Neolithic Brú na Bóinne in Myth and Folklore
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We're going to position the three great tumuli of Newgrange, Dowth and Knowth at Brú na Bóinne in the European Neolithic of about 3,000BC. In this discussion we look at the myth, ritual and fairy tale that are associated with the site. For those unfamiliar with Brú na Bóinne, mythicalireland.com has an excellent interactive map of the various monuments for the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods.
With regard to the multitudinous designs with which the megaliths of the tumuli at Brú na Bóinne are covered, Marija Gimbutas, concluded after her extensive archaeological work on the Old European Civilisation 7,500~4,500BC in the Balkans that there are essentially two broad categories of symbol:
One set consisting of:
simple parallel lines, V's, zigzags, chevrons, and meanders, and spirals;related to:water or rain, the snake and the bird.
And a second set consisting of:the cross, the encircled cross (and more complex derivations of this basic motif which symbolically connects the four corners of the world), the crescent, horn, caterpillar, egg and fish;related to:the moon, the vegetal life-cycle, the rotation of the seasons and the birth and growth essential to the perpetuation of life.i
During the course of cultural diffusion ideas have to adapt to new climates and patterns of growing and husbandry. In Northwest Europe the concern of the community is likely to have shifted from having sufficient rain to having sufficient sun, adjusting in the process the metaphysical pitch of the associated symbols. Successive migrations over several millennia through the mediterranean too may have been complemented by overland diffusions of ideas and people so that we can sometimes feel we're in the presence of the same wandering theatre troupe albeit with occasional script rewrites, shifts in the roles of the protagonists and positioning of the props. This article explores the idea that, broadly speaking, the three main tumuli at Brú na Bóinne serve complementary ritual purposes whose function is suggested by the different solar alignments and some of whose details can be divined by making reference to myth and folklore.
The River of Life
The Well of the Nine Hazels and the Birth of the River Boyne
In Michael Viney's, Ireland: A Smithsonian Natural History he describes how although juniper were the first trees to take root among the terminal moraines after the glaciers retreated and, the first significant afforestation of Ireland was by alders and hazel treesii. Hazels, offering nuts for nutrition and pliable rods for making the frames of hemispherical shelters, were important for the mesolithic hunter-gatherers who first settled on the island. It should not come as a surprise that, as Niall MacCoitir mentions in his Irish Trees: Myths, Legends and Folklore, the cosmogonic image that comes down to us in Irish mythology is of a sacred well, often called the Well of Segaisiii. The well is surrounded by nine hazel trees whose nuts are imbued with divine wisdom. The hazel trees flower and drop their fruit in one day. Those that drink from the well, or eat of the nuts, for this brief duration are gifted with divine wisdom.
Segais was her name in the Sid
to be sung by thee in every land:
River of Segais is her name from that point
to the pool of Mochua the cleric.
From the well of righteous Mochua
to the bounds of Meath's wide plain,
the Arm of Nuadu's Wife and her Leg are
the two noble and exalted names.
UCC Celt Project - Metrical Dindshenchas p27-8
The well though is protected and none may approach it except Nechtan and his three cup bearers. And for good reason.
from which gushed forth every kind of mysterious evil.
There was none that would look to its bottom
but his two bright eyes would burst:iv
UCC Celt Project - Metrical Dindshenchas p29-31
With the curiosity of a Pandora or Eve, the goddess Boann, 'though she was not thirsty', broke the interdiction and walked thrice withershins round the well. The taboo broken, three waves erupt from the well and assault a leg, an arm and an eye of Boann [River Boyne (bó=cow), River Blackwater (find=white) and Lough Ramor?] and so, disfigured, she flees pursued by the torrents until she reaches the sea and so the River Boyne is created. The Metrical Dindshenchas makes clear the River Boyne is not a river but the River and enumerates her fifteen names finishing with the Severn, Tiber, Jordan, Euphrates and Tigris. Although it is not stated in the myth about Boann we know from the subsequent story of Fionn mac Cumhaill and the salmon of knowledge that the speckled salmon that lived in the well and fed on the nuts must have been released into the River and so divine wisdom finds it way from the land of the Aos Sí into the realm of semi divine heroes and mortals.
Therefore none of them dared approach it
save Nechtain and his cup-bearers:
- these are their names, famed for brilliant deed,
Flesc and Lam and Luam.
Hither came on a day white Boand
(her noble pride uplifted her),
to the well, without being thirsty
to make trial of its power.
As thrice she walked round
about the well heedlessly,
three waves burst from it,
whence came the death of Boand.
They came each wave of them against a limb,
they disfigured the soft-blooming woman;
a wave against her foot, a wave against her perfect eye,
the third wave shatters one hand.
She rushed to the sea (it was better for her)
to escape her blemish,
so that none might see her mutilation;
on herself fell her reproach.
Every way the woman went
the cold white water followed
from the Sid to the sea (not weak it was),
so that thence it is called Boand.
Boand from the bosom of our mighty river-bank,
was mother of great and goodly Oengus,
the son she bore to the Dagda - bright honour!
in spite of the man of this Sid.
UCC Celt Project - Metrical Dindshenchas p31-2
As an idea I'd like to suggest that the mound that we refer to as Newgrange might have been associated with Boann in the Neolithic period and that the tale of the well and the nine hazels might originally have had a more elemental form than the one that has come down to us. In this context the entrance stone (K1) may represent the birth of the River Boyne: the three anticlockwise spirals on the left representing the original breaking of the taboo; the wave at the bottom passing below the dividing line showing the wave leaving the realm of the Aos Sí and entering temporal reality. The small 'triangle' under the dividing line at the bottom might be the central mountain where such mythical rivers typically have their origin.
