empowering the salmon of wisdom
Newgrange is considered
to be the most complex megalithic site in Ireland – and
Europe. But despite the enormous focus on its solar display, little
else is known about the framework in which the site was developed.
is said that one of the most spectacular phenomena to witness
is the midwinter sunrise lighting up the interior of the passage
grave at Newgrange. In Egypt, the Temple at Abu Simbel, built
for Ramses II, incorporated the same “light show”,
occurring at Ramses II’s birthday. When the temple was lifted
to higher grounds when Lake Nasser and the Aswan Dam were created,
the engineers made sure that the phenomenon could still be observed.
Today, thousands of tourists still gather to watch one of the
great sights in Egypt. At Newgrange, only a handful, lottery-picked
people are invited to attend the phenomenon, which is visible
two to three days each way from the solstice. For the absolute
majority of tourists, the only manner in which the phenomenon
is visible is by switching off the electric lights inside, and
recreate the sunlight by a directional spotlight.
megalithic mound of Newgrange sits along the river Boyne and is
part of Ireland’s best known sacred complex, known as Brugh
na Boinne, the “Bend of the Boyne”. Why here? The
river Boyne, or Boand, means White Cow and as the White Cow Goddess,
the river is said to reflect the heavenly river, the Milky Way.
This “Avenue of the Dead” was also a physical boundary,
between the provinces of Ulster and Meath. Furthermore, the waters
of the river Boyne were also said to offer the gift of second
sight, showing not only its sacred but also initiatory power.
Newgrange is impressive, but not overly impressive, even though
an estimated 200,000 tons of granite stone from Dundalk Bay, plus
white quartz from the Wicklow mountains, were used to create this
cairn. It was surrounded by a circle of standing stones, of which
only twelve of a probable 38 remain.
What has made the site spectacular is the fact that the designers
allowed for an intricate solar show. However, it is less known
that this light show is not limited to Newgrange, but involves
various other cairns in the complex also. After Newgrange, the
sun enters a number of satellite cairns during the day, until
it enters the large cairn of Dowth at sunset. One of these smaller
cairns, known as cairn K, harbours the sun at midday. This means
that the sunbeam is constantly contained within a cairn throughout
the shortest day of the year – as if “loosing”
it could mean it would never be found again. Newgrange is therefore
merely the “introduction” to a spectacle that lasts
the entire shortest day of the year, with the finale at Dowth.
does this leave Knowth, the third large cairn in this bend of
the Boyne? Knowth is actually the largest cairn in Ireland and
was built 500 years before Newgrange. Yet despite these two important
qualifying characteristics, it has less mythology connected to
it than Newgrange. Still, Knowth equally has a solar light show;
its passage is illuminated at sunrise on the equinoxes (March
21 and September 21).
Knowth, and the river Boyne
(© Michael Fox, www.knowth.com)
Knowth is also known to house a calendar stone, namely kerbstone
52, also known as SW22. On it are a group of crescent shapes arranged
around the large boulder. Some criticism has been directed towards
the interpretation of this stone’s carvings as a lunar calendar.
Still, at present, the consensus is that the stone records a calendar.
The stone’s petroglyphic symbols thus suggest that the ancient
Irish astronomers might have been able to synchronise the lunar
cycles with the solar year. Gillies MacBain further observed that
the great mound at Knowth has a kerb of 127 boulders, which is
half the number of tropical moons in the Metonic cycle. Seeing
they were able to perfectly align Newgrange to the midwinter sunrise,
similar knowledge about and incorporation of lunar phenomena should
not perplex anyone.
back to Newgrange. Author Hugh Kearns has suggested that when
the sun penetrated the passage of Newgrange, the sun struck a
gold disc that hung inside. There is no archaeological evidence
for this, but let us continue in this speculation.
He believes that the refracted light would then strike the Boyne
river. Kearns tested his thesis on a 1:24 scale model, which backed
up his findings. But it does rely on the presence of a disc, of
which there is no evidence. The scenario itself seems unlikely,
but what is known, is that while the sun penetrated into the passage,
the same rays would hit the white quartz of the mound, making
it glow in the early morning light. Kearns also believes that
the event was accompanied by music, so that Newgrange was a “sound
and light” show. His conclusions have independently been
backed up by research by Paul Devereux, who investigated the features
of Newgrange. He did an acoustical analysis of the structure,
which showed that there was indeed an ancient sound and light
the above unfounded speculation, Kearns does point out that vast
numbers of salmon span in the Boyne Valley at the time of the
winter solstice. Salmon were consulted by Celtic heroes for their
wisdom and forethought; to eat a salmon, or Eo Feasa, was to gain
immediate knowledge. They are incorporated into many myths: Gwyrhr
questioned a series of wise animals, each one wiser than the previous.
