Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Eternal Light

Long hours of darkness here in the northern latitudes focus my attention on light. I like to wake before dawn to starlight, then watch emanations from a still-distant sun displace dark slowly and quietly. First I see branches against a faint sky. Later, direct sun illuminates mountains in the west. Lastly, the sun itself rises over the hill behind me. All of it charms me as I begin the day. I end it watching again as the sun drops behind those western mountains. During its low arc across the winter sky, I’m usually somewhere else - at school or checking things around town. Sometimes I’m home to watch, but it seldom gets very high above the bare hardwoods and sparse evergreens. Much of winter’s sun is like that - filtered through branches or reflecting off something. Seen directly, it’s bright enough to hurt your eye, but not warm enough to heat your body unless you feel it through a window.

We’re used to this up north. We move around when we’re outdoors to stay warm. Indoors we hover around our own light and heat sources. Inside or out, I’m acutely aware of light lately and it’s is related to the beauty visible around me. Since I’ve been traveling the same paths for decades, it means something in me is changing what I see. I’m as busy as ever, but my mind is less cluttered. Eyesight weakens with age but I see more, paradoxically, especially when it’s lit by light from sun or moon.

Traveling in Ireland last summer, I was struck by how the ancients built monuments to the sun’s rhythms all over the island. In August, the sun didn’t set until 9:30, but at this time of year they get little more than seven hours of daylight. Just north of Dublin is a fascinating, five-thousand-year-old structure seemingly dedicated to the winter solstice - that day of the year when sunlight is weakest. Called Newgrange, it’s only one of the several so-called “passage tombs” in the vicinity of the Boyne River valley. Cremated human remains were placed inside the huge mound under a corbelled chamber made of enormous stones decorated with spirals, circles and angular etchings, the meaning of which is unknown. We know little about the people who built them except they pre-date the Celts by 2500 years.

Not much is known about the passage tombs either because they’ve only been studied during the past forty years or so, but I have an idea those ancient ones associated death with absence of light. They put cremated remains in a carved granite bowl in the chamber deep inside the mound. The only access is through a very narrow passageway flanked by huge stones. I had to turn sideways at some points because my shoulders were too wide. It’s pitch-black in the chamber, but at sunrise on the day of the winter solstice, light shines through the narrow, sixty-foot-long passage and into that chamber illuminating the ornate carvings and the human remains for seventeen minutes. It’s as if they believed that first light on the darkest day of the year might spark a resurrection.

The huge stones of the uprights and lintels making up the passageway, of the corbelled chamber, and the 97 kerbstones holding up the mound were hauled from a hundred of miles away. Local stone was available, so why did they go to all that trouble? The far-away stone doesn’t seem especially pretty or have any other obvious advantage. It’s a mystery. It’s estimated that it would have taken over three hundred workers more than twenty years to build it. They display a remarkable knowledge of astronomy, though the site predates both Stonehenge by a thousand years, and the Egyptian pyramids by five hundred years. Other upright stones and mounds are scattered about as they are all over Ireland as well as Britain, Scotland, France and Denmark.

St. Patrick is famous for using the three leaves of the shamrock to explain Christianity’s Holy Trinity. Maybe he knew of the ancient Irish triple spiral motif as well. Sun worship continued up to St. Patrick’s time and he was wise enough to incorporate it into Christianity. That’s why the Celtic cross has the sun’s image circling the point where the vertical and horizontal meet. Apparently St. Patrick emphasized connections between light and Christ. He was born under a star in Bethlehem. “I am the Way, the Truth and the Light,” He said. And, He rose from a stone tomb at first light Easter morning. Celtic crosses predominate in Irish cemeteries, including the ones with remains of my ancestors. Perhaps awareness of light is inherited.


Anonymous said...


I love the way you write.
The things you say really speak to me, and sometimes I read your articles to my children. They will be In Molly Ockett soon, and are excited for 8th grade when they will have you as a teacher. Thanks Tom, and I was wondering if you would send your articles to me through e-mail. let me know. thanks, Susan.

Tom McLaughlin said...

Thank you for the kind words, Susan. I would be happy to send you the posts, but I don't know which Susan you are. What's your email address?

Anonymous said...

...Merry Christmas Tom and all the best to you and your family today.

From the 'other' Tom.