Once in the temporal realm the spirals (or waves) take on their 'proper' sunwise, or deiseil, form. The solar alignment at Newgrange, mythologically speaking, might in that case represent the conception of Oengus at sunrise with Dagda in his solar guise and Boann incarnate in the mound itself. His birth which took place at sunset (see below) would then be ritually represented by the western chambers of either Knowth or Dowth which are oriented to the Equinoctial sunsets, or agriculturally speaking, just after the cereal harvest in late August/early September.Back to Index Back to Index Back to Index
Oengus (or Mac Óc) & Bride
The son of the Dagda and Boann (Boyne) is Oengus. And although Elcmar is the initial resident at Brú na Bóinne. It is Oengus with whom Brú na Bóinne is principally associated. We are going to look at five pieces of myth associated with Oengus:
Birth of Oengus
The cycle of sowing and reaping in northern temperate regions is that of sowing in the spring and harvesting in the autumn. In contrast the seasonal planting in the Middle East (Akitu festival), and Mediterranean regions such as Greece (Thesmophoria), is usually in late autumn or winter. In myth the barren summer months in these areas are personified in the form of a deity being held captive in the netherworld. In ritual there is often a collective outpouring of grief in sympathy with the absent deity. The grief is typically expressed in the figure of a mourning consort who searches tirelessly for her beloved, i.e. Isis for Osiris, Inanna for Dumuzi or, in Greece, Demeter's tireless search for Persephone.
In the northern temperate region by contrast we have in spring the festival of Easter with its symbols of the hatching eggs and bouncing bunnies in celebration of the renewal of the land that comes with spring and the winter is associated with the withering and barren reign of the Cailleach, or the hag. If we're looking for the equivalent myth of the vegetation deity being taken underground and the grief of the searching consort in Neolithic and Bronze Age mythology; it is to the autumn season we should turn our attention. We will look at the possibility that Oengus, in a reversal of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern pattern, is the mourning consort who searches for his beloved who is yearly taken captive in the netherworld. But first let us look at his birth:
Thither from the south came Boand
wife of Nechtain to the love-tryst
to the house of Elcmaire, lord of horses,
a man that gave many a good judgment.
Thither came by chance the Dagda
into the house of famous Elcmaire:
he fell to importuning the woman:
he brought her to the birth in a single day.
It was then they made the sun stand still
to the end of nine months - strange the tale -
warming the noble fine grass
in the roof of the perfect firmament.
Then said the woman here:
"Union with thee, that were my one desire!"
And Oengus shall be the boy's name,"
said the Dagda, in noble wise.viii
University College Cork Celt Project - Metrical Dindshenchas p37
The Dagda couples with Boann most likely at the winter solstice (typically at Samhain in later Celtic myth though this may have to do with later ritual of kingship and Sovereignty) although phallic standing stones are present at both the spring and autumn equinoctial passages at Knowth suggest this hieros gamos imagery is not isolated to one seasonal threshold. That this motif of a male-sun coupling with a female-earth/river is key to the functional sense of Brú na Bóinne we may infer from the fact that in later myth it is contrived that Cuchulainn is also said to have been conceived here - his mother Deichtine unexpectedly wakes up at Newgrange and Lugh (a sun god who arrives in Ireland around the time of Christ) later tells her that she is carrying his child.Back to Index
The Taking of the Síd
In one version of the taking of the Sid Oengus tricks the Dagda, his real father, out of Brú na Bóinne and in another the Dagda advises him how to take it from Elcmar, his step father. In the former version it is of interest that Midir is described as his foster father as it will be he who steals away his beloved Englec. In the Celtic myths that have come down to us (The Wooing of Étaín) Midir might be considered the abductor of the goddess of sovereignty and so a tester of a king's right to kingship. In an older guise he may have had a somewhat similar role to Hades in the abduction of Persephone.Back to Index
The Naming of Knowth
The Metrical Dindshenchas offers two explanations for the name Cnogba (or Knowth), the first is that it is called after Bua, goddess of victories (like the Greek Nike). This may be an Iron Age addition. The Irish High King, Congalach Cnogba, son of Mailmithigh, had his 10th century fort straddling the top of Knowth so, at this time, the passage tombs might even have been used as store rooms, a dungeon or a treasury.
The second explanation is key to our exploration of Oengus as the consort of the yearly abducted personification of fertility
The illustrious Mac in Oc [Oengus] came
southward to Ceru Cermna [is this Cerna an abode of the dead?]
on the blazing hurrying Samain [31st Oct Eve],
to play with his fellow-warriors.
Midir came - alas the day!
he came upon her after they had gone,
he carries off with him Englec from her home
thence to the Síd of the men of Femen [Slievenamon - Irish Mythology p103 (D.Smyth)].
When noble Oengus heard
of the pursuit of his darling,
he went in search of her (I say sooth)
to the famous hill whence she was borne off.
This was the food of his band - bright feast -
blood-red nuts of the wood:
he casts the food from him on the ground;
he makes lamentation around the hillock.
Though it be called the Hill of Bua of combats,
this is the equal-valid counter-tale:
we have found that hence
from that 'nut-wailing' Cnogba is named.ix
The date given is the 31st of October which is the Iron Age Celtic festival of Samhain. But in the context of Neolithic Brú na Bóinne where we have alignment with the setting sun of the equinox at Knowth and of the equinox and cross quarter days of 8th Nov and 4th Feb at Dowth, it is likely that the festival mourning the withdrawal, or abduction, of a personified deity of growth into the netherworld most likely took place at either the autumn equinox or the 8th November on the modern calendar. Martin Brennan confirms a similar system of alignments at Loughcrewx. It would be normal to have a ritual enactment of the abduction and equally probable, a collective lament accompanied perhaps by a ritual scattering of red berries.
