The Holly King

I shall be as the Dark Holly King,

Darkness and cold in my cloak I will bring,

And on Winter’s nights to me you will sing,

Til the air around me starts changing,

And on the Noon of the Solsice I’ll give up my crown,

To the Light, and the mighty Oak King!

– Noon of the Solstice from Spirit of Albion

The Dark Lord, the Holly King, Arawn, Lord of Winter, a deity known by many names, one whose Zenith was marked at the Winter Solstice on the Longest night of the year, yet whose power and strength only seems to get stronger throughout these first few months of the Waxing Year. I have a deep and personal connection with the Oak King, Lord of Summer, but I have sadly not always felt that same connection with his darker brother. This is something I am addressing this year.

I remember playing a talk given by Professor Ronald Hutton on DruidCast where he said something like, “Pagan Gods are great, and full of hoof and horn, and sweat, and the men’s locker room, but which Pagan God would a parent take their sick child to for healing, or to offer love and comfort if that child had passed away?” Our Pagan Gods are wild, as is Paganism itself, but sometimes I feel that reflection, peace, calm, prayer, silence and love are too quickly labelled as ‘fluffy’. The irony is that, although Winter can be a harsh time of year, it’s also a time where the Earth appears to be hibernating, is calm, peaceful, and often silent. Of course there are storms, but there is also a stillness that is tangible. Walking through a woodland in late Autumn/Winter I can see deeper into it, I find the leaves underfoot comforting, and the oasis of the green of Holly and Yew remind me that although the God I know well is resting, or growing as a small child, I am still not alone, as the eyes of the Green Man’s face of evergreen is still watching me.

Whereas the Spring and Summer are times of bursting activity, it is the Autumn and Winter that give me these times of reflection. So although the Holly King’s face is thorny and tough, I feel it is to him I can go to in times of pain and hurt, for healing, for comfort. Less hoof and horn, and more a reminder that I am never truly alone, even in the darkest of times.

11 Comments

  1. Christine January 6, 2012 at 12:01 pm - Reply

    Thanks for this lovely post. I’ve also never really been able to relate to the dark Holly King and also made this yearthe year I addressed this. Your post has given me food for thought.

  2. Sian January 6, 2012 at 12:02 pm - Reply

    Excellent post. I’m not sure I agree with the statement that love, peace, calm and prayer are seen as fluffy though. We need balance in all things and to have the wild and dark side, you have to have the light side too.

    I do sometimes wonder if we are our own worst enemies in that we label one Deity for Winter and one for Summer, rather than saying they are two sides of the whole?? As Pagans we allocate the dark and light attributes in our minds with the individual spirits, and therefore struggle to find the balance when it may be needed. – Just my thoughts x

  3. lizcruse January 6, 2012 at 12:48 pm - Reply

    Holly is a calm strong tree – not at home in the locker room lol. I used to go often to a fallen (but still living) one in a nature reserve in South London and get much comfort from it

  4. Cinaed January 6, 2012 at 3:25 pm - Reply

    Of course, the post IS talking about the old Pagan gods, and not the New Age/Eastern philosophical pablum that has infused the modern Pagan community.
    /|

  5. Jack January 6, 2012 at 8:38 pm - Reply

    Damh,
    Blessings and greetings to you!
    Tell me it is true, will you be returning and blessing us with your presence at Pagan Spirit Gathering this year? I just saw that registration is open and as I began to navigate through the PSG site…. I came to the musical/artist/performers section. Wow, there was a current picture of you gracing the page.
    Guess this means I have to get my registration in as soon as possible.
    Looking forward to listening and sharing a few moments with you soon!
    Jack
    Louisville, Kentucky.

    • Damh the Bard January 9, 2012 at 10:51 am - Reply

      Hi there Jack,
      Yes it is true and I’m also so happy to be returning to PSG! So I’ll see you in June! 🙂

  6. Lynda Cloudberry Ryder January 7, 2012 at 12:47 pm - Reply

    On a purely personal level I find the Horned God there for me no matter what half of the year it is, what the weather is doing (and in Lancashire it is usually doing something, and usually as I’m walking to work!) or what the situation I find myself in. I’ve never been able to get my head round the whole Holly and Oak King concept so now I don’t even try. Like Damh says, it’s now that the Holly King is supposed to be taking a back seat to his brother but it never feels that way to me – nor the other way round either when Summer arrives.

