Iron Age Emain Macha - the mysterious ritual of 94BCE

Iron Age Emain Macha - the mysterious ritual of 94BCE

Tony Gerard Dolan 09-Apr-2012
Construction of the ritual fort

Emain Macha

Emain Macha was one of the Iron Age capitals of Ireland which of course plays an important role in the Ulster Cycle of tales and is the base for its Red Branch warriors. See Susan Walker-White's reconstruction of an Iron Age Fort for some idea of how Emain Macha might have looked. In this article we're going to try and elucidate an extraordinary ritual that took place there in 94BCE.

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The Mysterious Ritual

Raising the Central Post

In 94 BC, according to dendrology dating, a tribe, thought to be the Ulaid, built a large wooden structure with 280 oak posts around a one metre diameter oak tree trunk on the summit of a hill. Access to the structure was through a wide entranceway from the west which in the archaeologists reconstruction shows a wooden track possibly to facilitate the haulage of sleighs full of stones. It might have also provided the entrance and an exit for a procession of a large number of people as part of a consecration ritual.
Bizarrely when the structure was properly roofed the builders then proceeded to create a mound of limestone rocks within. To further the mystery of the site, the ritual sacralisation of the mound was effected by the burning of the whole structure, leaving a layer of ash over the limestone mound and the post stumps. This was then sealed by the addition of two metres of layered soils and turfs of which 21 different types have been so far identifiedi.

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The Naming of Emain Macha

It is ironic that the chief site of the Ulaid is called Emain Macha, (the twins of Macha), thus making a direct reference to the myth whereby Macha, nearing the term of pregnancy, is forced into a race with King Conchobar's fastest chariot. As a goddess she leaves the chariot well in her wake but her efforts induce an excruciating labour in which she gives birth to twins. As she departs with the twins, she puts the curse upon the men of Ulaid (Ulster) for this mistreatment of a pregnant woman that when Ulster is in great peril all its men, old enough to grow a beard, will be stricken with the labour pangs of a woman up to a period of nine generations.


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Macha as Goddess

Death of the mythological hero, Cúchulainn.
by Oliver Sheppard

Macha is one aspect of the triple-goddess, often collectively called the Morrigu, concerned with fertility, war and sovereignty. The trio are shape shifters with the Morrigu typically associated with the raven and Badb with the hooded crow. Macha as a woman can have the fair aspect of a maiden, but she is also associated with horses (as the above chariot race suggests) and the twins (the pair) in this case can refer to the horses that pull the chariot. The reference to the twins is interesting as with Indo-European people you always expect (divine) twins and yet there are few explicit references to them in Irish mythology. The anthropologist, Professor David Anthony, comparing the common features of the Greek and Indo-Iranian peoples refers to a common horse goddess Erinys/Saran:

a horse goddess in both traditions, born of a primeval creator god and the mother of a winged horse in Greek, or of the Divine Twins in Indo-Iranian, who are often represented as horses.ii
(The Horse The Wheel and Language p55-56)

Looking to the contemporary Celtic tribes of Europe and the goddess Epona (horse), we note that she is the holder of the keys of death which is to say that she helps guide the dead on to the afterlife (la Horgne graveyard Mediomatrici tribe near Metz). Miranda Green remarks that this function contrasts with that of her holding a napkin signifying the start of a race, or setting out on the journey through this life.iii Most images come from the Roman period when the Celtic tribesmen were dominant in the Roman cavalry and so there may be an evolution of meaning from her pre-Roman existence.

Green further points out that the distribution of of shrines to Celtic sky-horsemen (Lugh) have a similar distribution in Gaul and Rhineland to that of Epona.iv We note that the two counties of Armagh and Louth in Ireland are side by side and are derived from, ard macha - high place of Macha; and - Lugh, the sun god, respectively. Cúchulainn (a son of Lugh) travels to Emain Macha to fulfil his destiny. His singular quality is a demonic transformation that takes place when nemain ( battle-frenzy), an energy also associated with Macha, overtakes him. Yet in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, Cúchulainn and the Morrigu, are depicted as adversaries. She tries to trip him as an eel in his single combat with Ferdia in the ford on the River Dee (modern Ardee), he escapes his fated death but finally succumbs to his wounds in later battle. To die like a warrior on his feet he straps himself to a pillar of stone and the Morrigu in raven form alights on his shoulder, to gloat, salute his bravery and no doubt guide him onwards.

