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Why do we kiss under the mistletoe?

We delve into the festive traditions and mythology surrounding mistletoe.

Mistletoe, or Viscum album, is a curious plant. It is a ‘hemi-parasite’, meaning it grows on a host tree, from which it takes water and support. Don’t worry though, it causes very little, if any, damage to its host. In fact, it has real value to wildlife - six species of insect are specialist mistletoe feeders, including the rare mistletoe marble moth Celypha woodiana and mistletoe weevil Ixapion variegatum. 

It was often seen as a mystical plant because it seemed to appear from nowhere, with no roots, and stayed evergreen when its host tree dropped its leaves in winter. We now know that its seeds are germinated to its host tree by passing birds and its roots are entwined with its host tree. But this small plant must have seemed magical to people long ago.

The earliest account of mistletoe is from the Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder. Writing in his Natural Histories in the first century AD, he described how Druids thought mistletoe taken from oak trees was sacred. Many modern Pagans still use mistletoe today.

However, mistletoe is seldom found on oaks. It is more likely to grow on trees such as apple, hawthorn, poplar, lime or conifers.

It is a festive tradition to hang up mistletoe around Christmas and New Year and plant a kiss on anyone you find yourself standing next to while beneath it. But why do we do this?

It is said the roots of this tradition stem from Norse mythology. According to legend, the Norse goddess of love and fertility, Frigg, made all living things promise not to harm her son Baldr because she wanted to protect him. However, she overlooked the mistletoe plant because it was so small. Baldr was then killed by an enemy using an arrow made from mistletoe. In some versions, Frigg’s tears land on the mistletoe and turn its berries to white which brings Baldr back from the dead. In gratitude, Frigg reverses the mistletoe’s bad reputation and kisses anyone who walks underneath it as a sign of gratitude.

It wasn’t until Victorian times that this tradition seems to become popular. It is said that a berry would be plucked for each kiss until all the berries were gone.

  • Why do we kiss under the mistletoe?, A hanging bough of mistletoe ,  creativecommons, Loadmaster (David R. Tribble).
    A hanging bough of mistletoe ,  creativecommons, Loadmaster (David R. Tribble).

Five tonnes of mistletoe are sold in the UK every year, most of which are imported from France. Much of the wild mistletoe in the UK grows in the west Midlands around the English/Welsh border. It is not very common in London but we do have some here at the Horniman, in our Gardens. Our boughs are high up in a tree on Meadow Field and our Gardeners are looking into growing them lower down on the trees so they are more visible.

Visit the Gardens and see what other plants you can spot.

Secrets from Olympus

Ancient Greece is perhaps one of the most famous periods of human history. The gods and goddesses of mythology are passed on to us through story telling, museums and some frankly awful (and some amazing) films.

With our Secret Late event this week it got me thinking about how much we actually know about these gods, and what secrets they had. Not everything is well documented and known, in fact some of those devious gods seem to have had a few secrets of their own...

Aphrodite

Aphrodite, the foam born Goddess of Love, is one of the oldest gods from the Greek pantheon. She is married to the god Hephaestus, but they didn't exactly have the most stable of marriages.

Aphrodite with her son, the winged Eros

In fact, Aphrodite kept many secrets from her husband and had affairs with other gods such as: Poseidon, god of the sea, Dionysos, the god of wine and Nerites a sea god who she turned into a clam when he refused to leave the sea for her.

Her long relationship with Aries, the War God, was her most famous clandenstine affair, and is even mentioned in Homer's Odyssey. Despite all her cunning, she wasn't the best at keeping secrets and inevitably her husband would find out.


Demeter and the Eleusinian Mysteries

Demeter is a personal favourite of mine, she is the mother of Persephone who was kidnapped by the god of the underworld but is eventually returned after sixth months. Demeter's changing mood at having her daughter with her were believed to influence the seasonal change.

Teracottas like this may depict the goddess Demeter

The Eleusinian mysteries were a cult honouring Demeter, but the activities were a secret and never written down. Only initiates to the cult knew what was hidden within the kiste (a sacred chest) and kalathos (basket), I'm guessing something shiny.


Mithras

Ok not Ancient Greek (originally a Persian deity renamed Mithras in Greek), but the cult of Mithras is perhaps one of the most famous secrets from the Ancient World.


This replica Greek cup represents a bull, a popular motif with the Greek god Zeus and the illusive Mithras.

Like the Eleusinian Mysteries this was Mystery Religion, meaning only the initiates knew what happened inside the temples. Mithras was popular with the Roman military, although he is a far older god, and often features Tauroctony, which means a bull slaying scene. No one really knows what this scene might mean, the bull is probably a sacrifice, perhaps he represents the Greek god Zeus and marks the end of the old rule and a celebration of the new Roman Empire, or perhaps it links to a Zoroastrian myth with a similar story?

