Spirit & Travel
Bill and I have always been drawn to the Celtic World. Our heart-chords have been plucked by its music, poetry, and colorful lore. This past February, we were ready to seek out the ancient wisdom, contained within the rich tapestry of Ireland's countryside, its ancient sites, as well as the myths and legends of the pre-Celtic and Celtic people.
As if by chance, I had learned the song "The Wandering Aonghus" for the winter solstice celebration of 1999. "The Wandering Aonghus" is a poem written by W. B. Yeats; it is beautifully written as it weaves together both myth and legend of one of the most famous sites in Ireland, NewGrange. While learning the song, Bill and I did not realize its future significance.
On New Years, 2000, our soul sister named "Summer Solstice" was visiting the very site for which I had learned the song. On January 2, without realizing Summer Solstice had visited Ireland as a side trip from Angelsey in Wales, where she was visiting with a special friend, we decided that we were going to go to Ireland for 9 days in February.
When Summer Solstice returned, she immediately phoned to tell us how her plans had changed and she had visited NewGrange, a Neolithic site in Ireland, and had forgone her plans to go to the Glastonbury Tor in England. As Summer Solstice and I talked on the phone, Bill, with tickets in hand, walked into the house and announced, "Deb, we are going to Ireland". Another coincidence in a string of coincidences? You decide.
Later that same day, I went to the computer and began gathering information in preparation for the trip. The first site I found in association with Ireland was about the ancient site of NewGrange and the next link was to a site containing the song "The Wandering Aonghus"! Another coincidence? We thought not; something was calling us to the site.
After a 5-hour flight, we landed in Shannon, then continued with a half-hour flight to Dublin. We had crossed 5 time zones, in what seemed like the time that it takes to fall asleep and have a dream. While we rented a car, we met a man, from Australia, who was an archeologist working on the ancient sites of NewGrange, Dowth, and Knowth. He told us NewGrange was perhaps the most sacred site in all of Ireland. We couldn't wait to go there. The quest for a greater understanding of the Celtic World was the impetus for a pilgrimage to Ireland's ancient sites and we were finally about to embark on our adventure.
The journey provided us with the opportunity to experience the landscape, the island's long history,and its people. The trip lasted 9 days, from February 12-20, 2000, and covered more than 1,000 miles. We visited dozens of ancient sites, yet we will concentrate only on the most ancient, and perhaps the most famous of all Neolithic sites in Ireland, NewGrange. That is not to say that all the other sites that we visited were somehow less important discoveries we made while in Ireland. However, it is not our intention to cover the unique and equally fascinating stories of each of the sites we visited, as this article would become a book. Nevertheless, we will provide an itinerary for our trip, with the historical significance of the sites, listed at the conclusion.
It took a little time adjusting to driving on the opposite side of the road, nevertheless, we managed to make it to NewGrange only several hours after landing in Dublin. As we approached the site we could see the flat topped round barrow from about a mile away. It is about a quarter mile in circumference, 50 feet high, and built with some 200,000 tons of heaped stones and earth, containing a megalithic passage tomb and burial chamber.
NewGrange is associated with the mythological figure, Aonghus. In Robert Graves' book, The White Goddess, Aonghus of the Brugh is defined as the son of a virgin mother born at winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. (If you recall, it is the day for which I had learned the song "The Wandering Aonghus".) Aonghus of the Brugh has been connected to the mythology and history of the great corbeled vault of the NewGrange passage tomb, located in county Meath, Ireland. Built over 5,000 years ago, it stands as a monument to the advanced culture which existed in this area 50 centuries before our visit.
