|he mists of time shroud the ways of our Irish forebears.
In trying to answer how they worshipped and when, a modern view has emerged with considerable misconception and misunderstanding. Early writers assumed that the early Pagan was a “sun worshiper,” and the idea stuck. Within the modern Pagan movement other fallacious theories have arisen. In the last half-century, Samhain has somehow emerged as the “Celtic New Year.” The fires of Bealtinne have been attributed to honoring the Phoenician God Baal. The problem seems to be a mental grasping of straws for those unable or unwilling to work a little research. Let’s take a little journey back and look at some facts. Perhaps we can find a bit of truth about the Sacred Solar Days of our ancestors.
From the Mesolithic period onward, the people inhabiting Ireland, both Celtic and pre-Celtic, were careful observers of the solar cycles. The massive 4th millenium complex of stone structures in the Boyne valley bears magnificent witness. The great vaulted chamber of New Grange marked the rising sun of the Winter Solstice. Dowth reflects mid-winter sunset. Not too distant Loughcrew, with its multitude of Cairns, carefully marks all of the cross-quarter days. These remarkable structures were not some grand platform to worship the sun. Rather, they were a remarkably accurate astronomical observatory.
The sheer magnitude of the results of Neolithic interest in the solar cycles is astonishing. Few in number, the population must have had extraordinary dedication and purpose to invest the time and energies into creating such a vast complex as still nestles along the banks of the Boyne river. Perhaps as startling as their industry, is the astronomical knowledge displayed by this Stone Age people.
The principle used in the Boyne complex is shown in the drawing on the right. Secondary stones are placed in positions to align with the central “key” stone so that the rising sun, at a particular incidence, will cast a shadow that will fall on the secondary stone. At the summer solstice the sun is at its most northerly position on the horizon at rising. It also achieves its highest position in the sky (60º 18’) at noon. This is midsummer’s day, the longest day of the year.
The annual movement along the horizon from one solstice to the next, and back again marks the solar year. As the sun moves from one solstice to the next, its declination changes from 23º 27’ south to 23º 27’ north. When the sun is above the celestial equator (or north) the days are longer. When the sun is below the celestial equator (or south) the days will be shorter.
The agrarian builders of the Boyne complex fully understood the link between solar activity and the growing season. Through observation they knew that there was a certain period, between winter solstice and summer equinox, when the time for planting was best to take maximum advantage of the warming sun. They also knew that the harvest should be in full swing by fall equinox and the sun chronometer had the answer in the “cross-quarter” days.
Up into modern times, the Irish farmer carefully observed the solar cycle in timing his activities. The living half of the year was called Samh, which began approximately February 4th of the modern calendar1. It extended to Samhain (end of summer) which occurs approximately the 8th of November. Then began Gamh, the dead season of winter. To further synchronize with the solar year the ancient Irish divided the year into 8 parts or sections marked by the 8 solar events of solstice, equinox and cross-quarter day. This allowed them to work with the rhythm of the seasonal cycle.
As the year swung on its hinge away from Nollaig,2 the winter solstice (21 December), the days begin to lengthen and weather patterns slowly change. Gradually there is a warming and drying as the winter snows melt. By Feabhra (2 February), the first cross-quarter day, the farmer is anxiously seeking weather favorable enough to allow plowing. In turn, Earrach, the spring equinox (21 March), marked the beginning of the planting season. Cattle could now be turned to fresh pastures with the first new grass of spring.
By Bealtinne3 (Gamhain, the end of winter in Old Irish – 4 May). the planting is finished and the first shoots of new crop are visible. Favorable conditions now open the summer pastures further as fresh grass provides better grazing and the summer season is welcomed. The community can now give its sigh of relief and the isolation of winter can be broken. To mark the season, gatherings were made with neighboring clans as the people celebrated the survival through winter and supplicated the Gods for a good growing season.
Mean Samhradh (Midsummer – 21 June) was traditionally observed as a Feis (festival) to bless the crops and cattle. Fires were lit and brands and ashes were carried or scattered through the fields to encourage a bountiful fall harvest. Cattle were driven through the smoke or touched with brands from the fire to ward off disease. This was also a favored time for herb-gathering as mid-summer herbs were considered superior.
