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.