Friday, 11 January 2019

The lunar symbolism of kerb stone 78 at Knowth

This is kerb stone 78 at Knowth, located not far from the entrance to the western passage. It is one of 127 kerb stones at Knowth, of which 90 have megalithic art. But what do these symbols represent, if anything? Are they merely art for art’s sake?

Kerb stone 78 at Knowth. Picture © Anthony Murphy
American artist Martin Brennan published a book called The Stars and the Stones in 1984, having studied and drawn the megalithic art on almost all of the known decorated prehistoric stone sites in Ireland. Brennan’s overall supposition was that the ancient engravings at Neolithic sites such as Newgrange, Knowth, Loughcrew, and many others, were related to astronomy. His book was later republished as The Stones of Time.

The main plank of Brennan’s hypothesis was that the megalithic mounds and art are “interconnected, sophisticated calendar devices”. The summary on the back cover of the book says:

At critical times of the year, the rising or setting sun projects beams of light into the inner chambers of the mounds, illuminating specific images carved on the stones. Those images – seemingly abstract wheels, spirals, and wavy lines – suggest provocative new insights into their makers’ understanding of celestial cycles and the importance of those cycles in human affairs.
Brennan’s interpretation of kerb stone 78 (which he labelled as stone NW4 in his own personally devised numbering convention) is that it contains a diagrammatic representation of the moon through the use of what he calls “bijections or one-to-one correspondences with the phases of the moon”.

Brennan suggests that lunar imagery predominates on the kerb stones on the western portion of the great kerb of Knowth, where the crescents and arcs that dominate the imagery were generated by an interest in the moon and the division of time long before the age of mechanical clocks.

The crescents, waved lines and circles on Kerb 78 represent the phases of the moon, according to Brennan.

A ribbon-like development of the wavy line extends from the central image. The line follows a sequence shaped to fit the lunar month. The wavy line is transformed into crescents and then a full circle or full moon on the fourteenth count. A line divides the rest of the month, towards the end of which the crescents revert to the wavy line at the last quarter, defining a month of 30 days.

He proposed a second way of ordering the month using a different interpretation of the symbols. The top line counts from the first day of the moon as far as the seventeenth day, which is the day upon which the moon begins to wane. The sequence continues at the bottom of the stone, as far as day 27 and the last visible crescent. A final three-count wave represents the three invisible days of the moon.
Brennan's alternative lunar month count for kerb stone 78, Knowth.

The number 17 is often treated with special significance in connection with the moon, he says. "It may have had significance in a calendar of ritual. Usually it is the seventeenth phase of the moon which appears on the horizon and projects a beam of light into the mounds."

Brennan’s work is not without its detractors, and the analysis and categorisation of megalithic art has been an area of debate and dispute. Some scholars argue that the megalithic art is abstract and non-representative. Brennan, however, develops a comprehensive thesis around the astronomical symbolism and, coupled with his team’s important discoveries at Loughcrew and Dowth*, it all makes for a fascinating interpretation.

Kerb stone 78 at Knowth.

* Brennan, along with Jack Roberts and others, discovered that the southern passage at Dowth is aligned so that light from the setting sun on winter solstice reaches the stones at the rear of its circular chamber. They also discovered that Cairn T at Loughcrew is aligned so that a stone with solar emblems at the rear of its chamber is bathed with sunlight at dawn on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes.

Further reading

Knowth: archaeological and astronomical legacy
Knowth's Calendar Stone
The 19-year Metonic Cycle of the moon

Anthony Murphy (Mythical Ireland) with Martin Brennan at Newgrange.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Tara and Loughcrew aligned for Lughnasadh sunset?

Back in February of this year, at Imbolc, myself, Ken Williams and Lar Dooley witnessed the sunrise shining into the ancient passageway of Cairn U at Carnbane East, Loughcrew. That day, I noticed that when I was crouched in the chamber of Cairn U, the Hill of Tara was visible through the entrance of the passage. Based on that observation, I figured that a viewer on the Hill of Tara might see the sun setting over the hills of Loughcrew at Bealtaine (May) and Lughnasadh (August).

The Loughcrew Hills viewed from Duma na nGiall, Hill of Tara, with labels.

