Tree Lore in Irish Mythology | Holly, King of Winter

You may not have been aware of it, but a few months ago, a mighty battle took place. It has been happening every year since time began. And though you didn’t know it, you will have felt the consequences; how slowly, slyly, the shadow of night encroached upon the day and stole its light; how the sun hurried across the sky as if it couldn’t bear to look; how Summer’s warmth faded from the air, sucking with it all life from the earth, and all that was green and vibrant with health shriveled and died.

Trees shook off their leaves, praying with bone-like arms to the heavens for redemption. Birds flew far away, taking with them their joyous songs which made the heart glad just to hear them. Animals dug holes deep in the ground where the elements and hungry predators couldn’t reach them, and hibernated.

It was as if everything that was good in the world withdrew, leaving behind only grey skies and hardship, and an uncertain future.

The Oak King had fought his battle, and lost. Holly, the victorious conqueror, stalked the land while the days stumbled toward their darkest hour. And yet, in the gloom and frost of the bitterest winter, he thrived where no other could. He was a sign, not that all was lost, but that where there was life there was hope, that with determination, one could prevail.

The Holly King stalks the land as the days stumble towards their darkest hour.

To our ancient ancestors, Holly was seen as a powerful symbol of hope and protection, perhaps even of their very survival; it was a plant sacred to the druids, with many magical and medicinal properties. On the Celtic Tree Calender, Holly represents the 8th month, and also is symbolised by the 8th letter in the Ogham Alphabet known as Tinne, meaning ‘fire’.

Traditionally, it was believed that the King of the Oaks (Summer) fought against the Holly King (Winter) at the Summer solstice, and lost. The Holly King then reigned until the Winter Solstice, when the pair would do battle again, with the Oak King regaining his rule.

The Holly King was portrayed as a powerful giant, much like the picture, composed of holly branches and leaves, wielding a holly bush as a club.

In Ireland, the Ilex Aquifolium, or Common Holly, is a native shrub, slow growing, typically reaching only 1 or 2 metres in height, but which, when left to itself, can grow up to 15m tall. In Irish it is known as Cuileann. Its wood is very hard and white, and used to make white chess pieces.

It also makes excellent firewood, as it burns so fiercely, and was loved by metalworkers of old to feed their forges. It has lovely dark green glossy leaves edged with a number of spines, and the female produces bright red berries.

Ilex-aquifolium (Europaeische Stechpalme-1) by Jürgen Howaldt - Own work (selbst erstelltes Foto). Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 de via Commons - httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwikiFileIlex-aquifolium_(Europaeische_Stechpalme-1).jp

Despite being so attractive, both leaves and berries are toxic to most animals and humans. Eating as few as twenty berries would be enough to kill a child. However, holly was used medicinally to treat conditions such as gout, urinary problems, bronchitis, rheumatism and arthritis. Newborn babies were bathed in an infusion made from holly leaves to protect them and bring them good luck.

Around Europe, Holly trees were thought to protect against lightning strikes, and so were often planted around dwellings , thus they came to be associated with thunder Gods such as Thor and Taranis. In Ireland, it was associated with Lugh, God of Lightning. It is now thought that the spines on holly leaves act as ‘mini conductors’ which would explain this belief, although I could not find any evidence or a source to back this up. Other magical powers include protection, bringing good luck, and the enhancement of dreams.

Cutting down a whole tree was forbidden, but using branches to decorate one’s home was thought to bring good luck and protection down upon the inhabitants. I’m sure the presence of bright glossy greenery and bright red berries must have been cheering to have about in itself.

As this pagan practice occurred in mid-winter, it coincided perfectly with the new religion of Christianity and their Christmas celebrations, which is why we now associate Christmas with holly wreaths. Whilst newly elected pagan chieftains wore a wreath of holly to bring them good fortune in their new role, the Christians associated it with the crown of thorns worn by Jesus, and the red berries with his blood shed at the crucifixion.

Holly features in several tales of Irish mythology. In The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne, the couple’s servant, Muadhan, uses holly berries as bait on a hook to catch salmon for their evening meal. In another Fenian tale, The Cave of Keiscoran, the three daughters of Conaran spin enchanted yarn on sticks of holly to weave their magic and trap the warriors of the Fianna.

