Ancient Sites | Solstice at Síd in Broga: words and images from Newgrange

A series of evocative images and imaginative words from author Anthony Murphy inspired by the winter solstice illumination of the great chamber of Síd in Broga (Newgrange). "Pause a while, at Síd in Broga, weary wanderer of the year. Stoop low towards the druid’s dreams, for the things that make you kneel will elevate you beyond measure. Walk once again around the great cairn, with your spirits lifted."

Winter solstice sunlight in the passage of Newgrange
Winter solstice sunlight in the passage of Newgrange.

A beam of light

A golden moment dawned at Síd in Broga that first solstice after it was built, when people learned to measure time using light. The longest night had ended, and the shortest day had begun. A beam of sunlight entered above the doorway, and pushed in to the cold stone corridor, announcing a changing of the guard. Farewell old Dagda, Eochaidh Ollathair, and thank you for your work with the crops and the harvest. Welcome, Oengus Óg, child of the morning, the young son of the new year. In the Brú of Bóinn, the sunlight danced on the floor of her cave, the firmament smiled, and the new son lay down in his crystal bower, to dream dreams of dawns and maidens, and the turning of the year.

Winter solstice dawn viewed from Newgrange
A misty winter solstice sunrise viewed from Newgrange, looking towards Mound A and Red Mountain.

The days are coming

A cold, obscure dawn breaks. The day is coming. He is slowing down. The Boyne, shrouded in mist, refuses to yield beneath the drama of the day. A pale sun forces something of its radiance through the clouds. Síd in Broga is bathed dimly in a reluctant light. The night has been long and cold. Frost bites the grass. Cold bites the air. After a long year, Red Mountain finally lives up to its name. The sun, our Dagdae-Rath, approaches his lowest ebb. He cannot go much further. If he does, our light will be lost. We will die in the lost glory of a summer that will never come. Crowned in the colours of a turning year, Red Mountain speaks out. It tells us something. ‘When I am adorned with the redness of dawn, the redness of Dagda Ruad Rofessa, you will know the days are coming.’
And, through the mist, a voice urges us to keep our promise.
‘Call him back.’

Crescent moon rolls down the mound of Newgrange
The last new moon before winter solstice rolls down the back of Síd in Broga.

New moon at Newgrange

A newborn moon rolls down the back of the great mound of Síd in Broga (Newgrange) this evening. The horns of the bright cow went down to rest on a cold evening at the Brug. This is the coming of the solstice moon. It will be full on the days of the solstice, sitting opposite the lowly sun, being carried across the sky by the great warrior constellation of Orion/Lugh/Nuada/Fionn/Amergin/Cúchulainn.

Kerb stone 52 detail, Newgrange
A close-up of megalithic art on kerb stone number 52 at the rear of the great mound of Newgrange.

Stoop low towards the druid's dreams

Solstice morning, and the rain has come to Síd in Broga. In the dark, we wait. We hope. We watch. But in the growing light, we see a sky completely obscured by cloud. Disconsolate, we turn our gaze to the west, hoping for a break in the clouds. But it never comes. Wet and cold, we stand in the murky dawn, our excitement of the past night replaced by a creeping cheerlessness. There will be no brilliant dawn at Síd in Broga. For that, we must turn our hopes again to tomorrow. Dagda will not enter the house of Elcmar today. Weary of waiting, we walk deiseal around the great sídhe. We count kerb stones as we walk. Arriving at kerb 52, we pause and stoop. A great artist has been at work. A dreamer who has seen stars and suns and worlds beyond ours has carefully carved a wonderful vision into the ancient stone. Incised deeply into its surface, he has brought his dream to life. In this dream, many chequered lights dance on the floor of the stony womb, and their music swirls and spirals, and weaves a sense of buoyant expectation for the wayward traveller. Pause a while, at Síd in Broga, weary wanderer of the year. Stoop low towards the druid’s dreams, for the things that make you kneel will elevate you beyond measure. Walk once again around the great cairn, with your spirits lifted. A single morning counts as little on the winding river of time. Tomorrow is another day.