  7. Jason January 10, 2012 at 5:45 pm - Reply

    Hmm, I don’t know that I agree with Prof. Hutton on that. While his comment about pagan gods being predominantly wild, I believe the image of “Cernnunos” on the Gundestrup cauldron, which shows him seated in a “shamanic” pose, might possible reflect a consciousness that the “Horned God” might be settling down and learning how to take care of his children, instead of merely having fun fathering them. Someone more knowledgeable can correct me if I’m mistaken, but I believe that he’s also been depicted with gold coins, which *could* cast him in the role of provider (a very fatherly trait!).

  8. Gabriella January 12, 2012 at 12:04 pm - Reply

    Dear Damh,

    Thank you so very much for sharing your exquisite thoughts and experiences of the Dark Lord of Winter, our blessed Holly King! Whilst many of my Druid friends know me to be deeply devoted to Goddess, I also feel so kin and akin to Him, so intimately wedded to this Great God of the Greenwood.

    Walking amid the forests, where He, as you so aptly say, ‘still lingers’, gives me a wonderful sense of release, comfort and rest. In the same instance, a strength grows inside me; a sweet toughness – like the holly seed, that needs the bitter cold to germinate.

    Following His call into the deep heart of Winter, He has led to wonderful places, ones I was pulled to whilst purposely getting lost – an enchanting chapel to a beautiful Black Madonna – you will find in no guidebook to sacred places in the Black Forest – and beyond – the hill far above, crowned with its great Roman ruins – the layers below it, teeming with artefacts of a Celtic people, who in times earlier still, this wind-danced rising with its magnificent vista, called home.

    Warmer days, I know I shall welcome, but when the heat of the much later months to come is just too much to bear, I know he’ll bewaiting there – under the cool canopy of Summer leaves – present, ever present, as He is now in the silver woods of Winter.

    The kinship you have found with our DarkTwin and your beautiful words, speaking His Wisdom, as one who has truly met Him – and knows, have inspired me to share this poem below, written in His honour

    Many ‘Rest of Winter’ Blessings,

    Gabriella

    “The ultimate conquest of all will be through love and gentleness,
    and when we have sufficiently developed these two qualities
    nothing will be able to assail us,
    since we shall ever have compassion and not offer resistance.”

    Dr. Edward Bach
    (Speaking of Holly and the Holly King)

    Home To My Holly King
    (A Love Song to the Green Man, the Lord of Winter)

    I awaken with the prayer of your name on my lips,
    to the song of your voice in my soul
    Again sounds the love
    you made to my heart
    your en-chant-ment
    it rests on me whole

    To hold you
    in the chalice of my breast
    to feel you
    in the forest of our flesh
    to bless you
    with the hallowed light
    of the Moon,
    to thrill you with touch
    and with touch give you rest
    From Night’s holy stars
    spin your mantle of snow
    from their music so sweet
    weave your deep greeny dress

    Set your eyes of Yew upon me
    and upon yours mine shall nest
    Long on the wing, the birds of my heart
    in your dark leaves of Holly
    lay secure and are blest

    To be by your side, to lie in your arms
    No tempest deters me, no weather incurs me
    and ne’er shall I be late!
    On the altar of your love – to wholly lay my heart,
    at the centre of your mystic wood – my breath, my life, my fate!

    To your body blessed body my blessed body – fain entrust
    To the germinating, unborn seed unseen – my dreams – all, they must
    In your spirit – clearest mirror – my transformation
    Trust
    as
    You
    touch
    me
    and claim me
    and change me

    In the Spirit-Depths of your Peace
    I die
    To my heart’s Highest Gladness
    awaken

    to walk,
    to dance,
    to fly

    Now
    Wand of Tinne,*
    Phoneix feather within

    Bright
    Ever Bright

    into
    the World
    Again

    Gabriella Gabrielle
    October 2007 and January 2012

    * The Ogham name for ‘Holly’
    Irish pronunciation for ‘Tinne’ = ‘Chin-yuh’ or ‘Tyin-uh’

  9. Gabriella January 13, 2012 at 9:33 am - Reply

    Dear Jason,

    I really appreciate your comments on the ‘Holly King’ theme.
    Agree with them wholeheartedly and love your Cernnunos –
    the response-able father (and partner!), blissful in his shamanic pose, contemplating the joys of caring for his loved ones!

    Many thanks,
    Gabriella

  10. Gabriella January 13, 2012 at 9:49 am - Reply

    “Holly is a calm strong tree – not at home in the locker room”

    Thank for this Liz! It is just how I felt when I wrote the following bit in “Home to My Holly King”

    “Long on the wing, the birds of my heart
    in your dark leaves of Holly
    lay secure and are blest”

    It was wonderful to see your post here at Damh’s blog, so happily reminding me of our lovely visit together in South London a while back!

    Many Blessings to you and your supine Holly,

    Gabriella in the Black Forest

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