While these ancient tombs continue to fascinate us, we still know very little about why they were built and what they were used for. Here is one imaginative interpretation by Antán Ó Dála an Rí.
It’s colder and wetter now. The climate has cooled. The crops are failing. To appease their fickle deities the tribesmen must make a powerful sacrifice. They stand nervously huddled within the shadowy chamber and restrain their drugged victim as outside the steadily weakening sun falls ominously to mark the end of the year. It’s 3000 B.C. and the native people fear the wrath of their Gods. They look from the selected one to the three stone basins inside the cruciform chamber and their stomachs clench with fear and anticipation. Any of them might have been chosen.
The place is Calliagh Berra’s Temple, dominant upon the top of sacred Slieve Gullion. It is the time of the setting sun of the winter solstice.
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The ancient monument, known locally as Calliagh Berra’s House, sits at an altitude of 1894ft upon the summit of Slieve Gullion, commanding a spectacular 360 degree view of the surrounding countryside. Yet the focus of this impressive structure is wholly upon the dying rays of the winter sun. Although many have visited and entered the hallowed chamber, how many know the story of this most ancient of places of worship. What follows is an attempt to shed some light upon its regal mysteries.
What exactly is ‘Calliagh Berra’s House’?
The term ‘passage tomb’ or ‘passage grave’ has been used to describe such structures yet, as with other similar constructs, there is no evidence to suggest that it was a place of burial or interment. It was, however, known to be a site of religious worship that lasted for perhaps as long as 1500-2000 years. Therefore the term ‘Passage Temple’ is perhaps more appropriate.
As the monument and its passageway are aligned with the setting sun of the winter solstice, it can be taken as fact that the purpose of the structure was to entice the favour of the God of the Sun in concert with the Goddess of the Earth.
The chamber itself serves as a representation of a womb, namely that of Calliagh’s, the ancient Goddess of the winter lands. The Sun, or male principle, is channelled into the passageway. This solar phallus penetrates the darkness eventually striking the small recess at the back of the cruciform chamber in which sat a stone basin holding the ritual sacrifice.
This union between the male principle of the Sun and the female principle of the Earth was believed to encourage greater fertility of the land and increase prosperity for the people.
What were the sacrifices and how were they made?
No firm evidence exists as to what, or who, exactly was sacrificed but we can conclude from national discoveries , the discoveries in bogs for example, and those of other cultures such as the Mayans, that human sacrifice was commonplace across the planet.
It is believed that the most powerful offering when making supplication to higher powers was that of a human life, and times of crisis called for powerful offerings. At the period of construction of Calliagh’s Slieve Gullion abode the climate of the planet had cooled by as much as 2 degrees centigrade. This substantial change would have had an alarming and detrimental effect upon a superstitious populace.
The great pine forests began to disappear from higher ground and peat was deposited. Pollen analysis and radio-carbon dating of peat adjacent to the Temple show that peat had started to grow by 3265 B.C. (+/- 95). This fits with tentative suggestions for construction of the monument to the early part of the third millennium.
During an excavation in 1961 by Queen’s University, some cremated bone fragments were discovered in the inner chamber. It’s entirely plausible that ceremonies were conducted whereby certain ‘parts’ of the sacrificial offering were cremated in a pit and the ashes transferred to the altar of the stone basin located within the rear recess. The two remaining basins may have been preparatory altars. Ashes to ashes. The sunlight strikes the cremated remains within the earth’s womb and new life is symbolically created.
As to how candidates for sacrifice were chosen, nothing is known. But might an ancient lottery have been used? It would give new meaning to the phrase, ‘it could be you!’
What about Calliagh Berra, who was she?
This is an interesting and ancient conundrum with many mysteries still to be revealed.
In Gaelic, ‘cailleach’ is the word for a witch or hag, and the passage temple has been known as ‘The Witch’s House’. However, the word ‘caille’ is Gaelic for veil, and anyone who has ever observed the occurrence of low cloud or mist upon the summit may better appreciate why such a word is associated with a Goddess who has a Temple upon the summit. It seems probable that the nouns ‘caille’ and ‘cailleach’ may have evolved from the pronoun of the Goddess’ name.
The Gaelic language, in line with almost all European tongues is part of what is known as the Indo-European family of languages. This language group originated in Central Asia before moving south into what is today Pakistan and India, and west across the Middle East into Europe, eventually finding its way to Ireland. It is interesting to note that this Indo-European influence helped shape modern-day Hinduism which of course has a powerful dark Goddess known as ‘Kali’. Could it be that both Calliagh and Kali owe their origins to a strong female deity originating upon the Steppes of Asia? If so, then the Queen of the winter months, formerly a resident of south Armagh, is perhaps one of the oldest known deities in Europe. A Lady with a fine pedigree!
The ‘Berra’ aspect is open to further conjecture. It has been attributed to the Beara peninsula on the Cork/Kerry border although this seems unfeasible. It may be that ‘Berra’ comes from the Gaelic ‘biorach’ which means pointed or sharp-tongued. So then we get the description of a sharp-tongued hag or witch. It would appear that someone didn’t care much for the great Goddess, but who? In one word, Christianity.
As the new faith swept across the island it either banished or assimilated existing pagan beliefs. Thus, sacred wells became holy wells, sacred sites of worship became the locations for Christian buildings and even the ancient oral chronology of the ancient Irish people was coloured to include a biblical narrative (see Book of Invasions).