I was unable to get to Tara at Bealtaine, so I was determined to go there for Lughnasadh to see if I was right. This evening, standing on top of Duma na nGiall (Mound of the Hostages) at the Hill of Tara, I watched the sun get lower and lower in the western sky with my son, Finn. Above is a photo showing the hills as they appear from atop the Mound of the Hostages. It looked like it was heading for Loughcrew, but I couldn't be sure. So I watched and waited.

The sun setting over Cairn D, Carnbane West, and Carrigbrack, as viewed from Duma na nGiall.

And sure enough, as the sun set, it did so over Carnbane West and Carrigbrack, which appear almost as one hill as viewed from Tara. It was a beautiful sunset, and as the sun went down there was a lovely sun pillar (a vertical shaft of light extending upwards from the sun) reaching into the sky.

The sun pillar visible in the sky as the sun sets behind the hills of Loughcrew viewed from Tara.
So it appears that Duma na nGiall, the oldest monument on the Hill of Tara which is thought to date to the late Neolithic, around 5,000 years ago, is aligned with Loughcrew for (a) sunrise on Samhain/Imbolc viewed from Cairn U Loughcrew towards Tara; and (b) Bealtine/Lughnasadh sunset viewed from Tara towards Loughcrew.

The actual date of Lughnasadh this year was (I believe) August 7th, so the sun has moved a little bit to the south (left) since then. And I'm not sure how much the sun's position has changed at Lughnasadh from where it was 5,000 years ago. But it's would certainly appear that there is an alignment. Whether it was intended is another question entirely. But this is just one of many examples of alignments of sites over long distances. Seeing Tara framed by the ancient stones of Cairn U at Loughcrew in the cold dawn of Imbolc six months ago certainly was very fascinating to me. "This is hardly all coincidental," I said to myself. Indeed it might not be, but we may never know whether it was intended by the builders. All we can do now is watch and wonder.

The author atop Duma na nGiall watching the sunset over Loughcrew tonight. Picture: Finn Murphy.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Lughnasagh sunset still shines into the passage of Cairn S, Loughcrew, more than five millennia after it was built

37 years ago, in 1980, Martin Brennan, Jack Roberts and their team of researchers made several significant discoveries relating to the astronomical alignment of several ancient chambered cairns (passage-tombs) in the Boyne Valley region. One such discovery, made in early August of that year, was the apparent alignment of the passage of Cairn S at Carnbane East, Loughcrew. Sitting in the chamber of the (now roofless) cairn, Brennan and his team saw that the Lughnasadh cross-quarter sunset was visible through the passage.

Lughnasadh sunset shines down the passage of the ancient Cairn S at Loughcrew.

Tonight, for the first time in my 18 years of research and photography, I witnessed what Brennan’s people excitedly discovered back then, and it was spectacular, as you can see. There is a story behind this photograph. With my son Luke accompanying, I drove an hour from Drogheda to Loughcrew this evening with the express purpose of witnessing and photographing this alignment. However, when we got there, a massive cumulonimbus cloud was looming over the whole western horizon. After sitting in the car for a few minutes, we figured that it was moving, albeit slowly, towards us. The sun was hidden. It was clear that this cloud was giving out a lot of rain. So we decided to sit it out. We arrived at 8pm. We knew the sunset would occur at about 9.10pm or so.

We sat and waited. Another man who had arrived with camera gear got out of his car and they went up the hill. “A big mistake,” I thought to myself. I could see the rain wasn’t far away and that it was extremely heavy. Sure enough, by about 8.25pm or so it was raining very heavily. The problem was that the cloud was moving extremely slowly. With no let-up in sight, we considered leaving. But having spotted a small patch of blue behind the grey sheets of rain, I decided we’d wait. In the meantime, the gentleman who had gone up earlier returned, quite soaked. After a few minutes, he left in his car.

“If needs be, we can leg it up the hill as soon as there’s any let-up in the rain,” I said to Luke. We planned our departure. When the rain finally started to ease, we made a dash for it. It was 8.45pm. Surely this was an exercise in futility?

