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Newgrange › Ancient History

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 06 September 2015
Newgrange Entrance (Jehosua)

Newgrange is a Neolithic monument located in the region of Bru na Boinne, County Meath, Ireland. The name is fairly modern and comes from the 'newer' grange (farm) of the monks of Mellifont Abbey near Drogheda 8 miles (14 km) north.Although the abbey was closed in 1539 CE, the association of the land with the 'new farm' of the monks continued. Newgrange was constructed c. 3200 BCE, pre-dating the Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge, and is part of one of the most famous and significant megalithic complexes in Europe. There are 37 tombs located in the valley of Bru na Boinne (Mansion of the Boyne), which lies at a bend in the River Boyne and includes two other enormous structures similar to Newgrange: Knowth and Dowth. The Newgrange monument is 249 feet (76 metres) across and 39 feet (12 metres) high, covering an acre of ground (4500 square metres). The entrance leads to a 62 foot (19 metres) passage, which opens to a central chamber with three recesses (sometimes also called 'chambers') in the walls at intervals corresponding to north, west, and south.Excavations have found human cremated remains in the west recess.
Although Newgrange was originally defined as a passage tomb, it has more recently been recognized as a monument whose purpose, although it included burial of the dead, was far more significant and universal. Every year, on the days around the winter solstice on 21 December, the rising sun shines through a roofbox above the entrance to illuminate the passage within and, especially, the west recess at the back of the central chamber. The archaeologist Michael J. O'Kelly was the first person in the modern age to observe this event on 21 December 1967. O'Kelly, whose work in Bru na Boinne has done the most to advance understanding of the site, is largely responsible for the re-evaluation of Newgrange as a monument rather than strictly a tomb. The monument is properly referred to as a 'cairn', a human-made mound of stones which includes water-rolled gravel.


The tombs and monuments at Bru na Boinne were built between 3300-2800 BCE. There was an older structure on the site prior to this time, which was dismantled and its stones used in the early stages of Newgrange's construction. Of the four types of megalithic tombs as defined by archaeologists - the court tomb, portal tomb, passage tomb, and wedge tomb - only passage tombs were built at Bru na Boinne. Historians George Eogan and Peigin Doyle comment on this, writing, "The builders of passage tombs represented a separate tradition to those who built portal and court tombs. This tradition developed first along the western coastline of Europe, particularly the Iberian peninsula and Brittany, before spreading to Britain and Ireland" (10).This is especially interesting because the Celts are thought to have first arrived in Ireland from the Iberian peninsula as late as 500-300 BCE, long after Newgrange was built. This has led some to argue that the Celts arrived much earlier than supposed but could also be explained by non-Celts from the same region.
A stable community must have existed in the region to have created these massive structures. They would have been skilled stone masons with considerable wealth in order to spare the time from making a living to devote to raising the great tombs and monuments. Eogan and Doyle write:
A wide range of supporting resources would be needed: timber rollers to move the huge stones... ropes to hold them; and boats or timber to float the stones from their source, which was often far away, to the building site.Because tombs were often built on a height, many large stones would have to be brought uphill (11).
Newgrange in Bru na Boinne, Ireland

Newgrange in Bru na Boinne, Ireland

The stones used at Newgrange were brought from as far as the Wicklow Mountains in County Wicklow - 70 miles (113.9 km) south - and the Slieve Croob Mountains in County Down - 67 miles (107 km) to the north. Stones were also brought from the Mourne Mountains, 59 miles (94 km) north of the site, while gravel was quarried locally from a pit now filled with water and referred to as the figure-eight-shaped pond. The builders would have had to locate and then move the stones from the far off mountains, most likely via the Irish Sea, and then transport them inland to Bru na Boinne. All this, obviously, would require a great deal of time and effort. Michael J. O'Kelly notes that there are 97 kerb stones, "none weighing less than a tonne, and some weighing considerably more" at Newgrange and that it contains "about 200,000 tonnes of stone" total. He writes:
None of the structural slabs were quarried, all show geologically weathered surfaces except where slabs have been deliberately pick-dressed [ornamented, as with swirls or other designs]. Their weathered condition and the striae which can be seen on some of them suggest that they were collected from where they had been left lying about at the end of the Ice Age. Imagine the difficulty of finding so many suitable slabs, half-hidden as they must have been by scrub and forest, and of bringing them onto the site, mainly uphill since Newgrange is on the top of a ridge (116-117).
O'Kelly imagines a work force divided into groups of six, some of whom carried the gravel, some hunted down the slabs, others transported them, and others set them in place. When the great monument was completed, perhaps all these or none helped in erecting the facing of brilliant white quartz, which has been restored at the monument in the present day. O'Kelly states, however, that all this is pure speculation, writing, "Let no one imagine that the foregoing is any more than a guess, made in our almost total ignorance of the life-style and habits of the builders" (118). Without a written record of any kind, there is no way of determining how the monument was built, why it was constructed, or what purpose it served. All that is certain is that the people of the area dedicated at least 30 years of their lives to building Newgrange, probably more, and that it was in almost constant use as an important ritual centre following construction.



