Nor shield for shoving, nor sharp spear for lunging;
But he held a holly cluster in one hand, holly
That is greenest when groves are gaunt and bare
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
On December 21 at 11:05 PM PST the sun will appear to reach the southernmost point of its arc, the moment of the winter Solstice. Though few may take notice, this event has fueled some of the world's great philosophies as well as an eternal duel fought deep within the forest primeval.
Since primitive time humankind has taken notice of nature and its phenomena. Dependant upon the earth and the environment, early men and women understood theirs was a world of great brutality as well as divinity. The earliest deities were those that personified elements upon which survival depended, primarily fertility of earth, animal and human.
The Great Mother, through union with her consort God, provided fecundity of field and animal. Agrarian societies sought to align themselves with these potent entities, woman became goddess, man became consort, their sexual union embodied mysticism and fructuousness on earth.
The consort of the Great Mother is the spirit of growing vegetation, of fruitfulness. So too, the earthly representative of the consort had to be young, virile and responsible for the potency of the land - the man-god, the king.
In early societies, the semi-divine king ruled for a particular period, of perhaps seven years. As the sun's influence declined and crop and tree wasted into winter, so the vegetative spirit was considered to be declining in the king.
Sacrificed in the prime of life, the king's blood was caught and sprinkled ritually upon land and animal. From this evolved the tradition of transubstantiation, of Christ's blood turning to wine in the Christian sacrament. As the king's spirit passed to his younger successor, he gained immortality. As nature quickened at the vernal equinox, he rose resurrected.
Whether through the decline of communal, matrilineal societies, the development of the ideal of the individual or just the plain will to live, the practice of sacrificing the Divine king himself eventually died out. In his stead was a slave, stranger or other individual chosen from the community by lot during harvest or around year-end.
Later still, sacrificial animals took the place of humans - the first "scapegoats." These animals were assigned not only the weight of the withered world, but various evils and misfortunes of the previous year. With their sacrifice came the death of evil, sin and the old vegetative year.
This theme of the consort, a dying vegetation god who is sacrificed or offers himself for sacrifice for the benefit of his community and the eradication of sin and is thus resurrected, was endemic to ancient societies. Mythology is alive with gods who have died to the Underworld to be reborn in spring - Osiris, Tammuz/Adonis, Attis, Dionysus and Christ.
As well, symbolism representing the turning of the year grew within the primordial forests that swathed the land of our ancestors. Each tree had its significance, its time of influence. With the growth and decline of each year, certain trees gained seasonal distinction. The spreading oak, symbolic of long life, wisdom and the phallus ripened to represent the waxing vegetative year, a tree of kings and great feracity. The evergreen foliage of the holly tree provided especial significance in the months of seasonal decline - its leaves lush in a bare deciduous forest, its immortality unquestioned.
These trees, the holly and the oak, became identified with the great cycle of life - of birth in darkness and death in the light. The Oak king, monarch of the waxing year, is born of the duel that sees the death of the Holly king, ruler of the waning year. From the darkness of the old year, the new year is born bright and full of promise at winter Solstice.
As the sun climbs in the sky, the union of the Oak king and the Great Mother guarantees the greening of spring, the growth of crops, the assurance of summer. At the brightest moment of the summer Solstice in June, the Oak king dies, dealt a felling blow by the dark Holly king, who renewed, is reborn of the sun's decline.
Acted out in secularized folk and mumming plays at rural fertility festivals, this drama has survived the ages. Christian syncretism later blended the characteristics of the Oak king into bright figures such as Saint Michael and Saint George. In a Christian allegory involving St. George, the saint slays a dark Turkish knight. St. George cries out that he has slain his brother. A doctor appears onstage to provide a mysterious elixir by which the Turkish knight, the waning year is revived and rejoicing ensues.
The fourteenth century Arthurian verse Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a thinly disguised allegory wherein the solar figure Gawain slays the green Holly knight at midwinter. After beheading the Holly Knight, Gawain discovers that the knight is yet alive, and thereafter Gawain's great adventure ensues.
Holly figures, characters that populate the waning aspect of the year are still known to us - Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas in his many European aspects. Cartoons that personify the passing year as an aged man - "Father Time," replaced by a bright baby New Year repeat the timeless story of the Holly and the Oak king, the exchange of death for life.
We live in a time when the allegorical emblems of the ages are being discarded. Our minds are shaped by facts or metaphor that is suffocated by historical presumption - not by the natural symbolism that is our birthright. Resurrection from death in the verdure of spring is the eternal message of the solar kings born at midwinter. Hope will come if endings are accepted. On December 21, stop and quietly breathe in Nature. The King is dead, long live the King.
Wheel of the Year