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

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.

Myth Monday: The Easter Witches (Swedish Folklore)

Myth Monday: The Easter Witches (Swedish Folklore)

By Kara Newcastle

Happy Easter everybody! Or as they say in Sweden, Glad Påsk! What a wonderful time of the year, isn’t it? It’s getting warmer out, the days are longer, the flowers are finally blooming, and the witches are to flying back to their infernal meeting place in the Baltic Sea.

Whoa, hold on, back up—witches? At Easter? How and why would witches ever be linked to the highest of the Christian holy days?

You may recall from my blog about Easter (here!) that the Christian celebration of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ co-opted the spring festivals of Eostre, the Germanic goddess of springtime and birth. The absorption of the pagan holiday was deliberately made by the early church to help the pagan people more comfortably convert to Christianity by including elements of their own traditions and symbology into this new religion. In Sweden (and Finland, but we’ll focus mostly on Sweden here, and you’ll see why), this means the inclusion of witches.

Blå_Jungfrun,_bred by Fred J wikimedia commons
Blå Jungfrun

In the Kalmar Strait off the coast of the city of Oskarshamm lies the beautiful and menacing island Blakulla (sometimes Anglicized as Blockula, which sounds like Count Dracula’s cousin who sucks the essence out of Lego bricks, and not to be confused with Richard Roundtree’s Blacula … yes, that’s a thing.) The island is now a national park, but if you plan on taking a trip out there one day, just know that few people refer to the island by its true name; for generations it’s been known as Blå Jungfrun (literally translated into English as “The Blue Maiden,”) a name used by sailors when they passed by. The sailors took to referring to the island with this name because it was said that if you uttered the name “Blakulla” in its presence, the evil witches there would instantly whip up a monstrous storm to wreck their boats. It was common for the locals to leave gifts like pretty shawls and fine gloves on the island to make the witches happy.

The island has been regarded as the gathering place of witches for thousands of years—literally: archeological excavations on the island have revealed that rituals were conducted in the caves dating back possibly 9,000 years ago, placing the earliest practices back in the Stone Age. The most famous structure on the island is the Trojaborg Labyrinth, a maze of stones said to have been place there by the witches as a part of their ceremonies. The Trojaborg is a unicursal labyrinth, meaning that it is designed to be curved back onto itself (if you were to walk it, it would take about seven times to go around it) and totally enclosed. Unicursal labyrinths date back to the Bronze Age (3,000 to 4,000 years ago), but most of the ones found in Sweden are just around 1,000 years old, placing them well within the emergence of Christianity. It’s likely that the Trojaborg labyrinth on Blå Jungfrun, along with others that we know of, were used in ancient pagan ceremonies of initiation or fertility rites. Swedish botanist Carl Linneus visit Blå Jungfrun in 1741 and observed the Trojaborg, but he sniffed at the idea that it had been made by witches.

Labyrinth-at-bla-jungfrun by Mingusrude wikimedia commons
The Trojaborg Labyrinth

As I mentioned before, the island is a national park, and the visitors are regaled with tales of witches’ meetings (sabbats) at the Torjaborg. Tour guides frequently warn visitors against taking any of the rocks from the maze for souvenirs, as the rocks are supposed to be sacred to the island and removing them would bring bad luck. Of course, people are dumb and like to take chances, only to swiftly send the pilfered pebbles back once their lives start going to crap. The town of Oskarshamm receives many of these accursed stones and has yearly trips sent out to Blå Jungfrun solely to return them.  In May of 2004, for example, 160 rocks were ferried back to the island, returned by tourists who deeply regretted the choice they made.

Christianity arrived in Sweden by the 9th century, and by the 12th century had finally overtaken the land as the prominent religion, though there were still groups of people who refused to convert, and likely carried on their worship at places like Blå Jungfrun, continuing with traditions such as lighting bonfires to welcome back the sun after its long winter absence and to mark the start of spring, and possibly celebrating Freya, the goddess of love and magic. At this time, women, whether they were pagan or Christian, were still regarded as the most skilled in healing arts and midwifery, with generations of mothers passing their knowledge of herbs and lore down to their daughters.


