Banner: Knocknarea sunset
Cairn S and Cairn T at Loughcrew photograph by Robert Welch. Caption: The main chambered cairn, diameter 116 feet, on Loughcrew Hills, Meath. Contains 28 inscribed stones.
Cairn S and Cairn T at Loughcrew. Caption: The main chambered cairn, diameter 116 feet, on Loughcrew Hills, Meath. Contains 28 inscribed stones.
Photograph by Robert Welch, © NMNI.

The Cailleach

The European megalithic monuments known as passage-graves are generally associated with a powerful older woman known as the Cailleach, Hag or Witch, who, in folklore, is always the builder and creator of the chambered cairns or megalithic burial chambers, so common in Ireland and along the Atlantic coast and seaboard. We can now say with some degree of certainty that this great female diety arrived in Ireland from the eastern end of the Mediterranean, where she was well known at least 10,000 years ago, and she has lived here comfortably, in various guises, ever since she arrived with the first farmers.

Melisandre from Game of Thrones.
Melisandre, the shape-shifting, sorceress and king-maker from Game of Thrones.

As ever, she wore red head to heel, a long loose gown of flowing silk as bright as fire, with dagged sleeves and deep slashes in the bodice that showed glimpses os a darker blood red fabric beneath. Around her throat was a red gold chocker tighter than any maester's chain, ornamented with a single red ruby. Her hair was not the orange or strawberry color of common red-haired men, but a deep burnished copper that shone in the light of the torches. Even her eyes were red.... but her skin was smooth and white, unblemished, pale as cream. Slender she was, graceful, taller than most knights, with full breasts and narrow waist and a heart-shaped face. Men's eyes that found her did not quickly look away, not even a maester's eyes. Many called her beautiful. She was not beautiful. She was red, and terrible and red.

A Clash of Kings, George R. R. Martin, 1998.

In general she is known as the Cailleach Birra or the Hag of Beare, but in the Sligo region and in the Loughcrew Hill in County Meath her true name is still remembered — here she is called the Garavogue. Her name was collected in Sligo town during the Ordnance Survey of 1837, and Garavogue is associated with the river of the same name in Sligo town. She is also known in other varients as the Red Woman and Queen Maeve in the Sligo area. An old poem by Dean Swift remembers her building the monuments on the summits the hills which bear her name, Sliabh na Cailleach in County Meath.

The Old Red Woman, played by Carice van Houten, who appears in A Game of Thrones.
When the Red Woman, played by Carice van Houten, takes off her enchanted necklace, she is revealed to be an incredibly old woman, a version of the Witch, Hag, or Cailleach named Garavogue who built the monuments at Carrowmore, and lives in her house on Sliabh Da Ean.

Lady Gregory's Red Woman

The Red Woman has become well-known in modern times with the character Melisandre, played by Carice van Houten, is the Red priestess and a major player in the Game of Thrones, where she is a powerful female sorceress. Mellisandre, who can raise or destroy players in the game of kings and thrones, is quite obviously based on Ella Young's description of the uncanny supernatural woman who encounters Fionn MacCumhal when they both hunt a wonderful Shining Beast.

When the Fianna were washed and dressed, the Red Woman brought them into a great hall, where there was the brightness of the sun and of the moon on every side. From that she brought them into another great room; and although Finn and his men had seen many grand things up to that time, they had never seen any sight so grand as what they saw in this place. There was a king sitting in a golden chair, having clothes of gold and of green, and his chief people were sitting around him, and his musicians were playing. And no one could know what colour were the dresses of the musicians, for every colour of the rainbow was in them. And there was a great table in the middle of the room, having every sort of thing on it, one better than another.

Maud Gonne.

Maud Gonne, who was used and saw herself as a female personification of Ireland, may have been the model for Ella Young's version of the Red Woman, which in turn may have influenced George R. R. Martin's Red Woman.

There was only a minimum of the conventional enchantress about her. She wore chic clothes carelessly; choosing hats was a bother; so she wound veils around her head, turban fashion. She used, as far as one could see, no cosmetics. Beauty alone could never have won her the lasting devotion of men and women, or the tribute of immortal verse that Yeats had given her...... She had three qualities that I have seen in all the real charmers I have known: she had a romantic personality; she had rich emotions; and a warm heart – indeed, one of the winning things about her was her affection for other people.

