Written and Compiled by George Knowles
The Holly Tree
The Holly tree (Ilex aquifolium) is one of the sacred trees of Wicca/Witchcraft, and was of old a favoured tree of the ancient druids. In England during the winter, against the barren whiteness of our snow and frost, the Holly tree is an important native evergreen. Its glossy green leaves and clusters of red berries add a flash of colour to trees without leaves and is one of the most striking plants in the woodlands.
According to the Celtic Tree Calendar the Holly tree represents the eighth month of the year (July 8th - Aug 4th), which includes the Celtic festival of Lughnassadh (Lammas) celebrated on the 1st of August. In England, Holly is known by many different names, in Norfolk it is called Hulver, in Devon - Holme and in parts of Dartmoor - Holme Chase, other popular names include: Christ’s thorn, Hulver bush, Bat’s wings, Tinne and Holy tree.
As a small tree or shrub the Holly grows slowly and at best achieves heights of up to 50 feet (15 meters), in Britain however its normal height is closer to 30 to 40 feet (9-12 meters). In Italy and in the woodlands of Brittany in France, it grows to a much larger size. The ease with which Holly can be kept trimmed renders it valuable as a hedge plant and forms hedges of great thickness and impenetrability.
Today there are some 400 species of Holly shrubs and trees, and many but not all are evergreens. The main North American species is known simply as American Holly (Ilex opaca) and grows naturally along the Atlantic coast and in the Southern states. In Japan and China the Kashi Holly (I. Chinensis) is used for decoration during the Chinese New Year. Of the cultivated varieties of Holly, one is distinguished by the unusual colour of its berries, which are yellow, while others are characterized by their variegated foliage and by the presence of a larger or smaller number of prickles than ordinary types.
The Holly tree will grow in almost any soil provided it is not too wet, but gains its best results when planted in rich, sandy or gravely soil with good drainage and a moderate amount of moisture at the roots. In very dry localities its growth is usually stunted. Holly is often found growing wild in thinly scattered woods of Oak and Beech trees were it seems to be immune to infestation by insects. It is rarely affected even by the most severe of winters, during which time birds love to feed on its berries. Seeds are propagated by birds during flight and take about two years to germinate. Initially growth is slow, but it gains momentum after the first four or five years.
As the Holly grows it branches and leaves from top to bottom, pointed at the top and leafy at its base like a pyramid. The trunk of the Holly is frequently knotted with small nodules of solid wood embedded in its bark, but these can be easily separated from the tree with a smart blow. The bark of the tree is delicate and thin, and tends to wrinkle around areas were it branches. It has a light ashen hue that is smooth and grey, and sometimes touched with a faint crimson. Quite often the bark is covered in a green algae and thin lichen consisting of curvy black lines.
The wood of the Holly is hard, compact and close-grained. Its colour is of beautiful white ivory that can be buffed to a very high polish. When freshly cut the wood has a slightly greenish hue but soon becomes perfectly white, and its hardness makes it superior to any other white wood. As such it is much prized for ornamental ware and the evenness of its grain makes it very valuable to the turner. It is also used for inlaying furniture with marquetry. However the wood of Holly is very retentive of its sap and as a consequence can warp if not well dried and seasoned before use. As well as an imitation of ivory, it is often stained different colours. When stained black it has the appearance of ebony, for which it is often used as a substitute. Of old, fancy walking sticks were made from Holly, as were the stocks of light riding whips. Today it is used in delicate instruments such as weather-gauges and barometers.
The leaves of the Holly tree have a leathery texture and are thick, green and glossy. Normally about 2 inches long and 1 1/4 inches broad, they are edged with stout prickles alternately pointing upwards and downwards, while most of the upper leaves have only a single prickle. The leaves have neither taste nor odour and remain attached to the tree for several years. When they fall, the leaves take a long time to decay, defying the natural actions of air and moisture.
In May the Holly bears its flowers, these are pale pink on the outside and pure white on the inside. Male and female flowers are usually borne on different trees. The female flowers are pollinated by insects such as wild bees attracted by the smell of a honey like liquid released from their bases. Later the flower produces the familiar and distinctive clusters of brilliant scarlet/red berries. If a tree produces its berries well one year, it will normally rest the following year before producing again.
The berries while favoured by birds and animals are poisonous to human beings, and children in particular should be warned against eating them. During the winter the country folk would gather up young stems of Holly and use it as a cattle-feed to sustain them during the privations of the winter. The stems when dried and bruised were often given to cows, who seemed to thrive on it producing good milk, the butter from which was said to be excellent. It is also well known to rabbit-breeders that a Holly-stick placed in a hutch for the rabbits to gnaw, would act as a tonic and restore their appetite.
