Processional Pathways of Ancient Ireland

In October 2015, I had a very strange experience at Tlachtga, the Hill of Ward. As I walked the site, I became increasingly dizzy and developed a powerful headache. Half an hour after driving away from the site, the headache had gone and I felt fine.


Tlachtga, Hill of Ward. www.aliisaacstoryteller.com. #ancient sites #ireland

Google Earth view of Tlachtga, showing all that remains of its quadrivallate ditch and embankment system


I don’t believe I’m very receptive to picking up the energies and vibes of a place. I’m often in the presence of people who are, and it irritates me immensely that I don’t feel the power they are feeling when we stand together on an ancient site.

I was deeply affected by what I felt that day at Tlachtga, however. Here is what I wrote about it at the time:


I found myself walking the ditches as if drawn along them, almost as if they were processional walkways, rather than defensive structures. The experience left me feeling dizzy and head-achy. It was much like walking through a maze. In the ditches, the banks are still high enough that the view is completely obliterated. There was nothing to do save look at one’s feet and think. Or meditate. Or contemplate. Until one gravitated to the top of the central mound and was smacked in the chops with that view over the land.


If you want to know more about Tlachtga, click to read my post, TLACHTGA, GODDESS OF EARTH AND FIRE.

The interesting thing here, though, is not so much the energy of the place which I was clearly picking up on, but my behaviour. I naturally, without thinking, found myself drawn along the ditches between the embankments, and experienced a kind of sensory deprivation until I arrived at the top.

However, although I noted this, I dismissed it almost immediately, because I am a fanciful, imaginative writer of fiction, not a historical or archaeological or ritual expert.


The large mound at Emain Macha, known as Site B. www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

The large mound at Emain Macha, known as Site B.


Imagine my surprise, then, when I went on a field trip to EMAIN MACHA earlier this year, and our guide suggested it was possible that the ditch around the site was used as a processional walkway by which the site was approached, as it got shallower and shallower as one neared the entrance to the site.

Instantly, the memory of my experience at Tlachtga came rushing back. I was very excited. And then I came across a paper in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology by Conor Newman, and I realised that I was onto something.

Tlachtga is interesting in that it is one of only a handful of quadrivallate ring forts in Ireland. A structure surrounded by a series of four ditches and embankments is quite rare, and indicates a site which was once considered of great importance.

Excavations were carried out by the UCD School of Archaeology in 2014/15 (you can read about their findings here), which confirm that the area was very active in the pre-historic and early Medieval periods. UCD compare Tlachtga with other ‘royal sites’, specifically naming Tara.

And as you know from my recent post, THE 5 GREAT ROADS OF ANCIENT IRELAND: FACT OR MEDIEVAL FICTION?, it is now believed that Tara, and other ‘royal sites’, were approached by a a specific, specially constructed ritual processional walkway.


The Hill of Tara. (c) Ali Isaac

The Hill of Tara. (c) Ali Isaac


At Tara, this walkway is called the Teach Miodchuarta, meaning ‘banqueting hall’ in English, because the site was originally interpreted as the royal residence of Ireland’s high kings. It was thought that it was here the king would have held his feasts. We now know this is not the case.

This is how Conor Newman describes it:


Tech Midchúarta is a linear earthwork comprising two arcuate but nonetheless parallel banks, 25m to 28m apart and 203m long. Over this distance it rises more than 8m. It was made by scarping, or scraping away the soil in the middle and piling it into the two banks on either side. The result is that the whole surface of the interior has been lowered and is markedly below exterior ground level.

The banks rise to above head height, or at least the west bank still does; the east bank has been ploughed over and is considerably more denuded. The banks, therefore, are higher from the inside because the viewer is standing on a lowered surface. At irregular intervals along each bank are narrow gaps, possibly as many as 11 in total.

In its original state, one would have ascended Tech Midchúarta without being able to see out from either side. Moreover, up ahead would have been nothing other than the skyline; just like today, there would have been no indication of what awaited the traveller ascending the hill. It is, in short, a monument designed to deprive one of the otherwise celebrated views from the Hill of Tara. So doing, it removes the visitor temporarily from the familiar, outside world, into an enclosed, interior space. 


