Winter Solstice: The Mystery of Newgrange

Imagine an ancient monument, built 1000 years before the Egyptian Pyramids and a few hundred years before Stonehenge, by prehistoric peoples who had not yet invented paper or measuring tools.

Imagine further, that this monument was engineered with such precision that the light of the sun can only enter its inner chamber on one specific day of the year — that is, the Winter Solstice.

Strange but true. This is the phenomenon of Newgrange.

Happy Winter Solstice!

Today, December 21, marks the longest night and also the return of the Sun in the Northern Hemisphere. Apparently, our ancestors knew the patterns of the sun very well, and had them in mind when they built this fantastic structure.

A Site for Sore Eyes

Newgrange is a Neolithic tomb, located in Bru na Boinne, County Meath, Ireland. It consists of a large mound, built of alternating layers of earth and stones. Grass grows on top of it. Some historians have suggested it resembles a womb. The mound measures 76 meters (249 feet) across and 12 meters (39 feet) high. It covers 4,500 square meters (1.1 acres) of ground. Within the mound is a chambered passage, that stretches for 19 meters (60 feet), about a third of the way into the center. At the end of the passage are three small chambers and a larger central chamber with an arched roof.

It is huge! To get some perspective, take a look at this photo, with tourists.

The stones used for its construction were not just any old stones. Rather, they came from places far off, and it seems a great deal of thought and effort went into the choice of them. Some boulders were brought from the Wicklow Mountains — approximately 70 miles (113.9 km) south of the site. Others were brought from the Slieve Croob Mountains — 67 miles (107 km) to the north. Still others were brought from the Mourne Mountains, 59 miles (94 km) away. Whoever built the monument would have needed to locate and choose the specific rocks, then move them from the far off mountains, most likely via the Irish Sea, and then transport them inland to Bru na Boinne. Not an easy task.

And these boulders were not lightweight!

According to Professor Michael J. O’Kelly, who began excavation of Newgrange in 1962, “there are 97 kerb stones, none weighing less than a ton, and some weighing considerably more”. The whole of Newgrange contains “about 200,000 tons of stone” total. Gigantic boulders were placed at the entranceways and at the curbs. Interestingly, they were carved and decorated with spirals and various art, which are interpreted as ancient Druidic symbols.

The House of the Rising Sun

The innermost burial chamber of Newgrange was engineered so that no light can reach it, except on Winter Solstice. On that day alone, a single sunbeam penetrates the passageway thru a special “roof box”, constructed specifically for this event. It was Professor O’Kelly who discovered this in 1967.

Back in the 1960’s, the phenomenon of the Winter Solstice at Newgrange was not widely known. In fact, it had been reduced to gossip by some of the locals.

During the early excavation, these locals would tell Professor O’Kelly of a tradition, that the rising sun, at some “unspecified time”, would light up the triple spiral stone in the end recess of the chamber. No one had actually witnessed this, but it continued to be a strong legend, and one that greatly interested the Professor. In 1967 he decided to find out for himself if it was true.

The Professor reasoned that, due to a southeast orientation of the sun at Winter Solstice, and the positioning of the sun in relation to a special “roof portal” in the monument, the “unspecified time” of light just might be on this day.

Some minutes before sunrise on the 21st of December, 1967, Professor O’Kelly stood alone in the darkness of the chamber at Newgrange, wondering what would happen. To his amazement, minute by minute, the chamber grew steadily brighter and a beam of sunlight began to enter the passage. O’ Kelly wrote of this beam “lighting up everything as it came until the whole chamber – side recesses, floor and roof six meters above the floor – were all clearly illuminated”.

Needless to say, the Professor was in awe. According to ancient legends, Dagda, the sun god, had actually built the tomb.

Upon witnessing the beautiful passing of the sunbeams, O’Kelly began to wonder if this was true. He stood rigid and transfixed. Professor O’Kelly continued his excavation and observations. At Winter Solstice, 1969, he wrote:

“Between the bright sky and the long glittering silver ribbon of the Boyne the land looks black and featureless. Great flocks of starlings are flying across the sky from their night time roosts to their day time feeding places. The effect is very dramatic as the direct light of the sun brightens and casts a glow of light all over the chamber. I can even see parts of the roof and a reflected light shines right back in to the back of the end chamber.”

