“We atheists love this time of year like everyone else, and we actually know what we are celebrating: the rebirth of the sun, not the birth of the son.” – Dan Barker
During the summer holidays, I visited Brú na Bóinne (Palace of the Boyne) in County Meath – the passage tombs of Newgrange and Knowth- and then drove to Teamhair na Ri (The Hill of Tara), best known as the seat of the High Kings of Ireland, but also an important site from Neolithic times.
Newgrange (built more than 5000 years ago and therefore older than the Great Pyramid of Giza and Stonehenge), Knowth, and the lesser knownDowth on the same site, are Neolithic Passage Tombs built to correspond with the movement of the sun; the same is true of the small passagetomb at Tara known as Dumha na nGiall – the Mound of the Hostages.
At Newgrange, the rising sun illuminates the passage and floor of the burialchamber on the Winter Solstice, and at Dowth the passage is aligned with sunset on the Winter Solstice; at Knowth, the eastern and western passages are penetrated by the rising and setting sun and carvings there also appear to depict a lunar calendar and sundial.
These were places of ritual and ceremony, places of burial, and perhaps of new birth all closely related to changing seasons of the year. In addition, these are places of myth and magic, as Neolithic and Celtic Ireland merge into a fictional whole: Newgrange the home of the Tuatha Dé Danaan (the people of the goddess Danu) was later the birthplace of Cúchulainn, and the Kings of Ireland whose Seat was Tara were buried at Brú na Bóinne.
These are places which help us understand how the cyclical nature of thechanging seasons was intimately tied to the people’s lives; how life, birth, death and rebirth, celebration and ritual were tied to their observations of the Universe and how they sought to understand themselves by their observations of the natural world.
We know now, however, that the Earth is not a Mother, that the rivers and forests and hills and streams are not her offspring, that the sun is not a god. You are not permitted to use this language, Dan; the sun is not reborn on the Winter Solstice. There are, remember, no myths, no fairies, no witches. There can be no ritual, no ceremony, no High King, and no magic.
There is just a projection of rebirth, of eternity, and of purpose. For all of Dan’s scientific sophistication, like the pagans he redefines an impersonal, material world in the image of our own, unexplained personalities.