Stars and twilight at Síd in Broga (Newgrange)
Many stars ... a winter twilight sky over Newgrange.

The stars will light our way

The twilight comes early to Síd in Broga. It is a glorious twilight, filled with stars and promise. The great white birds of the night fly down, along the Way of the White Cow, towards the huge mound. 
“Do you see them?” the man says, huddled with a little girl beneath a tree.
“See what?”
“Oengus and Caer, flying through the sky, with their silver chain?”
“I see them. They’re so pretty. Will they fly to Brug na Bóinne tonight?”
“They might. They might just do that,” he says, smiling at the young girl.
They watch together, enchanted under a wide sky that speaks of ancient stories, softly told, in hues of blue and gold. A myriad stars twinkle in the afterglow, dusky travellers painted delicately on the roof of the sky, wanderers from the great tales of the elder years. 
“Daddy. It’s getting dark very early. The days are so short, and the nights are so long. And I’m cold.”
“I know, petal. But look at those stars. Don’t they make you happy?”
“I suppose. They are pretty.”
“I’m sorry petal. I know you’re cold. And probably hungry too. We’ll head back shortly to the hut and I’ll get a fire going, and see if I can’t find something for you to eat.”
“Thanks daddy,” she says, putting her arms around his neck.
He brings her closer, to keep her warm. They tarry a little while longer, as the hues fade slowly from blue to black, and the stars, one by one, grow bolder. 
“Do you know” he says, “that I always dream better when I have seen the stars so clearly?”
“Really?”
“Yes, really. Take it all in, petal. Turn eyes to north and east and south and west, and look high above, and take those starry dreams to your bed tonight. Bring the stars home and let them guide you through the night. The stars are our oldest friends.”
“But how will we get home, in the dark?”
“Oh don’t worry, petal. The stars will light our way, just as they will light your dreams…”

Orthostat stone L19 in the passage of Newgrange with its spirals and chevrons.
Megalithic art resembling a face or guardian on stone L19 in the passage of Newgrange.

The guardian of the Brug

They crept slowly through the darkness. The torchlight revealed huge stones on the left and the right, and they had to stoop regularly beneath the giant roof slabs. Carefully, they edged forwards in the cold, placing bare feet gently on the wet earth beneath them. The leader was an elder, grey with age and stooped and wrinkled with the burdens of a weary soul, grown old too quickly in the face of a life of toil and service. Behind him was a younger man with anxiety-ridden features pale as the stones themselves.

“Be careful with those bones,” the older one said, looking over his shoulder.

The younger man nodded.

They pressed on. After a moment, passing through a very narrow part of the passageway, the old man stopped and turned, and with his left arm he lowered the torch towards the ground and held it against one of the large passage stones. With his right hand, he beckoned the younger man to look at something on the upper part of the rock.

“Why have we stopped?”

“Look here,” said the elder, pointing at the arcane symbols.

 “What are they?” the younger man asked, looking at the spirals and chevrons carved into the surface of the stone.

“This,” said the elder, “is the guardian of the Brug”.

“The guardian?”

“Yes. She watches over those who come and go, in human form and in spirit form. She has seen many comings and goings.”

The two huddled in the darkness, eyes fixed on the symbols, and it seemed to the younger man as if he had seen past the stone, into some great mystery that lay beyond its dissolved form. The patterns flickered and danced with the movement of the flame, and in the trembling light he caught a glimpse of moving shapes, human-like and yet shapeless, shape-changing forms.

Startled, he gave a jolt.

“It cannot be,” he said aloud, his voice trembling.

“What is it?” asked the old man.

“I just saw the face of my father, in the moving patterns,” he replied, meeting the old man’s gaze.

“Your father? Whose bones you are carrying in that bowl?”

He nodded, and looked down at the bone fragments, as if to make sure they were still in the bowl in his hands.

The elder gave a giggle, and a broad smile came upon his face that was like the first sunshine of spring after a hard winter.

