1I should say a few words about the name of this temple, one of three major temples built around 5,000 years ago on a bend of the river Boyne. Even in Ireland, this temple at the center of the bend is best known by its English name, Newgrange. This name refers to the function of this general area starting in the 12th century, as a satellite farm (grange means farm) owned by the Cistercian monks at Mellifont Abbey; the Cistercians held this land until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the 16th century. There are several names for this monument in medieval Irish sources (here using modern Irish spelling): Brú na Bóinne, Sí an Bhrú, Teach Mic an Óig, to mention a few. The number of names reflects the importance of this place in Irish mythology and history. Brú na Bóinne can be translated Mansion of the Boyne. But the word brú (Middle Irish bruig, brug) besides meaning house or mansion can also mean cultivated land, presumably the farmland around the dwelling (Royal Irish Academy, column 212), and Brú na Bóinne (Brug na Bóinde) is sometimes used to refer to the land around the main temple, for example, in poems in the Dindsenchas that provide an inventory of the significant monuments that fill that field. In such poems, the name of the central temple, Brú na Bóinne, was applied to the surrounding land, and the central monument itself was given some name that would adequately identify it for people who knew the mythological history of the place. And that was everyone. Everyone knew those stories. But the first group of people to introduce these monuments to the modern world were not from that culture, had not grown up with those old Irish stories. One of these men, William Wilde (1949/1849), used the name, Brú na Bóinne, not just for the field immediately surrounding the central mansion of the Boyne, but for all the land in the bend of the Boyne, including the land with the two other main temples, Cnóbha (Knowth) and Dhubhadh (Dowth), places that had their own stories, and were never included in the field identified as Brú na Bóinne. Wilde’s mistake was understandable, but, unfortunately, it has become enshrined in the name of the official Visitor’s Center that serves all of the monuments in the bend of the Boyne, Knowth and Dowth as well as Newgrange. Geraldine Stout, from whose excellent Newgrange and the Bend of the Boyne (2002) I learned much of this history, says of Wilde’s misconception that “[t]his inaccuracy has found its way into popular literature and common usage and cannot now be rectified” (p. 87). Well, I’m hoping it can be rectified, and I’m going to do my small bit by referring to that magnificent temple as Brú na Bóinne, sometimes adding Newgrange in parenthesis to make it clear what I’m referring to.

You may well ask, what difference does it make? Why make such a fuss about a name? To which my answer is, the stories are as much a part of the history of that place as are the archaeological remains. They tell us something important about the way people – generations of people - lived in that land. The land fired the imagination of poets, whose stories then revealed the shining presences that lived – that live - just beyond the surface, and recalled the heroic deeds of real and mythic ancestors buried there. It’s such an admirable, enviable way of living in a place. Why treat that heritage carelessly? And this name in particular carries so much meaning. Earlier, I pointed out that in Middle Irish, brug means a dwelling place – a noble dwelling place, a palace or mansion – and, by extension, the land around it. Brug has a Middle Irish homonym, brú, meaning belly or womb (Royal Irish Academy, columns 206-208). Stories about Brú na Bóinne bring those two sound-alike words together. It’s the place where heroes are conceived, Aengus most notably (see, for example, the selection from “Tochmarc Étaíne” in this essay), and also Cú Chullain (Hull, 1898). Aengus and Cú Chullain come from different story telling traditions, which emphasizes how strong is the association between this place and conception. And the palace/womb belongs to the river, the Boyne. It is Boand who, upon mating with the Daghda, conceives Aengus in her brug/brú. We have no idea how old that story is, or how far back the association of that temple with mating and conception goes in traditional lore. But we can look at the architecture of Brú na Bóinne, where rays from the sun penetrate a mound whose interior passages resemble female sexual organs. This happens at winter solstice, the time of year just before the earth begins to stir with new life. So the association with mating and conception is built into the structure of Brú na Bóinne itself, there from its beginning more than 5,000 years ago.

2A couple of courses in Spanish were not enough for me to understand that this was what Tata Alejandro said. Like other English speakers, I am indebted to Elizabeth Araujo, Tata Alejandro's long time disciple and translator, for making it possible to have genuine conversations with him.

