One of the most impressive Neolithic burial
chambers in Europe, Maes Howe is seen here
from the Tormiston - Gorn road.
© Copyright Stephen McKay and licensed for
reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Recently, however, alignments at Maes Howe have been associated with the exact times of the important Celtic festivals of Samhain and Imbolc. The entire region seems to have been a very important religious site, but beyond knowing that importance was placed on such alignments, and that the passage tombs had some symbology regarding the journey of the dead to some sort of underworld, very little else can be said with much certainty.
Some researchers have suggested that the passage tomb might represent the birth canal and thus the journey to the Underworld might have been seen as a new birth. The mound, itself, evokes the idea of pregnancy. This idea resonates with the belief, by many modern Christians that after death, the faithful will spend eternity in heaven. Taking into consideration, though, that solstices are annual events, and spiral symbols found on some monuments, together with labyrinth designs on other monuments and regardless of the period, culture or geographical location, these sort of symbols (whenever the meaning is still known) all represent a journey to another existence and it would seem that this journey is a cyclical event. In other words, the soul would experience successive lives and this phenomenon is a reflection of cosmological events.
Maes Howe entrance passage. This is
the view from the large central
chamber looking back to the entrance
© Copyright Rob Burke and licensed
for reuse under this Creative
"Opposite to the coast of Celtic Gaul there is an island in the ocean, not smaller than Sicily, lying to the north, which is inhabited by Hyperboreans...Apollo visits the island once in the course of nineteen years in which period the stars complete their revolutions..."Strabo, and others reporting on the travels of Posidonius in the first century B.C., tell of an island off the coast of Armorica,where priestesses worshipped a god at a temple that was roofed. It was their custom to unroof it once a year, insisting that it be roofed again before sunset. This is close to the effect at Newgrange when the roof box was opened to allow the first rays of the sun to enter on the winter solstice.
The winter solstice is the dawn of the solar year, and Maes Howe and Newgrange are aligned to that event. One of the representations of a radiate sun symbol, on K88, consists of two sets of lines radiating from a central pellet close to the pellet-in-circle; the rays, themselves ending in attached pellets, are surmounted by an arc of seven pellets. The sun symbol on the back corbel stone of the roof-box has six radiate lines, or four plus a broken baseline, and omits the circle, leaving only the central pellet. Nineteen pellets are arranged in two semi-circular rows around this symbol. When the roof box was opened on the winter solstice, at dawn, the light would travel in along a passage perfectly aligned to illuminate the inner chamber. The sets of nineteen and seven pellets on various of these radiate suns represent the nineteen year cycle for reconciling solar and lunar time, which involves an intercalation of seven months (Metonic cycle). The famous triple spiral at Newgrange (with its "threeness" symbology) represents completeness and a cyclic event. this might be understood as a life in this world followed by another life in an otherworld and then death and rebirth, again, in this world -- showing the complete cycle. It would be strange if it had a different meaning -- mythological themes always have consistency and a clear meaning, you never see mindless pastiches of mythological symbols in the same work -- the story is always very clear if you can read the symbology. All mythologies, too, are reflections of the human condition. It is only the modern mind, conditioned by the Logos of our time, which believes that mythology is just a reflection of the natural world and an effort to explain it. Mythology is not a "primitive science", it is a "primitive psychology".
That deities later associated with cosmological events which are recognized with Megalithic monuments became part of the Celtic pantheon should not be too surprising -- Christianity has had a history of nearly two thousand years and Hinduism might well predate any megalithic monument. Religious and mythological elements last longer than anything else.
Some ideas of endless cycles were likely in the minds of the earlier Celts as they expanded into new territories and seeing similarities in the beliefs of all of the peoples that they encountered on their travels could have contributed much to their attested characteristic of using riddles and metaphor to explain their world-view. Perhaps some of them also learned that, without specialized training and a penchant for philosophy, the average person could easily believe in an absolute and historical accuracy for their myths. Without the survival of a priestly and widespread organization which seems to have existed in the Megalithic, a mainstream religion would likely have evolved into smaller cults, each slightly differently on local levels. Just as the Celtic deities attracted the addition of Roman god names in the earlier Roman Imperial period, only to have the Celtic names later forgotten, the names of any deities that might have existed in the pre-Indo European languages were likely eventually replaced by Celtic equivalents.
Perhaps it was by trial and error, but it seems that by the time of Caesar, the Celts were taking a position of religious tolerance, understanding that the gods that one of their client tribes worshipped was little different from those worshipped by other tribes. Observing the extreme religious faith of the populations they encountered, and having an interest in philosophy, they came to understand that by insinuating themselves at the top of a religious hierarchy of the people they had joined and appearing to fully support the local rites, they would have no problems with the locals -- modern leaders have often been less intelligent and religious conflicts are thus a common feature of the modern world which has shifted far too much toward the Logos end of the Mythos/Logos spectrum.
Syncretism can bring varied religions together in a single belief incorporating a number of the elements of the previous beliefs, or it can do the opposite, whereby a single religion develops into various sects -- or even completely new religions through its evolution incorporating local characteristics. Sometimes, elements of an earlier belief evolve into a negative aspect of the replacing belief -- for example, "Lucifer" derives from an appellation of Apollo "Luciferous" (light-bringer) -- rather different from its current, popular, interpretation. Gradually, rules designed for practical reasons can take on s singular religious application. I spoke of how the druids must have seen how too much wealth in the hands of a private army could spell doom for their control of the population and their role in such. To place a taboo on reusing booty, would eliminate the problem and the people would more easily obey a religious taboo than a bureaucratic policy.
Tomorrow, the meeting of two branches of the same world-view.