Battle of the Forest

Welcome Wonderful and Weirds to another page in the Big Dark Journal. 2020 is going to be a very busy year around here, so expect to see very regular new pages and animation coming soon.
If you don’t know what this is all about check out the first page where I talk about the aim of the project. For the rest of us lets get into today’s topic.

So earlier this week Christmas happened, you probably noticed. A time of some seriously choice folklore we could talk about…we could talk about Jólakötturinn (do not ask me to say that) the gigantic Icelandic Yule-cat that chases you down and eats you if you are not wearing new clothes. Or, from my own culture’s tradition, Wulver, a Scottish Werewolf who leaves fish on the windowsills of poor families. Or even the much loved and often misrepresented Krampus. But I have something else in mind.
Christmas Carols…stay with me!… Carols are often loathed, probably because of their ubiquity in stores around the holidays. Forcing an uncomfortable mix of performative happiness and conspicuous consumption. But I do actually have a favorite carol, so lets talk about it.

My favorite Carol is “The Holly and the Ivy”

Pretty isn’t it. You’ve probably noticed something about that first verse and the refrain/chorus that doesn’t quite match with the rest of the song. This is an example of an older song, in this case Pagan, being rewritten when it was absorbed into more current, in this case Christian, culture. Something that also happens with fairy tales, folklore and nursery rhymes. It is something we are going to come across as we take our journey through fairytale symbolism in the Tiny Dark Theatre. So lets break this example down.

Now it is not uncommon for a song to have no one definitive version. In jazz for example there are so many songs that have been covered by everyone! each version unique and expressive of the individual artist. In Blues and folk music you can often see a melody have multiple different sets of lyrics attached to it. And then there are remixes in electronic music genres.
Adding, collaborating and making songs & stories your own is a normal human thing. If we go by “death of the author” as a theory it suggests to us that our perception of a work of art is us recreating it uniquely within our minds. That this is distinct from the author’s vision, which it’s self comes from everything they have ever encountered previously. It belongs to ourselves.
The changes to this song occurred not just out of creativity, collaboration or individual expression but from social changes.
This in it’s self is not automatically a bad thing. Change is natural and required. Indeed the need for change is the lesson at the heart of so many of the fairy tales we will be looking at. And if stories are to survive they must continue to serve a purpose in the culture around them. But the replacement of paganism is a bugbear for many. Especially since many Christians claim exclusive ownership of the rituals they absorbed while continuing to literally demonize their source.


Just heard in an episode of Qi playing in the background as I write this, that the first patriotic anthem of Brittan, before God save the Queen, was a rousing song of Druids fighting the Romans. #Synchronicity


Let’s get back to the song.

The Holly And The Ivy

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.

O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ/harp,
Sweet singing in the choir.

The holly bears a blossom,
As white as any flower,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our sweet Saviour.

O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ/harp,
Sweet singing in the choir.

The holly bears a berry,
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good.

O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ/harp,
Sweet singing in the choir.

The holly bears a prickle,
As sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas Day in the morn.

O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ/harp,
Sweet singing in the choir.

The holly bears a bark,
As bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all.

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.

O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ/harp,
Sweet singing in the choir.

This song, sung to the tune we know today, was recorded by an Englishman called Cecil Sharp, for his collection of folk songs, after he heard it sung by a Ms Mary Clayton in 1909.
The text though, was first printed in a broadside dated 1710. In 1861 it became popular with Victorians when it was published in a carol collection edited by Joshua Sylvester.
Other versions, notably by Allen Percival and Martin Shaw, never gained the popularity of the Cecil Sharp version. And so are not so often heard today.

