Passage Tomb, New Grange near Drogheda, Ireland
Spirals, Decorated Stones
2750-2250 B.C.E.

 

A loop of the River Boyne, called the Bend of the Boyne, an area five miles across consisting of a series of small, glacial hillocks, is the location of three prehistoric barrows. This area is sometimes called the Royal Cemetary of Brugh na Binne. New Grange is one of these three burial sites also called passage tombs. The description of a barrow as a passage tomb merely denotes that in this mound there is a passage leading to a central chamber. New Grange is about 280 feet in diameter and 47 feet in height. The actual chamber itself is a corbeled vault, created by unmortered upright stones called orthostats, 12 feet long by 8 feet in height. The capstones of the vault weigh between 20-40 tons each. The entrance to the passage tomb at New Grange is defined by a forecourt surrounded by a circle of freestanding stones ranging from 5 to 8 feet in height. Many of these stones, 30 to be precise, both interior and exterior, often tabular in shape, have been decoratively pocked and incised (O Riordian, 21, 54). Although these barrows predate the Celts, certain aspects of this archetypal program of ancient carvings area seem to have been adopted by them or at least to prefigure characteristic symbolism found in conjunction with the cult of both Brigid the goddess and Brigid the 6th century saint.

The decorated stones at New Grange are one of the most important examples of mural megalithic art in Western Europe. For the most part the incisions are linear geometrical figures such as zigzag lines, chevrons, triangles, lozenges, concentric circles, swags, and spirals. The original theory , now mainly discredited but worth noting, was that these designs were inspired by Mycenean funerary art. Certain of these elements, i n particular the spiral and a circle/lozenge type configuration known as an oculi or goddess figure seem to be a part of the same tradition of triplism and mother worship that items such as the tricephalic head from Corleck or the Killinaboy Sheelagh-na-gig stem from.

Spirals at New Grange are found singly, or in pairs, running in the same direction or deliberately opposed. The only known example of a triskele or threefold arrangement is also located on one of New Grangeís kerb stones. Primarily, the spiral is typical of funerary symbolism common in Irish tombs as well as those of other megalithic cultures. Historically, spirals in both Megalithic and Neolithic art were closely akin with spiritual issues of the cycle of death and rebirth. The serpent, important iconographically.to both manifestations of Brigid, is often used as a metaphor for infinity, in a sense, by the sloughing off of itís skin it is continually dying and being reborn (Purce, 101).

The double, or running spirals of which numerous examples exist at New Grange, have a connecting space between the two vortexes that Jill Purce describes as symbolizing the opening of the womb, or the division between life and death and death and rebirth (Purce,85). Both Brigids were capable of bestowing life as well as being the messengers of death and destruction. . Two spirals have also traditionally been used to illustrate the waxing and waning moon. By using the growth properties of the arithmetic spiral it is possible to indicate the hour of moonrise during each of its successive phases (Purce, 94). It is the single example of a triple spiral, however, that is most pertinent. The three spirals may be an abstract depiction of the three forms Brigid could take. " The triple spiral represented the cycle of birth, life, and death; the Maiden, Mother, and Crone; the never-ending cycle of infinitude" (Condren, 25).

The connection of the spiral to the cult of the goddess Brigid, or to the cult of St. Brigid may seem somewhat unsubstantial, but only before certain other important factors are considered. The spiral may present itself commonly in other Megalithic cultures, but among the Celts it is found only rarely outside of Ireland in this period. Although Brigidís cult certainly spread beyond Ireland in various forms and under a wide range of names, it was this region where it was strongest. More to the point, this is not the only funerary carving type that can be identified with a mother goddess. Face-motif carvings exist from a ruined cairn in Eday (Nat. Gal. Of Scotland) consisting of a geometric arrangement of two circles and two conjoined spirals. These, as well as examples in Brittany with emphasized eyes and exaggerated breasts, without a doubt, bear some relation to Brigid. Serpent designs, horizontal, pocked zigzag carvings also occur in many of the Irish barrows including Tara and Dowth. The presence of these other clearly identifiable motifs of mother worship in similar types of structures dramatically increases the likelihood that the spiral is also part of this family of works.

But what you may ask is the connection of this pagan symbolism to Brigid the Christian saint? Spirals as a decorative motif continue well after St. Patrick rid the island of snakes, both in metalwork and in manuscript illumination. The famous Book of Durrow has an entire page dedicated to these Celtic whorls. The spiral also seems to be echoed in the medieval labyrinth. This kind of imagery appears not only in the pavement of medieval cathedral floors, but also on medieval crosses. The cross itself bears a certain resemblance to the spiral conceptually. Purce describes it as manís body in a state of equilibrium, at the point of death he is balanced between two worlds. This point of balance is similar to the stillness at the center of the spiral's rotations. In fact, megalithic spirals are often located at the entrance of tombs. They are literally then the marker between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

 

Sources:

Condren, 25, 26, 61,67,82

O Riordain, Sean P. New Grange and the Bend of the Boyne. London, Thames and Hudson, 1964. 21-64, 114-117.

Purce, Jill. The Mystic Spiral: Journey of the Soul. Yugoslavia, Thames and Hudson, 1974. 85, 86, 94, 101.