Tinne (Holly) II

“Since early times holly has been regarded as a plant of good omen, for its evergreen qualities make it appear invulnerable to the passage of time as the seasons change. It therefore symbolizes the tenacity of life even when surrounded by death, which it keeps at bay with strong protective powers.” Jacqueline Memory Paterson (Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook)

The Roots:

As discussed previously, Holly is a tree often associated with warriors, battle and death.

Holly is a leaf bearing evergreen tree, which has come to represent both the Wildman and the darkening of the year as the Holly King[i]. Perhaps both of these images are related to one another? The wild beast that exists within us is also repressed or destroyed at the height of that darkness within us – just like the Holly King  so that we are not consumed and swallowed by our own animalistic nature. Just like the Holly King is killed by the Oak King on the darkest night of the year, the Wildman, who hugs the shadows, is repressed – or temporarily killed – during our own darkest hour.

John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman leaves is with a clue regarding the Holly as being “a third of…” something that remains unstated. Previous writers have explained this third portion that is mentioned to represent either chariot wheels (Holly axle,) or the third part of a weapon (maybe a spear shaft?).

Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids says that Holly represents “justice and balance.” He also mentions the wheel and the weapon when he quotes previous Word-Oghams within his book.

Caitlin Mathews’ divination system found within Celtic Wisdom Sticks equates Holly with a type of cyclical wisdom. Her interpretations for Holly are all related to previous experiences holding answers for us in the present. As history repeats itself, the individual should know what actions are needed either logically or intuitively. In this way, Holly is always guiding us forward.

Holly represents half of the year from the summer solstice to the winter solstice. Holly, then, may also represent all that is dark or unkind such as our animalistic natures, battle and death. Any cycle can be seen as being symbolic of the cycle of life and death. By keeping this knowledge in perspective we simplify life and become wiser.

The Trunk:

Holly has an unusual role within Celtic mythology. It is a role which is not often discussed and may be overlooked. Holly often seems to be the mediator between the world of humans and that of the beasts.

Jacqueline Paterson quotes Pliny when she says that “if Holly wood was thrown in any direction it will compel the animal to obey.” While the reference to Pliny may not be as reliable as some of the Celtic sources, it deserves to be mentioned as support for the argument that Holly had special powers over beasts.

In the Mabinogion[ii] we bear witness to some unexplained magic. Taliesin helps Elphin (who saved him from the salmon weir) win a horse race with the use of Holly. We are not told exactly what the Holly does, but it seems to be instrumental in helping Elphin win the race.

“Then he (Taliesin) bade Elphin wager the king, that he had a horse both better and swifter than the king’s horses. And this Elphin did, and the day, and the time, and the place were fixed, and the place was that which at this day is called Morva Rhiannedd: and thither the king went with all his people, and four-and-twenty of the swiftest horses he possessed. And after a long process the course was marked, and the horses were placed for running.

“Then came Taliesin with four-and-twenty twigs of holly, which he had burnt black, and he caused the youth who was to ride his master’s horse to place them in his belt, and he gave him orders to let all the king’s horses get before him, and as he should overtake one horse after the other, to take one of the twigs and strike the horse with it over the crupper, and then let that twig fall; and after that to take another twig, and do in like manner to every one of the horses, as he should overtake them, enjoining the horseman strictly to watch when his own horse should stumble…”

The youth is also instructed to throw down his cap when his own horse (actually Elphin’s) stumbles. They dig where the cap has fallen and cauldron of gold is found. Taliesin then hands the treasure over to the “unlucky” Elphin as a reward for saving him.

In Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory we find more Holly references. We are given a poem attributed to Finn (like Taliesin he was possessed with all knowledge). The poem seems more like a riddle for the initiated than a simple reflection. Its true meanings may elude us. The mention of Holly is interesting though.

“There is a hot desire on you for the racing horses; twisted Holly makes a leash for the hound.”

While this reference could have many other possible explanations or interpretations, we should remember that good Celtic poetry was often rife with double meanings. The songs of these enlightened bards were meant to be studied and contemplated. This reference to Holly could easily be a statement of its perceived powers.

Within the same text we find that Diarmuid and Grania are on the run from Finn. For a short while they are accompanied by a servant named Muadhan who seems to be a beast man of some sort.

