Friday, 16 September 2016

On the night of a lunar eclipse, there's a beautiful halo around the moon in the Boyne Valley

A halo around the moon over the Boyne Valley, viewed from Newgrange.

On the night of a penumbral eclipse of the moon, it seemed appropriate that I should go out to Newgrange and Dowth to try to get a photo of the full moon over the valley where, anciently, people watched its movements very closely.

When I arrived at Newgrange, there was a giant ring, or halo, around the moon. In older times, the locals would have said, in the native tongue, "Tá Fáinne ar an Ghealaigh".(1) Literally, "there is a ring around the moon".

Tonight's eclipse was what's known as a penumbral eclipse, which means that only the outer part of the earth's shadow falls upon the moon. What this means in reality is that one would probably find it hard to notice that anything was happening, as the moon only dims very very slightly. It's not like a full eclipse, where the moon enters the shadow of the earth and turns a coppery red colour during totality.

In terms of observable phenomena, it was much easier to capture an image of the halo around the moon than it would have been to capture a penumbral eclipse. (As it happens, the eclipse was already over when I arrived at Newgrange).

The halo had changed as the clouds moved when I got to Dowth, whose name might be related to eclipses.

With the autumn equinox only days away, the eclipse interested me even more, and that's because eclipses occurring around the equinoxes signal something very interesting - that the lunar node is at or near the sun's equinox points, and therefore the moon will be at maximum separation from the ecliptic at or near the sun's solstice points. When it is at these points of maximum separation, we get the so-called lunar standstills - either major standstill or minor standstill, depending on what part of the nodal rotation cycle we are at. This cycle lasts 18.6 years, or 230 synodic months (a synodic lunar month is the time it takes the moon to return to the same phase. So if you see a first quarter moon tonight, it will be one synodic lunar month (approx. 29.5 days) before you see its next first quarter phase.

As it happens, we had minor lunar standstill in 2015, and the moon's nodes are currently drifting westwards from the equinox points. The next major standstill will be in April 2025.

(1) McCionnaith, L. (1935), Foclóir Béarla agus Gaedhilge, p.812.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

The Tara Brooch - Ireland's finest piece of jewellery

The Tara Brooch on display in the Treasury, National Museum (Archaeology), Kildare St., Dublin.
The Tara Brooch has rightly been described as Ireland's finest piece of jewellery. It dates from the 7th century AD and represents the pinnacle of achievement by the early medieval Irish metalworkers.

However, the brooch has no known connection with either the Hill of Tara, after which it is named, or the High Kings who ruled there. It was, supposedly, found on Bettystown beach in County Meath, a mere four and a half miles (7km) from where I live here in Drogheda.

The story goes that it was found at Bettystown in 1850 by a peasant woman's children. They allegedly found it in a box which had been buried in the sand. However, there is a belief the brooch was really discovered somewhere inland and that the peasant woman's family had changed details of the story to avoid any dispute with the owner of the land where it was really found. On August 24th 1850 (and remember this was just after the Great Famine, when times were tough), the woman offered the brooch for sale to the owner of an old iron shop here in Drogheda. Can you imagine receiving such a fabulous and priceless artifact into your hands and then deeming it to be of little worth? That's what happened:
"[He] refused to purchase to light and insignificant (sic) an article; it was subsequently bought by a watchmaker in the town, who, after cleaning and examining it, proceeded to Dublin and disposed of it to us (Messrs. Waterhouse & Co., Jewellers, Dame Street), for nearly as many pounds sterling as he had given pence for it."(1)

A different story about the discovery of the Tara Brooch later emerged. Sir William Wilde (father of Oscar Wilde) had compiled a Catalogue of the Silver and Ecclesiastical Antiquities in the Collection of the Royal Irish Academy in 1862. This was not published until 1915. In it, Wilde refers to certain silver objects found "in the excavation for the harbour wall at the mouth of the river Boyne, near Drogheda, in an oak box, and along with them the brooch called that of Tara."(2)

The only thing in common with the two stories is that the brooch was found in a box and that it was found somewhere along the coast of the Drogheda area.