NewGrange is located along the River Boyne. The Boyne is called Buvinda, a direct transliteration of its contemporary Celtic name, which translates as "illuminated cow". The Celtic word "vind" carries a further meaning of "brightness, white, and wisdom"; we believe it is certainly a reference to "The White Goddess", who can be traced throughout humankind's consciousness. (Archaeology Ireland)
In early Irish literature, a myth existed that any one who drank from the River Boyne would become a seer-poet. The vind is also associated with the Celtic divine personification of wisdom: Find, other wise known as Fionn Mac Cumhail, an adept, who accidentally (or was it?) obtained wisdom from the River Boyne after sucking his thumb to relieve the pain of a burn he had received while cooking the "Salmon of Knowledge" caught in the River Boyne, by a seer-poet, his teacher called Finneigeas. (Archaeology Ireland)
The term Boinne refers to the goddess, Boand. This name incorporates the Indo-European concept of rivers as being bountiful, sacred places. The Boinne was no exception, as it was a rich and plentiful source of food, including large catches of salmon, which were reported to have been available year-round. The bountiful river provided the nourishing "milk" flowing from the utters of the sacred cow, Buvinda. (Archaeology Ireland)
In ancient Irish literature, The Great Dagda, the Celtic chief god or divine father figure of the Tuatha de Danaan, who corresponds to the Roman Saturn, is credited in Celtic Mythology with construction of NewGrange. The Dagda became the lover of the goddess, Boand, and fathered Aonghus, his Apollo-like son, who became the Lord of the Bru na Boinne and usurped his father, The Great Dagda, and took control of the sacred site. Bru na Boinne, the dwelling place of the Boyne, describes an area between the towns of Slane and Drogheda, where the River Boyne meanders back and forth in dramatic loops and bends. NewGrange is located not far from the river, atop a hill overlooking the River Boyne. (Archaeology Ireland, Graves)
Passage tomb construction began around 3,300 B.C. However, the site was certainly inhabited by yet an earlier group of Neolithic farmers and fisherman, who began occupying the area around 3,900 B.C., as is evidenced by the pottery and other artifacts found at the site. (Archaeology Ireland)
It has been suggested that beehive passage tomb construction came to Ireland from the Eastern Mediterranean by way of Spain and Portugal at the close of the third millennium B.C. Other occupants of the passage tomb appear in Irish history as a confederacy of tribes called the Tuatha de Danaan. According to an archeologically plausible Irish tradition in the Book of Invasions, the Tuatha de Danaans had been driven northward from Greece as a result of an invasion from Syria and eventually reached Ireland by way of Denmark and Northern Britain. (Graves)
At the entrance of the passage tomb is a highly decorated, broad slab of stone. There are eight double-spirals which are juxtaposed and are paralleled in Mycenaean Greece; this suggests that the carvings were made by the Danaans, who took over the shrine from the previous occupants, who in Irish history appear as tribes of Partholan and Nemed, coming from Greece by way of Spain. If so, this would account for the legend of the usurpation of the shrine by the God Aonghus from his father, The Great Dagda. (Graves)
Another notable decoration on this highly decorated stone are 3 interconnecting double-spirals. What do they mean? If one traces the spiral, which makes a kind of maze, with one's finger from the outside to the inside, one will recognize that as one reaches the center of the spiral there is the head of another spiral coiled in reverse direction taking you out again and into the next spiral. This pattern suggest to us that there is a neverending interconnected pattern of life, death, and rebirth.
Upon further examination, we noted that the triple set of double spirals was actually a circle coiled into itself. One can imagine pulling out all of the coils, being left with a neverending circle. Is there yet another hidden message in the geometry? We thought so. Life as we know it is a neverending cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. We will continue repeating this neverending cycle until we are able to escape the illusions of our own thoughts.
The pagan Irish called NewGrange "Spiral Castle" and revolving a forefinger in explanation would say, "Our king has gone to Spiral Castle"; in other words, "he is dead".
Another notable feature of the NewGrange passage tomb is the roof-box at the top of the entrance to the tomb. This opening allows the light of the rising sun to enter the passage tomb during several days in December, with the sun entering the tomb and lasting the longest on December 21, winter solstice. On December 21, the rising sun enters the roof-box opening and swings across the chamber floor as far as the front edge of the stone basin in the north-end recess, illuminating the burial chamber from the reflected light off the floor. This dramatically illuminates various details of the side and recesses of the burial chamber. The light on the shortest day of the year, winter solstice, lasts a total of 17 minutes.
To the Neolithic farmers, winter solstice was a very profound symbol for the rebirth of the returning light of the sun. This marked the beginning of the new year, giving hope of renewed life to the crops and animals the farmers themselves were dependent on for life. However, more importantly, these first bands of golden light were like hands reaching down from the sky onto the stone basin that contained the remains of the recently departed, symbolically lifting up the dead to those fields of light. Their souls would then go up to the stars and there hopefully awaited rebirth, once again completing the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. It is also worth noting that on All Souls night, or Samhain, October 31, the passage tombs were opened and great fires were lit in honor of all of the ancestors, who were believed to gather together on this day, when the veil between the living and the dead became its thinnest. (Archaeology Ireland and Graves)
The phenomena of the light entering the passage tomb is recreated for the visitor with artificial lights. There is a 10-year waiting list for individuals who wish to see, in person, this sacred moment on winter solstice. NewGrange has become a popular tourist attraction. It was listed as a world heritage site in 1993 by UNESCO.
The ground plan of the passage tomb is in the form of a Celtic cross. One enters the dolmen door at the base of the shaft. The shaft consist of a narrow passage some 19 meters (60 feet) long, constructed from large, upright stones that start off with transverse lintels, which then corbel leading to the burial chamber. Along the walls of the passage tomb one may observe various geometric patterns, spirals and wave-like patterns. These geometric patterns are reminiscent of ruggae (folds) which line the vaginal walls of the female genital tract. We could not ignore the fact, as we made our way into the deepest and darkest recesses of the burial chamber, that it was like entering the womb of the Great Mother.
The actual burial chamber is 5 meters (15 feet) by 6.5 meters (20 feet), is cruciform (cross shaped) in plan, consisting of 3 smaller chambers or recesses, on the north, east, and west. Combining all of the elements, one can appreciate the beginning structure of the Celtic cross, a symbol that would appear 3,000 years later as the circled cross with its roots in pre-Celtic consciousness.
