September 3, 2008

Petroglyphs, poets, and a murder of crows

As all good pilgrims must, we went to Newgrange: Ireland’s most famous (and most visited) megalith site. Newgrange, along with two other nearby sites (Knowth and Dowth) form a huge complex of inter-related cairns that date back four thousand years.

It was extraordinary and extraordinarily beautiful, but the experience left a little to be desired: Something on the order of 1000 visitors a day come to the sites during the summer and the only way to protect the area is by restricting access only to tours - visitors are bussed to the sites and then lead around by tour guides. Once your tour is over, you have perhaps 20 minutes (if lucky) to wander around on your own. We were scheduled for 2 tours – to Knowth and to Newgrange (Dowth is currently closed to the public). I was excited: this would be my first encounter with Irish petroglyphs and I wanted to see if I could get any sense of the whys and hows of particular rocks and the symbols they hold.

We went first to Knowth where we were met by a guide who (I felt) represented another stroke of remarkably good fortune. Not only did she offer a variety of interpretive conclusions to the mysteries of the site (regarding how it might have been used, who made it and why, etc), but had a particular interest in language. She told us that the Irish language provides possible clues to the mysteries contained on the sites and mentioned the amongst the variety of stones found at the site – in both the construction and as artifacts there was a preponderance of rock crystal. This, she said, did not come from the local area, but from the Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin. My ears perked up when she told us that the Irish word for rock crystal means sun-stone and pointed out the proliferation of sun-like symbols carved into the rock. She speculated that perhaps the sun held some special significance to the ancient Irish, which certainly corroborated information we had gathered from Simon. The openings of the first Carrowmore cairns were oriented towards the rising sun of the equinoxes. The openings at Knowth towards the rising sun at the solstices. Informative as it had been, our tour left little time to examine specific stones or more deeply explore the site. I raced around trying to photographed and commune with as many rocks as possible, but had to make a dash for it to catch my bus on to Newgrange.

While waiting for our next guide, a massive murder of crows suddenly flew from a nearby tree and circled overhead. I realised that I’d been seeing crows and picking up crow feathers from the ground for the last few days and wondered at the significance. Newgrange offered much the same as Knowth, only on a somewhat larger and more formal scale. We walked around the mound – which was absolutely huge - and inspected the (quite famous) entrance stone. Finally, we were allowed inside to experience the inner cairn in total darkness, then through a reenactment (via flashlight) of the effects on the interior of the rising solstice sun. It was pretty spectacular: a window-like opening above the cairn opening allowed light into the chamber at just the right angle to illuminate a rock panel of carved glyphic symbols. Our last stop of the day was Tara Hill and Jim was excited. The site had held special significance for him and he was not disappointed. When we arrived, the place was winding down from a day of public protests: The Irish government has ok’d the extension of a highway that will effectively cut the site in half. Since the inception of the project, a band of neo-hippies has been keeping vigil (which includes keeping alight a sacred fire) and trying to stop – or at least hamper – the progress of the developers. At the present, the protesters are particularly incensed over the disinterment of remains from an ancient grave site. We were asked to sign a petition demanding the respectful reinternment of the remains (which are presently being warehoused in Dublin), which we were both happy to sign. I explored the hill which was covered with cairn-mounds and returned to find Jim engrossed in conversation with the protesters. (Especially after our experience in Northern Ireland) they were refreshingly outspoken and idealistic.I rejoined Jim who was happily listening to a group Irish lads who were quoting long epic poems and singing traditional Irish songs...This was Jim’s Irish dream come true! As soon as I joined the group, Jim asked if he could sing them his ballad of George Tanner (he told me later, he’d waited for me to be there). Something shifted in the group then and suddenly Jim became one of them. One guy in particular seemed bound to deepen the connection by singing along with Jim on a number of songs and someone else remarked (impressed) that they couldn’t believe that Jim knew all the words. It was a rally lovely scene: Jim, some old locals (one of whom was quite balmy –who was trying to work out how to hoist his large wooden statue of a Hindu Tara over the fence of Tara Hill - some protester-hippies and a young (giddy) Japanese tourist who was running back and forth filming the proceedings and working at his laptop.


Katie and Emir said...

I looked up 'crow' in one of my little books and it says crow is the keeper of all sacred law, a shape-shifter, an omen of change. Crow can see past, present and future simultaneously...

21st Century Pilgrim's Progress said...

Just you wait, perceptive girl!