“Why are you smiling?”

“Because,” said the old man, leaning forward as if in reassurance, “your father has passed over to the other realm, and he’s letting you know that everything’s alright!”

The younger man smiled, and then broke down. He sobbed.

And these two creatures – the man with the flame and the man with the bones – halted a while beneath the eyes of the great guardian, and for the rest of their time in the Brug they did not speak, for no words were needed.

Shortly, they proceeded onwards, into a great stony chamber, with a roof that stretched high over their heads into darkness, and the young man placed the bones onto a large basin stone, and they crouched in silent prayer for the one whose journey onwards to the next realm had, it seemed, been made in safety.

There, they waited through the long night for the coming of the dawn, and the golden sliver of light that would come brilliantly into the dark, the light that would join the worlds.

Winter solstice sunrise over one of the Great Circle stones, pictured from the entrance of Newgrange.

Golden moments

They come in huge numbers to Síd in Broga on the shortest days. Some people travel great distances to be there. Solstice at Newgrange builds anticipation in people. It wells up, like an unknown force, until the visitors are giddy with childlike expectation. And a question comes to the minds and lips of many pilgrims who have made the journey.

“Will the sun shine into the chamber?”

Sometimes, it is quite obvious that it won’t. Those are the mornings of 100% cloud cover and incessant rain. Other days, it is very “hit and miss”, as the Irish are fond of saying about the weather. There is a lot of cloud, but breaks appear here and there. On those days, the situation is entirely at the whim of the capricious elements, and they have no heed of ancient alignments.

“All we need is a break in the southeast, over Red Mountain,” you will hear the people say.

But sometimes, when it seems that everything is well with the universe, the sky is clear and the view to the southeast is free of cloud. Those are the days that you have waited years for – to see the golden disc of the sun peering over the ridge, and those huddled in the chamber of the great monument are about to experience a great and wonderful moment in their own mortal lives. They are about to glimpse a marvel from ancient days.

Outside the entrance, the faces of the pilgrims light up, and they take on the appearance of someone who has encountered an old friend. The light grows, and the great sídhe gleams with a pale golden light. A sun rises in their hearts, and for a moment they are lost in rapture.

These moments – inside and outside the cairn – are brief instants when modern humans share the experience of very distant ancestors. They live on, in us, in a way. They live on in that twinkle in the eye, that gentle smile, that gaze of wonder towards the horizon.

These are golden moments in our story. The sun has come back for us, and we are happy.

A close-up of megalithic art on kerb stone 67, one of just three heavily decorated kerbs at Newgrange.

Spirals

Bíseach (bee-shach). Cuardhual (cooahr-wahl)

Two Irish words for spiral. Two spirals.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how we refer to these symbols that are ubiquitous at Síd in Broga (Newgrange) and the great megalithic monuments of Ireland by this English word. Do we ever stop to think about what such designs might have been called in Irish?

Bíseach, according to the very well-referenced Dinneen Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla (Irish-English Dictionary) of 1927 means “screw-curled” (of the hair). Modern Irish dictionaries say it means a winding curve, a spiral, “winding”, and, in the case of astronomy, a spiral galaxy. “Screw-curled” (of the hair). Fascinating. A dowser once told me, while contemplating a spiral symbol etched into one of the giant stones at Knowth, that these spirals were meant to be seen in three dimensions, not just two. One needed to imagine, he said, a spiralling vortex of energy, winding down into the earth. So one arm of the spiral was not “beside” the other, as it appeared to be in the two-dimensional representation. In a three-dimensional spiral, one was always descending, or ascending, depending on the direction of winding. Like following the long curled locks of a beautiful maiden, so that each curl took you closer to the head of the woman, or indeed further away from it.

Cuardhual is a bit less straightforward, but nonetheless equally interesting. Cuardach means “a wandering, searching”, or even “rummaging”, like a little cat rummaging the house. It also means a quest or a search! How many people who’ve stood before one of the great spirals carved into rock at Newgrange have been on a search? Countless.

