In some Wiccan traditions, the Oak King and the Holly King are seen as dual aspects of the Horned God. Each of these twin aspects rules for half the year, battles for the favor of the Goddess, and then retires to nurse his wounds for the next six months, until it is time for him to reign once more.
Often, these two entities are portrayed in familiar ways – the Holly King frequently appears as a woodsy version of Santa Claus. He dresses in red, wears a sprig of holly in his tangled hair, and is sometimes depicted driving a team of eight stags. The Oak King is portrayed as a fertility god, and occasionally appears as the Green Man or other lord of the forest.
Ultimately, while these two beings do battle all year long, they are two essential parts of a whole. Despite being enemies, without one, the other would no longer exist.
The Horned God – Herne
It is suggested that “Herne” may be a cognate of the name of the Gaulish deity Cernunnos in the same way that the English “horn” is a cognate of the Latin “cornu”. Some modern Neo-pagans equate Herne with Cernunnos. Therefore implying that Herne and Cernunnos are one in the same. Herne however was a localised figure, not found outside Berkshire and the regions of the surrounding counties into which Windsor Forest, in England, once spread.
The legend is that Herne is the ghost of a forester employed by King Richard II, who was said to have saved the king’s life when the monarch was attacked by a stag in Windsor Forest. Herne was killed by the stag, but brought back to life by a shaman. Later he fell from the king’s favor, and hung himself from a great oak tree which became known as Herne’s Oak. It is said that his ghost is seen riding through the forest, wearing the antlers of the stag on his own head.
The Horned God – Cernnunnos
Cernunnos is understood as a complex and powerful god, though he may not have been the head of the Celtic pantheon. Since his earliest origins as Lord of Hunt, he has been associated with animals, abundance, good fortune and virile fertility. But since the object of the hunt is the death of the prey, and the hunter is sometimes even killed in this life-sustaining pursuit. Cernunnos is recognized as both the God of Death and guardian of the underworld. Irish stories describe Cernunnos (Uindos) as the son of the high god Lugh. He is called a wild hunter, a warrior, and a poet.
The Green Man –
The Green Man has many variations. Found in many cultures around the world, the Green Man is often related to natural vegetative deities springing up in different cultures throughout the ages. Primarily it is interpreted as a symbol of rebirth, or “renaissance”, representing the cycle of growth each spring. Some speculate that the mythology of the Green Man developed independently in the traditions of separate ancient cultures and evolved into the wide variety of examples found throughout history.
In Wicca, the Green Man has often been used as a representation of the Horned God, a syncretic deity that appropriates aspects of, among others, the Celtic Cernunnos and the Greek Pan.
The green man also represents a form of personal transformation in meditations or ritual. The icon of the face with leaves sprouting out is a representation of a personal visionary experience of “becoming” a green man or woman.
The Oak King vs. Holly King – The Oak King, the Lord of the Greenwood and golden twin of the waxing year, rules from Midwinter to Midsummer. At Midwinter, he goes to battle with his twin, the Holly King, for the favor of the Goddess. He slays the Holly King, who goes to rest in Caer Arianrhod until they do battle again at Midsummer. The Oak King and Holly King are mortal enemies at Midsummer and Midwinter, but they are two sides of a whole. Neither could exist without the other.
Two themes run throughout the Oak King and Holly King saga. The first, of course, is the two great yearly battles between the two. The second is the sacrificial mating, death, and resurrection of each in his season.
At Beltane, the peak of the Oak King’s reign, he sacrificially mates with the Great Mother, dies in her embrace, and is resurrected. This is an enactment of the natural fertility theme of the season, and is not uncommon in other mythologies: Osiris, Tammuz, Dionysus, Balder, and Jesus are only a few other gods who die and are resurrected. (The Holly King on the other hand, mates, dies and is resurrected at Lammas.) This aspect of the Oak King and Holly King is not widely discussed, but is an important element in their roles as fertility gods.