Friday, 25 November 2016

The Milky Way and the Evening Star at Newgrange

I spent a beautiful evening out at Knowth and Newgrange in the Boyne Valley after sunset this evening. It was cold, but clear, and the colours in the fading twilight were absolutely beautiful. The above photo shows something I have never captured before, and was delighted to get on camera. It shows the bright band of the Milky Way over Newgrange. It also shows, sitting just above Newgrange and about to set behind it, The Evening Star - Venus.

I had been in the Boyne Valley for over an hour after sunset, from around 4.30pm. Venus was easily visible in strong twilight and I got several photos of it with Newgrange. But just as I was about to drive away to go home, I stopped at this viewing location and could see that the Milky Way was visible. So I jumped out of the car (which was still running) and put my 8mm wide angle lens on the camera and quickly set up for a 25-second exposure. It was very cold out - just 2 degrees celcius - and my fingers were numb from all the standing around over the previous hour and a half.

However, this shot, taken at 5.53pm, was well worth the effort I think. I'd safely say that's the earliest time after sunset that I've ever taken a photo of the Milky Way. And I'm glad I did. I drove home with a big smile on my face. Five minutes later and Venus would have disappeared behind the ancient mound of Newgrange.

It's nice also to have captured a photo of the Milky Way above Newgrange. In ancient times, the Milky Way might have been known as Bealach na Bó Finne, the Way of the White Cow, and the goddess who was venerated in the valley and who gave her name to the Boyne River was Bóinn, the White Cow goddess. It's likely that the Milky Way was seen as a heavenly reflection of the Boyne.

This is a scene that, as the builders of Newgrange would have well known, will only be repeated once every eight years...

Thursday, 24 November 2016

The contemporary relevance of our most ancient myths

For a long time, I have been studying, writing about and talking about Irish mythology. During that time, I have tried to relate the importance of mythology as something beyond mere story telling. It appears to me that our myths, no matter how ancient, seem to have a relevance to us even in the present day. In previous works (including my books and blog posts), I have attempted to bring that relevance to bear upon modern life. It can be a difficult thing to do. There's always a danger that people think you're engaging in some sort of new-age mystical "woo", so I tend to be very careful about how I approach the whole area. I have a great enthusiasm for the subject matter.

The Book of the Cailleach.
Recently, on the recommendation of a Facebook friend, I purchased a copy of a book called 'The Book of the Cailleach - Stories of the Wise-Woman healer' by Gearóid Ó Crualaoich. Having seen a number of posts I had written featuring words and pictures about the Loughcrew cairns and the story of the Cailleach who is said to have created them, this follower thought that I would be interested in Ó Crualaoich's book. And they weren't mistaken. So far, I have found it absolutely gripping. It is a comprehensive analysis and discussion of the stories from Ireland's oral traditions about the 'wise woman', the 'hag', the Cailleach, or the 'Red Woman'. These stories have their roots in pre-Christian Ireland.

The book's blurb says that, "In the hands of Gearóid Ó Crualaoich these figures are subtly explored to reveal how they offered a complex understanding of the world, of human psychology and its predicaments. The thematic structure of the book brings to the fore universal themes such as death, marriage, childbirth or healing, and invites the reader to see the contemporary relevance of the stories for themselves."

But it was a review of The Book of the Cailleach - contained on its back cover - that drew my attention. It voices, in ways that I struggle to do, the relevance of these stories to the Ireland - and the world - of today:
"The unearthing of a priceless spirit from forgotten, buried, misunderstood storytelling is like discovering Knowth or Newgrange and opening the doors to those otherworlds. Gearóid Ó Crualaoich's work on the wise-woman healer, the cailleach, is of immense importance, for we need access to the secrets of healing and orientation in life known well in the past but now neglected. Without that secret knowledge we are left with mere rationalism and secularism, which are inadequate for dealing with the challenges of a complex world. This book is highly professional, comprehensive, carefully interpretive, and respectful. It opens up many avenues towards the healing of our own personal lives and our world. It is of special importance to Ireland, but it also addresses the needs of people around the world, who can now look to Ireland for the rediscovery of a special kind of spiritual knowledge connected to the natural world, to place, and to history. This book is so rich in detail and implication that it can be taken by the reader as a personal map to the otherworld and to the forgotten powers of nature and humanity now accessible to him. To women especially it offers an image of strength, wisdom, and healing power. We need this kind of excellent work, visionary as well as academic, all over the world to pull us out of the literalistic and materialistic vision that is limiting us and perhaps even killing us."