Now doesn’t that sound eerily familiar? I was blown away when I read that, because it describes pretty much my experience at Tlachtga. But what’s the deal with sensory deprivation?

Well, firstly, with nothing to distract you externally, you tend to focus inwards. This is good for concentration, for psyching one self for a performance, for meditation. But also, sensory deprivation was used in ancient times for ritual and/ or magical purposes.

So, for example, a druid would have been wrapped in a bull hide during the tarbfeis, effectively sealing him off from his physical surroundings, so that he could enter a trance and thus predict who the next high king would be.

Similarly, sensory deprivation was used in the ritual of imbas forosnaiwhen the person conducting the ritual would place their hands over their eyes in order to enter a trance and access the Oherworld. This hand position is still used today in the practice of Reiki, in order to enhance the power of the Third Eye so as to receive divine knowledge and visions.

Modern meditation techniques nearly always reduce visual stimulation; whether a guided meditation, or a personal one, eyes are required to be closed. That is done for a reason: to avoid external distraction.

When walking, however, you need your eyes open so you can see where you are going. Coincidentally, I am actually going on my first walking meditation in August. But the high walls of the ditches at Tara and Emain Macha function in much the same way so as to limit one’s range of vision, thereby eliminating external distractions.

Conor Newman sees it slightly differently. There are eleven irregularly spaced gaps in the banks of the Teach Midchuarta, which he believes are ‘windows that create, frame and therefore control what is seen and viewed’.

Through the first and second windows on the right can be seen the Ráith Ghráinne and the Cloenfherta (the Sloping Trenches), the three biggest ring-barrows at Tara, for example. Therefore, the monument not only functions as a ceremonial pathway by which the sacred site is approached, but it acts to restrict visual access to the majority of the site whilst allowing views of certain, particular monuments only.

Newman associates this with the procession of a king to the sacred site of his inauguration within the Rath na Riogh. This fits with medieval descriptions of Tara as a stronghold of High Kings. He claims the passage of the king into this most sacred enclosure at the very pinnacle of Tara symbolises his union with the sovereignty goddess, and thus with the land, whilst authorising his rule as only she can.

However, look at this picture.


Hill of Tara. www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

The ceremonial processional way known as the Teach Miodhchuarta leading to the summit of the Hill of Tara can clearly be seen at the centre top of this picture.


What if the Hill of Tara represents the swell of a female figure, containing within it an unborn foetus? The Teach Miodchuarta may represent the birth canal. Scholars are always telling us that pre-historic peoples venerated fertility; if so, is it not strange that they had no temples or holy places dedicated to it?

This theory was introduced to me recently by Christine PLouvier, author and blogger of Irish Firebrands and I have to say, I’m surprised no-one’s noticed it before. I’d love to see scholars taking it seriously and conducting a bit of study along these lines, but I suspect it would not find favour with current patriarchal thinking.

So, back to the processional pathway. What’s so special about walking? It’s a bit obvious to say they had no other means or getting there but their own two feet. There are stories of kingship rituals at Tara involving the driving of a chariot between two stones, so perhaps wheeled transport could have been used. However, there is practically no archaeological evidence of the use of chariots in Ireland, so that is highly unlikely.

Travelling to holy sites on foot, however, is extremely common, and still popular today. Think of the annual pilgrimages up Croagh Patrick, often in bare feet, sometimes on one’s knees. Think of the Camino de SantiagoThink of the medieval crusades. Think of the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

It is not unlikely that pre-Christian pagan peoples conducted pilgrimages to their holy sites, too, such as Tara, and Emain Macha, and that the five great roads which connected these sites enabled them to do so.

Perhaps they did so to honour the great fire festivals. Perhaps to honour the ancestors, communicate with their gods, conduct burials, who can say? We don’t know. But we do know that to carry out a pilgrimage is a sign of devotion, the hardship and endurance of the journey an act of penance and a sacrifice.

In his essay for The Stinging Fly, ‘Dromomania’, Brian Davey describes how walking can be a compulsion, its repetitive motion inducing a hypnotic state inciting visions. This is known as alússein in Classical Greek, leading to the term ‘halucinate’ via the Latin alucinari, meaning ‘to wander in thought’.

