December 9, 2022
Estimated Read Time: 5 Minutes
There are very good reasons why the Yuletide is so significant to Wiccans. It’s the time of the year when the Wheel sees the longest nights and shortest days, as well as the least amount of sunlight. More importantly, it’s when most of the plant life is dead until the spring arrives. Evergreen plants dominate, and as a result, people celebrate the time by decorating their homes with leaves from these plants.
Back in the day, Wiccans, as well as other believers, pagan and non-pagan alike, showed reverence towards this changing of the seasons. In fact, this phenomenon even made it into their lore, and it manifested into a legend of two kings fighting for their reign over the year. The two monarchs are known today as the Holly King and the Oak King.
In this article, you will learn who these two kings are and how their legend lives on in the modern Wicca. Moreover, you’ll also see some of the parallels the Holly King and the Oak King have with some other, more prominent deities.
Long ago, before historical records, there were two kings. Some say they were brothers, others that they were twins. But no matter their ages, they were as different from one another as day is from night. One of the brothers was the Holly King, who wore a crown of evergreen leaves around his forehead. His domain was the cold, the ending, and the dark. The Oak King, his brother, bore a wreath of oak leaves as a crown. His domain was the light, the warmth, and the plentiful plants.
The brothers did not get along. Namely, each of them had their own idea on how to rule the realm, and naturally, the other brother disagreed. The Oak King wanted daylight and heat to rule over the world. On the other hand, the Holly King preferred the night, the cold, and the absence of regular plants. It didn’t help that both men loved the same woman, eager to please her in their own ways. Whatever the case may have been, the battle between them was inevitable.
Records of the battle between the two kings vary from culture to culture, but the most commonly accepted version is as follows.
Before the brothers raised their arms against one another, the Lady they both loved tried to call for a truce. She told both brothers that the best solution is for them to divide the duties. Half of a year would belong to the Oak King, and the other to the Holly King. However, the two brothers were far too discordant to agree to anything. And thus, during a particularly hot and bright day, the Oak King and the Holly King drew their swords and fought.
The battle ended with the Holly King striking a mortal blow to the Oak King, with the lord of light and warmth falling in blood. Instantly, the Holly King regretted slaying his brother, and the Lady took the body away. ‘Now you must rule,’ she said, ‘the whole of the land is yours.’
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With the Holly King in power, the days grew shorter and shorter, while the cold slowly overtook the land. And though he had won, the monarch mourned his brother. He could think of nothing else but the fallen king he had slain. It appeared as if the sun would never rise again, which threw the Holly King into despair.
But then, the Lady came back to him, and she shared the news that would surprise the Holly King. ‘Your brother is not dead, your grace,’ she said. ‘The Oak King lives, and he has come to take his turn in ruling the land.’
And true to her word, there before the Holly King stood his brother. However, he was not the aged warrior that he had faced before. Instead, he was young, virile, and full of energy. He had come to claim the land, and the Holly King, overjoyed, gladly stepped down from his throne.
When the Oak King took over, the days started to slowly grow longer. The sun shone bright again, and the plants were slowly coming back to life. Animals awoke from their slumber, men across the land would see warm days return, and nature was blooming anew. From that day onward, each of the two kings ruled one half of the realm, as it was originally intended.
The tale of the Oak King and the Holly King is an archetypal element we find in many cultures. It represents the changing of the seasons, the circle of life and renewal that repeats itself every single year. Sometimes, the duality is seen as the battle between the light and the darkness, other times, it’s the day versus the night. But most often, it’s a general theme of the summertime and the wintertime swapping out.
Other mythologies, such as Celtic, Hindu, and even Christian, saw variations in the story of the two kings. Possibly the most famous example we have in medieval Europe is the tail of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Others include the Celtic entities Lugh of Tuatha de Danann and Balor of the Fomorians, Gwyn ap Nudd Gwythyr ap Greidawl of Welsh legends, and to an extent, even Jesus Christ and John the Baptist from the New Testament of the Bible.
A large subsection of the Wiccan teachings doesn’t see the Holly King and the Oak King as separate beings. Instead, practitioners of Wicca view them as aspects of one deity, known as the King of the Wildwood or the Horned God. This archetype is usually depicted with big horns or antlers. Normally, we associate it with a wide variety of horned deities, with the Biblical Satan being one of them.
The Horned God’s nature is inherently dualistic, with him representing both night and day. As such, the shifting between these two aspects can be seen as the Holly King and the Oak King slowly swapping places, with one taking dominance over the other depending on the season. At times, the Horned God, and consequently the two gods with green crowns, are merely aspects of a triune god, similar in substance and function to the Triple Goddess.
Be it Yule or Litha, Wiccans can be sure that an aspect of the Horned God will be strongest during either the Summer or the Winter solstice. And whether we see them as aspects of one deity or as separate gods, we ought to hold the Holly King and the Oak King in high regard. After all, it is through their reign that the nature itself is shaped, put to sleep, and awoken anew every single year.
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