3A quite different understanding of the source of political authority than both the monarchial theory of the divine right of kings, and the democratic theory that authority comes from “we the people.”

4As I learned from Rees and Rees (1961), there is a parallel story in which Conchobar's mother Nessa took the kingship of Ulster from Fergus for her son. King Fergus wanted to marry Nessa, who had already borne Conchobar to the druid, Cathbad. Nessa would marry Fergus only if he agreed to let her son be king for a year. But after the year, the kingship passed to Conchobar for good (Stokes, 1910). Interestingly, the story is told in the 12th century Book of Leinster, which has more versions of the day / night riddle than any other single source. However, though there is a clear parallel with the Aengus story, with a year's ownership standing in place of a day's, the Ulster story as told does not let the weight of the transfer rest solely on the riddle, on the confusion between the apparent and the hidden meaning of the agreed upon time period. Nessa spends the year of her infant son's reign ensuring that the men of Ulster will prefer her son to Fergus, by taking their money in Fergus's name, and giving them money in her (and her son's) name. This duplicity works, and at the end of the year, the Ulstermen choose Conchubar over Fergus as their king. But, as the Rees brothers did, I can see the day / night riddle standing behind this story, overlaid in this telling with an explanation that makes more worldly sense.

5 According to the 17th century Irish historian Seathrún Céitinn (Geoffrey Keating), Cairenn was the daughter of a king of Wales (Joynt, 1910).

6She is introduced in the text as Écess óenmná, which Joynt (1910) translates as sybil, and gives as the literal translation, “a poet (vates) of a single woman.” Interestingly, Écess has the same root as the word used to describe Torna, who saved the infant Niall and fostered him. That word is trénéces, trén meaning strong. So Úa Lothcháin, poet himself, is signaling a kinship between the otherworldly woman and Niall's poet-protector. His audience would not have found this strange; in Irish tradition, it is by virtue of his or her connection with the otherworld that the poet functions. (See Ó hÓgáin, 1982).

7The story of the hag who shape-shifts into a beautiful woman, which scholars have named the “loathly lady” theme, appears in later medieval works, perhaps most famously in “The Wife of Bath's Tale” in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. But in these later stories, the significance of the negotiations between the hero and the hag has been reduced to the question of who will rule whom in a personal relationship between two people. There's much more at stake in the story about the sons of Eochaid Mugmédon, who are being tested to see who is fit to lead the people in Ireland. This reflects the shift in the understanding of the source of political power that occurred in feudal England and elsewhere in Europe: it was no longer understood to come from a relationship with the land but from the Christian God. It's interesting to think of Eliot's The Waste Land in this context.

Anthropologist Frédérique Apffel-Marglin (2005) connects the shape-shifting woman whose mating with a man establishes him as leader with Sheela na Gig, a scary looking woman, naked, and holding open or in some way accentuating her vulva. There are more than 100 stone carvings identified as Sheela na Gigs across the countryside in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe. She can be a difficult figure for our Puritan, Victorian, and even Hollywood trained eyes to contemplate, as is seen in the way some people interpret her. I believe Apffel-Marglin is correct in identifying the chieftain-making hag of Úa Lothcháin's poem as a Sheela na Gig, and in placing her among the world-wide symbols of the primordial feminine.

8Here is O'Curry's discourse on Filidecht, which he included as a footnote in his text. “It is very difficult to find an adequate translation in the English language for the words Filedecht (pronounced nearly 'fillidecht', - the ch guttural), and Filé (which is pronounced nearly 'filley'). The word Filé (the reader will observe the pronunciation), is commonly rendered by the English word 'Poet': but it was in fact the general name applied to a Scholar in or Professor of Literature and Philosophy; the art of composition in verse, or 'Poetry', being included under the former. Perhaps the best general name to represent the Filé would be that of 'Philosopher', in the Greek sense of the word; but the term would be too vague as it is understood in modern English. Instead therefore of translating Filidecht 'Philosophy', and Filé 'Philosopher', the Irish words are retained in the following pages: the filidecht, in the knowledge of which the degree of Ollamh was the highest, in that system of education which in ancient Erinn preceded the University system of after times, included the study of law, of history, and of philosophy properly so called, as well as of languages, of music, of druidism, and of poetry in all its departments, and the practice of recitation in prose and verse; the word filé, taken by itself, abstractly, means generally a Poet, - but in connection with the system of learning the term is applied to a Saí (pron. See), in some one or more of the branches of learning included in the filedecht; so than an Ollamh would be called Filé, and so also a Drumcli, etc.; so also would a Ferleighinn, or professor of classical learning, etc. [See also Appendix no. I.]” (1861, p. 2n)