For some reason, the monument was abandoned during Ireland's early Iron Age (c. 3rd century BCE) following the arrival of the Celts. For the next 2,000 years there was no ritual activity in the region, and the fields were used by farmers such as the monks of Mellifont Abbey. Communal memory of the ritual importance of the site was strong, however, as evidenced in references to the monument in Irish legends and myths. The spirit folk, the Tuatha de Danaan (children of the goddess Dana), were said to have built Newgrange, and it is referred to as the tomb of either their chieftain Dagda Mor, his son Oengus of the Brugh, or the great god Lugh of the long arm, father of the hero Cuchulain. Cuchulainn was also thought to have been conceived at the site when Lugh visited the maiden Dechtine in a dream while she slept there. The site was imbued with magical properties and could produce food and drink (specifically ale) without end, including two pigs, one living and the other already dressed, cooked, and ready for table. In the famous Irish legend The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne, Aengus brings Diarmuid's body to Bru na Boinne for burial after the hero's death and the High Kings of Ireland, crowned at Tara, were said to be buried there up until the time of the Ui Neill's (c. 800 CE).
The site was forgotten as Gaelic language, literature, and lore was suppressed, and nearly lost, under English rule. The Norman Invasion of 1169 CE brought the English to Ireland, and their control over the life of the country steadily increased in oppressive measures until it was broken by Irish patriots in the early 20th century CE leading to the establishment of the Republic of Ireland in the 1920's. Long before the English arrival, however, ritual activity at the sites slowed and then stopped, probably owing to Christian rituals replacing pagan rites following St. Patrick's missionary work in the 5th century CE.
The great mounds of Newgrange, Knowth, and Douth and the surrounding tombs were forgotten until their discovery in 1699 CE. Michael O'Kelly describes the event in his work Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend :
The discovery of the 'cave' at Newgrange came about through the need for stones on the part of the then landowner, Charles Campbell. Realizing that such were to be found in plenty under the green sod of a prominent mound on his farm, he instructed his labourers to carry some away and in so doing the entrance to the tomb was discovered. This was in the year AD 1699. It was fortunate that at the same time the Welsh scholar and antiquary, Edward Lhwyd, was making a tour of Ireland and on being told of the discovery he came to Newgrange and took careful note of all that was to be seen and heard. He wrote to his friends about it and four of his letters are preserved, all giving substantially the same information. The first letter is dated 15 December 1699 and it is to be inferred that the `cave', as it was called, had been opened not too long before and that Lhwyd was able to obtain first-hand accounts of its discovery. He described what he saw in the same precise terms he was accustomed to use in his botanical and other studies (24).
Lhwyd was followed by Sir Thomas Molyneaux of the University of Dublin who made further observations that attracted still others. None of these scholars believed the monument of Newgrange had been built by the native people of Ireland, since the prevailing English attitude toward the Irish was that they were crude barbarians incapable of such a feat. Newgrange was attributed to the Vikings and even the Egyptians. Throughout the 18th century CE the site was visited by a number of antiquaries who speculated on the origin and purpose of the mound and, in the 19th, by still more including the scholar John O'Donovan and artist George Petrie, who made more educated appraisals of Newgrange. In 1882 CE the monument was taken under care of the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland through the Ancient Monuments Protection Act and conservation efforts were initiated.
Newgrange in Bru na Boinne, Ireland