The archaeologist O.G.S Crawford commenting on the agricultural rite of the goddess says:
It has been suggested, that the burial aspect of her cult had reference not to sowing of seed in the ground but to its storage in autumn underground in jars and silos, and these do occur in neolithic settlements of Southern Italy, as we have seen. Both the grain and the dead bodies were buried in artificially excavated pits whose resemblance is obvious; xi
We note in the great mounds at Brú na Bóinne the artefacts that necessitated the most work are the enormous basins, - or indeed huge quern stones, - on which the seed might be ritually separated from the chaff or the germ of life from the bones left after cremation. Speaking of the burnt remains in Newgrange the archaeologist M.J. O 'Kelly commented.
Very little information can be obtained from the relatively large amount of burnt bone. Much of this could well be comminuted fragments of an unknown number of human skulls. xii
That the sun passing the spring equinox quickened the returning growth is suggested by the discovery by George Eoghan that:
A layer of sods formed the base of the mound, except around the outer part of the passage of the eastern tomb, where material resembling farmyard manure was used.xiii
And so we probably have the seasonal renewal of the land being equated in ritual and mythology with the death and (re)birth in the Neolithic community.
The Coming of Angus and Bride
Properly speaking from an Irish context The Dream of Oengus should be the next myth. However, the West Highlands tale, The Coming of Angus and Bride, gathered by Donald Alexander Mackenzie from the local lore is more insightful in illustrating the elemental personifications of the incessant struggle between the seasons. Again we have the unusual instance that lore held in fairy tale appears closer to the original sense than myths which have undergone transformation by Iron Age bards and Christian monks modifying essentially agricultural myths to harmonise with their ascendant world views. Note how the first day of spring is Bride's day but by no means the end of the Cailleach's fury and so the Vernal Equinox is celebrated as the day when summer's influence finally becomes stronger. Other points of interest are that Angus is actually the Cailleach's son; also, when either Angus or Bride is in the land of the Aos Sí they can only see each other in dreams; and finally the defeated Cailleach looks forward to drinking of the Well of Youth to restore her powers. This motif of the healing waters of the well is extraordinarily strong in myth, fairy tale, lore and ritual across these islands. It appears to be no less than the font of life, the source through which the eternal pours forth into the temporal realm in all its beneficence and fury.
The Dream of Oengus
The Dream of Oengus as it comes down to us this tale is normally included in the Ulster Cycle of Tales which includes many of the great tales of the Iron Age Celts. Considering Oengus' lineage we should still expect though that the tale would still retain some of its original Neolithic and Bronze Age elements.
Ostensibly Oengus is wasting away for the love of a woman who appears to him in dream every night for a year. Every night she lulls him to sleep by playing a timpan and he is so smitten he cannot eat. When she stops appearing he continues to waste away, this is diagnosed quickly as love-in-absence. First, his mother Boann searches for the mysterious woman for a year without success. His brother, Bodb, then takes up the search for a year and discovers the woman is Caer Ibormeith and more he discovers where she may be found. When, a no doubt spectral thin, Oengus is finally brought to meet her at Slievenamon (Bodb's residence) he recognises her but she does not acknowledge him and he says he cannot take her now. Meanwhile back in Connacht her uncooperative father's síd is sacked and under duress he finally reveals the mysterious fact that his daughter takes the form of a swan every second year - apparently of her own volition. She will take it again next Samhain. Come Samhain, Oengus seeks her out at Lough Musky, (beside Galtee Mountains) when she is in the form of a swan and, following the Dagda's advice, he calls her to him. She comes but requests immediately that she be allowed to return to the water, he acquiesces and takes the form of a swan himself. They circle the lake three times and then fly back to Brú na Bóinne. We may guess that Oengus recovers his health and they honeymoon for a year as swans before Caer will return to the land of the síd for a year.
In the Scottish tale the Green Isle takes the place of Tír na nÓg or the land of the Aos Sí. From the point of view of translating such elements into ritual the elements of interest would have been Oengus' wasting away, the search for his beloved, perhaps his seeing her but not being able to communicate, his calling her to him and their return to Brú na Bóinne where their singing puts everyone to sleep. As this cycle is yearly rather than seasonal it is at odds with a planting cycle of sowing, growing, reaping and temporary fallowness but then as already mentioned the myth probably took its present form long after the Neolithic/Bronze Age period was finished.
The sídhe appear to be entrances to the same world that is otherwise called Tír na nÓg or the Green Isle. The mounds are the link, literally the entrances, to the land of the Aos Sí. Oengus and Caer, like all the protagonists of these myths, are gods and yet it is only in the realm of mortals they take on particular forms - like Boann being the River Boyne. When they are in the land of the Aos Sí, they appear to be no more substantial than dreams. And in this sense the idea of the Tuatha de Danann entering the 'mounds' after the victory of the Gael makes sense and so they live on in our myths and imaginations.
Death and Renewal
As Oengus has his significant meetings with his beloved at Samhain, so the Dagda is depicted as having participated in a fertility rite at Samhain with Boann. Indeed you might almost wonder from the account in the Second Battle of Moytirra whether such a rite might not have involved him having a ritual feast of porridge first, as porridge is essentially crushed cereals with milk - and we are suggesting that the key ritual focus of the Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures was that of the sowing and reaping of cereal crops.
In such a scenario we might view Balor as the withering sun of Winter and his buck toothed wife, Cethlenn, as the earth in its winter raiment of, the Cailleach, or hag. In the account of The Taking of the Sid it is of interest that the Milesians have to treat with the Dagda to remove a blight from their grain and milk.