In 1520, misogynist extraordinaire Heinrich Kramer, a German Dominican monk with a hatred of women so intense that it can assumed to be pathological, published a guide to identifying and hunting witches, titled Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches.) Until the book was published, witchcraft was seen more of a nuisance that was punishable with a fine, but Kramer ignited—somewhat figuratively, somewhat literally—a maelstrom of horrific violence against anyone accused of witchcraft … especially women skilled in medicine. Now known as the Burning Times, what followed was over two hundred years of inquisitorial torture, rigged trials and mass executions of European women, men and children, with the majority of the victims being burned at the stake (it was believed by many that a witch’s body was still dangerous even after death, so total immolation in fire would protect the innocent people nearby.)

Sweden was known for some of the most horrific trials and executions at this time. Though it had been mentioned briefly in one trial in 1597, Blakulla Island (Blå Jungfrun) became a serious focal point during the Mora trials of 1669, when a number of children were coerced through intimidation and torture to accuse local adults of being witches, kidnapping them and taking them to Blakulla to turn them into witches as well. The result was that about 23 innocent adults and fifteen children were executed for witchcraft, and another 148 children were whipped. What really boggles the mind later is that the death penalty for witchcraft wasn’t repealed until 1779 … to put that into some perspective, that means while we were fighting the British in the Revolutionary War, it was still possible for a woman in Sweden to be accused of being a witch and killed.

This sets up the backdrop for the legend of the Easter witches. No longer priestesses or wise healing women, these magic workers were recast as wicked villainesses who joined forces with the Devil to destroy Christianity. Blå Jungfrun was no longer a holy site of worship, it was now portrayed as the meeting place for a witches’ sabbat. Every Maundy Thursday (also known as Holy Thursday, when Jesus was betrayed by Judas—many cultures including the Swedish saw this as a day of evil), the broomstick-riding, black cat and copper cauldron-carrying witches flew en masse out of their chimneys and to Blå Jungfrun. There they would plot and sacrifice infants and brew spells for three days, fleeing the island on Easter Sunday.

To make the trip more difficult for them, the Swedes in the area would lock up their brooms, shovels and other long-handled tools so the witches couldn’t ride them, as well as safely locking their cows inside their barns (it should be noted that many of the children in the Mora trials said that they were made to ride cows when brought to Blakulla.) Chimneys were closed to prevent the witches from leaving. It was believed that the witches would dance so much at Blakulla that they became dizzy and would say things backwards; many suspected women found people listening to them closely on Easter morning, to see if they betrayed their identity as a witch and accidentally say something backward. The once sacred bonfire used to welcome back the sun and usher in spring was now used to hurt witches as they flew overhead.

So, what changed? How did the Swedish people go from goddess-worshipping to witch-phobic to linking what was once considered so unholy to the holiest time of the year?

It’s hard to pin down the reason exactly, but pagan traditions never really go away—they tend to evolve into something else, something that slides past the witch hunters’ notice or is resurrected once the furor has died down. It’s possible that people half-remembered stories from their youth before the trials, passed on their own versions of them, and unintentionally created a new folktale. In the 17-, 18- and 1900s, fairy tales became vogue, and educated people such as the Brothers Grimm went around their homelands collecting and analyzing the stories. These stories were published, the public would pick them up, say to themselves, “Oh, how quaint! That sounds like fun, we should do that at our next party.” Sort of like when you find something on Pinterest that you think is cool so you incorporate it into your next family gathering.

Starbucks is always so crowded, can never find a seat anywhere …

Like Santa Claus and the Italian Christmas witch Le Befana (read my blog here!), the Swedish witches were now seen to be benevolent spirits who would visit Swedish families’ houses and bless them with good luck. In exchange, the children would leave a pot of coffee for the witches on the stove overnight. By the mid-1800s, children were dressing up as witches and visiting local farms on Maundy Thursday, delivering gifts of pussy willows (similar to ancient pagan practices of a priestess acting out the role of a goddess such as Eostre, Freya or the Celtic Brigid, visiting households to bless them.) Farmers would take the pussy willows for good luck and reward the children with a coin or treat.