Newgrange in Bru na Boinne, Ireland


It was not until 1962 CE that a thorough excavation of the site was begun by Michael J. O'Kelly, lasting until 1973 CE. It is O'Kelly's excavation and restoration project that resulted in the monument people visit today. In 1993 CE Newgrange was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and is the best known of the many Neolithic cairns around the world (such as Maeshowe in Scotland or Gavrinis in Brittany, among others). Access to the site is through the Bru na Boinne Visitor's Centre, which offers guided tours. Over 200,000 people visit Newgrange every year from all over the world, and a lottery is held to select those who wish to participate in the sunrise observance at the winter solstice. The number of applicants (in the many thousands) attests to the enduring allure and mystery of the great monument of Newgrange.

Excalibur › Antique Origins

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 17 May 2017
Sword (Snake3yes)

Excalibur is the sword of King Arthur in Sir Thomas Malory's iconic work Le Morte D'Arthur published in in 1485 CE. The sword was originally introduced in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain (1136 CE) as Caliburnus (or Caliburn) and further developed by later writers before Malory immortalized it in his work. The sword, from its first appearance, is a powerful weapon in the hands of a skilled warrior and retains that reputation in every story which features it.
As with many other magical or powerful swords in legend or mythology, it is identified with a single hero and should not be allowed to fall into the hands of an enemy owing to its inherent power. In the case of Excalibur, when Arthur is dying of his wounds following his battle with Mordred, it must be returned to its source, the Lady of the Lake, rather than being entrusted to whichever knight - no matter how noble - might succeed Arthur as king.
This rule does not always hold true in every version of the legend, however. In the poem Conte du Graal, Provencal poet Chretien de Troyes (c. 1130 - c. 1190 CE) makes Excalibur (called Escalibor ) Sir Gawain's weapon. In the Vulgate Cycle(1215-1235 CE) and the Post-Vulgate Cycle (c. 1230-1245 CE) Arthur presents Gawain with Excalibur who then loans it to Lancelot for his defense of Guinevere. Gawain then returns the sword to Arthur for his final battle with Mordred and, afterwards, it must be returned to the Lady of the Lake.


The concept of a "sword of power" did not originate with the Arthurian legend. Greek mythology mentions a number of magical swords and, especially, the harpe used by the titan Cronos to overthrow his father Uranus. Julius Caesar 's sword, the Crocea Mors was supposed to have supernatural powers as was the Sword of Mars wielded by Attila the Hun. The Gianjiang and Moye swords of the Chinese Spring and Autumn Period are also supposed to have been imbued with great power by their makers.


In the biblical Book of Genesis, after the Fall of Man, God sets his cherubim to stand watch to the east of the Garden of Edenalong with a flaming sword "which turned every way" to prevent Adam and Eve from returning. The Shinto storm god Susanoo finds a magical sword in the tail of a dragon and this eventually became part of the Japanese imperial regalia. Norse mythology frequently makes use of magic swords, such as Gram, the weapon of Sigmund and his son Sigurd and the Celtswove a number of magical swords into their tales, including the Claiomh Solais ( kleeve sollish ), the Sword of Light which triumphs over darkness. The 11th century CE Spanish hero El Cid was claimed to have two magic swords and the 8th century CE French champion Roland wielded his famous blade Durendal and fell with it defending the Pass of Roncevaux in the epic Song of Roland.
Although there are these precedents for earlier magical or supernaturally powerful swords, Excalibur is arguably the most famous. It is frequently associated with another Arthurian motif, the Sword in the Stone, but these are actually two different swords. In some versions of the legend, the Sword in the Stone is broken in Arthur's first battle and is replaced by Excalibur while, in others, the Sword in the Stone substantiates Arthur's right to rule (as only he can draw the blade from the rock) as the son and successor of Uther Pendragon while Excalibur serves as a symbol of his power as king.


