The Boa Island Figures – Mysterious Carvings From Our Pagan Past

We’ve been thinking lots lately about Northern Ireland and how much we enjoyed our time there. One of our truly memorable experiences was a trip to Boa Island in Fermanagh to see the mysterious carved figures in the Caldragh graveyard.

Despite the fact that this is one of Northern Ireland’s most important archaeological sites, we had the place to ourselves when we were there, in October 2016. In fact, it looked like any peaceful rural graveyard, with higgledy piggledy gravestones behind a hand-forged iron gate, lush grass, and an air of benign neglect.

But there’s one big difference – in this remote place are two of the most enigmatic carved figures on the Island of Ireland. The first one has two faces – it’s been called a Janus figure, or simply bilateral, carved in a style that is reminiscent of Early Medieval carvings, but also different. Different enough so that one can see these as pre-Christian figures, and that is how they are most often interpreted.

Boa Island itself may be named for the Goddess Badhbh (pronounced Bov), a potent character in Irish mythology. The figures do not bring saints or clerics to mind – there are no croziers, no fingers raised in blessing, no tonsures or crosses. We’ll look at the bilateral figure first. It has two faces, back to back, with a groove in between. The groove collects water and in recent years people have started to leave coins in the puddle formed by the groove, perhaps echoing its original purpose. The heads are joined at the side by herringbone or plaited lines that may represent hair.

One side has been interpreted as male and some point to a stylised penis that rests between the legs. Although I have seen photographs of this side when it had been recently cleaned, where a carved element is denoted as the penis, it is not in any way obvious now that the statue is once again covered in lichen and badly weathered, with moss growing in this area. The face is long and triangular, the mouth open and the eyes wide and staring. Two arms cross across the body, over a belt which runs around both figures.

On the other side the mouth is open and a tongue protrudes. Apart from that, the figures are almost identical. The statue is broken just below the belt on this side, so it is impossible to say that there are any female, or indeed male attributes present.

The carving has been mounted on a plain base but leaning against it is what might be the original base, or part of it. If it is, then the arms extended down into hands, resting on either side of the base.

There is a second figure, brought here from nearby Lusty More Island. This one is much more worn, or perhaps not even totally finished, but it’s possible to see that it bears a strong resemblance to the others in its triangular face. The arms are not crossed but appear to be holding something. Visitors leave coins in front of this one.

What does it all mean? In short, we don’t know, but current consensus appears to fall in the area of calling these figures representations of pagan deities. The smaller figure, rather than holding something, may be female and pointing to her genitals. This would place it in the tradition of the sheela-na-gigs, although presumably much earlier than the majority of sheelas, which are thought to be medieval.

Whatever they are, they have inspired poets and artists – even filmmakers. One of our favourite films, the marvellous Song of the Sea, has taken much of its artistic design from prehistoric Irish art, including the Boa Island figures. Watch this teaser for the movie and see if you can spot the Boa Island figure at 46 seconds.

And the poetry? Seamus Heaney, of course, himself from Northern Ireland, drew inspiration from the landscape around him and often wrote about archaeological themes. His poem, January God, captures the mysterious sense of the two-faced God and makes a shift to summon the idea of Cernunnus, the antler-headed pagan god of wild things depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldon.

Then I found a two-faced stone

On burial ground,

God-eyed, sex-mouthed, its brain

A watery wound.

In the wet gap of the year,

Daubed with fresh lake mud,

I faltered near his power –

January god

Who broke the water, the hymen

With his great antlers

There reigned upon each ghost tine

His familiars,

The mothering earth, the stones

Taken by each wave,

The fleshly aftergrass, the bones

Subsoil in each grave.

 

9 thoughts

  1. Very interesting article. I had never heard of nor seen these stone figures ever. What I find very intriguing is the similarities of these figures to the giant stone figures found at Gobekli tepi in southern Turkey of recent times. I have tried to copy and paste a photo or two but to no avail. Look it up if you can and see the Similar positioning of the hands and belts. These figures have been found to be as old as the end of the last ice age or 12000 years old. Older than the pyramids and stonehenge before the supposed beginning of civilisation which is fascinating in itself. Thought I would peak your interest a bit. Thanks.

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  2. Great post Finola and great photos. This is one of my favorite places and I mention it it my book. Caldragh is a precious site and the Janus stones give it a special magic and atmosphere. I can’t thank you and Robert enough for continuing to provide this wondrous access to Ireland for a boy so far away.

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  3. Dear Finola
    Your articles on stained glass are a real treat to read. If you ever get to visit N. Antrim, I’d love to meet you and show you some of the fine stained glass windows in the Glens of Antrim and on the North Coast. There are two very fine stained glass windows in the beautifully situated Parish Church of Ballintoy – one by James Watson and another by his grandfather. There are other James Watson windows in the Chapel of St Killian’s College, Garron Tower, and also in St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast. I’ve written about some of them in my books on stained glass but (?) sadly all my books are now out of print and it would be beyond my budget to have them reprinted. You very kindly helped me with some very useful pictures and comments for my last book, ‘The Story of Ireland in Stained Glass,’ but I’m afraid it’s sold out also. I have just my own copy left and I’d be delighted to let you have a look at it if, hopefully, you get to visit me in Ballycastle.
    I enjoyed your post on the Janus figure on Boa Island. I’m from Co Fermanagh and I’m very familiar with the figures and the other stone figures in the county.
    Keep up the great work. Looking forward to your next post.
    Kind regards and best wishes.
    Frank Rogers

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  4. How fascinating, especially the groove between the two figures that seems to collect water.They look very male to me too and i’m struggling to see the tongue – could it not be another dimpled chin?

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