As we ran up the hill (and it was a struggle for me, I can tell you, with the heavy camera equipment on my back), I turned and the sun was appearing beneath the huge black shower cloud. “We might be lucky yet,” I said as we scrambled up that hill. The thing about Sliabh na Calliagh is that, when you want to get up it fast, it seems to take every bit of your energy and determination. By the time we hit the last ascent, the steepest part, I was breathless to the extent of being in a state of near-collapse. Luke took the camera bag for the last stretch. What a fantastic companion to have on this trip – a sprightly, nimble and energetic 15-year-old.

After getting in through the gate, we reached Cairn S. I dumped the tripod on the ground, and ordered Luke to put the camera bag down. It was still raining, but the sun was out. I needed to act quickly. We might only have a minute or two to get a photograph. “Which camera?” I thought to myself as I worked out which would work better with remote flash. I decided on the D3X and quickly got set up with the 14mm f2.8 prime lens. It turned out to be a good decision. The photo you see above was taken with this setup. As you can see, the enormous cumulonimbus cloud occupied a huge portion of the sky – but crucially, the sun was out, and just at the right moment! What a capture. What a journey. What a brilliant climax after such an uncertain wait.

A wider view of the Cairn S Lughnasadh alignment from outside the chamber.

I actually got plenty of time to take photos then – with both cameras, and a variety of lenses. But within a short time the sun went in behind some cloud and the magical moment had passed. Nonetheless, we had captured it, in all its fabulous glory. We were wet. We were cold. We were out of breath. But boy were we happy.

After that, we relaxed a bit. The almost-full moon was out. We got lots of other photos – of Cairn S, of Cairn T, of the Hag’s Chair, of Cairn U, and Cairn V. But for now, the magical, mystical shot of the sunset from the chamber of Cairn S is putting a big smile on my face. I feel like I’ve caught up with not just 37 years of history tonight, but over 5,000 years of it.

Because of its short passage and wide chamber, it is obvious that Cairn S will align with the sun for some time. I will have to make a return visit in a couple of weeks to see if it is still aligned. 

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Buí, the smiling hag of Knowth, perhaps?

Many people look for meaning in the symbols carved in stone at the great monuments of the Boyne. Sometimes the most facile examination (and perhaps the most puerile too!) is to indulge in pareidolia. When I took this image at Knowth/Cnogba today, I was conscious of the image of the Cailleach, having been reading about her quite a lot lately. I will quote the lovely words of the late Patricia Monaghan, whose book 'The Red-Haired Girl From the Bog' I am currently reading:

"Rock is the hag's prime element, her stony spine.... Cailleach time moves form moon to moon, harvest to harvest. It is pagan time, rooted in the eternal return rather than the once-off redemption."

Seeing this stone again – known under the archaeologists’ counting system simply as Kerb 22 – I was struck at how much it seemed to look like a big smiling face with two bulbous eyes and a big, broad grin.

These rocks were already eternally old when they were hauled into place - all 127 of them - to create a giant kerb or belt of stones around the gigantic mound that we know as Knowth. And now the carvings that were carefully etched into the surface of these slabs are eternally old, and the rocks that bear them speak of the beginning of time.

Once upon a time, so the story goes, this great mound of stone and earth was known as Cnoc Búa or Cnoc Buí, the hill of the daughter of "red-haired Rúadrí", wife of Lug, son of Cian, of the ruddy spears.

"It is there [Cnogba] her body was buried; over her was built a great hill."

What shall we say about Buí today, except that she is remembered still, in these many aeons since her image was first conceived in stone, at the mighty Brug na Bóinde where the hag never dies. The hag's breasts are imagined as mounds in the Boyne landscape; her passage-wombs, creaking and groaning under the weight of the ages, live on to tell the story of the undying sons who were born there – Oengus the young, who was conceived and born in the same day; and Sétanta, whose crossing of the threshold of initiation brought him from innocent boy to murderous warrior. In there, Elcmar the magician of Brug na Bóinde, divined souls with his fork of white hazel; Dagda Mór, the Eochaidh All-Father, offered satiation to those who were crossing over; Oengus protected the beautiful Etaín from the jealous Fuamnach in his sunny, crystal bower.

