Yesterday, we talked about the history of Yule, and today I thought I would cover the legend of the Holly king, and the Oak King.
In many Celtic-based traditions of Paganism, there is the enduring legend of the battle between the Oak King and the Holly King. These two mighty rulers fight for supremacy as the Wheel of the Year turns each season. At the Winter Solstice, or Yule, the Oak King kills the Holly King, and then reigns until Midsummer, or Litha. Once the Summer Solstice arrives, the Holly King returns to do battle with the old king, and defeats him. The Holly King then rules until Yule.
The Holly King, the Lord of the Winterwood and darksome twin of the waning year, rules from Midsummer to Midwinter. At Midsummer, he goes to battle with his twin, the Oak King, for the favor of the Goddess. He slays the Oak King, who goes to rest in Caer Arianrhod (A palace in the heavens, otherwise known as the Aurora Borealis) until they do battle again at Midsummer. The Oak King and Holly King are mortal enemies at Midsummer and Midwinter, but they are two sides of a whole. Neither could exist without the other.
Painted by Raven Willowhawk, this image depicts the Holly King, cradling the infant Oak King.
Two themes run throughout the Holly King and Oak King legend. The first, of course, is the two great yearly battles between the two. The second is the sacrificial mating, death, and resurrection of each in his season. At Lammas, the peak of the Holly King's reign, he sacrificially mates with the Great Mother, dies in her embrace, and is resurrected. This is an enactment of the natural fertility theme of the season, and is not uncommon in other mythologies: Osiris, Tammuz, Dionysus, Balder, and Jesus are only a few other gods who die and are resurrected. The Oak King on the other hand, mates, dies and is resurrected at Beltane. This aspect of the Holly King and Oak King is not widely discussed, but is an important element in their roles as fertility gods.
Often, these two entities are portrayed in familiar ways. The Holly King frequently appears as a woodsy version of Santa Claus, and was indeed the basis of the Santa Clause story. He dresses in red, wears a sprig of holly in his tangled hair, and is sometimes depicted driving a team of eight stags. The Oak King is portrayed as a fertility god, and occasionally appears as the Green Man or other lord of the forest. During each respective half of the year, it's common to have tokens of the reigning God in the home. Pressed oak leaves and acorns for the Oak King, and Sprigs of Holly for the Holly King.
Ultimately, while these two beings do battle all year long, they are two essential parts of a whole. Despite being enemies, without one, the other would no longer exist.
Love and Lightning Bugs,