For Cuardal, Dineen says “see cuairdbheal and guardal”. Cuairdbheal means “a whirling, a wandering about aimlessly”, while guardal means “whirling movement; restlessness, wandering”. Martin Brennan once proposed that the spiral is an excellent symbol for representing the movement of the sun through the course of the year. If you try to represent the sun’s movement in a drawing, you will find yourself drawing arcs. Join up those arcs and you get spirals. One spiral represents, perhaps, the winding up of the sun from winter solstice to summer, the other vice versa. Does not the movement of the sun perfectly fit the description “whirling movement, restlessness, wandering”?

Fascinatingly, the related word cuarda can mean a circuit, a turn around, a revolution, a circumference and even a globe.

Next time I stop at one of the great spirals of Síd in Broga, I will remember to call it a bíseach or a cuardhual, while making a cuarda (circuit) of the great cairn. Stopping at kerb stone 67 (photographed), I will contemplate the year, and the coming and going of the sun, which is exemplified in the myths of Síd in Broga.

A wide angle view looking into the passage of Newgrange at sunrise on winter solstice.

And the rest, as they say, is prehistory

At the doorway of the great passage-mound, I crouch tentatively, behind the great entrance kerb stone. Stooped in the gold-soaked cold of morning, I behold a great wonder. The light of the solstice sun is, right now, shining into the passageway and is lighting the floor of the chamber far within. Those gathered in the interior – the lucky few – are enjoying this wonderful spectacle, each in their own way. The doorway of the mortals is wide open ahead of me. The light that shines through there only reaches a short distance into the passage. Above my head, a giant slab of stone separates this entrance from the one high above, the entrance for the immortals. The light that shines in through that aperture (which is commonly called the ‘roof box’) reaches all the way into the chamber.

Hesitant and cautious, I stick my head up a bit so I can snap a photograph of his holy moment. Seems such a shame to interrupt these sacred proceedings with the click of a camera. I almost feel ashamed. I cannot disrupt their enjoyment of this once-in-a-lifetime experience for them.

I crouch down again, and shortly I move off. But before doing so, I sit and stare in wonder. To be so close to it all is a great honour. In the silence of the moment, I think of the late Professor Michael J. O’Kelly, and all the times he must have passed this spot over the years. I think, in particular, of the winter of 1967, when he came here on the solstice after a long drive from Co. Cork to see if there was any truth to the local folklore that suggested the sun shone into the chamber of the great monument on the shortest day of the year.

What must it have been like, to be the first human in hundreds, and probably thousands, of years to go in there on the shortest day? Did the sun shine for Prof. O’Kelly? Indeed it did. He was the man who brought the light back to Síd in Broga.

And the rest, as they say, is prehistory…

A pre-dawn red sky at winter solstice photographed from Síd in Broga (Newgrange).

Through the mist, Oengus comes to Newgrange

After a long night, the dawn comes quickly. The sky burns with oranges and reds, but the air is frozen. A mist clings to the land, a mist that divides worlds. The grass is endowed with a heavy dew. The feet trod wearily upon a dawn pregnant with possibility. The fingers are numb and the biting air brings a soreness to the cheeks. We look to the horizon. We are expectant. Hopeful. Patient even.

We walk up the pathway to the great monument. I like to call it by its old name, Síd in Broga. Mostly, people call it Newgrange. In calling it Síd in Broga, perhaps we’re calling something back, something painfully forgotten. There was a community here once, a people who lived and dreamed, a people for whom nature was full of mystery. They called the heavens down. They beckoned the sky, and its sun, to have union with their giant creation, a womb in a belly of earth and stone. A miracle would be wrought there, in the darkness. The wonder-child, Oengus Óg, would be conceived at Síd in Broga, by a sky father and earth mother.

I stand at the kerb of the great mound, the marvellous sídhe of yesterday’s dreams, and stare at the marvellous dawn, its sky so magnificently radiant with promise. I watch the scene warm up from a cold grey blue to a palette of fiery ambers, and as solstice dawn arrives, I dream of Oengus Óg, and his miraculous return to Síd in Broga. The noble sídhe will be made a palace once more, a place for the gods. In the dark bosom of the earth, an arrival will make us weep. We will cry bittersweet tears.