We will probably never unfathom these secrets, and I for one love that!

If you fancy sharing in some secrets with us this week, be sure to pop along to our Secret Late this Thursday evening.

Inside the Horniman Merman

On display in our Centenary Gallery is an object from the Natural History collection which tends to grab people's attention: the Horniman Merman.

Thanks to careful research by our Deputy Keeper of Natural History Paolo Viscardi, we are now able to reveal some of the secrets of our mysterious merman, as well as tell the story of how 'mermaids' such as ours came to be.

The secrets of the Horniman Merman have been revealed with a combination of X-rays, CT scans and even DNA analysis.

  • A 3D model of the merman built using the CT data, Here you can see clearly how different materials were used to build up the merman's shape
    Here you can see clearly how different materials were used to build up the merman's shape

While it has long been described as a 'monkey-fish', we revealed a while ago that this was not an accurate description of our specimen. Paolo's research now goes further, looking at mermaid specimens across Europe.

READ THE FULL STORY 

Mermaids have a presence across a wide range of museum collections, and have always sparked curiosity. Our own was originally part of the Wellcome Collection, who have also been blogging about their connection to these strange specimens. There is even an exciting hint at the possibility of a new mermaid exhibition in the near future.

The merman and his kind also feature in today's Animal Magic blog post on the Guardian website.

You can also read Paolo's blog post introducing his research.

We'll be sharing more about the Horniman Merman and similar specimens on Twitter today. Follow the hashtag #mermania to join the discussion.

A Mysterious Sword

We have a mysterious sword in our collection. It looks like a dha from Burma, but it was collected over one thousand miles away from there in a region of North West Pakistan called Chitral.

  • Chitrali Sword, One of the more mysterious objects in our collection
    One of the more mysterious objects in our collection

Chitral is quite different from the areas around it. In fact it only officially became part of Pakistan in 1969. Our sword was collected in 1895 when the British invaded Chitral to relieve a British garrison which had become besieged there, and also to exert British control over the region.

We invited Shah Hussein and Muntazir Ali, two members of the Chitrali community in London, to the museum to try and help solve the mystery of the sword.

  • Viewing the Chitral Sword, Assitant Curator Tom Crowley discussed the rather mysterious object with our visitors
    Assitant Curator Tom Crowley discussed the rather mysterious object with our visitors

They thought that the sword could have found its way to Chitral as a gift between ruling elites. Although Chitral would have had no direct dealings with Burma, the sword could have travelled across India state by state: a gift which was passed on again and again.

Shah and Muntazir also suggested that the sword could have come to Chitral with a soldier in the British army, the makeup of which was very diverse, although there were no specifically Burmese units in it.

  • Viewing the Chitral Sword, Muntazir and Shah share their thoughts about the sword's origin
    Muntazir and Shah share their thoughts about the sword's origin

Muntazir and Shah found it strange in some ways, but unsurprising in others, to come across the sword so far away from their homeland. It brought to mind folk memories of the siege and a sense of pride, still felt today, that Chitralis had come together to resist the British. But the sword also served as a reminder of the violence from which the regions around Chitral have suffered in recent years.

What do you want to know?

Our team working on Collections, People, Stories have made a fantastic find in the stores.

An Unusual Find

It was found in our anthropology collection, which we're hoping to learn a lot more about during this three-year collections review.

The team have been investigating, and we've learnt a little about this object, but there's still more to be discovered. 

What questions do you want to ask about this object?

Leave a comment here, on Flickr or on Twitter @HornimanMuseum, and we'll try and answer your questions (if we can!).

 

Update: Everyone in the stores is really taken with this fascinating object, and there's been some real detective teamwork going on.

Thanks to Paolo and the Natural History Collection, we can reveal that the skull pictured here wrapped in leather is thought to be that of a Lappett-faced Vulture.

Intriguing cheese horse - what can you tell us?

A few weeks ago, we found an intriguing object in our collections - a horse made of cheese.

Cheese horse


We don't know a lot about this horse - it's made from cheese, it's from Poland, and came into our collections in the 1950s.

What can you tell us about it? Take a look at our video below, and leave a comment on flickr or on our blog here if you can shed light on the cheese horse.



We found the cheese horse while working on a three-year project, called Collections People Stories, to review our anthropology collections. We're hoping to find out more about the collections, what they are and what they mean to our visitors and communities.


Update: London's Polish Cultural Institute pointed out another cheese horse in Krakow's Ethnographic Museum. Their cheese horse - called Bar'ańczyk - is made from sheep's cheese, and was a toy gift for children.

 

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