Post by Graveyardbride on Dec 21, 2014 9:27:14 GMT -5
Honoring the Ancients at Midwinter
NEW BRITAIN, Conn. – It was built nearly 5,000 years ago, before the Pyramids in Egypt, before the Celts arrived in Ireland. Archaeologically, it was the Neolithic age but no one knows for sure who they were on the banks of the Boyne River. We suspect they worshiped the sun. We know they were farmers and they were smart enough and strong enough to move five-ton boulders long distances. They were precise enough to build a huge structure with a brilliant wall made of hundreds of pieces of quartz and a front door with a small rectangular opening above it that captured the first light of dawn on the winter solstice. The precision is remarkable. How could they know how to build it so exactly? Inside, on the shortest day of the year, the light spread from the entrance down a long, narrow passageway illuminating a central room used for burial rights. When the Celts arrived, they believed that Aonghus, their god of light, lived there.
In the Middle Ages, it was part of a monastery the Irish named Newgrange. It was rebuilt late in the last century and stands regally in County Meath a little northwest of Dublin. Why does a society sophisticated enough to measure the light of the sun on a particular dawn so that it can illuminate sacred rites, construct such an impressive edifice and develop a ceremony in its sanctuaries for that exact day?
Other ancient monuments were carefully built to align with solar and lunar events. Stonehenge in England is oriented to the place on the horizon where the sun rises on the longest day of the year, just the opposite of Newgrange. These early Irish people had replaced Stone Age hunters and gatherers. They domesticated animals and grew crops, and so the seasons became important to them. Most agricultural societies developed festivals with the rhythms of the year. The planting festival, the harvest festival. The winter solstice marked the end of the harvest and introduced the long season of the bright winter moon dominating over a daytime sun hung low in the sky. Winter in many pre-literate societies was a time for storytelling around the warmth of a fire where storytellers were revered personages who held the people spellbound for hours at a time.
When I first saw Newgrange, I was in awe, partly because it is in the place of my ancestors – Cork to the South, Down to the north, and Kerry to the west. In each – a gritty city, a peaceful village on the River Shannon, and a rough, drab town in still troubled Ulster – I could literally feel the tug of generations. Ann Cleland, Mary Anne Finucane, Sam Hutchinson, Peter Murphy and their families left there for here in the middle of the 19th Century. In fact, I was brought up in the same house where Mary Anne and Sam raised my grandfather. He bought the harvest from the farmers in the area and made a living at it in the early 20th century.
Why does the winter solstice mean so little to us today, nothing more than tomorrow, another day at work, a notation printed on the calendar? Did they know in 3,000 BC it was because the earth tilts on its axis around what is now our December 21, the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun and so there are shorter days, longer nights? Perhaps not, but they knew enough to harness its dawn for what was surely a meaningful ceremony in a monument that could have taken generations to complete.
Today, 5,000 years later, even as the cold night is long, the promise is there for warmth to come. Each short day grows a little longer as the planet starts to tip back. And the time of planting and renewal will come again.
Source: James H. Smith, The New Britain Herald, December 19, 2009