In the tale of, How the Dagda got his Club, the Dagda carries his dead son, Cermait, slain by Lugh, on his back until he comes across three men carrying treasures from the East one of which is a club whose rough-end kills and whose smooth-end restores life. He examines the club and kills the three men with it, restores Cermait and then restores to life the three travelers. Notably Cermait is the father of Mac Cuill (hazel), Mac Cecht (plough) and Mac Gréine(sun) who are paired with the three goddesses Banba, Fódla and Ériu respectively. Similarly the Dagda is possessed of a cauldron that restores the dead to life. And when we come to Brú na Bóinne we are told:
There are three trees perpetually bearing fruits, and an ever living pig on the hoof and a cooked pig, and a vessel with excellent liquor; and all of this never grow less.
As mentioned at Knowth there is hieros gamos symbolism with standing stones outside both passages whose shadows would have stretched up the passages at the equinoxes as the sun rose above the horizon and later, on setting. And we have the carved phallus that was found in the eastern chamber. On the opposite side to that shown is a groove which may have been used for hafting it onto a staff. A similar item from the contemporary Chalcolithic period in the South of France can be similarly attached to a staff. This notion may be older than the Neolithic period as there is evidence that the magician's wand has as its origin in the small sticks of Paleolithic shamans endowed with similar properties. ( J. Campbell Primitive Mythology 299-304)
Epithets of the Dagda: Rúad Ró-fhessa - 'beautiful fire' and 'ruddy one of much wisdom'; Eochaid(h) - horse rider(with the soubriquet Ollathair - 'father of all'; also Áncheann - 'glowing head' and Aonsúla - 'one eyed') ; Deirgderc - Red Eye (sunrise/sunset?);xvi xvii As the horse imagery could hardly have arrived before the Bronze Age it is doubtful it formed part of the Neolithic conception of such a solar divinity.
Cognate with: Sucellus
A bit fanciful but for a more recent manifestation of such a personage in the Irish imagination we might look at the tale Bodach an Chota Lachtna. The prodigious power of this disheveled giant, his excessive appetite, his apparent ability to bring a person back from the dead (he puts the head back on his nemesis Ironbones), his name Bodach means 'lout' but 'bod' in Irish means penis and the Dagda in some of is most oafish depictions has his penis dragging on the ground which can be metaphoric of the plough in the furrow. Even the great Fionn macCumhaill cannot help be but repelled and also in awe of such a crude but powerful personage.
Sentinel of the Labyrinth
Some of the passages appear to have guardians. Owlish looking guardian stone, orthostat 49, found in the western passage of Knowth just beyond the first sill stone. Perhaps of similar function as L19 in the Newgrange passage, the stone, C1, just inside Fourknocks on the Left and the stone C1 at Barclodiad y Gawres (Anglesey). An awesome goddess who stands guard over the labyrinth that must be navigated at death dates to the pre agricultural era and can be found from the Pacific islands westward to the Atlantic. The associated myths typically depict the goddess as the bringer through sacrifice of the first staple crops and then as the agent (or not) of rebirth. The Knowth 'guardian' is just inside a sill (threshold) stone and these passage tombs can have typically between one and four such sills, and these can be raised slightly or significantly, suggesting a certain fluidity in the concept associated with them.xviii
On orthostat 49, which stand on the right side of the passage just inside the outer sillstone, one gets the impression of an eyed figure, a spirit guarding the outer sanctum of the tomb. George Eoghan - Brú na Bóinne museum
In a neolithic complex like Çatalhöyük such a power is represented by boars and vultures (Gimbutas LoG p195). Based on the imagery it is possible that in the early Neolithic period this goddess was personified in the form of a Barn Owl to be later eclipsed in the Iron Age by members of the crow family such as the raven and grey crow. A perusal of the tableaux of motifs in Fig.1 present four that are suggestive of an owl's face. Also one term for owl in gaelic is 'cailleach oíche', (literally 'hag of the night', also see goddess Echtga who feeds on children's flesh, Slieve Aughty called after), and may represent a modern echo of this ancient deity.
As well as owls, other animals like dogs or ravens can act as psychopomps In particular Boann is said to have a lap dog, Dabilla (little dog of the sid), and the two small islets that constitute Rockabill Lighthouse are supposed to be the petrified remnants of Boann and Dabilla. In this context the canine bones found by M.J. O Kelly associated with each chamber in Newgrange might be carbon dated for clarification.xix
Owl Eyed Goddess
In Ireland even into the late nineteenth century the people retained a notion of the 'Evil Eye' has recorded in Lady Augusta Gregory's Visions and Beliefs in West Ireland. As the modern cathedral uses apotropaic gargoyles to ward off nefarious influences so too, eye charms were used to ward off the baleful effects of the 'evil eye'. In rural Ireland any compliment or expression of admiration that was not then followed by an immediate, by God's Grace, or Thanks be to God, might put the Evil Eye hex on the person or object admired with dire consequences.xx
In Irish mythology Balor of the Evil Eye incorporates this principle and is a principle in the Second Battle of Moytirra where he kills Nuada Airgetlám (Silver Arm), the former Danann king but is in turn killed by Lugh Lámhfhada (Lug of the Long Arm) the new king. The great glacial erratics strewn around the North side of Lough Arrow are reputedly the ossified heroes who fell victim to Balor's baleful gaze. Such beliefs are wide spread from the Middle East across the Mediterranean up to Northwest Europe. Again the original motif might have been the power of the summer sun overcomes the winter sun which is in turn overcome by the sun of the following spring.
O.G.S Crawford in his The Eye Goddesses traces a cultural impulse from Tell Brak, down the Khabur Valley, through Ras al Shamra (Ugarit) thats spreads across the Mediterranean and whose influence can be found at Malta, Southern Italy, Southern Iberia, Canary Islands, Brittany, Ireland, Anglesey and Orkney eventually breaking out through the Gibraltar strait and finding its way by sea first to the Brittany and then on to Brittany, Ireland, Wales and the Orkney Islands. He postulates that the designs become more abstracted from their original sense as they move through each stage of the journey. Distinct features such as small circles of stones (Crawford calls them baetyl enclosures) outside passage tombs are very similar at Newgrange, Brittany and Los Millaresxxi, and the distinctive footprint, or feet motif, visible at Newgrange (see motifs bottom-left above), Brittany and Calderstones support such a diffusion hypothesis.
