Winter Solstice – New Hope and Newgrange

This year sees the Winter Solstice in Ireland a day later than usual, on 22nd December. Today that extra 24 hours may not seem a big deal, but thousands of years ago, it was an additional day lived in fear of long dark nights.

So what exactly is the Winter Solstice and why was it so important to our Celtic ancestors and their hopes for the future?

What is a Winter Solstice?

It is important to understand that all our festivals and traditions in Ireland are born from our farming heritage. A necessary way of life dating back to the Tuatha Dé Danann, our ancient race of Demi-gods. Everything we knew related to the seasons, the cycle of life and death, sowing and reaping, harvest and regrowth.

The term ‘Solstice’ actually stems from two Latin words – ‘Sol’ meaning sun and ‘Sistere’ meaning stand still. A point in the Northern Hemisphere where the day reaches its shortest in terms of light and the night is the longest by way of darkness. For a farming nation, this was not the end, but the beginning.

Agriculture and Paganism

This rural way of life was mirrored in the beliefs of the Druids and so many pagan rituals and festivities were borne of necessity. In a year that was measured by solar and lunar movement this moment was a fundamental turning point – the rebirth of the sun.

A fear was instilled from generation to generation, that as the light faded it would not return. Superstition and a need for ritual and tradition were the only ways to hold back the darkness for a nation at the mercy of the seasons and the sun.

It was a time when ancient trees were revered by pagans as they were believed to hold the power, the magic, the key to life and death. It was said that the battle of light and dark was between the Holly King and the Oak King. At the Winter Solstice the Oak would defeat the Holly and thus light would begin returning to the world.

Mistletoe was considered mystical and potent in protection so it would be cut from its habitat, growing on other strong trees such as the oak and offered up for blessings to be brought upon the home.

Origins of Christmas

Candlelight was a vital weapon against the encompassing darkness and the evil that lurked within, a tool to banish the malevolent. The Yule log, adopted from our Norse fellow pagans was lit and surrounded by evergreens such as ivy and mistletoe.

Food was shared among neighbours, produce that was easily preserved such as fruit, nuts, and baked goods that were full of spices for warmth and longevity. Harvested grains and fruits had completed their fermentation process and were handed out as alcoholic beverages and gifts were given to those who helped most in the community. This is all beginning to sound very familiar!

Newgrange

Each year on the Winter Solstice, as the sun begins to rise, a lottery selected chosen few are given the chance to experience the ethereal wonder inside the inner chamber of a Neolithic structure older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. An event that was first witnessed in recent times by Professor M. J. O’Kelly on 21st December 1967. The first such occurrence in over 5000 years.

Newgrange sits in the Boyne Valley in County Meath, Ireland and is to all intents and purposes, an ancient temple. A convergence of astrological, spiritual, religious and ceremonial importance.

It is a mound structure stretching over one acre and is held in place by 97 kerbstones, covered in Megalithic artwork. It is just one of a series of such structures following the path of the River Boyne, however it is the most imposing and significant one of all.

From the home of the Tuatha Dé Dannan to the burial site of the ancient Kings of Tara, speculation as to the rhyme and reason for Newgrange continues – its past shrouded in mystery.

As with many pagan and particularly Druidic locations in Ireland, it succumbed to Christianity. The Cistercian Abbey of Mellifont was founded close by and the surrounding lands were procured as farmland, known as a Grange.

The inner passage at Newgrange is 19 metres in length and leads to a room laid out in the shape of a cross known as a cruciform chamber. The discovery of burned and decayed human remains as well as tools, show us that the monument was much more than a way of measuring the seasons, it was a monument to life and death.

As sunrise begins, and as the weather allows, a thin ray of light creeps along the exterior of the tomb and in through a narrow opening. Like an outstretched hand it reaches along the inner passage and explodes into a ball of light, marking one of the most significant astronomical moments in the Druid calendar. This is until once again, Newgrange is overwhelmed by darkness, a reminder of how little control we have over the sun and the onset of night. For today however, we have a new Winter Solstice and new hope is upon us.

THE CURSES, RITUALS AND MAGIC OF LOUGH GUR

Lough Gur Feature Image - Liam McNamara

Deep in County Limerick, nestled at the foot of Knockadoon Hill and Cnoc Áine, lie the mystical waters of Lough Gur. The lake itself is replenished by a series of underground springs and forms the shape of a horseshoe, which ties in nicely with the tale I am about to tell.