The myth-makers smile. Through the mist, Oengus comes to Síd in Broga, and in a moment the year is born again.

A wide-angle view of the entrance of Síd in Broga (Newgrange).

The dreamer lives

I stand before the palace of the Dagda, the house of Elcmar, and the resting place of the swan lovers Oengus and Caer. Alone with the monument, in the subdued and dank dawn, I speak to it. I ask it to tell me of its inception, its first imagining, in those banished days of prehistory.

I imagine that there must have been a dreamer – someone in the community who first envisioned these giant monuments, these enduring cairns of stone and earth and zeal and toil.

There was one man or woman who sat on this ridge, touching the earth but reaching upwards to distant spheres, who must have dreamed about uniting worlds. And like all grand projects, sparked by luminous imagination and aspiration, this had to be bigger and bolder than anything that had come before.

Here, Brug na Bóinne – the palaces of Bóinn –came into being, according to the dreamer’s visions. The huge cairns rose from the ground, like the belly and paps of the goddess, symbolic of the expectant earth, swollen with anticipation. And the sun entered inside, and copulated with the earth, in order for the earth to deliver the fruits of a sacred union.

Seeing the sun shining its golden winter light in the deep chamber of the earth-mound, I wonder what ecstasy the dreamer felt, at that first magnificent dawn in Síd in Broga long ago. Perhaps it is the same ecstasy that almost everyone in the modern era who witnesses the solstice sun in Newgrange feels.

Alone at Síd in Broga, at dawn, I touch its stones and it whispers to me.

“The dreamer lives.”

An aerial photograph of Newgrange taken in December.

Looking down from the sky

It is fitting that the Tuatha Dé Danann, the ancient divinities of our oldest myths, were said to have arrived into Ireland from the sky. Their chief, Eochaidh Ollathair, also known as Dagda, the good god, is the one who was said to have built Síd in Broga.

In addition to his cairn-building exploits, Dagda is said to have looked after the crops, the harvest and the weather.

Looking down upon Síd in Broga, from a height, one gets the sense that the humans who laboured dutifully in order to construct it must have wondered what it might look like, from the sky. Back then, only the birds could tell them that. I wonder if the birds told them how pleased Dagda must have been.

In the ancient tales, it is said that Dagda entered the house of Elcmar, in order to make love with Elcmar’s wife Bóinn, while performing a magic feat on the sun to make it stand still in the heavens. This is undoubtedly a myth about winter solstice, and the sacred copulation of sky and earth during the shortest days of the year.

Thus we see Brú na Bóinne translated as the ‘Womb of the Bóinn’, the womb of the white cow. The story of Dagda’s magic with the sun contains, it would appear, vital information about the function of the mound. That information survived, in the stories of generations of our ancestors, for centuries, if not millennia. And the monument survived with it.

As we approach solstice, I wonder if Dagda will be looking down on this wondrous creation.

Today, with our magic flying implements that can see down from the heavens, we nod in agreement with the sentiment of the scene. The gods must be well pleased.

A face in the clouds

It was a glorious dawn at Síd in Broga this morning. The sun rose and shone brilliantly into the passage and chamber of the 5,000-year-old monument. Shortly after sunrise, a large, decaying cumulonimbus cloud in the distance covered the sun, but only for a couple of minutes. But it soon passed over and the sun came back, more brilliantly than before.
 
I didn't see it at the time I was taking my photos, but there was a face in the clouds. Some of those gathered at Newgrange said "it must be Dagda". Others remembered lost friends, those who had passed away since the last solstice, and thought about how they might be looking down on us, happily.
 
There is something about solstice at Síd in Broga that does that to us. When we see the rising sun, it brings the humanity out in us. We remember that we are here for too short a time. What can one do, at moments like this, but smile back at the ancestors?
Bean draoí (women druids) at Newgrange with the winter solstice sun rising in the background.

