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by Gordon Kingston, Heritage Action.

Bachwen, Gwynedd.

Bachwen, Gwynedd.

During a recent holiday, in North Wales, I took myself away from the family for a couple of hours and visited the portal dolmen, called Bachwen, in Clynnog. While there, I noticed a pale-pink and badly crushed carcass of a crab, that something, a gull perhaps, had placed on the capstone. Then, alive and below the stone, stuck to a loose wisp of sheep’s wool and the sea-green lichen of the door, was a snail. The two creatures, or the state symbolised by each, seemed to be in juxtaposition, a reversal of the expected placement at a tomb; life now inside and death out.

A human perspective, of course. Our own lives would seem interminable, immortal even, godlike, to such as these and non-human life very much carries on, even in the grave. As does our use of symbols to represent our expectations and fears, our adjustments to the fact of our own mortality. 

Some of the earliest, solid attempts at such representation, or consideration, perhaps re-creation, of the forces of existence, may still be with us, in the form of these Early Neolithic structures. As William O’Brien (2002, 160) suggests, while discussing a different, yet similarly homogenous set of  Irish monuments and their effect on the later mythological landscape; “ Clearly, these stone monuments are inherently symbolic and so should reflect in some fundamental way the central beliefs of the religious practice concerned. These beliefs are materialised in the architecture and orientation of these monuments, and in their use-history. While the design of these monuments has functional possibilities (to receive offerings, to hold burials, to congregate people), the consistency of its execution over a wide geographical area suggests a deeper religious significance.” 

Or, if you can imagine the words of Mircea Eliade (1958, 216) to apply to the complete dolmen, rather than a single stone; “ A rock or a pebble would be the object of reverent devotion because it represented or imitated something, because it came from somewhere. Its sacred value is always due to that something or somewhere, never to its own actual existence… Their role was generally more magical than religious. Invested with certain sacred powers as a result of their origin or their shape, they were not adored, but made use of.”

The landscape setting and structural features, of this particular class of monument, have recently been investigated by Tatjana Kytmannow, who discovered the majority to be aligned along a valley, parallel or reverse-parallel to a small stream, facing either its source, a confluence or, occasionally, a pronounced bend; “… the presence of a small stream, nearly always parallel to the tomb, and the avoidance of the highest point in the vicinity in 100% of the cases, are strong indications that the precise siting was an integral part of the belief system. Slope direction and tomb orientation are preferably east, the location is in most cases in a sheltered valley and high altitudes are avoided .” (2008, 189)

The dolmen would have been surrounded, but not covered, by a cairn and the fully exposed capstone raised to slope from front to rear, either by being wedge-shaped, as here at Clynnog, or by having a lower back stone than portals, or door stone.

It has been suggested (Richards 2004, 76; Scarre 2007, 73) that the purpose of these monuments may not have been, as O’Brien also allows, in a different context above, to serve functionally after their completion, as a sepulchre for example, but instead to rest in the act of building and “raising a mythical or sacred stone from the earth into the air.” Alasdair Whittle (2004, 86) extends this argument to contend that the raising of the stones “may have had a more general metaphorical or mythical significance”, allowing their visual similarity, in several cases, to the slope of nearby mountains, but also proposing, as Eliade hints at above, that “they could be seen as a version of creation, in which the earth was raised to the sky, or an account of how sky and earth were once joined.”

Allowing Colin Richards’s contention that the stone itself was sacred and its raising was the purpose of the monument, you would have to wonder why so many sacred stones were wedge-shaped or, failing that, had to be tilted to the rear to give the same impression. Whittle’s idea does seem to fit more comfortably. He implies that the stone was sacred as a symbol, rather than in itself, but then he also comes up against the difficulty of the tilt. Imitable mountain sides are not present in the vicinity of all portal tombs and an earth raised to the sky should not always lean, lopsided, unless a very specific cosmology demanded it . Mythology, as Whittle himself reasons and ragged cloth that it is, may be one possible way to provide an answer.

Browne's Hill, Co. Carlow, facing the portals and door stone.

Browne's Hill, Co. Carlow, facing the portals and door stone.

“…it is the man who is terrorized by his sense of personal weakness who becomes concerned with divinity …the artist among primitive peoples was anything but a commentator. He was a maker of gods that had animate life, that had intrinsic meaning.” (Newman 1990, 93)

Terror due to powerlessness in the face of the inevitable, the triple absolutes of death, nature and the elements. This is what would have been universal, but what of the symbols to shape it?
Common to many ancient world-views was a preoccupation with the sacred mountain, a link, or prop, which holds up the sky, or marks the entrance to the world of the dead. If anything, then this may be the key to the symbolism of the capstone. Not the earth raised to the sky, but a symbol of the sky, only held by the tips of mountains from crushing back into the earth. Particularly evident in tripartite views of the world, that is, the division into heaven, earth and the underworld, hints of this conception come even earlier, in the likes of Kur, for example, in Neolithic Sumer. This abode of the dead, whose name signifies both ’mountain’ and ’foreign land’, was to be found “at the foot of a distant mountain in the highland beyond the northeastern borders of Sumer.” (Johnston ed., 2004, 478)