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Residence of a King

In the stories of Cúchulainn, the king of Ulaid (Ulster) had his residence at Emain Macha. There were three houses: the Cróeb Derg ("Bright Red Branch"), where trophies of battle were kept; the Cróeb Ruad ("Dull Red Branch") where the king sat and the Téte Brecc ("Speckled Hoard") where the warriors' weapons were stored.
(As an aside it is worth noting that in the Irish language two words denoting forts appear frequently these are ráth and dun and many place names incorporate these: i.e. Dundrum, Rathoath etc).
Close by there would have been an open space referred to as the Green where the youth of Emain Macha played hurley and where Cúchulainn (called Setanta in his youth) first shows off his remarkable prowess to the men of Ulster. On his way to Emain Macha it is mentioned he passes Slieve Gullion from his home somewhere in the hinterland of modern day, Dundalk. So even as a mythical character he passes from outside into Ulaid (perhaps through some fortification like the Dorsey gates) and this is given as one reason why he is not afflicted by the curse of the 'birth pangs'. The other reason given is that he never grows a beard and therefore remains a boy and exempted.

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Altering the Landscape: The Black Pig's Dyke and the Dorsey Gates

The Black Pig's Dyke is a discontinuous series of earthworks that fringe the southern boundaries of Ulaid and which are thought to have offered some protection from cattle raids from the rival power centres of Rathcrogan in Connacht and Tara in Leinster. The gaps in the structure are thought to have been filled by forests. A dating of 395BC for a stretch in Monagahan puts it within the timeframe for the arrival of the Iron age celtic tribes and the evidence of a palisade, fronted by a ditch and backed by a double ditch is suggestive of the defensive nature of the structure.

If it did constitute a boundary it would have had to still have allowed access to wheeled vehicles and one of the sites of such a gate is thought to be at Dorsey (a name derived from the plural for doors/gates in Irish, na doirse). Interestingly the date for the construction of Dorsey appears to be identical with that of the construction of the ritual building on Emain Macha.v

By contrast the suspected gateway to Connacht from Ulster was referred to as the Doon of Drumsa, a peninsula in Roscommon encircled by the River Shannon vi .

In mythology, the three sons of Tuireann (of thunder) happen upon Cian (father of sun god Lugh) and finding him alone determine to kill him to settle an unspecified enmity (rivalry?) between him and their father. Aware of the danger, Cian turns himself into a pig and tries to mingle in with other pigs to hide himself. The sons of Tuireann (in the form of hounds?) pursue him and in a coast to coast chase the pig/boar digs up the ground that becomes the Black Pigs Dyke (or the dyke is his petrified body?).

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Ritual & Belief

The Sense of the Ritual

Loughnashade bronze trumpet 100 BC
Navan Fort Museum

The site was already consecrated by the older Bronze Age inhabitants of the island for whom war would have been a supplementary activity to farming rather than the dominant theme of the society. The very large outer ditch was certainly dug many centuries before the central mound was erected by the Ulaid. The excerpt from the Metrical Dindshenchas given above refers to the legend that Macha first traced this perimeter with her brooch pin which is suggestive of the ancient practice of marking out the perimeter of a new city by ploughing the perimeter, leaving only unploughed gaps for gateways. But equally Indo-European peoples used to enclose sites that were repeatedly struck by lightening as sacred sites. (Frazer - The Golden Bough -ch 15 The Worship of the Oak )

This deep ditch while loosely concentric is by no means flat and descends the hill, particularly towards the east. One unimportant feature today is that on the western side there is a small well or source that is only about two metres below the level on which the mound is built. Today it trickles down the ditch as a small rivulet. Proceeding through the ditch beyond it, it is all damp with lesser celandine, bluebells and wild garlic flowering (March 2012). One would expect that the drainage might appear much lower down the ditch but this availability of water may have been an important feature of the site.

