Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Video: The story of Balor and how he stole the magic cow Glas Gaibhlinn and brought it to Tory Island

Tory Island is famous as having been the mythical stronghold of the Fomorians, led by Balor. Balor was said to have stolen the magic cow, Glas Gaibhlinn, from Gabhan the smith on the mainland. He brought it to Poirtín Ghlais, dragging her up the beach by her tail. There's a little explanation about why, even though she's described as a milch white cow, the Glas Gaibhlinn's name, glas, means green or grey.

The story about the magic cow is echoed on the east coast, where Balor was said to have stolen the magical cow and her calf from Ulster and led them down along the coastline. When they crossed the Boyne, the cow looked back and, realising she was far from home, let out a scream. Balor (of the Evil Eye) opened his huge single eye and immediately the cow and calf were turned to stone, forming the Rockabill Islands off the coast of Skerries.

Tory Island ... "it is sometimes opalescent, sometimes shadowed in sapphire and golden brown".

Enjoy this short time lapse video of a beautiful summer dusk sky over Newgrange in the Boyne Valley

This is a short video made on Monday evening after sunset at Newgrange. It is a time lapse video, showing about six minutes of cloud movement compressed into about three. I hope you enjoy it. The sun has now passed its maximum northerly declination and so from here onward the days will be getting shorter again. However, for a couple of weeks there will still be a constant twilight glow on the northern horizon throughout the night. I love this time of year.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Newgrange at midsummer - the solstice and the longest days of the year in video and photos

I had the pleasure of spending a couple of evenings out at Newgrange this week, following the very recent Summer Solstice.Tonight's visit was especially beautiful. I saw the sun going down and there was a beautiful sky at the time. This was followed by a lovely red sky and a vivid lingering twilight.

Taken tonight, a week after the Summer Solstice, with the sun's setting position not having moved much in a week, you can see how the sunset at this time of year is opposite the winter sunrise, towards which the passage opening points.

From here on in, the sun begins its slow retreat southwards, with the inevitable shortening of the days that comes with it.

Right now, the twilight lasts throughout the night. This will keep happening for another couple of weeks, but after that the evenings will start to draw in again.

This is something that must have had quite a dramatic impact on the minds and lives of the people of the Stone Age. The passage of the sun from its strongest to its weakest is surely something around which the monuments and some of their mythology was based. It's easy to see why this would be the case. The long days of light in the summer seem everlasting. This might have been what the legend of Dowth referred to.
A beautiful red sky ensued after sunset at Newgrange tonight.

Although I love this time of year, and the warmer and brighter days, they are always tinged with a sense of sadness too, because these days don't last. The endless twilight of midsummer is fleeting, and the year turns again quickly. The retreat of the sun back towards the south gave rise, I have no doubt, to numerous myths involving themes such as darkness and the vanquishing of one foe or hero by another. At Newgrange, this is best exemplified in the myth of Aonghus Óg, who takes Síd in Broga (the old name for Newgrange) from his father, Dagda, the chief of the gods. He does this by asking him for possession of the Brug for one day and one night. When the Dagda asks for the return of the Sídhe, Aonghus says "all of time is made up of night and day" and thus, through cunning, takes permanent possession of Newgrange from his father.

Perhaps Aonghus Óg, Aonghus the young, represents the coming of the new sun at winter solstice, and the growing of the year that results, and he takes possession of the mound from the older, dying sun of the previous year.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Dowth and the story of hunger - ancient monument built during a famine and almost destroyed during one too

I was at Dowth on the Summer Solstice, which was on Monday last. It was nice to be at Dowth on the longest day of the year, and quite fitting because of an ancient myth about the site. I was with a small group, talking about the mythology of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and the sun was beating down from its height at the very apex of its circuit through the zodiac. We could not see it, but at that moment the sun was being carried across the sky by the great constellation Orion.

Dowth at midnight tonight. Even with cloud cover, it's still bright enough to see. I added some kerb light!

There is a myth about how and why Dowth was constructed, contained in the Metrical Dindshenchas, the oldest versions of which are found in the 12th century Lebor na Nuachongbala (known as the Book of Leinster). As I sat there in the sunshine at Dowth, I wondered about the sudden darkness that is described in the Dindshenchas story about Dubthach/Dowth, the darkness that broke a powerful spell.

The king at the time, according to the story, was Bressal Bódibad (the second part of his name means "lacking in cattle", for reasons that will become obvious). He wished to build a "solid hill", in the likeness of the tower of Nimrod, "so that from it he might pass to heaven". It is said that "the men of all Erin came to make for him that hill" and that they came to do it all in one day.

