“…in the powerful approach of spring, joyfully penetrating the whole of nature, those Dionysiac urges are awakened, and as they grow more intense, subjectivity becomes a complete forgetting of the self.”
From The Birth of Tragedy, by Friedrich Nietzsche (Whiteside (trans.) 1993, 17)
The recent Tara symposium contained a paper entitled; “A study of the morphology, metrology and archaeoastronomy of the Iron Age enclosure, Lismullin, Co. Meath”, given by Frank Prendergast, of the Dublin Institute of Technology. Frank Prendergast is an authority on the archaeoastronomy of Irish monuments, that is, the ways in which they may have been concerned with the movement, or more usually the setting and rising positions, of the sun, moon, or other heavenly bodies.
A useful way to understand the basis of this concept, is to imagine yourself as standing inside a great hemisphere, formed by the firmament above your head. Then, looking up and holding concentration for a few hours, noting that all the heavenly bodies appear to move very gradually, on girdling lines like global latitude, from east to west, pivoting around a point in the northern sky. By calculating the exact line of this celestial latitude, or declination, that touches the horizon on which your monument is orientated, you can ascertain, without ever having witnessed the event, if it indicates, or rather, indicated, a setting or rising point at, for example, solstice, equinox, or a limiting position of the moon.
Thus, on the shortest day of the year, December 21st and for the last number of years, I have been going to a small five-stone circle in the hills of West Cork. Its axial declination, in line with a pronounced ‘v‘ between the two facing hills to the south-west, was once measured, just so, by Jon Patrick, at -24.3 degrees*. Close to the exact setting point of the Bronze Age solstice sun and effective, although merely an ascribed value, in allowing a mind to imagine the fires, rituals and abandon of some wetter, western Saturnalia.
But how much more potent it is to stand there then, with the gooseflesh tingling on your cheeks and watch what the builders would have watched, at the time that they would have watched it, fastened, intoxicated, as the red-glowing weight of the sun sinks exactly where they had indicated, with their circle of stone, that it should. I deeply regret that I missed the web cast of this paper and failed to find out more, at least in that first respect, about the doomed enclosure at Lismullin.
“I passed here often when young, tired and bored
After another long day at the strand
And never looked past the gate, or did and
Saw only cattle rubbing against a post.
It would be thirty years before I knew,
Of the cobwebs spun in the morning dew.”
*Significant, although rough (allowable error of one degree), solar and lunar orientations of measured Cork/Kerry axial stone circles. The declination given for each is the most recently calculated. On the rare instances where Ruggles (1999. 217) and Patrick & Freeman (1983, 51-52) diverge over choice of axis for a site, I have used the Ruggles figure in deciding significance. ‘Target’ figures, also from Ruggles (1999, 57), are for 1000 BCE.
Winter Solstice Sunset (-23.8)
Equinox Sunset (+0.5)
Lunar Southern Minor Limit (-19.5)
Lunar Southern Major Limit (-29.85)
Patrick J. & Freeman P.R. 1983 Revised Surveys of Cork-Kerry Stone Circles Archaeoastronomy No.5 JHA xiv
Ruggles C. 1999 Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland Yale