2. Elements of the West Atlantic Neolithic Religion
In the period roughly between 3500 BCE and 2500 BCE, Neolithic farmers on the Atlantic coasts of Europe and North Africa created a remarkable megalithic culture, or set of cultures, whose monumental remains are awesome testament to their creativity, organization and knowledge of their environment. Stonehenge in Britain and Newgrange in Ireland are just two of the best known of these much-loved and admired monuments, and attract hundreds of thousands of visitors even today, thousands of years after they were built. They are western Europe's equivalent of the Egyptian pyramids which they predate by many hundreds of years.
Archaeological evidence points to the cessation within a single generation of this culture's prime offices and ceremonies with the arrival of the Bell Beaker peoples, the first to bring an advanced knowledge of metalwork, initially the use of copper. It should be noted that DNA studies suggest that this was effected through the rise of a foreign elite (similar to the invasion of Britain by the Normans in 1066), rather than through mass migration, since the local population continues to dominate the DNA of Bronze Age burials. These burials, however, now followed the new rite of the newcomers, suggesting that the local population was rapidly acculturated to the beliefs, power-structures – and we may speculate language or languages – brought by the metal-users. To what extent this was a military take-over is unsure, but considering the warrior cults evident in Bronze Age culture and burials from all over Europe, it seems highly likely that the incomers were militaristic in their values and behaviors, and it would be remarkable if some elements of the native population did not resist them, particularly among those who had leading positions in Neolithic society.
What can we tell about these Neolithic people's society and in particular about their religion? Despite the fact that they left no continuous written records, a study of their monuments, which includes their symbolic art, and other less dramatic, but no less fascinating Neolithic sites, such as the Céide Fields – Neolithic field boundaries from the West of Ireland, and all of these considered in their natural settings, combined with insights from the anthropology of neolithic and pre-Neolithic cultures that have survived into modern times, we can draw often very convincing conclusions as to the life and culture of these. While archaeologists have a responsibility to couch their reports strictly according the evidence they discover, even they will admit that a wider analysis points strongly to unwritten non-material aspects of the Neolithic culture, and they can accept that while their science may never be able to speak with full authority on these topics, they can certainly agree that their finds would be consistent with these conclusions.
So what are these conclusions?
Firstly, these people were farmers of crops and herders of animals. It would make sense that their culture prized these activities and sought to make sense of them. Secondly, their monuments show clear seasonal alignments with the movements of the Sun and arguably of other celestial objects. This clearly suggests that they knew very well the link between the Sun and the seasons, and almost certainly attributed the changing of the seasons to the influence of the Sun. It is very probable that the Sun was imagined as a protective, personal god, who watched over the people. Details of the design of sites such as Newgrange suggest that the Sungod was thought of as male, with his rays bringing the force of his male energy to the world, and in particular to the earth and soil on which they depended for their living. Again Newgrange illustrates how the earth could have been imagined as female, receiving the Sungod's rays and becoming, literally, pregnant with new life. Thus the archaeology points to a basic cultural orientation around two opposing but complimentary mythic figures: Father Sky and Mother Earth. This imagery is still very much alive and with us in our culture today, and certainly survived the downfall of any Neolithic elite, if such there were.
The possible existence of a Neolithic elite is a thorny issue. Most archeologists tend to contrast the communal nature of Neolithic evidence (cremation of bodies, multiple burials and so forth) with the highly individual Bronze Age burial tradition (single burial of individuals in marked mounds forming “houses for the dead”) – along with the importance of the concept of fame in the literary culture from the eastern Mediterranean. Indeed our very concept of fame per se seems to have something of the historic individual about it that may have been utterly alien to the Neolithic mind.
However this should not blind us to the fact that Neolithic culture every show sign of having religious and technical experts and high-ranking families and individuals whose burials were highly ceremonious and important public events. The sheer level of skill involved in the construction and alignment of megalithic monuments such as Stonehenge and Newgrange, requiring research and planning over a number of years, not least in the act of selecting the specific sites, but also in the choice of material, design and exact positioning of the elements of the monuments – all of this, together with the inspiration for the symbolic aspects of the monuments – strongly suggest a highly trained, knowledgeable and prestigious group of individuals were in charge. In effect, a priesthood.
