Entrance to Newgrange chambered
Triple spiral carving on one of the
Newgrange – the enchanted palace; Brug Oengusa – the mansion of Oengus; Brug Maic Ind Óc – the home of the youthful hero; Sid in Bruca – the entrance to the otherworld; Brú Na Boinne – the house of the Boyne – the palace of the gods. These are some of the many names that Newgrange has been called throughout the 5000 years of its existence. A reminder of its association with the gods and goddesses of ancient Ireland.
Newgrange must certainly rate as one of the most magnificent megalithic monuments in Europe. Built c.3200BC it pre-dates Stonenehenge and the Pyramids by several hundred years. Its huge circular mound, 340ft in diameter and 40ft high, stands on top of the gently rising hills above the Boyne River in Co. Meath, Ireland. A façade of white quartz covers the south-eastern side, surrounding the entrance to the 60ft passage that penetrates the interior and leads to the inner chamber at the centre of the mound. Giant kerb stones, 97 in total, many engraved with the finest examples of Neolithic art in existence – spirals, zigzags, lozenges and circles, edge the foot of the mound, and a huge blocking-stone rests at the entrance.
The picture on the left shows the carved entrance stone, with the opening above aligned to the sun’s rays on the Winter Solstice. On that date only the sun illuminates the inner chamber of the cairn. A stone circle, once containing 39 megaliths – 12 of which still remain, surrounds the monument.
To the unsuspecting visitor used to the overgrown ruins of many megalithic sites, Newgrange is quite a shock. Even for those familiar with the controversial reconstruction work undertaken by Michael O’Kelly, the archaeologist who excavated Newgrange between 1962-75, the first sight of the monument can be awe-inspiring. It stands like a giant flying saucer that has just landed from outer space, its shining face of white quart looking out in majestic silence over the green slopes of the Boyne Valley. Truly a palace of the gods!
The Neolithic people that built Newgrange seem to have belonged to a rich and powerful culture, farming and trading along the Atlantic coastline from the Orkneys to Brittany and beyond, their great megalithic temples or ancestral shrines forming the spiritual centres of their communities and displaying the wealth and power of their kingdom or tribal territory. Within these temples or shrines we now call chambered cairns, the remains of important members of the community were kept and honoured, perhaps kings or chieftains, priests or shamans or others selected to represent the spirit of the people. There also the Great Goddess – Mother Earth, the sun, and the rivers that made their land fertile were worshipped.
That Newgrange featured in some kind of mid-winter festival of rebirth seems certain, constructed as it is so that on the Winter Solstice the rays of the rising sun shine through a small opening above the entrance, and down the long passage into the chamber deep within the mound - the thin beam of light illuminating the engraved megaliths and the remains of the ancestors, interred within the womb-like cave of the Great Mother – fertilising the land with the spirit of new life.
It is hard to imagine a more powerful symbolic representation of death and rebirth. The very architecture of the monument, with its ‘text’ of engraved symbols, the ancestral remains, the rising sun and the river all creating a spectacular and dramatic performance – re-enacting the story of Creation and the rebirth of the Light. Paramount in the spiritual beliefs of these people must have been the care of Mother Earth, to live in harmony with her changing seasons, and to ensure her continued fertility through magic and ritual.
According to Irish legend the builders of Newgrange were the Tuatha de Danaan – the people of the Goddess Dana, a race of supernatural beings who originally came from the sky. A beautiful and magical people with heroic leaders and powerful magicians – half gods and half men, invisible, yet with the ability to assume human or animal form at will. For the Celts, 3000 years later, they became the Sidhe, the Shining Ones, Lords of Light, the Gentry or the Fairy people who dwelt in the ancient mounds and forts, guarding the entrance to the Otherworld of eternal youth and never-ending joy. Newgrange was the palace of Elcmar, the sky-god who was married to Boand, goddess of the River Boyne and source of all wisdom and occult knowledge. By the use of magic through which he masters time, Dagda, the all-knowing god of the sun and supreme chief of the Tuatha de Danaan, took the palace and married Boand himself. From their union, Oengus, god of love and daylight was born, who eventually tricked his father into allowing him to reside at the palace of the Boyne for ever. The goddess Boand is also associated with the Celtic goddess Bridget, and the later Christian Saint Bridget.
Newgrange’s neighbouring mounds have their own mythology. Knowth, or Cnogba, is connected with Englec, daughter of Elcmar and lover of Oengus and is associated with the moon and the Equinoxes. Dowth, or Dubad, means darkness, and is associated with the Winter Solstice sunset and the longest night of the year. These ancient legends may reveal a great deal about the beliefs of the people who built and used Newgrange, as well as the spiritual beliefs of our Neolithic ancestors in general.
For the Celts, the Tuatha de Danaan and the spirits of the natural world formed a major part of their spiritual beliefs. Offerings of gold torcs, jewellery, and coins were buried at Newgrange as late as the 4th century AD. The kings of Tara were claimed to have been buried there ‘together with three times fifty sons of kings’, and their heroes were taken to the Otherworld by the Sidhe.
Belief in the Sidhe, or fairy folk was so strong that even the Christian authorities could not deny their existence but simply forbade the people to worship them. They were still sometimes seen at Newgrange by country folk during the early part of this century. The well-known early 20th century writer Evans-Wentz in his book ‘The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries’ records a local comment “When they disappear they go like fog, they must be something like spirits or how could they disappear in that way? I know of people who would milk in the fields about here and spill milk on the ground for the good people; and pots of potatoes would be put out for the good people at night.” Others described the Sidhe as ‘shining with an eerie light, some are small and some very tall in stature’. It was felt that they still held unseen power as guardians of the land, and the health and fertility of the animals and crops depended upon their cooperation.
- © Simant Bostock