Summer landscape by Frank Winkler on Pixabay

Trees and Their Place in Celtic Mythology – Part 2

Listen to this article:

Trees have long been revered by the Celtic peoples for their wisdom, and used as crafting materials and even for their healing properties. It is no wonder that they are often so central to the stories that have carried through the ages and are described in such great detail despite their perceived simplicity.

In this series we will explore native UK species and their place in the great tales of Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and beyond.

Today is the summer solstice, a time associated with light and the banishing of demons and evil spirits. The Celts believed that the sun’s intense heat would burn away darkness and open the path to the abundance and wealth of the summer and harvest months.

It is also a time associated with one tree related story in particular: the ever raging battle between the kings of holly and oak.

The Holly King and the Oak King

Sometimes brothers in an eternal struggle for power, sometimes one man undergoing a transformation, these entities are aspects of the archetypal horned god of nature. To the Celts, this is Cernunnos, to the Greeks, Pan; this archetype is present in many belief systems throughout the world.

The Oak King symbolises fertility, growth and abundance, and is often associated with the Green Man of Arthurian legend. He is depicted in a similar way and is at the height of his power around Litha (the Summer Solstice).

Conversely, the Holly King symbolises death, cold and resilience, but should not be seen as a villain as these things are essential for rebirth and the turning of the wheel (An Cuibhle Mòr), a staple of Celtic mythology. He is at his most powerful around Yule (the Winter Solstice).

In some tellings of this story, the shift in power takes place on the solstices, where the crown is snatched while the current ruler is at their strongest. In others, it takes place at the equinoxes where the fading of one entity leads to the rise of the other. In these versions, the Oak king rules over spring and summer and the Holly king over autumn and winter, the months most represented by their powers.

It is no wonder that this is a tale of a battle or power struggle. The change of seasons was an intimidating phenomenon to ancient peoples; they had little scientific knowledge to explain it. However, the understanding that the cycle of life, death and rebirth is essential has always been recognised and is the basis for so much Celtic tradition and folklore.


Oak leaves and acorns - Mabel Amber on Pixabay

In the vast majority of European cultures, the oak is the most sacred of trees. It is almost always associated with the primary god of the pantheon, which also usually has domain over rain, thunder and lightning. This may be because oak trees are very susceptible to lightning strikes due to their high water content and the fact that they are often the tallest structure in the landscape.

Druids often worshipped and practiced their rites in oak groves and their most potent magical ingredient, mistletoe, could frequently be found growing on their trunks. The word Druid may even derive from a Gaelic word meaning ‘knower of the oak tree’. Due to their size and presence, mythology often depicts single oaks almost as characters rather than entities.

Widely known for its strength, durability and even grain, oak has long been a staple in the construction of both dwellings and furniture. Its bark contains high levels of tannin and can be boiled to create a brown dye, while the galls produce a strong black dye.


Holly leaves and berries -  Jaques Gaimard on Pixabay

Conversely, while also associated with thunder gods such as Taranis, holly trees were sometimes planted near settlements to protect from lightning strikes. Modern science has identified that the spines on the leaves act as tiny conductors, protecting the tree and nearby objects.

Their deep green leaves and bright red berries reflect light and so were often used to decorate homes in winter, bringing colour to the often dark and bleak interiors, as well as the landscape. In modern times, variegated varieties are used to decorate urban areas and hedgerows.

Like with many species, there were taboos against cutting down a whole tree, and hollies were often left uncut where the rest of a hedgerow was trimmed. It was believed to disrupt the passage of witches who were thought to traverse the world over the tops of the hedges.

The bold colour and evergreen nature of holly was also utilised by farmers as a boundary that would be clear and consistent throughout the year. Its white, hard and close-grained wood was used to make chess pieces and tool handles, most notably whips for ploughmen and carriage drivers.

If you enjoyed this porthole into how our ancestors saw and treated the wonderful species we still see around us today, then subscribe to our news feed and keep an eye out for more in this series.

Jed Robertson

Subscribe to our blog

Want to stay right up-to-date with what’s happening? We can notify you by email when we post a new article or let you know which articles we’ve published at the end of the week. What to expect: If you wish to withdraw your consent and stop hearing from us, simply click the unsubscribe link at the bottom of every email we send, or contact us at [email protected]. We value and respect your personal data and privacy. To view our privacy policy, please click here. By submitting this form, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with these terms.

Daily Weekly

Marketing permission: I give my consent to to be in touch with me via email using the information I have provided in this form for the purpose of news, updates and marketing.

Skip to content