Another excerpt from my upcoming book, A Modern Celt, which goes to the publisher in 6 days! Eek! Worryingly, I only just wrote this bit today…
The holly is an evergreen tree with leaves ranging from dark green to bright yellow and gorgeous red berries. We very quickly think of Christmas or Yule when holly is mentioned, and there is a long tradition of bringing greenery into the house at the coldest time of the year. Holly is one of the more beautiful examples of this as it really needs no trimmings or enhancements; it is the decoration. Holly is usually sharp and prickly; a full tree of the thorny leaves can be quite dangerous. The Irish hero Cú Chulainn was forced to fight one of his foster brothers, Fer Báeth, and not wanting to kill his kin, tried desperately to talk Fer Báeth out of the fight. Fer Báeth refused to back down, and Cú Chulainn stormed off. Not looking where he was going, he stepped in a holly so sharp it cut him to the bone. He uprooted the bush in a rage and cast it over his shoulder, killing the unfortunate Fer Báeth. In the same text (Táin Bó Cúailnge) our hero comes across a charioteer cutting holly branches to make chariot poles, and later Medb’s warrior Nath Crantail attacks Cú Chulainn with nine spits of charred and sharpened holly. Cú Chulainn simply hops along the tips of the spits as they are thrown at him then runs off to find his evening meal! Suibhne, in Suibhne’s Frenzy (Buile Suibhne) refers to the holly tree several times in his story as a sheltering tree, and at one point he is surviving only on water, acorns and holly berries. It’s no wonder he was in a frenzy; the berries have a similar effect to caffeine, and eventually become very toxic. In The Wooing of Etain Midir’s eye was taken out with a spit of holly, so it seems safe to assume that holly was widely cut for weapons, vehicles and a variety of other uses by the Celts. Holly today is still common all over the British Isles and very hardy, and is one half of the dual king of the year for those pagans that follow this belief (the other half being the Oak King). The Holly King is born at midsummer, the Summer Solstice, but does not start to really rule supreme until after the autumn equinox, when night outweighs the light. I always felt that the Holly King had a bit of an unfair advantage, because he is green and lush all year around, whereas the Oak King loses his green mantle by October, not to retrieve it until well into Spring. But how could we have a green lord of the wild, wintry wood, without turning to the magic of the evergreens?
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