December 21, 2013

One Moment in Time: The Solstice Seen from Newgrange

Newgrange.jpg

Deep inside the world's oldest known building, every year, for only as much as 17 minutes, the sun -- at the exact moment of the winter solstice -- shines directly down a long corridor of stone and illuminates the inner chamber at Newgrange.

Newgrange was built 1,000 years before Stonehenge and also predates the pyramids by more than 500 years.

Lost and forgotten along with the civilization that built it, the site was been rediscovered in 1699. Excavation began in the late 1800s and continued in fits and starts, until it was undertaken in earnest in 1962. It was completed in 1975.

NEWGRANGE.jpgSeen as a tomb, the function of Newgrange in regards to the solstice wasn't known until 1967 -- and then by happenstance acting on a hunch. It was in December of 1967 that the astronomical alignment was witnessed and understood:

Michael O'Kelly drove from his home in Cork to Newgrange. Before the sun came up he was at the tomb, ready to test his theory.

'I was there entirely alone. Not a soul stood even on the road below. When I came into the tomb I knew there was a possibility of seeing the sunrise because the sky had been clear during the morning.'

He was, however, quite unprepared for what followed. As the first rays of the sun appeared above the ridge on the far bank of the River Boyne, a bright shaft of orange light struck directly through the roofbox into the heart of the tomb.

'I was literally astounded. The light began as a thin pencil and widened to a band of about 6 in. There was so much light reflected from the floor that I could walk around inside without a lamp and avoid bumping off the stones. It was so bright I could see the roof 20ft above me.

'I expected to hear a voice, or perhaps feel a cold hand resting on my shoulder, but there was silence. And then, after a few minutes, the shaft of light narrowed as the sun appeared to pass westward across the slit, and total darkness came once more.'

Since that time, people from all over the world have made the pilgrimage to Newgrange to bear witness to this ancient ritual begun over 5,000 years ago and only brought back into the light for the last 40.

The unknown makers built well. And they built for a very long time:

Five thousand years ago, the people who farmed in the lush pastures of the Boyne Valley hauled 200,000 tons of stone from the river bank a mile away and began to build Newgrange. At the foot of the mound, they set ninety-seven massive kerbstones and carved many of them with intricate patterns. Inside, with 450 slabs, they built a passage leading to a vaulted tomb, and placed a shallow basin of golden stone in each of its three side chambers.

Like so much else from the Age of Myth the "why" of it all at Newgrange will never be known. The people who took 20 years to move 200,000 tons of rock left us no clues beyond the spiraling runes cut into the rock. Like all the mysteries that emerge from time with no footnotes, it is left to us to make what meaning we can from them. But perhaps this one monument from the Age of Myth gives us, every year, one small hint.

No matter what time and the universe can throw at us, we still go on. To remind ourselves that we have and shall endure and prevail, we still mark our small planet's turn around our home star. We mark it with ceremonies every year when, at this moment in time, the sun begins to rise higher to warm us again in our small patch of heaven. And we are still here to bear witness, no matter how shrill the Acolytes of Zero, to the mystery and the gift. We're a tough race and a rough species. It will take more than a few degrees centigrade, one way or another, to finish us.

The light of the solstice pierces to the heart of the tomb at Newgrange, and then, soon after, the Light of World arrives. Two moments that remind us of the many manifest miracles of God. Reminders that no winter is without end and that The Gift is given to us again. If we can but receive it.

Posted by Vanderleun at December 21, 2013 3:20 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Gerard,

You are truly a gifted enlightener.

Posted by: ChiefTestPilot at December 20, 2007 1:47 PM

Fascinating. It must have to do with the idea of perhaps warding off the death of the sun, what with its "resurrection" at that very moment when the light streams in and illuminates the sacred center of the universe -- like another fiat lux that recapitulates the original creation in the form of a brand new year. Although I'm guessing that a human sacrifice took place at the point inside where the light struck, just so as to not take any chances.

We moderns don't really have anything that can match this kind of mythopoetic majesty except perhaps David Hasselhoff's slightly menacing phallic Christmas candle, or maybe Yasmine Bleeth's magnificent Hanukkah bush.

Posted by: Gagdad Bob at December 20, 2007 2:12 PM

Beautiful comments about the most beautiful time of year.

Merry Christmas.

Posted by: gabrielpicasso at December 20, 2007 2:13 PM

I was in there once years ago(in the summer unfortunately) if there is an ancient monument to man's belief in something outside themselves, this place is one of best. It is not to be missed if you ever go to Ireland.

Although it's beyond me how you get 100 people in there, it felt crowded to me with 7 or 8.

Posted by: David McKinnis at December 20, 2007 3:58 PM

As John the Baptist said, "He must increase, but I must decrease."