What we like to call Neolithic Art obviously had aesthetic aspects, but almost certainly served more than just to decorate these monuments where it is found, such as Knowth in Ireland, a part of the greater Newgrange culture. Rock art in surviving Stone Age culture is often associated with the shamanic telling of sacred tales and serves to illustrate the tales in abstract form, celebrating the outstanding characteristics and behaviors of the mythic beings associated with the location of the rocks, thereby sanctifying them, or rather marking them out as holy places. Convincing arguments can be made that some, at least, of the Irish stone art was actually used to record the passage of the seasons, and – though this is speculation - may have served as a sketch-pad in the construction period when records may well have been kept, year on year, to ensure the correct alignment of the monuments concerned, if not actually used in the ceremonies thereafter.
Returning to Newgrange, where the symbolism is particularly clear, we find the bones of cremated individuals, presumably of very high status, placed in the central chamber where the light of the rising sun can penetrate through a specially aligned window and along the long entrance passage for a limited number of minutes at dawn on the days around Midwinter, the Midwinter Solstice.
What can we draw from this? Firstly, as said, the we are looking at the sacred marriage of Father Sky and Mother Earth. The monument is suggestively called Brú na Bóinne in Irish (“The Womb of the White Cow” – the Goddess spirit of the nearby river Boyne, though this may be a reference to location rather than ownership. One should note that Old Irish “brú” = womb, has now become identified with Modern Irish “brú” = hostel and is most often translated thus, taken as a reference to the story of Aongus as given below). Whatever we may or may not conclude from its current Gaelic name, the tomb clearly represents the Belly of Mother Earth, penetrated and made pregnant (it was hoped) by the fertilizing rays of the Father God. (As an aside, it might be that it was thought that the sexual energy of orgasm that critical here, rather than the exchange of any bodily fluids: the position of the window at the entrance suggests a symbolic representation of the clitoris, and it through this portal that the energy of the male enters the female.) This action (should the Father God decide to engage in it) would inevitably lead to the flowering of Mother Earth and the return (after a period of latency) of the Spring. The “night” of winter – with its sexual congress, would return to the “day” of summer with its activity and life.
The fact that this monument is a tomb and that for high status people is highly significant. It suggests that certain individuals were seen as having a special relationship with the divine entities of Mother Earth and Father Sky. Experts in folklore have suggested that here we have evidence for the early existence of a belief that is widespread in later times; that a sacred Kingly figure, chosen from a tribe to represent the Sky Father on earth, is symbolically, and in a deep sense truly, the incarnation of the Sky God on earth, in effect his son.
Dáithí Ó hÓgáin describes how the conceit went: the Sky Father, supposed to be the all-protecting, all-fathering originator of life – with which he impregnates our world below, Mother Earth, and as the Great Ancestor and Sky Father, HE is still supreme being, but in an act of political nous, he concedes Power on Earth, among the Living of the Tribe, to His Son, who rules locally in His stead. Thus a human may bring to the tribe the blessings of the life-force and care of the Sky Father. Indeed it was long believed in Gaelic Ireland that a good king brought life not just to society (as one might expect) but actually enhanced the powers of nature (Mother Earth), making it – including people – more fertile and productive. There seems little doubt but that this conceit, or an early form thereof, was at the root of the construction of tombs such as Newgrange, and as such a core belief of Neolithic religion.
Further, the importance of natural cycles in Neolithic society, the fact that the seasons are cyclical, and that the Sun has permission to penetrate Newgrange annually, strongly suggests a belief in time itself as somehow eternally cycling and returning. Belief in returning almost certainly extended to include the spirit of the sacred king: most obviously when the human king died. The archaeological finds at Newgrange clearly indicate that persons of high status (let us say, “kings”) were cremated and their ashes placed inside the burial chamber that we can reasonably believe represented the Womb of Mother Earth, a chamber, the penetration of which by the Sky Father indicates the annual return to flowering of nature. The symbolism of this association of death with the site dedicated to rebirth could hardly be clearer: the remains of the Sky Father Incarnate, the Son of God, were placed in the Womb of Mother Earth to invite the Sky Father to re-father – that is reincarnate – His Son in the person of the new king. The burial site was a prayer, a bidding action, that begged the Sky Father to send again His Beloved Son to bring us His blessing and potent life force on earth.
