“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 said that the oak and holly were “twin brothers.” Their symbolism seems 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 while John Michael Greer calls holly the tree of courage and of challenges. Erynn Rowan Laurie in her book said the energy of Tinne could be linked to wealth, craftsmanship, and the arts. She also wrote that the holly was associated with severed heads and that it is connected to the Celtic warrior.
Over time, the holly came to be associated with Christ and Christmas. The red berries supposedly replicated the blood of Christ while the holly leaf was seen as representing the crown of thorns worn at the crucifixion. It’s often said that the Winter Solstice was the time for the holly king to be killed by the oak kind — destined to rise again. The early church would select pagan dates of celebration as a time to introduce Christian themes, and so the holly became a Christmas symbol that exists to this day[i].
In incredible detail, Frazer describes the death of the “Oak King” in the Golden Bough. It is the Oak King that is killed, or sacrificed, midsummer by the Holly King, only to return again during the Winter Solstice -when the roles are reversed- to kill the Holly King 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. She is the earth goddess 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 are said to have been used to help promote these yearly cycles and to appease the spirits of the land[ii].
As I mentioned above, Laurie associates holly to the severed head, which takes the symbolism beyond that of just the warrior or 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 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.”
The symbol of the severed head, or the sacrifice of the Oak King to the Holly King, seems brutal in a modern context. Do these old legends still have a place here and now? Certainly, we do not want to see human or animal sacrifices return in any way, but perhaps there is an alternative. Maybe the symbolism of the bloody ways of our ancestors can still offer us wisdom that is relevant today?
The ancient Celts found many things we likely find disturbing sacred. Their myths bring us time and time again to tales of war, sport hunting, trickery through magic, death, severed heads, dark supernatural beings, deception, and as we have seen before… even rape, adultery, and murder of relatives.
While it’s true our ancestors also held many beautiful and peaceful things sacred, why do so many modern Celtic pagans only cling to these beliefs and ignore the darker aspects found in the treasure chest of 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 New Age, soft, or 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 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 illusions as to the brutality found in nature.
The Celts did not worship from a city park or an English garden. They did not see fairies as harmless children’s dolls that fit inside their palms[v]. They saw nature for what it was, for what she still is, and were rewarded as a result by having a real relationship with the land.
By downplaying that relationship – by ignoring an exploration of the dark side of nature – we allow ourselves to shrink away from our own power. We can safely summon the elements by facing different directions in the sterile confines of our homes but do we really meet 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. Can you work with the earth and make things grow? Can you hear the wind speaking, whispering through the leaves? Can the stars lead you through the darkness towards safety?
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 every year going into the forest-domain of the Great Goddess. In North America alone, they 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 disappear.
By seeing Nature fully we can step away from infatuation into relationship. Because not being able to see her completely is to not see her at all. Until then, forest-worship is make believe. A relationship disconnected from the divine in all of her glory, and ultimately the wild divine within you.
If you choose to step into relationship with Nature then Tinne, the holly, can be your guide into understanding some of the dark aspects of her.
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 in the world, there will be places some of the Ogham trees do not grow.
Apparently, there are holly farms in my province of British Columbia[vi] but I have never seen one. BC is, after all, a very large place. There are many holly trees growing along the streets of Vancouver, Nanaimo, or Victoria, and in other cities. There’s a park in Vancouver’s West End where a holly is near a yew tree and a magnificent oak[vii]. I’ve found many naturalized (invasive) trees in the forests near these cities, as well.
No matter how hard I look, however, I will never find a forest of holly trees where I live. This shouldn’t 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 wrote 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 these concepts with us and that we should not be tied down to, “one geographical area.” Otherwise, we may feel limited while working with certain trees.
I like to work with the Ogham as a tree alphabet. For me, it makes sense. I can go and sit beneath a holly tree if I find one. I can read about it, meditate on it, and hopefully even dream of it. If the gods are willing, perhaps one day I’ll even walk through a forest where holly is still king.
Even in my home town, where the winter would kill any attempt at growing holly, I can get a cutting from a floral shop during the Christmas season to work with. After all, the alder and the willow in Northern Saskatchewan are – like the hawthorn here – more like shrubs than trees, but I can still connect with them nonetheless. While a clipping is not the same thing, perhaps it is a good place to start.
I believe the trees of the Ogham can be representatives of all trees and all plants, much like Celtic legends are representative of the life lessons found in all cultures[viii]. I’ve heard it said that you can dig many holes on 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 towards 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.
Shortly before writing this – to celebrate the beginning of the half year where holly is king- I drank my first yerba mate tea. It was smooth and foreign. I enjoyed the tea’s earthy undertones that existed in the spicy chai version I sipped on. I was shocked to learn that yerba mate, which is made from a type of holly leaf, is traditionally called “the drink of the gods” by some Indigenous South Americans. The list of known and suspected health benefits are staggering as it stands a head taller even than green tea[ix].
I couldn’t help but smile as I drank the teas and stepped into a place where Tinne 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)