Posted by: Christian at December 21, 2007 11:07 AM

Upon further consideration, I'm now imagining a sacrificial victim bound at the far end of the corridor, sitting at the inner chamber, surrounded by the priests. The moment arrives when the shaft of light illuminates the victim, which is precisely when the knife plunges into the beating heart. The sun draws through the beam its necessary nourishment to revive and go on for another year, and almost everybody is happy again, human sacrifice being defined as "unanimity minus one."

Posted by: Gagdad Bob at December 21, 2007 3:05 PM

'Cept, Gagdad, the ancient Irish most likely did not employ human sacrifice. We are much too human for that kind of frivolity.

And the place is dry inside. Parchingly, dustily dry under the weight of all of those stones. In one of the most mushily wet places on earth, Ireland. They built for permanence did the ancient Irish.

Newgrange is part of a complex that includes Knowth and Dowth in the Boyne valley.

Posted by: Robohobo at December 21, 2008 5:48 PM

Could it be that the ancients, by constructing the roof box so as to allow the eternal energy of the cosmos entrance, as well as a way to allow offerings to be placed inside, were attempting to assure the immortality of the inhabitants?

Thanks for the real stimuli as always Gerard

Posted by: Adagny at December 22, 2008 10:43 AM

I don't know whether the ancient Irish did or did not practice human sacrifice, but I've been suspecting in recent years that human sacrifice and even cannibalism were widespread in ancient times, perhaps even the norm.

Which is probably why monotheism and the Ten Commandments were such revolutionary developments in human culture.

Posted by: rickl at December 21, 2009 5:57 PM

Wow! Beautiful writing. And two thoughts it sparked: first, that the light of the world was born a few days after that longed for sliver of light presaging Him and second (yet again) how right Sophocles was about "Wonders are many, yet none so wondrous as Man" (on earth at least). Our family listened ghoulishly to the audiobook about "The World Without Us" by Alan Weisman, describing how modern buildings would crumble, collapse soon the after humans maintaining them leave them. I liked this reminder of yours that some people knew how to build for permanence. Which led naturally to thoughts of the parable about the man who built his house on rock, as opposed to the shifting sands...Thanks for this.

Posted by: retriever at December 21, 2009 6:07 PM

Beautiful.

Have any of you heard about the Georgia Guidestones?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgia_Guidestones

Posted by: Mumblix Grumph at December 21, 2009 7:10 PM

Yes, I've heard of them and even read a bit about them. Odd project. I'd thought to write something about them but couldn't decide if they were hubris or hokum or something else entirely.

Posted by: vanderleun at December 21, 2009 8:59 PM

"the ancient Irish most likely did not employ human sacrifice."

That is not what the Romans said.

If this thing aligns with the solstice now, it did not when it was new. The precession of the equinoxes has moved about 40% since then. There would be a considerable shift. Basically, all ancient observatory stories are junk.

Posted by: at December 21, 2009 9:36 PM

If we know so little about these people, how is it we know they were Irish?

Posted by: james wilson at December 22, 2009 9:02 AM

Is it possible the ancients believed they could capture the light and seal it into the tomb? Certainly we can appreciate the the significance of the slim light provided but once a year.

Posted by: tonynoboloney at December 22, 2009 9:55 AM

Related: The local Twin Cities PBS affiliate broadcast both episodes of this imported Irish series about 1 week ago.

Episode 1 neo-lithic Ireland
Episode 2 Catholic Ireland

These episodes can be seen in full at the following link.

http://www.rte.ie/tv/secretsofthestones/watch.html

From the web site:
Re-examining, redefining and ultimately rebuilding Ireland's most iconic ancient monuments is the core mission of Secrets of the Stones; decoding Ireland's lost past. In this innovative history strand, each episode will set out to separate myth from truth, find out what really happened and to bring to life Ireland's most visionary and nationally significant sites.

Kevin

Posted by: Kevin at December 22, 2009 2:30 PM

I'm not impressed at all. It turns out the ancients moved approx. 200K Tons of LIMESTONE - as almost everyone knows LIMESTONE is a notoriously light building material. Slackers.

Posted by: Daithi at December 22, 2009 4:28 PM

If this thing aligns with the solstice now, it did not when it was new. The precession of the equinoxes has moved about 40% since then. There would be a considerable shift. Basically, all ancient observatory stories are junk.

The precession of the Earth's axis means that it wobbles and describes a circle around the ecliptic pole, which is perpendicular to the plane of the Earth's orbit and stays more or less fixed. This axial precession causes the background stars to change over time, but has no effect on the Earth's orbit around the Sun or the changing seasons.