Thus the new sacred king was almost certainly seen as a reincarnation of his predecessor, making both, ultimately, the same incarnation: the Son of the Sky Father.
I stress that these ideas are based on the clearly symbolic character of the archaeological remains and finds, with reference to one widely-known cultural metaphor for kingship. Without any other sources we can come to these conclusions with a high degree of confidence in their underlying probability. That probability is greatly heightened when we look at the Celto-Gaelic folklore and legendary history of Brú na Bóinne. Though these beliefs come from Gaelic sources dating to the medieval period, they seem with little doubt to reflect a remarkable continuity of interpretation of the symbolism of the monument stretching back into Neolithic times. While the names of the characters and other details of the tale are clearly Celtic, and therefore date from the Bronze Age at the earliest, key elements of the folklore continue the older tradition: the Sky Father (the Dagda = “The Proficient God”) fathers a Sacred Son, Aongus Óg (= “Prime-Strength Possessed-of-Life”), on the local Goddess Bó Vinda (the Sacred “White Cow” of the local river) whose Womb the tomb is, and that under particularly ritual circumstances the Sky Father granted possession of His “house” to Aongus in perpetuity.
Not only the general outlines, but specific details of the later legends suggest links to the original cult: thus Aongus is said to have been conceived and born during what appeared to the outside world to be one night and the next day. At the risk of being naieve, this does sound remarkably like a folk memory of an overnight vigil. The exact ritual can only be guessed, but it would seem very possible that part of the ritual to prove that the new (human) king was indeed the true reincarnation of the Son of the Sky Father could have been that the new candidate stayed overnight (possibly for more nights), waiting to be inspired - fasting, maybe drugged or intoxicated (?), shaman-like - by the spirit of the Sky Father, then to emerge, as if newly born at Sunrise from the sexual passage of Mother Earth. Thus the human man became a god-king, refathered by the light of his Sacred Father, and rebirthed by Our Great Mother.
And indeed there is plentiful evidence in the Irish tradition of just such cults of Hairy Baby! Mongán (= “Hairy Baby”) and Finn (“Clean/Pure/White”) are synonymous characters, along with many other kingly figures, who are born strangely precocious, in that even though they were only just born, they are bearded, able to speak in rhetorical and inspired verse, and in every way as fit and able as a healthy young man in his prime, in short, like Aongus (“Prime strength”). Similar tales are told in other traditions, such as of Hermes or Apollo, but this in no way undermines the validity of this association with the Neolithic tradition. Rather do these other traditions strengthen it.
With the above goes, quite clearly, another tradition that may have later features, but which could also have some Neolithic roots: the tales of women being impregnated by Gods. This was a rational requirement of the fact that the man (mostly young men) chosen to be the next king would certainly have been known to have a human mother and father. How then could this boy be the Son of God? The answer clearly was that somehow in secret the Sky Father must have impregnated the boy's mother. Various versions of just how the Sky Father did this were imagined; either he took on the appearance of the human husband and tricked the mother, or sneaked in at night while the real husband was sent away on some warlike mission and so forth. This sort of tale is widespread in Bronze Age culture, and very well represented in Ireland. It is found, very prominently in the Celtic cult of Lug (Lugus = “The Binder”) and in the Greek story of Perseus (facts which lead Dáithí Ó hÓgáin to suggest a direct influence between the two tales).