Mary Colum speaking of Maud Gonne. Image colourisation by Old Ireland in Colour.

The king rose up and gave a welcome to Finn and to his men, and he bade them to sit down at the table; and they ate and drank their fill, and that was wanting to them after the hunt they had made. And then the Red Woman rose up, and she said: "King of the Hill, if it is your will, Finn and his men have a mind to see the wonderful beast, for they spent a long time following after it, and that is what brought them here."

The Red Woman, Lady Gregory, Gods and Fighting Men, 1904.

The caracter Melisandre is a re-working of the ancient Irish goddess - and to dig back even further - the venerable original indo European or vastly Ancinent Anatolian Goddess, Inanna,

Queen Maeve's cairn on the summit of Kncoknarea.
Queen Maeve's cairn, the colossal neolithic passage-grave on the flat summit of Kncoknarea in County Sligo.

Ella Young's Shining Beast

We can find the Irish version of the story recorded as both the Red Woman by Lady Gregory, published in 1904, and the Shining Beast by Ella Young, published in America in 1929. Both of the versions give a subtly different rendering on the same basic story which recounts the dealings of Fionn Mac Cumhail, obviously outranked and outsmarted by an older and more capible deity, the Red Woman. Ella Young, a collector of folklore and mythology, brought to story to the west coast of America with her when she emigrated from Ireland in 1925. Young taught Celtic Mythology at Berkley in California for a decade from the late 1920's to the late 1930's, where she was quite possibly encountered by both Jack Vance and Frank Herbert.

The poetess and mystic, Ella Young.
A photograph of the poetess and mystic, Ella Young, who brought Irish mysticism and mythology to California in the 1920's. Young published her version of the Red Woman, which she called the Shining Beast, in 1929. Her stories went on to influence writers such as Jack Vance and George R. R. Martin.

Young, who was hated intensely by the jealous poet W. B. Yeats, had known and shared houses with Maude Gonne, and they had collaborated together on the Coming of Lugh, a Celtic Wonder Tale written by Young and illustrated by Gonne, who used her young son Sean MacBride as the model for the sungod.

At once the Fianna loosed their hounds on it; and scarcely were they giving tongue in a good chorus, when the Red Woman came on them. Whatever wonder the beast was, the woman was greater. She was more than mortal-big in stature; her hair was redder than a carbuncle stone when the light shines through it, her garments were the color of red embers; and her face had a glory of flame, like the sun in his rising.

The Shining Beast, Ella Young, 1929.

The Red Woman is a version of the ancient triple goddes, maiden, mother and crone or hag. She has control over animals and over nature.

The Great Goddess

Thanks to recent advcances in the studies of Ancient DNA, we now know with a large degree of certainty that the Irish passage-graves were built by colonizing farmers who arrived in Sligo area in great numbers, fleeing from rising sealevels and probably social unrest in the Brittany region. It is quite possible that they fought several great battles in the Sligo area for control of the island, as suggested by both the First and Second Battles of Moytura, myths which may infact be a kind of history. The earliest settlers, most likely farmers from the Carnac region in Brittany, began arriving in Sligo more than 6,000 years ago, setting up their first big camp in the causewayed enclosure at Mageheraboy by at least 4,150 BC.

What the Ballynahatty woman may have looked like.
The Ballynahatty woman, one of a large colony of the first farmers to arrive in Ireland, is a contemporary of the people who built the monuments at Carrowmore and Knocknarea. Ancient DNA has traced the ancestry of these people back to ancient Anatolia. Reconstruction by Elizabeth Black.

We also know from genetics that these farmers, ultimately originating in Anatolia, had already traveled through the Mediterranean Sea from their homelands in Ancient Turkey, the cradle of civilizations, beginning their great migration around 10,500 BC. They are the first cattle farmers, and bring a herd of domesticated cattle with them on their voyage.

The chief deity in the religion of the Irish stone age farmers is the powerful earth goddess Garavogue, associated with fertility and animal husbandry and kingship. We might think of her as Eve, Tiamat, Ishtar, or Inanna, the mother of all goddesses and a sister of the archytypical collection of powerful ladies from the near east. The invention of farming and domestication of animals saw a large and desperate group of people departing from the ways of hunting and gathering, and entering into a new relationship with farming and the Earth, only to be surprised by eclipses and rising sea levels.

