Pagan and Pure

How does a prehistoric calendar mark turn into a pagan feast and then into a Christian saint’s day? This year, the cross-quarter day is Feb 3, yesterday: that is, the day that lies half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Together with the solstices and equinoxes, the cross-quarter days divide the year into eight ‘months’ and they also establish the dates for the ancient festival days of Imbolc ( Feb 2, spring), Bealtaine ( May 1, summer ), Lunasa (Aug 1, harvest), and Samhain (Oct 31, start of winter). In fact, the actual cross-quarters times don’t fall always on those dates but close enough so they have become established as the festival days.

The Brigidine Centre in Kildare, run as retreat and contemplation house. The lead image in this post is a St Brigid stained glass window in Ballinrobe, Co Mayo

As so often happens when an ancient culture is Christianised, Imbolc became conflated with a saintly feast day, that of our own Saint Brigid, the female patron saint of Ireland. Brigid may have originally been a female deity, also called Brigid, or perhaps Danu. This is all controversial, of course – did the idea of the goddess or the idea of the saint come first, for example? Whatever the origins, the marking of the cross-quarter day turned into Imbolc the pagan festival, and finally into Saint Brigid’s Day, and all over the country we make St Brigid’s Crosses, leave a scarf out at night for her to bless, or, still, in Kerry, dress up as ‘Biddies’ and go from house to house, carrying a Brídeóg doll and singing and dancing in a ritual that must be as old as time.

Another custom is to visit those holy wells that are associated with Brigid. Amanda has a special post on that – and is celebrating two years of holy well hunting!

On one Imbolc that lives in our memories Robert and I arose early in the morning and went to watch the sun rise over a small prominence, standing on a piece of 5,000 year old rock art. Our account of that occasion is here, and below is the thrilling moment the sun rose, and lit up the ancient carvings.

Our friend, the poet Paul Ó Colmáin, from whom we take Irish lessons, used one of his own poems as a teachable moment this week, and I was struck by how perfectly it captures that sense of the turning year, the joy of sunrise, the deep embedding in our Irish souls of the ancient and the traditional and the embracing of both. I give the poem first in Irish. For those of you who do not speak it, you can take my word that the language is beautiful and contains nuances that his English version cannot capture, brilliant as it is.

Lá ‘le Bhríde

Dhúisigh an ghrian sinn

an mhaidin úd,

solas órga

ag stealladh

‘is ag scairdeach

isteach ar an urlár,

ag slaparnach

thuas na fallaí,

ag sruthlaíonn

an doras síor-oscailte isteach.

Níor thuigeamar

ar dtús

cad a bhí ag titim amach.

Níor aithníomar

torann buí na Gréine.

Ach chuimhníos

go tobann ar na bhfocail a dúraís,

mar dhraoi:

“Tiocfaidh an Ghrian thar nais ar Lá ‘le Bhríde.”

Agus d’árdaigh dóchas,

ársa, pagánaigh im’ chroí,

inár suí sa leaba,

Bríd nó Danú,

an lámh in uachtar ag an t-earrach,

bhí an geimhreadh, gruama thart.

“Tiocfaidh an Ghrian thar nais ar Lá ‘le Bhríde.”

Paul’s English version of the poem is given below. At the time he wrote it, Paul, his wife, the artist Marie Cullen, and their sons were living on the Great Blasket*, off the Dingle Peninsula, the only inhabitants of the Island.

The Blasket Islands lie off the cost of Kerry, near the Dingle Peninsula. An Irish speaking enclave, it is now uninhabited

Winter was long on the Island, made gloomier by the fact that the sun, due to a combination of high ground and orientation, did not shine on their dwelling all winter.

The sun awoke us.

Like a fanfare

or a burst of wild laughter.

Playfully.

Unfamiliar.

Spilling in along the floor.

Splashing up the walls.

Streaming in through the ever-open door.

We didn’t – at first-  know what was happening,

Didn’t recognise the bright clamour of the sun.

Then we remembered the words

That you, druidlike, had spoken:

“The Sun will come back on St. Brigid’s Day.”

And a welling of Hope,

Pagan and Pure,

Came rising inside us,

Sitting in bed,

Brigid or Danú,

The Winter defeated:

“The Sun will come back on St. Brigid’s Day.”

We’ve turned the corner and spring is finally in the air. Today was golden and we spent it on The Mizen (see below). Thank you Brigid/Danu/Imbolc/ancient Calendar Keepers!

*If you’re ever in Kerry, make sure to visit the Blasket Centre

Drombeg Solstice Celebration

Setting

At sunset on the winter solstice the sun sets over the recumbent stone at Drombeg Stone Circle, near Glandore in West Cork. That is – if you stand looking between the two portal stones, you will see the sun set in a notch in the opposite hill and over the recumbent stone which is diametrically across from the two portal stones.

approaching 2 RH

For a full explanation of what I’m talking about here and for more about how and why stone circles were constructed, see our post Ancient Calendars. And take a look at Shadows and Stone in Action for our record of the same phenomenon, except at the autumn equinox, down the road at Bohonagh Stone Circle.

Watching

This solstice was the first opportunity Robert and I had to see the Drombeg phenomenon and what an evening we had for it – clear skies and a glowing sun. What’s lovely about this every year is that local people turn out to witness the solstice sunset at a stone circle designed by Bronze Age people perhaps three or four thousand years ago and still functioning the same way millennia later. It’s our West Cork Newgrange.