With the Ulaid it may be that having established their claim to much of the northern part of the island by force of arms, their druids were now called upon to legitimise their sovereignty over it by a ceremony commensurate to the achievement. We note that in India the ultra extravagant ritual of the Horse Sacrifice by a rajah wishing to affirm his elevated status to a maharajah and in epics like the Iliad, sacrifice occurs frequently after a victory to allow the gods their share of the booty (also see Irish Horse Sacrifice in Donegal as part of inauguration ritual - 1188AD). Notable among Indo European peoples is the use of fire as the means of conveying the sacrifice to the celestial gods. Again in India the god of fire, Agni, has the role of accepting, and conveying, sacrifice on behalf the gods.

Layout of postholes (by Dudley Waterman?)

The orientation of the processional way in the building on Emain Macha is orientated towards the West which is the place of death ( the Isles of the Blessed) and yet there is no evidence of interment in the mound?

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Joseph Campbell in his work, Flight of the Wild Gander, has a chapter called mythogenesis which shows how the Lakotans evolve a new myth and ritual to correspond with their move from the the waterways of the Upper Mississippi out onto to the Great Plains. Of interest is the cosmological explanation given for the 28 post tepee setup to receive the White Buffalo Woman as part of the new rite of the peace pipe.

Similarly, structurally speaking, the excessive number of posts used in the construction surely has a symbolical significance and the very large central oak tree no doubt symbolised the world tree or axis mundi but also perhaps their principle deity:

When we pass from Southern to Central Europe we still meet with the great god of the oak and the thunder among the barbarous Aryans (Indo-Europeans) who dwelt in the vast primaeval forests. Thus among the Celts of Gaul the Druids esteemed nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the oak on which it grew; they chose groves of oaks for the scene of their solemn service, and they performed none of their rites without oak leaves. The Celts, says a Greek writer, worship Zeus, and the Celtic image of Zeus is a tall oak. The Celtic conquerors, who settled in Asia in the third century before our era, appear to have carried the worship of the oak with them to their new home; for in the heart of Asia Minor the Galatian senate met in a place which bore the pure Celtic name of Drynemetum, the sacred oak grove or the temple of the oak.
Wielder of the Thunderbolt (
James Frazer - The Golden Bough - Ch15: The Worship of the Oak

In the plan of the posts the detail to the left of the central post is the remains of the ramp used as an aid in its erection which probably constituted a ritual in itself as the posts suggest a passage to and away from the central post but this would have become meaningless once the strange task of filling the great house with stones began.The very base of the tree had two slots, which you can pass your hand through and out, which were presumably used for pulling the oak trunk. The top may have had similar slots to aid the erection - or if it protruded above may have had carved detail, but all the trunk not shielded in the earth or the limestone mound was obviously burned. Considering the association of the oak with the highest deity and kingship, it would not be beyond the bounds of possibility if the central trunk protruded above the house and was designed to attract a lightening bolt which thereby ignited and sanctified the mound from the 'hand of god' himself , Tuireann - god of thunder, (more familiar in the Celtic world under the name Taranis). As an example of this we have the so called Jupiter Columns in Germany (the heartland of the La Tene culture and which although they belong to the 2nd-3rd Centuries AD probably had a forerunner in Oak trees or columns) where the supreme deity wielding his thunderbolts in one hand typically stands (or is riding a horse) on top of a monster personifying the forces of chaos.

Now it would be of little use if this were to occur at a random time, so it may be that the central beam was not integral to the structure, remember there are 280 supporting posts, and that the druids waited until the approach of a thunderstorm before raising the central monumental post. One reason for supposing this is that the clay bank used in the erection of the post was discovered. If the post was raised early on in the construction you might expect that the soil would have been removed, or dispersed, prior to the building of the mound of stones inside.

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The Geis

Not content that war and mishap should flow naturally from the stuff of life, the Iron Age celts appear to have afflicted themselves with all manner of idiosyncratic taboos, or geis, that usually result in otherwise perfectly avoidable disaster. Cúchulainn cannot be awoken from sleep, his son cannot reveal his name with the result that Cúchulainn kills him , Fergus Mac Roich cannot pass up an invitation to a feast and thereby abandons the sons of Uisneach to their tragic fate at Emain Macha, the otherwise canny Bres cannot refuse hospitality and so is obliged to drink poison.