The Red Woman from Ella Young's version of the story called the Shining Beast, published in 1929.
The Red Woman from Ella Young's version of the story called the Shining Beast, published in 1929.

As part of this new arrangement with their diety, the people began to plough and fertilize the earth in a manner markedly different to the ways of hunters and gatherers. The early farmers adopted a much more formal religion, and when they arrived in Western Europe a kind of fusion of symbolism occured, in and around the lands around the Bay of Biscay, where the farmers seemed to adopt some of the ideas and ideals of the Mesolithic people.

Passage-graves, a new type of monument appearing in the Brittany around 4,700 BCE, seem to represent this merging fusion of the symbolism and religious belieffs of the farming and mesolithic cultures.

Sunrise over the Ballygawley Mountains in County Sligo.
Sunrise over the Ballygawley Mountains in County Sligo from the crudely restored cairn at Listoghil.

The Sligo Settlement

When neolithic farmers began to arrive in the Sligo region some 6,000 years ago, they brought agriculture in the form of crops and domesticated cattle, wild animals in the form of red deer, the practice of building megalithic monuments, and a new religion based around an earth mother goddess in the form of the Cailleach. The oldest neolithic monument currently known on the west coast or Ireland is the causewayed enclosure at Magheraboy, which has been securely dated to 4,150 BC.

Magheraboy causewayed enclosure
The Magheraboy causewayed enclosure.

It is uncertain what precicely drew the settlement to the Sligo area, but the layout and shapes of the surrounding mountains may have played an important part. When viewed from the centre of Carrowmore, the Ballygawley mountains appear like an old woman lying down on her back. When you look at the same view from Carns Hill west, instead of the old woman, you see a much younger pregnant woman - a giant mountain goddess - lying on her back. The neolithic passage-grave known as the Witch's House forms the nipple on the breast, while the lake Lough Da Ge forms the reproductive organs. The shape of this hill may be the main reason that the neolithic colony came here.

The Cailleach's House, Ballygawley Mountains, County Sligo.
The Cailleach's House, Ballygawley Mountains, County Sligo.

The passage grave culture took root in Sligo across the Cúil Iorra peninsula where the great triple complex of Carrowmore, Knocknarea and Carns Hill are arranged along an east-west axis. By around 3,500 BC when the central monument at Carrowmore was built, the colony had spread down to Lough Arrow and the Bricklieve Mountains, where the great neolithic monuments at Heapstown, Moytura, Carrowkeel and Kesh Corran are located.

The chamber of Listoghil at Carrowmore illuminated by sunlight at Samhain.
The chamber of Listoghil at Carrowmore illuminated by sunlight at Samhain.

The Sunrise Alignment at Samhain

The great chamber of Listoghil, the central monument at Carrowmore, is oriented to the left of the Ballygawley Mountains, where Lough Dá Gé, the Lake of the Two Geese is located. The mountain peaks to the west of the lake, represent the body of the Cailleach lying flat within the landscape. Each of the four peaks, Anaghmore, Slieve Dá Eán, Silabh Dargan and Cailleach a Birra's House is capped by a neolithic cairn, the most westerly being the Cailleach's House.

Sunlight illuminates the interior of the womb / chamber at Listoghil.
Sunlight illuminates the interior of the womb / chamber at Listoghil.

At sunrise on the Samhain and Imbolc cross-quarter days, the sun rises from this most magical of lakes, and it appears that the Cailleach is giving birth to the sun from her watery womb, the bottomless enchanted lake in the mountain.

Equinox sunset over Queen Maeve's Cairn viewed from Carns Hill west.
Equinox sunset over Queen Maeve's Cairn viewed from Carns Hill west.

The Garavogue, as a landscape goddess, is remembered as being the builder of the monuments, in some stories she is the creator of the landscape. In both Sligo and Loughcrew she carries the stones down from the mountains in her white apron and uses them to construct the chambers and monuments. At both sites the passage-graves are built with glacial erratics.

The great horned kerb-stone known as the Hag's Chair.
The great horned kerb-stone known as the Hag's Chair.
Photograph by William A. Green © National Museums of Northern Ireland.

