Myth Monday: The Battle of the Holly King and the Oak King (European Mythology)

By Kara Newcastle

Oblężenie_Malborka_2019_(11) by Jakub T. Jankiewicz wikimedia commons

At the autumnal equinox, the Holly King emerges. With him comes the darkness, the cold winds and heavy snows. Death follows in his wake, causing the grasses to wither and the trees to drop their leaves. The crops die in the fields, the game animals flee from the forests. No new life comes into the world. All is dark and frigid.

It is at Midwinter when the Holly King is at his greatest power that his most hated enemy, the Oak King, is born. At the end of Solstice, the longest night of the year, the Oak King returns to our world, and with him comes the sunlight and warmth. He grows quickly, and readies himself, for the time will soon come when he must fight the Holly King to save the world from winter.

At the spring equinox, the young, hale Oak King confronts the aged Holly King in the forest. At once they do battle, raging back and forth until the Oak King triumphs, striking down the Holly King. The Oak King claims his rival’s position as ruler of the world, bringing the spring with him, as well as returning fertility to the land. The snows melt, the crops sprout, and animals give birth. People emerge from where they hid in their homes and rejoice.

The Oak King rules the earth in light, until the autumn returns. It is then that the Oak King ages, and the Holly King, reborn, returns to reclaim his throne.

And so the cycle continues. Though they despise one another, neither the Oak King nor the Holly King can remain the sole victor; they are two opposite halves of the same coin, and one cannot exist without the other. Neither is wholly good, nor wholly evil, but both are needed for the balance of the cosmos.

Fascinating as the tale goes, there’s one thing about the myth of the Holly King and the Oak King that troubles mythographers: nobody is really sure where the story came from. While it contains elements from Celtic, Nordic and Germanic mythologies, it can’t really be firmly pinned down to any one particular place. The myth gained widespread attention in the 1970s when Wiccan leaders Janet and Stewart Farrar incorporated the story into their practices. However, scholar Robert Graves mentioned the Kings in his book The White Goddess, published in 1948, and James George Frazer discussed a similar myth in his book The Golden Bough, published in 1890, meaning that some version of the Holly King vs. Oak King myth was known long before the Wiccan and Neopagan revival. It’s likely that this was a mythology known largely to certain groups in early Europe that were not Celtic, but eventually traveled though the continent and picked up various new details in the retellings, as myths and legends are wont to do.

Here’s an example: Celtic Druids saw holly as a symbol of rebirth, as the leaves remained green and the berries red throughout the dead of winter, when everything else had died. Additionally, holly likes to attach itself to healthy trees, such as oaks, which were sacred to the Druids. When the oak trees lost their leaves in the fall, the holly stood out starkly against the bare trunks. Somehow, the holly had survived while the oak had died. At the return of spring, however, the oaks regained their leaves, and the holly was lost from sight.

While that explains the link of holly/winter and oak/summer, the problem is that the Celts didn’t celebrate equinoxes, but people like the Saxons and the Norse did.

See? Mythological evolution.

In some later medieval retellings of the myth, not only do the Holly and Oak Kings fight for control of the seasons, but they also fight for the right to marry a beautiful girl who symbolizes the Earth. Indeed, in some Wiccan and Neopagan religions, the Holly and Oak Kings are seen as the dark and light aspects (respectively) of the Horned God fighting each other over the Goddess’s love. Other religions suggest that the Holly King and Oak King divide the year equally with no combat, and some even suggest that they are brothers.

Hang on, we’re not done yet!

The Oak King has evolved into or at least contributed to, the image and belief of the Greenman (also known as the Green Man and Jack in the Green,) a fertility god and a protective spirit of the forest, (and one of my all-time favorite songs by Type O Negative) that is portrayed as being made of leaves. Like Swamp Thing, but without the smell. If you visit old churches in Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, you’ll likely see carvings or pictures in stained glass windows of a human-like face with leaves and vines sprouting out from it; that’s the Greenman.

And yes, I’m aware that there’s also the theory that a Bigfoot-like creature may have contributed to the legends of the Greenman, but that’s for another blog. Be patient.

Additionally, some people believe that since the Holly King was portrayed as an older man with a white beard, frequently dressed in red robes, sometimes said to ride in a sleigh pulled by eight stags, and appears only at wintertime, he may have contributed to the creation of the myth of Santa Claus (Santa’s real! Real, I say!) and Father Christmas. We’ll have to go into more depth about that during the December blogs.

The return of the Oak King and similar deities was often celebrated on May 1st—Beltane in Celtic mythology and some Neopagan and Wiccan religions—and frequently those festivals featured a Maypole. The Maypole—a tall wooden pole which is wound about with ribbons by dancing people—was essentially a symbol of the springtime god’s erect phallus. The dancing and decorating of the pole was to celebrate the god’s sexual union with the earth goddess, thus returning fertility to the world. Think about that the next time you go to a RenFaire.


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