Muadhan enters the story suddenly and leaves suddenly. He carries Diarmuid and Grania on his back over rivers and when they are too tired to walk. He pulls a “whelp” from his pocket and throws it at one of Finn’s hounds killing the canine enemy. Every night he also catches salmon for all three of them. Muadhan lives very closely to the land and his methods are very interesting.

“And he went himself into the scrub that was near, and took a straight long rod of a quicken-tree, and he put a hair and a hook on the rod, and a holly berry on the hook, and he went up the stream, and he took a salmon with the first cast. Then he put on a second berry and killed another fish, and he put on a third berry and killed the third fish. Then he put the hook and the hair under his belt, and struck the rod into the earth, and he brought the three salmon where Diarmuid and Grania were, and put them on spits.”

Here we see that Muadhan seems to live more closely to the land and be somewhat of a beast himself. He also seems to be carnivorous. Interestingly, Muadhan always keeps the smallest portion for himself.

(Wild men support coat of arms in the side panels of a 1499 portrait by Albrecht Durer[iii])

The story of Cuchulain – whose name means “the hound” – also has some interesting Holly references. Joseph Dunn’s translation of the Tain Bo Cuailnge is the source of this quote:

“On the morrow Nathcrantail went forth from the camp and he came to attack Cuchulain. He did not deign to bring along arms but thrice nine spits of holly after being sharpened, burnt and hardened-in fire.”

Nathcrantail casts all of these “darts” but does not kill Cuchulain. He does, however, manage to interrupt his bird hunting and scatters his prey.

“It was then, when Nathcrantail threw the ninth dart that the flock of birds which Cuchulain pursued on the plain flew away from Cuchulain. Cuchulain chased them even as any bird * of the air.* He hopped on the points of the darts like a bird from each dart to the next, pursuing the birds that they might not escape him but that they might leave behind a portion of food for the night. For this is what sustained and served Cuchulain, fish and fowl and game on the Cualnge Cow-spoil.”

We see then that Cuchulain is more of a beast than a man due to his ability to leap through the air and his need to capture his own meals. Cuchulain also seems to be carnivorous.

When Cuchulain is asked why he did not kill Nathcrantail he says it is because his enemy was unarmed. Clearly the Holly “darts” are not viewed as weapons by Cuchulain in the conventional sense.

“Dost not know, thou and Fergus and the nobles of Ulster, that I slay no charioteers nor heralds nor unarmed people? And he bore no arms but a spit of wood.”

Also found in the book, it is a “spit of holly” that finally wounds Cuchulain. The wound is self inflicted during a bout of rage. There is a suggestion, then, that Holly may be a sort of Kryptonite to Cuchulain. Where his enemies could not succeed with swords and spears, he accidently accomplishes with a sharpened piece of burnt wood.

Paterson speaks at length of the Holly King and the Wildman within Tree Wisdom. She explains in which ways she sees them as being one and the same.

“Thus we see that the Wildman expressed the procreative essence of Nature, the Godhead. And from his primal beginnings and through translations of his manifold energy he came to personify specific aspects of the energies of Nature, from which forms like the holly and oak kings evolved, embodiments par excellence of the seasonal forces associated with the dark and light periods of the year.”

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Holly had a more specific use to the Celts of old. It seems to be the gate keeper and the guardian of the wild aspect of nature as well as the ruler over all of those that are wild.

In both Ireland and Wales, the wood of Holly is burnt before it is used[iv].

The Foliage:

The following information is from Cat Yronwode’s Herb Magic[v] website. The wording is very detached to protect them from possible lawsuits. It may also be possible that Holly is not a common herb used in Hoodoo. These uses for Holly seem to be mostly protective.

Holly can be burned with incense to protect the home and to bring good luck. Holly can also be placed above the door for protection and to invite into the home benevolent spirits.

As these are all qualities that we wish to attract to the home, Holly would best be used during the waxing phase of the moon.

“The Holly is best in the fight. He battles and defends himself, defeating enemies, those who wish to destroy him, with his spines. The leaves are soft in summer but in winter, when other greenery is scarce and when the evergreen Holly is likely to be attacked by browsing animals, the leaves harden, the spines appear and he is safe.”  – Liz and Colin Murray (The Celtic Tree Oracle)



[i] Jacqueline Memory Paterson. Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook.

[ii] Lady Charlotte Guest translation.

[iv] As related in the tales involving Finn and Taliesin.

 

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)

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