The Holly King and The Oak King
Getting confused ….
During a broadcast on Penwith Radio (26th December) I got myself into a right mythological tangle.
I was talking about Wren Day, the 26th December, when wrens were hunted by wren boys, sacrificed (killed) and then paraded around the town.
The Wren and the Oak are symbolically related and so in my muddled state I mixed up the Holly and the Oak king suggesting that it was the Holly King who defeated the Oak King at the Winter Solstice – a slip of the tongue, but one which resolved me to double check my thinking. A resolve further enhanced because listening to the show was Priestess of Kernow, Sue, who contacted the show and gently suggested that I had got it the wrong way round.
A quick studio reference to Wikipedia revealed…
“The Holly King is a speculative archetype of modern studies of folklore and mythology which has been popularized in some Neopagan religions. In his book The White Goddess, the author Robert Graves proposed that the mythological figure of the Holly King represents one half of the year, while the other is personified by his counterpart and adversary the Oak King: the two battle endlessly as the seasons turn. At Midsummer the Oak King is at the height of his strength, while the Holly King is at his weakest. The Holly King begins to regain his power, and at the Autumn Equinox, the tables finally turn in the Holly King’s favor; his strength peaks at Midwinter.”
In a Druidic sense the Light Half of the Year is Beltain to Samhain and the dark half is Samhain to Beltain.
If the Solstices represent the turning point of the year then one would assume that the respective kings are at their height at this time.
Summer Solstice – The Oak King
Winter Solstice – The Holly King
Moerover if this is the case the the equinoxes represent periods of ‘balance’ between the two Kings.
For my own clarity I chose to compile the following notes, I hope you find them interesting too….
The battle between the Holly King and the Oak King. for a number of Pagan traditions, represents a central theme surrounding the solstices – the concept of light and dark; of birth, death, and rebirth.
The Holly King and the Oak King are two sacrificial Gods who, in the manner of such deities, are two aspects of the same being. The Holly King represents the waning year, and battles the Oak King at Midsummer (probably once at Bealtaine) for rulership. Likewise, the Oak King is the God of the waxing year, and battles with the Holly King at Yule (probably once at Samhain) for the same honour.
Actually there are two themes which collide at the Solstices, two distinct concepts which merged together to create the modern-day Wheel of the Year : a solar concept and the natural-fertility concept.
The sun based solar theme is one we can observe on a daily basis as we watch the sun rise and set, and view the dominance of the Sun God during the solstices and equinoxes.
It is a theme in which the Sun dies and is reborn at the Winter Solstice (Yule), begins his maturity at the Spring Equinox (Ostara) when he impregnates the Earth Goddess, peaks in a blaze of glory at the Summer Solstice (Litha), and begins to wane in his power around the Fall Equinox (Mabon).
The natural-fertility concept is a little more complex, involving two God-figures: the God of the Waxing Year and the God of the Waning Year.
The Waxing God is also known as the Oak King, and the Waning God as the Holly King. Although rivals, they are also considered to be twins – each other’s “other self,” the light and dark aspects of the male deity.
(source : Deaf Pagan Crossroads)
The Solar twins compete with each other for the favour of the Earth Goddess; each serves as her child, consort and lover during his half-year reign – he mates with her, dies in her arms, and is then born of her to carry on the never-ending cycle.
The Spring Equinox (March 21st) can be seen as celebration of Light and Dark being in harmony.
The Darkness does not conquer Light, nor does the Light conquer Darkness. They are at equilibrium.
We can see this time as one at which the “battle” between the two is at its height; a time of high energy and of the concept of killing off the old and bringing in the new.
Beltaine (May 1st) : This is the time when the Holly King dies.
Darkness dies in order to give way to Light. The Oak king defeats Holly king!
This is a time of a celebration of procreation; a time of sex, and the life bringing energies associated with it.
Litha or the Summer Solstice (June 23rd) : The Oak king reigns supreme and we celebrate the Oak King or the Bright Lord with bonfires.
Today is the longest day of the year. People in the Northern regions celebrate the light and brightness of summer. As we celebrate the light and creation. It is also the day that the Dark Lord or the Holly King is reborn.
Lammas (Aug 1st) : This is the day, which is opposite to Imbolc a celebration of the anticipation of the Light. Here we celebrate the first harvest, Perhaps we can see this as the Holly King’s first victory in the killing off of the crops for the first harvest?