When this passage tomb was rediscovered in 1699, it contained 3 large empty basins, the sides engraved with stripes, 2 complete skeletons lying beside a central alter, stag's antlers, bones, and nothing else. Roman gold coins of the 4th century A.D., gold tourques, and remains of iron weapons were later found on the site of the fort, not in the burial chamber. The fort was sacked by the Danes, but there was nothing to show whether earlier invaders had rifled the chamber of its other funerary furniture. (Graves)
What the large basins contained can only be inferred. The original Caer Sidi of Irish mythology was a barrow of the NewGrange sort, where the Cauldron of Inspiration was housed. These barrows were fortresses above and tombs below. It may well be that oracular serpents were once kept in these caves, and that these were the serpents which St. Patrick expelled, though perhaps only metaphorically. According to Robert Graves in his book, The White Goddess, bull's blood may have also been placed in the stone basins. Bull's blood was a most potent magic and was used in ceremony to feed the ghost of the dead hero and to encourage him to return from Caer Sidi to answer questions of importance. That bull's blood was used for divination in ancient Ireland is not mere supposition. A rite called "The Bull Feast" is mentioned in the Book of Dun Cow: a white bull was killed and a man ate his fill of flesh and drank of the broth and spell of truth was chanted over him as he slept off the meal. He would see in dream the shape and appearance of the man who should be made king and the sort of work in which he was at the time engaged. (Graves)
NewGrange was an incredible place to begin our journey to find the Celtic soul. We entered into the darkness of the Womb of the Great Mother, visited with the Ancient Ones, and closed the circle that had begun our trip to Ireland by visiting the site of Aonghus of the Bru. Here, in the darkness and the silence, the impact of what had occurred above ground became most apparent. We walked back into the light outside, rebirthed with eyes to see what we had come to see. Our journey had now truly begun.
Ireland's ancient sites are places where the sacred energy can still be felt. Ireland has a long history of suffering. The land, the grave yards, ancient buildings, and people hold its ancient secrets. From our experiences, we have felt the pain of an ancient and noble people. Ireland was a perfect place for contemplating our own mortality. A friend reminded me that it is this give and take, ebb and flow, the bones rising from the earth, to remind us that nothing ever ends.
"Go placidly amid the noise and the haste and remember what peace there may be in silence." -Desiderata, Max Ehrman, 1927
Itinerary for Ireland
February 12, 2000
- Arrived in Dublin
- NewGrange passage tomb
- Tara Hill, palace of Celtic kings
- Site of the Lia Fail, Ireland's most obvious phallic symbol
February 13, 2000
- Monasterboice, high crosses and round tower
- Millifont Abby
- Hill of Slane, site where St. Patrick lit first Paschal fire, 433 A.D.
- Kells round tower and high crosses, incomplete high cross
- St Columbas House, St Columba is the monk credited with the most copiously illuminated manuscript version of the four gospels in Celto-Saxo style
- Loughcrew, Slieve na Calliagh, Hill of the Witch, "a nice climb", equinox passage tomb
- Fore Abby Benedictine Abby, St Fechins Well, magical well, and site of a Sacred Ash tree
- Drove to Boyle
February 14, 2000
- Boyle Abby and ruins
- Carrowkeel passage tombs, "incredible views, off the beaten path!"
- Drive to Sligo
- Knocknarea, "excellent climb", associated with Queen Maeve, "Passionate Maeve", Celtic Queen of Connaght
- Carrowmore, largest group of Megalithic tombs in all of the British Isles
February 15, 2000
- W.B Yeats' grave, author of the Poem, "Wandering Aonghus"
- High cross and round tower
- CreevyKeel, third century BC Megalithic court tomb and wedge tomb
- Sligo Town Monastery ruins, example of an Irish altar
- Ballyhan Castle
- Strade Franciscan Friary
- Turlough Round Tower and Church
- Westport, County Mayo
February 16, 2000
- Drive from Westport to Dhulough Pass, "beautiful drive"
- Conemar National , "stark, barren, beautiful landscapes"
February 17, 2000
- Cliffs of Moher, "beautiful cliffs overlooking the ocean"
- Quin Franciscan Abby
- Bunratty Meadery
- Bunratty Castle
Feb 18, 2000
- Ring of Kerry, "a 110 mile drive with excellent views!"
- Stague stone fort
- Kenamare holy well
- Kilarney National Park
- Lady's view
- Torc waterfall, "short climb"
February 19, 2000
- Blarney Castle, "Kissed the Blarney Stone!"
- Rock of Cashel
- Kildare Round Tower
- Drive back to Dublin
February 20, 2000
- Depart Dublin for return flight to Boston
Bru na Boinne, Archeology Ireland, a supplement to Archeology Ireland Volume 11 No. 3
The White Goddess, 1948 International Authors, N.V., Robert Graves
Guide to National and Historical Monuments of Ireland, 1992 Gill and Macmillan Ltd, Peter Harbison