A view of the Tara Brooch on display at the National Museum. © Anthony Murphy

Whatever the truth about the location of its discovery, the Dame Street jeweller, George Waterhouse, was the one who renamed this most precious item the Tara Brooch, linking the find to the Irish High Kings, "fully aware that this would feed the Irish middle-class fantasy of being descended from them."(3)

And it worked. The Tara Brooch was displayed as a standout showpiece at The Great Exhibition in London in 1851 and the Paris Exposition Universelle, as well as the Dublin exhibition visited by the Queen in 1853. Prior to this, it had even been specially sent to Windsor Castle for her inspection.(4)

Around 1867, the brooch came into the collection of the Royal Irish Academy. It was sold to the RIA for the sum of £200, quite a lot of money in those days, and sold "on the express condition that it should never be allowed to leave Ireland".

The Tara Brooch is currently on display at the Treasury room of the National Museum (Archaeology) in Kildare Street, Dublin, where the public can see it for free. You are also allowed to take photographs of it - but there are conditions, so make sure to read them on the museum's website before visiting.Here is the museum's description of the Tara Brooch:

It is made of cast and gilt silver and is elaborately decorated on both faces. The front is ornamented with a series of exceptionally fine gold filigree panels depicting animal and abstract motifs that are separated by studs of glass, enamel and amber. The back is flatter than the front, and the decoration is cast. The motifs consist of scrolls and triple spirals and recall La Tène decoration of the Iron Age.
A silver chain made of plaited wire is attached to the brooch by means of a swivel attachment. This feature is formed of animal heads framing two tiny cast glass human heads.
Along with such treasures as the Ardagh Chalice and the Derrynaflan Paten, the Tara Brooch can be considered to represent the pinnacle of early medieval Irish metalworkers’ achievement. Each individual element of decoration is executed perfectly and the range of technique represented on such a small object is astounding.(5)
Just one final thought, and that is the significance of the Boyne Estuary, if that is indeed where the brooch was found. This is where the builders of Newgrange brought the stones for the monument in from the sea. This is, according to myth, the place where the Milesians landed when they came to take Ireland from the Tuatha Dé Danann. It is also reputedly the place where Saint Patrick landed when he arrived to bring Christianity here. One wonders if the brooch was not part of a haul that was either being brought into the country, or, more likely, being secreted away to be sold abroad; and, if the latter was the case, what misfortune came upon its then owner at the mouth of the Boyne. Whatever happened, we are exceedingly lucky to be able to enjoy its splendor today.

(1) H.A. Wheeler, The Tara Brooch: Where Was It Found?, Journal of the County Louth Archaeological Society, Vol. 12, No. 2 (1950), pp 155-158.
(2) Ibid. 
(4) Ibid.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Do the myths about Newgrange and the Boyne Valley mounds offer an insight into their function?

"Myths are just stories," a historian once told me. As far as he was concerned, they were stories that were made up for sheer entertainment. In that mindset, myths are not metaphors for anything, and they certainly don't contain detail about real history, or any information such as astronomical data.

The winter solstice illumination of Newgrange by the sun. Composite © Anthony Murphy.

However, students of mythology know the truth is much more complex than that. Many myths are metaphorical. Some do refer to actual events. And there are stories that appear, in certain interpretations, to contain astronomical information.

My own view is that myths should never be dismissed as mere stories. However, the truth is that in most cases we can only travel so far along the road of hypothesis and speculation, no matter how well grounded it is, because often we are unable to discern the true age of a myth, or how it might have been altered by the voices of time.

In the case of Newgrange, Dowth and Knowth (the former two in particular), there are myths and folk tales that appear to offer a tantalising possibility - that they contain information about these sites and the function of these monuments that might go all the way back into deep prehistory. And so I will discuss some of these myths and folk beliefs in the context of possibility only - without drawing any definitive conclusions, except to acknowledge at the outset that I am excited about the possibilities, which may tinge my investigation with a hint of subjectivity.

Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. Images by the author.

