Myths & Legends of
the Holly Tree
"The holly berry that shines so red
Once was white as wheaten bread."
Because the fruit of the English Holly Ilex aquifolium is largest & brightest in winter, & the sharp leaves are evergreen, the holly has always been associated with winter magic. Its very name is an outright statement of sacredness.
Throughout Europe holly was believed to repel evil, & this belief lingers to the modern day. An old tradition of bringing holy boughs into one's house in winter, as a place for good fairies to play, is echoed down to our own era, when holly wreaths are brought indoors for Christmas, to await the arrival of the winter elf king Santa.
It was long regarded as unlucky to leave these holly wreaths up after Twelfth Night, so it was consigned to the fireplace on New Year's Eve. Others felt that good luck could be obtained by keeping a sprig from a holly wreath that had been used as a Yuletide decoration within a church, hence the wreathes would be cut to pieces to divide among church members.
The Celts of the British Isles & Gaul believed the Holly King ruled over death & winter, whereas the Oak King ruled life & summer. This ancient (conceivably originally Druidic) belief was preserved into medieval times in mummers' plays, & has modernly been adapted to the Druidic revival & other pagan systems of faith. The Holly King was a warlike giant who bore a great wooden club made of a thick holly branch. He found his way into Arthurian Legend as the Green Knight, who challenged Sir Gawain during a Yuletide feast, baring as his weapon "a solitary branch of holly."
In Scandinavian mythology the Holly belonged to Thor & Freya. Holly's association with Thor's lightning meant that it could protect people from being struck by bolts. Norsemen & Celts would plant a holly tree near their homes specifically to take lightning strikes & protect a house & its inhabitants. The crooked lines of the holly leaves probably gave rise to the association with lightning, as well as the fact that hollies do conduct lightning into the ground better than most trees, with the least injury to the tree.
So too Freya or Frigga had authority over weather, & if Thor was the lightning, Freya was the thunder. The Grimms' Fairy Tale of "Mother Holly" (or "Frau Holda") is a recollection of Frigga compounded with an even more ancient Earthmother named Hulta ("Elderberry") involved with a rich Mythology of the Elderberry Tree.
In the charming tale of Mother Holly, her troublemaking cat sets off all sorts of bad weather by getting into Mother Holly's things. He then eats Mother Holly's corn. When Mother Holly discovers the mischief the cat has done, she doesn't punish the cat, because the corn caused the kitty's stomach to rumble as with thunder, a sound that pleased her.
Although Mother Holly of the Grimms' tale is a winter hag or witch associated with the holly because it is a winter fruit-baring tree, she also had a maidenly spring & summer aspect, when she was associated with the Elderberry Tree which flowers in spring & fruits in summer. As Frau Holda, then, she is identifiable not just with Teutonic Frigga, but with the Scandinavian goddess Hulda or Hulta. Much of Freya's holly mythology at a more archaic level regarded Hulda's two aspects of maidenly life-giving (with the edible summer-fruiting Elderberry) & crone death-bringing (with the poisonous winter-fruiting Holly).
That Holly should be sacred to a God & a Goddess is natural enough when the trees themselves are of two sexes. An old Germanic tradition has it that when the household's Christmas wreath is made of a "he-holly," that indicated that for the coming year, the husband would rule the house. But if it were a she-holly (& for sake of the berries, it usually was a she-holly), that meant the wife would rule the house. As wives usually do!
In Shinto mythology the Japanese holly (I. crenata) held a similar position as that of the holly in Europe. When the Sun-goddess Amaterasu withdrew into her cavern & refused to come out, the erotic clown-goddess Uzume hung a sacred jewel & a sacred mirror in the branches of a holly, & began to dance about the black-fruited holly tree in a humorously sexy manner to attract the attention of Amaterasu & draw her out of the cavern so that Spring would begin. A luck-charm is down to the present day sold in Japan, consisting of a glass ball etched with holly leaves, symbolic of Amaterasu's mirror, jewel, & tree. As an aside, it cannot be coincidental that when Demeter withdrew into hiding & winter fell upon the land, it was a similar Clown-goddess, Baubo, who while dancing in an effort to cheer up Demeter, suddenly mooned the Goddess with her buttocks, on which a face had been painted, winning from Demeter her only laughter of the season.
In another Japanese legend, Prince Yamato, one of the greatest of the doomed heros of history & myth, was said to have done battle with a spear the handle of which was made of holly wood, a symbol of divine authority.
A New Years charm popular in Japan consists of a holly leaf & skewer. This represents the Buddhist monk-god Daikoku. Once when he was about to be attacked by an oni devil, the rat that dwelt with Daikoku as a friendly companion hurried into the garden to fetch the monk a holly branch, bringing it to him in the nick of time, since an oni devil will not go near holly. To this day, there lingers a rustic Japanese tradition of hanging a holly sprig on the door to the house to keep away devils, not at all unlike numerous holly-related beliefs in Europe.
Holly myths occurred everywhere, usually but not exclusively associated with winter. Chinese households were decorated with I. chinensis during February New Years festivals. Even in North America before the coming of the whites, the American Holy (I. opaca) was symbolic of courage & defense. It was encouraged to grow around Indian encampments & homes to protect the tribe, & sprigs of holy would be attached to warshields.
In the American southeast & southwest, yaupon holly (I. vomitoria) was used in mystic cultic practices, overimbibed to induce vomiting & hallucination as a purification ritual. Archeologists have found ritual shell-cups with the evaporated holly residue dating to 1,200 BCE. There are only intimations of what the yaupon holly myths within this ancient cult may have been, but it was sacred to the Cherokee & Creek at least into the 1930s, so I wouldn't be at all surprised if the traditions are still known by some First Peoples who don't share their religious practices with over-curious anthropologists.
In South America, the Guarada people tell the tale of the bearded god Pa-i-shume who taught many things to mortals, including how to make the stimulating & health-giving mate beverage from the leaves of the Paraguay holly tree (I. paraguayensis).
Considering how widespread holly mythology is, the Romans may have independently regarded the holly as sacred, but it is more likely they coopted its ritualistic use from the Celts, hanging winter sprigs upon images of Saturn during winter's violently erotic Saturnalia. Later still Roman Christians coopted the holly into Christian lore. Holly was believed formerly to have been deciduous, until Herod's soldiers came to slay the baby Jesus. At Mary's request, the holly tree regained its leaves in winter so that her infant could be hidden in the foliage. Another Christian holly legend states that the berries had once been white, until touched by the blood of Jesus when a holly wreath served as his martyr's crown.
The Holly is notably absent from Jewish & Islamic tree lore, as it was not native to Israel or Arabia, is not legitimately referred to in Torah or the Koran, & had strong European pagan associations. But early Christians brought holly mythology full circle when following Rome into the British Isles. The tree's association with druidry or elves was easily transfered to the new religion, so that the sacredness of the much-legended Holly stands uninterupted even to our modern age with its association with the birthday of Jesus & with Santa Claus, himself an elf king dwelling in the coldest most deathly & distant part of the earth.
For less mystical stuff about the holly,
see the main articles on
Our English Holly
Our Japanese Holly
See also these subsidiary pictorial pages:
English Holly Berries
Japanese Holly Berries
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