Athena's Web Weekly Column
Week of Aug 5th - Aug 11th, 2005
During the summer of 1699 laborers were pulling stones from a mound which were to be used for roads and fences. When they uncovered a large stone with engraved spirals, work was stopped, word went out, and after some investigation, Newgrange was 'discovered'. But it was not until General Charles Vallancey, a British Army officer of the Engineers of the 10th Regiment of Foot came to Ireland in 1750 that some of today's modern theories concerning the astronomical possibilities of the site were given any serious consideration. He was a professional surveyor, accomplished in cartography, engineering and physical geography. He called many of the megalithic sites, Antra Mithrae or 'Caves of the Sun' and considered Stonehenge to be a solar temple. He even anticipated that Newgrange was oriented with reference to the rays of the Sun. He was among the very first to point out the importance of the cross-quarter days, which fall between the solstices and equinoxes in the ancient Irish calendar, and here he references his sources.
'The names of some of the ancient festivals are handed down to us by the mouths of the common people... Thus Cormac... says the four great fires of the Druids were in the beginning of February, May, August and November... The fires of the Druids lighted on the Neomenia (the new moon) of the four quarter months', and 'high mountains were assigned for their astronomical observations... Their festivals were generally governed by the motion of the heavenly bodies, was it not necessary that the people should be warned of their approach?'
It is under this same lunar phase that the observational astronomers of today prefer to venture out with their telescopes, in order to best see the stars of heaven, unobstructed by lunar glare.
He went on to say, in a notion which cut completely against the grain of contemporary thinking,
'Astronomy took its use in the latitude of 49 degrees or 50 degrees (North); here the arts had their birth, and from thence spread towards the South'.
It has only been in the last decades of the 20th century that we have begun to realize that indeed, many of the megalithic structures built in the late stone age in Ireland and northern Europe, some dating from the 4th millennium BC, predate many of the major sites found in the Mediterranean.
While some have faulted Vallancey for his belief that the Celts and their priests, the Druids, were the authors of these sites, this was the common contention of his day. We now know that these megalithic sites were built prior to their arrival, but the Celts may have inherited some of this tradition along with the sites themselves, and combined with it a working knowledge of their observational capabilities. In his work, Druidism Revived he claimed that 'the highest degree of Druidic order studied astronomy and divined by the aspect of the sun, moon and stars.' To fault Vallancey one would also have to fault other sources in ancient Irish literature and the historical accounts of Roman and Greek writers who claimed precisely the same thing.
Thus we have not only a central core of megalithic sites of various designs, but also the fires of an ancient wisdom. From a host of common centers, these fires were lit on predetermined hills on the holidays, and used as distant 'gun sights' to monitor the horizon. Against this network of living flame and standing stone, the passage of heavenly bodies could be more accurately monitored and measured under the darkened skies of the New Moon.
-Notes taken from 'The Stars and the Stones', by Martin Brennan, pp. 18-24.