Joseph Campbell
I've written in several publications about the Venus connection at Newgrange. Joseph Campbell, writing in The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, referred to a local story that suggested that at sunrise on one day in eight years, the morning star rises and casts its beam into the chamber. This story was recounted, it would appear, before the excavation and restoration of Newgrange in the 1960s, work which resulted in the leading archaeologist Michael O'Kelly witnessing, in 1967, the light from the winter solstice sun entering the chamber. Prior to the restoration, neither sun nor Venus (nor any heavenly body) could be seen from the chamber because of the subsidence of the passage cap stones during the five millennia since Newgrange was constructed.

Of particular intrigue is the fact that archaeologists maintain Newgrange was "sealed up" within a few centuries of being built after cairn material slipped off the top and covered the kerb and entrance, and that its passage and chamber lay concealed for about four millennia until local landowner Charles Campbell rediscovered the entrance in 1699AD.

Another folk belief in the 1930s, recounted recently in this blog, told how the Tuatha Dé Danann brought stones from the Mourne Mountains for the building of the mounds. During the excavations in the 1960s, it was indeed discovered that there were water-rolled granite cobbles at Newgrange (which had been hidden beneath the cairn slip). These, it has been revealed, came from the Cooley Peninsula, but have their origin in the Mournes.

In his 1990 paper, Time, Memory, and the Boyne Necropolis, John Carey examined aspects of two stories - one about Newgrange and one about Dowth. The Newgrange story, from Tochmarc Étaíne, The Wooing of Étaíne, tells of how the Dagda sent Elcmar away so that he might have illicit relations with Elcmar's wife, Bóinn. The Dagda worked a magic spell, so that Elcmar would seem that he is away for a single day, when in fact he had been away for nine months. Dagda lay with Bóinn and the child Oengus Óg was conceived and born. The Dowth story, from the Dindshenchas, told how the king, Bresal, had brought the men of Ireland to build him a tower to reach heaven. The king's sister cast a spell on the sun to make it stand still, so there would be endless day to allow the tower be built.

The myths of the Boyne monument appear to indicate control of time.

Carey makes a very interesting observation: "I am aware of no Irish legends associating the control or construction of sacred sites with the manipulation of time other than those which concern the tumuli of the Boyne valley."

In the tale Altram Tighe Dá Mheadar (The Fosterage of the House of Two Vessels), Manannán advises Oengus on how to take Newgrange from Elcmar: "Command him not to come (again) to the house from which he departs until ogam and achu are mingled together, until heaven and earth are mingled together, and until the sun and moon are mingled together." The mingling of heaven and earth could imply the mating of sky with the earth-mound Newgrange during winter solstice, while the latter reference to sun and moon being mingled might refer to an eclipse, something that I think is implied in the story about Dowth, in which the magic spell on the sun is broken when Bresal commits incest with his sister and a sudden darkness comes upon the land. (For further discussion of this theory, see Island of the Setting Sun, chapter 6.) I have discussed at length on the Mythical Ireland website and in my books the idea that the mound builders were competent astronomers, whose knowledge of the complex movements of the moon (and by extension the predictable patterns of eclipses) were recorded in stone, and inherent in the design of the monuments.

Ronald Hicks
Writing in 2009, Ronald Hicks of Ball State University suggested, in a paper entitled Cosmography In Tochmarc Étaíne, that the story of The Wooing of Étaíne was "meant as an allegory about lunar cycles in which Étaín represents the moon". These lunar cycles, writes Hicks, include the 19-year Metonic Cycle, which was"likely to have been of interest to the ancient Irish".

In one part of The Wooing of Étaín, Midir's wife Fuamnach became jealous of her husband's new wife, Étaín. By magic, Fuamnach turned Étaín into a butterfly (some versions say a fly) and raised a storm that buffeted the butterfly around Ireland for seven years.

At last, however, a chance gust of wind blew her through a window of the fairy palace of Angus on the Boyne. The immortals cannot be hidden from each other, and Angus knew what she was. Unable to release her altogether from the spell of Fuamnach, he made a sunny bower for her, and planted round it all manner of choice and honey-laden flowers, on which she lived as long as she was with him, while in the secrecy of the night he restored her to her own form and enjoyed her love.