Marija Gimbutas discussing the neolithic sense of the owl image wrote:
It is credited with profound wisdom, oracular powers, and the ability to avert evil. Its eyes are regarded as having sacred power because it seems to surpass all other creatures in visual acuity. The ambivalent image is reflection, diffused through time, of the owl as an incarnate manifestation of the fearsome, Goddess of Death.xxii
One difficulty in identifying Irish examples is that the eyes are often asymmetrical and so they may also incorporate idea of the eyes of the firmament, the moon and sun, with their unequal luminescence as occurs in Egypt with lunar Eye of Horus and the solar Eye of Re.Back to Index
John Carey in his paper Time, Memory, and the Boyne Necropolis singles out the temporal anomalies associated with the lore on the gods in relation to Brú na Bóinne.
- The Dagda couples with Boann while Elcmar is away and then stays the course of the sun for nine months so that Oengus can be born in one day.
- Bressal commissions the building of Dowth in a day while his sister works magic to lengthen the day so this daunting challenge can be completed. This construction would certainly have taken many years.
- Carey points out that the various means by which Oengus gains the brú all hinge on his verbal skills in which he leads Elcmar to believe that he is only loaning him the brugh for a day and a night whereas in fact the formula of words means for all time.
For the moment all we will note is that for time to stop in Neolithic terms, the sun would have to rise and set at the same place each day and the moon would have to stay at the same phase. The above three examples are indicating a day being nine months, or several years or even forever.So it might represent an intrusion from eternity, Aos Sí, into time or the reverse. Which day? While in Celtic lore it would be Samhain (Halloween) in the Neolithic it was probably the Winter solstice. In the Bronze Age it might have been different again as the main ceremonial structure appears to have been a wooden henge which, like the Bronze Age construction of Stonehenge, might have been aligned to the summer solstice.Back to Index
Dowth (the seed under the earth)
Seasonal position of Taurus and the Pleiades on the Eastern Horizon 3000BC in Ireland
A few screen-shots taken from Stellarium.org show the rising constellations at different periods of the year at the Latitude of Newgrange (Dublin) 5,000 years ago. This highlights the problem that if myths related to the seasonal cycle originated in the Eastern Mediterranean they would have to be adjusted to match the calendar of Northwestern Europe.
Dowth kerbstone 51 has seven suns and is orientated towards the eastern horizon. If these represent the Pleiades they are 'extinguished' by the sun at sunrise around the spring equinox in 3000BC. At this time the spring clover (St. Patrick's shamrock - 'wearing of green' on the 17th of March) heralds the return of the growing seasonxxiii. By contrast it is possible the black pig/boar is metaphoric of the period when growth was dormant, the seed that is under the earth, the dark moon, the period before renewal in a birth-death-rebirth cultural world view - although I'm not aware of any archaeology or myth that would substantiate this in relation to Dowth.
The Naming of Dubad (Dowth)
Dubad, whence the name? Not hard to say. A king held
sway over Erin, Bressal bó-dibad by name. In his time a murrain [plague/disease]
came upon the kine of Erin, until there were left in it but seven
cows and a bull. All the men of Erin were gathered from every
quarter to Bressal, to build them a tower after the likeness of
the Tower of Nimrod [a tall ziggurat],
that they might go by it to Heaven. His
sister came to him, and told him that she would stay the sun's
course in the vault of heaven, so that they might have an endless
day to accomplish their task. The maiden went apart to work
her magic. Bressal followed her and had union with her: so that
place is called Ferta Cuile from the incest that was committed
there. Night came upon them then, for the maiden's magic was
spoilt. Let us go hence, say the men of Erin, for we only
pledged ourselves to spend one day a-making this hill, and since
darkness has fallen upon our work, and night has come on and
the day is done, let each depart to his place.
Dubad [darkness] shall be the name of this place for ever, said the maiden.
So hence are Dubad and Cnoc Dubada named.xxiv
See original without annotation or styling at: UCC Celt Project Metrical Dindshenchas p272-3
The king, Bressal bó-dibad, is a legendary Iron Age king. From the Neolithic perspective the bull and seven cows refers to the constellation of Taurus and Pleaides . In 3000BC the sun rose in the constellation Taurus during the vernal equinox effectively extinguishing it from view . The website mythicalireland.com shows a Neolithic design on one of Dowth's great slabs that may represent the Pleiades. If we take Martin Brennan's (The Stones of Time) cross-quarter day of the 8th of November as being the threshold of winter and look at the eastern sky from Dublin just after sunset 3000BC we note that Taurus and the Pleiades have just risen above the horizon.Thus for our neolithic ancestors the rising of Taurus in the East at sunset heralded the onset of winter, while its obliteration in the rising sun at the spring equinox heralded the return of growth.
It is important again to stress the opposite nature of the seasonal calendar in the northern latitudes to those of the Fertile Crescent. In the north the land is shriveled by cold, and a weak sun in the winter season whereas in the Fertile Crescent the land is desiccated and laid waste by the searing heat of the summer sun. So although such ideas may ultimately have their origin in the Fertile Crescent and Old Europe, the associated mythologies will have evolved to harmonise with the different cycles and experiences of the new environment. It is of interest too that cereals like Barley in the early European Neolithic were initially sown in the Autumn and only later in the Spring so it is entirely possible that the burial aspect of the goddess cult mentioned earlier might have referred at different periods to either the seed under the winter earth or the seed stored in silos underground for spring planting. xxv
Although the tower of Nimrod refers to a particularly tall Mesopotamian ziggurat it is interesting in Gabriel Berenger's record that the mound does appear taller than it is today. If a record of the original mound (rather than a modified version) it would have been the tallest of the three great mounds at Brú na Bóinne. Whether there was a processional path to its summit for use by priestesses/priests will probably never be discovered due to damage incurred at the removal of the summit and to the central part of the mound.