Meaden 2

Terrence Meaden (above) was there – a physicist and archaeologist, he’s been researching and writing about the calendrical aspects of Drombeg for several years now. Tirelessly visiting at all times of the year, his research compellingly illustrates how the builders planned the placement of the stones to maximise shadow-casting at the eight cardinal points of the calendar – solstices, equinoxes and cross-quarter days. While I don’t agree with a couple of his conclusions, he has done us all a service by encouraging us to look afresh at a monument we thought we knew.

Drummers

There was a lovely, community feeling to the hour we spent at Drombeg. People kept arriving and greeting one another in a sociable way. Kids ran around, a couple of drummers kept up a steady beat, and a group was holding a meditative circle that including some harmonious humming.

Final Moment

Anticipation mounted as the sun sank lower, there was a final good natured jockeying for position to get the best shots, and a collective sigh as the sun finally disappeared into the cleft.

Last Rays

It felt good to be part of something that West Cork people have been coming together to celebrate for thousands of years.

Equinox at Bohonagh

Sunset over the recumbent, Spring Equinox 2014

Sunset over the recumbent, Spring Equinox 2014

We don’t normally post midweek, so this is a special edition, coming to you courtesy of the spring equinox. In my post Ancient Calendars, I explained about the orientation of the stone circles of West Cork. Bohonagh, just outside Rosscarbery, is oriented east-west. On the spring equinox, if you stand behind the recumbent, you will see the sun rise between the portal stones. If you stand behind the portal stones you will see the sun set behind the recumbent.

Around here, there is no guarantee that sunrise or sunset will be visible, due to the variable weather conditions, so you have to watch the forecast carefully. This week, sunshine was forecast only for Tuesday the 18th, so that is the day these photographs were taken. Curiously, this is also the day, according to my calendar, when sunset and sunrise divide the day into two equal halves. The official equinox, however, happens today: March 20th 2014.

Equinoctial sky

Equinoctial sky

The top photograph shows the moment when the sun set across the valley, sinking down directly above the recumbent as seen from between the portal stones. The second photo is taken from further down the hill, after the sun had disappeared. Silhouetted are the stone circle, especially the tall portal stones, and to the left, the boulder burial. Finally, I have included an image showing the east-west oriention.

east-west orientation

east-west orientation

We felt very privileged to be witnessing this event, thousands of years after the builders had planned it. With us earler in the day were Amanda and Peter, and you can see Amanda’s description of the site here.

Ancient Calendars

One of West Cork's ancient calendars

One of West Cork’s ancient calendars

We’ve been catching up on our rock art project this week and it’s brought us out into the field. On Saturday the weather was spectacular – crisp, but with a totally blue sky and vibrant colours. See Amanda’s photo of the day here. We spent most of the day just east of Rosscarbery, a picturesque settlement above the water at Rosscarbery Bay, where the birdlife viewing is always a delight.

One of the sites we visited was Bohonagh. Not only does it boast cupmarked stones, but a very fine boulder burial and a stone circle.

Bohonagh Stone Circle

Bohonagh Stone Circle

West Cork is particularly rich in 3000 year old Bronze Age stone circles and most of them are of the ‘axial’ or ‘recumbent’ type. This means that the circle is laid out on an axis that is oriented in a particular direction. On one side of the circle is a stone laid longways – the recumbent stone. Across from the recumbent are the portals: two tall stones that appear to create a doorway into the circle. Sometimes the stones rise in height from the recumbent to the portals, and the portal stones may be set ‘end-on’ to the circle. There are always, therefore, an uneven number of stones – up to 17 have been recorded, although many circles are incomplete, with fallen or missing stones. The purpose of the axis was to provide a line of sight on a sunrise or sunset (and perhaps even moonrise and moonset) at important calendrical points such as solstices and equinoxes.

The portal stones at Bohonagh

The portal stones at Bohonagh

Bohonagh quartz

Quartz at Bohonagh

A feature of these circles is that many of them include quartz rocks: sometimes as one of the circle stones, sometimes as an additional rock in the interior or exterior of the circle, and sometimes on a nearby monument such as a boulder burial. At Bohonagh there were several quartz rocks, including one lying outside the circle and two supporting the boulder burial. In one case, at Ballycommane, we have seen an enormous quartz rock function as the capstone of a boulder burial – quite awe-inspiring in its visual impact. Interestingly, this same phenomenon occurs in a stone circle in Cornwall – Boscawen-Un in the West Penwith Peninsula, not that far from West Cork! As we watched the quartz under the boulder burial glisten in the sun (impossible to capture on a photograph) we knew it had to be seen as a very special stone to the builders of these circles.

Brooding stones at Dunbeacon

Brooding stones at Dunbeacon

Stone circles often command sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. This makes them well worth visiting, even if a goodly hike is involved. Because they are invariably located on private land, it is good practice to try to track down the landowner and request permission, and of course to always close gates and observe good field etiquette on a visit. Don’t be surprised to find that many are no longer intact: the centuries have taken their toll and many of the stones have fallen or disappeared over time. On the upside, this adds to the romantic wildness of the scene.

Gorteanish Stone Circle, re-discovered in the laying out of  the Sheep's Head Way

Gorteanish Stone Circle, re-discovered in the laying out of the Sheep’s Head Way

One of the most famous of the West Cork stone circles is Drombeg, near Glandore. Here, people gather on the winter and summer solstices to witness sunrise and sunset.

Drombeg on a wet day

Drombeg on a wet day

At Bohonagh, the alignment is to the spring equinox sunrise and sunset, due east and west. We plan to be there!