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The Magic of the Winter Solstice | Celtic Cultural Minute


The Winter Solstice is a magical time, marking both the shortest day and the longest night. In the ancient Celtic year, the Winter Solstice was important because it marked the rebirth and return of the sun after that shortest day. With the return of the sun, the days would begin to grow longer, and the journey towards spring was begun.

In Newgrange, County Meath, in Ireland there stands an ancient mound, a tomb, which remains in darkness for much of the year. But once a year, on the Winter Solstice, the tomb’s long passageway fills with the light of the winter sunrise, revealing beautiful spirals and artwork carved on its stone walls.

Newgrange, also called Brú na Bóinne, is one of the best examples in Western Europe of a type of monument known to archaeologists as a passage-grave or passage-tomb. Constructed around 3200BC, it is over 600 years older than the Pyramids, and 1,000 years more ancient than Stonehenge. It sits high on a ridge above the Boyne River Valley, a lush land, rich with early Celtic and Christian history, and just upstream from where the infamous Battle of the Boyne happened in 1690.

When the nearby Cistercian Abbey at nearby Mellifont in was founded in 1142, the land around the tomb was acquired as a grange, or farm, serving the monks. The enormous tomb had long ago become overgrown and forgotten, except for farmers tales of dark caves in the big hill filled with strange carvings, and lit by the midwinter sun.

More stories grew up around it. The Tuatha Dé Danann, mythical rulers of ancient Ireland, were said to have built Newgrange as a burial place for their chief, Dagda Mór, and his three sons. The hero Cúchulainn was said to have been there conceived by the god Lugh and the dreaming mortal, Dechtine. The real origins of the mysterious hill were lost to time and decay.

But by the early 1960’s proper excavations began and the majesty and mystery of Newgrange was again revealed. Along with it’s nearby sister tombs at Dowth and Knowth, this World Heritage site now hosts thousands of visitors each year.

Newgrange's stunning examples of megalithic art including it’s enormous, beautifully carved entrance stones. The famous triple spiral so associated with Celtic culture is from the carving on these stones and in the chamber.

Today, an annual lottery chooses the lucky few allowed to wait inside the ancient chamber on the mornings of the Winter Solstice. While crowds wait outside in the wet, cold and dark, the light of the rising sun enters the ancient roofbox and penetrates the passage, shining onto the floor of Newgrange’s inner chamber. That sunbeam illuminates that chamber for just 17 minutes.

But those 17 minutes were enough to tell the ancient Celts that once again, the sun had been reborn, had returned, and that somewhere deep, deep down in the dark soil of the Boyne Valley, the new life of spring was already stirring.

For Celtic Cultural Alliance, this is Kate Scuffle – Slainte!

Kate Scuffle is the host of Lehigh Valley Arts Salon and the Celtic Cultural Minute on WDIY. She is an administrator, producer, educator, writer and artist in the non-profit/arts communities.
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