By contrast, solvitur ambulando is a Latin phrase meaning ‘it is solved by walking’. So walking it seems, according to Davey, serves a dual purpose: it can help you think, or  it can obliterate thought.

It is hard to know which purpose the walkways at Ireland’s ‘royal sites’ really served. What do you think? Let me know in the comments.


Refs.
Newman, Conor, ‘Procession and Symbolism at Tara: Analysis of Tech Midchúarta (The Banqueting Hall’) in the Context of the Sacral Campus’, Oxford Journal of Archaeology 26(4) 415–438 2007
Davey, Brian. ‘Dromomania’, The Stinging Fly, Issue 38, Vol. 2, Summer 2018.


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78 Comments on “Processional Pathways of Ancient Ireland

  1. Pingback: Walking the Ceremonial Path at the Hill of Tara | aliisaacstoryteller

  2. Hello Ali, my name is Deirdre Ward (daughter of the Bhaird) over the last 10-11 years my journey of ill health has resulted in me studying various forms of energy healing etc. I have been working with a Shaman here in Belfast for some time journeying and healing. I had never really felt drawn to my Bhairdic ancestral connections until I commenced this work. I am contacting you to make an enquiry, I tried via your website button to do so but (sorry I am not very IT friendly) and got the old “ERROR PAGE NOT FOUND” Unfortunately my father has very recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and I have been searching for information for him regarding our past as Bhairds. (He was always very proud of being a Mac An Bhaird) this is how I have come across your writing / website. I wondered if you knew why Tlachtga is called the hill of Ward as I would like to pass on the information to my dad. Any information would be great. I found the comments and information all very interesting (I hope to come back to them when I have a greater luxury of time) I also had a thought – I am not studied in these matters could it be that the baby buried is the child for Ulster and that that in some magical way is connected to the lack of a United Ireland …just my musings!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Deirdre, nice to meet you, and thanks for getting in touch. I’m not at all sure of the significance of the child buried in the bottom of the ditch. Archaeologists are reluctant to say if it was a sacrifice, which is unusual, they normally love ritual killings! 🤣 We have been discussing recently on the blog whether all these sites really are associated with kingship, or whether they may have been associated with fertility, pregnancy and childbirth. If these were centres for female ritual, it might explain why the remains of dead babies were found in the ditches of Tlachtga and Tara, for example. Certainly the mythology of Tlachtga is linked with childbirth, the triplet sons of the Goddess were said to have been born there. Emain Macha is associated with the birth of Macha’s twins, a daughter and son, but excavations there have not been extensive, so we don’t know if a baby might have been buried in the ditch there. With regard to the lack of a United Ireland, society was fractured right through early medieval times into the modern period. The concept of a United Ireland did not really exist until the late 18th/ early 19th centuries. Prior to medieval times, we can only guess how society organised itself, but archaeology suggests it was in fairly small clan groups allied to a chieftain, in turn to a regional overking, and so on, and that these groups were always warring, territories fluctuating etc. But its hard to be certain. As for the Hill of Ward, its an anglicisation. It was named after it’s landowner, although he was evicted by Oliver Cromwell, apparrantly. Is this your family? I’m afraid that’s the limit of my knowledge on this particular subject.

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  3. I enjoyed the conversation you had with Christine, Ali. As long as the private property owners don’t fire shots at you, i think a walk along one of the great roads with Christine would be a very enlightening experience. When I visited Tara, I never thought about it in terms of entering via a vaginal passageway. With that in mind, i hope i get to visit that wonderful place again 🙂 It’s probably why the original idea got lost in translation, because men always have to make a joke of anything involving that sort of thing.

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    • Quite possibly true, Colin! 😄 It would be very interesting to walk one of the old walkways, I’d like to walk from Tara up to Emain Macha. Maybe one day…

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  4. I think the veil between worlds/time/magic can become quite thin when we are “in tune” as you clearly are. It seems the sensory deprivation and meditative focus was enough to break through – the slight difference in vibrational frequency the cause of the headache. Total attunement would allow you to pass through(?). But then, I’m a fantasy writer too. Ha ha. What a cool experience, Ali, and one I am envious of! It’s totally fascinating and I can’t wait to visit some of these places myself one day. 🙂

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    • Actually I never thought of it quite like that, but yes, the sensory deprivation of winding my way through those ditches must have had an effect on me… like your thinking! 😁 And yes, you are a wonderful fantasy writer indeed, with a fantabulous imagination, but I’m sure you wouldn’t be making it up if you were to visit one of these places… let me know if you ever do. 😊

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    • It sure is, and to see and feel their impact after so much time. I wonder if they ever thought of the legacy they were bequething future generations.

