Newgrange: Tomb or Initiation Chamber?

By Michael Cosser

Newgrange, the 5,000-year old megalithic "burial site" in the Boyne cemetery, County Meath, Ireland, is in the news again. This structure, standing on an acre of ground, consists of a huge pile of stones approximately 80 meters (260 feet) across, with a passage measuring 19 meters (61 feet 9 inches) ending in a chamber within the mound. This cruciform chamber was built of corbeled slabs of stone, closely resembling other corbeled 'tombs' such as those at Ile Longue in Brittany (France), Cueva de la Pastora in Spain and Maeshowe in Orkney. (See p. 132, Before Civilization: The Radiocarbon Revolution and Europe, by Colin Renfrew; Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1973, illustrated, $8.95.) The widespread incidence of such monuments is worthy of comment on its own account. It suggests that there was once a common heritage involving not only the know-how of erecting such structures, but also a similar cultural outlook.

The revival of interest in Newgrange is indicated by an article in the British scientific periodical Nature (June 7, 1974), by J. Patrick of the College of Technology, Dublin. Patrick had been asked to check the monument for possible astronomical alignments, especially relating to the sunrise at the time of the winter solstice. The author found that a few days before and continuing through a few days after the solstice, the rays of sunrise did indeed shine down the passage into the chamber, flooding it with light on the actual day. In the article he not only extolled the artistry of the carvings, but also claimed that five thousand years ago there were people in the British Isles astronomically cultured enough to observe solar cycles and capable of erecting buildings to further this interest.

The carvings alluded to perhaps could be studied in the light of a television program seen in Los Angeles early in December 1974, discussing prehistoric drawings and engraved marks on stones, pieces of bone and on walls in caves. Some of the speakers drew attention to the sophisticated quality of the work, and one of the number rejected outright the theories of others that the meanings applied either to hunting rituals or to fertility rites. Among other valid reasons to dismiss such ideas, he pointed to the inaccessibility of some of the most perfect cave specimens, to reach which he had to crawl through a low tunnel. He suggested instead that they were involved with some kind of a "metaphysical rite."

Alexander Marshack, whose book The Roots of Civilization (1972) contained the results of his long study of markings on bone, concluded there that they probably recorded cycles of phases of the moon. Over the television he traced these and other prehistoric markings to a considerable antiquity, and in underscoring their continuity over scores of thousands of years implied they transmitted a "meaning" or cultural symbolism of some kind.

If the alignment of Newgrange to the first rays of sunrise on December 21-22 seems astonishing, we should notice that other ancient structures were similarly oriented. For instance, there is the Egyptian temple hollowed out of the cliff face at Abu Simbel for Ramses II, where the rising sun used to shine down the passage and light up the four god-figures in the shrine during the solstice. This building has now been raised 200 feet above the waters of the vast new dam at Aswan as a result of the appeal by UNESCO to save it.

The Nature account lends color to the hints in the old myths about the use of caves for initiation into the Mysteries. Mounds were manmade caves, in many cases symbolizing the emergence of the soul from the womb of nature, from the darkness of immersion in matter into the light of spirit. Hence their use in the process of initiation which marked an already reached transmutation of character, and brought awareness of those stages of the unfoldment of latent qualities that had been achieved.

These caves, natural or man-made, were also used for other religious rites, both purposes being connected with the four sacred seasons of the year -- the winter and summer solstices, and the autumn and spring equinoxes. An illustration is the important commentary on the thirteenth book of Homer's Odyssey written by Porphyry and entitled On the Cave of the Nymphs. This treatise introduces us to the essential factors of the initiatory cycle, which was concerned with evoking all the potentialities within the individual so that the lower aspects of his being might be refined and made in tune with the higher. The final initiation came as the culmination of much purification of the psyche and theoretical instruction into the composition of man and the universe of which he is a part.

Porphyry states that the "cave" had two doorways, the northern being the entrance for men, and the southern the exit for gods. He describes the travels of the soul in its search for experiential wisdom and the truth of being, which includes the journey between the death and rebirth of the soul during which it circulates through the solar system as a monad or consciousness center. The same trip was made in full self-consciousness during the highest initiation.

In most countries of the world where relics of a vast antiquity exist in the form of 'holy' caves, mounds, or other such chambered edifices, it must have seemed a magical time on those occasions when the sunrise of the winter solstice witnessed the birth of an "enlightened one." In Mexico there is a great city called Teotihuacan, abandoned a long time ago, the subject of a masterly study by Mme. Laurette Sejourne. (Burning Water: Thought and Religion in Ancient Mexico) Her knowledge of the Nahuatl language and her understanding of the pre-Columbian outlook on life and human psychology enabled her to translate the name of the town as 'The City Where Men Become Gods.' This phrase indeed sums up the raison-d'etre of the ancient system of character training embodied in the cycle of the Mysteries -- the elevation of the soul.

No doubt such events take place today, although the procedures may be different. The very fiber of the aspirant is tried, every germ of good and bad in his nature is called into action. How else can anyone know himself, and the universe on the larger scale, if he does not know every hidden corner of the qualities locked up within him? if there were such a thing as a mirror to reflect a true picture of our inner nature, we would need the strength achieved from conquering our lower traits before we could face up to the effulgent radiance of the higher. But trust in that higher gives strength enough to overcome any difficulty.

No wonder that the first sunrise of the winter solstice was for the attained soul-searcher an experience that proved blinding to others standing by to greet the returning traveler. This theophany, the making visible of the shining god within, has been depicted in many ways, including the emanation of light from the head or entire figure of the 'risen one,' now a 'Christ,' a 'Buddha,' 'Great Sislam,' or whatever term was used in the past. The illumined One spoke from the depths of experience to those standing at the threshold. While they were yet unready to undergo the same tests and adventures in 'inner space,' they were prepared to receive and transmit the wisdom poured forth with compassionate abundance by their fellow man who had succeeded in his quest of finding spiritual life beyond the portals of the material.

(From Sunrise magazine, January 1975; copyright © 1975 Theosophical University Press)

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