The oldest and wisest of all was the salmon of Llyn Llyw. Cúchulainn
used the hero's salmon leap across the Pupils' Bridge to get Scáthach's
stronghold in order to gain access to Scáthach's advanced
knowledge of arms. To gain the secrets, Cúchulainn had
to use the hero's salmon leap to Scáthach herself in order
to gain the secrets reserved for her family. Eating salmon was
believed to enhance knowledge and intellect. Let us note that
the water of the river itself was believed to enhance second sight.
Thus, drinking the water and eating the salmon of the river Boyne
would allow the initiate the gain knowledge of the Otherworld.
It would suggest that the presence of the salmon at the winter
solstice identified the site as sacred in nature, which in later
millennia resulted in the area becoming a religious centre, into
which the various cairns were constructed, whereby the sun penetrating
into the passages and being “caught” on the sacred
day was just one aspect of a much larger and older religious experience.
from salmon, the site was linked with the Boand, the Cow Goddess.
The location is known as the “Bend of the River of the White
Cow Goddess”. Of course, the cow is the origin of milk,
and hence it is a short step from Milky Way to “Track of
the White Cow”. But what could it mean?
The salmon returns to its place of birth, so that itself can create
new life. The river Boyne is one such location. The salmon was
identified with knowledge and mankind strives for divine knowledge,
which was believed to come from the stars, the realm where the
shamans – those with second sight – went. Was capturing
the sun on its shortest day a symbolism of how the “power
of the sun” was captured in this bend of the river Boyne,
the power of which was then somehow “transposed” onto
the salmon? Those who consequently ate the salmon would acquire
“divine knowledge”, through the mediation of the solar
Milky Way, and the river Boyne, was therefore a path of enlightenment.
The salmon was the shaman, the traveller, in search of his origin,
but also of his destiny.
The salmon supposedly gained its knowledge by consuming the nine
hazel nuts of wisdom that fell into the Well of Segais, the primary
source of all knowledge in Celtic lore.
Nechtán was one of the guardians of the well, along with
his brothers Flesc, Lám and Luam. No-one but they were
supposed to go to the well – not even the gods. However,
just like Adam could not control Eve with the serpent, Nechtán's
wife Boand decided that she would disobey the command. As a result,
the knowledge of the “Fountain of all Knowledge” sprang
over into our realm – echoing the story of Adam and Eve
even further. Once the water was gushing into this dimension,
it could no longer be stopped; the river Boyne was born.
It should not come as a surprise that like Adam and Eve, there
were repercussions. In one account, she was drowned because of
her, in another she lives but is crippled ever after. Still, the
river Boyne was named after her.
It is clear
that she is a perfect symbol for the shaman, who goes in search
of knowledge in the Otherworld, but brings it back with him –
thus spilling the knowledge of the divine into our realm. The
path the shaman travels is often identified as the Milky Way,
and we note Bóann is not only identified with the river
Boyne, but also with the Milky Way. Finally, William Battersby,
author of "The Age of Newgrange" states that Nechtain,
Bóann’s husband, is identified as the constellation
Orion. Nechtain was nicknamed "silver arm" because his
constellation has an upraised arm. Orion was often believed to
guard the Milky Way.
of the winter solstice sunrise penetrating Newgrange
does this mean for Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth? The waters from
the Well of Segais created the river Boyne in Ireland, on whose
banks sit the mighty mounds of Brú na Boinne (Newgrange),
Cnogba (Knowth), and Dubgad (Dowth), where some of the Gods were
said to live. Boann herself was said to have lived in the Brú
na Boinne. Na Boinne means the river Boyne, and Bru means an otherworld
palace or festive hall, existing in an eternal timeless realm
of the supernatural and not as a place of human habitation. The
mounds were therefore seen as houses of the gods. Most likely,
the gods were personified as sacred stones, no doubt long since
removed to other locations or lost. The stones on which the sun
shone on the winter solstice or the equinoxes were no doubt seen
as entrance into another dimension, where the gods truly lived.
What remains today are thus merely the empty – vacated –
houses of the god, even though each year, the sun continues to
go in search of its divine relatives…