As those of us in the Northern Hemisphere enter this time of deep reflection, of death and rebirth, of light overtaking darkness, I’m reminded of my recent visit to the ancient tomb of Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland.
The 5,000-year-old passage cairn is aligned to capture the winter solstice at the moment of sunrise, the light piercing through the dark to illuminate its inner chamber. The illumination will last for approximately seventeen minutes before retreating, leaving the depths of the cairn once again in darkness. For several mornings around the solstice, this solar event repeats itself before the inner heart of the tomb finally returns to its year-long sleep of darkness.
Newgrange is part of the Brú Na Bóinne, or Mansions of the Boyne, a collection of megalithic cairns erected at the bend of the River Boyne. It is one of the oldest man-made structures on earth. It was radiocarbon dated to 3200 B.C., making it older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Giza.
There are many theories as to why the Neolithic people built the magnificent mound. While archeologists originally classified it as a passage tomb, many now recognize it as an ancient temple, one of powerful religious, cultural and astronomical significance.
Within the belly of the cairn, I experienced a re-enactment of its solar phenomenon. Under the care of a guide I was led down the shadowy passage to a twenty foot high domed chamber with a corbeled roof. Three recesses off the main chamber shaped the passage’s cruciform, each containing a large basin stone. The inner chamber was then plunged into its natural state of complete darkness. In those quiet moments within its depths, I felt a profound sense of the ancient space in which I stood and marveled that five millennia earlier others had waited in that same darkness awaiting the sun’s pivotal return from the night. Just when it seemed impossible that any light could penetrate the passage, the simulated sunrise broke through the small roofbox above the cairn’s entrance, pierced the dark tunnel and struck upon the floor. As the chamber filled with light, illuminating the megalithic art carved into the walls and the basin stones, I stood in awe of the tomb’s construction and of the Neolithic people who had built it—an intelligent, agrarian society who had looked up from their fields to the heavens and set out to capture the precious moment of the sun’s rebirth.
As a child of the modern world, I can only imagine the patience of its architects, how long they must have watched and studied the heavens to arrive at the very moment and the precise angle of the solstice sunrise. With the barest of resources they were able to measure the solar year down to the minute, capture it within the roofbox which was aligned directly to the heart of the cairn. Without so much as a pocket watch, or even the technology of metalworks for which to make one, they created an ageless solar clock on a grand scale, a massive monument 249 feet across and 39 feet high, covering more than an acre of land.
For more than a thousand years, the massive cairn was a center of astronomical observance, of cultural and religious ritual. By 2,000 BC the monument had fallen into disuse and decay. Over the following millennia, the megalithic cairn laid predominately empty, its entrance shrouded by overgrowth, its roofbox shuttered by a granite stone and fallen debris—the cairn’s innermost secret of solar alignments locked within.
While the inhabitants of the farmlands in and around the Boyne Valley came and went, the vast monument of Newgrange stepped from its earthly bounds into the realm of the gods, its mystery woven into early Irish Literature and the Mythological Cycle.
In the old legend, Newgrange was inhabited by the Tuatha Dé Danann—the People of the Goddess Danu—a mysterious and supernatural race of superior intelligence and beauty. They were said to have ruled the ancient lands of Ireland before they retreated into the subterranean mounds of the underworld upon the arrival of the Gauls. The Tuatha Dé Danann became known as the Sidhe, or the People of the Mounds, an immortal Fairy-folk who protected and watched over the sacred lands.
According to eleventh and twelfth century legend, the god Dagda, the chieftain of the Tuatha Dé Danann, built Newgrange as a palace for himself, his three sons, and his wife, Boann, the goddess of the River Boyne and of the Sidhe.
Under the rich farmlands, Newgrange slept through the millennia until its rediscovery in 1699 by its landowner. Charles Campbell, who originally mistook the earthen structure for a cave, was quarrying the massive mound for construction materials when he uncovered the beautifully carved entrance stone to the cairn. Recognizing it as a sacred place, he halted removal of its precious components. Over the following centuries the tomb saw a number of antiquarians who sought to unravel its mysteries, but it wasn’t until 1967, while under a major excavation, that the roofbox was unearthed and the sunrise of Winter Solstice returned to the inner chamber of Newgrange.
After four thousand years of near obscurity, Newgrange is now recognized as one of the most significant megalithic monuments on earth—a window into an ancient time that has left a lasting mark on the solstice celebrations of today.
Five thousand years after the original people of Newgrange frequented the monument, crowds gather each year outside the passage cairn on the morning of the Winter Solstice, while a lucky few enter the chamber to await the rising sun.
In spite of our modern trappings, we are not so far from our ancient past. Our lives are still ruled by the sun, by the turn of the seasons. Without the sun all life would cease to exist on earth. Perhaps an ancient memory buried deep within all of us, a profound understanding of the Darkest Midnight, of the cold barren fields under a sunless sky, compels us to reach for the light, to embrace its warmth and to celebrate our gratitude for its yearly return.
Over the coming days, the fires of solstice celebrations will burn across the Northern Hemisphere. Thousands will gather at Stonehenge and burn bonfires to guide the sun back from the darkness, while others will assemble in the great Cathedrals to light candles in celebration of the coming light of Christ. Some will light Yule logs, luminaries, or kinara candles, while others will celebrate the season of light with Soyal, Yalda and Dongzhi.
From the beginning of recorded history, Midwinter has been a time of celebration, the end of an old year and the beginning of a new. A season of spirits, transformation and rebirth. Of Dickensian Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. A time when the Sidhe are said to walk the Mansions of the Boyne, to enlighten and protect.
Whether you celebrate the season with Menorah candles, Christmas lights or a Yule log, or simply feel the warmth of the winter’s sun on your face, may the light of the season find its way into your heart and bring you warmth, hope and peace.