Dáithí Ó hÓgáin (An Encyclopedia of the Irish Folk Tradition p237) infers that the geis derives from the relationship of divine kingship to the goddess of sovereignty who could place upon her spouse certain geasa as preconditions of his royal rule. In time he surmises this prerogative may have extended to women. Two celebrated examples being:

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Cúchulainn in battle-chariot


Cúchulainn, overhearing Cathbad the druid prophesy that the warrior who takes arms on this day will have the most brilliant of career of any warrior but will die young, immediately volunteers to take arms even though he is considered too young to do so.
On the birth of Deirdre the violence and disaster that her unparalleled beauty will provoke is also prophesied by Cathbad, but Conchobar, willfully, tries to stay this prophesy by betrothing Deirdre to himself when she comes of age.

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Tree Lore and Language

The Iron age tribes were not literate cultures and transmitted knowledge orally through prodigious feats of memorisation. It is only in the early centuries AD that inscriptions using the Ogham alphabet first appear on standing stones. The language is closely related to the lore of trees with each letter being associated with particular trees which in turn, through long interaction have associated practical and symbolical properties. These in turn have enshrined themselves in many Irish place names (Mayo - maigh Eo - plain of the Yew Trees; Derry - dara - place of the oaks, or oak grove; Kildare - cill dara - church of the oak;) and still have a rich place in the rural imagination and folklore. Lugh's spear can be referred to as the famous yew of the wood ( ibar alai fhidbaidha ). The lore of place names (logainm in Irish) can be explored, somewhat, at Dublin City University's logainm website.

Gone with the original forests of Ireland is the vast lore associated with the many practical uses and ritual associated with the different trees and plants. Yet we can imagine that the frantic hunt of wild boar might have brought warrior-hunters into unknown parts of the forest and that this would have excited their imagination and superstitions. From Celtic tales we know that the appearance of a white hart or stag in the forest is often a precursor to an encounter with supernatural forces.

Forest Path disappearing into a Lake
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Water Worlds

The Iron Age people saw water as a barrier or gateway to other realms and in myth there are references to heroes traveling for one purpose or other to palaces under the ocean. We remember that at the close of the Second Battle of Moytirra, the Dagda had to retrieve his stolen harp from the underwater lair of the Fomorians. This world view may partly explain the ritual deposition of valuables in rivers, lakes and bogs as votive offerings. Similarly Brian, one of the ill fated sons of Tuireann had to retrieve a cooking spit (of all things!) from the under-sea kingdom of Fianchuive and her sea maidens which was said to be located between Erin and Alba. Perhaps there was a sense too that the unrecovered bodies of those who drowned and disappeared in these environments had passed on into another world.

The hero, Oisín, is lured to Tír na nÓg by Niamh daughter of Manannan, god of the sea, on a magical horse. Oisín remains young but overcome by nostalgia he visits Ireland on the horse again but unwittingly touches the ground and dies immediately of old age. Of interest here is both the idea of such a world over or under the sea and being transported there and back by a horse rather than a boat. Now in modern parlance where nature is no longer so keenly experienced it might be necessary to equate the aqua-plane of the lake to that of our nether-psyche and instead of the goddess macha we might have to travel on our own humble nag, the night-mare.

Far from avoiding bogs as dangerous places of limited usefulness, the Corlea Oak Trackway, in Co.Longford, dated to 149BC shows that Iron Age Celts built oak, therefore sacred, roads out onto, and even across bogs. There is some suggestion that dry islands within the bog were used for ritual purposes. Further excavations are turning up a veritable network of such trackways.