Whether this sort of rationalization was needed in the Neolithic “king” cult is questionable: after all, in our interpretation of the likely cult, the new sacred king was seen to be rebirthed from the vaginal mouth of the tomb at Newgrange. His mother was plainly Mother Earth. The conceit of his rebirth would seem to make any worries about his human mother seem unnecessary. That said, it is not impossible that this topos of the secret fathering may have formed part of the religious folklore from the earliest times. Notably in the folklore surrounding Jesus of Nazareth it has achieved dominance over the spiritually more significant moment of his rebirth when he is baptized by John and greeted by the rays of the Sky God on emerging from the waters of sacred river. Back in Ireland, the cult of Finn does seem to be associated with a river rebirth. This may have been a secondary part of the rebirthing ritual in Neolithic times: the newly-reborn king may have emerged naked and painted in blood from the tomb/womb, to be taken to the nearby Boyne river to be ritually washed and clothed in the ritually cleansing waters of the sacred river. This might suggest that the River Goddess was an assistant nurse to Mother Earth's birth, rather than being felt to be strictly the Mother Goddess herself. And indeed there are many such Goddesses in both the Celtic and wider European tradition, who act as midwives or nurses, allowing the Mother herself some respite. Many of them in the west are associated precisely with cleansing springs, said to bring health and strength to those that bathe in or drink the waters. It seem clear that from Neolithic times mountain springs, especially if warm, were viewed as the breasts of Mother Earth, while caves were her vagina. While Newgrange and similar artificial cave gives evidence of the latter, the Paps of Ana – an Irish range of mountains – gives evidence of the former.
Once born, washed and grown instantly to manhood, the new Neolithic “king” needed to be wedded to his mystical bride, a (doubtless) younger version of Mother Earth. This had obviously to be in some symbolic form, but may have involved a real marriage between the newly-reborn king and a local girl, chosen for her beauty and (quite possibly) for her virginity – to prove the fertility of her husband. Here SHE would be impregnated by a “god” and her hoped-for pregnancy would have been watched as a portent of the future health, happiness and success of the community. On an annual basis, she would have been associated with the coming of Spring, and this seems also to be reflected in later tradition, as in Welsh figure of Blodeuwedd, the Flower Maiden, who marries Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who appears to be the British version of Lugus, and quite possibly in the Irish traditions of St. Brigid, from whose name we may derive the modern English word “bride” as well as the tradition of brides wearing white.
The story of the legendary Irish king Conaire Mór, who was associated with sacred sights such as Tara ( = “Spectacle”) on the east coast of Ireland, may reflect elements of a very early Bronze Age tradition. It suggests that a ritual procession to Tara formed part of the coronation ceremony in early Celtic times. He approaches Tara naked, as if a stranger, and is questioned on his arrival, having to give the correct rhetorical answers to gain admission and be accepted as a rightful candidate for kingship. This also features in the story of how Lug came to Tara, and seems to have been a local myth associated with the ritual nature of that sight.
Whether exactly this or anything like it existed in the Neolithic times is hard to say. Tara has a Neolithic tomb, but it is nothing on the order of those of the Boyne Valley, and it is questionable if these sites were ever closely linked. But we can note that the new king approaches his role naked and yet unearthly wise, as we presume must have been the case at Newgrange, and the aspect of his seeming to be a stranger (although in fact known as a person to all present) who must in some way be proven – at least by uttering the ritual formulas – could also to date from Megalithic times.
At the other end of a “king's” life cycle, after death (whether natural or not...), he had to be cremated before his ashes were placed inside the tomb awaiting rebirth. This part of the Sacred Son's life was doubtless also surrounded by ritual and taboos. burning formed a central part of his tradition. Again the story of Conaire Mór (as told in The Destruction of Da Dearga's Hostel) strongly indicates that a ritual burning formed the logical transition point of a king to the afterlife. The archaeological facts tell us that Celtic kings were not as a rule cremated whereas Neolithic ones were, suggesting that this is again part of the older tradition. It suggests a poetic conceit that saw the funeral pyre as the House of the God of the Ancestors (the Sky Father as the dreadful, but ultimately benign King of the Dead), into which the His Son was invited to return, called by His Father to his service in the Other World.
