Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Holly Seeketh Ivy

At this time of year in the English-speaking world, one hears a lot about Holly and Ivy. As usual, the songs preserve the old lore.

In medieval England—and possibly earlier—Holly and Ivy were shorthand for "Male" and "Female." It used to be that when there was a birth in a household, you'd announce the newborn by hanging at the door a branch of holly for a boy or a wreath of ivy for a girl.

So what all those songs about the Holly wearing the crown are really about is male dominance.

But don't go grinding that double ax just yet. As usual, that's just the beginning of the tale.

Among the Kalasha, the last remaining pagans of the Hindu Kush, and the only Indo-European people whose worldview has never been reshaped by one of the big-box religions, the winter solstice—Chaumós—is the greatest festival of the year, encompassing nearly a month of celebration from beginning to end. The seven culminating and most sacred days of the holiday are marked by strict segregation between women and men. They may not even touch each other; sex, of course, is out of the question. These days are characterized by much back-and-forth banter, much of it sexual, if not downright raunchy; men and women improvise satirical songs about each other.

Thus are the tensions that arise naturally between the sexes—"because they are different," as novelist Parke Godwin observes—exorcized by being exercised.

And I don't need to tell you what happens when the seven days are up.

The story goes that long ago not a single woman of the Kalasha conceived for a period of several years. A dehár (shaman) consulted the suchi ("fairies") and was told that the sexes must refrain from sex for an entire year. Then they should join together in coital union, and thus the curse would be averted. And so it was.

Good old fairies.

Chaumós ends, of course, with the ecstatic reunion of the sexes, culminating in a grand public carnival in which everyone cross-dresses: what Uncle Al would call "division for the sake of union."

Likewise, medieval Yule was characterized by playful banter between the sexes about which was superior, holly or ivy. Along with the holly songs, there used to be lots of ivy carols hymning the superiority of women. Most, alas, have been lost down the years, although the lyrics to a few have survived without tunes.

Goddess bless 'em, the Mediaeval Baebes released a new tune for some 15th-century words in their 2000 album Undrentide. The title and refrain means, "Come, You Shall be Crowned."

Veni Coronaberis 

The most worthy she is in town— 

They that say other do amiss— 

And most worthy to bear the crown.

Veni coronaberis.


Ivy is soft and meek of speech.

Against all bale, she is bliss.

Well are they that may her reach:

Veni coronaberis.


Ivy is green with color bright;

Of all trees best she is,

And that I prove well now be right,

Veni coronaberis.


Ivy beareth berries black.

May she grant us all her bliss,

For then shall we nothing lack.

Veni coronaberis. 


OK, so it's not the greatest carol in the world. Kudos for the effort. Now we just need to write some new ones.

I never really understood Holly and Ivy symbolism until I visited Dublin in late winter one year. A friend took me down to a copse to see the local herd of red deer. Literally the only green things in the wood were the holly bushes and the trees with ivy grown up into them.

Conifers, of course, are evergreen by nature, but ivy and holly are both broadleafs that nonetheless retain their leaves during the winter. That, of course, gives them special power.

Likewise, together they embody the two kinds of strength: strength of sturdiness and strength of flexibility. 

As I write this, it's the afternoon of Midwinter's Eve. When I left the house this morning, I broke off a sprig from the holly bush that grows at the front gate, and tucked it into the roll of my cap. (The Kalasha do the same at Chaumós.) I'll wear it throughout the day. 

And tonight, when we come together to dance the great Dance of the Wheel, with the men inside facing out and the women outside facing in, the women will be wearing their ivy and the men their holly.

And once again, the Sun shall come up early.

Just see if it doesn't.

You can see my lyrics for a new Ivy carol here.

Now all we need is a tune.

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Tagged in: carols Kalasha
Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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