So what is this song even about?. The version here is a pretty self explanatory “Christmas is the Jesus & Mary story” strung together with British winter imagery in a way that is similar, both in language and cadence, to a nursery rhyme. It’s easy to see why it became popular.
But what was it “originally” about if anything? Isn’t this journal about stories!!
You are right.
To answer that we need to start with a look at the symbolism of Holly and Ivy.
Holly and Ivy were used in seasonal decoration in pagan cultures, fashioned into garlands and wreaths.
Both evergreens, they are seen as a symbol of life and rebirth. With their green and red vibrant in the “dead” of winter reminding us that spring will return. We can easily relate to this symbolism which is probably why, despite objections from the Christian establishments in Roman times (and every so often again ever since) the practice continued.

  • Holly was considered sacred to Saturn in Roman paganism and thus played a part in Saturnalia. And in Celtic paganism it is associated with the Holly King (more on him below. Put a pin in it) And as such forms part of the Winter solstice Yule celebration. Then later in Christianity the ‘prickle’ of the leaves came to represent the “crown of thorns” (as you can see in the lyrics), the berries the “blood of Christ” and the white holly flower the “virgin mother”.
  • Ivy is associated with Dionysis/Baccus and with fidelity. It is often used in wedding ritual crowns. But the primary symbolic association of ivy relevant to this song is of both femininity and darkness/evil While Holly is associated with masculinity and…you guessed it…light/goodness.

Pop fact! Harry Potter’s wand is Holly for this reason. With a Phoenix feather core to boot!. Masculine energy, good over evil AND rebirth? symbolism bingo!

Ivy is a shade plant that can grow in and take over large areas where other plants could not survive. This could be something to do with the “evil” connection. As for feminine it might be that it is a climbing vine i.e. it “requires support” (eyeroll). Seeing an ivy entwined with a holly tree could have been all that was needed to make a connection.
Did you know? Poison ivy is not an ivy? and is related to the cashew? which is not a nut? Isn’t language a delight?

“Come on Lie-lie”, you say, “they just happen to line up two different symbolisms so that masculine is good and feminine evil? sounds suspect”. And yes I’m getting to that. First it is important to say (and I can’t imagine how many times I will say this over the duration of this project) in symbolic readings of the stories of humans, feminine and masculine should not be taken to mean female and male, but rather energies or aspects within the makeup of everyone that require balance. Also do note that there is a negative element to “strength” and a positive one to “weakness”. The best visual representation of this is the yin yang symbol. However in the world we live in it is absurd to then say that a bias against women through the ages does not come into play at all, at the very least in the way the lessons are interpreted. When “balance” is, in practice, considered to mean one automatically always “weighs” more than the other, this bias can effect how people read and write stories.
People have and some still do try to say that these stories represent an ultimate truth about the nature of men and women, as if they were written outside of that cultural bias. Then use them to justify the idea that women have no other role than childbearing and that violent fighting for dominance is what men are “meant” to do. These kind of surface level readings of myth and folklore are typically unhelpful.

A discussion of masculine & feminine in symbolism as well as of literal real world readings Vs purely symbolic ones though will both be topics for future pages. Suffice to say for now that using dark and light as shorthand for good and bad is not the way we ought to frame it. Neither is inherently or completely one or the other and both are required.
The male and female element is center stage in an older Medieval song, and the first contender for what the story of what our song might be about, “The Contest of the Holly and the Ivy” . In which holly personifies men and ivy women, and verse by verse they duke it out in a classic battle of the sexes. It is thought by many to be this song that the first verse of The Holly and the Ivy might be referencing, or at least in the same tradition of. There are actually quite a few songs and poems pairing Holly and Ivy, it was quite common. Including this Tudor example attributed to Henry VIII. Of which I found two versions:

Green grow’th the holly
So doth the ivy;
Though winter blasts blow ne’er so high,
Green grow’th the holly.

As the holly groweth green
And never changeth hue,
So I am, ever hath been,
Unto my lady true. (ahahahahaha!!!! right)

As the holly groweth green
With ivy all alone
When flowers cannot be seen
And greenwood leaves be gone,

Now unto my lady
Promise to her I make,
From all other only
To her I me betake.

Adieu, mine own lady,
Adieu, my special
Who hath my heart truly
Be sure, and ever shall.

