A couple of years ago, few of those without at least a passing acquaintance with Norse mythology would even have known who Loki was, but thanks to Tom Hiddleston all that has changed. Hiddleston’s brilliant realization of Loki in his form as a Marvel Comics character has pushed the Trickster god fully into the public
consciousness. The popularity of “Thor” and “The Avengers” allows me to actually discuss how Loki plays an instrumental part in the mythology of the Christmas tradition of mistletoe without having to spend considerable time explaining the inner workings of Norse mythology.
You know that Loki is a tricky little devil who always seems to be one step ahead of everybody else. Loki is blessed with a gift for deception in both magical terms and as symptom of a well-developed personality disorder. Of course, you do need to know that the Loki of the actual myths that inspired the character brought to life by HIddleston is a bit different. You might even say more evil! Or, at the very least,in regard to how the character was presented in “Thor” at any rate, Loki’s mythological figure is a little less than kind and even, strangely, a little less pathologically complicated.
Such is the case in the little offshoot story in which a Norse goddess named Frigga gives birth to a son named Baldr. Baldr was the love of Frigga’s life and the apple of her eye. In order to protect Baldr, Frigga embarks upon a mission to get every object found on earth to agree not to harm her son. A pretty good deal if you can it, indeed! As often happens in these kinds of stories, however, the distance between the gods and reality is based on a sustained and undying sense of superiority. This superiority in the greatness of her godliness results in a tragic oversight in which Frigga fails to secure the promise of safety for her son from the slight little mistletoe tree.
Thinking that such an object so diminutive in size and so young to boot could never rise to great heights in terms of importance, Frigga does not bother trying to rectify this one little oversight. Hubris. Pure and simple hubris! The bane of the gods, regardless of the ethnicity of the mythology at work.
Loki enters the story at this point in a way that says much about why he is so dang difficult to defeat. Depending on the version of the story you read, Loki’s decision to create some deadly arrows from the wood of that very mistletoe tree that Frigga felt was unworthy of consideration in her obsessive-compulsive need to protect her son was the result either of a brief diversion of his vengeance against Thor onto Baldr, the result of a developing jealousy of Baldr who basked in the love of not just his mother but everyone else or the result of simply seeing yet another opening to prove how incredibly smarter he was than any other creature in any of the Norse realms.
Loki makes the arrows form the mistletoe tree and gives them to Baldr’s poor blind brother. Disguised as a kindly old woman, Loki tricks the brother, named Hod, into allowing him–Loki, that is–to guide his hand when raising and drawing the bow. Most stories insert an archery competition into the proceedings at this point to create a sort of situational realism to the plot, but you can find the odd version that simply has Loki helping Hod aim and shoot. Competition or not, you can doubtlessly guess what happens and you would be right: the arrow made from mistletoe heads straight for Baldr’s head and he drops dead.
The inconsistency of the actual details of what happened next co-exist as variations on a theme that leads you to effectively the same conclusion regardless of the specific version you read. The central point of the story of Frigga, Baldr and Loki as it concerns the still vital ritual of kissing beneath the mistletoe during the Christmas holidays is that Baldr was brought back to life in some manner which Frigga attributes to the magical powers of the mistletoe that over time have managed to blend in with Resurrectionist dogma so vital to Christianity. Frigga rewards this reversal of fortune by transforming the heretofore unappreciated little plant into nothing less than the official symbol of love. In that capacity, all who kiss under the mistletoe will receive the protection briefly lacking in the case of Baldr.