Ogham – Tinne: Holly

400 yr old Holly at Greencombe, Porlock

T – Tinne: Holly

The Moon-month for Tinne runs from 8 Jul – 4 Aug

The holly tree at Greencombe, Porlock, Exmoor, is anciet and very magical. I’ve sat within his multi-stemmed grove and dreamed several times.

Holly is the tree of the Tánaiste – the twin and often the killer of the king.

What is a Tánaiste?

This is from wiki and may surprise you J …

The Tánaiste (Irish pronunciation: [ˈtɑːnəʃtʲə]; plural: Tánaistí [ˈtɑːnəʃtʲiː]), or, more formally, An Tánaiste[2], is the deputy prime minister of Ireland. The Taoiseach (prime minister) nominates a member of the government to the position of Tánaiste. The current Tánaiste is Mary Coughlan, TD. TánaisteIrish word for the heir of the chief ( was originally the taoiseach) or king (rí), under the Gaelic system of tanistry. Before independence, the British Viceroy was sometimes referred to in the Irish language as An Tánaiste-Ri, literally ‘the deputy king’.

The office was created in the 1937 Constitution of Ireland, replacing the previous office of Vice-President of the Executive Council that had existed under the Free State constitution. The Tánaiste acts in the place of the Taoiseach during his or her temporary absence, and, until a successor has been appointed, in the event of the Taoiseach’s death or permanent incapacitation.

Holly berries

However, the role of Tánaiste is far older than 1937.  Two of the most famous holders of the office are Gawain who was Arthur’s Tánaiste and Gronw who was Tánaiste to Llew Llaw Gyffes. In the latter case Gronw is called to kill Llew in order to open him from being a personality-oriented brat so that he can become king, it is part of Blodeuwedd’s training of him. Blodeuwedd is the Queen of the Night and Lady of Dreams who agreed to inhabit the body made for her from nine flowers by Math and Gwydion in order to find a wife for Llew.

This is a complex story that has been much dumbed-down by Victorian and later writers who have made Blodeuwedd to be a soulless, heartless trollop who cheats on her man. Such is not at all the case. Blodeuwedd is a powerful goddess and initiator, a king-maker, one who draws us from the illusion of form into the reality of essence. Her totem, the owl, is the wise bird of legend, one who can see in the dark and the barn owl – with the heart-shaped face assigned to Blodeuwedd – is able to fly silently and to pinpoint the smallest sound with her incredible hearing. Ponder on the symbology of all that for a goddess … and for what she can see and draw out of you.

Back to the Tánaiste … the wiki piece above says the Tánaiste was the deputy-king, and indeed that was so, but what does it mean and how is it relevant to us?

second-in-command, assistant, agent, representative, helper, supporter, envoy, emissary, ambassador, negotiator, mediator … these are some of the offerings for the word deputy from the Thesaurus. All are relevant and pondering on them will give you more of an idea of what it is to be Tánaiste. Both Gawain and Gronw are these to their respective kings.

I recently gave you the story of Ragnall’s Wedding where Gawain takes on the job of marrying Ragnall in her hag-form in order to get the answer to the questions “What do women most desire?”, and so save Arthur’s life. It’s a wonderful story and shows what all beings, creatures, people want … the ability to choose. Gawain is vital to this as are his qualities of perception and generosity, and his willingness to ask, to hand over decisions to another when appropriate.

Gronw usually suffers badly at the hands of story-tellers, becoming the cuckolder, the stealer of another man’s wife, the nasty piece of work. He’s none of these things. Without him, Llew would continue in his hunting and pleasuring and never take the slightest care of the Land … and for the Celts, the Land is the Goddess who is our whole care and duty. You can see Llew, until Gronw speared him, was a complete waste of space as far as being guardian to the goddess was concerned!

Robert Graves gives the line for Tinne, in the Song of Amergin as …

I am a Spear: that roars for blood

This is the spear that Gronw makes, with Blodeuwedd’s help, in order to drink the blood and pierce the ego of Llew, so drawing him into his totem, the eagle, and forcing him into aloneness in the wilderness of the eagle-mountain, Mother Snowdon, to find himself as king. Without Gronw spearing him he would have been useless.

Often, the Tánaiste is also the “twin”, and his twin’s executioner as Gronw is in the this story. There are many Celtic stories of  twins, usually a dark one and a light one … the ubiquitous two sides of one coin that permeates the whole of the Celtic tradition.

These two heads are the same … if you turn one upside-down you get the other. They were inscribed on coins from the Celtic period.

The relationship of Tánaiste to king is like this, they are two sides of one coin.


There is much lore about holly in the British tradition and it is a magnificent tree if allowed to grow to its full height, often 50ft.

Holly King by Christopher Bell

In Celtic grammarye the Holly King is the Green Knight of “Gawain and the Green Knight”. Gawain is Arthur’s Tánaiste who, as we’ve seen, takes the king’s place in dangerous adventures. You’ll remember the story of the Green Knight coming to Arthur’s hall at Yule, carrying a holly bush as his totem, and demanding to be beheaded? Gawain complies and so incurs the duty to find the Green Knight again and allow himself to be beheaded in his turn.

I’ll do the story later.

Holly is also sacred to Llew and one of the Celtic symbols for this tree is the Flaming Spear … after Gronw’s spear that transmuted him from boy into king.

Holly is the first moon of the dark half of the year – i.e. after the midsummer solstice when the days begin to get shorter again. This is significant of the mythos of the Oak King, slain by his twin, Tánaiste, the Holly King. The Holly King then rules until the midwinter solstice when he, in his turn, is slain by his Tánaiste, the Oak King. Oak and Holly are again two sides of the same coin, the end of one cycle being the beginning of the next.

The old yuletide carol – much older than Christmas – says, “of all the Trees that are in the Wood, the Holly bears the Crown” … a good thought to finish on.


Elen Sentier
… behind every gifted woman there’s usually a rather talented cat …
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Celtic shaman – Elen Sentier Coughing up bones …

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