The endless day of the Dowth myth might be Summer Solstice.
The king's sister cast a spell on the sun, so that "there should be no night but bright day till the work reached completion". Those of you familiar with my work will know that I think this is a reference to the Summer Solstice, when the daylight is pretty much continuous, and when the sun's rising and setting positions appear to halt on the horizon, i.e. the sun stands still. At this latitude, even in the middle of the night we get a constant twilight, giving enough light to enable us to see in the dark. This is obvious in the main photo above, taken tonight at midnight. Even with 90% cloud cover, it was still bright enough to see what I was doing without extra light.

The king's sister is not named in the surviving Dindshenchas verse about Dowth. However, as the work progresses, the King commits incest with her, and the spell is broken. Night falls suddenly. The men abandon the construction project. "Since darkness has fallen upon our work, and night has come on and the day is gone, let each depart to his place".

What's interesting about this grand project, which seems an extraneous project orchestrated by an egotistical and megalomaniacal king, is that the legend says it was built during the time of a great famine:

"In his time a murrain came upon the kine of Erin, until there was left in it but seven cows and a bull."

At the height of this famine, the king gathered all the men of Erin to this place to build him a tower so that he could reach heaven. Is this a description of slave labour? If there is any real substance to the myth as a record of actual historical events, it must be pointed out that surely the worst time to ask human beings to indulge in heavy physical work is when they are famished. However, that's what the story says. They built it during a murrain, with only eight cattle left on the whole island of Ireland to sustain its population. This aspect of the story is, we gather, allegorical. But it is interesting in light of a strange coincidence between myth and reality that has always been obvious to me but which I only came to realise the true significance of this past Summer Solstice a few days ago.

That coincidence is this - Dowth was said to have been built during a famine, and it was almost destroyed during one too.

Moving from myth into factual, recorded history, we skip forward in time to the 1840s AD. In the years 1847-48, R.H. Firth, at the behest of the Committee of Antiquities of the Royal Irish Academy, carried out a disastrous excavation of the Dowth monument which caused it considerable damage. A commentary in the Drogheda Conservative newspaper in 1856 describes it thus:

"...we find that beautiful tumulus literally torn to pieces".
The crater in Dowth left by the 1840s excavations.
Large amounts of cairn material were removed, and tossed over the sides, in an ill-fated attempt to find some treasure, or central chamber containing perhaps trinkets that might make men rich. But as I always say, the true treasure of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth are not any material goods that might be found within them. Their true treasures are much, much deeper.

An even greater tragedy about the Firth excavation is the fact that this rich man's treasure hunt occurred during the Great Famine, when the failure of the potato crop due to blight caused death and starvation for hundreds of thousands.
"It is interesting to note that, in the middle of the Great Famine, during which a million Irish people died and another million emigrated, the esteemed gentlemen of the privileged class had nothing better to occupy their thoughts than an ill-conceived and unsuccessful 'treasure hunt' at Dowth, for which a special subscription had to be raised, while the population was suffering one of the worst calamities in Irish history". (Newgrange - Monument to Immortality, p.103, by this author)

Fascinatingly, there is perhaps a hint in the Dindshenchas myth about its future fate at the hands of Firth and his colleagues. Is this an example of the prescience of myth?

"From that day forth the hill remains
without addition to its height;
it shall not grow greater from this time onward
till the Doom of destruction and judgement".

A Brigid's Cross left at Dowth on the Summer Solstice.
Notwithstanding the obvious Christian intrusion into this verse, with its mention of judgement, the story suggests that no more would be added to Dowth's height. Could this be taken to suggest, perhaps, that something would in fact be taken from its height? Today, there is a large crater in the cairn (see photo above), and its height is much diminished as a result of this reckless "excavation" of the 19th century, if we could dare to call it an excavation. In essence, the myth's prophetical aspect has been substantiated through real events.

And the synchronism of events, mythical and real, leads us to consider the Dindshenchas verse as not mere poetry for amusement, but as a mytho-prescient work with far-reaching vision through the long and sometimes tortuous history of this island. It is not alone in that regard, and I am especially drawn to the Lebor Gabala - the "Book of Invasions" and how that presaged a series of real invasions, as if forecasting a dire series of raids before they ever happened. But that's for another day.

Tonight at Dowth, on St. John's Eve, I took some photos of the mound against the light of the midsummer sky. It doesn't last long, but I love the midnight twilight in the Boyne Valley.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Video: An explanation of some of the astronomical and mythological symbolism of the summer solstice and the sun's unique position above Orion on this day

In this video, I explain some of the fascinating astronomical and mythical symbolism of today's Summer Solstice, and in particular I point out the very unique occurrence of the sun passing above Orion's hand - in the Milky Way - on this auspicious day.

