The Holly King is a masculine neopagan deity who holds court from midsummer to midwinter. His twin and adversary, the Oak King, rules the opposite half of the year.
The Holly King was initially described in Robert Graves’s 1948 The White Goddess, which outlines what Graves sees as a Celtic mythological figure representing the ‘darker’ half of the year. Although other scholars have argued that Graves’s interpretation is not an accurate historical view of ancient Celts and Celtic paganism, many neopagans have still accepted the Holly King and Oak King as a part of their worship and practice.
The pair are often seen as the dual aspects of a single male Earth deity, representing the waxing and waning halves of the year, summer and winter, and light and darkness. There are a number of paired mythological hero-figures that are put forth as variants of the Holly and Oak King myth, including Gawain and the Green Knight, Gwyn and Gwythr, and St. John the Baptist and Jesus .
The Holly King and the Oak King are described by Graves to be locked in an eternal struggle for the favor of the Goddess. The Holly King emerges on the summer solstice to slay his brother at the height of his power, only to have the same happen to him on the winter solstice.
Because there is no specific source myth, descriptions of the Holly King are interpretive and tend to vary. In one tradition he is described as an immortal giant wielding a large club of holly wood . He is “the lord of darkness, death, animals and withering […] a horned god […] the avenger, older [than the Oak King], whose wild hunt runs free to protect and avenge” . Others interpret the Holly King as more jovial, and potentially as an early precursor to Santa Claus . Traditional British Christmas carol “The Holly and the Ivy” makes reference to the Holly King, saying:
Associations and Suggested Offerings
People with birthdays between the summer and winter solstice (zodiac signs Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Scorpio, and Sagittarius) may feel particularly influenced by the Holly King, having been born during his reign. Suggested offerings to the Holly King include holly, wren feathers, antler velvet, chestnuts, and other traditional midwinter correspondences.