The Hill of Sorcery: Mythology and Archaeology of the Tlachtga Barrow
In an era long passed, all of the fires of Ireland were extinguished at sundown on October 31 st, and a single blazing bonfire was lit at the epicenter of the annual feast of the dead—Samhain had begun at the Hill of Ward. The Druidical priests gathered the people together, and set places with food offerings for those unseen, which had crossed into the realm of shadow, the land of the dead. For between the nights of October 31 st and the 1 st of November, the barriers between the worlds, which closed the doors of perception throughout the year, would fall away and the dimensions would interact freely with one another. At this time when the harvest faded and the darker time of winter began, the known and the unknown would meet, and dance in the flickering light of the celebratory flames.
“Snap-apple Night” is quite similar to the modern-day Halloween version of “Bobbing for Apples” (Public Domain)
It was not only the dead, but also the powerful aos sí who would cross into the land of the living on Samhain. The aos sí were a supernatural race, which according to the Lebor Gabála dwelt in an alternate world existing side by side with our own, usually imperceptible to mortals. They are variously considered archetypal deified ancestors or gods and goddesses, associated by some with the Tuatha Dé Danann, who legend states disappeared into the Celtic Otherworld. The Otherworld ( Tír nAill, “the other land”) was entered by way of ancient burial mounds or caves. In fact, one translation of aos sí is people of the mounds. Along with the aos sî, it was also believed that the souls of dead family and friends were attending their former homes and the festivities, and many left food, drink, and special treats out for the dead. Rituals, disguises, and the reciting of verses were commonplace, and seasonal foods such as nuts and apples were also incorporated into the celebrations.
The Hill of Ward, located 2 km (1.2 miles) east of Athboy in the county of Meath, is host to one of the most fascinating archaeological sites in the world: the Tlachtga Earthworks (pronounced “Clackda”).
Artistic recreation of Hill of Ward. (knowth.com)
The Hill of Ward today (zatinotravel.com)
The monument still visible today is a circular earthwork consisting of four concentric ditches with earthen banks, with an outer circumference of 150 m (492 ft.) in diameter. Quadrivallate hengiform earthworks are considered to be extremely high status, and a similar example—known as the Rath of the Synods—is located at the nearby Hill of Tara.
Earth Works on the Hill of Tara. (newgrange.com)
“Tlachtga” is thought to mean “earth sphere”, and as the site of the Samhain fires, the ring work has attracted numerous legends over the centuries. One such legend involves a powerful magician named Mug Ruith, and his daughter Tlachtga (presumably after whom the site was named). Apparently, the two had traveled to Rome to study under the discipleship of the Gnostic sage Simon Magus. Some versions of the story have it that Simon took Mug Ruith to a secret place where he revealed the secrets of the sacred Isles over the course of either 6 or 33 years. Eventually, the trio designed a mysterious flying device known as the Roth Ramach, in which they sailed across the heavens. The flying device apparently had the power to blind all that gazed upon it and to kill those brave enough to touch it, and Tlachtga herself is said to have buried it at the site of the Hill of Ward. Some versions of the legend have it that Tlachtga was raped by Simon’s sons, while others say that she actually bore him three sons; Dorb, Cuma, and Muach, dying in childbirth at the enclosure which bears her name. This is probably an indicator of Tlachtga’s earlier status as a mother goddess who may have been worshipped at the site. The Tlachtga barrow never lost its relevance in the minds of the Irish people. For example, in 1167, High King Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair chose the site for a great reform synod attended by all of the provincial kings, ecclesiastical figures, and 13,000 horsemen.
Stone carving of Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair from a doorway in the grounds of Cong Abbey (Public Domain)
Excavations at the Tlachtga Barrow have revealed that the site was used for millennia, yielding evidence that certainly fires the imagination. There are actually three enclosures now recognized at the site, two of which are no longer visible. Research conducted in 2014 at the visible monument revealed one of the banks to be constructed of layers of small and medium sized stones and sand. A fox tooth recovered from one of the ditches was radiocarbon dated to the 5 th century AD. In the outer ditch, worked chert and a fragment of a megalithic sandstone featuring four parallel grooves were found. The visible enclosure was actually constructed over a more ancient earthwork consisting of three concentric banks, 195 m (639 ft.) in outer diameter. The inner ditch of this enclosure was 0.75-0.85 m (2-2 ft.) wide at the base, expanding to 3.4 m (11ft.) wide at the top. In the strata of fill representing the final phase of the ditch, a cattle bone was found and radiocarbon dated to the 4 th century BC. Articles associated with the earlier enclosure include a bone pin, clay pipe stem, metal disk, chert and worked flint.
At the site of a smaller (30m in diameter) (98 ft.) sub-circular earthwork to the south of the visible Tlachtga Barrow, three post holes were found, one of which contained charcoal dated to between the 12 th and 10 th centuries BC. In the north-eastern corner of the excavated section of the ditch, the burial of a 3-5-month-old child was found covered by a deposit of large and medium stones. The child was oriented along the width of the ditch (north-east/south-west), and the burial was radiocarbon dated to the 5 th century AD. A similar date was obtained from a cattle bone from one of the ditches.
Aerial view of the Hill of Ward (knowth.com)
The Hill of Ward was merely one part of a larger ritual landscape with links to the Samhain festival, which run even deeper into the past. From the Hill of Ward, one can see the Hill of Tara from 12 miles away. At Tara, the Mound of the Hostages, constructed at around 3000 BC, aligns with the Samhain sunrise, which illuminates the rear of the central stone chamber. Also, visible from the Tlachtga earthworks are the megalithic cairns of Loughcrew. At Loughcrew, the Samhain sunrise enlightens the passageway and central limestone pillar of Cairn L.
It is customary for modern people of the west to regard the ancient feast days as leftovers from a more primitive and superstitious age. But a consideration of the time span and cultural contexts of seasonal events like Samhain would suggest otherwise. In one form or another, they persisted for thousands of years, with Samhain itself spanning at least the end of the Neolithic to the Age of Iron, and ancient people invested incredible amounts of energy in the alignment and construction of ancient monuments. Perhaps concepts such as Samhain were invented to represent an interior realization—an archetypal experience—that could not otherwise be elaborated. If so, the fires of the Hill of Ward and the journey of the aos sí may have been the outward expressions of an interior revolution of archetypes, as changes within human consciousness walk hand in hand with the changing of the seasons.
Top image: Celebrating The Harvest, Honoring The Dead, Praying For Light’s Return (candidslice.com)