The glorious rising of the Midsummer Sun is a time when a sacred gathering commences in the center of the Great Stone Ring. It is here that the strength of the Light and the richness of the Earth are joyfully celebrated on the Longest Day, when the Twins hand over the Sun at its peak to the Crab. It is during this time when my pilgrimage to the Great Stone Ring begins where I witness the tremendous Battle of Light, the voracious Facing of Holly and Oak.
We are hundreds of pilgrims who congregate in the sheep-laden pastures outside the Ring, the evening before, pitching our lean-tos and tents, building our fires, playing our drums, and waiting. Waiting. All night long, a vigil to the final triumph of the Light, which will rise on the edge of tomorrow when the Battle will begin with the fanfare of the Dawn. This battle between two sacred trees, the aged, sovereign Oak and the vivacious fledgling Holly. It is a contest that was been fought a million times before, twice each year, and is as predictable as Dusk, but is nevertheless a spectacle to behold for us, the devotees of the Sun.
The last time this Battle was fought was in Winter, on the Shortest Day. Holly was the ancient one in her previous incarnation, revered and victorious in her accomplishments of the past year, but weakened by her advanced age and loss of vitality. Young Oak was just a sapling then, but growing taller and more illumined by the moment and was, in the end, victorious in that Great Battle of the Shortest Day. With the defeat and death of the old Holly, the days became longer, the first stirrings of Imbolc were upon us, and the planting season was a golden promise in the cold, biting air. But now, it is Summer and, just as the Earth revolves around the Sun, the spiral of the seasons has continued to turn and we are here again, at the Ring to see the Battle return, knowing that this time Holly in her new form will take back her dark crown.
Many of the pilgrims have never been to the Ring before, they chomp at their spiritual bits and try to be patient for they know that the Battle will transform all of us. Allowance into the Great Stone Ring is, in itself, a monumental privilege with its solemn sarsens and wizened rock who will hum and gaze at us tomorrow amused as we shift from foot to foot and strain to glimpse the Battle. Even now, we can hear the distant breathing and murmuring of the Stones in the Ring, even from our camps among the sheep and the thistles. They confer and cajole, no doubt tittering about our impending arrival. They must think us primitive for needing symbolic ritual to understand the order of Nature. Tonight I can see them in the moonlight, gargantuan, dwarfing the slumbering Oak they surround who will seem so stately tomorrow when we enter the Ring and the newly incarnate Holly, quivering in the breeze as she sleeps. Good. Both trees are in repose at this hour. It will be a magnificent battle at Dawn.
There is a stirring among the pilgrims. Are we preparing our procession to the Ring so soon? Certainly it is just a few hours since sunset. But it is the shortest night of the year and no time can be wasted to ready ourselves for the Battle to come. Dawn will arrive like a thundering chariot and we must be ready and in our places within the Ring. We stiffly stand and stretch and douse our vigil fires. Those of us prone to leadership organize the rest and distribute the lanterns, walking staves, and other needs. There is a sprinkling of excitement that defeats our sleepiness and we chatter as we form our queues knowing that once inside the Ring, we are bound to silence as the Battle will require our steadfast attention. It is time to begin our slow walk to the Ring. Our leaders raise their hands for quiet. We move in meditation towards the site. It is our last leg of the pilgrimage before the Great Battle begins.
With every step, the sky lightens to a brighter shade: ocean blue to stone gray, then to faded rose. The eastern horizon flushes suddenly to a brazen scarlet just as we approach the western entrance of the Ring. The Sun will make His entrance very soon. It is now that we first spy the battleground inside the Ring bathed in a hazy salmon-pink light. Elders in hoods are seated near the eastern entrance, stoic, patient, practiced. Oak and Holly have already awakened and each are preparing with their own helpers, old friends that have assisted them so many times before. Oak is advised by the eloquent and fiery BrÃ¬ghde, her copper nest of hair flickering in the morning breeze. Holly shivers with unchanneled youth as her cantankerous companion the Cailleach Bheur rattles and throws her ogham staves on a mangy hide, muttering her well-worn incantations and frigid prophesies. Although we already know the outcome, the air is dense with expectation as we, the spectating throngs fill the Ring and the combatants ready themselves with their mentors for this time-honored duel. This Contest of Enlightenment. This Battle of Words.