That review was by Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul and The Soul's Religion.

Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill also sees the relevance of the work to current times. She describes it as a "breathtaking book" and one which resonates quite personally with her:
"It returns to Irish folk material the emotional depth and imaginative meaning which it always contained in its natural context but of which it has often been stripped by the more utilitarian and commonplace interpretations long in fashion. It reminds me once again why I am charmed and enchanted by this material, and more than that, why I regularly find in it answers to the deep-seated obsessions of my own. A real gem of a book, containing an exemplary methodology showing how the Irish folk tradition can be interrogated to find answers which are vitally important to our age and times."

I've spent quite a bit of time at Loughcrew, exploring the monuments and landscape of the Cailleach.

Bringing to bear the meaning of myth has become one of the most appealing aspects of my work. But this wasn't always the case. The reason I began to study the monuments of Brú na Bóinne almost 20 years ago (in reality, I had been studying them since I was a child, when my father brought home George's Eogan's newly published book on Knowth in 1986) was more to do with a belief that astronomy had a greater role in the design and interpretation of these great monuments than was being expounded by the experts. However, having begun serious research with Richard Moore in 1999, I decided just over a year later, on the 16th of March in the year 2000, to establish a website which would discuss aspects of our researches. When it came to choosing a title for this website, I quickly (and without giving it too much thought to be honest) decided to call it Mythical Ireland. Why? I wasn't entirely sure then. Perhaps I acted out of some instinct.

Whatever the reason, over time, myth has become the most important aspect of my work. And that's because, for me, personally, the retelling of our myths has led to revelation. Ní Dhomhnaill is right. The interrogation of our folk and mythic traditions leads to answers which "are vitally important to our age and times".

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Incredible 3D imagery of the inside of Newgrange allows us to be virtually there for winter solstice illumination

Some incredible images and videos have been created from 3D imagery of the inside of Newgrange. This artist's impression uses a 3D model, created by the Discovery Programme, which allows us, virtually, to be inside the monument. Using this imagery, Seán Doran has recreated the solstice illumination of the chamber, and it's beautiful.

Click the image below to put yourself in the interior of the chamber of this ancient megalithic passage-tomb and see what happens in there on the dawn of the shortest days of the year:

Newgrange Triskele 4K

This gives a good idea what it's like to be standing in the chamber on winter solstice, something only the winter solstice lottery winners can usually do.

Sean tells Mythical Ireland that this rendering project is at an early stage, and that it is very much a "work in progress". Nevertheless, we think it's fantastic. See another render below. In this one, you can click and drag the image to take a look around:

Newgrange equirectangular test
The lighting simulation, according to Sean, is a "brute force Global illumination solve for a light source passing across the roofbox". So the result is accurate in terms of the way light would flow into the passage and chamber, but not necessarily fully accurate in terms of the intensity of light or even the colour. At this stage, the model is completely untextured. That's why I can't wait to see further results!

Here are some still images from the render.  We are very keen to keep an eye on Seán's work as it progresses. There is a huge amount of valuable research going on in relation to the megalithic monuments using very modern technologies. We are, effectively, being allowed to look at monuments in a whole new way.

A view from the rear recess of the light streaming into the chamber, with the triskele visible in the glow.

In these simulations, the famous triskele (tri-spiral or triple spiral) emblem carved into the side stone of the rear recess of the chamber is made visible in the glow. The folklore of Newgrange once suggested this would happen.

The computer imagery puts us right there inside Newgrange.
You can find some of Sean's imagery on his Flickr page here.
You can see some of the Discovery Programme's 3D models of Irish monuments here.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Brownshill Dolmen: a monumental remnant of the beginnings of modern civilisation, by Lar Dooley

Guest post by Lar Dooley

Brownshill (aka Kernanstown) Dolmen, Carlow, Ireland. A relic from our Neolithic past. I love the irony of the winter wheat just peeking above the ground, a harking back to the singular reason that Neolithic man is so close to our hearts. The first forests cleared, the first ground broken, the first crops grown and harvested.

Brownshill Dolmen, Co. Carlow. Picture © Lar Dooley.
The great seismic change in our gene pool, the change from hunter gatherer to sustained farming began a change in our lifestyle that has led to the birth of civilisation, as we know it. Suddenly man had a foothold on the Earth, one of his first tools used in cutting down forests and planting the first crops. The industrial evolution began, in reality, with the Quern, and the ability to begin to process food.