Holly is commonly used all over the world as a Christmas decoration, a custom derived from the early Romans who sent boughs of Holly and other gifts to their friends during Saturnalia, the Roman festival of Saturn held around the 17th of December to celebration of the Winter Solstice. In an old Christian legend the Holly is said to have sprung up under the footsteps of Christ as he trod the earth, the spines of the leaves became symbolic of “Crown of Thorns”, the red berries representing the drops of blood associated with his suffering. From this symbology the Holly tree became known as “Christ's Thorn” or the “Holy Tree”.
In pagan folklore the Holly tree is associated with the spirit of vegetation and the waning forces of nature, to which he is personified as a mythical figure called the Holly King. The Holly King rules nature during its decline from the mid-summer solstice (Litha - Jun 21st) through to the mid-winter solstice (Yule – Dec 21st). At each of the solstice Sabbats, the Holly King and his brother the Oak King engage in ritual combat for the attentions of the Goddess, from whence the victor presides over nature through the following half of the year.
In his personification as the Holly King, he is often depicted as an old man dressed in winter clothing wearing a wreath of Holly on his head and walking with the aid of a staff made from a Holly branch. This is symbolic of the fertile interaction of the Goddess and God during natures decline and the darkest time of the year. At Yule after his battle with the Oak King, the new light of the sun-God re-emerges to encourage fresh growth during the coming new year. After the advent of Christianity, and during their Christmas and New Year celebrations, a man would be dressed up and covered in Holly branches and leaves, while a woman was likewise dressed in Ivy (the female counterpart of Holly) and together paraded through the streets leading the old year into the new.
Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) a Roman naturalist in his classic “Historia naturalis”, an old world encyclopedic study of plants and animal life, tells us that if Holly is planted near a house or farm, it would repelled poison and defended it from lightning and witchcraft. Also that its flowers cause water to freeze and that its wood when thrown at an animal, even without touching it, had the power to compel the animal to return and lie down.
Holly leaves were formerly used as a diaphoretic and an infusion of them was given in catarrh, bronchitis, pneumonia, influenza, pleurisy and smallpox. They have also been used in intermittent fevers and rheumatism for their tonic properties. The juice of the fresh leaves has been used to advantage in jaundice, and when sniffed was said to stop a runny nose. When soaked in vinegar and left for a day and a night, it was used to cure corns. An old remedy for chilblains was to thrash them with a branch of Holly to “chase the chills out”, but this could also be painful.
The berries possess totally different qualities to the leaves, being violently emetic and purgative, and if swallowed can cause excessive vomiting. They have been used in dropsy, and in a powder form as an astringent to check bleeding. Nicholas Culpeper in his “The Complete Herbal” (1653) say’s that: “the bark and leaves are good used as fomentations for broken bones and such members as are out of joint”. He also considered the berries to be curative of colic. Care needs to be taken however, for Holly berries can be poisonous if given to children.
Birdlime used to catch birds and other insects is made from the bark of Holly when stripped of its young shoots and fermented. The bark is stripped during midsummer and steeped in clean water, then boiled until it separates into layers. Once that happens the inner green portion is stored in small heaps till fermentation begins. After about a fortnight it turns into a sticky gooey substance, which is then pounded into a paste, washed and left to continue fermenting. When done it is mixed with goose-fat or other oily substance and is ready for use. Very little is now made in this country but of old in the Lake Districts of northern England, Holly was so abundant that birdlime was made in large quantities and shipped to the East Indies for use in controlling insects.
The leaves of the Holly were used in the Black Forest as a substitute for tea. In Brazil “Paraguay Tea” is made from the dried leaves and young shoots of another species of Holly called (Ilex Paraguayensis), which grows in South America. Other types used to make tea are (Ilex Gongonha) and (Ilex Theezans), all of which are considered valuable as diuretics and diaphoretics. The leaves of the Ilex Paraguayensis and several others species of Holly contain tannin, which was used as a dye. Acting like galls when bruised in a ferruginous mud, they were mostly used to dye cotton.
As with most other trees the Holly was revered for its protective qualities. When planted around the home it protects the inhabitants and guards against lightening, poisoning and mischievous spirits. When confronted by wild animals throwing a stick of Holly at them would make them lie down and leave you alone. A piece of Holly carried on your person is said to promote good luck, particularly in men for the Holly is a male plant (the Ivy its opposite female). As a charm to enhance dreams, nine Holly leaves gathered on a Friday after midnight, wrapped in a clean cloth to protect against its needles, and tied up using nine knots was placed under a pillow to make dreams come true.