 

The women of Síd in Broga

It is the eve of winter solstice. The sun’s rising position will not change now for several days. The hope, in ancient times, was, of course, for a return – that the year would be renewed, that the sun god would come back again, and that the land would see growth and flourish once more.

At Newgrange, at sunrise, I meet the bean draoí. Literally translated, that means “druid women”. They are dressed differently to everyone else. They carry staffs, bedecked with feathers. Their appearance is striking. Another woman beats a drum, tapping out the throbbing rhythm of the heartbeat of the morning.

The people who come to Síd in Broga on the solstice days sense the very ancient and eternal magic and energy of the place, a force that entangles the mysterious and austere aspects of the human soul with the unseen fabric, the ethereal mesh of the cosmos. Síd in Broga is a place where the bewildered pilgrim, feeling a sense of alienation and detachment from the frenetic boisterousness and incongruous machinations of a twenty-first century world, can come and connect to a different and ancient energy matrix.

Those who come on the days before or after the official solstice celebrations (which usually take place on 21st December) are not here for the cameras and the limelight, and the crowds. They are here for the subtle energy that comes with a radiant dawn. Despite the shortness of the days, the light has hues of gold.

Today, I honour the women of Brú na Bóinne. I honour Bóinn and Dechtine, and Morrigna. And all the powerful female deities – Danu, Brigid, Banba, Fodla and Ériú.

And I honour the bean draoí, who have been coming to Síd in Broga for years. This is their moment in the sun.

Winter solstice full moon 2018 setting over Síd in Broga (Newgrange).

A full solstice moon sets at Síd in Broga

Most people are aware that Síd in Broga (Newgrange) has a passage that is aligned so that the rays of the rising sun in midwinter illuminate its interior chamber. Tens of thousands of people enter the winter solstice lottery every year to try to be one of the lucky 50 (10 each morning for five mornings) to be brought into the chamber to witness the sun's light come in there at dawn.

Much less well known is the fact that other heavenly bodies shine into Newgrange. One of those, and the most obvious one, is the moon. There are times during the lunar cycles when the full moon rises in the same position as winter solstice sunrise. Ironically, this happens in midsummer – because the full moon is always opposite the sun. 

The moon's rays enter through the roof-box and bathe the chamber in a pale glow. This phenomenon, which does not happen nearly as regularly as the winter sunrise event, has not been recorded at Síd in Broga. Who will be the first person to photograph moonlight illuminating the interior of the sacred chamber? I'll certainly put myself forward as a candidate photographer!

This morning, just as the night was starting to end and twilight was growing over Red Mountain, we encountered a rare phenomenon – a full moon in conjunction with winter solstice. Yesterday (21st December 2018), a crowd estimated at 800 people gathered under a grey and damp sky to celebrate the official day of winter solstice at the 5,000-year-old monument. But this morning, at 7am, the only activity at Newgrange was the busy preparatory work by the ground staff to prepare the monument for Saturday's winning lottery guests. On the road outside the monument, I stopped to record the scene – a full moon setting behind Síd in Broga, while the stars were still twinkling. And it struck me that this occurrence – a full moon in conjunction with the solstice – would have undoubtedly been an auspicious event for the ancient astronomer builders.

A short while later, as I entered the sacred ground of Síd in Broga, I saw Venus, the morning star, dazzling brightly over Red Mountain in the growing twilight. There's another object, I thought to myself, that shines its light into the chamber of Newgrange. And that is even recorded in folklore, from a time before the excavation and restoration works at the great monument.

Standing there, at the rear of Síd in Broga in the blue glow where the night meets the morning, I was moved by the scene. The Morning Star was visible over the top of the great cairn, the full moon was setting over Knowth and the constellations were fading into the waxing dawn. I was the lone astronomer of the twilight, the solitary stargazer of Síd in Broga. 

This page was last updated on Saturday, 22nd December 2018 @ 16:46:20