History and Mystery

The whole phenomenon is really amazing, when you consider the circumstances. As I stated before, Newgrange was built in 3200 BCE. It predates the Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge. They were not writing on paper, they were not planning things architecturally. As far as we know, they had no telescopes of space rockets. If you look at the size and precision of the monument, you will see that even today, with U-haul trucks and modern tools, it would be hard to build! Plus they would need to have a sophisticated understanding of the earth’s movement, which, even today, is difficult for NASA!

So this begs the question: Who built Newgrange?

I don’t believe for one minute that ordinary humans built this thing, not to mention rubes running around in loincloths who had no way to measure the galaxy. (Doesn’t it seem seriously IMPOSSIBLE?)

So who?

Were they some sort of alien race? Were they gods, goddesses, or the faeries? Were they super-humans? (Even the Bible speaks of giants, and men who lived to be hundreds of years old.) And if so, what happened to our human race? Was it somehow diminished?

Well, the history of Newgrange has always remained strong within Irish mythology. The place is steeped in magic and legend. The Tuatha de Danaan (tribe of the goddess Dana), were said to have built it. This ancient faerie race had supernatural powers, and we assume they’d have little trouble moving 200,000 tons of stone down from mountains.

Newgrange is believed to be a burial site, and indeed, human bones have been discovered within it. But it was not an ordinary mausoleum. It is thought to be the tomb of the chieftains and Irish kings, the great Dagda Mor, his son Oengus of the Brugh, and the great god Lugh of the long arm, father of the hero Cuchulain. One myth claims that Cuchulainn was conceived at Newgrange, when Lugh astro-traveled and “visited” the maiden Dechtine in a dream while she slept there.

(The god Lugh was quite a character. It would not surprise me if he had a hand in the construction. He was very powerful and popular. For more about Lugh, read https://witchlike.wordpress.com/category/lugh/)

Newgrange was imbued with magical properties. It was said the site could produce endless quantities of food and drink, especially ale and pork. One legend states that two pigs would come forth from the chambers, one living and the other already dressed, cooked, and ready to be eaten.

Suppression and Repression

You might be wondering, as I did, why it took so long to excavate this monument. The thing was built some 5200 years ago, yet they waited until the 20th century to explore it.

It seems the site was forgotten and nearly abandoned through suppression, repression, and prejudice. Irish language, literature and mythology were nearly lost under English rule. The Norman Invasion of 1169 CE brought the English to Ireland, and their control over the people became increasingly oppressive. The great mound of Newgrange, along with other ancient monuments, stone circles, myths, legends and Irish culture in general, were neglected. The people of Ireland suffered greatly, and in fact, did not begin to liberate themselves until the 20th century, with the rise of the Irish Republic.

However, in 1699, a Welsh scholar by the name of Edward Lhwyd was making a tour of Ireland. He heard of the tomb and became interested. Other scholars followed. Throughout the 18th century the site was visited by a number of explorers who speculated about its origin and purposes. In 1882 the monument was taken under care of the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland through the Ancient Monuments Protection Act and conservation efforts were initiated.

Professor O’Kelly’s work began in 1962 and lasted until 1973. In 1993, Newgrange was designated a “World Heritage Site” by UNESCO. Before Covid, people could visit Newgrange through the Bru na Boinne Visitor’s Center. It attracted approximately 200,000 tourists each year. Because so many folks wanted to see the Solstice sunrise, a lottery was held. Each year they had thousands of applicants.

Fortunately (for us, anyway) because Covid prevented anyone from attending Winter Solstice this year, the stewards decided to give the world a live stream! If you are curious about the miracle of Newgrange, watch below. And if you have any ideas about who built Newgrange, let me know in the comments!

Our Ancestors at Winter Solstice

On this, the longest night, they waited. Waited in the Scandinavian darkness for the return of the life giving sun. They burned bonfires with Jul logs, crisp and crackling.  The return of the sun brought hope that once again summer would come, the fields would ripen and food would be abundant.

