If you have been in our shop, you may have seen some wood carvings of a spiral or triple spiral design, or silver jewelry or leather wristbands with this same motif. The origin of this, while certainly Irish, actually pre-dated the arrival of the Celts, but was enthusiastically adopted by the Celts. You have to go to the beautiful Boyne River Valley in County Meath, north of Dublin, where there are three large Megalithic burial sites (also known as passage tombs), to see the origin of this design.
Newgrange passage tomb is Ireland’s oldest fully intact building (and probably the oldest fully intact building in Western Europe, as well). It was a center for spiritual rituals in the Stone Age. Inside there is a center chamber, large enough to hold 20 people, and three side chambers. It was here that the early people of the Boyne Valley placed cremated remains. From the outside, Newgrange looks like a large flat, round building, with a grass roof and stone sides. The entrance is dominated by a massive boulder with intricate spirals and diamond shaped carvings. Above the entrance to the tomb is a stone lintel which allows the passage of light into the tomb on the Winter Solstice. Newgrange was excavated and restored by a team led by Professor Michael J. O’Kelly, as recently as 1962-1975! Did you know that, at 5,000 years old, Newgrange is older than Stonehenge, and even older than the Egyptian pyramids?
In 1969, a local resident tried an experiment – he sat in the dark central chamber on December 21, or the Winter Solstice (the shortest day of the year). At sunrise, he witnessed a spectacle that had not been seen in thousands of years. The sunlight entered a tiny window box, and gradually traveled 20 yards to the central chamber, brightly illuminating the etire area for about 17 minutes. Makes us think of an Indiana Jones movie!
The Newgrange spiral (or “tri-spiral”) design is engraved on the stone in front of the entrance, and represents one of the most famous Irish Megalithic symbols. Although it is considered to be Celtic design, it actually appeared in Ireland over 2,500 years prior to the arrival of the Celts. There is no definitive explanation as to the meaning. However, one theory is that the spirals symbolize how time passes – rather than linear, time is circular like the seasons. While we live in this time, we could be passing closely by those who lived before us and will live after us. In other words, time turns, rather than passes. Another theory is that the spirals represented the cycle of birth, life and death; the Maiden, Mother and Crone; the never-ending cycle of “infinitude”. The spirals were adopted by the Celts and used in their design long after Newgrange was used for rituals. The Book of Durrow has an entire page devoted to these designs. The “three” motif was, and remains, one of the most important symbols in Celtic design (trisquel, trinity knot).
Newgrange is shrouded in mystery. Nobody knows who built it, how they transported the large stones for its construction, and how they obtained the knowledge to place the tomb so that it illuminates on the Winter Solstice.
You can enter a lottery to obtain very limited tickets for the Winter Solstice. However, please note that be fore you jump through hoops to witness this event, the tomb only accommodates up to 20 people, and the illumination will not work if it is cloudy that day. But it is always sunny in Ireland, right?