Green grow’th the holly
So doth the ivy
Though winter blasts blow na’er so high
Green grow’th the holly

Gay are the flowers
Hedgerows and ploughlands
The days grow longer in the sun
Soft fall the showers

Full gold the harvest
Grain for thy labor
With God must work for daily bread
Else, man, thou starvest

Fast fall the shed leaves
Russet and yellow
But resting buds are smug and safe
Where swung the dead leaves

Green grow’th the holly
So doth the ivy
The God of life can never die
Hope! Saith the holly

In our song of interest “Holly bears the crown” so has come out on top, but this was not always the case in these songs. In “Ivy, Chief Of Trees, It Is,” for instance, which sounds like it was titled by Yoda, it is the ivy that takes center stage. Veni coronaberis. Do we buy it? is that the story? just part of a wider trend of Holly and Ivy as Male and Female songs?

what else could Holly wearing the crown mean? lets pull that pin from up there somewhere.

The Holly king is the twin brother of the Oak king in Celtic pagan mythology, and the second contender for for our musical story. The two kings engage in endless battle. Fighting on the solstices and alternating wins with the seasons. They are often considered two aspects of one entity though, the Sun god, who goes by many names including “Lord of the Greenwood”, “Cernunnos”, “the Green Man”, “Herne the Hunter” and “you”.
But the tale goes like this, with some variations;

On the winter solstice the Triple Goddess (who can be seen as the ‘earth’) gives birth to the son (The sun) of light known as the oak king. People celebrate Yule at his birth as the sun will start waxing. After the goddess gives birth she dies and Goes to a place of the immaterial or of death. The name and exact symbolism given to this place will vary. This is time for the first fight between the Oak and Holly kings of the year. In this battle the oak king in his powerful, newly regenerated doctor sun child form defeats the now fading Holly King, who retreats to the immaterial place to await his return.
In spring, Imbolc, the oak king brings back the goddess as the maiden of her triple aspect and She flirts with the sun god oak king.
On Ostara, a celebration whose symbolism is mainly around rebirth, they become lovers and the earth blooms at their reunion.
Beltane, the one with symbolism around sexuality and fertility, is the peak of the Oak King’s reign, the celestial lovers marry.
On Litha, the summer solstice, the goddess is pregnant and enters her second phase of the triple aspect, The Mother. The sun god, after fertilizing the earth is weakened . Here takes place the second battle between the brothers. This time the Oak king will be killed by the Holly king, who will ascend as the new sun king, the dark sun king. So the sun starts to wane.
On Lughnasadh/Lammas the oak king descends and the dark sun holly king takes over the skies. The goddess gives birth to the first of the harvest.
On Mabon the goddess is still giving birth to earthly fruits.
On Samhain the triple goddess, after giving birth to all of earth’s bounty, is now in the third of her triple aspect the Crone. Now that she has a moment to think after like three months of labor, the sadness at the loss of her husband takes hold. And she opens the gates to the immaterial realm of the dead. This is why they say the veil is thin at this time. The holly king, though, closes the gate.
With her last strength the goddess gives birth to the oak king the new sun king on YULE. She dies and the cycle begins again.

That’s the story, but does it track to the lyrics of the song. We are only concerned with the first verse and refrain/chorus here. Well “The Holly bears the crown” obviously works. At Yule the Holly King is the one still wearing the crown.
“The rising of the sun” also clearly works. Yule is the return of the sun both in the story and real life. Every day from that one on until the next battle will be lighter than the one before it. The sun rises to defeat the ‘dark’ in the story.
What about the rest of the lines though. In the first line “The Holly and the Ivy, when they are both full grown” the Ivy is likely the triple goddess due to it’s feminine symbolism, but it could also be darkness and the story would still work. Both the Holly King and Triple Goddess are in the final phase of their cycle about to die so, “full grown”. And at yule the longest night of the year we are at maximum darkness, so that is also “full grown”. But the Goddess is the best bet.
“Of all the trees that are in the wood, the Holly bears the crown” Well ivy isn’t a tree, so this isn’t her. Know what is a tree though? Oak! who begins Yule without his crown.
Then after the rising of the sun we have “the running of the deer” That could be just our literal forest dwelling friends. But the Oak king in his many manifestations either has, or wears as a head dress, Stag antlers.
Then finally we have some music and singing.