Modern astronomers take the solar alignments of these ancient structures seriously. If you were correct and these relationships weren't valid when the structures were built, then you would have to explain how and why Neolithic builders built their structures so that only now, thousands of years later, we would see these precise alignments. That would be an even more impressive feat than making the alignments work at the time the structures were built!

Posted by: rickl at December 23, 2009 6:33 PM

The book "Uriel's Machine" / The Ancient Origins of Modern Science
( Chris Knight and Robert Lomas ) has 50 or so pages on Newgrange and even more fascinating accounts of similar structures with what the authors claim were baptismal or birthing spaces for certain infants, conceived and delivered in harmony with the cycle of Venus, which in certain heliacal positions and at certain latitudes will, as the sun is described doing in this article, illuminate the chambers of the stone structure with its supernal light.

Posted by: alphecca at December 23, 2009 10:33 PM

James, dna has shown that the people of modern Ireland are not 'celts' (people from central Europe) but overwhelmingly the descendants of neolithic farmers and hunter gatherers,most of whom came up the western seaboard from Iberia. So, essentially, the people who built the stone monuments are direct ancetors.
re: human sacrifice. I believe it did ocur though I've studied more of the British monuments of the period. By the Iron age,it certainly was happening in Ireland--look up bog bodies.the legend of Crom Cruaich,which takes place at a stone circle, may well hold a folk memory of sacrifice:milk,grain and children given to a stone pillar.
re: the alignment.Yes, the earth's axis has shifted but not as much as that. It's the same at Stonehenge; the sun does not and never has risen over the Heelstone; it originally shone between TWO stones.

Posted by: TARA2 at January 13, 2010 2:09 PM

I think that rereading this piece is a fine way to mark the solstice. Thank you, Gerard.

Posted by: pfsm at December 21, 2011 3:42 PM

"And God said, let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and for years" Gen. 1:14
Some do not recognize the true Light even when they are surrounded by it. Another very good effort Mr. Vanderleun. As always, thank you for the inspiration.

Posted by: Roger Drew Williams at December 21, 2011 8:59 PM

If we know so little about these people, how is it we know they were Irish?

dna has shown that the people of modern Ireland are not 'celts' (people from central Europe)

Sounds right to me. Celts were later arrivals, probably at the boundary of the Bronze and Iron Ages. Stonehenge would likely have been built by similar people, and had nothing to do with (Celtic) Druids. You both have probably heard of "Cheddar Man," who even predated Newgrange and Stonehenge. His DNA has been found in some British locals.

Posted by: Don Rodrigo at December 22, 2011 2:12 PM

Sure, Mr. Williams. And the Sun (and the Moon, but that's not quite as important) was created on the fourth day, after the creation of light (where did that come from?) and after even the creation of plants. According to Genesis, that is.

And Bible literalists still exist? A true testament to human gullibility and stupidity.

Happy Solstice!

Posted by: Fletcher Christian at December 20, 2012 1:58 AM

What a small man you are, Mr. Christian. What non-existent graces you display. Is this some sort of pagan tradition, to belittle the poetry of another's inspiration and smugly assume it to be a triumphant aspersion cast?

Posted by: Joan of Argghh! at December 20, 2012 3:40 AM

Joan;

Methinks FC must be desperately miserable, the sort of individual whose acquaintance one would go out of one's way to avoid.

A Merry Christmas and a Happy and Healthy New Year to all.

Posted by: Dave at December 20, 2012 5:06 AM

It is both ironic and all too fitting that the allegory of Genesis is more grounded than the theory of three centuries of True Believers and the second raters who unwittingly worship their stink.

The great Frenchman-
Whenever among the opinions of a democratic nation you come across some of those evil theories which promote the belief that everything perishes with the body, you may consider men with such views as natural enemies of the people. If their system could be of some use to man, it would be in giving him a modest opinion of himself. But they do not demonstrate such a truth and when they think they have done enough to prove that they are brutish, they seem as proud as if they had demonstrated that they were gods.

Posted by: james wilson at December 20, 2012 10:26 AM

Joan of Argghh - The Bible, treated as literature and/or poetry with due reference to the culture by which it was created, is indeed a great piece of literature. As a guide to the truth about Nature it is utter nonsense from beginning to end.

Witness also the two completely incompatible genealogies for Joseph (both patrilineal) in the Bible. Why is either of them there at all, given that Jesus was not the son of Joseph in the first place? And why is the family tree of Jesus via Mary (which might be relevant) not mentioned at all?

Witness the arrant nonsense about the Noachic Flood. Impossibilities abound there.

Posted by: Fletcher Christian at December 20, 2012 2:41 PM

As a guide to the truth about Nature

Fletch, I like you, but what is the "truth about Nature"? The Bible is not a science text book in the sense that it explains molecular biology or chemistry or physics. It tells you why you exist. You can figure out the rest.

