The Holly and the Oak King 17


Holly King and Oak King (Jane Brideson)


This is a companion to The Dancing Floor on Glastonbury Tor featured on Sally Cronin’s stupendous Smorgasbord blog

I am fortunate to have artist Jane Brideson’s  beautiful art work illustrating the post (full details below)


The myth of a young successor murdering the old king was discussed in Sir James Frazer’s scholarly work ‘The Golden Bough’. From time immemorial it was a core belief in the mythologies of many different cultures across the Mediterranean world.

The idea perhaps reflects the way bucks battle the old dominant male for territory and breeding rights in spring and autumn. It might also explain rebellious teenagers. Boys invariably direct their resentment to the father and girls to the mother.

It led Sigmund Freud to postulate the Oedipus Complex, the son’s desire to replace the father in his mother’s affections (from the Greek myth of the foundling Oedipus who unwittingly murdered his birth father, the king, and married his mother); and the Electra Complex (she plotted revenge when her mother murdered her father). But let’s save the minefield of psychoanalysis for another day.

In the section called ‘The Battle of Summer and Winter – the Killing of The Tree Spirit’, Frazer examined parallel myths involving the rivalry between brothers such as Cain and Abel, or the twin founders of Rome: Romulus and Remus, which he saw as a battle between the spirit of summer and winter typified by the evergreen holly and the summer oak. At the midwinter Yule feast, the Holly King is at his strongest, while the Oak King is weak. The Oak King only begins to regain his power after the Spring Equinox with the coming of the New Year at May Day.

Frazer noted during his own time, allegorical battles were played out in May Day festivities called Calan Mai in Wales and Mazey Day in Cornwall. He also noted a reverse battle, enacted during Christmastide, where the holly regains supremacy in the dark months of winter. These folk customs had the robin and the wren representing the oak and the holly.

In Victorian times, and even into the early 20th century, rural communities in England and Ireland had Wren-boys hunting wrens around Christmas. On the twelfth day of Christmas, in the Glastonbury area, a captive Wren King, in a cage festooned with ribbons, was displayed from door to door by ragamuffins for a farthing a peep. The farthing, a quarter of an old penny, had a wren on its obverse face.

Robert Graves took up Frazer’s theme in his book ‘The White Goddess’, listing a number of myths where the Winter Holly King endlessly battles his twin and rival the Summer Oak over a woman, representing the Goddess.

The Mabinogion, a medieval Welsh book containing tantalising glimpses of ancient Celtic myth, tells of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, whose wife Blodeuwedd, a woman made from spring flowers, persuaded her lover to kill Lleu (whose name means ‘shining’ making him a sun god) with a magic spear a year in the making. Instead of dying, Lleu became an eagle and hid in an oak tree (both sacred to Zeus). When his magician uncle made him human again, Lleu killed his wife’s lover a year later in the same way. Bloddeuwedd was turned into an owl, meaning she is the ancient Babylonian goddess Lilith, Adam’s first wife in Jewish mythology.

Similar themed tales were incorporated into the Arthurian cycle. King Arthur condemns Gwyn ap Nudd (once the Celtic god of the Underworld) to battle Gwythr, Gwyn’s sister’s suitor, every May Day until the end of the world. The brothers Balan and Balin were knights of Arthur’s court who slew each other over a bright sword offered by mysterious damsel.

In the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a green knight, riding a green horse and bearing a holly bush, arrives in Arthur’s court at Christmas, and demands someone must strike him a blow which he will return a year later. Handsome young Gawain takes up the challenge. Gawain is the sun, for he fights his battles before noon after which his strength begins to wane.

In Classical Greece (and Rome) the oak was a lightening tree sacred to Zeus (Jupiter) who murdered his own father and took his place. Druids were named after the oak, which shares the same Indo-European root with the words Seer and Wren. Biologists have recently found the particular type of yeast growing naturally on the oak is excellent for making bread and beer. It may possibly explain why the tree was originally considered sacred.

The Egyptian God of spring, Osiris, whose rebirth brings the winter Nile flood, was murdered by his brother Set, who chopped him into pieces scattering them across the land. Isis managed to find all her husband’s body parts except for his genitals. By cunningly fashioning a phallus from gold she was able to conceive the Sun God Horus.

In the Middle-East Attis and Adonis, the lovers of the harvest goddess, were murdered by the boar of winter. In Irish myth the old king is ritually murdered by his young rival – called his tánaiste (heir). A late myth, gives this story a twist. The elderly Finn Mac Coull’s handsome young tánaiste, Dermot, runs off with Finn’s bride, Grianne: the harvest goddess. Finn murders Dermot by ordering him to hunt is own brother enchanted into the shape of a wild boar, knowing he is destined to be killed in this way.

After death, the old king’s soul goes to the Glass Castle, (perhaps the origin of the name Glastonbury – glas also means green) otherwise known as the Spiral Castle, to await reincarnation. His tánaiste becomes the Sacred King and begins a new cycle as Green Man.

When ‘The Golden Bough’ was first published, the book scandalised the British public because Frazer included the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Critics accused Frazer of treating the crucifixion as nothing more than a myth; a relic of pagan religion. By the third edition, Frazer had recanted and reduced his analysis of the Christ’s death and resurrection to a speculative appendix that was entirely omitted from the abridged single volume version.

 Once more  want to thank Jane Brideson for allowing me to use her beautiful artwork. Please go to her blog where other stunning paintings are available. At the risk of upsetting Jane, because I have not explicitly got permission, I am going to present a few more paintings – simply because they are so damn GORGEOUS!!! Each has a live link to the appropriate page of art work on her website.