There is only one "window" at Newgrange - the sky window, or roof box, as it's more commonly known. This aperture allows the sun to shine into the chamber on winter solstice. Perhaps the "sunny bower" is the chamber of Newgrange, illuminated by the rays of the rising sun on Winter Solstice. I discuss this and some of the other above mentioned myths about Newgrange in this video:

Sunday, 11 September 2016

The public is not allowed inside Knowth's ancient chambers - get a rare glimpse in these videos

The public are not allowed inside the passages and chambers of the ancient megalithic passage-tomb of Knowth. There are various reasons for this - not least the fact that in Knowth's eastern passage, one has to crawl on the ground in order to gain access to the chamber, while the western passage is too low and narrow to allow people in there. It's simply not practical.

However, thanks to modern technology, you can get a glimpse inside Knowth to get a sense of what it looks like inside these deep stone corridors, built 5,300 years ago. In the video below, you can look inside the western passage in this laser scan animation.

In the video below, which was part of an RTE news report, Philip Bromwell goes inside Knowth's eastern chamber and gives us a rare glimpse of what it's like. Take special note of the size of the ceremonial basin which is located in the right-hand recess of the chamber.

I consider myself very lucky to have been able to enter both passages and chambers, and indeed to have been able to take photographs in the western passage. That was in the year 2000, when the archaeologist, Professor George Eogan, was still carrying out work at the site. George allowed Richard Moore and I to visit both passages. It was an unforgettable experience, and one that so few have shared.

You can see some of my photos taken during that visit to Knowth's western passage and chamber at this link:

Inside Knowth's western passage.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

The story of the Cailleach of Loughcrew and its meaning

Many of you have probably heard the story of the Cailleach (hag or witch) of Loughcrew. The hills of Loughcrew are scattered with the remnants of a vast cluster of megalithic monuments that are thought to be up to 5,500 years old. There are four hills - all containing monuments, mostly megalithic cairns and passage-tombs. These are known today as Carnbane West, Carrickbrack, Carnbane East and Patrickstown Hill. The hills, three of them at least, were collectively known in the 19th century as 'The Witches Hops', and in the 17th as 'the Calliagh Steppes'. In some versions, Carrickbrack is omitted, and in the 15th century the remaining three were referred to as Trí Choiscéim na Caillighe, the three footsteps of the hag.

Climbing Carnbane East to see Cairn T, with (in the left background) Carrickbrack and Carnbane West.

There is an old poem told about the Cailleach of Loughcrew, that goes like this:

I am the Chailleach Beara
Many wonders have I seen
I have seen Carn Bawn a lake,
though tis now a mountain green. (1)

The story about the Cailleach tells how she came from the north and she tried to jump from hill to hill, some say from the Carnbane (the westernmost hill) to Patrickstown (the easternmost), alighting on the other hills in between. If she could succeed in this magical feat she would obtain great power. She was carrying an apron full of stones. As she jumped from hill to hill, she dropped some stones from her apron, forming the cairns on each of the peaks. When she reached Patrickstown (which is undoubtedly a Christian name, and perhaps we might some day learn what its original name was) she fell and broke her neck. According to Jean McMann, in her lovely little book Loughcrew - The Cairns - A Guide, a pile of stones at the bottom of the eastern slope of Patrickstown Hill was known until recently as the cailleach's grave.

In earlier times the hill we know today as Carnbane West was known just as the Carnbane (Carn Bán, the white cairn or the white heap of stones). The hill known today as Carnbane East was, it seems, known as Sliabh na Caillaigh, the mountain or hill of the hag/witch.

Cairn T on Carnbane East, formerly known as the Hag's Carn and Sliabh na Caillaigh.

There is no doubt in my mind that the story of the Cailleach of Loughcrew contains essences of an ancient creation or origin myth. This great woman, whose status has been reduced to an old crone, was probably a goddess of the land who was greatly venerated in ancient times. McMann says of her:

'This cailleach is famous in Irish folklore. Other storytellers have described her as a superhuman woman who could harvest a field faster than any man, a crone lamenting her youth, a banshee announcing a death, or a Christian nun. She is best known as Cailleach Bhéarra, but has been called by many other names, including not only Waura but Beri, Buí and Vera ... and may be a later version of the ancient pagan sovereignty queens whose consent was required for kings to rule. Some scholars think she represented wild nature, as a prehistoric earth goddess'.