Easter_witches_Pääsiäisnoitia_IMG_5156_C by Anneli Salo
Boys dressed as witches. Note the decorated Easter tree held by the boy in the green jacket.

By the 1900s, the act of dressing up became a full-blown affair, a sort of mash-up of Easter and Halloween and shows no signs of stopping. On either Maundy Thursday or Holy Saturday, girls dress as witches, or as they’re better known, påskkärringar (Easter hags), paint freckles and rosy cheeks on themselves with makeup, grab a broom and a copper kettle and go door to door, usually giving away handmade gifts such as cards. (Boys get in on the act as well, though they generally dress up as old men or hobos, and some kids have opted to go full-Halloween and dress up as superheroes or whatever they like.) Instead of gifts of fine clothes, these witches receive gifts of candy, cookies, money and edible, decorative Easter eggs. The children return home and Easter dinner is celebrated around an Easter tree (birch twigs placed in a vase of water that will hopefully sprout buds, symbolizing life after death) decorated with Easter eggs and brightly dyed feathers. Bonfires are lit, but instead of welcoming back the spring goddess Easter or singeing cackling hags, it’s more a way to celebrate the holiday—and an excuse to burn all the yard debris.

So, in a roundabout way, witches have always been in some way linked to Easter for the Swedish and Finnish people. It’s kind of a cool tradition. Next year I’ll wear a pointy witch hat to Easter dinner; maybe I can get a trend started. Or I could really tick off my ultra-conservative in-laws. Either way, it’ll be fun.

Move over, Peter Cottontail--here come the Easter witches! Learn about this unique Swedish/Finnish tradition and it's long, dark history here!

Myth Monday: Befana the Christmas Witch and Babushka (Italian and Russian Christmas Folk Tales)


December 4, 2017

By Kara Newcastle


Yay, Christmas! The only good thing about the days getting shorter, the nights getting longer, and weather getting nasty and cold. Glorious Christmas with its decorated evergreen trees and sparkling lights and … witches??

Well, yeah. If you’re Italian, odds are it’s not Santa Claus (known there as Babbo Natale) who brings you presents (unless you’re really lucky and he visits anyways), but La Befana, the Christmas Witch. No, I’m not kidding; in Italy there’s been a long-held belief that instead of a chubby, white-bearded guy hauling gifts to your house on Christmas Eve via your chimney, it’s a broomstick riding granny (though she’s sometimes said to ride a goat or donkey too), an honest-to-goodness good witch who rewards good children with candy and presents and bad ones with coal, onions and garlic on January 5th, the Eve of the Epiphany—also through the chimney.

Up on the rooftop/donkeys trod/down comes good ol‘ Befana …

Over two thousand years ago, as the story goes, the elderly Befana was alone at home, doing her chores and cleaning when she heard a knock at her door. Opening it, she was surprised to see three extremely well dressed men huddled outside. They introduced themselves as magi, sages from the East, in search of a king that was recently born under a bright star—a star they pointed out to Befana. They were tired of traveling, and needed a place to recover before heading on to meet this special child, called the Son of God.

Befana, being a kind old lady, immediately invited them to get warm, served them food and showed them a place to sleep. The wise men were touched by her generosity, and told her more about this child, who had been prophesied to grow up to be a prophet and king of the Jews. They invited her to join them on their journey when they left in the morning. Befana politely declined, saying that she had too much work to do at home, but wished them well.

Some time after the wise men had left, Befana started thinking about this miraculous child, and realized what a mistake she had made in not going with the three scholars. She then began to think about how the baby’s mother must be very tired and without the necessary things she needed for a household, so Befana packed a basket of goodies and took her broom to help sweep up. Thinking that if she moved quickly she could catch up to them, Befana locked up her house and started out in the direction she had seen the three wise men go, following the bright star.

Unfortunately, Befana became lost, and wandered the length of Italy without ever finding the Christ-child. Somehow in her searching she transformed into a kindly witch, and once a year she rides her broomstick to every child’s house in Italy, searching for the infant Jesus and leaving behind gifts she would have given him if she had found him, especially since the Christ-child is said to exist in every child.