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  5. Pingback: Living Lore reblog: Processional Pathways of Ancient Ireland ~ Ali Isaac | Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

  6. Fascinating stuff. I’m certainly a protagonist of the view that inanimate objects can store energy, memories perhaps – one of my novels plays with the concept. Yet I’ve never experienced anything personally.

    And without doubt walking, or other rhythmic activity can induce trances of sorts. On at least two occasions when out on long runs I’ve ‘lost’ a couple of miles – i.e. I could swear I never passed certain landmarks, but found myself well beyond them.

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    • That’s very interesting, Roy, about your experience of rhythmic movement when running. I think rhythmic music such as drumming might have the same effect. Funny you should say that about inanimate objects like stones holding memories. I wrote a story about that when I was in my teens although I had nothing to base it on, and I included it in one of my Conor Kelly books too. I can’t remember what that ability is called, off the top of my head. 😊

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  7. We are sensitive beings and our inner feelings are stirred and disturbed by the past , especially when that past stretches back thousands of years. Stonehenge is a famous example and the the theories about its purpose and use are numerous. We humans love using our imaginations but they can carry us into territories that are formed by the mind and are not real.

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    • That is true. Perhaps the theories we accept as true are nothing more than guesswork and wishful thinking. But its interesting and such fun to speculate, and healthy to question what is handed down as truth. We all know there is not just one truth, but many versions of it. 😊

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      • The further back in time you go the more we have to speculate. We can learn about the food they consumed , the health problems they had and the age they attained but getting inside their minds with out documented thought is guesswork.

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  8. Christine’s theory is fascinating, and I must say I thought the hills were like breasts and the whole site like a pregnant belly. It’s also highly unlikely that a people with such a reverence for fertility would have no major sites devoted to it, or even reference fertility in all the sacred site. The processional idea is one I’d go along with too. It makes so much sense. I’d love to be able to go myself and test it, not knowing whether I have any empathy at all with these things.

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    • Even if you don’t, you’d still experience the sensory deprivation of being ‘removed’ from the site while you are in the ditch. Even noises pass over your head rather than filter down to you. Perhaps being removed from the physical world allows you to move into the Otherworld. Or perhaps it allows you to focus inwards on the powerful forces within your body as you prepare to give birth. I walked during all my labours as long as I physically could. It helped. Or perhaps would be kings meditated on what it is to be a good and wise ruler as they prepared to take their crown. Who knows? 😊

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      • I can go for all of that. We have always (in our western cultures) been focused on the East as the place where true spiritual wisdom lies, Buddha, Confucius, yoga, tao, meditation and all that stuff. It seems absurd to me that there would be no equivalent in our own cultures. It’s as though we’ve been content to be axe-whirling savages with a soft romantic centre. I don’t see why there wouldn’t be just as much mysticism and self-awareness in our ancestors as in the Indians and Chinese;

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        • Jane Dougherty, I so agree with that. Mysticism is not owned by the East, and I think it’s clear that Ireland held an important aspect of deep spirituality.

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          • Ireland managed to hang onto its mythology despite Christianity too, which is something that didn’t happen with the ‘early adopter’ European countries. Maybe that’s why the Scandinavian countries have kept their pre-Christian stories, because they held Christianity at bay longer. The ‘mystic East’ has integrated its old mythologies into mainstream religion.

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            • That’s very true, but no matter how much I dislike what the early Christians did, it has to be said that one of the main reasons Ireland has retained so much of its mythology is that the Christian scribes wrote it all down. The big debate is, did they make it all up, or were they building on a body of pre-existing oral material told by the pagan seanchai?

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            • Since a lot of the Irish monks were not far removed from pagans themselves, in the early days at least when the Romans had their hands full with the fall of Rome, I reckon they probably did write down existing stories, with a bit of a spin to make them palatable to the bishop.