Michael Dames, writing in 'Ireland, A Sacred Journey', suggests that "the apron is the divine womb, translated into the language of dress".

In this context, we can see the apron as a womb of creation, and perhaps, in the tradition of Marija Gimbutas, we can think of the cairns not so much as tombs, but more like wombs. As a creation or origin myth, the story of the Cailleach of Loughcrew shares some similarities with another origin myth, that which tells about how the River Boyne was formed. In that story, Bóinn approaches Nechtain's Well, something which is forbidden for a woman. The well gushes forth into a fountain, carrying Bóinn along as it creates the River Boyne. Bóinn is mutilated by the waters - she loses an eye, and her arm and leg are broken. Eventually, she is washed out to sea, where she is drowned. Her lapdog, Dabilla, is transformed into the Rockabill islands. In both cases, a female deity is credited with an act of creation, and in both cases at the end of the act of creation the women are killed.

But there is more to the story of the Cailleach of Loughcrew than meets the eye. I'm inclined to think that the imagery of a woman jumping from hill to hill forming cairns is, perhaps, some memory of an ancient astronomical system in which the sun and moon were seen to rise up out of various hills and cairns when viewed from other parts of the complex, and conversely they were seen to "set into" hills and cairns from other vantage points. I'm inspired in this aspect by the Cailleach na Mointeach, the "Old Woman of the Moors" at the Callanish stones in Scotland. The local people there refer to her as the "sleeping beauty" and once every 18.6 years, the moon at its major standstill southern extreme rises from some part of this sleeping beauty and sets again at the bottom of Mount Clisham. (2)

Until 1980, little was known about any astronomical aspect of the Loughcrew cairns. But in that year, Martin Brennan and Jack Roberts discovered the equinox alignment of Cairn T, during which the light of the rising sun on the equinoxes shines into Cairn T (photographed on left) and illuminates what Brennan described as "solar emblems" on the stone at the rear of the chamber. They also discovered that the chamber of Cairn L appeared to be aligned towards the November and February cross-quarter sunrises, and several other small cairns appeared to have alignments towards solar events. In some cases, the passage of a cairn is pointing towards another cairn. For instance, from the chamber of Cairn I on Carnbane West, the sun appears to rise over Cairn T on Carnbane East  at the beginning of September.

The imagery of a woman, or goddess, jumping from hill to hill is, I think, possibly symbolic of a system of alignments from various parts of the megalithic complex, focusing on sunrises and moonrises, and also sunsets and moonsets. In the fullness of time, I think an even more comprehensive study of the alignments of Loughcrew will reveal an interest in the extreme lunar declinations, the minor and major standstills of the moon. At Dowth, for instance, my own studies of the alignments of its two known passageways indicates that the setting moon at both its major and minor southern setting positions might have been the primary, or even shared, targets of the southern and northern chambers, while the setting sun at winter solstice (southern chamber) and November/February cross-quarter days (northern chamber) were also targets. Perhaps the death of the Cailleach is allegorical, referring to the lunar extreme, and perhaps the "death" of one 18.6-year cycle and the beginning of the next one? The fact that she was said to have "come from the north is also interesting, because of the fact that the maximum northern rising and setting extremes of the standstill moon are located in the far northeast and northwest.

Until a more comprehensive study of possible lunar alignments at Loughcrew can be undertaken (and I must admit I would be very happy to be involved!) we can only reflect on the possibilities. We know that there are certainly solar alignments. We can't be sure that these alignments were an intended principal function of the monuments, but they constitute a fascinating and indeed almost mystical aspect of these ancient structures. To be lucky enough to have been witness to some of these alignments makes me feel an extraordinary connection with the builders.

We cannot know how far back the story of the Cailleach of Loughcrew goes. Certainly as Jean McMann acknowledges, "People have probably been telling stories about the Loughcrew hills for more than five thousand years".

