Saturday, 28 January 2012

Maes Howe

This post was used as the basis of an article which appeared in Pagan Dawn, Imbolc 2013.

The site that epitomises midwinter in Orkney is MaesHowe as, very similarly to Newgrange in Ireland, there can be no doubt that this site was built to align on the midwinter solstice.   For the first farmers, the Neolithic peoples living 5000 years ago, this site demonstrates that midwinter was important enough for them to mark it architecturally.

MaesHowe (HY318127) is located in the parish of Stenness, in West Mainland, and is part of the World Heritage Site – the Heart of Neolithic Orkney – and as such is one of the “must sees” of Orkney, along with Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness.  MaesHowe is fairly close to the stone circles at Brodgar and Stenness, and to the “settlement” sites at Barnhouse and the Ness of Brodgar, and to a couple of individual standing stones, and could reasonably be considered to be an intrinsic part of this major “ceremonial complex” of the Neolithic.

MaesHowe today is a large grass-covered mound, surrounded by a ditch and a low bank.  Inside, entered through the single, low, stone entrance, is a stone passageway leading to a central chamber with three side cells.  MaesHowe is usually described as a chambered tomb of passage-grave form but, in the same way that a parish church may contain a crypt when in actuality it has many more functions than merely being a repository for the faithful dead, it is possible to suggest that MaesHowe may originally have had many other uses.  Access is via timed ticket and guided tour (again, similarly to Newgrange) through Historic Scotland, so it can admittedly be difficult to meditate and fully connect with the place, and (sadly but perhaps understandably) Historic Scotland don’t allow individual access or rituals at the site.

I would argue that Orkney is most famous for its Neolithic architecture, but I fully accept that, as a prehistorian, I am biased.  Nevertheless, Orkney has so many stone tombs from this period that it has been called “the Egypt of the north”.  In Orkney, there was, and is, a lack of wood suitable for building (due to lack of trees), but by a fortuitous coincidence there is an abundance of sedimentary rock that can be readily split to produce flags suitable for roofing and dry-stone walling.  Stone survives better than wood, so Orkney’s prehistoric stone architecture has survived relatively well.   It may well be that everywhere else once had as many tombs as Orkney, but Orkney’s simply survived better.

Before folk started farming, we don’t really know what they did with their dead, but once the Neolithic kicks off, the dead become more visible; in fact, in some regions (such as Wessex) it could be argued that it is only architecture for, and to, the dead that was constructed.   There is a general consensus that the Neolithic peoples disposed of some of their dead in communal tombs – with individual tombs not being predominant until the Bronze Age.  The chambered tombs of Orkney are usually interpreted as communal depositories of the dead, and there are two main types: MaesHowe types and stalled cairns, with numerous variations on both types, plus hybrids – every tomb is classifiable by type but also unique.  MaesHowe is therefore the site which provides the name for this type of tomb; it is also the largest of the MaesHowe type of tomb (the largest stalled cairn is probably Midhowe on the island of Rousay).  Communal disposal of the dead is sometimes interpreted as being evidence for an egalitarian society in the Neolithic, but this is contentious and academic careers have been built and lost through such arguments!

To get inside MaesHowe today, you enter through the original stone passage which is low and narrow and runs roughly south-west to north-east.  It is about eight metres in length and slopes gently upwards to the central chamber.  The passageway is built of stone slabs, weighing up to thirty tonnes, and one of the roofing slabs is over five metres in length – this was a prestigious engineering feat.  Unless you are very short, you need to stoop to enter MaesHowe; it is like a birthing vagina in many ways and quite claustrophobic, although not as obviously so as at the Camster Cairns (Caithness) where you have to wriggle along a tunnel to access the inner chamber.  About three metres in from the entrance, on the north side of the passage, there is an alcove containing what is interpreted as a “blocking stone” and which appears to have been designed to pivot in order to close the passage from inside, presumably for certain rituals.  This may have been for secrecy or in order to produce altered states of consciousness through auditory phenomenon.

