Following the Footsteps of the High Kings of Ireland at the Sacred Hill of Tara
The Hill of Tara (Cnoc na Teamhrach) is comprised of a number of features, believed to have been constructed separately and arbitrarily before the space was combined into one large complex by the High Kings of Ireland.
Beginning the Procession
Located in County Meath, the Hill of Tara rests near the River Boyne, flowing into the Irish Sea. The two foremost features are the twin hills, Tara and Skreen, considered to be one of the "greatest orderings of landscape".
Upon Tara sits the Forradh and Tech Cormaic, together with the Mound of the Hostages forming the Fort of the Kings. Within the Forradh is Lia Fáil, the Stone of Destiny, the culmination of the new high king's inauguration after moving within and over Tara's landscape, ritualistically gaining his new role from the land itself, the divine, and his fellow subjects.
This procession took place predominately within Teach Midchuarta (Figure 2), aka the Banqueting Hall, a subterranean space imbued with memory. In the procession through this Hall, the future king passed the tombs of former kings and queens on his right, with the Hill of Skreen visible in the east as a reminder of the punishment that would befall him if he failed in his vow of sovereignty.
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Figure 2. Area known as "Banqueting Hall". ( Public Domain )
A Fairy Marriage
Upon rising from the underground space, the new king processed into the sunlight and approached the Mound of Hostages (Figure 3), a passage tomb within which archaeologists have discovered grave goods and cremated bones dating from both the Neolithic period and Bronze Age. This continuity would likely have been recognized by the time of the high-kingship ceremony, feeding into to the ancient mythological meaning seen in pseudo-historical and historical works such as Foras Feasa ar Eirinn , and the Irish Annals.
The mound served as both an echo of the High King's authority, and as a reminder that the kingship was as much a political role as a religious marriage to the divine. According to the eleventh century Lebor Gabala Érenn, a symbolic marriage to the sovereign fairy queen Medb was necessary as High King, and the Mound of the Hostages was the passage that linked the two worlds.
Enacting the High King's inauguration here wove the divine into the ceremony, inviting Medb herself to join the ritual and take part in delineating a new king. Finally, once the inauguration and "marriage" was complete, the High King and his followers would ascend to the Forradh, and stand before Lia Fáil to await its confirmation for the newest ruler.
Figure 3. The "Mound of Hostages". ( CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )
Intertwining Mortal and Divine Power
The future High King of Ireland must experience the human past within and atop a landscape thick with divine memory before his kingship can be solidified. The alteration between light and dark, the intentional threat of Skreen, the anticipation of an Otherworldly marriage, and the expectation of Lia Fáil to sing all encompass both the mystical and political importance of the ceremony, intricately tying the role of mortal power to that of the divine. The entirety of the ritual is a performance, one the participants, viewers and gods understand; however it appears likely that the ceremony was born from the unification of the land, thus giving the land a unique significance.
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When one considers the way in which the space at Tara was designed—each monument individually added over thousands of years—the imagined intention behind each feature's place in the medieval coronation becomes imbued with a power of continuity and lineage, culminating in the next High-King.
The features were quite powerful prior to the early medieval period as symbols of the political and/or religious traditions at Tara. However, once they were manipulated into a structured journey their meanings changed to encompass their roles in the inauguration. It was the experience—this imagined procession—through the monuments as a collective that held the political significance and projected a sacred quality onto this location.
Featured image: The Hill of Tara, Ireland. Source: ( Markandrewholmes)
By Ryan Stone
Best, R., O'Brien, M. and Bergin, O. 1954. The Book of Leinster . Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.
Binchy, D.A., 1958. The Fair of Tailtiu and the Feast of Tara. Eriu, 18, pp.113–138.