Today is Summer Solstice, the maximum northerly declination of the sun, which occurs precisely at 10:34pm GMT (11.34pm local time) this evening. The sun's rising and setting positions in the northeast and northwest have reached a standstill and over the course of the next few days these positions will begin to retreat southwards. These are the longest days of the year.

If we could somehow blot out the sun, as happens during a total solar eclipse, we would see that the sun is presently located above the constellation Orion, in his outstretched arm. This is unique to our time. The sun's solstice and equinox positions are slowly drifting westwards through the zodiac due to a wobble of the earth's axis. The effect of this wobble is that the solstice/equinox points complete a circuit of the zodiac just once very 25,920 years.

In a few decades' time, the sun will have drifted out of Orion's hand on the summer solstice, moving gradually into Taurus (the bull constellation). It will not return to Orion's hand on Summer Solstice for almost 26,000 years. Eventually the autumn equinox sun will be in the hand of Orion, but not for another 6,500 years! And then in around 13,000 years, the winter solstice sun will be in the hand of Orion. I know it might be hard to believe, but by that time Orion will no longer be visible from Ireland. He will be too far south and only the stars of his upraised arm will be visible here.

Orion/Lugh/Cúchulainn/Fionn/Nuadu carries the sun across the sky.

There is some fascinating mythological symbolism involved in today's occurrence which I have explored before, especially in my book Island of the Setting Sun. There are several candidates for this constellation in Irish mythology. These include Lugh Lamhfada (Lugh of the Long Arm, or Long Throw), who may have been seen to control the movement of the sun, moon and planets along the ecliptic from his arm. Similarly, Lugh's son Cúchulainn, the chief character of the epic Táin Bó Cuailnge, is said to have fired a sliothar (ball used in an Irish game called hurling) through the mouth of a hound/cú (Leo), and was said to have fought best in ford water. Indeed the point where the sun sits on Summer Solstice is that point where the ecliptic intersects with the Milky Way galaxy, the river of the sky. This was Bealach Bó Finne (the Way of the White Cow), and its earthly equivalent was Abhainn Bó Finne (Boyne River). Fionn Mac Cumhaill was said to have thrown standing stones into the landscape from places like Hill of Tara and Slieve Gullion. I wonder if this myth/folk tale perhaps connects Orion with the solstices - it's possible that many standing stones have alignments towards the sun's solstices or the lunar standstills. If Fionn threw the stones, perhaps this is a reference to the alignment with such astronomical events which are seen to be controlled by this illustrious man in the sky. Fionn's name translates as "Bright Son of the Hazel" or "Starry Son of the Hazel".

"I am a light for every road and journey" - Lugh Lamhfada.

An equally illustrious character from the early Irish myths is Nuadu of the Silver Arm, King of the Tuatha Dé Danann, whose arm was chopped off in the first battle of Moytura. He had a new silver arm made for him by the Tuatha Dé Danann healer, Dian Cecht. Thus he was able to take part in the second battle of Moytura (Mag Tuired) in which the Dananns were victorious against the Fomorians. This myth inspired the famous scene in the Star Wars movies where Luke Skywalker (Orion is perhaps seen to walk through the sky) confronts the evil Darth Vader, who chops off his arm with a light sabre. Towards the end of the movie, we see that Luke is given a metal, robotic prosthesis, similar perhaps to Nuadu's new "silver" arm.

The full moon on summer solstice.
The symbolism of today's event is stark. A giant warrior/god/hunter/man carries the sun aloft across the sky, like an Olympic torch bearer, from dawn until dusk.

Tonight, as the sun sets, a full moon will rise in the southeast, in the other "crossing point" or "ford" of the sky where the ecliptic crosses the Milky Way. Full moons on the day of solstice are rare enough. The last one was in 1967. So today we are enjoying a special conjunction of astronomical events.

The moon will be accompanied in that region of the sky by the planet Mars, currently quite bright, and also the planet Saturn and the bright star of Scorpius, Antares.

See also an earlier post about Lugh carrying the sun on Summer Solstice.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Folk memory - could local people in 1938 recall details about the construction of Newgrange that would not be confirmed until its later excavation?

I've written before about the apparent curious persistence of local folk memory. You might recall one of the most famous examples - the fact that local people said Venus (the Morning Star) shines into Newgrange on one winter solstice morning every eight years. This had been recorded by Joseph Campbell and written about in 1958 - prior to Professor Michael O'Kelly's excavations and restoration of the roofbox, before which time any such phenomena could not be observed within the chamber. Of course, there's always the possibility that the alignment was observed indirectly, from outside the tomb entrance, and thus deduced by locals. But the thing about folklore is that it cannot always be easily dismissed as just some fanciful story.