The land surrounding Lough Gur has history more than 6000 years old and has been a place of worship and settlements dating back to the Neolithic period.  Throughout the Bronze Age and Iron Age it was home to local tribes and this continued into early Christianity and Medieval times.

As well as the discovery of Beaker Pottery, a more substantial find was discovered in the shape of what is now known as the ‘Sun Shield of Lough Gur’. Straight out of the Bronze Age, this Yetholm-type piece of armory originates from the Scottish Borders and is one of only a handful that remain in the world.

The concentric circle design of the shield imitates that of a sun, which lends itself to the overall purpose and ceremonial importance of Lough Gur and the lands that touch the waters.

Within the grounds of Lough Gur stand two castles – Bourchier’s Castle was built for Sir George Bourchier, son of the Earl of Bath during his time in Ireland in the late 16th century.

Lough Gur castle - Liam McNamara

The other is a Norman fortress known as the Black Castle. It was used during the Desmond Rebellion after the Earl of Desmond relinquished his English attire and status and rejoined his Irish bretheren.

Ireland’s Stonehenge

Stone Circle Grange - Liam McNamara

The Stone Circle of Grange is the largest of its kind in Ireland and is also known as ‘Lios na Grainsi’ or ‘Stones of the Sun’. It pre-dates much of Stonehenge and has been a place of mystical, ceremonial and sacrificial significance for centuries.

With standing stones averaging a height of over nine feet, the circle of continuous uprights spans a diameter of just under one hundred and fifty feet. There are a total of 113 standing stones and the entire structure is banked and custom made for ritualistic purpose.

Crom Dubh

The largest stone of this awe-inspiring construction is more than thirteen feet high and is called Rannach Crom Dubh, or the division of Crom Dubh and weighs more than forty tons.

Crom Dubh is descended from the god Crom Cruaich and is synonymous with dark rituals, death and folklore.

Crom Cruaich was first introduced to Ireland some time before the arrival of the Tuatha Dé Danann.  Tigernmas was one of the first High Kings of Ireland and as a Milesian brought the worship of this deathly idol to Ireland, building a shrine at the top of Magh Slécht in County Cavan to win favour from his god.

King Tigernmas and most of his troops mysteriously died on Magh Slécht on the night of Samhain, now known as Halloween, as they worshipped their dark, sacrificial deity.  As the centuries passed, Crom Dubh evolved from Crom Cruaich and became a worshipped figure in his own right throughout Ireland, with Lough Gur clearly no exception.

Druids and Festivals

The entire area is soaked in druidic symbolism and ritual intent. Overall the circle is a giant astronomical calendar, in full alignment of the summer solstice. The stones themselves carry an acoustical phenomenon whereby the circle resonates with sound at certain points.

The celebration of the summer solstice continues to this day along with the festival of St, John’s Night Eve on 23rd of June.

The eve of the feast of Saint John the Baptist has been celebrated in Lough Gur since the formation of the early Christian fort known as Carraig Aille.

A bonfire would be ignited at sunset on 23rd June and kept aflame until the small hours of the following morning. Prayers and ritual blessings would take place to ensure plentiful crops and to protect against drowning for the coming year.

Celebrations continued through the night including music and dance as well as games to prove prowess, strength and agility among the men. Women would be invited to jump the fire and the way in which the flames responded would supposedly reveal infidelity and misdeeds.

Áine – Queen of the Fairies

Aine

Áine is the Irish goddess of summer and prosperity, although her story is synonymous with the winter festival of Samhain.

Born of the Tuatha de Danann, Áine was said to be the daughter of The Dagda, an all-powerful god who was a father figure with immense potency and influence. He is also tied strongly to Crom Cruaich and Crom Dubh.

8th century text tells of Ailill Olom, King of Munster attending the festival of Samhain. He lay down to rest on what is now known as Cnoc Áine or Knockainey. When he woke, Ailill discovered all the grass had been stripped clean from the mountainside during the night.

Bewildered, the son of Eoghan Mór sought an explanation from a seer after travelling to the province of Leinster. Fearcheas mac Comáin was so fascinated by this strange turn of events, he journeyed with Eoghan back to Munster in time for the following Samhain celebrations.

As they held vigil on the Limerick mountainside, Ailill fell asleep.  Believing themselves to be unseen, the King of the Sidhe appeared with Áine at his side. As a hidden Fearcheas crept up and murdered the Fairy King, Ailill awoke and saw the incredible vision of exquisiteness before him. Overcome with lust, he raped Áine and in fury and anguish she tore off his ear.