That’s the standard story most Italian kids know. A sadder version tells how Befana had recently lost her own child or children to a plague or to King Herod’s soldiers, and the thought of seeing another baby made her too sad, so she declines the wise men’s invitation, only to change her mind afterwards. A somewhat more twisted version has Befana going insane after losing her baby, and starts believing that the infant Jesus is actually hers, who had been taken from her. The version I like starts out the same as I wrote above, but instead Befana actually meets baby Jesus, gives him presents and helps clean up the stable for Mary. Jesus is so delighted by Befana’s kindness that he grants her the ability to show that kindness to every child in Italy once a year. (Other stories say that Befana is part fairy and has a house full of elf-like creatures who make toys. Another story claims that Befana has a make helper called Befano.)

Still doesn’t explain what the three wise men were doing in Italy, though.

Like Santa Claus, La Befana comes down the house’s chimney to leave gifts for children. She will put fruit and candy in the stockings of good children, and a piece of coal, a garlic or onion bulb, or a piece of dark candy in the stockings of bad kids (though she commonly leaves a small piece of dark rock candy in the stockings of good kids, because even good ones have their moments.) In Sicily, she will leave a stick in lieu of coal.


Because Befana was very fastidious with her cleaning in life, she will take the time to sweep up the family’s home for them, especially since she tracked in soot from the fire place, and in doing so sweep away all the bad luck from the previous year. If any kids try to sneak a look at Befana as she totters about their home, they’ll be out of luck; Befana makes herself invisible, and she often whaps the little sneaks with her broomstick to get them back into bed. Children often write letters to her the same way they write to Santa, and while many kids leave milk and cookies for Santa, Italian kids leave Befana a glass of wine and a plate of sausages and broccoli! They may even leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese, because Befana is so old that she doesn’t have any teeth left and prefers soft foods.

Why does Befana visit houses on the Epiphany and not on Christmas Eve, like Santa does? The Epiphany (January 5th) was the day that the three wise men found Jesus, Mary and Joseph and bestowed their gifts upon the baby. Befana didn’t get to see Jesus that day, so she ventures out every Epiphany in hopes that she will see him that year. In addition, “Befana” is likely derived from the muddling of the word Epifania, Italian for “Epiphany.”

Still, you’re probably wondering why La Befana is a witch. It’s theorized that Befana is actually a reimagining of Strenua or Strenia, the Roman goddess of the new year and good fortune. In Italy, Christmas gifts used to be called strenna (which comes from the Roman word strennae, which were gifts exchanged at New Year’s), which sounds a lot like strega, the Italian word for “witch.”

For many years Befana was not widely known outside of Rome and central Italy (lending strength to the theory that she was once the Roman goddess Strenia), but has grown in popularity, especially when she was immortalized in sonnets and music in the 19th century. Many Italian cities have Befana festivals on January 5th and 6th, and Italians claim that on midnight on January 6th La Befana peeks out the windows of Piazza Navona, and will go there to see her. In Urbania, which is thought to be Befana’s hometown, the Befana festival is from January 2nd to the 6th, and features a Befana house (kind of like Santa’s workshop) and a mailbox where children can drop off their letters.



The Russians (apparently) have their own version of La Befana, only their kindly old lady is called Babushka (Russian for “grandmother,” and not the lady on the grassy knoll in Dallas.) The stories are almost identical, though this time Babushka tells the wise men that she’ll catch up with them after she finishes her chores (another version says she didn’t want to travel at night and decided to go in the morning), and opts to bring baby Jesus some nice toys. She was never able to catch up with the three wise men and, because she forgot to ask them the way to Bethlehem, spends many years wandering, looking for Jesus. I personally don’t know if this is an actual legend told by the Russians, as I’ve read very little about Babushka, and some people have suggested that the Russians never believed in her at all and that she was invented/stolen by the poet Edith Matilda Thomas. If anybody knows the truth, please let me know!

In the meantime, I have to send a copy of my wish list to Befana.

Here’s an ad from the 2016 Befana Festival, if anybody’s interested!