The entrance to Newgrange as it appears after Prof. O'Kelly's restoration.

In 1938, the Schools' Collection was being gathered around Ireland by the Irish Folklore Commission. At Monknewtown School, which was one of the closest schools to the great monuments of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, a man called Gerald Duggan from Dowth recalled some local lore about fairy forts to one of the school pupils. Here are some snippets from Mr. Duggan's recollections about these great monuments:

There are three very important tumulus in this district. They are Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. They are within view of each other. There is supposed to be a cave running under ground from Newgrange to Dowth. 

This latter claim about a cave connecting two ancient sites is very commonplace in Irish folklore. Many places, including old mounds, forts and even ecclesiastical sites such as monasteries, were said to have been connected by underground tunnels. Perhaps this supposition is based upon the observation of souterrains, of which there is a remarkable proliferation in this northeastern part of Ireland. Mr. Duggan, speaking about Newgrange, says (the spelling is reproduced here exactly from the manuscript):

Outside the entrance there is a large stone with spiral writing on it. Inside in the fort there are two large stones in the shape of a basin. It was the custom long ago for the bodies of pagan kings that died to be buried in these baisins and the ashes used to be burned.

And here's where it gets really interesting:

It is said that it was the Tuatha De Dannans that built those forts. It is said that they brought the stones from the Mourn Mountains to build them.
Gerald Duggan's recollections from the Schools' Collection (©

It is now postulated by geologists that stones for the construction of Newgrange came from three, and possibly four sites, as follows: (1) The large kerb stones, orthostats and structural stones, which are of greywacke, were brought along the coast from Clogherhead; (2) the milky white quartz stones which form the front wall of Newgrange came from the Wicklow Mountains (although the exact site has never been conclusively located), with a possibility, recently suggested, that this quartz came alternatively from Rockabill Island off the coast at Skerries; (3) the rounded water-rolled granite and granodiorite cobbles which were interspersed with the quartz came from the beach at Rathcor/Templetown, which is on the southern shore of the Cooley Peninsula. It is said that these stones originated in the Mourne Mountains.

In 1938, when the School's Collection was being gathered, the granite cobbles which originated in the Mournes were all buried under the cairn spill - material which had, over time, slipped down from the top of the cairn over the kerb stones and buried the white quartz and rounded cobbles under several feet of stones. When Professor O'Kelly excavated Newgrange, he found this layer of quartz and granite/granodiorite cobbles at the very bottom of the cairn slip. Through experimentation, he postulated that the quartz and water-rolled cobbles had originally formed an almost-vertical facing on the mound, and thus Newgrange was reconstructed in this manner.

The question that arises from all this is this - how did a local man, speaking in 1938, three decades before the excavation of Newgrange, possibly know or have any indication that stones for the construction of Newgrange might have been brought from the Mournes?

Is it possible that some of these cobbles had indeed been found, especially outside the entrance to the tomb, where, in 1699, the land owner Charles Campbell's servants had quarried stone for the construction of his house?

There could be a more prosaic explanation. Perhaps Mr. Duggan was an educated man, who had become aware of the writings of George Wilkinson. Writing in 1845, Wilkinson had suggested that a large stone basin in the chamber of Newgrange was made from granite which originated in the Mournes. Writing in 1912, George Coffey quotes a Mr. R. Clark of the Geological Survey as suggesting that the stone from which this basin was constructed had "more resemblance to some of the granites of the Wicklow series than to those of the Mourne district."

Another story which is interesting was told by a Patrick Walsh of Rushwee, Stackallen, about a giant who lived in a cave near the Boyne:

Stone basin in Newgrange (George Coffey)
The giant lived in the cave at the river Boyne for a long time until an army came and hunted him out of it. It is said that after that he went to the cave at Newgrange and he stayed there until he died and it is said that the people put his body into a stone cup and burned it. The cup that the giant's body was burned in is in the cave at Newgrange yet.

One presumes this "stone cup" referred to is one of the stone basins inside Newgrange. It is interesting that Mr. Walsh's story hints at a funerary use of the ceremonial basins. It is implied by many experts on the great passage-tombs that the interment of the fragmented remains of the deceased were placed carefully in these ritual basins.

In a previous blog post, I discussed the means by which human remains might have been defleshed and cremated such that there were only small fragments left to inter. There is still the tantalising possibility, though, that Mr. Walsh's story is a folk memory of an ancient custom going back deep into prehistory, of burning the corpses of the dead, and placing their fragmented remains in stone basins or urns.