Without suitable warning, there is a communal gasp as the eastern horizon quite suddenly explodes with the first three rays of sunlight, breathing effulgent life into the Ring and all who have gathered here this day. The Sun has arrived! The leaders, nervously agitated, scurry to and fro, herding the last of us to our places and shushing us as we are so moved to forget our vow of silence. We giggle quietly, partly due to the excitement, but also at the ridiculousness of the flailing silent arms of the leaders bringing an unnecessary urgency and somberness to this Festival of Joy. But even we, the chortling crowd know that the time has come for our attention as an elder in a hooded robe raises a caged robin overhead, signaling the start of the Contest. With knotty fingers the elder slides open the cage door as it has been done so many times before, and releases the robin who will choose the contestant that will begin the Battle. We all watch with sweeping eyes as the little bird circles between the trees and finally lights on a twisted upper branch of Oak. It is decided. Oak will go first. It is his opponentâ€™s companion, the Cailleach who will pose the first question for him to answer. She throws her staves and rattles her beads. Then she lumbers forward into the very center of the Ring sweeping the ground with her ragged skirts. A frozen North wind whistles through the Stones as we shiver. She raises her stick and, turning slowly in an anti-sunwise rotation, she lifts her icy voice so that all may hear:
â€œListen! Listen! This is my first interrogation put to Grandfather Oak. May you answer correctly with the wisdom of your years, old sir.â€
Not a sound can be heard as we await the question.
â€œWho, in reaching his prime, has lighted the way for his decline?â€
The exalted BrÃ¬ghde immediately steps under the sheltering arms of Oak, the two of them consult in a cloud of whispers and stolen glances. It isnâ€™t long before BrÃ¬ghde glides to the edge of the Ring with a knowing smile. Oak slowly straightens to attention with a presence that has earned him the respect that we all know so well.
â€œMy dear Lady of the North, my esteemed opponent Holly, honored elders and blessed people of the land who have bravely ventured to this place for this holy Quest. I thank you for your witness this day. If I heard the question correctly, I am pleased to announce that the answer is not difficult. He, who in reaching his prime, has lighted the way for his decline, can be no one else but the sun-child, the Mabon for, from this moment, the year begins the descent towards the Shortest Day as it has done so many times before. As it is said: â€˜When Yang reaches apogee, it turns to Yin. When Yin reaches apogee, it turns to Yang.â€™â€
And with that, the energy it took to respond so eloquently seems to age old Oak one hundred years.
There is a swell of applause that roars from within the Great Stone Ring when mighty Oak delivers this answer, for it is indeed as correct as it is appropriate to the occasion. The bristly Cailleach shakes her staves and sits on her mangy hide in a slump.
Now it is BrÃ¬ghdeâ€™s turn who is already flipping through the archives of her divine memory, searching for the most difficult of questions to perplex the already cunning mind of young Holly. After a moment, BrÃ¬ghdeâ€™s eyes widen and a sly grin stretches out on her lips. She has the question at hand and steps forward.
â€œAnd now it is time for Holly to answer my question, and indeed a good question it is. Think carefully upon this Little One, for to answer wrongly is a point in our direction. At this time of year, what magic is drawn and healing herbs harvested?â€
The Cailleach begins her chanting and throws her ogham staves while Holly furrows her boughs in deepest of thought. A silent tension creeps over us all as the Arctic wind itself seems to creak its way through the Ring. We all shake with the cold as the Old Snow Crone formulates her answer for her evergreen protÃ©gÃ©. At last, in conclusion, she blows her frosty breath in a snowy cloud that drifts through Hollyâ€™s branches carrying the retaliatory answer. Holly looks at the Cailleach, then to all of us, then rustles her leaves and says,
â€œAt this time of year we gather elderberries for warding off harm, fern seed for stealth, rowan, vervain, and yarrow for protection from enchantment and death. And most of all, this is the time for plucking the Blessed Plant, the star-shaped flower some call St. Johnâ€™s Wort for the assurance of peace, prosperity, and good health. For these green plants are filled with sunlight and given as good wishes for all.â€
And with this answer, Holly grows a full meter bearing a multitude of bright red berries.
