firing the anvil”, in which gunpowder would be packed into a small hole in an anvil; the smith would then hit the anvil with his hammer, causing a small explosion. Smiths would also dress up as “Old Clem” donning a great coat, mask, white beard, and wig. Smiths would then go door to door, carrying an iron pot, and petitioning their neighbors to fund their feast day.

Eventually, children took charge of this celebration, going out “clemencing” on November 23. Children would go door-to-door begging for gifts and food, singing chants all the while. Such as:

Clemany! Clemany! Clemany mine!
A good red apple and a pint of wine,
Some of your mutton and some of your veal,
If it is good, pray give me a deal;
If it is not, pray give me some salt.
Butler, butler, fill your bowl;
If thou fill’st it of the best,
The Lord’ll send your soul to rest;
If thou fill’st it of the small,
Down goes butler bowl and all…

or (I love this one):

Pray, good mistress, send to me
one for Peter, one for Paul,
one for him who made us all;
Apple, pear, plum, or cherry,
Any good thing to make us merry;
A bouncing buck and a velvet chair,
Clement comes but once a year;
off with the pot and on with the pan,
A good red apple and I’ll be gone.

These Old Clem songs even make an appearance in Dicken’s Great Expectations. When asked to sing a song for Miss Havisham, Pip sings a song he has heard Old Joe sing to the rhythm of beating upon the iron, “…hammer boys round – Old Clem! With a thump and a sound – Old Clem! Beat it out, beat it out – Old Clem! Blow the fire, blow the fire – Old Clem! Roaring dryer, soaring higher, Old Clem!”

It seems a rather fun holiday to me! Maybe I’ll take the kids out ‘clemencing’ this evening!

By Immanuel Giel (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Immanuel Giel (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons