• Ali Isaac

processional pathways of ancient ireland

Updated: Aug 1, 2020

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.

A Google Earth capture of Tlachtga, Hill of Ward, Ireland, showing what remains of its four ditches and embankments.
A Google Earth capture of Tlachtga, Hill of Ward, Ireland..

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 Otherworld. 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.

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.
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: of course, an important archaeological site could only be associated with the politics and battles of male kings!

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?

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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