The outraged goddess had reaped the ultimate revenge on her power-hungry aggressor. Under ancient Irish law, no man was fit to rule unless his body was complete. By tearing off Ailill’s ear, she had forced him to rescind his crown.

Geróid Iarla and the Curse of Lough Gur

Lough Gur Main - Liam McNamara

The Fairy Queen was a bewitching beauty who continued to have mortal men lusting and coveting her as the centuries passed.

Áine came down from her throne on the mountain and removed her mystical cloak to bathe in the spring waters of Lough Gur. The Earl Fitzgerald was passing by and was enchanted by her naked form. Determined to have her, he took her cloak which left her with no choice but to do his bidding.

Their night on the banks of the lake resulted in a son who became known as The Magician. Áine returned to her land of the Sidhe and her son was raised by Geróid Iarla on the condition his inherent magical abilities were not to be encouraged in any way.

As a young man, Geróid discovered he could shrink himself into a bottle and jump back out again. When he showed his father, the old Earl could not contain his astonishment and in his excitement the young man jumped into the Lough, transformed into a goose and was never heard from again.

In absolute dismay, the goddess came down from her throne and cursed the man responsible for the loss of her son. The Earl Fitzgerald was imprisoned beneath the lake and every seven years he rises from the waters astride his horse shod in silver.

As he rides around the lake he looks hopefully at the horseshoes of silver on his mare’s hooves. It is said that when the silver is finally worn away, Geróid Iarla can walk among mankind once again.

As for Áine, she continues to watch over the sacred lake and is sometimes seen at Samhain, celebrating the magic and mystery of Lough Gur.

Lough Gur 3 - Liam McNamara

The incredible photographs within this piece are kindly provided by the talented Irish photographer Liam McNamara of Ireland Through My Lens Photography. Follow his work here:

https://www.facebook.com/Irelandfrommylensphotography/

 

 

NEWGRANGE – A WINTER SOLSTICE TALE

winter-solstice-Newgrange

Newgrange is a historical monument that stands within the Boyne Valley in County Meath and is over 5000 years old. Older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza, it is classified as a Passage Tomb but is better described as an Ancient Temple. A construction of astrological, spiritual, religious and ceremonial importance, Newgrange remains as one of the world’s most significant heritage sites.
The main structure is formed in a mound over one acre and has a retaining wall of some 97 kerbstones, richly decorated in Megalithic art. It is part of a series of structures built along a meandering part of the River Boyne known as the Neolithic Brú na Bóinne complex.
During medieval times, Newgrange and the surrounding constructions were introduced into folklore as many believed that the ancient Kings of Tara were interred here, whilst others thought it as the home of the mythical God like beings known as Tuatha De Danann. In fact texts from the 11th and 12th centuries give accounts of residency and clan deceit relating to the Brú na Bóinne.
During this time the mounds and surrounding land had become a part of the holdings of the Cistercian Abbey of Mellifont. These farms were known as granges and by the late 1300s’ the site was known as ‘the new grange’.
The 19 metre long inner passage leads to a cruciform chamber, so called because the overall layout represents a cross. Archaeological digs inside the passage have produced burnt and decayed human bone which gives credence to the belief that corpses were placed within Newgrange, some having been cremated as was customary. Artefacts including tools and jewellery were also found during excavation in a manner similar to other Neolithic Irish passage graves.
Newgrange is of course most famous for the incredible event within the passage and chamber that takes place during the Winter Solstice. At approximately 9 am on 21st December as the sun rises, a narrow ray of light begins to penetrate an orifice above the entrance of the passage known as the roof-box.

As the sun ascends over a period of some fourteen minutes, the beam of sunlight travels along the passageway, widening until it reaches the central chamber. The entire room is spectacularly illuminated, marking a significant astronomical moment in the calendar.

A major feat of Neolithic engineering to welcome in a new year that has remained virtually unchanged in thousands of years. So coveted are the few spaces available to witness this historical and magical event, a lottery is held each year.

Subject to weather conditions the lucky chosen few wait in anticipation in the dark hollow before spending fourteen minutes of wonder and excitement, watching as the ray of sun creeps towards the sleeping chamber. They are witnesses to a bygone age of mystery and ingenuity until Newgrange is once again plunged into darkness for another year.
Newgrange