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The Holly Tree


"The holly berry that shines so red
Once was white as wheaten bread."

Also known in earlier times as Holm or Hulver Bush, Holly (Ilex) is a large genus of about 400 species native to the tropical and temperate zones of both the northern and Southern hemispheres. The white or greenish flowers appear solitary or in dense clumps. Ilex aquifolium, the Common or English Holly is evergreen and it is a bush or small tree but can reach fifty feet in height. It is actually native to western and southern Europe, northern Africa and western Asia. Away from a maritime climate its growth is stunted by the winter cold. However, it bears its largest & brightest fruit in winter. Because of this the holly has always been associated with winter magic and its very name is an outright statement of sacredness. The name derives from the Anglo-Saxon holegn and Old High German Hulis both of which mean "holy".

Throughout Europe holly was believed to repel evil and the old tradition of bringing holly branches into one's house in winter as a place for fairies to play has echoes in the present day, when holly wreaths are brought indoors for Christmas, to await the arrival of Santa Claus. It was long regarded as unlucky to leave holly wreaths up beyond Twelfth Night so they are burned on New Year's Eve. Pliny said the branches of the tree defend houses from lightning, and men from witchcraft.

Practical Uses

Hedging, obviously but the wood has also long been used for carving, carpentry, veneers and marquetry. In North America the Seminole tribe made their arrows from holly.

The Oak and the Holly

The Celts believed the Holly King ruled over death and winter while the Oak King ruled life & summer. This ancient (conceivably originally Druidic) belief was preserved into medieval times in mummers' plays.

The oak and the holly
when they are both full grown
the oak fights the holly king
on midsummer's morn

The oak beats the holly king
and reigns for half a year
but the holly rises up again
when winter draws near.

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."

The Holly in Welsh Mythology

The beautiful, far-haired goddess Creiddylad represents the sun, and the knights of the waxing and waning year fight over her. From midwinter to midsummer the sky god, represented by the oak, rules. From midsummer to midwinter, when the days grow shorter, the god of the earth and the underworld rules. His symbol of power is the holly. The holly is linked to the spirit of the greenwood, the Green Man.

The Holly in Norse Mythology

The Holly belonged to the god and Thor and goddess Freya. Holly's association with Thor's lightning bolt meant that it could protect people from being struck. The Norsemen and the Celts would plant a holly tree near their homes specifically to take lightning strikes and to protect the home and its inhabitants. It is true that that the holly does conduct lightning to ground better than most trees, with the least injury to the tree.

the trees themselves are of two sexes and so it is o surprise that Holly should be sacred to a God & a Goddess. An old Germanic tradition hols that when the household's Christmas decoration is made of a "he-holly," the husband would rule the house for the coming year and vice-versa.

The Holly in the Romano-Christian Tradition

the Romans may have independently regarded the holly as sacred, but they probably absorbed the traditions of the Celts when they colonised them. The Romans often absorbed aspects of other cultures' religious practices into their own. They probably, therefore, took over its ritualistic use from the Celts, hanging winter sprigs upon images of Saturn during winter's violently erotic Saturnalia.

Later still Roman Christians incorporated the holly into Christian lore. Holly was previously believed 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 in South American Folklore

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).

The Holly in Jewish & Islamic lore

The Holly is absent from Jewish & Islamic tree lore, as it was not native to Israel or Arabia and is not mentioned in the 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 transferred to the new religion, so that the sacredness of the much-legended Holly stands uninterrupted 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.

Holly in Natural Medicine

The Bach Flower Remedy of holly dissipates anger and releases jealousy and envy. The tree essence also calms these symptoms, bringing peace of mind without blocking assertiveness. A tea-like beverage can be made from the leaves of some hollies, however, our usual caveat that medical advice should always be sought, is even more important as the berries and other parts of the plant are poisonous. The berries are also emetic and purgative.

The bark of the Gray Holly was used extensively as an emetic (causing vomiting) by the Iroquois tribe of North America. They also used it to treat psychological problems. The Tslagi use a leaf infusion as an emetic, and also as an hallucinogenic.

Said by Culpeper to be a Saturnine plant, "the berries expel wind, and therefore are held to be profitable in the colic". he recommends eating a dozen of the berries in the morning to "purge the body of gross and clammy phlegm" but drying the berries and beating them into a powder "they bind the body and stop fluxes, bloody fluxes and the terms in women". The bark and the leaves, he says, are "excellent good, being used in fomentations for broken bones, and such members a are out of joint".

Acknowledgements and further reading:

The Oxford Companion to English LiteratureSir Paul HarveyOUP
The Observer's Book of TreesFrederick Warne & Co. Ltd.
The Celtic Book of Seasonal MeditationsClaire HamiltonRed Wheel
The Meaning of TreesFred HagenaderChronicle Books
The Complete HerbalNicholas CulpeperGreenwich Editions

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Ken James 2008