T is for… Tombs

I love ancient tombs. Passage tombs, wedge tombs, long barrows, dolmens… I find them all fascinating.

The entrance to...

The entrance to…

Passage tomb, Angelsey

…a passage tomb, Anglesey, Wales

Wayland's Smithy, Oxfordshire, England

Wayland’s Smithy, Oxfordshire, England

It’s usually quite a challenge for me to get to ancient sites. At Wayland’s Smithy, the road ends about a mile before the site, so we dragged my wheelchair down a dirt track. (Which turned out to be rather a lot of fun!)

Why yes, I did just push myself up that muddy track behind me. Hence demonstrating how all the mud transferred to me.

Why yes, I did just push myself up that muddy track.

Wayland’s Smithy is an ancient Neolithic long barrow. Wayland is an Anglo-Saxon god who was ‘demoted’ to an elf, and then to a shadowy magical smith of local folklore. (So do we remember our ancient gods.) This is said to be his barrow. Local folklore says that if you leave a horse at his barrow overnight, along with a silver coin, it will be re-shod by morning.[1]


Wayland’s Smithy – a chamber on the edge of the barrow

Wayland's Smithy - outside the barrow

Wayland’s Smithy – outside the barrow

For me, it’s incredible to see people coming back to these sites again and again. It also makes sense, though. They feel like deeply mystical but incredibly paradoxical places – of death, of magic, of the daoine sídhe. They’re beautiful and Otherworldly, but they’re also absolutely terrifying.

I met a Christian woman at Wayland’s Smithy who was walking across the country from sacred site to sacred site. She said that of all of them that she’d visited, Wayland’s Smithy felt the most “magical”. It’s certainly not just Pagans who are drawn to these places of our ancestors, of the daoine sídhe. (A late mediaeval text has Manannan mac Lir finding homes in the hollow hills of Ireland for the dispossessed Tuatha De Danann, so that they become the aes sídhe – the people of the hills[2]. On the night I visited the passage tomb in Anglesey, pictured above, Manannan mac Lir appeared in a dream I had. It hasn’t happened since. Maybe I should spend more time at the hollow hills…)

Tara, the seat of the ancient kings of Ireland (which I really want to see soon) includes a ring barrow and a Neolithic passage tomb. Archeology shows that it was a major burial site from about the second millenium BC[3] and that later, a ‘Feast of Tara’ was celebrated there at Samhain[4]. While this feast was apparently more about kingship and the land goddess than ancestors, the two seem to be closely linked. Sovereignty is linked not just with the land and its goddess(es), but with the tradition of the ancestral kings.

Samhain is on the way, and with it, the time of the ancestors. Wiccan lore calls Samhain the final harvest – but in ancient Ireland, the last harvest would probably have passed before the feast, except for the final tying up of loose ends with storing of crops and the closing down of the farm. The festival would have been more about the slaughtering of animals, and with it, the theme of death[5]. Folk tradition shows that death and divination were central to this time of year[6]. Spirits and fairies were on the move at this time – perhaps this is related to the Norse and Saxon concept of the Wild Hunt. This was a dangerous, perilous time.

I’ve never been a big Halloween fan. I’m not really into all that ‘witchy’ stuff that explodes into the Pagan world at this time of year (even though there are some very beautiful orange-and-black things around at the moment!) I don’t feel like Samhain is the ‘witchiest time of year’. I feel like it’s the darkest, most threatening time. At this time of year, my ancestors were thinking “Am I going to survive when the harvest ends?” My concerns are a lot less serious, but there are still demons that rise with the dark and the cold – of pain, of fatigue, of depression, of risk of injury, of loneliness when I can’t leave the house because of snow or ice… And that’s before we get to Other kinds of dangers. Nature isn’t all meadows and waterfalls.

This is a time when my spirituality turns inward, away from the land and into the relative safety of the hearth, towards self-preservation and protection from ever-present danger, as the tombs open and the veil thins.

Am I ready?

Dolmen on Angelsey. Being held up by SJ.

Dolmen on Angelsey. Being held up by SJ.

[1] Marc Alexander, Foklore, Myths & Customs of Britain
[2] Mary Jones, http://www.maryjones.us/jce/otherworld.html
[3] Daithi O hOgain, Myth, Legend and Romance: An Encyclopedia of the Irish Folk Tradition
[4] Ibid.
[5] Kevin Danaher, The Year in Ireland
[6] Ibid.

2 thoughts on “T is for… Tombs

  1. I absolutely love old tombs, too. This summer I visited Tara for the first time, and revistited Newgrange for the first time in well over ten years (I used to go pretty much every year as a child). Both of them moved me beyond anything I expected.

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