“Salvation, claimed the Romantic philosophers and writers, lay not in a tame and planted landscape, but in the raw wilderness.” – John Vaillant (the Golden Spruce).
The holly – much like the oak- is associated with gods of lightening and thunder, male virility and war.
Robert Graves says that the oak and the holly are “twin brothers”. The two tree’s symbolic meanings seem to verify this.
Pennick equates Tinne with fatherhood, balance and strength. Liz and Colin Murray list holly’s attributes as those of the warrior and of balance. John Michael Greer calls holly the tree of courage and of challenges.
Over time the holly has come to be associated with Christ and Christmas. The red berries supposedly replicated the blood of the Christ and the holly leaf came to be seen as representing the crown of thorns worn at the crucifixion. Traditionally the Winter Solstice was the time that the holly king was killed, destined to rise again, by the oak king. The early church carefully selected pagan dates of celebration as a time to introduce Christian themes, and so the holly became a Christmas symbol to this day[i].
Erynn Rowan Laurie states that the energy of Tinne can be linked to wealth, craftsmanship, and the arts. She also informs us that the holly tree has associations with severed heads and is strongly connected to the Celtic warrior.
As we celebrate the Summer Solstice we are reminded that even though the warm days are just beginning, the Earth is now starting to move further away from the Sun, heralding the return of winter.
Frazer describes in great detail the death of the “Oak King” in the Golden Bough. It is the Oak King that is killed, or sacrificed, at this time of the year by the Holly King, only to return again during the Winter Solstice -when the roles are reversed- to kill the Holly King once more in an endless cycle that mirrors the rhythms of the earth.
This cycle is often linked to the Goddess Creiddylad – mentioned briefly in the Mabinogion – as representing the Earth Goddess that the two suitors are fighting and dying for. The Oak King is the god of the sky and of light while the Holly King represents the time of darkness and of the underworld. Creiddylad spends half of the year with one king, and half of the year with the other. Human sacrifices were believed to be used to help promote these yearly cycles and to appease the spirits of the land[ii].
As stated above, Laurie associates holly to the severed head, taking the symbolism beyond that of just the warrior or the Holly King. The severed head, according to Celtic historian Anne Ross, was a religious symbol, “as representative of the Celts’ spirituality as the sign of the cross is for Christianity.”[iii]
The severed head is incredibly prevalent in Celtic symbolism and myth. Some even go so far as to refer to the Celts spirituality as “the cult of the severed head.” As Caitlin Mathews explains in the Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom[iv] however, the Celts did not worship severed heads per say, but venerated the head as “the seat of wisdom and of the soul”.
(Skull on a gravestone edge, Durisdeer, Scotland)
The symbol of the severed head, or the sacrifice of the Oak King to the Holly King, may seem a little brutal to us in this day and age, but do these core elements of the old legends still have a place? Certainly we do not want to see human or animal sacrifices return in any way shape or form but perhaps there is an alternative. Maybe the symbols of the brutal and bloody ways of our ancestors can offer us some wisdom that is still relevant today?
One does not have to look very far to find that the Celts did in fact hold many things that we would find dark or disturbing quite sacred. These myths bring us time and time again to war, hunting, trickery through magic, death, the severing of heads, dark supernatural beings, deception, and as we have seen before… even rape, adultery and murder.
While it is true that our ancestors also held many things that are beautiful and peaceful sacred, why is it that so many pagans in modern times cling to these imbalanced ideas alone and ignore the darker aspects found in the wealth of the lore?
The Ogham at its surface seems incredibly charming, but once the forest – the actual woods – is entered there are many things that can no longer be seen as fluffy, soft, and harmless. The sun is not always shining. It is not always summer or spring. The creatures of the forest, including ourselves, are not always well fed or content. When we are not freezing we are dripping with sweat, or at the very least we are covered in insects that like to bite us and steal our sustenance, making us weaker – a part of the cycle of life and death. Our ancestors did not harbour any illusions as to the brutality that could be found in nature.
The Celts did not worship from a city park or an English garden. They did not see fairies as cute little Barbie dolls that fit inside of their palms like some sort of child’s toy[v]. They saw nature for what it was, for what she still is, and were rewarded by stepping into relationship with the very land.
By downplaying that relationship – by ignoring an exploration of the rougher side of nature – we allow ourselves to shrink back from our own power and capabilities. We can safely summon the elements by facing different directions within the sterile confines of our homes but do we really know the elements? You can call fire… but can you make fire? I am not asking about the fire that is made with matches or a lighter but from the friction of moving two sticks together or with a bow? You can summon the element of water but can you take water from the land or capture it from the air in times of need – for that is life itself? Can you work with the earth and make things grow? Can you hear the wind speaking that whispers through the leaves in the trees or let the stars navigate you through the darkness to safety?