The name Excalibur may originate in the work Culhwch and Olwen from the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh legends, if one accepts a date of composition as c. 1100 CE. The Mabinogion only exists in manuscripts from the 13th and 14th centuries, however, and some scholars date it at 1200 CE. In this tale Arthur's sword is called Caledvwich which derives from the Latin chalybs ("steel" or "iron") and means "hard cleft". Caledvwich as the name for a sword of power most likely comes from the mythological Irish blade Caladbolg (which means "voracious") carried by the king Fergus mac Roich in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology.
King Arthur & the Lady of the Lake

King Arthur & the Lady of the Lake

Geoffrey of Monmouth calls Arthur's sword Caliburnus in Medieval Latin which is a more direct use of the Latin chalybs as "steel" but denotes a particularly hard or effective blade. Essentially, by the time Geoffrey was writing, the name of Arthur's blade would be understood as "famous sword" or "great sword" because of the earlier associations of chalybs with mythological weapons.
The French poet Wace (c. 1110-1174 CE) translated Geoffrey's work into Old French vernacular and re-named the swordChaliburn. Chretien de Troyes changed the name to Escalibor. When the Arthurian legend was translated into English, Chaliburn / Escalibor became Excalibur. Malory, drawing on the Vulgate Cycle, calls Arthur's sword Excalibur shortly after Arthur has found and drawn the Sword in the Stone, linking the name with that weapon, and this association has stuck. Later, however, once this first sword is broken in battle, it is made clear that Arthur must receive the "true Excalibur" from a mystical source, the Lady of the Lake, and Merlin (who seems to be the magical force behind both swords) guides him to the place where it will be offered to him. No explanation is given as to the meaning, power, or origin of the sword and, in fact, Malory focuses more attention on the scabbard.
Whether presented as the Sword in the Stone or given by the Lady of the Lake, it is clear Excalibur comes from another realm.This motif follows from an established paradigm in Celtic lore of magical weapons, such as the spear of Cuchulain or the sword of Fergus mac Roich, having been forged in a mystical realm. The same device, however, is used in legends from many cultures around the world. The great swords of Gianjiang and Moye, for example, also have mystical origins. In the case of Excalibur, the sword develops from a mighty weapon to a symbol of divinely inspired justice and redemption. When the weapon is first mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth's work, no magical attributes are ascribed to it.


In Book IX of History of the Kings of Britain, Caliburn is first referenced as "the best of swords, that was forged within the isle of Avallon" and is listed by Geoffrey along with Arthur's other gear as an item of particular importance. As Arthur is preparing to meet the Saxons in battle at Bath, Geoffrey writes:
He did set upon his head a helm of gold graven with the semblance of a dragon. Upon his shoulders, moreover, did he bear the shield that was named Pridwen, wherein, upon the inner side, was painted the image of holy Mary, Mother of God, that many a time and oft did call her back unto his memory. Girt was he also with Caliburn, best of swords, that was forged within the Isle of Avallon; and the lance that did grace his right hand was called by the name Ron, a tall lance and stout, full meet to do slaughter withal. (188)
The Saxons have broken trust with Arthur after they had sworn a treaty of peace and so the battle is a matter of personal honor as well as a necessary defense of his realm. Geoffrey describes a hard-fought battle in which the Saxons hold the high ground and inflict heavy casualties on the Britons under Arthur. The Saxons continue to hold their position until the day is almost gone and then Arthur has finally had enough and leads a final charge on their position himself. Geoffrey writes:
Arthur waxed wroth at the stubborness of their resistance, and the slowness of his own advance, and drawing forth Caliburn, his sword, crieth aloud in the name of Holy Mary, and thrusteth him forward with a swift onset into the thickest press of the enemy's ranks. Whomsoever he touched, calling upon God, he slew at a single blow, nor did he once slacken in his onslaught until that he had slain four hundred and seventy men single-handed with his sword Caliburn. This, when the Britons beheld, they followed him up in close rank dealing slaughter on every side. (189)
Excalibur is described in more or less the same way every time it appears in a story. In Malory's work, when Arthur is attacked by King Lot, he is at first beaten until he unleashes the power of his sword:
Therewith King Lot smote down King Arthur. With that, his four knights rescued him and set him on horseback;then he drew his sword Excalibur, and it was so bright in his enemies' eyes that it gave light like thirty torches.Therewith he put them back and slew many people. (13)
Arthur confronts Lot early in Malory's version of the legend and it seems as though Excalibur is the same sword as the one Arthur earlier drew from the stone. This has caused confusion between two weapons which are often identified as the same but are not.
Excalibur, from the 1981 Film Excalibur