The incest motif, from a mythological view point, is normally a reference to a solar eclipse, or an astronomical conjunction of some variety. We known that the south western chamber of Dowth is aligned to receive sunlight in the afternoon during the dark part of the year between November and February. The west orientated chamber, like Knowth, is aligned to sunset at the equinoxes. If the building of Knowth's western passage chamber superseded the western chamber in Dowth, then the south western chamber of Dowth would be left to symbolically represent the period of the year when the Cailleach, or the hag, reined supreme.
The metrical dindshenchas does not give us a name for Newgrange. The name Newgrange is merely the name given when the Cistercian Abbey of Melifont took control of these lands. Ó hÓgáin citing Edward Gwynn (1906) gives the name: imdai nDagdai deirg (the bed of the red Dagda) based on a tryst with the Mórrígan (Great Queen)xxvi which may refer to his sunrise aspect at the winter solstice.
Hunting the Wren
The custom of hunting the wrenxxvii (see James Frazer - The Golden Bough - Processions of Sacred Animals) is a custom that typically occurs around yuletide and is sometimes equated with the death of the old year and birth of the new. Of interest to us in this section of The Golden Bough are the accounts of the hunting of the wren around yuletide with references to ivy, holly, mistletoe, and in other tales, the Robin Redbreast; namely evergreen plants and animals which ostensibly retain vitality even at the mid winter hour when the land is otherwise barren.
After parading the wren around all the houses and collecting funds, the wren boys throw a party and it is likely that some such an event was a key part of the solstice rituals although, surprisingly, archaeologists do not appear to have found any large communal buildings at Brú na Bóinne where such feasting might have taken place. In snatches of old nursery rhyme like, Marriage of Robin Redbreast and the Wren, there may be a echo of such activities but for the moment we'll keep looking for a more illustrative myth, ritual or fairy tale.Back to Index
The Green Knight
In the old Arthurian tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight we have an echo of the original mid winter ritual. In brief: a mysterious green knight appears at yuletide in King Arthur's court and challenges the knights to a game whereby one of them may strike off his head with a single blow after which it will be his turn. Wary of the fearsome figure, the knight's are reluctant to volunteer until finally Sir Gawain steps up to save their honour. He strikes off the green knight's head with one blow but the knight unfazed replaces it on his shoulders and tells Gawain he must meet him exactly one year from the day at the green chapel when it will be his turn to strike.
He stalls and halts, holds the horse still,
glances side to side to glimpse the green chapel.
but sees no such thing, which he thinks is strange,
except at mid-distance what might be a mound,
a sort of bald knoll on the bank of a brook
where fell-water surged with frenzied force,
bursting with bubbles as if it had boiled.
He heels the horse, heads for that mound,
grounds himself gracefully and tethers Gringolet,
looping the reins to the limb of a lime.
Then he strides forward and circles the feature,
baffled as to what the bizarre hill could be:
it had a hole at one end and at either side,
and its walls, matted with weeds and moss,
enclosed a cavity, like a kind of old cave
or crevice in the crag - it was all too unclear to
Simon Armitage - Sir Gawain and the Green Knight p100
Gawain was early for his rendezvous and sojourned at a nearby castle which was owned by none other than the green knight, incognito, and his lady. Gawain stays here for three days and the lady 'tests his honour'. It is likely that an original ceremony in which a 'king', personifying the fertility of the land, might be sacrificed according to a fixed celestial calendar or when it was apparent that age, or illness, was sapping his vitality. As the average life expectancy in the Neolithic was only mid-thirties this might not shorten a life as much as we might expect. In any case there was probably a ritual encounter by the king with a priestess personifying a goddess, possibly a sacred marriage, with the connotation of the king being reborn through the goddess.Back to Index
The Green Man
An as yet largely untapped treasure trove of tales is the 1930's Schools' Folklore Collection which is currently being put online. The following two tales refer directly to the Green Man and retain some resonances with the ancient agricultural rituals of decapitation and renewal:
The Green Man of Knowledge: In this tale a young man stops off on his way to mass to play a game of cards with a stranger. He ends up forfeiting everything including his soul. The devil then tells him he has a year and a day to find the Green Man of Knowledge. After eleven months, after enquiring at three different castles, he finally finds the Green Man's castle. The Green Man has three daughters and one becomes his confidant helping him survive three trials but losing a finger in the process. The Green Man perceiving the missing finger divines that she has been aiding him and orders that the young man's head be cut off the next morning. The girl helps him escape before morning on a horse. The Green Man sends an army after them...
The Green Man, the White Man and the Sick King: The king is sick but the Green Man has the proven remedy: decapitate the king, boil his head in a cauldron and then carefully replace it. The White Man is enthused but not quite sure he's grasped the minutiae of the remedy...
In the fairy tale, The King of England and his Three Sons, we see a more explicit exposition when the hero having procured the three gold apples that will cure his father the king, decapitates in sequence three decrepit churls in their mansions and tosses their heads down a well after which they, and their estates, are miraculously renewed.Back to Index
Bricriu's Feast ( chapters xiv-xvi)
In Irish mythology the motif of the beheading challenge is found in the Ulster cycle where we find Cú Chulainn in the role of Gawain. In the extended version of the tale of Bricriu's Feast as translated by the scottish scholar George Henderson, he has to face the daunting challenge in two separate episodes.