The great development of stable living and industry allied farming and subsistence living and changed our landscape forever. The first permanent dwellings, the first monuments to the gods, the first celebrations of solar and lunar alignments, the first industrial processes for milling corn and storing crops and farming output, drove us to become sedentary beings.

Brownshill Dolmen is presented with respect, and protected by a fence. Picture © Lar Dooley.

The monumental efforts required to build our Dolmens, our court tombs, our passage chambers and our great ceremonial spaces gave us the basis for religion, industry, civilisation and modern living, and yet we, or at least some of us, see Neolithic man as an ancient pagan relic, as distant from us as the great Neanderthals who emerged from the Ice Age.

Perhaps it is time we paid homage to these great people, who forever transformed our landscape, who gave us the spiritual blessings of a life well lived, who left us structures we would find difficult, if not impossible to build today, without the benefit of our great mechanical construction monsters, on which we depend today.

The cap stone of Brownshill Dolmen weighs about 150 tons. Photo © Lar Dooley.

To simply raise the capstone of this ginormous monument to early man's ingenuity, its 150-ton-plus weight, would take all of our scientific and mathematical prowess, allied to the efforts of a combined force of many human hands, and yet, here it stands, a proud, untouched advertisement to those great achievers, our ancestors.

This dolmen is one of many treated with dignity and respect. A pathway travels round the perimeter of the field, and crosses to a spacious fenced off area situated almost centrally in the pristine fields of corn. This gives the viewer an unspoilt view from both close up and afar, and brings the monument from an ancient sphere, to a modern setting, which benefits both the farmer and the viewer.

Information about the Brownshill portal tomb from the sign at the site. Picture © Lar Dooley.

Would that every ancient monument had such ease of access, and such a pristine view. However, the plodding across fields and up hills also has the beneficial aspects of monuments in unspoilt landscapes, and the benevolence of being left untouched by those for whom respect is a word rarely understood, and less venerated.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The Hag's Chair at Loughcrew - the throne, perhaps, of an ancient queen of the sky and the land

This is the so-called Hag's Chair at Cairn T, Sliabh na Calliagh, Loughcrew. Although it is part of the kerb of the cairn, it is unlike any other kerb stone on any Irish passage-tomb. We know very little about it, except what myth and folklore offer by way of mysterious and vague explanation.

Amid all the more modern graffiti, some of the really ancient carvings can still be seen on the Hag's Chair.

The Cailleach (or hag/witch/crone/goddess) of Loughcrew is ubiquitous on these hills. The story of the cairns is the story of this ancient figure of mythical intrigue. The creation myth of Loughcrew (for that is how it can be best described) suggests that she built the cairns, somewhat haphazardly, by dropping stones from an apron of stones as she jumped from hill to hill. She is said to have come from the north, which is interesting, because towards the northern aspect we find the rounded mountain of Slieve Gullion in Armagh - another place associated with the Cailleach (who goes by different names) and has a passage-tomb on its top which has a passage that points towards Loughcrew for winter solstice sunset.

"This is a very old lady whose shade still haunts the lake and carn of Slieve Guillion in the county of Armagh. Her name was Evlin, and it would appear from some legends about her that she was of De Danannite origin.... Does her name, Eibhlín bheurtha inghin Thuilinn, appear in the genealogies of the Tuatha De Dananns?"(1)

Cairn T at Loughcrew, also known as The Hag's Cairn.

Some sources suggest that the ancient Cailleach might have been the Queen Tailte(2), in whose honour the Tailteann Games were held at nearby Teltown.  As the Cailleach Bhéartha, she is the one who brought the cairns into existence, but not untypical of such creation myths, she is killed in the effort:
There are three hills about a mile asunder in this parish, having three heaps (carns) of stones on their summits, with which the following wild legend is connected. A famous old Hag of antiquity called Cailleach Bhéartha (Calliagh Vera) came one time from the north to perform a magical feat in this neighbourhood by which she was to obtain great power if she succeeded. She took an Apron-full of stones and dropped a carn on Carnbane; from this she jumped to the summit of Slieve Nacally a mile distant and dropped a second carn there; from this hill she made a second jump and dropped a carn on another hill about a mile distant. If she could make another leap and drop the fourth carn it appears that the magical feat would be accomplished, but in giving the jump she slipped and fell in the townland of Patrickstown in the parish of Diamor, where she broke her neck. Here she was buried and her grave was to be seen not many years ago in a field called Cul a' Mhóta about 200 perches to the East of the moat in that Townland, but it is now destroyed.(3)
I speculate here that the second part of her name, Bhéartha/Vera possibly derives from the Irish word bert or beirt, meaning "burden, load, bundle".(4)