Excalibur, from the 1981 Film Excalibur


The concept of the Sword in the Stone was added to the Arthurian legend by the French poet Robert de Boron (12th century CE) in his Merlin. Robert de Boron presents the sword as anchored in an anvil which later writers changed to a stone. The Vulgate Cycle of the legend differentiates between the sword that Arthur drew from the stone and Excalibur and this tradition is continued in the Post-Vulgate Cycle and repeated in Malory's work.
Although Arthur's sword is identified as Excalibur early in Malory's version, it becomes clear that it is not the true Excalibur since this sword is broken in Arthur's fight with King Pellinore. Pellinore gets the best of Arthur after his sword breaks and tells him to yield but the young king will not. In order to save both their lives, Merlin puts Pellinore to sleep and then takes Arthur to receive the true Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. Arthurian scholar Norris J. Lacy writes:
In certain texts (and in popular Arthurian lore), Excalibur is also the Sword in the Stone, but such an identification is incompatible with the tradition, found, for example, in the Post-Vulgate Cycle and Malory, whereby the sword is given to Arthur (and finally taken from him) by a hand in the lake. (176)
Since Excalibur is defined by its power and strength it cannot be the same weapon which is broken in Arthur's encounter with Pellinore. Even so, according to Merlin, it is not Excalibur which is so extraordinary but its scabbard. Merlin asks Arthur, "Which pleases you better, the sword or the scabbard?" and Arthur answers, "The sword pleases me better." Merlin then rebukes him:
"Ye are the more unwise," said Merlin, "for the scabbard is worth ten of the sword. While ye have the scabbard upon you, ye shall never lose any blood, be ye ever so sorely wounded. Therefore always keep the scabbard with you." (37)
This detail becomes significant later in Malory's version of the story when Arthur's sister, Morgan le Fay, steals the scabbard.She had hoped to defeat Arthur through magic by pitting her lover Sir Accolon against Arthur, giving Accolon the true Excalibur and Arthur a fake (a plot device taken almost directly from the Irish Ulster Cycle ). When Arthur's sword breaks he knows it is not Excalibur and manages to defeat and kill Accolon. Morgan takes the magical scabbard in revenge and throws it into a lake;thus dooming Arthur in his final battle with Mordred.


The sword has become more famous than the powerful scabbard and continues as a symbol of Arthur's virtue and power.Later works, including El Cid and the Song of Roland, draw on the symbolism of Excalibur for their heroes. JRR Tolkien's famous trilogy of The Lord of the Rings relies on the symbolism of a sword of power which is broken and must be made whole to convey the concept of the return of the rightful king; a plot device which is similar to the Sword in the Stone motif where the land suffers after Uther Pendragon's death until the legitimate king is able to draw the magical sword from the stone.
Sir Bedevere Returns Excalibur to the Lake

Sir Bedevere Returns Excalibur to the Lake

More than simply a literary device, however, Excalibur has come to represent the noblest aspects of the Arthurian legend.Although it is always described as a sword of power, that power is wielded in the best interests of the people, of justice, not in the self-interest of the king. Excalibur is given to Arthur through magical means, by the Lady of the Lake; it is not a weapon forged in this world but in another. The sword comes from this other realm and, once Arthur is defeated and dying, it must be returned there. This motif is not unique to the Arthurian legend but is borrowed from Celtic tradition in which the magical weapon must be returned to its source.
In some versions of the story, the knight Sir Girflet, who has survived the final battle between Arthur and Mordred, is given the task of throwing Excalibur back into the lake; in Malory this falls to Sir Bedevere. Whether Girflet or Bedevere, Arthur's command that Excalibur be returned to where it came from goes unheeded twice since the knight he sends on the errand cannot see the sense in throwing away such a noble and powerful weapon. This failure on the part of one of Arthur's most trusted companions resonates with the Christian story of the betrayal of Christ by Judas, as it is intended to, and points to the same meaning: that the world cannot understand or appreciate the efforts of the divine will to help it rise to more than what it thinks it can be.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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