Even closer counterparts to the two portals, if they are to be considered representations of supporting mountains, were to be found in the Late Bronze Age of Ugarit (Syria-Canaan), where the underworld; ‘ars (earth), ruled by the god Mot, was located “beneath two mountains at the edge of earth”. Like the Jewish Sheol and here emphasising the tripartite structure at a single, mythical location, Mot was referred to in terms of insatiable consumption of life and flesh, having “one lip to earth, one lip to heaven… a tongue to the stars!” (Johnston ed. 2004, 479)

In Mesopotamian legend, Gilgamesh wanders then to the end of the earth, to two such mountains, after the death of Enkidu and his fright at the realisation of his own mortality (The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet IX (George trans., 1999, 71)):

“To Mashu’s twin mountains he came,
Which daily guard the rising [sun,]
Whose tops [support] the fabric of heaven,
Whose base reaches down to the Netherworld.

There were scorpion-men guarding its gate,
Whose terror was dread, whose glance was death,
Whose radiance was fearful, overwhelming the mountains –
At sunrise and sunset they guarded the sun.”

The early Greeks thought that the heavens were a disc, also supported and in perpetuity, by the condemned Titan, Atlas (Collins, 2004, 63). Or, in the words of Herodotus (Book 4, 184 (Waterfield trans. 1998, 297)); the “narrow round mountain called Mount Atlas …is said to be so tall that clouds hide its peaks from sight throughout the year, winter and summer. The local inhabitants (who are called Atlantes after the mountain) say that it is a pillar supporting the sky.”

The Egyptians regarded the sky as either a bird, a cow, a flat plane, supported by pillars, or the goddess Nut balanced, like the dolmen here at Clynnog, with its four relatively equal supports, on her feet and hands. (Collins, 2004, 62)

Even as in Norse creation mythology, as Ellis Davidson (1964, 27) relates; “From Ymir’s skull they made the dome of the sky, placing a dwarf to support it at each of the four corners and to hold it high above the earth.”

This is the point where the ragged cloth is stretched out. To accept these commonalities as conceptions also, in the British Isles of the Early Neolithic, would be to see our dolmen as possible representation of cosmos. To subsequently apply Richards’ contention, that the greater purpose lay in the construction rather than the use of a completed structure, would be to conclude that each such building process would have involved a repeat of the mythological creation.

The greater the sizes of the capstones, the closer re-creation would have been to the actual scale of creation, up to a size at which they would have become impossible to lift fully from the ground. Heaven and Earth separated and held apart, in awe, from unity. The mountains, as supports, touching and forming a bridge between each.

Browne's Hill, Co. Carlow, from the side.

Browne's Hill, Co. Carlow, from the side.

Kilmogue, Co. Kilkenny.

Kilmogue, Co. Kilkenny.

“It’s not the mission of art to copy nature, but to express it!” (de Balzac, Howard trans. 2001, 13)

Perhaps, at this point, it would be advisable to return to the other universal features enumerated by Kytmannow; the siting beside a stream, facing a source, or confluence and the avoidance of the highest ground in the locality. The features that she felt to be an indication “that the precise siting was an integral part of the belief system.” Water is an essential part of our existence, but the avoidance of the vicinity of larger rivers, for siting of dolmens, would seem to suggest that something more was intended, something that necessitated a position close to the origin of the flow or, failing that, a site where two flows met, but not where the structure could be seen from every side.

Apparent, in the mythologies related in the previous section, was the concept of distance from the mountain, or underworld. The Kur, of Sumer, was beyond its borders. The ‘ars of Ugarit and Gilgamesh’s Mashu were at the edge of the earth. If the distance was not horizontal, as, sometimes, in the case of the nether-world, then it was vertical, deep underground. Such a separation, from the world of the living, would have been physically traversable only by a mythical hero, a journey to be re-made in a trance, or a distance to be symbolised, perhaps, with the geography to hand.

The evidence is incomplete as yet but, if, as Kytmannow (2008, 186) surmises, the lack of nearby settlement traces indicate that “the preferred place for settlement is not necessarily identical with the preferred space for the erection of portal tombs”, then it could reasonably be contended that any approach, a journey, may also have been made from the other side of the higher ground. Thus, separation and great distance from the living world could also have been emphasised, depending on the route taken, by keeping the dolmen out of sight until the last moments before arrival.

The underground location of the dead was also the location of the water. A documented example of a symbolic centre, or re-creation, is the Mesopotamian temple, each one containing representations of the underground, freshwater ocean, the Apsu, and the primordial mountain that rose from it, the Duku. (Johnston ed. 2004, 253) This underground ocean also appears, almost inevitably, in the mythologies of Northern Europe.