Some old stories tell us that when winter came the old druids advised the people to take Holly into their homes to shelter the elves and fairies who could join mortals at this time without causing them harm, but these stories also tell of a warning, to make sure and remove the Holly entirely before the eve of Imbolc, for to leave just one leaf in the house would cause misfortune. An old Scottish traditions says that no branch should be cut from a Holly tree, but rather it should be pulled free in a method considered fit for sacred tree. It was also considered unlucky to fell a Holly tree or burn its green skinned branches. Yet luck was increased if a small branch was kept and hung outside of the house, there it would continue to protect against lightening.
In ritual uses, Holly is associated with the life, death and re-birth symbolism of Lughnassadh/Lammas, the first harvest of the year. Holly also symbolizes holiness, consecration, material gain, physical revenge, beauty, immortality, peace, goodwill and health. Holly water (infused or distilled) was sprinkled on newborn babies to protect them. It can be used ritually to aid and help with a person’s ability to cope with death, and to ease their sleep with peaceful dreams. The Holly has always been associated with mid winter festivals and was used in old Celtic traditions for celebrating the Sun Gods re-birth at the Winter Solstice.
The wood of the Holly tree burns very hot and its charcoal was used to forge the swords, knives and tools necessary for survival and protection. The old smithies and weapon-makers were considered to be great magicians for their ability to use the elements of fire and earth to create these tools. For this reason the druids associated Holly with the element of fire. In the ogham alphabet they called the Holly “Tinne”, which is thought to mean “fire” derived from the word “tinder”, in association with the Holly’s timber used in the fires of the old smithies. In today’s rituals, Holly is used for magick associated with the element of fire and Holly incense is used to consecrate the magickal knife (athame).
The Holly tree deity associations are with: Lugh, Tannus, Taranis and Thor, as well as Tailtiu, Habondia and Tina Etruscan. Its gender type is Masculine. Its planetary ruler is Mars and its associated element is Fire. The bird associated with the month of the Holly is the starling. Holly is used to attract the powers needed for: Protection, Consecration, Healing, Peace, Goodwill, Luck and anything to do with the element Fire.
Astrologically Holly people (i.e. those people born in the month of July) come alive at winter and delight in the cold that most people dislike. They are very balanced in a fight, provided the cause is a just one. They are bearers of truth and demand truth from their friends and associates. They are honest, hardworking and very tolerant of changing situations. They tend to see both sides in an argument but will choose a side if they have to. They also tend to be spiritually advanced but may be clueless to being that way. They can also be showy at times and seek attention.
Cunningham's Encyclopedia Of Magical Herbs - By Scott Cunningham.
Encyclopedia of Wicca & Witchcraft - By Raven Grimassi.
The Encyclopedia of Witches & Witchcraft - By Rosemary Ellen Guiley.
Tree Wisdom (The difinitive guidebook to the myth, folklore and healing power of Trees) - By Jacqueline Memory Paterson.
AA Book of Britain's Countryside.
The Penguin Hutchinson Reference Library (CD cassette).
Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia (CD cassette).
Plus many websites to numerous to mention.
First published in 2002 - Updated the 12th July 2008 © George Knowles
Best Wishes and Blessed Be.