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            • Yes, that’s my belief too. I think they probably used and adapted them as tools to win pagan converts.

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            • I have this image of an Irish monk (with wife and kids) copying out a story he’s known all his life, and the Romanised abbot or whatever leaning over his shoulder and saying, ‘scrub that and make her a nun’, that kind of thing.

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  9. One more thing: In my scheme, the Dumha na nGiall is more in the position of the “outie” bellybutton that many women exhibit at term pregnancy. I can imagine the mound’s having been constructed as an altar, where a new mother could have offered a sacrifice in gratitude for a safe birth; or she could have brought her baby there, to present it to the gods for protection; or it could have been where a newborn would be placed in order to receive its spirit.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wow Christine, you have clearly put a LOT of thought into this. I’d love it to be true. A pre-historic women’s centre fulfilling all their needs, spiritual, physical, maternal, emotional. The two small mounds at the top of the Teach Miodchuarta are actually from an earlier feature, a ring of satellite mounds much like Knowth around a central feature where the Rath of Synods is now. The Dumha na nGiall forms part of that ring. Its a really interesting theory, and quite a radical one. I think though, if you are looking for a site which supports the inauguration of Kings, then that is what you’ll find. Its interesting that at both Tlachtga, which incidentally is associated with birth, as is Emain Macha, and Tara, the burial of a baby was found in the bottom of their ditches, although archaeologists will not say if they were sacrificial victims or not.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for providing the space here for this discussion! Your two very interesting recent posts about ancient ways and wayfaring have certainly been fruitful for me, stimulating me to organize the notes I made on such topics when I was researching Irish Firebrands, way back in 2009. Threads of themes like these will likely run through the rest of my creative writing that is set in your part of the world. I don’t comment on all of your posts, but I’ve saved quite a number of them over the years, recognizing their value for my research. I admire your perseverance in all that you do: your mind is obviously very active in many ways while your hands are busy with your many responsibilities.

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  10. Of course, there’s little or nothing to confirm why or in what order the various earthworks were originally constructed, but their shapes and orientations to one another as I interpret the map seem to best support the notion that Tara was sacred to women, not to men. Eventually, as the focus on fertility waned, people would have begun burials there, transforming the use of the site from that of the arrival of spirits to their departure from this world.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That makes sense, Christine. From what I can gather, though, there is evidence of a lot of other activity which predates the monuments we are familiar with, that can’t now be traced with the naked eye, or which have been encroached upon by those which are more obvious. If we could just get a clearer picture, we might be able to interpret it better. As it stands, a sacred centre for women certainly seems feasible. You should do some research on this!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. As a female worship center, the breast-like mounds and the prominent womb-and-baby earthworks would have involved processional pathways for women seeking fertility and successful breastfeeding. The Tech Midchuarta, with its birth canal-like shape could reasonably have served as a birthing location: It is well known that childbirth is facilitated by an upright posture and the pelvic movement associated with walking, and there would be plenty of room for that; women also need to focus on the work of giving birth, and as the process progresses, women’s spirits withdraw from the outside world, so the seclusion between the earthworks would have helped them do that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely! Allowing them to withdraw from the outside world and focus on the powerful forces within their bodies as they give birth. Walking certainly helped me. Unfortunately, I only had a dingy hospital corridor to walk up and down, no seclusion or peace. Imagine doing that at Tara!

      Liked by 1 person

      • And those forces are indeed powerful! I remember a woman I attended (as her doula), whose goal was to have an unmedicated natural childbirth at home. At one point, I reached out to her to resume a pressure-back-rub in the region of her sacrum, and as my hand approached her body, I felt a surge of power contact my skin: it felt something like what you feel when you try to put the north poles of two magnets together, but it wasn’t a feeling of being repelled (as the magnets are doing), it was as if there was a hemisphere of invisible matter that was part of her body, extending several inches above her skin.

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  12. Also, with this reversed orientation, the role of the two round mounds at the top of the large ring is in question (both are visible on the hand-drawn map, but in the photo, the one on the right is obscured by the shadows of the trees). To me, those two mounds seem to fit the plan better as breasts, eliminating the kingship-coronation theory and reverting to the fertility site theory. The patriarchal kingship notion just feels overwrought.