At ancient Cnogba, it is said that Englec the daughter of Elcmar was stolen away by Midir, much to the heartache of her lover, Oengus Óg. At Newgrange, Oengus had protected Midir’s lover Etáin, and yet at Knowth the two were love rivals for the woman Englec, whose disappearance was mourned greatly by the inconsolable Oengus. Mourning the abduction of his beloved, Oengus engaged in a curious ritual … casting the “blood-red nuts of the forest” on to the ground, and performed “a lament around the little hill”.

Cnogba (Knowth) commemorates a goddess Buí and a goddess Englec.
And so, in the confusion of tales so typical of the lore of the olden days, Knowth commemorates two distinct but perhaps not mutually exclusive events – both involving the passing (so to speak) of great women (goddesses even). As Cnoc Buí, Knowth remembers the great woman who was set to rest there beneath its heaving bulk, the undying hag of the ancient world who had many names and guises. As Chnó-guba (the “nut-lament”), Knowth commemorates the passing of Englec into another realm, swept away by Midir to the Síd of Fer Femin, never to be seen by Oengus again.

Today, I stopped in front of stone 22 at Knowth during my round of the kerb (deiseal, sunwise, this time),  and, having to stall a while under the modern concrete ledge to shelter from a summer shower, I imagined for a time that I was seeing the great women of Cnogba, the abiding visage of the ancient hag that was known here as Buí, and the darling Englec, the beautiful daughter of Elcmar. And I wonder which would endure longer – the memory of these great mythic women, or the stone carvings bearing this image.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Eschewing the little people, one archaeologist dismissed folklore about Newgrange, folklore that later proved true

The earliest antiquarians who visited, documented, sketched and spoke about Newgrange sometimes get a hard time from the modern academic establishment. The writings of Lhwyd and Molyneux and Pownall and Vallancey are all criticised for one reason or another (poor Charles Vallancey is largely ridiculed, perhaps because he referred to Newgrange as a Mithraic temple). All of the early antiquarian accounts of the monument are valuable for one reason or another. Some of them have captured aspects of the monument that have disappeared since they wrote. Without the tools and techniques of modern archaeology, all of them were poking around in the dark, so to speak. They couldn't have known the true age of Newgrange,  nor could they have appreciated the skills of the artists and builders who created it, those whom they all too often referred to as barbarous.

Newgrange in its pre-excavation days.

The New Grange book.
However, Dr. Glyn Daniel, lecturer in archaeology at Cambridge University and editor of the academic journal Antiquity, perhaps should have known better. In 1964, Daniel's book 'New Grange and the Bend of the Boyne' was published by Thames & Hudson. It had been a collaborative effort with University College Cork professor of archaeology, Sean P. Ó Ríordáin. Sadly, Ó Ríordáin had passed away in 1957 in his early fifties, when the pair were only half way through completion of the book. Daniel was the General Editor of the 'Ancient Peoples and Places' series of books, under which the New Grange title was published. It was to become the largest single study of the Newgrange monument since George Coffey's 1912 book, and would be the last before Professor Michael J. O'Kelly's excavations at Newgrange revealed so many of its secrets.

One of the shortcomings of the Daniel/Ó Ríordáin book is that it fails to deal in any substantial terms with the mythical history of the Newgrange monument or indeed its counterparts in the Bend of the Boyne. Except for one passage in which he relates that New Grange might be an English corruption of An Uamh Greine (the cave of Grainne), Daniel does not discuss the ancient names of Newgrange, or its import in the early texts, as O'Kelly later did in his own work on Newgrange. Failing to acknowledge the earlier Irish names of Newgrange, and its mythology and associated stories, Daniel falls into a trap – he assumes the folklore about the site to be utter fantasy, and dismisses it as such:

"It is natural that impressive monuments like New Grange and Stonehenge should be visited a great deal by the general public and should themselves have attracted a folklore based on imagination, half-forgotten history, unappreciated archaeology and the sort of nonsense that luxuriates in the lunatic fringes of serious archaeology."(1)

And in that foregoing paragraph, Daniel was just setting himself up for a fall.

"The visitor to New Grange and Dowth will not be surprised to be told that these monuments were built by and were the homes of 'the little people' or to be asked their connection with the Druids."