The first harvest was observed at the cross-quarter day of Lughnasadh4 (7 August). This festival of least saw the first fruits of harvest added to the last of stocks of the preceding year and prepared for the feast. Here religious rites were conducted to encourage a bountiful harvest that would carry them through the dark days of the dead season ahead.
Fomhar5 (21 September). In modern times, Fomhar has all but been forgotten, yet in ancient times it held great import to the Irish. Where Lughnasadh might be considered the "first of harvest," Fomhar was the "end of harvest. Now the finishing touches were being done to store the now ending harvests and the amounts tallied to accommodate careful allotment over the coming year. This seemed to have been a time for the family and clan to catch its collective breath. a Feis was held in celebration where poets were feted who recited their newest poetry and religious rites thanked the Gods for the bounty. At one time, the Church had imposed the day of St. Michael and made this a day of dual obligation. In 1778 the Church felt the old ways were no longer a threat and Pope Pius VI abrogated this day along with 21 others, releasing "the faithful" from their obligation.
Samhain,6 the end of summer (7 November), was a time for introspection. With harvest over and stocks prepared for winter, the family turned to other preparations for the difficult winter season. Cattle were brought into close proximity of the Rath (home complex). Roofs of house and byre were repaired or renewed with the now dry thatching reeds. The festival itself marked the last great social opportunity with those outside of the immediate family. Yet, the religious aspects were not overlooked and the departed ancestors were honored at this the beginning of the season of the un-living. It remains to this day a tradition for many to prepare a place at the feast table for departed ancestors.
Nollaig, the winter solstice (21 December), was the day without a year. It separated the end of one year and the beginning of the next. The day was traditionally a family festival, but one of great import. Days before, preparation began with cleaning of the home place and scrubbing everything in sight. Food stocks were prepared for the grand Feis. Final preparations were completed on Oíche Nollaíg (the evening before) as the bloc na Nollaig (yule log) was put in place. This was the one time of year that scattered family members made all attempts to return for a visit. To that end candles were lit in the windows to light the way for late comers and food was kept on the table. This custom continued well into the modern era. As late as mid 19th century, many homes left doors unfettered and food on the table all night in hopes that that last missing family member would somehow find their way home.
It should be noted that ritual observation of the 4 solar event days of solstice and equinox were treated differently than the cross-quarter days. The reason was the need to remain close to the Tuath (home-stead) during the times of solstice and equinox to tend to the crops, herds and flocks. This did not lessen the spiritual importance. In fact, in a sense, there was additional emphasis since it brought the family tightly together in common cause. As noted, even into modern times, Nollaig (mid-winter) was a time of the scattered family to come together.
The cross-quarter days fell at less work intensive times. With the exception of Feabhra (Imbolc) conditions were generally favorable to allow some celebration. Thus it was possible to join with neighboring families and clans to socialize and share in their good-fortune and hopes for the future season. After the isolation of an intense winter, it was Bealtinne that provided the first real opportunity for gathering of the clans and the social interaction on the greater scale. Over the centuries such gatherings grew until as late as 1169. The Grand Feis of Teiltiu drew crowds on cart and foot that stretched for 6 miles to Kells.
This did not necessarily make one quartet of days any greater or lesser in importance. It simply points out a difference in focus. By necessity, the days of solstice and equinox occurred at times which required full attention of the family and were labor intensive. There was work to be done. The cross-quarter days, with diminished demands for labor, allowed time and opportunity for broader social activity.
Most people seem to have a vague idea that modern life has separated us from a purer path. We live a life far removed from the basic agricultural existence of our for bears.
It is true that we can never recall all of the knowledge of our pre-historic ancestors. Yet, as we dig a little for the truth among the clues left for us, we can piece together a great deal. By examining modern archeological research into the thousands of stone structures in Ireland, looking at some of the lore and digging through the old language itself, we can find remarkable insight into how our ancestors looked at the year and the symbology of the Sacred Solar Days and dispel some of the mist.