Such a chauvinist and at times misogynist religious approach meant that a powerful deity of the dark months, such as Calliagh, could find no home within the all-encompassing Christian structures. And so a revered and great female authority became demoted to the ignominious position of a sharp-tongued hag.
But Calliagh did not confine herself to south Armagh. She is to be found at the Cliffs of Moher on the Ceann Callí, and at Loughcrew in county Meath where we find Sliabh na Callí. And it seems that the great Calliagh also caught the ferry and journeyed to both Scotland and the Isle of Man. On Man, the dark queen is known as ‘Calliagh ny Groamagh’, but it is in Scotland that Calliagh has left a more lasting legacy. In Argyll and Bute she is known as ‘Cailleach nan Cruachan’, and in Perth there is a ‘Glen Cailleach’ where the goddess and one of her ‘husbands’ remain in the form of stone statues.
Yet it should be remembered that although Calliagh was a great and powerful deity, she was only one half of the dual goddess with Brighde who ruled during the summer months. Samhain (November 1st) marked the start of winter and Calliagh’s rein. Bealtain (May 1st) signalled the end of her reign and the beginning of that of Brighde.
Why was the Passage Temple situated on Slieve Gullion?
Firstly, it would appear that Calliagh is a deity associated not only with the winter months and darkness, but also with high places. The summit of Slieve Gullion provides a clear uninterrupted vista to the south-west, the direction of the setting sun during the winter solstice.
Another important factor affecting the choice of Gullion is the presence of the lough on the summit. To fully appreciate the importance of this dark pool we must remember that the ancient people were incredibly superstitious and fearful of the unknown. To them the dark and impenetrable waters of what, today, is known as Calliagh Berra’s Lough were a porthole to the underworld and the Gods that dwelt within. Given the tendency of ancient cultures across the world to make offerings in such circumstances, it can be reasonably considered that the lough on Gullion is indeed such a votive site, where ancient clans placed objects to petition favours from the deities therein.
One further factor which certainly determined the exact positioning of the temple was the pit-like recess within the bedrock of the mountain which today lies in the centre of the Temple chamber, although it is filled with debris from the collapsed roof. When excavated, this pit was found to contain black soil topped with a layer of charcoal from repeated fires. It is here that the well-cremated human remains were discovered, lending greater credence to the suggestion of human sacrifice.
Are there other similar Passage Temples in Ireland?
There are some similar constructions such as the badly damaged monument on Clermont mountain, within sight of Slieve Gullion. And, of course, the internationally famous World Heritage Site of Newgrange is of a similar form. However, none are identical to Slieve Gullion’s type of construction and thus it can be said to be completely unique, not only in Ireland, but also across Europe.
Whilst the natural recess in the floor of the sacred chamber is highly unusual, it is the length and thickness of the foundation stones used to ‘strike out’ the outline of the chamber that make Slieve Gullion so special. Whereby other monuments consist of base stones that are, on average, 3-4 inches thick, Calliagh Berra’s House is built upon stones 12+ inches thick and up to 6ft. in length. It was this extraordinary length that caused the unusual octagonal shape that the inner chamber assumed.
Today the roof has collapsed although some modern repairs were undertaken to allow safe access into the Temple. When intact, the ceiling would have risen to a height of approximately 12-13ft. above the bedrock floor. Entry is still gained, as it was over 5000 years ago, through the low passage which the blessed sun enters to mark the end of the pagan year.
How did the Passage Temple fit into ancient society?
Simply put, the Passage Temple upon Slieve Gullion was the ancient equivalent of a cathedral. The winter solstice event was similar in importance to Easter within the Christian calendar. If we consider this example we can see that a cathedral is in use throughout the year for less important rituals and it can be supposed that the Passage Temple was no different, with special reverence reserved for the winter solstice. If the lough on the summit proves to have been a votive site, then it is plausible that it may have played an important part in an elaborate ritual conducted across the entire summit.
Imagine a gathering of people, nervous with anticipation, carrying flaming torches in the creeping twilight as they perform the rituals that they believe, and hope, will ensure the good grace of their Gods. And they pray for a clear sky so that the weakening sun might reach into Calliagh’s womb and accept, and symbolically fertilize, what they have offered.
This scene does give rise to speculation that there may have been some settlements upon the upper slopes of the holy mountain. If so, they are most likely to be found upon the southern slopes, facing the sun and sheltered from the icy north winds.
How does the Passage Temple fit into modern society?
Anyone fortunate enough to have witnessed the winter solstice alignment will understand the power that such an event still wields. Rituals were conducted within that same space for perhaps more than 1500 years, that’s a lot of sacrifice.
Today, with increased interest, the site can again attract large numbers to its mysteries. Whether tourists, school groups, students of religions and mythology or simply those who enjoy a good stroll with beautiful views and some archaeological curiosity as a reward, Calliagh Berra’s House has much to offer. While there is work to be done on the monument and the trail to its companion lough, the current status and condition of both ancient cathedral and mountain provide enjoyment in abundance, helping to create a better understanding of all that our island and the Ring of Gullion has to offer.
So prepare for your light trek to the most sacred mountain in ancient Ireland. Walk where our ancestors strode more than 5000 years ago. Stand where countless victims perished to appease the pagan Gods. Gaze across spectacular scenery, breathe in the fresh air of south Armagh and say, ‘I’m here, now where’s my t-shirt?’