In Lady Gregory’s version of The Cattle Raid of Cooley, the warrior Natchrantal is sent up against Cuchulain bearing ‘no arms with him but three times nine holly rods, and they having hardened points’. Not that they did him much good; Cuchulain cut his head off with his sword, and that was the end of him!

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53 Comments on “Tree Lore in Irish Mythology | Holly, King of Winter

  1. Many of modern Chinese folks do not know that Plum Blossom is the symbol of Winter. They often mistake it as a symbol of Spring because it is most associated with Chinese New Year.

    The Plum tree, being able to flower before the coming of the spring, has become the icon of survival and endurance. I imagine that Holly in Irish Culture is like Plum in Chinese Culture. 😀


  2. Pingback: Tree Lore | The Five Sacred Evergreens of Christmas | aliisaacstoryteller

  3. I always love to bring holly into the house at Christmas time, but you’ve taught me some things I didn’t know about it’s history, thank you Ali! Love the illustration too. Do you do those? I immediately thought of Treebeard in Lord of the Rings, and how sad I was that those horrible orks cut all those lovely trees down. But those left standing marched on and gained victory. Trees talk, you know, and I love to hear their stories, just as i love to read yours 🙂 xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ooooh I love that idea of trees talking Sherri! And I do love trees. My holly bushes are tiny so I won’t cut any to bring in yet, but I’ll definitely get some from the Garden centre. It is lovely, isn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have to get mine from a garden centre too…and yes, it is so seasonal and beautiful, I love it 🙂


  4. Pingback: 5 Sacred Symbols of Christmas and their Pagan Origins | aliisaacstoryteller

  5. We’ve always had Holly trees and shrubs around our house. They look beautiful in the landscape, but don’t walk barefoot around them! I did not know any of the myths surrounding the Holly. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story of the Holly. Because I am allergic to pine and spruce, etc., we cannot have a live Christmas tree or garland, but Holly makes a beautiful bouquet for our Christmas table.


  6. Loved your photo. Also I find it interesting how Christianity manages to turn everything good into something bad – just like the holly – was seen as a good thing and the Christianity associated it with death and bloodshed. Sigh.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A lot of work went into this great article, and as an Irish-American who once lived in Connemara, I was immediately drawn to this page! So wonderful to read such a gifted writer. You do know your way around perfect structure! I loved every line of this piece.


    • Thank you so much Claire! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Connemara is a wonderful place, so rugged and beautiful. Co Cavan where I live is a much gentler landscape, full of rolling hills and valleys and lakes, and lots of TREES! Wherever you go in Ireland, you’re never far from ancient sacred places and the people who populated them. Are you back in the US now?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I live in Malibu, California, but am “from” Memphis, TN, so I am that rare breed of cat called a Southerner! I returned to Connemara in October of 2014 for pre-promotion of my second novel, “Dancing to an Irish Reel,” (Contemporary fiction, Vinspire Publishing.) Ireland, to me, remained unchanged. There is a certain ‘feel” about the west to which I feel compatible, which has to do with the languid, expansive accessibility of land and sea. Perhaps its because I’m Irish on both sides of my family. And, as you mentioned, the sacred places! I think this is it! So much in Eire is sacred that it colors everything! Which is something you can’t say about America- especially California, where everything is shiny and glaringly new!


  8. This is a lovely piece of writing about my favourite plant. Being a Winter baby I’ve always been fascinated by Holly and always, always demand that my partner plant some in our garden. Slow growing it may be but it’s an absolute delight when those red berries shine out against the deep green of the plant and the darkness of winter days.

