WSJ Historically Speaking: The Ancient Magic of Mistletoe

The plant’s odyssey from a Greek festival to a role in the works of Dickens and Trollope

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Is mistletoe naughty or nice? The No. 1 hit single for Christmas 1952 was young Jimmy Boyd warbling how he caught “mommy kissing Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe last night.” It may very well have been daddy in costume—but, if not, that would make mistletoe very naughty indeed. For this plant, that would be par for the course.

Mistletoe, in its various species, is found all over the world and has played a part in fertility rituals for thousands of years. The plant’s ability to live off other trees—it’s a parasite—and remain evergreen even in the dead of winter awed the earliest agricultural societies. Mistletoe became a go-to plant for sacred rites and poetic inspiration.

Kissing under the mistletoe may have begun with the Greeks’ Kronia agricultural festival. Its Roman successor, the Saturnalia, combined licentious behavior with mistletoe. The naturalist Pliny the Elder, who died in A.D. 79, noticed to his surprise that mistletoe was just as sacred, if not more, to the Druids of Gaul. Its growth on certain oak trees, which the Druids believed to possess magical powers, spurred them to use mistletoe in ritual sacrifices and medicinal potions to cure ailments such as infertility.

Mistletoe’s mystical properties also earned it a starring role in the 13th-century Old Norse collection of mythical tales known as the Prose Edda. Here mistletoe becomes a deadly weapon in the form of an arrow that kills the sun-god Baldur. His mother Frigga, the goddess of love and marriage, weeps tears that turn into white mistletoe berries. In some versions, this brings Baldur back to life, carrying faint echoes of the reincarnation myths of ancient Mesopotamia. Either way, Frigga declares mistletoe to be the symbol of peace and love.

Beliefs about mistletoe’s powers managed to survive the Catholic Church’s official disapproval for all things pagan. People used the plant as a totem to scare away trolls, thwart witchcraft, prevent fires and bring about reconciliations. But such superstitions fizzled out in the wake of the Enlightenment.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Kylo Ren, Meet Huck Finn: A History of Sequels and Their Heroes

The pedigree of sequels is as old as storytelling itself

ILLUSTRATION: RUTH GWILY

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” may end up being the most successful movie sequel in the biggest sequel-driven franchise in the history of entertainment. That’s saying something, given Hollywood’s obsession with sequels, prequels, reboots and remakes. Although this year’s “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” was arguably better than the first, plenty of people—from critics to stand-up comedians—have wondered why in the world we needed a 29th “Godzilla,” an 11th “Pink Panther” or “The Godfather Part III.”

But sequels aren’t simply about chasing the money. They have a distinguished pedigree, as old as storytelling itself. Homer gets credit for popularizing the trend in the eighth century B.C., when he followed up “The Iliad” with “The Odyssey,” in which one of the relatively minor characters in the original story triumphs over sexy immortals, scary monsters and evil suitors of his faithful wife. Presumably with an eye to drawing in fans of the “Iliad,” Homer was sure to throw in a flashback about the Trojan horse. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: Short but Tasty History of Pumpkin Pie

An odyssey from colonial staple to political emblem to holiday standby

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Pumpkin pie may not compete with its apple-filled rival for most of the year, but on Thanksgiving, it’s the iconic dessert, despite often resembling a giant helping of baby food. As a slice of Americana, the pie has a history as complicated as the country itself.

The pumpkin’s ancestors were ancient gourds that left Asia some 60 million years ago. Known botanically as Cucurbitaceae, the plant family slowly spread to the African, Australian and American continents, laying down roots (and vines) to become such familiar garden goodies as the melon, the cucumber and the squash.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: A Brief History of Protest in Sports

From angry gladiators to Suffragette sabotage

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Sports and protest often go together: As soon as someone makes a call, somebody else is disputing it. But in recent weeks, the really big clashes have happened off the playing fields, as President Donald Trump and others criticized football players kneeling during the national anthem. Such mixing of sports, politics and protest has ancient roots—on the part of both spectators and players.

An early protest by a player comes down to us in “Lives of the Twelve Caesars” by the Roman historian Suetonius (69-130 A.D.). An unnamed gladiator once refused to fight in front of the Emperor Caligula. Then, the gladiator, seeing he would die anyway, grabbed his trident and killed his would-be victors.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: The Psychology and History of Snipers

PHOTO: THOMAS FUCHS

Sharpshooters helped turn the course of World War II 75 years ago at the Battle of Stalingrad

The Battle of Stalingrad during World War II cost more than a million lives, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. The death toll began in earnest 75 years ago this week, after the Germans punched through Soviet defenses to reach the outskirts of the city. Once inside, however, they couldn’t get out.

With both sides dug in for the winter, the Russians unleashed one of their deadliest weapons: trained snipers. By the end of the war, Russia had trained more than 400,000 snipers, including thousands of women. At Stalingrad, they had a devastating impact on German morale and fighting capability. Continue reading…

‘HER STORY THE SUBJECT OF THE ASCENT OF WOMAN – NETFLIX NOTES’ – Blasting News

dr-amanda-foreman-leads-us-on-the-journey-of-women-through-the-ages_712041“Powerful, inspiring, and important” states Telegraph, of four-part series by Dr. Amanda ForemanDr. Amanda Foreman leads us on the journey of women through the ages. Dr. Amanda Foreman leads us on the journey of women through the ages.

It strikes me as odd that The Times described this innovative and fascinating chronicle of women’s history as “ballsy”. Actually, it’s more than that. I imagine a few “old boys” sitting around the newsroom tossing out descriptors for Dr. Amanda Foreman’s study and guffawing when they came up with this one. The irony is not lost. Continue reading…

The Times: A Life in the Day: Amanda Foreman, historian

 

REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

By Sarah Maber

Words of wisdom

  • Best advice I was given: “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything”
  • Advice I’d give: “Be kind”
  • What I wish I’d known: “As a teenager, I wish I’d know that I wouldn’t always feel as lonely as I did at that age”

Born in London, Dr Amanda Foreman, 47, went to several boarding schools, then to the US to study at the Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University, before returning to the UK for her doctorate at Oxford. Her first book, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, later became a film starring Keira Knightley. A mother of five, Foreman is also a TV documentary-maker. Continue reading…

The New York Times: It’s Not a Reading, It’s Literary Cabaret

Lucas Wittmann and Amanda Foreman

Lucas Wittman and Amanda Foreman (Photo: Karsten Moran for NYT)

By Joshua Barone

When Amanda Foreman and Lucas Wittmann founded House of SpeakEasy, the organization behind their literary cabaret series, “Seriously Entertaining,” they wanted to break from the format of typical bookstore readings and hark back to the performative styles of authors like Dickens and Twain.

Now in its third season, “Seriously Entertaining” is closer to realizing its goal. For the next show, on Monday, it has moved to Joe’s Pub, a high-profile site that will raise House of SpeakEasy’s visibility. (In fact, Monday’s show sold out two weeks in advance.) Ms. Foreman said that when Joe’s Pub reached out about a partnership, “We spent a nanosecond thinking about it.” Continue reading…