It's interesting that she has several different names - Cailleach Bhéartha (Cally Vera), Evlin (Eibhlín), Garvoge and even Tailte. The hills also go by different names. Carnbane (carn bán) is the one we know today as Carnbane West. In one version, it is called Carnmore (from carn mór, the big cairn). Indeed, the largest cairn in the whole Loughcrew complex, Cairn D, is on Carnbane West. Carrigbrack, which does not feature in some versions of the creation myth, is from carraig (stone) and breac (speckled), thus "speckled rock", but is also known as Sliabh Rua (Red Mountain), for which there is a very obvious and fascinating astronomical reason connected with local alignments. Sliabh na Calliagh (also anglicised as Slieve Nacally) is, apparently, also known as Carnbeg (carn beag, the small carn). Although because there is a middle hill called Loar, one wonders if Loar was Carrigbrack or Carnbane East, possibly making Patrickstown Hill the Carnbeg of the variant. More research needed here I think!

Sliabh na Calliagh, crowned by the Hag's Cairn, in the dawn sky, viewed from Carnbane.

Wont as I am to engage in speculation, I have often wondered if the story of the old hag dropping stones as she leaped from hill to hill is not in fact related to the movements of the sun, moon and the stars somehow. We know that several cairns point to other cairns (Cairn L points to the cairn on Carrigbrack, for instance; Cairn I points to Cairn T, etc). Is the cailleach the moon? We know from research into the Boyne Valley monuments that Venus (the Morning Star) was known as caillichín na mochóirighe, meaning "early-rising little hag"(5). It is tempting indeed to view the moon, with its darker areas, as an apron or bag full of stones. As she drops the stones, the moon becomes smaller, until it fades to a slender crescent into the growing light of morning, before eventually disappearing (in the east) as the dawn comes.

It is possible also that the cairns might mark out various important lunar risings and settings which mark out its course through the sky during the 18.6-year rotation of its nodes. Observation of this cycle leads to the observation of lunar standstills and the prediction of lunar eclipses. Martin Brennan and his team of researchers (including Jack Roberts) made several important discoveries at Loughcrew in the 1980s, showing certain astronomical alignments. They made several observations of lunar events. It would be nice if this work was followed up. In the fullness of time, a greater story about the astronomical complexity of Loughcrew might emerge. And, perhaps, a "solution" that cracks the meaning of the myth of the Cally Vera.

Until then, we can only suggest that some day this ancient queen might return, and claim her throne once more.

(1) Conwell, Eugene, On Ancient Sepulchral Cairns on the Loughcrew Hills, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Vol. 9, p.357.
(2) For instance,
(3) From John O'Donovan's Ordnance Survey Letters (Meath).
(5) Murphy & Moore (2006), Island of the Setting Sun, p.167.

Further reading:

Monday, 14 November 2016

November 14th Super Moon - live broadcast on Facebook

This is a video showing a live broadcast I did on the Mythical Ireland Facebook page today about tonight's Super Moon. The Super Moon refers to a full moon that appears bigger and brighter than normal because the moon is full and at perigee - its closest approach to earth. This was the biggest full moon visible since 1948, and although there are regular "super moons", this was rare because of its proximity and its relative size - 14% larger than normal and up to 30% brighter.

In the live broadcast, I discussed the possibility that super moons were noticed in the Neolithic, at the time Newgrange was built. Viewing the moon from the chamber, through the roof box, would enable ancient observers to see the relative size of the moon in relation to the "frame" of the aperture - and therefore they might be able to discern changes in its relative size.

The setting Super Moon on the morning of November 15th, shortly before sunrise.

There is a full moon every 29.5 days - a period we call the Synodic Lunar Month. The super moon on December 14th will also be big, but not as big as tonight's one.

Clouds spoiled the show here in the Boyne Valley, but I did get a few brief glimpses of the moon later in the evening. Below is a brief video showing a quick glance at the moon through very fast-moving clouds:

Friday, 11 November 2016

Live broadcast from Carnbane West, Loughcrew, as the Samhain sunrise illuminates the chamber of Cairn L

In case you are not a follower of Mythical Ireland on Facebook, you might be interested to know that I did a live broadcast from Carnbane West at Loughcrew around Samhain, where the light of the rising sun cast its beams into the chamber of Cairn L. Above is a video of that live broadcast.