The main chamber is about four metres square and about four metres high – quite comfortable to stand up in and house the average tour group size of about twenty people.  The walls are constructed using dry-stone walling techniques and would originally have converged to form a square corbelled ceiling.  Vikings broke in through the top of MaesHowe about 1000 years ago, destroying the original roof, and until recently MaesHowe was entered through the roof!  The Vikings also left loads of graffiti – the largest collection of Runes outside of Scandinavia ... some of it erudite ... and some of it toilet humour (which frustratingly folk are coy about translating)!  It may well have been the Vikings who removed any Neolithic human remains from the tomb too, because when the tomb was excavated in the 1860s only a piece of human skull was found. 

There are four massive upright stones at each of the corners, set into dry-stone buttresses, which may have formed part of a stone circle, or other stone construction, prior to the erection of the tomb around them.  As stated, there are three side-cells off the main chamber, whose entrances are in the middle of each of the main chamber’s walls, about a metre off the ground, one opposite the entrance passage, one to the right, and one to the left.  Each side chamber is roofed by one large slab of stone and there are three tapered stones by their entrances which have been interpreted as blocking stones.

MaesHowe is a magnificent piece of Neolithic architecture, stunning in its monumentality but, for me, its most important feature is its alignment on the setting sun at the midwinter solstice.  One of the things that makes Orkney special is that its latitude is 59 degrees north, this means that the midsummer sun rises in the north-east and sets in the north-west, whilst the midwinter sun rises in the south-east and sets in the south-west, and at the equinoxes the sun rises directly in the east and sets in the west.  If the positions of the sunrises and sunsets at both solstices are plotted and joined, they form a perfect diamond, this only happens at this latitude and this may be the origin of the Neolithic art motif of the lozenge. 

Living in a “long” house that is only three miles from MaesHowe and which is aligned north-south, I can personally vouch for noting the changing cycles of the sun through the year: the crystals I have hung in the windows provide a constantly changing light-show by which I can tell the seasons.

As stated, MaesHowe’s passageway is roughly aligned south-west to north-east, so when the midwinter sun sets in the south-west it shines directly up the passageway to illuminate the wall of the central chamber – originally it may have lit up the inside of the inner chamber.  From MaesHowe, the midwinter sun appears to set between the twin hills of the island of Hoy – these twin hills dominate the landscape of Orkney and in my imagination, from MaesHowe, they are reminiscent of a birthing woman, on her back, with her legs bent up, with the viewer looking straight at a crowning baby (I know, I know, Neolothic women probably gave birth whilst squatting).

This solar effect is an architectural feat which reveals a high level of planning, probably over many years, and an awareness of astronomy.  It is an alignment so precise, that it is more reasonable to conclude that it is purposeful, than it is to conclude that it happened by lucky accident.  As many readers will be aware, at Newgrange in Ireland it is the rising sun at midwinter solstice, and the two days either side, which illuminates the inner chamber; visitors to Newgrange also have the experience reconstructed for them with an artificial light display.  At MaesHowe, the light effect takes place at the setting of the midwinter sun for approximately a lunar month either side, so there are plenty of opportunities to see it, and there is no artificial reconstruction for summer visitors.  I state “approximately a moon either side” because no one knows how many days the light effect lasts – the effect only happens when the weather conditions are right, it has to be a clear day, so to measure it, we would have to have a clear day at sunset everyday from about mid-November to end-January ... this is VERY unlikely to happen in Orkney in winter!  To compensate, Historic Scotland offer a ticket allowing multiple tours until the visitor “gets lucky” or, more appropriately, “hits gold”.

Our first winter in Orkney was (as I have moaned plenty of times before) a difficult one on many levels.  Quite a few ferry-loupers and quite a few Orcadians migrate to sunnier climes over the harsher months and the locals tend to dare an over-winter stay as an ordeal.  We were told that if we survive our first winter, we’ll stay.  Of course, having survived that (just), we were told it was the second winter that really sorted the sheep from the goats ... more recently we’ve been told that it is only after four winters that sootheners make a real commitment to stay.  Although now when we’re asked how long we’ve been here, we get a grudging admiration: “Oh, you’ve done three winters then?”