Sliabh na Cailleach

The monuments at Slaibh na Cailleach are located within a beautiful landscape with tremendous views across the plain of Ireland. The main, central or focal monument is Cairn T or Carn Bán, and this is the home of the Cailleach. A ring of large erratic kerb-stones encircles the base of a great cairn, visible from many miles all around. The kerb-stone on the northern side is a huge, horned slab of rock known as the Hag's Chair. This monolithic throne bears megalithic art, and according to legend is where the Cailleach would sit and smoke her pipe, contemplating her kingdom.

A old woman sitting on the Wishing Chair at the Giant's Causeway.
A old woman sitting on the Wishing Chair at the Giant's Causeway, in much the same way as the Cailleach named Garavogue used to sit on her throne, the Hag's Chair at Cairn T.
Photograph by Robert Welch, © NMNI.

We know, from a poem by Johnathan Swift from around 1720 celebrating the Cailleach, that her name is the Garavogue, the same lady who is found on the mountains in County Sligo.

Twelve giant elks trained to the car
Had brought the warlike dame from far
Bengore where reigned the dreadful war
When morning dawned the board was spread
With cresses nuts and berries red
And Garvogue left her heather bed
Black Ramor Crewe and glassy Sheel
Sent up the bream the brae and eel
At mid day for her ample meal
Twelve haunches of the fattest elk
Twelve measures of the richest milk
Twelve breasts of eagles from the height
Composed the meal for eve or night
Ere Finn and Gall had raised the spear
Ere Caolta chased the mountain deer
Titanic Garvogue held her sway
The feast at night the chase by day
Her pack just numbered threescore ten
No fleeter ever crossed a glen
Red Spidogue with her broad full chest
And Isogue round ribbed and the best
Determined now her tomb to build
Her ample skirt with stones she filled
And dropped a heap on Carnmore
Then stepped one thousand yards to Loar
And dropped another goodly heap
And then with one prodigious leap
Gained Carnbeg and on its height
Displayed the wonders of her might
And when approached death's awful doom
Her chair was placed within the womb
Of hills whose tops with heather bloom

The Equinox and Samhain Sunrise

The great central cairn at Loughcrew, which is known as the Hag's Cairn, has a spectacular alignment to the rising sun on both the spring and autumn equinoxes. This alignment was discovered by. American researcher Martin Brennan and his colleague Jack Robert's in 1980. As the sun rises in the sky, the beam of light flashes into the depths of the cave / womb / neolithic chamber where it strikes a beautiful panel of engraved neolithic art. The interaction is the panel of light across the ancient symbols is a profound act of communication from our stone age ancestors. The patch of light highlights various symbols and glyphs before focusing upon the main engraved sun symbol. These symbols which have defied decoding so far are obviously related to the sun, moon, and cosmological observations.

The sunstone at Loughcrew.
The equinox sun-stone at within Cairn T at the Loughcrew megalithic complex.

The Cailleach can be more difficult to spot in the Boyne Valley, where she is not tied to one specific spot. There are many landscape goddesses in the area, but no stories of great witches building the monuments, although in the myth of the building of Dowth, an enchantress casts a spell which causes the sun to stand still in the sky. The spell is broken when her brother the King is overcome with lust for her and rapes her. This act causes the sun to set and the workmen, who had been constructing an Irish tower of Babel, to put down their tools and cease work. The myths of the Boyne concern the conception of two of the major deities from Celtic mythology, Aengus Og and Cú Cullain, both of who's mothers became pregnant after mysterious events and occurances while visiting Newgrange.

Mrs. Hickey was tour guide at Newgrange for 60 years.
Mrs. Hickey, tour guide at Newgrange for 60 years, had a story about a mysterious woman with a blue apron, who used to appear at the site.

In the folklore, the Cailleach files or leaps from mountain to mountain carrying her collection of stones. On her way she passes the Bricklieve mountains, where there are many fine chambered monuments built from quarried limestone at Carrowkeel, and her sisters or cousins inhabit the Enchanted Caves at Keash Corran. She is known around the shores of Lough Cé and has an association with the megaliths on Corn ( Cairn ) Hill in County Longford. The next great assemblage of megalithic monuments is found spread out across the Loughcrew Hills, Sliabh na Cailleach, in County Meath.

Large glacial erratic at Loughcrew.
Large glacial erratic at Loughcrew.

