There’s some evidence that one of the most popular kissing traditions we know of today—kissing under the mistletoe—dates back to the pre-Christian era. In truth, we’re not really sure where this custom originated, but there are several possible theories.
In Norse mythology we find the story of Loki, an evil shape-shifting God, who plots to kill Balder, a god of light. All plants and animals, all metals, even fire and water had vowed to Balder’s mother, Frigga, not to hurt her son, with the exception of one plant that was not required to take the oath: the mistletoe. Loki, disguised as a woman, tricks Frigga into revealing this omission. Then he collects the mistletoe, makes it into an arrow or spear, and gives it to Balder’s brother Hodr, who fires it at Balder and kills him. This is a great tragedy, but in some versions of the story, Balder later arises from the dead, and Frigga forgives the mistletoe and transforms it into a symbol of love–further proclaiming that any two people who walk beneath the plant must kiss.
Another myth comes from the ancient Druids, priests of Celtic Europe who believed the oak tree was sacred. The mistletoe, growing as it did upon the oak, was also a subject of worship. As the Roman writer Pliny recorded:
The Druids, for so they call their wizards, esteem nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree on which it grows, provided only that the tree is an oak….The mistletoe is very rarely to be met with; but when it is found, they gather it with solemn ceremony.
The wizards would cut down the mistletoe, which could not be allowed to touch the ground. They believed the plant had near miraculous powers: as an all-purpose medicine, as a female and animal fertility enhancer, and much else.
A third story comes from the ancient Babylonian-Assyrian empire. Mylitta was their goddess of beauty and love, equivalent to the Greek Aphrodite or Roman Venus. At the Temple of Mylitta, young women would honor the goddess by standing beneath the mistletoe, and were required to give up their bodies and make love to the first man who approached them. It is unclear whether kissing was involved, however, because the custom does not seem to have been common in that era or part of the world.
* Excerpt from The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Our Telling Us, Grand Central Publishing 2011 *