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One Moment in Time: The Winter Solstice Seen from Newgrange

” And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”— John 1:5″

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.

Seen 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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Bob December 21, 2017, 1:39 PM

    [huge yawn]

  • Lee Steven December 21, 2017, 1:57 PM

    I love your writing, Mr. Vanderleun, and the photos you post. All of it, beautiful, funny, insightful, and full of humanity. The one touchstone in all my internet ramblings that returns me to sanity.

    P.S Bob’s an ass.

  • Mary Ann December 21, 2017, 2:56 PM

    I agree with Lee.

  • R Daneel December 21, 2017, 6:52 PM

    The Boyne complex is Knowth, Dowth and Newgrange.
    The passage tomb is spectacular. The tours set the lights off and have a simulacrum of the sun piercing the lintel stone. A 100 watt bulb lights the interior brightly. And it is dry inside in that wettest of countries.

    It is not far to The Hill Of Tara where it is said the high kings always gathered at Beltain.

  • Gordon December 21, 2017, 7:00 PM

    I’m hoping to visit with my wife next year. Fingers crossed that the economy will generate enough work that I can pay for it.

  • scory December 25, 2017, 4:40 AM

    That on the darkest day of the year the light can shine through and brilliantly illuminate even the pitch black. What is needed is the labor and determination to create an opening through which the light, which is eternally present, is allowed to shine.

  • Montefrío December 22, 2018, 10:30 AM

    I am Irish and an old (72) one at that. With all due respect, Bob can go take a f.f. at the moon. I’m an atheist and a Zen adept for some 51 years, but that doesn’t negate my love and respect for the Western faith and traditions of our people. As for those who wish to challenge or ridicule it, well, perhaps they’d be happier living elsewhere, in places in which their worldview/cosmovision is more acceptable. Let them, however, fund such places and not depend upon us to do so. To quote Yeats: “Get you gone Von Hugel, but with blessing on your head”.

  • SAHMmy December 22, 2018, 11:04 AM

    Hear hear, Montefrio! I took my Mom’s ashes to Ireland in 2015 and towards the end of our trip we spent time at Newgrange. It is an amazing place. I’d hoped to see Knowth and Dowth as well, but having spent the previous 8 days roaming your magical, mystical country our energy was spent. You should love and respect your people and your place, Ireland is an amazing place and a plucky resilient people. I hope to go back.

  • Joe Krill December 23, 2018, 7:48 AM

    VANDERLEUN: Thank you! There is so much more to life than what we can ever begin to understand. Thank you again.

  • prairiegirl December 21, 2019, 8:19 PM

    I rarely post on any blog that I visit, but just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your site. Insty and/or Ace steered me to this wonderful place last year after your fire, which was an unfortunate way to find a blog, but now I know what they had known for some time! The stories you told during that tragedy, along with your tender care and love for your mother inspired me to keep coming back. Your exquisite writing, videos, poetry, and life-affirming themes are such an inspiration. Your back-story sounds like a fascinating one, and I thank you for sharing some of your journeys thru your life’s adventures. God’s blessings to you this Christmas, and wishing all good things to you in the New Year.

  • Boat Guy December 21, 2020, 2:13 AM

    I’ll add my thanks to you GVDL, for this blog and echo the notion that this is a site of wonder and wealth. Bless you.

  • Joe Krill December 21, 2020, 5:35 AM

    VANDERLEUN: I must repeat what I said in 2018. Thank you! There is so much more to life than what we can ever begin to understand. Thank you again.

  • James ONeil December 21, 2020, 10:46 AM

    Hump Day, Winter solstice, three hours forty one minutes and thirty seven seconds of daylight up here on top of the world in North Pole, Alaska.

    Tomorrow will be twenty seconds longer!

  • Sid V December 21, 2020, 12:31 PM

    VANDERLEUN is tha man.

  • Clinton December 22, 2020, 10:29 PM

    I took my wife and mom there in 2018 specifically because of this story. Thank you, Gerard.

  • John December 21, 2021, 6:40 AM

    Another inspiring story! Last night I realized that I wanted to save every story and video from that day.The most beautiful and informative website I have found. Last night I broke down and made a donation. I encourage others to do so and thanks to all, especially Gerard, for keeping it going.

  • gwbnyc December 21, 2021, 8:36 AM

    I have read the spirals carved on such structures, steles, etc, depict specific astral bodies in retrograde if the spiral is leftward. Too, in some of the cairns there are projections in the passageways marking instances other than the solstices.

    The most significant date in my life is that of the summer solstice, 1983. It could be offered that I was given a glimpse at the knowing, and I would continue to be allowed such looks at a frequency and depth the miserable intellect I am can at times nearly comprehend.

  • Anne December 21, 2022, 8:55 AM

    I made my first solo trip as a young professional woman to Ireland. I was a guest of the Irish Tourist Board and they were very helpful. Alone in my rental car with the steering wheel on the wrong side, I spent about 2 weeks driving over the single lanes of Ireland. Got to Newgrange in the middle of a very wet and windy February (1977). Walked around the empty place by myself. In those days you just pulled off to the side of the road and walked over the muddy field. Didn’t understand what the fuss was about–I do now. He has steadied and guided this lifelong journey of mine. I am grateful.

  • hooodathunkit December 22, 2022, 5:22 PM

    So here’s the rub. Built 5,000 years ago, ‘discovered’ 320-couple years ago, and about 270 years later archaeologists discovered the sun shined down the passage into the far end room. But every one of those years the local yokels told the archeologists and learned folk that ‘the sun shines down the passage mid-summers day’.

    The math showed the sun could not shine down the passage didn’t change these ignorant hicks’ minds. On mid-winter’s day some light went a small part of the way, but never got down the passage didn’t change the deplorables’ chant of “On mid-summer’s day …”

    Many years later, researchers found charcoal on the outside of the mound, excavated and found what is now called the “roofbox”; an aperture and small passage –not for people, but for the light. Once that was cleared, Kelley witnessed the mid-winter’s alignment for the first time in a thousand or more years.

    The rub: how did these ignorant dirt farmers know? Sure, they got the day exactly backwards, but they knew it was a solar alignment … for 5,000 years.

  • Tom Hyland December 24, 2022, 5:16 PM

    It’s debatable how long these ancient monuments have actually been here. Could be much longer. This fellow at Why Files has an obnoxious goldfish as a sidekick, however, check out his interpretation of the Pyramids, Teslas’s potential life-changing inventions and think again.