One should always be careful about dismissing the fairy folk – even if one is a leading archaeologist and "expert" of the times!

But the following is perhaps indicative of the perhaps excessively arrogant attitude of Daniel in dealing with a monument such as Newgrange and in his rush to dismiss the folklore, he dismissed also notions about the site that would later transpire to be based in truth:

The entrance kerb stone at Newgrange (K1).

"A coloured calendar current in Ireland in 1960 had in it a good photograph of the decorated stone at the entrance to New Grange; this was accompanied by an account which needs quoting almost in toto as an example of the jumble of nonsense and wishful thinking indulged in by those who prefer the pleasures of the irrational and the joys of unreason to the hard thinking that archaeology demands.'The entrance in the east was originally triangular,' says this description, 'but is now changed for easy entrance, formerly it was necessary to crawl in and progress was retarded by interference, stones compelling the neophyte to stoop and stumble. The rays of the rising sun at certain times of the year penetrate the opening and rest on a remarkable triple spiral carving in the central chamber. Like the Great Pyramid of Gizeh in Egypt the New Grange Temple was originally covered with a layer of white quartz and was a brilliant object of Light for a considerable distance. Nuda, first king of Tuatha de Danann in Ireland, and his Master Magician, are said to have officiated here in the very, very old days. Artemidoros the Ephesian stated: "To Sacred Ierne of the Hibernians men go to learn more of the Mysteries of Samothrace."'

Two very important statements in this 1960 calendar demonstrate that there were enduring traditions about Newgrange that were fascinating and even compelling (and certainly worthy of at least some investigation) – one that the sun shone into the chamber during the year and the other that it was once covered with white quartz. Understandably, Daniel could not have known about the existence of quartz, given that the O'Kelly excavations at Newgrange had just begun when the Daniel/Ó Ríordáin book was published, but there was at least one possible reference to this feature in mythology – the "white-topped brugh" was said to have been "brilliant to approach".(2) If he had been a bit more familiar with some of the mythology of Newgrange, he might not have been so quick to shrug it off.

But Daniel certainly should not have been so dismissive in relation to the solar alignment – especially as it had been previously suggested by the likes of Solar Physics Observatory director Sir Norman Lockyer in 1909, and W.Y. Evans-Wentz in The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries in 1911.(3)

Within three years or so of the publication of the Daniel/Ó Ríordáin book, Professor Michael O'Kelly would stand in the chamber of Newgrange and become the first person in the modern era (and perhaps since the Bronze Age) to witness the winter solstice sunlight streaming into its inner chamber, illuminating (by reflected light) the triskele or triple spiral in the chamber. During his excavations at the famous monument, O'Kelly would uncover a significant layer of quartz beneath the cairn spill material – quartz that he would later demonstrate through repeated experiment that actually fronted the monument. In other words, at the very least Newgrange had a white quartz facade, and it is not such a huge leap of imagination to envision the possibility that the cairn was once covered with this bright stone.

The Newgrange triple spiral (triskele) in the chamber

One wonders what Daniel made of O'Kelly's revelations, and how it might have altered his thinking in relation to folklore. Folk memory is a very powerful thing. This might have been demonstrated in the case of the story in the locality of Newgrange suggesting that the Morning Star (Venus) shone into the chamber of the monument once every eight years, as recorded by Joseph Campbell in his 1959 book 'The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology"(4) Then there was the folklore collected in 1938 that suggested the Tuatha Dé Danann had built Newgrange using stones brought from the Mourne Mountains, another apparently wild and imaginative claim that had some basis in reality.

Even in the claim that "Nuda" officiated at Newgrange, the calendar was not too far off the mark. In the early texts, Newgrange is associated in particular with Elcmar, Dagda and Oengus. Dagda was chief of the gods, a kind of Tuatha Dé king, so to speak, and Elcmar was described as a "magician" and "original master of Brug na Bóinne".(5)

Unfortunately, I can only challenge Mr. Daniel posthumously, and as he is not here to defend himself, I must not take undue licence in criticising him for these shortcomings. I am glad that this diminution of folklore is not ubiquitous among modern archaeologists. As mentioned above, Michael O'Kelly outlined the mythical importance of Newgrange, and seemed to hold great reverence for the possibility that it was "a house of the dead and as an abode of spirits" which, he said, was a concept not contradicted by the findings of the excavation. O'Kelly felt that a connection between the archaeological evidence and the early literature was to be found in the older and "more genuine tradition".(6)

Daniel allowed only one statement in the 1960 calendar to stand: "It is at least true in this strange wild-cat account we have just quoted, that New Grange might well be described as belonging to 'the very, very old days'."

