Druidic links to mistletoe (see recent posts) are often, these days, considered established as fact, despite very little evidence. The Druids left no written records – and the only accounts we have are written by Romans (Pliny and Caesar) who may not have had direct knowledge, and who may also have had an interest in sensationalist propaganda about the natives of their conquered territories. Or maybe they wrote with absolute accuracy. We just don't know.
So we don't really know that the Druids of northern Europe (France and Britain) worshipped mistletoe. And if they did we don't really know why, or what form that worship took.
But it's a good story, and it makes an interesting tradition for Druidry.
So that's all right then. But should the druid 'myth' trip over into science? If you've ever read accounts of Lindow Man, a 2000 year-old preserved bog body found in a Cheshire peat bog in 1984 you may recall that these state that he had mistletoe in his gut, and that this may indicate a ritual sacrifice by druids.
The newspapers loved this story – and it's even mentioned on his interpretation panel at the British Museum. This states that there is evidence for a ritual death (which there is) and that "it may be no coincidence that shortly before his death he had a drink including mistletoe" and "Mistletoe was sacred to the Druids, and it is recorded that Druids carried out human sacrifices". Some reports (not at the BM),even suggest the mistletoe was the poison that killed him. The story tends to resurface every time Lindow Man goes 'on tour' in regional museums too.
Now, I've always regarded all this as absolute nonsense. There is nothing to say this man was a druid, or even associated with druids. The presence of mistletoe means absolutely nothing. Yes, he may well have ingested some mistletoe – but it is not a poison, and was and still is, widely used in herbal medicine. So it's as likely, if not more likely, that any deliberate taking of mistletoe was to help cure something, not to kill. This conclusion is clearly more feasible than the usual one. I despair of the scientific community sometimes. Especially Archaeologists, who marry loose conjecture to their findings all too readily. (and yes I am an Archaeologist of sorts by training, but my primary training is in botanical science)
AND (this is the best bit, which you'll only find if you read it up in detail) guess how much mistletoe was found? 4 pollen grains. FOUR POLLEN GRAINS! And the BM turn that into a 'drink including mistletoe'. All it really indicates is that he died in February/March when mistletoe is flowering, and that he was relatively near to some mistletoe when he ate his last meal. There's no evidence there for deliberate ingestion at all. It's all spin, and not very good spin either.
So, I was most relieved to find, earlier this year that in the British Museum's new (2009) book on Lindow Man (written by Jody Joy – details below) they now admit that whilst 'much has been made' of the misletoe in his gut it is 'possible…that… it could have been ingested inadvertently'. More probable than possible I'd say. When I'm next at the BM I'll go and see whether they've changed the interpretation panel.
Mistletoe Promotion of the Day – Lindow Man book:
Here's that recent book on Lindow Man – a short booklet really, very readable, and available from Amazon at just £5.00 incl UK delivery.