Tinne (Holly)

“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 Roots:

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.

The Trunk:

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 Foliage:

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.

[vi] http://www.agf.gov.bc.ca/aboutind/products/plant/holly.htm

[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)

Beithe (Birch)

“The forest is an introverted wilderness, and it offers risk and refuge in equal measure. Robin Hood found sanctuary there, but so did Red Riding Hood’s wolf. While the armies of empires dominate the open plain, rebels and patriots gain advantage in the shelter of the trees-right beside outlaws, outcasts, and mystics. The woods provide food and building materials, and yet they also disorient and impede progress. Until relatively recently, North American staple food species like deer, elk, bison and caribou inhabited the forest from coast to coast, but so did wolves, bears, and mountain lions, creatures that continue to fascinate, terrify-and kill us-to this day.” – John Vaillant (the Golden Spruce)

The Roots:

When it comes to the Ogham, the birch is one of the only trees to have a universally agreed upon meaning. It is the sentinel of new beginnings and heralds the start of any new journey.

Where is it that we are journeying to? What beginning is it that we seek?

The Trunk:

The Ogham can be viewed as a mnemonic device. It can help us to remember various trees and their meanings. The Ogham will teach us about our foliage wielding brothers and sisters and it may part the clouds for us-for but a moment-offering us a partial view into the otherworld.

The Ogham guides us, but it will also get us lost as we search within that forest for the true meanings and understandings that are being offered to us.

First of all, we can never hope to understand the Ogham completely because it is a relationship constantly in motion. We have insights from writers like Macalister, Graves or Liz and Colin Murray but much of the origins and meanings of the Ogham are lost to us forever through traditional scientific means. We can journey into our collective unconscious and perhaps recall fragments of understanding but we will never know exactly what the Ogham was used for or the absolute meanings associated with each of the tree alphabet letters. Nor should we.

Often as pagans we dream of a past that never existed, of a utopian society in which man lived in absolute harmony with nature.

Even though the Celtic ancestors -as we like to remember them- were not directly responsible for the deforestation of Europe and the Middle East, they were far from innocent. As countries like Italy or Lebanan became treeless wastelands-or the homes for crops- the Druids kept sacred the forest and held it as holy. What we like to forget however, is that these same ancestors also practiced human sacrifice according to most historians. This was no utopia but a society more foreign than we could ever imagine. Even a cursory read through James Frazer’s ‘the Golden Bough’ would leave a normal person shaking their head in disgust. Pagan cultures all over the world practiced human sacrifice, held slaves, forced women into “sacred” prostitution, practiced infanticide, animal sacrifice, genocide and other various atrocities in the name of god or goddesses everywhere. The utopia that we dream of is a place on the other side of the veil. It does not exist here, nor has it ever.

The Ogham still guides us however towards a new understanding. It can still be as relevant within our ethical framework as it must have been (and this has been debated) to the founders that used it in the first place.

The Foliage:

This does not mean that the Ogham is something that can be compartmentalized, categorized neatly on a shelf, or tucked aside only to be retrieved for the occasional new age tea party for fortune telling purposes. The Ogham represents something many people have never experienced and it is a guide back towards finding the self, and the connection, that we thought we had lost forever.

Again I will state that the Ogham is a mnemonic device.

Why is this so important to understand as we take those first few steps of our journey?

The forest, the wilderness, is neither the tree farm that was logged 100 years ago nor the park that exists down the road. To step into a real forest, a wilderness, one quickly realizes that things here are very different. You can get lost if you are not careful. You can be killed or eaten by wild animals if you do not tread with confidence. Insects can devour you. Weather can destroy you. Food and water can avoid you. The disconnection from your cell phone or network of friends can blanket you with feelings of instant isolation. There are not 20 or 25 species of trees and plants here in this forest but sometimes hundreds or thousands.

It is easy to see something as organized as the Ogham as sterile, neat and tidy, but the reality is far different. A real forest is ancient. There are millions of invertebrates beneath your feet and you may never see the sun. You may build a fire at night, but what you attract may be far more dangerous than what you hope to repel. You will be forced to surrender to the forest and become one of its children. You can only request to become the student of those ancient trees, which stand hundreds of years old around you, and hope that they will accept you. A park tree is as domesticated as a housecat or a broken-in horse. It is still beautiful but it is not the same. These ancient beings have a wisdom that we may be compelled to try to understand. They have seen things that modern man regards as myth.

If you study the Ogham you will have to make a journey someday to one of these ancient places[i]. You will have to go alone into the wilderness like any of the mystics of the past. There is no other way. These forests are our Vatican. They will call to you when you are ready. Perhaps the words here are the first whisperings on the wind.

Perhaps this is the beginning.

“There is a very interesting relationship between wilderness and sacredness. All of the great monastic traditions-whether that’s Christian, Buddhist or Taoist-all find their roots in an experience of their founders going into the desert, into the wilderness, onto the mountains, and finding there something that civilization can not give them, a realization about themselves, about nature, about the divine.” – Martin Palmer (BBC’s Planet Earth)


[i] This is not something to be taken lightly. Have someone know where you are going. If you are stepping off of a well marked path you will need at a minimum: a compass, tools for making a fire, food and water. You should have a buddy who knows when to expect you back and who will call for help if you do not return. You will need weather appropriate gear and should have spent time researching the area and survival in that particular environment.

This warning comes from personal experience. After years of spending time in wild places from British Columbia to Arizona I had developed an overconfidence that had eventually became very cocky. One day I was in the forest with no compass or jacket, fishing in a remote spot and decided to head out after sunset following a mountain trail. A fog came in and darkness descended completely. I could not see the stars and could barely see the ground. I realized quickly that I had walked off of the path and became disoriented in a mountainous area. The weather became very near freezing and I sat down to wait for dawn. I believe I would have been fine, if not cold and hungry when the morning came, but someone was expecting me and called for help. A search and rescue team eventually found me in the early hours of the morning. I had been a half hour’s vigorous hike from where I had parked my car (even in the stillness of the night I could not hear the calls from where my vehicle was).

I mark this as one of the most embarrassing and humiliating moments of my life. It was a great teacher for me in many ways however. I am always prepared now. I always bring a knife and a compass and have a handful of food, water, a flashlight (I try to never use-when I do its red light), and the right clothes.

My over confidence wasted many people’s time and taught me once again that I am just a tadpole in a very big pond.

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