Last October, I was honored to be able to join Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone in celebrating the Sabbat of Samhain at the Hill of Ward in County Meath, Ireland. Both Janet and Gavin have played a key role in resurrecting the ancient rites of lighting the Samhain bonfires at this sacred site.
The Wheel of the Year turns on. This week I will be celebrating another Sabbat, as we prepare to welcome back the sun at Yule, also known as the Winter Solstice. I won’t be in Ireland this time, but my thoughts will be of Eire as I light the candles on my altar…and especially of another sacred site that plays an important role at this time of the year.
Many people are familiar with the famous solstice celebrations that take place at Stonehenge, near Salisbury in southern England. However, there is another solstice site that predates Stonehenge and is even older than the Great Pyramid in Egypt.
That site is Newgrange, one of several passage tombs to be found in the Brú na Bóinne complex on the banks of the River Boyne, also in County Meath, Ireland. A popular tourist site, Newgrange is considered one of the most important megalithic structures in Europe.
During my trip to Ireland (a birthday present to myself), I had the pleasure of visiting Newgrange along with Gavin and my travel companion, fellow Deaf Pagan D’Angel. Together we learned about the history of Newgrange; touched the various carvings on the stones which surround the tomb; and then walked sixty feet along the narrow passageway to stand in the main chamber in the center of the mound itself.
One of the key aspects of Newgrange is its alignment with the rising sun at the time of the Winter Solstice. For approximately seventeen minutes on the morning of the solstice, the sun shines in through a special window directly above the main entrance to the tomb, known as a “roofbox.” The rays of the sun travel along the passageway into the main chamber itself, illuminating it with light. Although solar alignments are not uncommon with passage tombs (indeed, we visited other sites with such alignments), Newgrange is unique in that it is one of only a handful of tombs that has such a roofbox. The alignment of the chamber to the rising solstice sun is considered to be too precise to occur merely by circumstance, suggesting that the seasonal solar rhythms were of great importance to the ancient peoples of this area.
I first wrote of Newgrange and the Winter Solstice here at the Crossroads during my Yule Series four years ago, in “Chamber of the Sun.” Even then I was fascinated by this site, and I stared intensely at the various photographs which depicted the tomb, the ancient stones and their carvings, and the rays of the sun entering the chamber. Such pictures only fueled my determination to some day stand inside this chamber and view those carvings for myself.
Ocean and D’Angel in front of the entrance stone to Newgrange. Directly above our heads can be seen the roofbox, through which the winter solstice sun shines down the passageway and into the main chamber of the tomb.
(photograph by Gavin Bone)
To actually achieve this goal was an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life. There is a special energy at Newgrange…it is hard not to feel its awesome power as you touch the carvings on the stones which surround the tomb. To think that these carvings were done thousands of years ago – before the time of Christ or even of Moses and the Exodus. What stories could they share? What wisdom do they possess? These ancient stones called out to me, beckoning me to touch them…and I found it impossible to resist.
Ocean touching the carvings on a stone at Newgrange
(photograph by Gavin Bone)
But the most memorable event of my visit to Newgrange occurred within the main chamber. After leading us into the chamber itself and explaining a bit about it, our tour guide then treated us to a re-enactment of the solstice sun itself. First all of the lights inside the tomb are turned off, and we stand silently in the pitch blackness, unable to see anything. It is a very solemn moment as I compare this to the darkness of the midst of winter; the darkness of the womb of the Goddess. In this moment I can face my deepest fears and find my own personal power.
And then it comes…with a flick of a switch, a light bulb simulating the sun illuminates the passageway, and we can all experience a simulation of the winter solstice phenomenon itself. As I watched the light making its way into the chamber, I journeyed back to those ancient times, and imagined what awesomeness must have greeted the priests as they stood in this very same spot on Solstice morning, witnessing the magick and the mystery of this event.
Solstice Sun at Newgrange – 2008
(photograph by Cyril Byrne, courtesy of The Irish Times)
So popular is this highlight of the tour, that a lottery is held every year for a group of lucky individuals to win tickets to experience the actual event itself. During the week of the Winter Solstice (December 18th – December 22rd), a group of lottery winners enter the tomb shortly before sunrise, and have the opportunity to actually experience the sun coming in through the roofbox. This year over 31,000 people entered the lottery…only fifty names were drawn. Each of those fifty lucky winners may bring a guest with them – thus there are ten lottery winners and their guests in the chamber every morning for five days. Unfortunately, one cannot always be guaranteed of a beautiful illumination – it all depends on the weather. Some years the actual Solstice phenomenon could not be witnessed due to clouds blocking the sun, although usually there will be at least one successful illumination during solstice week.
The first group of Newgrange Solstice visitors 2011 welcomed the sun on Sunday, December 18th and were greeted with a beautiful sunrise that broke through a low cloud just in time for the group to view the illumination of the chamber around 9:00 a.m. Irish Time. You can view pictures of such here:
for more pictures, check out the site at http://www.newgrange.com/winter-solstice-2011.htm
You can even view a webcast of the actual Winter Solstice sunrise at Newgrange via a live feed broadcast by Heritage Ireland on December 21st. This broadcast will start around 8:30 a.m. Irish Time – check the time charts to determine what time this would be for your area, as Ireland is five hours ahead of me here in the Eastern Time Zone, meaning that I would have to get up at 3:30 in the morning. Also be aware that due to the large number of expected viewers (over 300,000) there may be some technical difficulties with accessing the site. However, if you want to give it a try, here is a link for more information:
Finally, for those wishing to get a sense of what it feels like to actually stand in the chamber and see the light of illumination, here is a video put together of the Winter Solstice of 2007:
Perhaps one year I will get lucky and be one of those lottery winners standing in the chamber one December morning. But even if that does not happen, I will always cherish my visit to Newgrange, and the journey my own spirit took…through darkness and light, through space and time. I can close my eyes and feel the texture of the stone beneath my hands, my fingertips tracing the lines of ancient carvings.
And it is in this moment that I wish all of you a most blessed Winter Solstice, and a joyous holiday season.