Another resounding cheer rises from the congregation as now the score is tied, and the intrigue of the Game draws us in all the more. New questions are posed quizzing each tree about Ancestors, the Zodiac, the Underworld, and other such topics as the Sun climbs ever higher, reaching His crest in the sky. Those of us who have watched this duel in years past know that at noon, the winner can be easily guessed as by then the older of the contestants is usually battle weary and will begin to falter. Such is the case today for when the shadows were their shortest, Oakâ€™s answers become more and more insufficient, non-existent or wrong. And he is growing older before us. Holly is ever radiant and rising in stature. Her answers are exquisite, inspired, and clear. She is the obvious impending victor.
Then, just as the Sun begins His afternoon descent, Oak finds new breath and a lucidity that seems to arrive with the growing shade. His answers come quickly and with a proud vengeance that reminds us all of his once kingly power of the past year. He is not to fade away without one last punch. One by one, he answers each question correctly regaining his ground, and before the western skies are bedecked with crimson clouds, the points between Holly and Oak are once again equal.
But it is written in words as old as the Moon that on this, the Longest Day, the Oak can never win this Battle of Light. It is ordained that the last question must be won by the rising Holly and her dominion will last until Yuletide. Only then will the Battle be fought once again, and the Oak will return to his crown.
Knowing that the last question will conclude the Contest and, alas, lay old Oak to his demise, the Cailleach somberly strides to the center to deliver her deadly blow. Even the horrid Cailleach shows a tear in her eye as she speaks:
â€œOld man Oak, you have fought well, but sadly, you are finished. It is time to end your rule as King of Trees, and make room for Holly to bring on the darkness of longer nights. Listen carefully to my question, and answer if you can, but remember what is written in the stones of the earth and in the dust of the stars. Here is my question: What elements do we bring into ourselves and what attributes do we integrate within us through the light of wisdom?â€
The last of Oakâ€™s leaves fall to the ground as an old woodpecker swoops in to eye his weathered bark. Oak knows Death is near and that he is destined to lose the fight for another half year. Instead of answering the question, he replies with a cough and a rasping whisper:
â€œIt is wisdom that has been my dutiful companion, my reliable weapon, and the gift that allows me to let go in this sunset hour. I am grateful to you all for your love and devotion during my office. I now bow to you and leave you a seed of promise that I will return as it has always been designed. Farewell my friends, for it is now that I must depart.â€
And with that, the life flees from old Oak like an eagle in flight as his bark turns as white as the snow. There is a doleful wailing in the skies as a host of wrens lament their elegy and the weeping Sun retreats to His bedchamber in the West. It is time for the shorter days and for Holly to accept her crown. But first she must answer the Cailleachâ€™s question that was put to Oak to prove her worthiness and to gain the respect of her subjects. With her newly found power, she lifts her branches and speaks to us as a Queen,
â€œMy loving subjects. The elements we bring within and the attributes we integrate are found all around us in the soil, in the skies, in the rain and in the air we breathe. We invoke the power of all sun-gods by hailing fatherhood in the Sun. And in the stones, we invoke the power of all mother goddesses in the oceans and lakes and in motherhood. With water, we bless the land to abundance and with fire we sanctify it and ourselves towards bravery. We apply the strength of a sacred word from the air on high â€“ uttering the Bardic Mantra â€“ the Awen. These indeed are the elements we bring within and integrate through the light of wisdom. May this coming of the Longest Day be the beginning time of elemental integration for all of us this Summer Solstice Season.â€
A great wave of joy and music ascends from us all in the Great Stone Ring as the Sun sinks with a tear behind the western horizon. The Battle of Light is finished for another season, the old Stones in the Ring have been entertained once again, and we may all return now to the embrace of our camps for a blessed nightâ€™s sleep. I will always hold these great contests close to my heart as they are a way for me to grasp the warm hand of Nature, aligning myself with the rhythms and tempos of Old Mother Earth. For it is this alignment that reminds us that we, like the Oak and the Holly and the Great Stones of the Ring, have a place in the family of all things that breathe and pulse with the heart beat of life itself.