There are plenty of young earth creationists and people who believe in a creation in six literal 24-hour days. In fact there are probably as many of them as there are atheists. Most of us think both the atheists and the YECs miss the point.

Jesus, though, is a different deal. The "begats" differ because Matthew and Luke are illustrating two different aspects of who Jesus is. Matthew is showing Him as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the King who sits on David's throne. Luke is giving us the Last Adam, the Second Man that his friend Paul spoke of in First Corinthians 15. Notice how one goes from the Abrahamic Covenant forward while the other works backward all the way to Adam. Jesus is the King of the Jews; He is the Savior of us all.

Merry Christmas.

Posted by: mushroom at December 20, 2012 3:35 PM

It was at Newgrange that I learned how claustrophobic I am. Maybe I could have done it alone but with the group--no way. The tour guide had a delightful sense of humor.

Posted by: bonny kate at December 20, 2012 4:27 PM

Been here but not at the solstice. The white limestone that lines the front comes from the Wicklow mountains over 50 miles to the south as are some of the curbstones that weigh upwards of 12 tonnes.

Following the trail of the neolithic people across Ireland is something. From the cairn of Maeve at Sligo thru the Burren to Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth.

Posted by: R Daneel at December 20, 2012 7:41 PM

mushroom - point completely missed. Why is the genealogy of Joseph (either version!) in the New Testament at all? It's completely irrelevant - after all, the father of Jesus was not Joseph. Didn't Matthew and Luke believe that?

Also, one might reasonably ask why the genealogy of Mary (who was human, of course) is nowhere recorded. The answer is almost certainly because the authors of the Gospels didn't think Mary's pedigree was important - they were writing about 1950 years ago, in an extremely patriarchal society.

Posted by: Fletcher Christian at December 20, 2012 9:50 PM

In this instance, I don't believe there is a point to miss. Mary and Joseph are both of the lineage of David. It's as if you traced your genealogy and found that a few generations back your mother and father (adoptive or otherwise) were descended from the same aristocrat -- or in my case, the same drunken Scot bootlegger.

I have heard some suggest that the Luke lineage is Mary's, but in any case, they shared relatives since the line was somewhat constricted during the Babylonian captivity.

Matthew is clearly skipping around to get his "fourteen generations", highlighting key names to give a coherent and easily memorized version that affirmed Christ as heir to the throne and the fulfillment of much prophecy.

Also, I think the patriarchal thing might be overstated a little. As far back as Moses, the daughters of Zelophehad were granted full inheritances so long as they did not marry outside their clan. Plus Jewish ancestry could be traced through the maternal side so that a person like Timothy was considered Jewish despite his father being a Greek.

Posted by: mushroom at December 21, 2012 6:10 AM

Daithi, 200,000 tons of anything is still 200,000 tons.

Posted by: Mikey NTH at December 22, 2012 2:02 PM

This guys lines go down like buttered pancake syrup.

I work with tons of limestone everyday. At 156 lbs per cubic foot it is anything but light.

Posted by: ghostsniper at December 21, 2013 7:10 AM

I appreciate the quality of your writing, Gerard. This piece is very easy to digest, and I think part of the reason for that is that your writing is respectful about the subject.

I love the back story for all of these sites, don't you? They never fail to give me pause and make me smile because what that kind of construction indicates to me is that there have always been people who give a damn and are willing to stick their necks out to give real, measurable form to what's in their minds or their minds eye for that matter (perhaps one and the same). It is this quality that makes me love my fellow human beings, and in particular when people go full tilt into a construction project. I'm not talking about some slap-dash housing project or office building that the communists are infamous for blighting landscapes with, but monuments and structures that people look at and say Wow! You know what I mean?

Maybe I'm too easily impressed or amused or something. I'm delighted by the whole train of thought my mind goes on when I picture a team of ancient people standing around talking about what it is they want to do, why they want to do it and why it has to be a certain way so that it captures the essence of the why. And then their plans took on a life of their own, extending over decades, miles, lifetimes.

Fast forward thousands of years to boardrooms where teams of guys put together the plans for bridges, skyscrapers, cities and suburbs all over the modern world, and its the same remarkable story, just with maybe better materials and tools, done in less time. And think of how magnificent some of our monuments and structures are!

We are resilient, rough and ready, and have managed to come through the absolute worst shit nature has thrown our way, yet here we are! And we're still capable of being awed and of producing some really impressive monuments. We're still intrigued by our star and our place in the universe. So what if we, too, are rendered extinct? We were here, and I, for one, think its been a phenomenal trip all things considered.

Posted by: Kerry at December 21, 2013 10:32 AM

The King is dead.
Long live the King!
The sun dies and is reborn.

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