It may be that traditions of heroes visitations to Hell and back – to be reborn as explained above – formed part of this belief since the earliest times. And just as these hero-kings defeated the enemies of the community in this life so they might defeat the same or a darker enemy on the Other Side. The greatest enemy was Death itself and this could have been imagined in the form of the flames of the funeral fire – as final a symbol of death as one can ask for. There may be evidence for this in the long-established legends of hero-kings defeating fire-breathing dragons, to rescue a maiden, whom they would then proceed to marry. It may have been a very early conceit the Death was a fire-monster (much as the Devil in Hell) and that by passing through the funeral fire and being reborn the next (or some subsequent) morning, the spirit of the late king – the spirit of the Son of the Father God had defeated Death and shown that, reborn, he can bring new life to the earth and the community. It seems almost impossible not to imagine some such conceit surrounding the ritual of cremation and rebirth that lay at the heart of Newgrange's king-birthing function.
Much more could be said about the implications of the archaeological evidence of the Megalithic culture and how it suggests links to later, mostly Bronze Age traditions. The impression one gets is of a considerable continuity in symbolism, if not in practice. But there are also hints of critical differences that we might want to emphasize. Whether the word “king” is appropriate to the Neolithic figure of the Sacred Sun Child is an example. There is little doubt but that the later Bronze Age figure was what we would call a Sacred king, but if the Neolithic figure can rightfully be thought of in that light is open to question.
One of the most important of these differences concerns dating of the principle events in the calendar. It is clear that the Neolithic monuments are aligned with the solstices and equinoxes: focusing mainly on Midwinter (presumable new year) and Midsummer. Various folk traditions pertain to these four dates even today. But the Irish tradition in particular is quite clear on the fact that the major Gaelic festivals were not at these points but days associated not with solar events, but with the major activities of the farming year: ploughing/seeding, herding/milking, harvesting and culling; thus the four Irish dates of St. Brigid's day (Feb 1), Mayday (May 1), August Bank Holiday (August 1) and Hallowe'en (November 1), to give them their contemporary names or Oimelc (Imbolg), Bealtain, Lughnasa and Samhain to give them their earlier Gaelic names.
It is true that Midsummer and Midwinter and the equinoxes may have featured also as festivals in the past, since there are folk traditions associated with these times, but both the Irish and British evidence for this idea is open to question. Even if one cannot fully believe that such times as Midsummer and Midwinter were not important to a farming people with a long Neolithic tradition of celebrating these key turning points in the solar year, it does seem as if they were down-played in what we might dare to call the druidic tradition. The older Neolithic solar tradition is undoubted, but the Bronze Age may have indeed seen a sharp change in emphasis away from these solar traditions (perhaps with a greater lunar emphasis, and certainly with a host of individualistic Indo-European ideology), just as it saw the sudden finish of the Midwinter ceremonies at Stonehenge. The old ceremonies ceased for a reason. Later tradition clearly suggests that the Bell Beaker people used a different religious calendar and switched ceremonies such as those for new year to suit their purposes. Many believe that Hallowe'en, marking the end of the herding year, became in some sense the new New Year's festival, and may deserve the title “Celtic New Year”.
The New individualism of Bronze Age graves – prominent individuals buried under highly visible mounds with, for the first time, grave goods for use in the afterlife – marks a total change in the attitude towards the individual – and thus the soul of the person. It was as much the cultureshock of this change in thinking about ourselves that undid the Neolithic cults as was the arrival of any new men with copper tools. This must have been deeply important to the shift in the interpretation of the sacred sites. They became now “houses” of great men, just as the Bronze Age tombs were. Realizing that this is an innovation about 2500 BCE begs the question what they were before, and the answer would seem to be sacred spaces on the Body of Mother Earth. We can suspect that with this change went a significant change in the status of women in society. But echoes of a more equal status are found in the later tradition, not least in the strength of mythical women in the Celtic tradition: Maeve will not be outdone by her rather spirit husband Ailill in the justly famous pillowtalk that opens the Irish epic the Táin Bó Cuailgne.
Clearly not all Neolithic sites were suited to reinterpretation by the new religion. Individual ownership of previously communal funeral mounds (as at Newgrange) was easy enough to imagine, but what can Bronze Age individualists have made of Stonehenge? Maybe here is the clue to the virtual abandonment of Stonehenge, as opposed to continued and continuing living traditions of Newgrange. It is for this very reason that the latter may offer us a window into the lost religion of the New Stone Age that goes beyond its strictly archaeological significance.