The Ness of Brodgar

Archaeologists expose the sophisticated stone masonry of the 5000 year old Ness of Brodgar temple complex in Orkney

Archaeologists expose the sophisticated stone masonry of the 5000 year old Ness of Brodgar temple complex in Orkney

In 2008, archaeologists working within sight of the striking stone circle known as the Ring of Brodgar discovered what appears to be a massive and very important stone-built temple complex on the Ness of Brodgar. This ‘temple’ or palace contains evidence of painted masonry and among its remains have been found carved stones (including a carved stone ball), and statuary items made of red clay (and I think here of the ‘idol’ once venerated on Inniskea). The temple is associated with a massive rampart wall some 4 metres thick that runs along the edge of the Ness.

Visitors examining the remains of another sophisticated Neolithic structure in Orkney - Scara Brae.

Visitors examining the remains of another sophisticated Neolithic structure in Orkney – Scara Brae.

The discovery at the Ness of Brodgar demonstrates the sophisticated neolthic Atlantic culture’s architectural prowess already known about from the site of Scara Brae, uncovered from sand dunes in a storm during the early 20th century, and thought initially to be Roman.

The Ness of Brodgar is the thin finger of land in the middle of the map. The famous Maes Howe cairn whose chamber aligns the winter solstice lies just southeast

The Ness of Brodgar is the thin finger of land in the middle of the map. The famous Maes Howe cairn whose chamber aligns the winter solstice lies just southeast

The sophistication and scale of the Neolithic stone circles, temples, tombs and settlements across the eastern Atlantic Archipelago (ie – the British Isles and Ireland) points towards a very special culture with a deep spiritual connection to their landscape, the heavens and the cycles of the seasons.

The Céide Fields

The Céide Fields in Co. Mayo, Eire

The Céide Fields in Co. Mayo, Eire

Emerging from under the blanket bogs of Co. Mayo in Ireland, the Céide Fields represent one of the earliest sites with evidence of organised human agriculture and have been dated as nearly 6000 years old – from before the introduction of metalworking. As well as the remains of stone houses and field walls, the site is associated with the typical megalithic religious and funerary structures found throughout Atlantic Europe from this period – evidence of a particular regional culture with its own philosophy and way of life that was shared. Paleobotanical evidence points to this barren boggy landscape having once been much warmer and covered in pine forest. Other areas in Mayo and the wider ancient province of Connaught contain similar remains.

Atlantean Civilisation

In the 4th century BCE, an Athenian author and philosopher called Plato wrote a description of an ancient civilisation that was once supposed to have existed somewhere outside of the Straits of Gibraltar (known then as the ‘Pillars of Herakles’) either in or bordering the Atlantic Ocean. Plato’s narrator Critias names it the ‘Island of Atlas’ (otherwise known as ‘Atlantis’) and claims the authority for its existence to have been the Egyptians who he claimed had records of it during the 6thc BCE.

The straits of Gibraltar were known as the 'Pillars of Hercules' to the ancients - gateway to the wild Atlantic.

The straits of Gibraltar were known as the ‘Pillars of Hercules’ to the ancients – gateway to the wild Atlantic.

Plato’s story is full of embellishments of architectural prowess, size and details suggesting Atlantis to be a Hellenic style of civilisation, perhaps unsurprising given the power of Athens in his time and perhaps the story (as much as we have that survives) was meant to be an allegory of the potential for great powers to collapse when they deny their divine (philosophical) origins. Whatever the case, this is the fate of Atlantis in Plato’s tale which is returned to the elemental condition of its supposed founder, the Greek ocean god Poseidon, in a great earthquake and deluge.

The origin and fate of Atlantis and the Atlanteans has continued to intrigue and generate speculation for almost 2500 years. Many take Plato’s account at face value – that it is a literal truth as he told it and seek to locate the civilisation out in the wider Atlantic; Still others refer the tale to the very real Post-Holocene inundation which flooded the great plain known as Doggerland under what is now the southern part of the North Sea, destroying and displacing many peoples and their settlements during the late Stone Age. The speed of this inundation is not known, but it is likely gradual, with the remaining Island of Dogger Bank probably finally being submerged circa 5000BC around the time of the increase of the fabulous Neolithic Atlantic Culture.

Doggerland circa 8000BC

Doggerland circa 8000BC

Dogger Bank was probably finally submerged by rising sea levels around 5000BC. A likely candidate for Pliny's Atlantis....

Dogger Bank was probably finally submerged by rising sea levels around 5000BC. A likely candidate for Pliny’s Atlantis….


What we can be certain of is that the account deals with an self-encompassed civilisation which had its own religion and philosophy and which achieved technical greatness sufficient to leave echoes in the sophisticated classical world, among the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. The account is specific that the civilisation was Atlantic. The form of it would not therefore very likely be of the Mediterranean type implied by Plato’s Athenian-biased account. The chances are that it was something to do with the ‘Barbarian’ peoples who had developed such a sophisticated survival-relationship with the coastal regions and Island-archipelagos of Northern Europe, and left such an intriguing archaeological record of their sophisticated supra-regional culture through their ancient temples, stone circles, sophisticated field-systems and settlements, by Plato’s time largely abandoned and lost under the sands and peats of the distant islands and bogs of Europe’s Atlantic Northwest provinces. From the Orkneys to the Irish Burren, Brodgar, Newgrange, Scara Brae, Stonehenge and the the Céide Fields of County Mayo this ancient regional civilisation and its attendant religious philosophies continues to emerge from the soil and the mists of history to challenge our notions about civilisation among the ‘barbarians’.

The End of Reincarnation

The ultimate fate of Bran and his party in the medieval Irish tale Imram Brain maic Febail (‘The Voyage of Bran Mac Febal’) is that upon attaining the otherworld, when they try to return to the land of the living a great age has passed and the party are unable to set foot in the land without crumbling to dust. In other words, the Christian narrator denies them access to reincarnation. Bran is only allowed to pass on his story and then fade into legend, the narration finishing with the lines:

And from that hour his wanderings are not known.

The motif of immortality’s end appears in a modified form in the other famous Irish medieval legendary tale of the ‘Children of Lir’, who were transformed into immortal swans and cursed to travel Ireland for hundreds of years until ‘released’ by the coming of Christianity. The ‘Voyage of Bran’ leaves the state of Bran and his party indefinite, but the Children of Lir resume a withered mortal form or crumble to dust, though not usually before receiving christian confession and going to the Christian afterlife.

There are other Irish accounts of very long-lived members of ancient races receiving similar treatment. Some of these, such as in the pseudo-historical Christian narrative of the Lebor Gabála Érenn or ‘Book of Invasions’, and other related historical legends written in the middle ages, contain accounts of ‘Fintan’, one of the first settlers in Ireland who legends and stories claimed lived on in various animal and human forms until the coming of christianity. The Welsh medieval author Walter Map (De Nugis Curialum) left us the tale of King Herla which was based on similar themes as that of Bran, Finn and Caílte. The Middle Irish tale of mad pagan King Suibhne (‘Sweeney’) who literally flies around in a semi-animalistic form until released to heaven by a saint may also continue the Irish Christian tradition which told stories designed to counter a pagan belief in reincarnation.

The theme of submission of the pagan order to that of christianity occurs most strongly in the middle irish manuscript tales of the Acallam na Senórach (‘Colloquy of the Ancients’ or ‘Tales of the Elders of Ireland’ etc) which contains the majority of the ancient tales dealing with Finn and his band. It is set within a Christian framework in which the ancient giant warrior Caílte mac Rónáin (Finn’s nephew) relates tales of Finn and of the Tuatha Dé Danann to an interested St Patrick: By implication Caílte is exchanging the reality of an otherworldly existence in the pagan time frame with a Christianised legendary life in the hearafter.

All of these tales are careful to create a linkage between the old and new religious orders, again demonstrating conformity with the principles of the Christianised reformed laws of the Roman Empire propounded by Theodosius and his successors during the late classical period, during which time christianity was setting up shop in the Atlantic West of Europe. It was a theme of peaceful cohabitation of old and new which formed the skeleton of many medieval narrative and literary traditions, and managed to preserve the tenets of paganism, which after all seemed to explain everything which christianity could not and would continue to influence the folk traditions and beliefs down to modern times.

Otherworld inversions in ‘The Voyage of Bran’

The Old Irish (circa 8thC CE) literary account of the tale of a fairy woman’s invitation to hero Bran mac Febail to visit the otherworld ‘Isle of Women’ (Tír na mBan) is one of the most important containing an appearance by the enigmatic character of Manannán mac Lir (also referred to as Moninnán in the text), who was in the tale described as the Lord of the Otherworld and later also supposed to have been the Irish ‘god of the sea’, or even the founding and protector god of the Isle of Man.

In the first part of the story, an otherworld woman appears unbidden in the fortress of a legendary king named Bran Mac Febal. She bears a silver apple branch laden with blossoms which she says comes from a tree in the otherworld and hands it to Bran before reciting an ‘aisling’-style visionary account of the otherworld which inspires him to set out in search of it. This account tells how this world consists of a great island (or islands) in the west and hints that it is a mirror-reflection of our world. She predicts the liminal moment in his voyage at which he will see Manannán and at which point he will know he has arrived in the Otherworld (Kuno Meyer translation):

 At sunrise   there will come
   A fair man illumining level lands;
   He rides upon the fair sea-washed plain,
   He stirs the ocean till it is blood.

The liminal point of ‘sunrise’ is actually here the sunset of the corporal world, and she alludes to this in her description of the sea turning to ‘blood’, with the reddening sunset. It is probable that the reddening of the sea was interpreted as a figurative indication of the host of the dead going beneath the waves into the inverted Otherworld.

In the second part of the narrative (dealing with the journey), the following stanzas describe the actual moment when Bran is met and addressed by Manannán ,who rides across the waves on a chariot accompanied by a host of souls who Bran cannot see (i.e. – conducting the dead into the land beneath the waves):

Bran deems it a wondrous pleasure to travel in his coracle over a clear sea, while for me, the chariot in which I am is driving from afar over a flowery plain.

What is clear sea for the prowed ship in which Bran is, is a many flowered Mag Meall for me in a two-wheeled chariot.

Over a clear sea Bran beholds many breaking waves. I myself behold flawless red-topped flowers on Mag Mon.

Sea horses glisten in summer throughout the prospects which Bran can roam with his eye. Flowers pour forth a stream of honey in the land of Manannán mac Lir.

The sheen of the sea on which you are, the brightness of the ocean over which you voyage: it has strewn forth yellow and green; it is solid earth.

Speckled salmon leap from the womb of the white sea which you behold: they are calves, they are lovely lambs…

… Though you should see but a single chariot-rider on the many-flowered Mag Meall, on its bosom, besides him, are many steeds which you do not see.

(Translation from Early Irish Lyrics by Gerard Murphy, 2007 reprint of the 1956 first edition; I also refer the reader to the Kuno Meyer transaltions which are available online.)

By contrasting the great plain of the sea, with the great plain of his otherworld domains of Mag Meall (Honeyed Plain) or Mag Mon (Plain of ?Sports/?Delights), Manannán draws Bran (and the reader) into the Otherworld in a smooth transition that eases across the boundary between both worlds almost imperceptibly. The ensuing descriptions he gives tell of the feasting and beauty of the fairy inhabitants of this place.

    The sea, of course, is where the sun appears to Atlantic peoples to descend into in the west every day, and for this reason, Manannán is therefore depicted in this tale as the lord of the parallel world of the afterlife, where sea is land and vice versa.

 This otherworld is named in the poem (either in whole or in its part) by various names, including: Emain, Emne, Ciúin, Aircthech, Mag Findargat, Mag Argatnél, Mag Réin, Mag Mon, Mag Meal, Ildathach and Tír mBan. The diversity of names used in Celtic tales of the otherworld sometimes suggests it to be more of a western archipelago, reflecting that of the eastern Atlantic seaboard: Ireland, Britain and the Hebrides etc. However, by ascribing many names to one idea gives a special status to something magical – an indefinability that prevents its overthrow by literality. This represents the struggle between oral pagan tradition and literary Christian absolutism.

The themes of conflict between the pagan and the Christian are bubbling just below the surface throughout the poetry and prose of the ‘Voyage of Bran’. When the ‘fairy woman’ or Manannán holds the stage, they give a very persuasive account of the spirits of the otherworld, who are said to be without original sin and full of virtue. There is no indication that the Christian scribe(s) and interpreters of the tale and its poetic stanzas are seeking to Christianise the otherworld – the ultimate goal is to consign it to history, or to the world of fantasy and story:

Once the author or scribe finishes dealing with the pagan and fairy themes, the poetic stanzas go on to address christian themes of the afterlife almost as if the transcriber of the pre-historic oral versions is guilty about such content. An interlineal note in one of the surviving manuscripts of the tale even contains a supplication to the christian god: arca fuin dom Dia – ‘I ask forgiveness of my God’. The style is therefore the same as in the ‘Lament of the Sentuine Berri’, which similarly descends into expressions of Christian scribal anxieties over the apparently pagan content: Both pieces contain core doctrinal aspects of the two main characters at the heart of the pre-christian Atlantic religion.

Ancient Irish literature and legends are full of motifs of the masculine hero being inspired by the dreamy visions of a powerful otherworld female, who also frequently functions in such legends as the one who bestows sovereignty and male temporal power. The ‘Voyage of Bran’ is no exception, but where it is exceptional is that it deals with the less common theme of the god-like Manannán (or Moninnán). In the Voyage he seems to function as a walk-on part or herald who welcomes Bran to his kingdom and conducts him through the otherworld showing its sights and impressing upon him the ‘principle of inversion’ regarding the nature of the otherworld. When reconsidering the introductory stanzas spoken by the ‘fairy woman’ in Bran’s fortress in the human world, it is quite possible to conclude that Manannán’s masculine appearance in the otherworld is an inverted reflection of the fairy woman who inspires Bran while in the ‘Land of Men’: In the ‘Land of Women’ the Fairy woman becomes a Man! Such a principle appears to have powered a pagan understanding which balanced the importance of the role of the masculine and feminine, the living and the dead, night and day, summer and winter and so forth… It was a religious philosophy designed to seek harmony between the apparently polar forces of the universe.