Is it too bold a step, to wild a conjecture, to suggest that the story of the Witches Hops or the Cailleach's Steps is in fact some remnant of a very ancient myth, one which goes right back to the time when these cairns were constructed?

The illumination of solar emblems by equinox sunrise at Cairn T.

Addendum - watching the moon

Of interest to our discussion about lunar standstills at Loughcrew is the fact that a society carefully observing and recording the moon's cycles would become aware of several things. The number of sidereal months (the time it takes the moon to complete a circuit of the sky, ie from a particular place on the Zodiac back to the same place again) and synodic months (a particular phase back to same phase, eg full moon back to full moon) does not fit neatly into a solar year. 12 synodic months is 11 days short of a 365-day solar year. In fact, the number of lunations only fits the solar year after 254 sideral months, or 235 sidereal months, which is equal to 19 years. This 19-year cycle is known today as the Metonic Cycle. See this page for a further discussion of the Metonics.

Observers watching the Metonic Cycle would also naturally become aware of the rotation of the moon's nodes, and 18.6-year cycle during which the point where the moon's path crosses the sun's path (the moon's path is inclined to the ecliptic by 5.15 degrees, so its path intersects the sun's path at two points in the sky each month) appears to complete a full circuit of the sky. As this happens, the moon appears, at certain times during this 18.6-year cycle, to go through maximum and minimum extremes, which are observable by the moon's rising and setting places relative to the sun's solstice positions. When the moon's node is located exactly on the sun's solstice positions, there is a likelihood of eclipses occurring at the time of the solstices. Conversely, when the moon's nodes are located exactly on the sun's equinox points, not only is there a likelihood of eclipses at the time of equinox, but the moon's path will be at its maximum separation from the ecliptic at the sun's solstice positions. If the moon's declination is at that time within the range of the sun's path, we get what is termed the "minor standstill", while if its declination is outside of the sun's range, we get the major standstill.

It is possible the builders of Cairn T at Loughcrew were not exclusively focused on the equinox sunrises, but also on observing the moon, and in particular at those times when its node was crossing the ecliptic at the sun's equinox points. If this is the case, as we can merely speculate, then we can envisage observers within the rear recess of Cairn T watching for the rising moon at such times. The natural extension of this argument is that if  the moon is visible through the aperture of Cairn T and is in the same position in the sky as the equinox sun*, then seven days later (i.e. one-quarter of a circuit around the sky), the moon will be at its major standstill rising position (provided it is on its ascending node when visible within Cairn T) or at its minor standstill rising position if it is on a descending node. In other words, the Hag's Cairn might have been used to indicate the times of the extremes of the moon, when an 18.6-year cycle was ending (the death of the hag?) and a new one was beginning.

(* Around the time the cairns were built. the spring equinox sun was positioned in the constellation we know today as Taurus, the bull, while autumn equinox sun was positioned in Scorpius.)

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

What is the meaning of Knowth's pillar stones?

A large sandstone pillar stands outside the entrance to the western passage at Knowth. The meaning of this pillar, and a similar but smaller one on the eastern side, is not known. They appear to be somewhat phallic in nature, and both are accompanied at a short distance by two large "testes" stones. 
The sandstone pillar and stone settings outside Knowth's western entrance.
At Knowth, the white quartz has been left in situ, on the ground, where it was found during excavations, which is contrary to the reconstruction of Newgrange, where the white quartz found on the ground beneath the cairn slip was once thought to have been on the front of the mound, forming a near-vertical wall, and thus Newgrange has been reconstructed that way. The quartz at Knowth is interspersed with water-rolled granite cobbles identical to those found at Newgrange. The interpretations are different. Perhaps the two monuments were built differently?

Knowth west at equinox. Click to enlarge.
There is no easy explanation for the presence of the pillar stones at opposite entrances. Martin Brennan (The Stones of Time, 1984) has noted the interplay of the shadow from the stone at the western side (pictured above) with a vertical line on the centre of the stone immediately outside the entrance to the passage around the time of the equinoxes, when the sun's light reportedly illuminates the passageway. (It does indeed illuminate the passage, as I witnessed and photographed in September 2000, but the maximum reach of the sun into the passage does not occur for another couple of weeks after this, around October 3rd). The photo on left shows the illumination of the orthostats along one side of Knowth's western passage at autumn equinox. This photo was taken by film maker Grant Wakefield on September 20th 2010.

