Although Newgrange’s spectacular display at the winter solstice gets all the attention, it isn’t the only astrological event or the only amazing prehistoric cairn in the Boyne Valley. Tuesday, 23rd September was the autumn equinox, the period when the day and night are equally long. Perhaps it gets less attention because we generally dread the shorter, darker, colder days ahead, or because we are so busy that we barely get a break between back to school and Halloween, but our ancestors seemed to think it was worth noting. In fact, they felt it merited a cairn constructed to allow the light to flood the chamber on the spring and autumn equinoxes as it does in Newgrange at the winter solstice.
Cairn T at Loughcrew, also known as Hag’s Cairn, is not far from Newgrange. The Irish name for the area is Sliabh na Calliagh, or the Hag’s Mountains. An old legend has it that the terrain there was created when a giant hag dropped huge rocks she was carrying in her apron. Regardless of what one calls it, Cairn T is a passage tomb and more. It is filled with ancient carvings that might hold a key to just what our ancestors did there and why. What we do know is that it marks the spring and autumn equinoxes and on those days, if the weather conditions are right, the sun fills the decorated chamber with light and the carvings are visible. We also know that all of these amazing sites are older than the pyramids of Giza in Egypt and Stonehenge in England.
Perhaps the equinoxes were important to our ancestors because they marked the beginning and end of the growing season. This is the time to gather the last wild blackberries and prepare for winter before it gets cold and rain pounds down in earnest. It is the countdown to Samhain, now Halloween but also the end of the Celtic year and a time of great spiritual significance to our pre-Christian ancestors.
We don’t know if those ancestors were as relaxed about punctuality as we are today in Ireland (at least compared to most North Americans!). But they certainly understood the earth’s cycles as it travels around the sun. The reason the day and night are of equal length twice a year is because as the earth travels around the sun, it also tilts on its axis. Twice a year, however, there is moment when it is at a 90 degree angle as it moves, and that is the equinox.
Much of the Celtic jewelry worn today uses designs inspired by the carvings in the cairns in the Boyne Valley – including those at Cairn T at Loughcrew, County Meath. We might not be able to decipher the exact meaning our ancestors intended to convey with those symbols and designs, but for us they usually mean that we appreciate the sense of connection, unbroken by the centuries. We might not all get to visit these amazing sites and stand on the ground where our ancestors stood, but we can all find our own meaning in the intricate designs that are our inheritance from them.