So read this way it goes;
When the Holly king and the Triple Goddess are in their old age, the Holly King still has the crown of the Greenwood. ” What are you gonna do about that then Oak King? ”
“Rise up renewed and run you down with my stag antlers, that’s what! you prickly bastard!” Then everybody rejoiced. Nice.

There is a lot going on in that story, even as brief overview. Symbolism layers on layers. That which applies to the self, to the community, to nature, to the fabric of reality it’s self. But I’m going to quickly unpack just one, the thing I think most people find most weird. The goddess gives birth to her husband who is both his own father and son (and fights himself to death over and over both winning and losing every battle). A literal reading is obviously not possible. A symbolic reading where the king is the sun and queen the earth, being all about seasons and harvest is easy enough to accept. It is common to many mythologies. We can see it in the Greek mythology to name just one. But as symbolic of self? How do you impregnate, give birth to, fight and destroy and rise above, yourself?
Well one way to read it is just the passage of time. Different stages of your life giving way to another.
The path of personal growth in a spiritual context is dependent, among other key things, on what in this series we will call “Shadow integration” though there are several ways you can phrase it. I’m just going to stay close to Jungian language for continuity. Through introspection and study one must identify those things that are out of balance or suppressed, those things that are missing and those things that must be removed.
In eastern philosophy Enlightenment is described as a destructive process, the stripping away of untruth.
This could be phrased as creating yourself or becoming yourself Vs the more passive being yourself. A process which does not end. But is, like nature and life, a cycle. Not a circle, for when this cycle returns to the same place it is on a new level each time. So a spiral.
That is, to my way of thinking, how you can be your own mother, father, child and killer at the same time.

“The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order” ~ Alfred North Whitehead.

What underlying message do both the battle of the sexes sing-offs and the epic tale of the Oak king, his evil twin and their triple aspect queen have in common from a symbolic reading? Balance…..
The balance of male and female, masculine and feminine. Of day and night, light and shadow, good and evil, strength and weakness, plenty and scarcity, life and death, material and immaterial. The balance of all “opposites” which are one without contradiction. And from this balance, the certainty of a continuing cycle, in both our natural world and our selves.
So then we naturally ask ourselves “Is this meaning still communicated when the story is made to be about a single child tasked with the salvation of humankind?” Arguably no, but plenty would disagree. There certainly is a god-child birth in both stories who brings “light” to triumph over “evil”. There are themes of rebirth. You could even say there are two men and one woman I suppose though I don’t think that one really tracks too well. But there is a confusing “I’m my own father and son” thing going on .
Despite several similarities though many make the argument that the pagan multitude of gods, each embodiments of some aspect of self/life, and connected to nature, is more relatable. And so more effective in conveying the symbolic message, than an individual “saviour” who can feel disconnected from human lived experience. In fact I have encountered some Christian scholars who make a point of saying, for example, that Jesus would not have been born in a stable. Their reasoning is not to be pedantic over historical accuracy, but to show the Christ child being born within a community like all children of his time. Rather than separate to that community. That for them the fact of their ‘King’ being of and among them is part of the point of the story.

Is one story or version of a story right and one wrong? nope that is not what symbolism analysis is about. But this phenomena is what we will look at next in, “How fairy tales change”….or wording to that effect, I don’t know.

Interestingly modern Pagans and Wiccans have been having fun turning the tables of late, rewriting Christmas carols to depict pagan stories and symbolism. I recently saw on Pinterest “Dancing in a Wiccan wonderland”, “God rest ye merry Paganfolk”, and a rather lovely reworking of “Gloria” to describe the birth of the sun God. So all keeps turning. See you on the next page.

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