9Here is O'Curry's explanation of Flaith, which he included as a footnote in his text. “The Flaith (now pronounced nearly 'Flah') was a Noble or Landlord-Chief; a class in the ancient Irish community in many respects analogous to the Noble class in Germany, or in France before the Revolution of 1789, though the rights and privileges of the ancient Irish were by no means those of the Feudal law of the continent, which never prevailed in any form in ancient Erinn.” (1861, p. 3n)

10Here is O'Curry's explanation of Seanchaidhe, which he included as a footnote in his text. “Seanchaidhe (now pronounced nearly 'Shánchie') was the Historian or Antiquarian; and, in his character of Reciter, also the Story Teller.” (1861, p. 3n).

11You can track the way life has fallen away from the meaning of being in the way the meaning of bith has changed over the years. If you look up bith in Ó Dónaill's Foclóir Gaeilge-Bearla (1977), the standard contemporary Irish to English dictionary, you find that many of the medieval meanings have remained: for instance, world, existence, anything at all, and, as a prefix, perpetual time; and an alternate spelling for being, the verbal noun of to be. But life is no longer there as one of bith's primary meanings. However life does retain a small foothold in the meanings of bith, remarkably enough, in scientific words. The word for biology is bitheolaíocht, and several words for aspects of biology have bith prefixes: for example, bithcheimic, bithchlíomeaolaíocht - biochemistry, bioclimatology (Ó Dónaill, 1977, p. 111).

12I’ve already mentioned the work of Alwyn and Brinley Rees. It was in their Celtic Heritage (1961) that I first came across philosophical interpretations of Welsh and Irish myths, and where I first became aware of the central role of time in that philosophy. They title their introductory chapter on the subject, “Darkness and Light.” If they were still around, I'd screw up the courage to send them an e-mail suggesting they change that title, but just the title. The book remains a valuable resource.

13The modern conception of matter was most clearly articulated by Descartes (1596-1650), who described material being as “the extended thing” (Descartes, 1993/1641), that is, the being that can be understood by geometry, the particular geometry that was arising in that time. This is analytic geometry, a synthesis of Indo-Arabian number theory and Greek geometry, a mathematics to which Descartes himself made a major contribution. It is the foundation for the calculus invented some decades later by Newton and independently by Leibniz, and calculus became, as I once heard a physicist describe it, the language of physics. Einstein’s theory of general relativity called for a different geometry but did not challenge Descartes’ insight that matter is essentially geometrical. This approach to matter has been spectacularly successful. Perhaps largely because of its success, people have come to think that all of being is matter understood this way, that everything real can be understood by the right geometry. Descartes himself didn't think so. He said there were two realms of being: matter - the extended thing - and the thinking thing. (Descartes, 1993/1641). His conception of the thinking thing was not as radical as his intuition about matter. To him, the thinking thing is the immortal soul of medieval, scholastic theology. And the scholastic God is still the support of all being. But neither Descartes nor anyone after him has been able to describe the thinking thing in a way that shows its ontological connection with the extended thing - apart from their both being created - and as the age of faith gave way to the age of enlightenment, and as science focused in on the fertile field of matter opened up by the mathematics of the age, scientific interest in the thinking thing - soul, spirit - dropped away, so that today, the customary scientific attitude about thinking - consciousness - is that it is an epiphenomenon of the brain. A scientist who dares to suggest otherwise, a parapsychologist, for example, who studies conscious phenomena not dependent on the body - phenomena like extra-sensory perception and the soul's survival of bodily death - is dismissed as a pseudo-scientist. If you look, you will find that the parapsychologists have the evidence on their side (there's a good reading list at the Society for Psychical Research’s website), but this evidence doesn't fit the materialistic paradigm that prevails in science, and is not permitted to be seen.