Newgrange is the best-known Neolithic passage tomb in Ireland and its 5,000-year-old walls hide many secrets and legends, most of them still unknown and forgotten with the passing of time.
This tomb is located in the Boyne Valley (County Meath) and consists of around 200,000 tonnes of rock, with a width of around 85 metres. It might not seem very spectacular for the modern eye, but we can’t forget that this structure was built during the Neolithic period when the everyday material was just stone.
Surprisingly, this place isn’t widely known outside of Ireland, unlike other megalithic structures around the world such as Stonehenge. Keep reading to learn more about this magical spot and make sure to pay a visit as soon as you can, I’m sure you will want to repeat in the future!
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1. It was the Home of the Tuatha de Dannan…
The Tuatha de Dannan were a God-like race with magical powers that ruled Ireland thousands of years ago. They are an essential part of Irish folklore, and it is said that, although they live in the Otherworld, they interact with mortals and the human world too.
According to the myth, Newgrange was the home of the Daghdha (the leader of the Irish pantheon, also known as “the Good God” or “Father God”) and later, his son’s Aengus Óg (the Irish god of love, poetry and Youth).
Not only that, but it is said that the famous hero Cú Chulainn was concieved here too.
2. …And It’s The Door to the Otherworld Too!
Can it get more epic than this? I don’t think so!
The main chamber is not only where people placed the remains of the dead, but also, it was believed to be the nexus between the two worlds (the dead and the living) and where they could get in touch with the spirits of their deities and ancestors.
We can feel how much these communities cared about death rituals and the afterlife by the amount of work and time invested in building such a complex tomb, that hides much more than the eye can see.
Also, as many anthropologist and folklore tales have pointed out, the Neolithic chambers of Newgrange and other passage tombs are very similar to a womb. As we saw before, many tales locate the birth of different deities and heroes in Newgrange, so these sacred sites might have been perceived as places of conception and birth too, death was just a part of the life’s cycle.
3. You can Relive the Magic of Winter Solstice like your Neolithic Ancestors
The success or failure of a harvest meant the survival or starvation of the whole community, so astronomical events such as Solstices and Equinoxes were very important for Neolithic farmers. They marked the passing of time, as well as the beginning and end of the different seasons. This knowledge was crucial in order to predict when to plant or harvest crops and get the best growth out of the land.
Due to all of this, it’s not difficult to imagine how these celestial events became so important that they influenced all areas of life too, from birth to death.
A perfect example of this is Newgrange, which is aligned with the Winter Solstice. Every year, at dawn, a ray of light goes through the roof box (a small opening on top of the main door), along the passage and reaches the inner chamber for 17 minutes.
Due to changes in the tilt of the Earth’s axis, the sunbeam stops 2 metres before touching the back recess, but thousands of years ago it most likely reflected onto the triple spiral stone at the end of the tomb. We know this because of a local tale that talked about how the triple spiral was illuminated during the Winter Solstice, even before Newgrange was excavated in 1962!
Why Newgrange was built in this way? As with most prehistoric remains, it’s impossible to know what the original builders had in mind, but seeing how linked to birth and death this place was, the Winter Solstice might have been a celebration of life’s cycles, the victory of life over death or even the marriage of the Sun and the Earth, which leads to fertility.
Nowadays, anyone can relive this magical moment as people did 5,000 years ago by visiting Newgrange on the Winter Solstice and seeing the sunrise from the outside of the tomb. Only a lucky few can go inside and the only way to do this is by participating in their Winter Solstice lottery draw, so best of luck if you decide to give it a try! (and don’t forget to take loads of pictures so the rest of us can envy you in silence…)
4. The Visit doesn’t end with Newgrange!
Newgrange isn’t the only passage tomb at Brú na Bóinne, there are as many as 35 in the area! The two most notable tombs, other than Newgrange, are Dowth and Knowth, although only the last one is included in the official guided tour.
Knowth is the biggest passage tomb of the complex and this tomb alone is the home of more than a third of megalithic art examples in all of Western Europe.
It has two passages: one pointing to the East and another pointing to the West. This suggests that it might have been aligned with the equinoxes, unfortunately, this tomb has been inhabited multiple times up until the 12th century and its original walls were moved or destroyed over time.
Dowth is a smaller passage tomb that isn’t part of the official tour, but you can still see it if you have the chance to drive to the location. One of its two passages is aligned with the sunset around the Winter Solstice.
And if you are still hungry for more… don’t forget to have a look at the exhibition in the Visitor Centre!
5. Admire its Megalithic Art within Hand’s Reach
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should be touching everything you see carelessly! (Please, don’t be THAT person…)
Newgrange has 97 beautifully decorated kerbstones in total and, unlike other megalithic monuments, you can come as close to them as you want and admire all the details of the intricate carvings (as I said at the beginning, use caution and help to protect these stones, so everybody can do the same in the future!)
The most notorious example of these kerbstones is the Portal Stone, which features the famous triple spiral symbol, also found in the tomb’s main chamber. Although the triple spiral or triskelion is often attributed to the Celts, this symbol was carved at least 2,500 years before they arrived in Ireland.
Another two fascinating examples of these kerbstones are numbers 15 and 52 at the neighbouring tomb of Knowth. These two stones feature what is believed to be a sundial and a moon calendar respectively and are amazing examples of the incredible astronomical knowledge of these Neolithic dwellers.
Do you want to learn how the lunar calendar worked? Look at this interesting video where Chris Bruno explains how kerbstone 52 served as a calendar:
Sadly, we don’t know the meaning behind most of these carvings or their original purpose: they might be maps of the area, astronomical maps or maybe, the process of carving these patterns had a meditative, spiritual or merely decorative purpose.
Learn More About Newgrange and Brú na Bóinne
You may not be able to travel right now, but fear not! Dive deeper into the fascinating history of Newgrange in the comfort of your own home with these books:
Buy Newgrange Artwork
Are you in love with Newgrange’s mysterious art? Now you can bring its magical carvings into your home too: