Notes from the Apothecary: Holly
(Image credit: Pere López via Wikimedia)
The holly, dark green,
Made a resolute stand,
He is armed with many spear points
Wounding the hand. (Cad Goddeu, The Book of Taliesin, 14th Century.)
Holly immediately conjures up images of snowy woods and midwinter frosts, and it has been a staple of solstice celebrations since at least Roman times. The festival of Saturnalia ran for a week or so around the shortest day, and holly was included in wreaths and garlands, it’s evergreen leaves and red berries a promise of the spring that was to come. Also, as a sacred plant of Saturn, holly was seen as an offering to the patron god of these festivities, and this is how it became tied to the solstice, and much later on, to Christmas.
The Kitchen Garden
Don’t eat holly! Though the jewel-like red berries may look appealing, they are for the birds and not for you! Don’t leave them within reach of children or pets; they are poisonous and can cause severe vomiting and diarrhoea. Also, it’s worth remembering that as the beautiful boughs dry out, the berries can fall to the floor where they may be picked up, so keep an eye on your holly, and if in doubt, remove the berries and place them out of sight of small hands or paws.
The Witch’s Kitchen
If invoking or evoking Saturn, Holly leaves or berries are an ideal offering. Saturn is linked to agriculture, harvests and time itself, so may be called upon to aid in seasonal spell-craft, particularly around the winter months. His sickle represents the end of the final harvest, but also the creation of things, as he used it to castrate hi father which separated Earth from Heaven, and created creatures such as the furies and the giants. The crescent shape of the sickle represents the cyclical nature of our world, and Holly, Saturn’s sacred plant, is a reminder that all things return in time.
As with all evergreens, holly is a symbol of summer within winter. For Wiccans and similar paths, it is a reminder that although the Holly King vanquished the Oak King at the summer Solstice, the Oak King merely rests, waiting to rise again, his blood the resting sap in the trees. After the Winter solstice, or Yule or Saturnalia, a sprig of holly reminds us that although the Oak King is now the powerful spirit waiting to rise up once the earth warms again, the Holly King is still alive, in the evergreen leaves and blood red berries that remind us of fire, passion, and the life that will surge back in spring and summer.
Holly is traditionally a protective tree, and the wood has been used to ward off witchcraft and evil magic for centuries. At one point in Britain, some builders crafted the doorsteps of houses out of holly wood, so that witches could not enter the building. Drinking from a cup made of holly wood helped purge the sickness faster.
Holly has also been used for divination, particularly to learn the identity of a future spouse. The leaves are supposed to be able to bring prophetic dreams.
Effigies built of holly represent the masculine, and their counterparts were often made of ivy, which is seen as the feminine evergreen. The effigies would be burnt as part of midwinter festivities, to hurry along the warmth of spring.
A sprig of holly was given as a token of good luck in Roman times, so always accept a gift of holly gratefully.
Home and Hearth
Soak holly leaves in water or oil to make a protective liquid. Pick the leaves at a full moon if you can, place them in a jar with clean tap water, or rain or spring water, or an oil of your choice. Shake daily, and imbue with your intent as often as you can. The liquid will reach potency at the next new moon. Sprinkle some in your sacred place as thanks for the magic. Dab on wrists or at the neck. If irritation occurs, immediately discontinue use! However, this should be physically mild, whilst metaphysically powerful, protecting you from ill will and negativity.
If you are pricked by the holly leaves, it may sting, but as long as you clean the wound, it is seen as very good luck, particularly between winter solstice and Imbolc.
At Imbolc, burn a piece of holly (safely, preferably outdoors) to symbolise the end of winter. The Cailleach, the Irish or Scottish hag-like spirit of winter, threw down her wintery rod beneath the holly tree, admitting defeat in the face of spring.
I Never Knew…
According to Scott Cunningham in his Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, throwing holly at a wild animal will cause it to lie down and not molest you. I don’t recommend this in the case of bear attacks!