I have said it before. The forest can be a very dangerous place. If you have spent time alone in the woods, in a real forest, you have learned to have a healthy respect for it. People die each year going into those very lands that tens of thousand of people profess to be the bosom of the Great Goddess herself. People yearly -in North America alone- fall to their death, starve, dehydrate, freeze, get heat exposure, suffer sprains and breaks, get lost, catch diseases from insects (West Nile, Lime Disease etc), are hunted and sometimes killed by animals (especially bears or cougars), drown by slipping into rivers and sometimes just plain disappear.
By seeing Nature in all of her terrible beauty we can truly step from infatuation into relationship, for to not be able to view her completely is to not see her at all. Until then it is just make believe. An ignorant relationship disconnected from the divine in all of her glory, and ultimately with the divine within you.
If you choose to step into relationship -away from infatuation- with Nature herself then Tinne, the holly, can be your guide.
The holly is the first tree of the Ogham that does not grow naturally in most areas of Western North America.
No matter where one lives, even if it be on Ireland herself, there will be places in which some of the trees of the Ogham do not grow.
Apparently there are holly farms in British Columbia[vi] but I have never set foot on, or even seen one myself. BC is, after all, a very large place. There are many holly trees growing along the streets in Vancouver -where I live- and I have even found a beautiful specimen in a park in the West End beside a yew tree and close to a magnificent oak[vii]. I have also found a naturalized tree – though stunted as it competes with mighty conifers for light- with a couple of saplings nearby at the trail head to Tower Beach near the University of British Columbia (within two weeks of posting this I had found two different sites of naturalized trees in the Vancouver area).
No matter how hard I look however, I will never find a forest of holly trees in my neighbourhood.
This should not discourage me.
Laurie cites this as one of the main reasons that the Ogham should be viewed as more akin to the Nordic Runes as opposed to a “tree alphabet”. She says that instead of modifying the list in some way to make it local or relevant she has, “Chosen to work primarily with the name-meanings and with the phrases or kennings associated with each ogam fid (letter), rather than the trees themselves.” Laurie encourages that we can carry concepts with us and that we are not necessarily tied down to, “one geographical area” that we may feel limited to while working with trees that are absent.
I like to work with the Ogham as a tree alphabet, however. For me it makes sense. I can go and sit beneath a holly tree, I can read about it, and I will likely even dream of it. If the gods are willing, perhaps one day, I will even get a chance to walk through a forest where the holly is still king.
Even in my home town where the winters would kill most attempts at growing holly, I could get a cutting from a floral shop during the Christmas season to work with. After all, the alder and the willow there in Northern Saskatchewan are -like the hawthorn here -more like shrubs than trees but I can connect with them still nonetheless. While a clipping is not even close to the same thing as a shrub, perhaps it too is somewhat of a start.
I believe that the trees of the Ogham are representatives of all trees and of all plants, much like the Celtic legends are representative of the life lessons found in all cultures[viii]. As most teachers of various practices will tell you, you can dig many holes upon the land or one deep well in which to draw water.
For me, the Ogham is that well, the tree alphabet works, and I like the difficult journey that sometimes leads me to new places and kingdoms in search of greater knowledge.
Trees are something I can touch and marvel over, and they never cease to amaze me.
Today for example – to celebrate the beginning of the half-year where the holly is king-I drank my first yerba mate. It was smooth and foreign but I enjoyed the tea’s earthy undertones that existed within the spicy chai version that I sipped upon. I was shocked to find out that yerba mate, which is made from a type of holly leaf of course, had been called by many indigenous South Americans as “the drink of the gods”. The list of known and suspected health benefits was staggering as it stood even a head taller than green tea[ix].
As I drank the tea that was a gift from the holly, I could not help but smile knowing that science had confirmed what those South American natives seemed to have known all along.
I then stepped into a place where Tinne, the holly, had become king once more.
“To know, to truly know the forest is to love it, and whoever loves it will fight for its welfare. Therefore we invite all to spend great amounts of time in the woods, doing nothing in particular but wandering about or just sitting still.” – Steve Comar, Mahican Nation (Canadian Geographic June 2010)[x]
[i] Paterson, Hageneder, Farmer-Knowles, and Cooper.
[ii] This connection is made by many such as Hageneder but does not seem to appear directly in legend.
[iii] Fire in the Head.
[iv] Chapter 4, section 3 – Consulting the Ancestors.
[v] For a fascinating conversation on this very subject please listen to Elemental Castings podcast episode 12 between T. Thorn Coyle and R.J. Stewart where they compare the minimizing of the fairy kingdom to the minimizing of the power that exists within ourselves.
[vii] Alexandra Park.
[viii] Joseph Campbell.
[ix] 2010 Teaopia magazine/brochure
[x] Get in the Grove article text quotations from Ontario’s Old Growth Forests: A Guidebook Complete with History, Ecology, and Maps by Michael Henry and Peter Quinby (2009)