It is not only the extreme cold (I’ve known -17 degrees) and the treacherous weather conditions that force one into isolation, but also the lack of light.  Sunset starts about 2:30 in the afternoon.  And that makes for an awful long night, with the wind tearing around the house until it finds any vulnerable crack through which to enter and steal precious heat.  Without the sun there is only darkness, cold and isolation.  Ice: the realm outside the Rune board.  But with the sun there is warmth and hope, joy and light, a promise of summers and plenty.

It is easy to become a sun worshipper in Orkney because even at the height of summer the presence of the sun dictates the necessity of switching on the central heating (I originate from the Hampshire Riviera, a place of permanent and perpetual sunshine and bountiful warmth and plenty – comparatively).  More so than ever in the south, the sun is always welcome here in Orkney.  In the south I dreaded the long hot sticky and still summers when the heat made everything shimmer and it was so hot you couldn’t sleep, even with the windows open (I’m obviously never happy – if I recall, we couldn’t have the windows open for fear of thieves!).  In Orkney, even at its very hottest, it rarely gets above a very comfortable 20 degrees. 

During our first winter, when we first took up the over-winter challenge, the darkness was like a spiritual journey.  They take education and studying very seriously in Orkney because there is little else to do on a winter’s evening than to hunker down by a fire and read – particularly so when there is a powercut.  That first winter for me was like a dark night of the soul, literally as well as metaphorically.  I hadn’t realised before I moved to Orkney how much the lack of light and the merciless weather could sap my spirit.  Already low from the disappointment of not getting the work I’d intended, I plunged into a full-scale depression – more enforced ego-stripping.  I realise now that I probably suffer from Seasonally Affected Disorder, it’s quite common here, but a couple of winters ago, when I was still acclimatising and learning how to label myself, I was just plain down and desperate for the sun to return.

It was on Christmas Eve that we obtained tickets into MaesHowe, having been advised that Christmas Eve was normally a good night for the light show.  The Solstice had been cloudy, but Christmas Eve was indeed clear and bright and the landscape was blanketed in crisp new snow.  And we were present to witness the sun entering the sacred chamber, stealing in like a doorway opening between the worlds, like amber light shining through a crack in the land. 

The sun sets fairly rapidly right between the Hoy hills at midwinter and within MaesHowe a thin sliver of gold light appears at first, lighting the passage and slowly widening across the floor of the central chamber.  Then a rectangle of amber light gradually appears on the vertical wall of the central chamber at about knee height.  The light cast is not static, but rather it dances: little motes of dust and sunbeams moving as if the light itself is alive.  The rectangle of light cast upon the back wall was like a doorway to another world – a world of perpetual warmth and abundance.  For me, it was like I had travelled afar, in the dark and cold, and finally come to a tent, within which was warmth and light from a roaring fire.  The tent flap was lifted for an instant, so that the light spilt out and danced to invite me in to something I had felt excluded from.  That was what it was like: like looking in on another world, a world of the ancestors and of the Gods, of plenty and of ease.  It was sublime and so holy.  And I felt truly privileged.  The effect lasts about 15 minutes in total and is utterly magical and sacred.  To watch it is a personally transforming experience because there is a promise that the heat of summer is only a journey away; that journey being chronological rather than spatial.

We chose to interpret the fact that we were lucky enough to see this on our first attempt, as a Blessing from our Gods.  Despite it being a harsh winter, we were being told or asked or invited to stay.  In the depths of winter, in the darkest parts of my soul’s journey, there was this promise and gift of light.  A new pact with our Gods then, a tiny peace offering on Their part, a hint of consolation, a “stick with it, the magic is there and to be experienced, but you have to earn it, to do the work.”  But the contract was now in place and winter seemed to lift from then on – we had passed the worst, the darkest point, the year had turned and the sun was returning once more.

My understanding is that in some Roman Catholic contemplative traditions, the soul yearns constantly for God, like a scorned lover, but that what makes the work and effort worthwhile is an occasional spiritual breakthrough, called a “consolation”, in which succour and reassurance is received by the contemplative.  In that first dark depressing winter in Orkney, witnessing the sun entering the heart of MaesHowe was, for me, a very real consolation.  A small consolation, but there nonetheless and missed if the winters are opted out of.

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