    I loved your story of Holly and Oak fighting their battle twice a year, Ali. Although Holly is made out to be a bit of a monster and the stuff of nightmares (just look at that picture), to me, it is the most beautiful of all in the plant kingdom.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s lovely Hugh! I love holly too. The green glossy leaves and those bright berries, what’s not to love? Those spines don’t put me off, and they actually protect the little birds from hungry predators in winter. We do get hung up on the harsh winter weather, dont we, but winter also has its beauty if we can just open our eyes to see it, which you obviously have. And in three weeks the days start getting longer again, which means spring is on the way, hooray!!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree. Winter can be so beautiful, but she can also be very angry. I think most of the seasons can be like that. Talking of Spring, the spring bulbs are already making an appearance over here. It’s been so mild that any cold snaps will now be a shock to the system for them. We’ll be going holly picking the weekend after next. I’m old fashioned in that I love sticking sprigs of holly on the tops of all the pictures on the walls in the house.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think that sounds lovely! Shame about the spring bulbs. Has such a knock on effect for the ret of nature and food chain if plants all come up too early.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. Lovely piece of writing describing the flight of summer Ali. Henceforth I’ll look upon holly as a heroic survivor instead of a prickly opponent 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jack! Glad you enjoyed it. I have to admit, holly always makes me feel good in the depths of winter. Its brightness and vitality is such a spark of positivity in the grey wetness of an Irish winter!


  10. I love when you make me see what’s right beside me in a new way, Ali. There was always something very special about holly when I was a child, and not just because of Christmas. Everyone would always talk about when berried holly was scarce. There was always a sense that it had to be protected in some way. We also had the tradition at home – I don’t think this is exclusively Irish but perhaps you know – that if you didn’t take down your Christmas decorations by January 6th, you were supposed to burn a piece of holly in the fireplace to prevent bad luck.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have never heard that tradition about burning the holly to prevent bad luck. The presence of holly in the home was supposed to bring good luck in itself. How interesting! 😁 I’m wondering about the lack of holly berries now… shouldn’t we be seeing them by now? I haven’t noticed any yet. Must take a walk in the woods and check it out.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I know people used to say that lots of berries meant a harsh winter. Perhaps it’s not a bad thing! As for burning it, the superstition only applied for those layabouts leaving their decorations up after the 12 days of Christmas were over (like me), which was supposed to be bad luck.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Ah! More people should know about that. People in urban areas are always complaining about foxes in their gardens. Personally, I’d love to have a fox in my garden, but it’s only happened once. Today was the bi-annual fox hunt from outside my house. I don’t condone it, but the horses and riders and dogs did look magnificent. Hope they didn’t catch anything though.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. We have surrounded our house with holly – the birds love living in it! I think they’re mostly female because of all the red berries. We also brought some hollies from Rhode Island from my parents’ former home and a couple of them have taken off. I loved this post because of all this!


  12. “oh the holly she bears a berry” what an absolutely delightful post and I love the idea of oak and holly doing battle for the seasons! I always use holly at Christmas and knew it had significance in the old religion but didn’t know the history surrounding it.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I knew there had to be a deep subliminal reason why my husband obsesses about planting holly trees round the front door. My parents had one too, the house was even called Holly House.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There you go… perhaps it explains your love of the Robin, as his red breast was turned red from the blood of jess when it alighted on his holly crown to eat the berries. I suspect there is a pagan mythology behind that though.


    • Thanks Finola! I have some holly bushes in my garden but they are small and young. I dont think they had berries last year. Im hoping they do this Christmas. I hope at least one of them is a male so that the others got pollinated.


  14. Thats a great seasonal post Ali, I never knew they used Holly for chess pieces. I so got to get me one of those 🙂 I actually spent sat looking to get my hands on some for the house. It would seem that the Holly King is quite sparse this year.
    Or maybe the xmas tree sellers got their before me 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  15. We have a lot of Holly in our garden – we love the stuff 🙂

    And now I want a Holly chess board.

    I had to chuckle at Natchrantal’s story. Wonder if there’s a metaphor concerning battles between tribes. Those bearing swords presumably wiped out the ones wielding wooden clubs.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Always end on a high note eh Ali? I love the old tales of the Celts. I also love to see how Christianity pulled in the Celts by adopting many pagan symbols and dates into it’s own calendar and reclassifying them as Christian.
    I can’t help but wonder sometimes what our world would be like had the Romans stayed away and kept Christianity to themselves.
    xxx Massive Monday Hugs to you xxx


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