"It is our object in this book," he continued, "not only to describe the great tombs in the Bend of the Boyne but to set them in what appears to us their true prehistoric context, as far as the limitations of archaeology allow, eschewing the little people and Artemidoros".

One eschews the daoine sídhe at one's peril! Never dismiss the folklore...

(1) Ó Ríordáin, Sean P., and Daniel, Glyn (1964), New Grange and the Bend of the Boyne, Thames and Hudson, p.19.
(2) Murphy, Anthony (2012), Newgrange – Monument to Immortality, Liffey Press, p.114.
(3) Ibid, p.170.
(4) Campbell (1991) [1959], pp.430-1.
(5) MacKillop, James (1998), Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford University Press, p.177.
(6) O'Kelly, Michael J. (1998) [1982], Newgrange: Archaeology, Art & Legend, Thames and Hudson, p.47.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Summer Solstice sunrise at Newgrange, Boyne Valley

Good morning from the Boyne Valley!

I'm delighted to share this beautiful photo of Summer Solstice sunrise at Newgrange/Síd in Broga (taken a few days after the actual day of solstice).

For a moment of the year,
the sun stops its run,
and stays awhile in the
northeast at dawn.
But, like everything in nature
the spiral will wind down once
more towards winter, when the sun
will come home again.

The big crowds that come to Síd in Broga on winter solstice are completely absent for summer solstice. I am glad for that! At 5am it's probably no surprise, but sometimes it's nice to be the only human figure walking among these magnificent remains...

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Rekindling the powerful image of Elcmar the druid and poet and diviner atop Newgrange at Samhain

In the story of Tochmarc Étaíne, the Wooing of Étaíne, there is an incredibly powerful image of Elcmar, standing atop Newgrange at Samhain in druidic garb with a fork of white hazel in his hand. Elcmar has arrived into the ownership of Síd in Broga through his power as a druid, and a poet, and a diviner.

And this is the symbol that is all to often missing from the interpretation of Newgrange today. Today, it is called a tomb. It has become a dead thing. The image of Elcmar standing on the mound in all his power reminds us that the creative and intuitive side of our nature must not give way to the deadening image of the archaeologist's measuring rod. 

Yes, the archaeological interpretation of Newgrange is hugely important, and we are extremely grateful for all the light that they have shed on these wonderful ancient places. But they do not hold a premium on the interpretation of these sites. In ancient times, the poet held almost equal court in terms of status with the king. 

Today, we should allow the druid Elcmar to hold equal standing with the archaeologist. This means accepting that Newgrange has a power beyond what can be measured with a red and white pole. This means empowering aspects of ourselves that are hidden in the darkness of the sídhe, and shining that solstice light into the darkness to awaken something latent in us. We must allow our Elcmar nature to stand on the sídhe at Samhain. 

Without that inculcation, that instilling of the wisdom from within, Síd in Broga loses its power, and becomes just the New Grange, that heap of stones that once was a tomb but now is an empty vessel. And the real danger in depriving ourselves of our Elcmar image is that everything thus follows the same path - everything becomes inanimate and materialistic and our view becomes perhaps even nihilistic. Why are we here at all? 

The Meaning of Myth - the Fork of White Hazel. Anthony Murphy with Treacy O'Connor.
Our Elcmar image allows us to stand in the power of our presence, in all that it encompasses - scientific and spiritual, awesome and terrible - and to engage fully with the journey of life. Thus, the childlike initiate becomes the supreme poet of the Boyne, the one who has tasted the Salmon of Knowledge. To the rationalist, the monument is called Newgrange, and it is a pile of stones from the past - the corpse of something it once was. To the poet, the monument is called Síd in Broga, and it is a crystal bower, a place where the sun eternally shines.