Athena's Web Weekly Column

Week of Jul 29th - Aug 4th, 2005

Gnomes in the Shadows

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      It has been said that there is no human instrument more ancient or more interesting than the sundial. It is literally a visible map of time. The original sundials were simply a standing stick or stone, set up to cast a shadow in the sunlight and determine, by its angle and position, the time of day or season of the year.



  No one really knows when the first staff or walking stick was employed to observe the sun's passage, but just outside Dublin, there are a series of megalithic sites which use sunlight and shadow to determine the equinoxes and solstices, and also seem to contain some of the oldest known writing in the world.

  When Jack Roberts and Martin Brennan set out in 1980 to verify that most of the major Irish mounds in the Boyne Valley complex were aligned to the rising or setting positions of the sun at critical times of the year, they were both surprised and delighted to discover that beams of light crafted by forgotten builders cascaded into the inner chamber and illuminated specific images carved in stone, as if 'spelling out messages in an archaic code'. Investigation and analysis of one of the greatest collections of megalithic art in the world revealed a preoccupation with solar and lunar symbolism. As Mr. Brennan suggests in his book; if one were to enter a church or monastery, one would expect to find religious themes and artwork depicted there. In similar fashion, if one enters a site devoted to astronomical observation, one should not be surprised to find artwork depicting what can be seen in the heavens. The simplicity of this analysis is further confirmed on the solstices and equinoxes when carved solar symbols are illuminated by carefully crafted beams of sunlight, entering deep into artificially constructed tunnels, and fall on stone slabs at the innermost recesses of these chambers. Designed by megalithic man, their truth is highlighted and confirmed by the rays of the Sun itself.

Sunlight reaching innermost chamber

Newgrange Winter Solstice

      Outside these chambers at Knowth and Newgrange, standing stones cast shadows on carved curbstones, etched with lines to mark the shadow on the appropriate date, just as the light penetrates the inner recesses on solstice, quarter-day, or equinox. The combination of shadows outside the mounds, inner light penetrating darkened man-made tunnels, and solar and lunar symbolism illuminated by slender shafts of light make a convincing argument for primitive (and yet incredibly sophisticated) astronomical observatories, but there are still archaeologists who would contend that the function of these sites were primarily 'tombs for the dead'.

Gnome at the door

Forget something..?

      A gnomon is the upright on a sundial which projects a shadow onto its (usually) flat, circular face; which, when oriented to the heavens correctly, determines the time of day. The root of the term, 'gnomon', is etymologically derived from the Greek, gignskein, 'to know'. A gnomon can then be translated as 'one who knows'. It is, in all probability, from this word that the term 'gnome' is derived; those fanciful creatures which can be found cast in clay and corralled in English gardens everywhere. According to, a gnome is 'One of a fabled race of dwarflike creatures who live underground and guard treasure hoards.'

      Indeed, it would seem they still do.

      -Notes taken from 'The Stars and the Stones', by Martin Brennan.


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