The Irish Otherworld Lives on with Queen Maeve, Epona, and Halloween
On Knocknarea Mountain, overlooking the Coolera peninsula in Sligo, there is an ancient passage tomb that dominates the landscape. This passage tomb is unique, not only because of its prominence, but also because it is covered by a mound of loosely-packed stones quarried locally.
Archaeologists have dated the tomb to 3000 BC, making it as old as Newgrange. It is believed that the stones were not placed on the tomb by their original builders, but by visitors who put them there as an act of devotion. The prominence of the tomb, and the stones, indicate
that someone of great significance was interred there. This passage tomb on the mountain is reportedly the last resting place of Queen Maeve, the legendary and celebrated warrior queen of Connaught. It has never been excavated.
Does the Tomb of Queen Maeve Have a Path to the Otherworld?
An excavation of the tomb would undoubtedly provide more important insights to the beliefs and customs of the people who constructed it. For example, does it contain an opening that allows
the sun’s rays to penetrate and creep up the passage and embrace the bones of the deceased during the Winter Solstice? These openings, known as a roof-box, were constructed in passage tombs to allow the spirit of the departed to take the solar path to its home in the Otherworld. The roof-box in the passage tomb at Newgrange demonstrates the technological achievements of the people who built the tomb. It is still astonishingly accurate after a period of five millennia.
The supposed tomb of Queen Maeve at Knocknarea. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
If the myth of Queen Maeve was actually based on a real person, did the builders install a roof-box to allow her spirit take the solar path to the Otherworld? Were weapons and jewelry placed with the bones to accompany the spirit to the afterlife? These questions could be answered by an archaeological dig. It would be advisable to conduct such a dig under the auspices of a Druid to maintain a vital link to the past, and to honor the interred.
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A Sad State
Some years ago, I visited the site and was dismayed by its neglected state. The tomb requires renovation and a preservation order placed on it to protect its heritage. Sligo County Council should also seek a World Heritage designation for the tomb, further enhancing its status as one of the country’s premier ancient burial sites.
Knocknarea lies within a huge megalithic cemetery that could be a major tourist attraction, if managed properly. The area could become Ireland’s Valley of Kings, and stimulate the local economy. It could add to our sense of identity as a nation, and our contribution to a shared European heritage. That visit spurred me to write Queen Maeve, and I hope the book will renew interest in the legendary Queen of Connaught.
Queen Maeve. ( Public Domain )
Queen Maeve in Irish Myth
Every society produces myths that reflect the identity of its own people. These myths can give the present generation a concept of how their distant ancestors lived and thought. Irish mythology passed orally from generation to generation, unlike the Greeks who used the written word. One of the problems associated with the oral tradition lies in the fact that stories and myths change with retelling, whereas the written word is transcribed and therefore does not change. However, the kernel of the myth generally remains solid since that is its foundation stone. The Tain, our nation’s central epic, radiates from Queen Maeve. She is the central character in the story, just as the sun is central to the solar system.
Queen Maeve portrays a willful queen, headstrong and quite determined to succeed in a world of kings. She goes to war and can be found on the battlefield fighting alongside her warriors. Her actions highlight the contrast between Irish and Greek or Roman mythologies, in which women were mere adjuncts to the conflict whilst the men did the fighting. Each myth is based on a semblance of truth, and The Tain epic recalls a society where women were equal to men.
Queen Maeve, a warrior queen. ( Michelle Hunt )
The Brehon Laws, the ancient body by which our long-distant ancestors lived, testify to the hidden truth in the myth. Five thousand years ago, a woman could initiate divorce proceedings against her husband. She could hold property in her own right and bequeath it her sons and daughters.
Morrigan, Goddess of War
Another unique and different innovation relates to the Irish Goddess of War. Morrigan is the god who must be offered sacrifice to ensure victory in war. Universally, it would appear, the God of War is a male figure, but in Irish Mythology the Deity of War is a female figure. Her creation also points the equality between the sexes, which did not exist in the classical societies that sprang up in Greece and Italy.
Morrigan is a shape-shifting goddess. She can change into a raven and may be found at the scene of battle, hovering overhead. The world of Irish gods is largely based on equality. The goddesses can argue their point independently. There is no domineering or dominant male god in this mythology. Lugh, the sun-god , does not throw his weight around because the society is mostly based on consensus rather than direct authority. Of course, each god or goddess seeks to rule the Isles of the Otherworld, but it is by cunning rather than force.
Detail of the Morrigan Battle Crow from "Cú Chulainn riding his chariot into battle" by Joseph Christian Leyendecker (1874 - 1951). ( Public Domain )
Gender Equality and Ancient Irish Festivals
Four festivals marked out the ancient year , and typically the year began with a goddess. Brigid was the goddess of rebirth to celebrate the coming of spring on the first day of February. This was known as the festival of Imbolg. She left the Otherworld on that day and banished the snow from the land and the ice from the lakes. Growth resumed after her visit and land became awake after its winter slumber.
In May, the festival of Beltane was celebrated. This was a ceremony dedicated to Bel, the god of fire. Hills were lit up by bonfires, though its origins and purpose remain remote. A more important festival took place in late summer called Lughnasa. It was a harvest festival dedicated to Lugh in gratitude for a good harvest. Lugh was a very important god and had to be appeased. If the kings did not honor him with a festival, he could withdraw his rays from the crops and starve the people.
Undoubtedly, the festival that has best stood the test of time is Samhain, which is now transformed as Halloween . It crossed the Atlantic Ocean with Irish emigrants and has become a major celebration in America, creating an industry of fancy dress costumes and movies. This festival marked the end of summer and the beginning of winter, and was held to commemorate the departed spirits. A full day was dedicated to this ceremony, and the curtain between the land of the living and the land of spirits was thrown open. On this day, the spirits were allowed to return to the land of their birth, but had to return before midnight. Those spirits that failed to return before the deadline were trapped in the land of the living forever.
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Epona and Past Mythology Live On
This country’s love affair with horses can also be traced back to mythology. Epona was the goddess of the dead , who played a most important part in the lives of the people. She was a horse-goddess who transported the spirits of dead warriors to their home in the Otherworld. She kept her horse in a stable where red roses grew; and when a warrior was slain she rescued the spirit, purified it in water, and transported it to the Isles of the Otherworld. The vital importance of her work with the spirits led to a love of horses, which reverberates down to the present day. Is there any nation across the planet where the horse is held in higher esteem?
A relief depicting Epona and horses. Vorarlberg Museum, Bregenz, Austria. ( Public Domain)
It can be seen by these examples that the past is not a distant and unknown land that is beyond our reach. The past is still with us each time we celebrate Halloween. The respect and love of horses stems from our ancestors who worshipped and made sacrifice to Epona. It was this goddess who took care of the spirits of their ancestors. Five thousand years ago does not seem so distant now. The past is always with us.
Top Image: Maeve, the Queen of Connacht and her husband Ailill ( William Murphy / Fotolia )
John Henry Rainsford is the author of Queen Maeve , available on Amazon Worldwide and in all good bookshops.
From the author:
The classical civilizations of Europe are universally admired, but not as much attention has been paid to the other civilizations that co-existed with them. These were different, but in no way inferior. Studying Irish myths, I discovered a system of honor and law that rivalled anything anywhere. That journey of the mind took me to Knocknarea and the reputed passage grave of Queen Maeve.
I dedicate this work to her, and to other heroes and heroines of our mythology, living and dead. The heroes and heroines who are dead, and the heroes and heroines who keep them alive.