Corlea Trackway 2009
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Aspects of Iron Age Culture

Names, Parentage and Fosterage

In the Ulster Cycle, it is notable that Setanta becomes Cúchulainn with no reference to his parentage in his name. Conchobar Mac Nessa, the king, is called the son of his mother Nessa. Fergus Mac Róich from whom Conchobar took the kingship by contrivance (similar in some ways to how Lugh contrived to take the head of the gods status from Nuada) is called after Ró-ech or "great horse". By contrast in the Fianna Cycle of tales, set in the early centuries AD?, parentage is usually associated with the father. Cormac Mac Airt, Fionn Mac Cumhaill, etc.

In old gaelic society custom and in the different myths, it was very common that children would be brought up outside their natal home as a means of strengthening bonds between families and perhaps helping act as a check on the ambition and behaviour of individual families. Fosterage.

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Bog Bodies

Clonycavan Man

In recent times, preserved bog bodies have appeared on the boundaries of Iron Age kingdoms in Ireland. The bodies show signs of violence and are sometimes restrained by pegs (fear of the avenging spirit?). Clonycavan Man is dated to 300BC and is notable for a mohawk hairstyle and Old Croghan Man is of similar antiquity (circa 260BC±100) and is thought to have stood nearly two metres tall. These dates correspond with the aftermath of the Iron Age incursions into Ireland and may reflect the struggles to establish new kingdoms.

Dáithí Ó hÓgáin discussing the general idea of animal or human spirits been left to guard buried treasures and later develops this idea, and gives examples, of kings and chieftains being buried near their territorial boundaries, often rivers, in the belief that this will dissuade rival tribes from invading. Such practices, he writes, can be dated from the Bronze Age.

Two examples Ó hÓgáin gives are: 1) of Lóegaire mac Néill (died 462AD) who asked to be buried on the ridges of Tara, facing south against his Leinster foes at Mullaghmast 2) of Eoghan Béal of Connacht (died 543AD), asking to be buried in the plain of his Ui Fiachrach sept; standing upright with a red javelin in his hand and facing north against the men of Ulster. ix

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The Games of Tailtiu

Like the Greeks, the Iron Age celts held funeral games. In Ireland these were held at Tailtiu ( possibly Telltown). The goddess Tailtiu reputedly dies of exhaustion from clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. Associated with the Fir Bolg she may have been associated with cereal crops (and their harvest) of the Neolithic - Bronze Age farmers. There is a slightly awkward note in the aftermath of the Second Battle of Moytirra where the victorious Tuatha de Danann ask for advice on planting from the defeated Bres as if the newly ascendant livestock herders wish to retain and assimilate the older, more planting orientated, way of farming. Their sun god, Lugh becomes the new patron of the harvest festival called Lughnasadh. The games however were always associated with Tailtiu and are said to have continued up until the twelfth century Norman Invasion of Ireland (and later resurrected as the Tailteann Games).

The central mound at Emain Macha, Armagh
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The four festivals of the year were Bealtaine (May fire festival, with ritual of passing cattle between bonfires) at sites such as Uisneach, Lughnasadh (dancing harvest festival, Lugh), Samhain (boundary between this and the other world opens, after which warriors would find lodgings (billeted) with families for the winter) and Imbolc (lactation of the ewes, Brigit).

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Contacts and Foreign Trade

The skull of a barbary ape was found in the excavation of Emain Macha and the ape must have been an exotic presence at the Ulaid court. As well as Irish wolfhounds it might have had other pets like the European crane as company as depicted for instance on the base stone of the later Ahenny High Cross.

Europe 58BC

The Barbary Ape is found on the North African coast and tends to confirm the evidence that Ireland traded with the Mediterranean in these times. It is noteworthy in the myth of the Sons of Tuireann episode in the Second Battle of Moytirra that all the tasks set for the ill fated sons are set around the Mediterranean Sea with none located near the continental Celtic homelands.

It is also worth observing that Conall Cernach, the older, veteran warrior, of the Ulaidh before the arrival of Cúchulainn is usually abroad on business when a crisis occurs in the Ulster Cycle, allowing Cúchulainn to claim the limelight and glory.

