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Why Do We Kiss Under The Mistletoe?

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By Chris Gayomali

The history of mistletoe, which can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, is long, strange, and full of contradictions. Certain varieties are poisonous, for starters, and ingesting their toxic white berries has been known to cause a host of stomach problems (some poison control centers send out "holiday safety" fliers every year). Yet Hippocrates used other types of mistletoe to treat menstrual pains, and through the centuries it's been enlisted to fight leprosy, infertility, epilepsy, and even cancer. (Recent research suggests an extract might even help terminate colon cancer cells.)

Then there's the plant's semi-parasitic nature. Mistletoe, a relative of sandalwood, attaches itself onto other trees to steal its host's water and nutrients. Unlike sandalwood, however, mistletoe seeds are dispersed by berry-eating birds, which allows the plant to grow on branches high above the shade, freeloading on other trees' sunlight. Mistletoe has been called a symbol of virility. According to Smithsonian Magazine, its seeds are coated in a semen-like substance that allows them to stick to tree branches once dispersed by birds — allowing a new mistletoe plant to dig into the host tree and begin to take shape.

Why, then, do we kiss each other under bunches of the devious, toxic plant every Christmas?

The common explanation says that early Christians integrated mistletoe into their celebrations as the religion spread across third-century Europe. The rationale predates the early Christians and goes back to the Norse god Baldur — second son of Odin, god of truth and light — who was so beloved by the other gods that they sought to protect him from all the dangers of the world. His mother, the goddess Frigg, "took an oath from fire and water, iron and all metals, stones and earth, from trees, sicknesses and poisons, and from all four-footed beasts, birds and creeping things, that they would not hurt Baldur." And thus the beautiful god was deemed invincible. What does this have to do with mistletoe? Bear with us...

At a large gathering soon after, stones, arrows, and flame were all flung at Baldur to test his might. Nothing worked, and he walked away unscathed. Jealous of Baldur's new powers, the mischievous Loki set out to find the one thing on Earth that might be able to hurt him. He found that the goddess Frigg forgot to ask mistletoe — tiny and forgotten — not to harm her beloved son. In the end, a dart fashioned from the little plant was used to murder Baldur in front of all the other gods who loved him so dearly.

Frigg, of course, was devastated. Steve Whysall at the Vancouver Sun explains that the tears of Baldur's mother became the berries of the plant, and it was decreed that "mistletoe would never again be used as a weapon and that she would place a kiss on anyone who passed under it."

And thus we hang mistletoe underneath our doorways come the holidays — so that we never overlook it again.

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Big Questions
Why Do They Build Oil Rigs in the Middle of the Ocean?
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Ryan Carlyle:

We put the rigs where the oil is!

There aren’t any rigs in the “middle” of the ocean, but it is fairly common to find major oilfields over 150 km off the coast. This happens because:

  • Shallow seas often had the correct conditions for oil formation millions of years ago. Specifically, something like an algae bloom has to die and sink into oxygen-free conditions on the sea floor, then that organic material gets buried and converted to rock over geologic time.
  • The continental shelf downstream of a major river delta is a great place for deposition of loose, sandy sediments that make good oil reservoir rocks.

These two types of rock—organic-rich source rock and permeable reservoir rock—must be deposited in the correct order in the same place for there to be economically viable oil reservoirs. Sometimes, we find ancient shallow seas (or lakes) on dry land. Sometimes, we find them underneath modern seas. In that latter case, you get underwater oil and offshore oil rigs.

In the “middle” of the ocean, the seafloor is primarily basaltic crust generated by volcanic activity at the mid-ocean ridge. There’s no source of sufficient organic material for oil source rock or high-permeability sandstone for reservoir rock. So there is no oil. Which is fine, because the water is too deep to be very practical to drill on the sea floor anyway. (Possible, but not practical.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Why is Friday the 13th Considered Unlucky?
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Today, people around the globe will feel uneasy about getting out of bed, leaving their homes, or going about their normal daily routines, all because of a superstition. These unfortunate folks suffer from paraskavedekatriaphobia, a common neurosis familiar to us all: the fear of Friday the 13th. But just where did this superstitious association come from, and how did it catch on?

The truth is that no one is absolutely sure where the idea that Friday the 13th is unlucky originated. Donald Dossey, the founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, suspects the fear can be traced back to a Norse myth about 12 gods who had a dinner at Valhalla—the fabled hall where legendary Norse heroes feasted for eternity after they died—that was interrupted by a 13th guest, the evil and mischievous god Loki.

According to legend, Loki tricked Höðr (the blind god of winter and son of Odin, the supreme god in Norse mythology) into shooting his brother Baldr (the benevolent god of summer who was also a son of Odin) with a magical spear tipped with mistletoe—the only substance that could defeat him. Thus the number 13 was branded as unlucky because of the ominous period of mourning following the loss of such powerful gods by this unwanted 13th guest.

For whatever reason, among many cultures, the number 12 emerged throughout history as a "complete" number: There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 Gods of Olympus, 12 sons of Odin, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 Jyotirlingas or Hindu shrines where Shiva is worshipped, 12 successors of Muhammad in Shia Islam, and 12 tribes of Israel. In Christianity, Jesus was betrayed by one of his 12 Apostles—Judas—who was the 13th guest to arrive for the Last Supper. Surpassing the number 12 ostensibly unbalances the ideal nature of things; because it is seen as irregular and disrespectful of a sense of perfection, the number 13 bears the stigma of misfortune and bad luck we know today.

WHY FRIDAY?

Friday joins in the mix mostly because all of the early accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion agree that it took place on Friday—the standard day for crucifixions in Rome. As Chaucer noted in The Canterbury Tales, "And on a Friday fell all this mischance." Yet perpetuating Friday as an unlucky day in America came from the late 19th-century American tradition of holding all executions on Fridays; Friday the 13th became the unluckiest of days simply because it combined two distinct superstitions into one. According to the Oxford University Press Dictionary of Superstitions, the first reference to Friday the 13th itself wasn’t until 1913. (So despite actually occurring on Friday, October 13, 1307, the popular notion that the Friday the 13th stigma comes from the date on which the famed order of the Knights Templar were wiped out by King Philip of France is just a coincidence.)

The repercussions of these phobias reverberated through American culture, particularly in the 20th century. Most skyscrapers and hotels lack a 13th floor, which specifically comes from the tendency in the early 1900s for buildings in New York City to omit the unlucky number (though the Empire State Building has a 13th floor). Some street addresses also skip from 12 to 14, while airports may skip the 13th gate. Allegedly, the popular Friday the 13th films were so-named just to cash in on this menacing date recognition, not because the filmmakers actually believed the date to be unlucky.

So, is Friday the 13th actually unlucky? Despite centuries of superstitious behavior, it largely seems like psychological mumbo jumbo. One 1993 study seemed to reveal that, statistically speaking, Friday the 13th is unlucky, but the study's authors told LiveScience that though the data was accurate, "the paper was just a bit of fun and not to be taken seriously." Other studies have shown no correlation between things like increased accidents or injuries and Friday the 13th.

And Friday the 13th isn't a big deal in other cultures, which have their own unlucky days: Greeks and Spanish-speaking countries consider Tuesday the 13th to be the unluckiest day, while Italians steer clear of Friday the 17th. So today, try to rest a little easy—Friday the 13th may not be so unlucky after all.

Additional Source: 13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition.

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