Druid priests slaughtered a white bull and gathered mistletoe, believed to be a magical plant. Likewise, the people slaughtered the last of their animals. The meat was salted and stored, in hopes of warding off starvation for the remaining winter.

In what is now the United Kingdom, monuments had been built, by the ancestors or others that came before them, awe-inspiring and bold as they stand to this very day. Perhaps an ancient race of giants or aliens had dragged the megalithic rocks that would form Stonehenge and Newgrange. Somehow this ancient race had aligned the rocks perfectly to catch the rising of the solstice sun. It was here the Druid priests performed their rituals.

During the endless night of Winter Solstice, it was believed that spirits of the dead walked the earth. These were the restless and the lost who could not find peace in the afterlife. Our Germanic and Slavic ancestors honored their own loved ones who had passed in the previous year by whittling wooden dolls to resemble the dearly departed. These dolls were placed in the forests and the bone-yards as beacons, to help the spirits of family members find their way home, in case they got lost with the wandering dead.

Ancient Celtic tribes had a custom of traveling to the forests and fields, singing and shouting to drive away any evil spirits who might keep the land from prospering. They poured wine and cider on the ground to purify it.

In later years, this custom would evolve in a different form, called wassailing, popular in Victorian England. Instead of pouring the libation on the ground, they would drink it. Instead of singing to drive away evil spirits, they would sing Christmas carols. Neighbors would go to each others houses, drink a cup of ‘wassail’ punch, and bless their homes under the new sun.  In yet later years, they skipped the wassail punch altogether and this tradition became simply Christmas caroling.

In ancient Rome, the great feast of Saturnalia continued (having begun on December 17th.) There was much eating and drinking and debauchery. In the long, stir-crazy darkness, people ran wild in the streets, honoring Saturn, Capricorn and all things goat.

In later years, reminiscent of Saturnalia, the revelry continued. In England, in upper-class households, a common servant was elected as The Lord of Misrule. He held a place higher than the master of the house. For one night, all roles were reversed. The lords and ladies waited on their own servants. Servants insulted their masters. In this long, glorious night, there was much dancing, masking and merriment. Come morning, the working class returned to their lot, the lords and ladies once again in command. This custom continued in England until the early 20th century.

Weird Winter Solstice Coincidences

On December 21, 1620, the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock. With the return of the sun, in the brutal New World, they went about setting up a place where they hoped to worship and live as they chose. Many died, but those that remained tilled the land, relied upon their faith and took advantage of what the rocky Eastern seaboard could offer. They faced hardship and political unrest. Their ideas, both good and evil, brought challenges. Yet their discovery was the beginning of the United States of America.

On December 21, 1898, Madame Marie Sklodowska Curie made her discovery of  radium, thus ushering in the atomic age. The discovery was bittersweet, as the element itself is both helpful and deadly. Nonetheless, Marie Curie won a Nobel Prize in Physics for her efforts.

On December 21, 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft launched. It was the first mission to the moon that included live astronauts. What followed was the Apollo 11 moon landing, “one small step for man, one giant step for mankind.” This too, however, was an event shrouded in darkness and mystery, as the US Government cancelled all further moon missions for mysterious and unknown reasons…

This holy day is a time of darkness and mystery, a time of ancestral communication and reverence. It is also a time of hope as we celebrate the return of the sun. Whatever you choose as your Winter Solstice ritual, have a merry time! And who knows, perhaps you will make a dark discovery of your own 🙂

Veni Veni Emmanuel

 

Halo (Icebow or gloriole).

The longest night, awaiting light, we deck green boughs, winterberry and pine.  Some wait for the birth of a son.  Some wait for return of the sun.  And though winter’s darkness may leave us moody,  the gods are still with us.

‘Veni Veni Emmanuel’ is a 12th century ballad. The Latin lyrics are based on the bible prophecy of the birth of Christ from the book of Isaiah.  Performed here by the (fabulous!)  Mediaeval Baebes.  Hope you like it!   Happy Winter Solstice.