Monday, December 05, 2011

The Holly King

Associated with: Celtic religions, Neopaganism
Also known as: Lleu Llaw Gyffes, Lugh, Gwyn ap Nudd, Lord of the Greenwood
Earliest recorded mention: Depends on whether you buy the theory
Major texts: The White Goddess by Robert Graves

The one thing this year's blog theme has shown me is how little I know about this subject, despite a lifelong interest in myths and comparative religions. I have not, for instance, read all of The White Goddess by the poet Robert Graves. If anyone wants to give me a copy for Christmas (or of Graves' memoir, Goodbye to All That, or of his collected poems) I'd be grateful.

Robert Graves is best known for the historical novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, although his poetry deserves to be better read. He was a complicated man — to put it mildly — who did a good bit of damage to the people who loved him. He was a Romantic in the most complete and classic sense of that word, meaning that he considered emotions rather than reason the most powerful life forces. Carl Jung's theories of archetypes buried in a collective subconscious made sense to him, and The White Goddess is "a historical grammar of poetic myth" that traces all Western mythology to a single belief system involving a triple goddess of love, birth, and death (maiden, mother, crone) and her adjunct deities.

Among the mythic archetypes Graves identified were the Holly King and the Oak King, gods who battle for the world twice a year but rely on each other for life and identity. The Holly King presides over the waning of the year, from the Summer Solstice to the Winter Solstice; at the Winter Solstice, the Oak King triumphs, and life returns to the world.

Up here in Maine, we feel this waning acutely, and it does carry a feeling of portent and doom. The sun will set at 4:00 this afternoon; we are losing more than a minute of light a day. We battle it by decorating for Christmas: lights and greenery, things that sparkle, food full of butter and sugar to carry us through the months ahead. It was smart of early Christianity to co-opt this festival for its own purposes. The historical Jesus was probably born in early autumn; almost all of our western Christmas customs come from the old feast of Yule. The official stories might correlate Santa Claus to St. Nicholas or St. Basil, but the image of the bearded man in red is all Holly King.

My sisters gave me a light box for my birthday. It does help, though I feel irritable rather than sad, which probably doesn't make me any easier to be around.

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