Please visit and enjoy.

Cheers Paul

Triple Goddess of Eire- Eriu (Jane Brideson)


The love god – Aengus Og – rising above his Sidhe at Newgrange in the Boyne valley (Jane Brideson)


The mysterious and haunting Fallen Castle (Jane Brideson)

17 thoughts on “The Holly and the Oak King

  1. Reply Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, MCC, SCAC Sep 16,2017 8:03 am

    Woven like fine tapestry, Paul – from threads of many myths from many lands (with even a nod to more modern mental health practitioners). I have long been fascinated by the way that Freudian psychology is steeped in the themes of mythology without acknowledgement (and perhaps, in some cases, without awareness).

    A couples counselor could have a ball with this sentence, “…Attis and Adonis, the lovers of the harvest goddess, were murdered by the boar of winter.”

    Jane’s artwork is astounding – almost feels channeled from those spirits themselves. Haven’t been over there yet to know more about her, but my first thought was that a Brideson Tarot would be worth owning, even by folks who never “read” the cards. These may well be images from a deck – and could be if they are not.

    Another wonderfully enlightening article from you — thank you.
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD/EFD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

    • Reply Paul Sep 16,2017 11:30 pm

      Madelyn. Great comment. Thank you. Jane’s art work is stunning isn’t it. You are right I bet she would do one hell of a tarot, especially as the card are supposed to be designed rich in imagery and myth. Hers would be knock out. Check out her painting on the her website. They are deeply magical. I must admit I have a real soft spot for Freud, his is my favourite of all the great Judeo-Christian religions- his mythology runs really deep. And I loved your comment of the couples counselor dealing with Attis and Adonis. Px

  2. Reply Shehanne Moore Sep 10,2017 10:42 am

    Catching up today and glad it is so worthwhile. This is a brilliant post because in quite a short space you link all these legends and these legends are fascinating ones. The images are beautiful and I just love the folklore xxxxxxxxxxxx

    • Reply Paul Sep 11,2017 12:37 am

      Dearest Shay, I simply love the way you view my work…. I don’t think it is entirely justified (except in this case it is because the paintings are gorgeous arn’t they?) but I just love it! Love it! Love it!

  3. Reply D. Wallace Peach Sep 7,2017 3:13 am

    I love how you link the folklore through different cultures, Paul. The stories seem archetypal in the way they reappear in similar versions. I like the metaphorical ebbing and flowing of the seasons and how they’re linked to the lore. Wonderful images too. 🙂

    • Reply Paul Sep 9,2017 8:14 pm

      Thank you Diana. There is a book called the Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell in which he traces the archetypal hero across cultures and his impact even down to modern novels. It was only as I got older and more widely read that I appreciated the depth of his knowledge. Simply considering Sally’s post yesterday about her ancestry it is pretty obvious that in deep history groups have migrated taking their myths with them and while those myths have adapted to the different stages of culture at their core they remain essentially unaltered. Robbie Cheadle has recently ran a series of African myths which I have found fascinating because it is tempting to think these retain another (perhaps earlier?) strand mythology. It would be interesting to learn about African myth and try and compare it to those that arose with farmers in the Middle East to look for areas commonality and difference. And Jane’s paintings are beautiful aren’t they. I was knocked out!

  4. Reply dgkaye Sep 5,2017 12:39 am

    Fascinating folklore Paul and the images are beautiful. 🙂

    • Reply Paul Sep 6,2017 1:01 am

      Thank you Debby. Jane’s work is beautiful. when I was seaching for images to source from Google I was struck by how she really knew her mythology for she was the only artist who depicted the Oak King a a young man. I was so happy when she agreed to me using her images and actually sent me the jpgs. Paulx

  5. Reply Jan Malique Sep 4,2017 9:21 pm

    Wonderful, informative and timely post Paul. Reminds us how important folklore and traditional customs still are in society, or should be.

    • Reply Paul Sep 4,2017 10:53 pm

      Jan So thrilled you found it interesting. You are right in this world of constant change our folklore and traditions should be something we cherish as it gives us continuity with the past. OK maybe not the human sacrifice bit…. Maybe we could just work out a little list between us…. AND THEN AFTER THAT NO MORE DEFINITELY!!!

  6. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blogger Daily – Monday 4th September 2017 – Paul White, John Howell, Jennie Fitzkee and Paul Andruss | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  7. Reply sally cronin Sep 4,2017 6:25 pm

    Brilliant as always Paul.. your link came in just as I was finishing the Blogger Daily so have put in there… great imagery.. and artwork.. xx

    • Reply Paul Sep 4,2017 10:46 pm

      Dear Sally, the imagery is lovely isn’t it! I could not believe it when I saw I was included. Brilliant! I’m just about to drop you a line PX

  8. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blogger Daily – Monday 4th September 2017 – Paul White, John Howell, Jenny Fitzkee and Paul Andruss | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  9. Reply Robbie Cheadle Sep 4,2017 6:07 pm

    The artwork is very beautiful, Paul. Maybe this historical behaviour of a son murdering his father and/or his brother was to ensure that the leader was the strongest in the pack and to ensure the survival of the strongest contributor to the gene pool.

    • Reply Paul Sep 4,2017 10:40 pm

      Yes I love the way that Jane’s characters look like real people Robbie. You can see their lives and experience etched into their faces. With regards to the father son and brother thing, I think you certainly have a great point. It is exactly the same as what happens in nature, and despite our great big brains so many of our behaviours work on instinctive and emotional levels. A very acute observation. Luv Px

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