In the first, after several challenges with clear outcomes, only heroic begrudgery on the part of champions, Lóegaire Búadach and Conall Cernach, prevents them from acknowledging Cú Chulainn as worthy of the Champion's Portion. Having refused a judgment by Ailill and Medb of Connacht, they are then sent to Terror, son of Great Fear, who inhabits a loch. Without formalities Terror explains the beheading game and Lóegaire Búadach and Conall Cernach participate in the first half but refuse to offer their own necks when called upon to do so. Cú Chulainn does and Terror brings the blunt side of the axe down three times on his neck and then graciously acknowledges him as the only one worthy of the Champion's Portion. Even so once back at Emain Macha the bickering starts again and this time they are sent off to the formidable Cú Roí for judgment.
They seek out and finally find Cú Roí and his mysterious spinning and peripatetic castle. Graciously he leaves them in the care of his wife, Blathnat (daughter of Mind), while he ostensibly commutes off to some business he has in Scythia. It is agreed the heroes will each keep watch for a night. The first two heroes are overcome by a giant who picks them off the watch tower and throws them across the castle until they land in a broken heap beyond. Cú Chulainn lives up to his top billing and vanquishes the various terrors that come at him during the night and even manages to extract from the giant a guarantee that he will have: the Champion's Portion; sovereignty over the heroes of the Gael and preeminence for his wife, Emer, when entering the mead hall of Emain Macha. Despite this, the night's exertions have taken their toll on Cu Chulainn who appears to have undergone the warrior's equivalent of the dark night of the soul and his morale is sapped by morning. Cú Roí returns carrying the standard of the foes that Cú Chulainn has vanquished and declares the dejected champion the winner. Yet as with the many previous judgments the feats went un-witnessed by the ordinary warriors and once back at Emain Macha the dispute is again commenced over the Champion's Portion and this time Cú Chulainn declares he has had enough and indicates that the honour is just not worth the hassle.
The ultimate denouement of the dispute takes place at a feast held in the wake of 'games' held at the 'gathering': held - equally it might not.
As they were seated, it being eventide, and the day drawing towards the close, they saw a big uncouth fellow of exceeding ugliness drawing nigh them into the hall. To them it seemed as if none of the Ultonians would reach half his height. Horrible and ugly was the carle's guise. Next his skin he wore an old hide and a dark dun mantle around him, and over him a great spreading club-tree the size of a winter shed, under which thirty bullocks could find shelter. Ravenous yellow eyes he had, protruding from his head, each of the twain the size of an ox-vat. Each finger as thick as another person's wrist. In his left hand a stock, a burden for twenty yoke of oxen. In his right hand an axe weighing thrice fifty glowing masses [of metal]. Its handle would require a plough team to move it. Its sharpness such that it would lop of hairs, the wind blowing them against its edge.xxix
None of the three champions being present, a warrior, Fat Neck, son of Short Head, accepts the challenge and the hall is fairly spattered with blood after he brings the axe down on the giant's head. The giant, however, calmly retrieves his head, the block and the axe. Fat Neck fails to show for the return bout. The other two champions, Lóegaire Búadach and Conall Cernach on following nights take up the challenge but they too, in turn, ultimately shirk the return match. Finally, with a packed hall, all the ladies being in attendance, the giant calls out Cú Chulainn who however indicates he wishes to have nothing to do with him. With a little provocation however he leaps from his seat and cleaves off the giant's head. The next night Cú Chulainn, with a sick heart lays his head on the block. The giant drags out the proceedings by taunting Cú Chulainn that he's not really stretching out his neck enough before finally, with considerable histrionics, bringing down the blunt side of the axe with great force, and presumably, just missing Cú Chulainn's neck. The uncouth giant then reveals himself to be none other than Cú Roí come to make good on the judgment he has already made. He also indicates that in future any one who challenge this judgment will face his wrath.
All of which appears to be a long way from the seasonal agricultural rites of our neolithic ancestors and yet, for the moment, we will, until such time as some further insight from lore or fairy tale sheds more light on the origins of this motif, leave it here.
The Three Tumuli
There were four phases of building at Brú na Bóinne, with the three great tumuli being built in the third phase. Passage tombs are typically found on summits or ridge tops, court tombs(cairns) are more likely to be found on the middle heights and portal tombs (dolmens) on lower slopes and all three were constructed and used simultaneously in the Neolithic period. Twinning of passage and court tombs tends to be more common than ternary (groups of three) complexes of large tombs and may reflect moieties. Although the complex at Loughcrew shows a ternary focus for its large tumuli similar to Brú na Bóinne.xxx
|Diameter||85m||Number of Kerbstones||115||Height of Mound||?|
|West Orientated Passage-Chamber|
|Length of Passage||8.2m||Number of Orthostats||36||Chamber Dimensions LxWxH||3.85x6.25x?|
|Diagrams||plan of west orientated passage at mythicalireland.com based on Claire O' Kelly's 1969 one.|
|South West Orientated Passage-Chamber|
|Length of Passage||3.3m||Number of Orthostats||21||Chamber Dimensions Diameter x Ht.||4.5x?|
|Virtual Tour:||6 minute 3-D tour of Dowth. From 2min16sec the tour turns into the West Orientated Passage
and from 4min22sec it enters the South West Orientated Passage. The souterrain is much more recent.