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Wiccan Rede / Charge of the Goddess / Charge of the God / The Three-Fold Law (includes The Law of Power and The Four Powers of the Magus) / The Witches Chant / The Witches Creed / Descent of the Goddess / Drawing Down the Moon / The Great Rite Invocation / Invocation of the Horned God / The 13 Principles of Wiccan Belief / The Witches Rede of Chivalry / A Pledge to Pagan Spirituality
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Sabbats and Rituals:
Sabbats in History and Mythology / Samhain (October 31st) / Yule (December 21st) / Imbolc (February 2nd) / Ostara (March 21st) / Beltane (April 30th) / Litha (June 21st) / Lughnasadh (August 1st) / Mabon (September 21st)
Animals in Witchcraft (The Witches Familiar) / Antelope / Bats / Crow / Fox / Frog and Toads / Goat / Honeybee / Kangaroo / Lion / Owl / Phoenix / Rabbits and Hares / Raven / Robin Redbreast / Sheep / Spider / Squirrel / Swans / Wild Boar / Wolf / Serpent / Pig / Stag / Horse / Mouse / Cat
In Worship of Trees - Myths, Lore and the Celtic Tree Calendar. For descriptions and correspondences of the thirteen sacred trees of Wicca/Witchcraft see the following: Birch / Rowan / Ash / Alder / Willow / Hawthorn / Oak / Holly / Hazel / Vine / Ivy / Reed / Elder. Also see: The Willow Tree (Folk Music)
Rocks and Stones:
Articles contributed by Patricia Jean Martin: / Apophyllite / Amber / Amethyst / Aquamarine / Aragonite / Aventurine / Black Tourmaline / Bloodstone / Calcite / Carnelian / Celestite / Citrine / Chrysanthemum Stone / Diamond / Emerald / Fluorite / Garnet / Hematite / Herkimer Diamond / Labradorite / Lapis Lazuli / Malachite / Moonstone / Obsidian / Opal / Pyrite / Quartz (Rock Crystal) / Rose Quartz / Ruby / Selenite / Seraphinite / Silver and Gold / Smoky Quartz / Sodalite / Sunstone / Thunderegg / Tree Agate / Zebra Marble
Articles and Stories about Witchcraft:
Murder by Witchcraft / The Fairy Witch of Clonmel / A Battleship, U-boat, and a Witch / The Troll-Tear (A story for Children) / Goody Hawkins - The Wise Goodwife / The Story of Jack-O-Lantern / The Murder of the Hammersmith Ghost / Josephine Gray (The Infamous Black Widow) / The Two Brothers - Light and Dark
Old Masters of Academia:
(Ancient, Past and Present)
(Departed Pagan Pioneers, Founders, Elders and Others)
Abramelin the Mage / Agrippa / Aidan A. Kelly / Albertus Magnus “Albert the Great” / Aleister Crowley “The Great Beast” / Alex Sanders "the King of the Witches” / Alison Harlow / Amber K / Anna Franklin / Anodea Judith / Anton Szandor LaVey / Arnold Crowther / Arthur Edward Waite / Austin Osman Spare / Biddy Early / Bridget Cleary / Carl Llewellyn Weschcke / Cecil Hugh Williamson / Charles Godfrey Leland / Charles Walton / Christina Oakley Harrington / Damh the Bard (Dave Smith) / Dion Fortune / Dolores Aschroft-Nowicki / Dorothy Morrison / Doreen Valiente / Edward Fitch / Eleanor Ray Bone “Matriarch of British Witchcraft” / Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelly / Dr. Leo Louis Martello / Eliphas Levi / Ernest Thompson Seton / Ernest Westlake and the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry / Fiona Horne / Friedrich von Spee / Francis Barrett / Gerald B. Gardner / Gavin and Yvonne Frost and the School and Church of Wicca / Gwydion Pendderwen / Hans Holzer / Helen Duncan / Herman Slater "Horrible Herman" / Israel Regardie / James "Cunning" Murrell / Janet Farrar & Gavin Bone / Jessie Wicker Bell “Lady Sheba” / John Belham-Payne / John George Hohman / John Gerard / John Gordon Hargrave (the White Fox) / John Michael Greer / John Score / Johannes Junius the Burgomaster of Bamberg / Joseph John Campbell / Karl von Eckartshausen / Laurie Cabot "the Official Witch of Salem" / Lewis Spence / Margaret Alice Murray / Margot Adler / Marie Laveau the " Voodoo Queen of New Orleans" / Marion Weinstein / Matthew Hopkins “The Witch-Finder General” / Max Ehrmann and the Desiderata / Monique Wilson the “Queen of the Witches” / Montague Summers / Nicholas Culpeper / Nicholas Remy / M. R. Sellers / Mrs. Grieve "A Modern Herbal" / Oberon and Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart / Old Dorothy Clutterbuck / Old George Pickingill / Paddy Slade / Pamela Colman-Smith / Paracelsus / Patricia Crowther / Patricia Monaghan / Patricia “Trish” Telesco / Philip Emmons Isaac Bonewits / Philip Heselton / Raymond Buckland / Reginald Scot / Robert Cochrane / Robert ‘von Ranke’ Graves and "The White Goddess" /Rudolf Steiner / Rosaleen Norton “The Witch of Kings Cross” / Ross Nichols and The Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids / Sabrina - The Ink Witch / Scott Cunningham / Selena Fox / Silver Ravenwolf / Sir Francis Dashwood / Sir James George Frazer / S.L. MacGregor Mathers and the “Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn” / Starhawk / Stewart Farrar / Sybil Leek / Ted Andrews / The Mather Family - includes: Richard Mather, Increase Mather, Cotton Mather / Thomas Ady / Vera Chapman / Victor Henry Anderson / Vivianne Crowley / Walter Brown Gibson / William Butler Yeats / Zsuzsanna Budapest
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