The strange feeling in my head began when the Historic Scotland guide said, “We can’t really call it a burial chamber as no bodies were ever found here…”
It wasn’t a headache, more of a lightness…. almost a prompting, an invitation… but for what?
I had been staring at a wolf carved in stone. The opening picture, taken later on that day, is of a jewellery copy of the ‘Maeshowe Dragon’, first etched into the stone of the Maeshowe chamber by visiting Vikings. It was dated to around AD 1150 – some two thousand years after the Neolithic settlements on Orkney were mysteriously abandoned.
Some say the dragon looks more like a wolf…
Orkney has an ancient civilisation. The origins of the sophisticated people who settled and farmed here here during the stone age – 5,000 years ago – are unclear. Their buildings were well constructed and remain in good condition today, so long after their builders’ world has gone; which is why Orkney is so special: nowhere else in Europe offers such a concentration of ancient history in so wonderful a setting.
Maeshowe is located at ‘E’, on the West Mainland. Map photographed on the Northlink Ferry to Stromness
Meashowe (pronounced Meez-How) forms the central ‘hub’ of a group of Neolithic landmarks that are sandwiched between ‘two waters’ on the larger West Island of the archipelago that is Orkney. As discussed in previous posts (see bottom of page), the open seaways were the highways of their day, and it is clear that these Neolithic people were skilled sailors as well as land-cultivators. The land of Orkney is surprisingly fertile, and the sheltered seaways would have been a haven for transportation and trade.
Orkney’s ever-present sea
Orkney is often associated with the Vikings, but they came thousands of years later, and were, themselves, fascinated by what they found. Like those of Shetland, Orkney dwellers do not even view themselves as Scottish; the Orcadian individuality is a strong one, and you can feel why when you visit this place of gentle grandeur.
The bus takes you from the excellent visitor centre to the car park of the Maeshowe mound. Taken with driver’s permission
The Meashowe ‘burial mound’ is reached by a short coach journey from the visitor centre. Ironically, the busiest road on Orkney – from Kirkwall, the capital, to Stromness, where we were staying – runs a few hundred metres past the site, so visitors are carefully shepherded to and fro to avoid the ‘heavy’ traffic. I was saddened to read at the entrance that interior photography, even without flash, is not permitted. I like to take photographs for my blogs, and always try to find unusual visual aspects that work with the text. For the interior spaces, I had to photograph the information boards in the centre – a very poor substitute for that sense of ‘being there’ that I try to convey to readers.
The low entrance to the ‘passage’. An uncomfortable experience awaits – perhaps deliberately so…
Meashowe is the finest chambered tomb in north-west Europe, but that importance needs to be felt and explored. Initially, it just looks like a fairly routine mound of no great size.
Following a short walk from the bus drop-off, you cross the road to enter the footpath leading to the site. The raised way to the entrance runs over an extensive ditch, with an exterior wall of earth. At this stage it is easy to miss these key features, but later, they make strong symbolic sense. I had a fleeting picture in my mind that this natural ‘moat’ may well have been filled with water. In ancient rites, water was a powerful symbol of the maleable and emotional sides of our human nature; and water, both fresh and salt, surrounds the land (north-east and south-west) on which Maeshowe is situated.
Entrance to such a sacred space would have been a very special – and therefore ritualised – experience. Through time it has been the role of the priest or shaman to lead those chosen through the experience in such a way that the most exposure is gained to its carefully designed and latent experiences – it’s a two way process: the initiate has to meet the real halfway…
Once at the entrance to the mound, you enter by a long, low and uncomfortable passageway. At the end of this rather difficult ordeal you come out into a different ‘place’.
The place where the ‘visitor’ emerges into the interior of the main chamber; an exact mirror image of the human birth process. (Photo taken from a board at the visitor centre, as direct photography was, sadly, not permitted)
I was immediately struck by the similarity of this experience to that of a new-born child entering its world from the Mother’s womb – similar, but in reverse: going from the outer (mundane world) to the inner (initiatic world). But it was only later, that my ‘top of the head’ feeling began to weave these threads together.
We crowded into the main chamber to hear the Historic Scotland guide deliver his excellent introduction to Maeshowe. It was built, five thousand years ago, using stone and clay, and consists of a large single chamber (whose roof collapsed and had to be reconstructed) with side-chambers. Tombs like this are sometimes called ‘passage graves’. Our guide explained that the word ‘tomb’ was speculative, since no human remains were ever found at Maeshowe. This may be because they were removed in pre-history, or it may be that Maeshowe served another purpose for this ancient community. Whatever the reason, the scale of its construction indicates its importance to the wider Neolithic population it was designed to serve.
The heart of the matter: the midwinter sunset closes the ‘old year’ before the new light emerges triumphant as the greater cycle begins, again… all is well.
I was brought to an inner silence when the Guide explained that the dominant ritualistic feature of Meashowe is that it is aligned so that the interior is filled with light from the setting sun at midwinter….
You would imagine an advanced agrarian civilisation to celebrate the summer solstice, perhaps? So why undertake the immense effort needed to create Maeshowe just to focus on the beginning of the darkest night? The answer lies in the vast importance the ancients attached to the idea of ‘order’ in the larger cycles of life. These cycles were encompassed by the movements and states of the Sun and Moon. What follows are my own thoughts, inspired by being at Meashowe.
The moon represented what I have called ‘near-life’; aspects you could feel and touch and relate to the size and powers of a human. The successful cycle of crop-growing is one of the most important, but there are many others, such as the cycle of conception to birth of a new child.
The moon cycles lived within a greater truth, the ‘far life’ of the solar cycle. The moon cycle was cold and ‘reflective’ but it illuminated the winter. The sun cycle brought an invisible energy – equated with life, itself, but a constant mystery. Nothing brought more happiness than the return of warm rays from the sun in the spring air – our May Day festivals are the descendants of this time of celebration.
And so, at Meashowe, the last rays of the old year (if there were any at all) would fall on the symbolic stones at the far end of the chamber. Perhaps one or a small group of elders; or perhaps an apprentice head priest – a child possibly – would be brought into the chamber of ‘birth’ to ‘attract’ that very light/life. If this went well, if the human met the real half-way, the human inclusion in the rite would give it completeness, and the needful world of feeding the community would receive the blessing of the greater cycle; the far life, whose kiss of warmth and food would ensure the prosperity of the Orkney peoples for the year to come…
These are my thoughts, alone. They do not carry any archeological weight. But, walking back from Meashowe to our smiling bus-driver, I felt I had touched the truth.
Link to Historic Scotland’s website.
Other parts of the Orkney series:
Part One Part Two
Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find the reality and essence of their existence via home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised.
His personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.
You’ll find friends, poetry, literature and photography there…and some great guest posts on related topics.