Mistletoe in Pliny's Natural History Book XVI | Free Essay Example

Mistletoe in Pliny’s Natural History Book XVI

Words: 1409
Topic: Sciences


In this passage, Pliny talks about mistletoe, a parasitic plant that is mostly found growing on oak trees. The author notes that mistletoe can also grow on other trees apart from the oak such as turpentine trees and wild pears. It is noted that there are different strains of mistletoe depending on the host plant. Different types of mistletoe are distinguished through the texture of their leaves, the kind of berries that they produce, and the smells they emit among other factors. According to Pliny, the plant had many uses for different people. For instance, the hyper mistletoe was put to use through the fattening of cattle. The process of fattening cattle using mistletoe often took forty days during the summer season.

One of the interesting observations that Pliny makes concerning mistletoe is that it sometimes mimics the patterns of its host plant. Therefore, mistletoe that grows on evergreen trees does not shed leaves but the one that is found on deciduous trees does. Another interesting observation is the fact that the seeds of some varieties are only propagated through birds. Pliny also observes that mistletoe can be put to use as a glue concoction for snaring birds (Pliny 249). The plant also has religious significance to a group of people that Pliny calls Druids. According to Pliny, the Druids consider mistletoe to be a sacred plant and it is often an inclusion in most of their religious rites. Furthermore, the oak and mistletoe are often used to send and interpret messages from gods. The author concludes by observing that the mistletoe plant is held in unreasonably high regard by some tribes.

Background Methodology

This passage is attributed to Pliny the Elder, an ancient Roman author, whose full name was Gaius Plinius Secundus. The author was born in 23 AD and he met his death in 79 AD through events related to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius (Gibson and Morello 67). Pliny the Elder is most famous for his collection Natural History, an encyclopedia-like manuscript, that has survived for several centuries. The above passage is an excerpt from Natural History, a book that traces facts related to various areas of scientific studies including geography, astronomy, agriculture, precious stones, and anthropology among others. Pliny is best known for being a consummate scholar whose interest was not confined to any particular subject.

Pliny was born into a prosperous family within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. The author was formally educated and he mainly specialized in law studies. Eventually, Pliny joined the military and he was part of several military-campaigns in the process. Later on, Pliny was elected to various government positions, including the Procurator of Spain. Nevertheless, Pliny is mostly known for the contributions he made through the book Natural History. The author’s research techniques were addressed by his nephew Pliny the Younger who says of Pliny that he would “write what is worth writing and reading” (Beagon and Murphy 32). Up until the middle ages, Pliny’s work on Natural History was one of the most reliable manuscripts on a wide range of subjects. However, advancing levels of knowledge were later to put some of the facts that are contained within the book into doubt.

Although Pliny was a prolific author during his lifetime, only Natural History survived as a whole manuscript. Nevertheless, some fragments of his other works have survived and they include the biography he authored on Pomponius Secundus, a book on grammar, an account of his military exploits, and a history of Rome. The author’s other works help shed light on Pliny’s literary style and also his research methods. Overall, the only book that is responsible for Pliny’s reputation as a writer is Natural History. The book has a total of thirty-seven segments and they are all presumed to have been finished in AD 77. The author’s views on his work in Natural History are seen in the book’s preface, which is also a dedication to Titus the son of Vespasian.

The author considers the book to be a “study of the nature of things, that is, life” (Gibson and Morello 52). According to Pliny, no one had attempted to consolidate the study of nature in the manner that he did and hence the nature of his book. Like in the passage on mistletoe, the author’s literary style did not feature any distinction or prevention. Nevertheless, the passage on mistletoe demonstrates Pliny’s ability to bring various details together and weave them into a coherent piece. It is also obvious that the author has a superb eye for detail because he can give meaning even to minor particulars of the mistletoe. The author was known for naming his sources but this is not the case in the mistletoe passage because the origin of its facts is not immediately known to the readers. The author’s enthusiastic approach to nature is evident from the attention that he gives to a plant of minor significance such as mistletoe.


The accuracy of Pliny’s work was not an issue up until other nature researchers start coming up in medieval times. The author’s literary style is immediately recognized for its ability to put information in order by weaving unrelated pieces of details together thereby forming a pseudo hypothesis. One scholar observes that the author’s style was accentuated by “his perceptiveness in recognizing details ignored by others, and his readable stories, with which he linked together both factual and fictional data” (Beagon and Murphy 35). For example, in this passage Pliny talks about the botanical facts of mistletoe such as its variations in smells and then combines them with others about the supernatural abilities of the plant. A deeper analysis of Pliny’s works reveals that the author believed in the authenticity of magic and superstitions.

Consequently, the author would categorize superstition and medical theory in the same class of science. In this passage, Pliny alludes to the usefulness of mistletoe when fattening cows. This is not an isolated incident and it is part of the author’s style to encompass pseudo-scientific methods in the book. In this case, the author employed his method of recognizing signatures whereby he would relate a plant’s physical characteristics to scientific purposes (Gibson and Morello 28). This combination of facts and fiction ensured the survival of Natural History because for a long time the authenticity of its claims could not be tested. Among the first scholars to point out the inconsistencies in Pliny’s facts was Niccolo Leoniceno, who published the obvious errors in Natural History in 1492 (Beagon and Murphy 35).

Pliny rarely wrote on matters that he was personally familiar with or those that he had witnessed firsthand. Most of the contents in Natural History are sourced from Greek manuscripts. Although the source of this passage is not listed, the author was in the habit of listing his sources of information. For example, the book’s preface has a claim by the author that he has gathered “twenty thousand facts from two thousand books, written by over a hundred authors” (Pliny 1). The extent of the author’s research is apparent but the fact that most of his sources have been lost means that secondary research on his facts cannot be completed accurately. This is the case for the passage on mistletoe where he lays out several probable facts on mistletoe and Druids. Up until now, it is not clear who the Druids were and if the claims made in this passage were rooted in facts or superstition. For example, according to the author Druids were superstitious people to whom mistletoe was sacred. Scholars have tried to correlate these claims with any existing proof to no avail (Owen 81).

On the subject of mistletoe and Druidry as outlined by the author in this passage, it is obvious that the ratio of fact to fiction is almost equal. However, the most probable source of Pliny’s information is thought to be a scholar from the region of Rhodes (Owen 85). Since Pliny’s claims about mistletoe and Druidry were made, there has emerged a modern group of Druids. Furthermore, this ‘sect’ seeks to continue the tradition of relying on the sacredness of mistletoe probably as outlined in Natural History. In the year 2004, the “Mistletoe Foundation” was formed “to review and rekindle interest in the mistletoe ritual described by Pliny whereby the group is open to all, druid or non-druid, and they have events each year in the Tenbury Wells area” (Owen 81).

Works Cited

Beagon, Mary, and Trevor Murphy. “Pliny the Elder’s Natural History: The Empire in the Encyclopedia.” Aestimatio: Critical Reviews in the History of Science 3.1 (2015): 31-37. Print.

Gibson, Roy, and Ruth Morello. Pliny the Elder: Themes and Contexts, New York: Brill, 2011. Print.

Owen, Suzanne. “Druidry and the Definition of Indigenous Religion.” Critical Reflections on Indigneous Religions. Farnham: Ashgate 2.1 (2013): 81-92. Print.

Pliny (the Elder.). Pliny: Natural History, Boston: Heinemann Limited, 1963. Print.