Autumn Equinox (September 23rd) : This is the celebration of Light and Dark being in harmony once again. The Darkness does not conquer Light but the Darkness is getting stronger.
This is a time that the Light does start giving way to the darkness and we start reaping the rewards of a dying Earth. The Oak King’s light is starting to give way. He has trouble hanging on. We give thanks to the Oak King for all he has given us.
Samhain (October 31st) : the Final Harvest or Hallowe’en. This is the Oak King’s death – he is dead until the Winter Solstice! This is a time for darkness to reign. The days get shorter and the nights grow longer. This is at time for us to withdraw and hide in solitude.
Winter Solstice (December 21st) : the rebirth of the Sun or the Oak King. On this day the light is reborn and we celebrate the renewal of the light of the year. This day is still the Holly King’s day as the god of transformation and one who brings us to birth new ways.
Imbolc (Feb 2nd) : This day is the day of the Goddess Brigit, later Christianised into St. Brigit. This a time when Darkness still rules but the light is coming into power and it is celebrated by the celebration of candles, which was Christianised into Candlemas. The darkness or the Holly King still rules but the Oak King or light is growing in power.
The Oak King
The Oak King, the Lord of the Greenwood and golden twin of the waxing year, rules from Midwinter to Midsummer. At Midwinter, he goes to battle with his twin, the Holly King, for the favour of the Goddess. He slays the Holly King, who goes to rest in Caer Arianrhod 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.
The Oak King
Represents: Growth, Expansion
Gods: Jupiter (Roman god of light and sky)
Janus (Roman god of planting, marriage, birth, and other types of beginnings)
Dagda (Irish-Celtic god of the earth)
Frey (Norse fertility god)
Pan (Greek god of fertility, unbridled male sexuality and carnal desire)
Colors: Red, green, yellow, purple
Plant: Oak, mistletoe
Associated myths: Robin Hood, King Arthur, Gawain (when he meets the Green Knight), Jesus, Balder, Green Man
The Holly King
Represents: Withdrawal, lessons, life, rest
Gods: Saturn (Roman agricultural god)
Cronos (Greek god, also known as Father Time)
Father Ice/Grandfather Frost (Russian winter god)
Odin/Wotan (Scandinavian/Teutonic All-Father who rides the sky on an eight-legged horse)
The Tomte (a Norse Land Spirit known for giving gifts to children at this time of year)
Thor (Norse sky god who rides the sky in a chariot drawn by goats)
Color: Black, Red, Green, Gold
Associated myths: Santa Claus in all his variations, the Green Knight from Arthurian legend, Mordred (who struck down King Arthur), St. John, Corn King, Bran the Blessed.
Samhain is the night when the Old King dies, and the Crone Goddess mourns him greatly during the next six weeks.
Arawn and Hafgan
These two kings of Annwan appear in Welsh mythology as joint kings of the otherworld who are constantly battling.
We are told that their dominions sit side by side.
In the story of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed we learn that he agrees to switch places with Arawn for a year and a day in order to battle against Hafgan.
Before they exchange places, Arawn gives specific instructions to Pwyll to kill Hafgan with one stroke and no more. In the past when Arawn had battled and had struck Hafgan nearly to his death, Hafgan had begged him to give another stroke, and when Arawn had done so, Hafgan recovered from his injuries and was in good health for battle again the next day.
In one year Pwyll, wearing the guise of Arawn, goes to battle and succeeds in injuring Hafgan nearly to death, breaking through his shield and armor and knocking him to the ground. Just as Arawn had warned, Hafgan pleaded that Pwyll finish the slaughter and kill him thoroughly.
Pwyll refuses to do so, saying, “I may yet repent this, but, whoever else may slay you now, I will not do so.”[
Hafgan then tells his lords he has met his death and will no longer lead them. When Hafgan’s men see their leader is at his end, they realize there is no other king but Arawn, and consent to be the subjects of the new and only king of Annwn.
In later tradition, the role of king of Annwn was largely attributed to the Welsh psychopomp (the spirit or deity who leads newly deceased souls to the otherworld), Gwyn ap Nudd. However, Arawn’s memory is retained in a traditional saying found in an old folktale:
Hir yw’r dydd a hir yw’r nos, a hir yw aros Arawn
“Long is the day and long is the night, and long is the waiting of Arawn
Hafgan as a male or female name means “summer song” HAF gan the story could be a seasonal myth, such as the medieval battle between the Oak King and Holly King, with Arawn as the Holly King.