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The Oenach

These were annual assemblies or fairs. The most famous óenachs occured at Tailtiu (Teltown) and Carman (near Kilcullen?). It might be argued that they have in their way survived into the present with the very popular National Ploughing Championships which is a huge event in the agricultural calendar of Ireland. While the games above might represent the meeting of the elite from different parts of the island, the fairs would involve the ordinary farmer and merchant, going about their business.
As a curiosity, using Google maps it is noticable that the River Boyne at Brú na Bóinne, the River Blackwater at Teltown (east of Kells) and the River Liffey beside Kilcullen all have an almost identical wide u-shaped loop surrounded by a rise of land looking south) and it may be these gatherings sites may hark back to the Bronze age and the reason for the situation was sunny aspect and maximum river frontage for tying up boats. See three maps juxtaposed.

An evocative image from the fair of Tailteann is found in the postcript of the History of Britain (p212-3) attributed to the monk Nennius about 830AD :

Congalacha, son of Mailmithigh , was at the fair of Taillten on a certain day, and he perceived a ship in the air. He saw one of them the crew cast a dart at a salmon. The dart fell down in the presence of the fair, and a man came out of the ship after it. When his head came down it was caught by a man from below.

Upon which the man from above said, I am being drowned, said he.
Let him go, said Congalach; and he was allowed to come up, and he went away from them, swimming in the air, afterwards.

Note: Although as Congalach was king 946-55AD this detail must have been added by the (11th century?) translator of the History of Britain from Latin into Irish.

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Brehon Laws

The Brehon Laws that we know from later would be derived in large measure from the practical value system of these Iron Age tribes. Considering the epic, Táin Bó Cúailnge, and its cause, the ownership of two bulls, it is noteworthy that the dairy cow (the standard unit of value) is worth three bulls.

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We need some more archaeological evidence, or some illuminating strand of myth, to elucidate further the full meaning of the structure that was burned on Emain Macha in 94BC. But, as an idea to explore, let us hypothesise for the moment that the tribe of the Ulaid having established a firm hold over their territories (roughly Ulster) had their druids design a ritual that would sacralise the event and send the soul of their (ailing or wounded?) venerated king to the Isles of the Blessed in the West perhaps guided by the horse goddess Macha. At the same time the king's ashes were sealed in a funerary mound which thereafter would enshrine their over-lordship and sovereignty of their territory. The consecration would have occurred in the evening (as the four festivals above are all 'eve' rather than 'day' festivals) and the conflagration would have been visible for miles. It may even be that the druids contrived that the central oak pillar was independent of the rest of the structure and was only pulled upright when the time was considered propitious. In support of this view note that on the west side there is only one post hole recorded and that the bank used to raise the huge oak trunk was still in situ.
Alternatively, in the Indo-European tradition, there might have been no interment but having completed a series of conquests a warrior king might have had a ritual consecration of his new position of overlord of the conquered territories with all the notables of the realm in attendance.

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i Chris Lynn, Excavations at Navan Fort (School of Archaeology, Queen’s University Belfast).

ii David W. Anthony, The Horse The Wheel and Language (Princeton), pp. 55–56.

iii Miranda Green, Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art (Routledge), p. 22.

iv Green, Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art p. 23.

v CJ Lynn, ‘An Interpretation of the Dorsey’, Emania, 6 (1989), p. 5.

vi Tom Condit and Victor M. Buckley, ‘The Doon of Drumsa’, Emania Magazine, 6 (1989).

vii James Frazer, The Golden Bough (PAPERMAC), p. 637 <>.

viii James Frazer, The Golden Bough p. 637.

viii-a Dáithí Ó hÓgáin, Myth, Legend & Romance: An Encyclopaedia of the Irish Folk Tradition, 1st ed (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1991), p. 237

ix 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. 47, 49-50.

x Unknown, The Irish Version of the Historia Britonum of Nennius, trans. by James Henthorn Todd (UCC Celt Project, 2002), pp. 212–13

More archaeological documents from Dr.Lynn's report. The mound we've been discussing is mound B but decapitations have shown that there were as many as forty buildings on the site preceding this period of 94BC. If we assume the Iron Age constructions to have started sometime after 400BC this suggests fairly continuous building activity on the site. The B mound is visible because of the mound of stones and clay build on the original building site. Site A on the other hand, consisting of a series of wooden constructions, can only be brought to light by means of archaeologist's excavation work.