The eastern pillar stone, visible from the pedestrian footbridge at the entrance to Knowth East.
The stone pillar outside the eastern entrance is much smaller, and is made of a different type of stone. Unfortunately, alterations to the outer portion of the eastern passage in medieval times due to souterrain construction have meant the outer section of this passage has a bend in it, precluding light from travelling into the eastern passage/chamber around the equinoxes. The addition in recent times of a bridge and a concrete door surround (see photo above) have further exacerbated this problem. Is there an argument, I wonder, for the removal of part of the souterrains in order that any possible alignment with the sun be investigated? Could we once again (for the first time possibly in thousands of years) witness the sun illuminating the cruciform eastern chamber of Knowth, in a way similar to the solstice illumination of Newgrange? I live in hope.

It might still be possible to witness and record any interplay between the shadow of the pillar stone (gnomon?) at Knowth's eastern entrance around the time of the equinoxes. One wonders if anyone has ever witnessed such an interplay. Such studies (of both east and west entrances) could prove very valuable in revealing any subtle astronomical functions of these entrance settings. These stones undoubtedly had a purpose and a reason for being there in the minds of the builders. 

Another interesting facet of the sandstone pillar outside the western entrance is that it is quite polished on the side facing the mound - as if it had been rubbed smooth over a period of time. One wonders if there might have been some ritual involving the touching of this stone over a long period of time in antiquity. The story about the Lia Fáil (another phallic or pillar stone) at Tara and how it screamed when the rightful king touched it brings to mind the idea of perhaps many people touching a stone to receive some sort of blessing or luck from it. Perhaps they kissed the stone, like kissing the modern-day Blarney stone? Who knows?

The modern entrance to Newgrange.
Yet another interesting aspect of the Knowth entrances is that, with the preponderance of stones carefully placed and set out in front of these portals, it must be assumed that access into the passageways was not easy, and was perhaps undertaken by only the chosen few? Indeed at Newgrange the only reason tourists can access the passage and chamber today is because (a) the entrance area was widened, and set back from the kerb to accommodate people and (b) wooden steps were installed so that people don't have to clamber over the entrance kerb stones, thereby slowly eroding and damaging them. The entrance is shown in the photo on right (click to enlarge), in this somewhat exaggerated fisheye-lens view. But you get the picture.

A shallow basin-type feature outside Knowth east, replicated on a smaller scale at Knowth west, may have perhaps held water for some sort of ceremony - absolute speculation on my part, but the study of these things is necessarily subjective. Unfortunately, a similar circular-shaped stone setting outside the entrance of Newgrange, in which a stone phallus artefact was found, was removed during excavations and not put back afterwards. Perhaps there were more similarities between these sacred entrances than we might have considered.

One thing that seems clear is that there was an intentional liminal aspect of the entrances. These are boundaries, thresholds. The kerb stones outside Newgrange as well as Knowth East and West are all lavishly designed. Settings of stone on the ground were perhaps associated with rituals held outside the entrances in ancient times. One wonders if the builders of these magnificent structures were to somehow magically venture forward in time to today, would they be delighted, or horrified, to see so many people entering these sacred womb-tombs?

Below is a short video trailer of a film called "Remnants" made by Grant Wakefield. At 0:49s you can see some brief footage of the equinox illumination of the western passageway at Knowth.


Thursday, 11 August 2016

Explore Newgrange virtually with this fantastic 3D model

Do you live thousands of miles from Ireland? Yearn to see Newgrange up close but cannot afford the air fare? Fret not. Technology now enables you to explore it from afar....

This fantastic model, created by Seán Doran and shared on Sketchfab, is based on images of the famous Stone Age monument that were taken from a drone by Matthew Kelly. The model is easy to navigate. Use your mouse wheel to zoom in and out. Left-click and drag to move around the model. Right-click and drag to move the centre of the model.

Enjoy this opportunity to see Newgrange up close, without having to make the journey half way around the world!