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    • Acvording to Mr Nrwman, that mound is obscured because the embankment of the TM is partly built over the side of it, suggesting the TM was of later construction. It also suggests that the mound was not considered of great importance by the builders of the TM.it also happens to be the one known as ‘the mound of mercenary women’, or something like that… could refer to women warriors, maybe?

      Liked by 1 person

      • “Mercenary women”! LOL – Sounds to me like somebody’s pejorative label for the power exercised by women over sexuality and fertility, inasmuch as women anciently may have been able to enforce their demands for appropriate reimbursement for sexual accommodation, as well as for the time and effort it took to provide progeny for men. “Not considered of great importance”? Well, I can imagine some spiteful males having gone to the trouble of ploughing over the mound and trying to obscure it by a later earthwork, precisely because of its ancient importance to women (whatever that may have been).

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        • Actually that did happen, although the reasons aren’t known, but undoubtedly it was religious. And not very effective. According to the Brehon laws a woman could divorce a man if he didnt, or couldn’t, fulfil his husbandly duties.

          Liked by 1 person

  13. The tradition that the phallic Lia Fáil used to lie on its side in front of the Dumha na nGiall roughly puts that mound in the position of a clitoris (and the tradition of the scream upon the footfall of the king corresponds to a cry of climax), but that wouldn’t be anatomically correct for the use of the Tech Midchuarta as a vaginal passageway for the king’s approach.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I had noticed the “vaginal” potential of the Tech Midchuarta earthworks, and it can be made to fit with the general layout of the rings and mounds, but only if you reverse the orientation of the gravid uterus to include the straight passage as a connected anatomical part. Unfortunately, this just happens to correspond with the “mating-coronation” kingship-use theory, which includes sexual intercourse between the king-elect and the sovereignty goddess.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmmm… but does it have to be anatomically correct? Perhaps its a series of representations which are connected only by theme rather than accurate physical re-creation in the landscape. It seems to me when I look at pre-historic art that the artists created more abstract and stylised representations of what they saw, rather than faithful copies of it. Symbols, really. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t all seem to ‘fit’ perfectly according to our modern eye. Eg perspective in art wasn’t even ‘invented’ until the late medieval period, in Europe anyway.

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      • I also meant “anatomically correct” in the thematic sense (rather than a scientifically physical way). It seems to me that the kingship-use idea depends on pasting the parts of the site together in a pattern that exhibits a desperate effort on the part of some unknown medieval scribe to show that sexuality can be legitimized only from the male perspective of penetration, even if the tradition of the (phallic) Lia Fáil and (clitoral) Dumha na nGiall juxtaposition is at the wrong end of the (vaginal) Tech Midchuarta to correspond to an orgasmic response by the sovereignty goddess to her being wooed and won by the king, to whom she then commits the realm.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Well there’s no getting away from it, Christine. If the TM is ever accepted as a vaginal entry way to Tara it will only be in the context of the union of the King and the sovereignty goddess, because that supports the current favourite theory. Actually, there is no archaeological evidence for the kingship theory, I believe. Scholars say all the medieval literature is pure fiction, yet some of them still cherry pick from it to support their own theories when it suits. 😆

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  15. Thank you very much for the link. As I learned about ancient Ireland through my research while writing Irish Firebrands, the legends and lore came to have a special meaning for me (Continental Celt that I am).
    To keep from overwhelming the WordPress comment feature with an extra-long reply, I’m going to break up my thoughts into sections.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Christine, your comments are fascinating! I dont have time to comment properly right now, but I’ll come back to this tonight… thank you for sharing your theory with us! 😍

      Liked by 2 people

  16. I think some places ‘call” us – and you were definitely called! When I lived in Prague, I set out with Hubs one day to find the remains of a Roman villa, which was underground somewhere in Old Town. I walked straight to it, without the help of any information or a map. Gave me goose bumps for sure!

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  17. As I was visiting our local ring of standing stones—actually part of a huge installation including several rings and processional roads—I thought about people walking that same path three thousand years ago. They might have been astonished at how little we understand of this place that to them was clearly and self-evidently so important. I’m jealous of all they knew about these incredible sites, things we’ll probably never understand.

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