Tag Archives: archaeology

Easter and the Fertility Goddess

A lot of people wonder what the word ‘Easter’ means, and if you don’t already know the answer then you’re in for a surprise. Easter is actually Eostre, an ancient German fertility goddess associated with the springtime. Eostre is almost certainly a version of the ancient Babylonian goddess, Ishtar, and therefore the same as the Phoenician goddess Astarte, who was also known (in different time periods and places) as Ashtarot. According to one very reliable ancient source (preserved by the early Christian bishop, Eusebius of Caesaria):

“… Astarte set the head of a bull upon her own head as the mark of royalty, and in travelling about the world she found a star that had fallen from the sky, which she took up and consecrated in the holy island Tyre [modern day Lebanon]. And the Phoenicians say that Astarte is Aphrodite.”

My reconstruction of the so-called Burney Relief, an item of pottery, dating from 19th or 18th century BC, which is believed to show the Babylonian goddess, Ishtar. She also seems to have been associated with birds, and here is depicted as a bird-woman. Film fans will probably recognise the inspiration for the mechanical owl in Ray Harryhausen’s blockbuster 1980s movie Clash of the Titans.

This is very interesting because Aphrodite was known to the Romans as Venus and identified with the planet of the same name, which is Earth’s nearest neighbour, and which is also the brightest star in the night sky.

So, I hope you all had a happy Ishtar!

Anyhow, it is the perfect time to acknowledge both fertility and birds, and here is a little video about birds which you will see pairing off and building nests right now all around Wicklow, and further afield.

Welcome to Wicklow, Michelle Obama!

A nice surprise for us this week was the sudden announcement of the visit of the vivacious US First Lady, Michelle Obama. Today she’s getting a tour of Glendalough, a very ancient site which should have been included on the World Heritage List decades ago, but has been ignored continually by successive Irish governments, despite the importance of tourism to Ireland. Anyhow, I leave you with some photos of Glendalough I took last week, featuring my brother Owen, an archaeologist by training, and his wife, Alla.

The monastic city of Glendalough, which might actually be pre-Christian in origin despite its association with Christianity.
The monastic city of Glendalough, which might actually be pre-Christian in origin despite its association with Christianity.
Ruined church dating to 11th century.
Ruined cathedral dating from the 11th century.
The famous round tower of Glendalough. Even when you are standing near one it is extremely difficult to judge the scale of what you are looking at, but there are some people standing at the base of it, and they look absolutely tiny.
The famous round tower of Glendalough. Even when you are standing near one it is extremely difficult to judge the scale of what you are looking at, but there are some people standing at the base of it, and they look absolutely tiny. These were among the tallest structures in Europe for almost a thousand years. This one is dated to the 9th or 10th century AD, but the Glendalough complex is far older.

 

 

Winter Solstice – the end of the natural year

Today the precise time for the end of the natural year is 11.12 am Universal Time, formerly known as Greenwich Meantime (in about an hour’s time as I write this). It is our Winter Solstice and I marked it by visiting a local standing stone, which I have been studying with my brother for the past decade.

The Leabeg Stone, facing out to sea where the sun rose against a clear sky this morning at 8.37 am. UT/GMT/local time.

There does seem to be a strong alignment with the rising sun, as the flat face of the stone faces the sun, but its narrow edge points almost due south-south (it’s not perfectly flat being somewhat concave at the sea facing side). As many people will know, today has been hyped up as the end of the Mayan Calendar, and some unfortunate people have imagined this is the end of life as we know it. But it makes perfect sense that the Mayan Calendar ends today as it is the true end of the yearly solar cycle. In ancient times in Europe, and even much further afield, the sun was considered to be asleep for three days after the Solstice, with the actual rebirth, the birth of the new solar year, occuring on 25 December (most years), which you may choose to believe to be an incredible coincidence matching Christmas, if you so wish.

It has been long noted that the days immediately after do no grow noticeably longer than the day of the Solstice until a further three days have passed, so this could have something to do with it. Either way, it highlights just how important the sun is to our lives. But who were these ancients who erected these stone monuments on such a massive scale all across Ireland, and even in the difficult landscape of Wicklow? The monuments date to the Neolithic at least. The stone in the photo, which we refer to as the Leabeg Stone, is just to the north of Newcastle on the coastal plain and there are apparently references to this object in records going back to at least the 16th century. It can easily be seen from the road, especially by anybody seated on the top of the 84 double-deck bus as it makes its way either to or from Newcastle Village. Remarkably, it has an apparently related standing stone about 5 km to the west, on almost precisely the same latitudinal line. In a map you can draw and almost perfect east-west line from one stone to the other, with only five actual metres between them, which might actually be a discrepancy in the maps rather than any meaningful difference between them. Anyhow, out with the old and in with the new – happy new Solar Year to everyone!