The Loughcrew Hills, a range of hard limestone, stretch over four kilometers east to west. The Cailleach threw plenty of sandstone boulders about the hills, and these huge chunks of rock were dismantled or disarticulated by the farmers, and used to construct the chambers and cairns.

View east from Cairn U.
Cairn U looking over to Patrickstown Hill in the east, where up to twenty monuments are said to have been removed during land clearance in the 1800's.

A Journey to the Underworld

Recent research at Knowth has demonstrated that both the east and west chambers belong to a core earlier monument, with passages which were extended and elongated some years after this original monument was constructed. The west passage has a bend or kink where the original passage was extended, and these two stones are located side by side just inside the original entrance.

Carved stone in Knowth.
The complex panel of engravings known as the Guardian stone of Knowth, marking the entrance to the original monument. Note the sill stone to the right. Photo © Padraig Conway.

The so-called Guardian stone has a very similar shape and symbolism to Iberian owl-shaped plaques of which some 4,000 are known, 100 of which were included in a recent study. The stone beside it has what I have always considered to be some of the most unusual carvings in the entire Knowth collection; I suspect that the carvings may well refer to solar eclipses witnessed by the neolithic passage-grave builders. There is plenty of obvious eclipse and lunar symbolism in the east chamber.

Carved basin stone in Knowth east.
The complex carved set of engravings within and around the great basin stone in Knowth east. The symbols on this basin are highly likely to represent the coronas and flares seen during a total solar eclipse. Photo © Padraig Conway.

Frank Prendergast has demonstrated that the west passage with its long extension has no astronomical alignment, being some two weeks away from the equinox sunset positions. However, the original inner passage and chamber, according to published plans of the site, is pointing due west and would have been directly aligned to the equinox sunset; surely a point of research which would interest archaeo-astronomical researchers?

As for the owl, in Irish folklore and mythology the owl is one of the animals associated with the Cailleach, the powerful multi-tasking deity who is said to have built the monuments. Knowth is associated with the sovereignty goddess, Bui, who oversaw inauguration rituals, and she is the wife of Lugh.

Rotring ink Black&white owl wings goddess ishtar Inanna lion dove wind hair
The imported goddess Inannaa, with her owl totems and her owl feet. Inanna made an epic journey into the underworld to rescue her sister. During her voyage her body was dismantled, disarticulated and de-fleshed, before being re-assembled for a form of rebirth.

How interesting to find that the owl is also the totem of Inanna, the goddess who fulfils the same position in the mythologies of the near east. In Sumarian mythology Inanna undertakes a journey to the Underworld or Otherworld to rescue her sister. She passes through seven gates or portals on her voyage, her body is dismembered and de-fleshed during her three days in the Underworld, before she is reconstructed and restored to life. Genetic discoveries in recent years have shown that the passage-grave people had their origins in Anatolia, as did the Sumarian culture.

Inanna, also known as Ishtar or Astarte, is one of the deities heavily worshiped by the people of the Mesopotamian river valley, also known as the “black-headed” people. She goes by many names and is usually accompanied by animals. She is the twin sister of the sun god Shamash and daughter of Anu, or Enki, and Aya. She came to more prestige as time went on, following the idol of her father. She is known for her lustful sexuality and often associated with the planet Venus. In the article “Ecology of the Erotic in a Myth of Inanna,” she is described as being “queen of the night sky where she flared as a living torch, and she rules the day as well, coming down to walk about in human form among her people.” The people of Mesopotamia worshipped her for being a fierce warrior and protector of her people, as well as being the decider of the ancient civilization’s political welfare. She is not “motherly” or “nurturing,” but rather a provider for her people.

Source: ANCIENT DEITIES by Jennifer Ocampo.

Recent research has shown that the de-fleshing of dismembered bodies took place both in at Listoghil in Carrowmore and at Carrowkeel, both in County Sligo. Fascinating investigations by Robin Edgar indicate that the central monument at Carrowmore, Listoghil, and the beginnings of the Carrowkeel complex date to about the time when a full solar eclipse occurred in the skies above Sligo, in 3,574 BCE.

While these ideas can only be theories, we can never know for sure, it certainly amounts to an attractive and indeed plausible narrative to me after thirty years of investigating these monuments and their engraved symbols.

The west passage in Knowth.
The west passage in Knowth.