Beneath the World Tree, in Norse mythology, was the spring of Mimir, of wisdom and understanding, the source of all the world’s rivers and the Well of Urd, the spring of fate. In Irish legend the other-world (Tir Tairngire) contained the Well of Segais, also the source of streams, wisdom and occult knowledge. (Ellis Davidson 1964, 26; Smyth 1996, 147) Then, further east, the Hittites believed that “the bank of a river, the site of the creation of humans in primeval times, was an ideal location for communication with chthonic forces …(and)… those places where watercourses disappeared underground into the limestone landscape of central Anatolia were thought to be entrances to the underworld and were therefore sacred.” (Johnston ed. 2004, 264)

In the Odyssey, Book 11 (Rieu trans. 1991, 156), Circe sends Odysseus to sail with the North Wind, across the River of Ocean to find the distant Halls of Hades, the Greek underworld, where “..,at a rocky pinnacle, the River of Flaming Fire and the River of Lamentation, which is a branch of the Waters of Styx, meet and pour their thundering streams into Acheron.” A great distance travelled to arrive beneath a pinnacle, at a confluence of streams that mark the entrance to the world of the dead.

Pentre Ifan

Pentre Ifan, Pembrokeshire.

Bachwen, Gwynedd, from the north.

Bachwen, Gwynedd, from the north.

This, then, would be the site for our dolmen of possibility, a place where the stream, through emergence, confluence, or radical change in direction already provided an entrance to the underworld, a world from where it and all other streams issued. This would be a site already sacred, where the dead could be consulted, a place where no one lived, a natural position to begin to separate the other parts of the cosmos.

The capstone, as sky, would be raised high on the points of uprights, as mountains, rising from a rocky cairn, or plateau. Their arrangement, varying slightly, depending on the local version of the cosmology, as in the Near East, would leave a chamber inside, with entrance or exit barred, as Gilgamesh found, by a gate stone. Viewed from the front of the dolmen, the blue sky would seem to rise upwards, from behind and above, to meet the stone sky at the point where the mountains supported it. Then this portion would, in turn, gradually slope downwards, like the curve of the firmament, until it reached the other horizon to the west. The abode of the setting sun.    



Dolmen of Possibility

Dolmen of Possibility


Collins, J.J. 2004 Cosmology: Time and History. In Johnston, S.I. (ed.) Religions of the Ancient World, 59-70. Belknap Press: Harvard University Press ISBN 0-674-01517-7

de Balzac, H. The Unknown Masterpiece, (trans.) Howard, R. 2001. New York Review of Books ISBN 0-940322-74-9

Eliade, M. 1958 Patterns in Comparitive Religion, (trans.) Sheed, R. 1996. Bison Books ISBN 0-8032-6733-9

Ellis Davidson, H.R. 1964 Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Pelican: Penguin

The Epic of Gilgamesh, (trans.) George, A. 1999. Penguin Classics ISBN 0-140-44919-1

Herodotus. The Histories, (trans.) Waterfield, W. 1998. Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-953566-8

Homer. The Odyssey, (trans.) Rieu, E.V. 1946 (revised 1991). Penguin Classics ISBN 0-14-044556-0

Johnston, S.I. (ed.) 2004 Religions of the Ancient World. Belknap Press: Harvard University Press ISBN 0-674-01517-7

Kytmannow, T. 2008 Portal tombs in the Landscape. The Chronology, Morphology and Landscape Setting of the Portal Tombs of Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. BAR British Series 455 ISBN 1-4073-0251-5

Newman, B. 1990 Selected Writings and Interviews, (ed.) O’Neill, J.P. University of California Press ISBN 0-520-07817-9

O’ Brien, W. 2002 Megaliths in a mythologised landscape: south-west Ireland in the Iron Age. In Scarre, C. (ed.) Monuments and Landscape in Atlantic Europe, 152-176. Routledge ISBN 0-415-27134-5

Richards, C. 2004 Labouring with monuments: constructing the dolmen at Carreg Samson, south-west Wales. In Cummings, V. & Fowler, C. (eds.) The Neolithic of the Irish Sea. Materiality and traditions of practice, 72-80. Oxbow Books ISBN 1-84217-109-7 

Scarre, C. 2007 The Megalithic Monuments of Britain and Ireland. Thames & Hudson ISBN 0-500-28666-1

Smyth, D. 1996 A Guide to Irish Mythology. Irish Academic Press ISBN 0-7165-2612-4

Whittle, A. 2004 Stones that float to the sky: portal dolmens and their landscapes of memory and myth. In Cummings, V. & Fowler, C. (eds.) The Neolithic of the Irish Sea. Materiality and traditions of practice, 81-90. Oxbow Books ISBN 1-84217-109-7


August 2009

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