|Orientation||Afternoon sun from beginning of October to the end of February|
|Diagrams||plan view of southwest orientated chamber at mythicalireland.com|
|Length: NE-SW||85.3m||Width: NW(K52)-SE(K1)||78.6m||N-S:E-W Ratio||≈13:12|
|Height of Mound||11m||Kerbstones||97||Roof Box: WidthxHeight||1x0.9m|
|South-East Winter Solstice Sunrise Orientated Passage-Cruciform Chamber|
|Length of Passage||19m||Number of Orthostats||60||Chamber Dimensions LxWxH||6.55x5.25x|
|Great Circle of Standing Stones Encircling the Mound - not quite concentric|
|Average Diameter||103.6m||Number of Standing Stones||35~38|
|Michael J. O' Kelly's detailed plans and sections of the Newgrange Tumulus.|
|Advance up passage to main chamber in 27second 3D simulation by 3D Icons.|
|Prof Tom Ray of Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies talks to RTE News about the solstice, 5,000 years ago and now.|
|Length: North-South||95m||Width: East-West||80m||N-S:E-W Ratio||≈19:16|
|Height of Mound||9.9m||Kerbstones||127|
|East Equinox Orientated Passage-Chamber|
|Length of Passage||Number of Orthostats||Chamber Dimensions LxWxH|
|West Equinox Orientated Passage-Chamber|
|Length of Passage||34.2m||Number of Orthostats||94||Chamber Dimensions LxWxH||1.5x1.3x2m|
|Diagram||Sketch of passages and chambers based on George Eoghan.|
|3D Visualisation of owl-like 'guardian stone' (orthostat 49) in eastern passage way by 3D Icons.|
European Neolithic Culture - assorted perspectives
- Neolithic (Italian overview)
- Neolithic (French overview)
- Neolithic (German overview)
- Neolithic (English overview)
- Cardial Ware Culture (6000BC)
- Galicia Megalithic Culture
- Megalithic Culture of Brittany
Louthiana (1758) : intimations of what has been lost
These images are borrowed from Thomas Wright's, Louthiana, the second edition of which was published by Thomas Payne in London. Thomas Wright was invited by James Hamilton to stay at his residence in Dundalk to carry out a survey of archaeological remains in County Louth (1746-7). He also sojourned for a while at another Hamilton residence, Tollymore Park, in Co.Down. His survey included a goodly number of Neolithic/Bronze Age monuments recorded in the environs of Dundalk of which little, to my knowledge, remains today. So while Newgrange on the River Boyne may have been the most important ritual centre in the region, it is likely that there was a good spread of such monuments a long, or near, other prominent rivers.xxxi
The scale of the images has been reduced by about 45% and the contrast and brightness increased. Click on images to see full size.
i Marija Gimbutas, 'Cosmogonical and Cosmological Images', in The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 6500-3500 BC: Myths and Cult Images, New and updated ed (London: Thames and Hudson, 1982), pp. 89–111 (p. 89).
ii Michael Viney, Ireland: A Smithsonian Natural History (Belfast: The Blackstaff Press), pp. 50,55–57.
iii Niall Mac Coitir, Irish Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore (Doughcloyne, Wilton, Cork: Collins Press, 2003), p. 75.
iv Clare O’Kelly and others, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature, 78 (1978), 249–352 (pp. 29–31).
v Joseph Campbell, Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine (Novato, California: Joseph Campbell Foundation ; New World Library, 2013), pp. 258–9.
vi Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology (New York: Arkana, 1991), p. 104.
vii James Joyce, Finnegan's Wake, ed. by Seamus Deane (London: Penguin Books Ltd?: [distributor] Penguin Books Ltd, 2000).
viii O’Kelly and others, p. 37.
ix O’Kelly and others, p. 41.
x Martin Brennan, The Stones of Time: Calendars, Sundials, and Stone Chambers of Ancient Ireland (Rochester, Vt: Inner Traditions, 1994), p. 108.
xi O.G.S. Crawford, The Eye Goddess(Phoenix House LTD, 1957), p. 48.
xii Michael J O'Kelly, Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1998), p. 107.
xiii George Eogan, Knowth and the Passage-Tombs of Ireland. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1986), p. 45.
xiv James Joyce , Finnegan’s Wake, p. 193.
xv James Joyce, Finnegans Wake , p. 195.
xvi Daragh Smyth, A Guide to Irish Mythology (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1988), p. 42.
xvii Dáithí Ó hÓgáin, The Sacred Isle: Belief and Religion in Pre-Christian Ireland p60
xviii George Eogan, Knowth and the Passage-Tombs of Ireland. pp. 98–100.
xix Michael J O'Kelly, Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend. p. 215.
xx Isabella Augusta Gregory Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland Chpt: The Evil Eye--The Touch--The Penalty
xxi O.G.S. Crawford, The Eye Goddess (Phoenix House LTD, 1957), pp. 81–86.
xxii Marija Alseikaite Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess (London: Thames and Hudson, 2006), p. 190.
xxiii Niall Mac Coitir, Irish Wild Plants: Myths, Legends & Folklore (Doughcloyne, Wilton, Cork: Collins Press, 2006), p. 36.
xxiv O’Kelly and others, pp. 272–3.
xxv Chris J. Stevens and Dorian Q Fuller, 'Alternative Strategies to Agriculture: The Evidence for Climatic Shocks and Cereal Declines during the British Neolithic and Bronze Age (a Reply to Bishop)', World Archaeology, 47.5 (2015), 856–75 (p. 863)
xxvi Dáithí Ó hÓgáin, The Sacred Isle: Belief and Religion in Pre-Christian Ireland (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK; Rochester, NY; Cork, Ireland: Boydell Press?; Collins Press, 1999), p. 64.
xxvii James Frazer,The Golden Bough(PAPERMAC), p. 535
xxviii Simon Armitage, ed.,Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (London: Faber and Faber, 2007), p. 100.
xxix George Henderson and Irish Texts Society, Fled Bricrend = the feast of Bricriu: an early Gaelic saga transcribed from older mss. into the Book of the Dun Cow (London: Irish Texts Society, 1993) https://archive.org/details/fledbricrendfeas02hend
xxx Gabriel Cooney, Landscapes of Neolithic Ireland (New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 153–58, 112–15.
xxxi Thomas Wright, Louthiana, second (Mews Gate, Castle St. St.Martins, London: Thomas Payne, 1758), Book III