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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Holy Holly

Holly has been associated with spiritual rituals since Roman times.  The type that most people are familiar with is commonly called English or Christmas holly, but its formal name is Ilex aquifolium.  The Romans called it ilex because of the leaves' resemblance to oak (Quercus ilex).

Holly leaves can be bright, shiny green or have edges tinged with white.

Because the holly is an evergreen, it became a symbol early on in every kind of winter celebration for the renewal of life that would occur in spring.  In fact, many of the plants that now play a part in winter holidays and observances were evergreen, such as coniferous trees and mistletoe.

Part of a Tunisian mosaic showing
Dionysus with an evergreen tree.
Image courtesy of www.artehistoria.jcyl.es.

In this capacity of rebirth, holly was associated with Dionysus in ancient Greece, and later with some pagan sun gods.  The ancient Romans used it in their Saturnalia observances, and associated the plant with their god of agriculture and harvest, Saturn.  Early Christians in Rome hung Saturnalian holly to avoid persecution, and later just kept the tradition.

Image courtesy of Photobasket.com.

Druids are said to have hung it to ward off witches and evil spirits.  It was hung on walls, especially near beds to insure sweet dreams.  It was a pagan protection device, most likely because it stood out in the cold winter months when everything else was dormant and gray.  It was considered bad luck to chop a plant down.  The Celts believed in the Holly King, who ruled death and winter, as well as the Oak King, who ruled life and summer.  In the Middle Ages the Holly King and the Ivy Queen were honored, especially in mummers' plays.

Thor's Battle Against the Jötnar, 1872, by Mårten Eskil Winge.

In Norse mythology the holly was associated with Thor and Freya.   Thor used lightning as a weapon, and Freya was in charge of weather.  This led to the practice of hanging holly in one's house to protect against lightning.  Holly trees conduct lightning into the ground better than most trees and with little injury to the tree itself.

In Japan there are several legends that feature holly.  One features a Buddhist monk named Daikoku.  Once when he was attacked by a devil, his companion rat ran off and brought back a holly branch, which devils will not go near.  Thus, similar to European pagans, in rustic areas of Japan there is a tradition to keep devils away by hanging a holly branch on the doors of houses.

An engraved shell cup.

Archaeologists of the American southeast and southwest have found ritual shell cups with holly residue dating to 1,200 BCE.  This speaks of a long tradition of using holly, a type called Ilex vomitoria used to induce vomiting and hallucinations as part of a ritual.  The Cherokee and Creek tribes held it sacred even a century ago.

The smooth-leaved Ilex vomitoria.

The word is thought to have come from the Indo-European qel, which means prickly.  The name "Holly" comes from Old English holegn, related to Old High German hulis.  The French took hulis and called it houx.  It has no connection to the word "holy" despite its use in religious affairs.

While the holly became associated with men, women's counterpart was ivy, hence the Christmas song.  When all the winter traditions were coopted into Christmas, so was the holly plant.  Later it became used in Christian iconography to symbolize the crown of thorns (the sharp leaves), blood of Christ (the red berries), and the innocence of Christ (the white flowers).  There are claims that the tree from which the cross where Christ hung was a holly tree.

...and flowers.

Although the prickly leaves are the first image that comes to mind when most people think of holly, there are smooth leaved varieties.  (The smooth ones are associated with women - apparently more dainty.)  The plant can be either a shrub or a tree, and though the popular one that comes to mind is an evergreen, there are deciduous types as well.  The ilex aquifolium is found in Asia, Europe, and North America.  While both male and female plants boost white flowers in the late spring, only the females produce berries.  They depend on pollinators, like bees.  While toxic to humans, the berries are an important food source for birds.

Ilex paraguariensis where Yerba Mate tea comes from.

Unlike the berries, the leaves are used in herbal concoctions to treat dizziness, fever, and hypertension, and are a popular purgative.  The leaves are also a source of caffeine, and the herbal tea Yerba Mate comes from a type of holly.  The type called Ilex Gauyusa has the highest known caffeine content of any plant.  The roots can be used as a diuretic.  The wood from the holly is hard and excellent for carving, sometimes used for walking sticks, chess pieces, and at one time for bagpipes.

Great Highlands bagpipes were often made with Holly wood.

Whatever you celebrate this winter, if you deck the halls with boughs of holly you are keeping a tradition with an ancient and multinational pedigree.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.


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