Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
Midsummer sunset at Dowth.
Equinox sunset at the great passage-grave of Dowth, the Mound of Darkness, the oldest of the three huge neolithic monuments in the Boyne Valley. Dowth, which remains unexcavated and undated, has a fascinating collection of neolithic rayed sun symbol engravings, which could be depictions of the darkened moon surrounded by the sun's corona during total solar eclipses, on the famous Stone of the Seven Suns. The mythology of the site is related to a powerfull druidess who makes the sun stand still in the sky until she is raped by her brother, the king, which breaks the spell. Recent genetic research at Newgrange using Ancient DNA has shown that a man buried there was the child of an incestuous union.

The Mythology of Dowth

Dubad Dubad, whence the name?

Not hard to say. A king held sway over Erin, Bressal Bo-Dibad by name. In his time a murrain came upon the kine of Erin, until there was left in it but seven cows and a bull. All the men of Erin were gathered from every quarter to Bressal, to build them a tower after the likeness of the Tower of Nimrod, that they might go by it to heaven. His sister came to him and said she would stay the sun's course in the vault of heaven so that they might have an endless day to accomplish their task.

The maiden went apart to work her magic, Bressal followed her and had union with her; so that place is called Ferta Cuile from the incest that was committed there. Night came upon them then, for the maiden's magic was spoilt. 'Let us go hence', say the men of Erin, for we only pledged ourselves to spend one day a-making this hill, and since darkness has fallen upon our work, and night has come on and the day is done, let each depart to his place'. Dubad (darkness) shall be the name of this place for ever', said the maiden. So hence are Dubad and Cnoc Dubada name. (Gwynn 1924, 271).

Source: The Tumulus of Dowth, County Meath
by M. J. O'Kelly and Claire O'Kelly.

The right-hand recess in the north chamber of Dowth.
The right-hand recess in the north chamber of Dowth. Photograph, from a postcard, 1920, by Dublin based photographer Thomas Mason.

The oldest traditions associated with the huge passage-graves found on the banks of the River Boyne, consider the monuments to be the homes or palaces belonging to the spirits of the Otherworld, the Tuatha De Danann (people of the goddess Danu). These were described as a god-like race who were said to have inhabited Ireland before the coming of the Gael or Celts. We now know from the wonders of modern technology and science that these people were the descendants of first farmers, who domesticated cattle in their homeland in Anatolia. We also know that there was no colonization by either Gaels or Celts, and that the last great wave of settlement in Ireland before the arrival of the Vikings was during the bronze age, when tribes of fierce horsemen swept across Europe from their homelands in the Pontic Steppes.

The Mansions of the Tuatha De Danann

The leader of chief member of the Tuatha De Danann, considered to god-king or incarnation of the sun, was the Dagda and he was said to have constructed the famous mound of Newgrange, as a home for himself and his three sons. He wooed the goddess Boann (the River Boyne) from her rightful husband, Elcmar, and married her himself, and they both lived in his Palace by the Boyne. Elcmar's shepherd was named Boadan and Dubad or Dowth was said to be the grave of Boadan (Fert Boadain).

Entrance to the south chamber of Dowth.
This Ordinance Survey map of Dowth from 1837 shows the complete monument, ten years before Firth's destructive excavation took place.

Another obscure reference to Dowth, which is quoted at the top of the page and which has become much better known due to recent discoveries at Newgrange, is the tale found in the great collection of Irish place-lore known as the Dindshenchas. These stories seek to explain in prose and verse how various well-known places got their names, and the various personalities associated with them. This tale is not as familiar as those relating to Newgrange and other famous sites, possibly because the story deals with an act of incestuous relations between a brother and sister.

The Irish Tower of Babel

The incestuous account is found in the Book of Leinster, a compilation which dates to about 1160 AD, shortly before the arrival of the Normans in Ireland. As these stories were largely produced by Irish monks and scribes, there are often Biblical associations and connotations in the stories, and in this case, Dowth was a tower, designed to reach up to heaven, not unlike the famous Tower of Babel.

The Tower of Babel.
The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted in 1563.

The Irish name for Dowth is Dubad, which means 'Darkness'; interestingly enough, in Scots Gaelic the word means 'eclipse'. In the Book of Leinster account, Dowth was the Mansion of the King Bressal Bo-Dibad, who was attempting to build a great tower which could reach up to the heavens. Bresal employed all the men of Ireland, and engaged them to build the tower in a single day. To this end, Bressal Bo-Dibad charged his sister, a powerful enchantress, to cast an incarnation, so that the sun will stand still in the sky and not set until the tower had been completed, a mythological motif which is also found in the conception story at Newgrange.

A drawing of Dowth by William Wakeman, shortly before it was excavated in 1847.
A drawing of Dowth by William Wakeman, shortly before it was excavated in 1847.

The act of causing the sun to stand still in the sky or on the horizon may also be a reference to the event where the winter solstice sun sets in the south chamber at Dowth, an event which was discovered by Martin Brennan and Jack Roberts in 1980, though they are rarely credited by Irish academics or archaeologists.

Entrance to the south chamber of Dowth.
Entrance to the south chamber at Dowth, an unusual round chamber, illuminated by the sun at sunset on the winter solstice, and visited by full moons around midsummer every year.

'You Are the Son of Incestuous Union'

However, Bressal Bo-Dibad was overcome with lust for his sister, and commited incest with her, breaking the enchantment she had cast, and causing the sun to set before the tower was completed. The workmen put down their tools and departed the site, since they had only been engaged for one day. 'Night has come upon us', lamented the druidess, 'and Dubad shall be the name of this place forever'.

Game of Thrones
Well, sibling relationships aren't just limited to Game of Thrones. While the taboo of incest was likely very much present in ancient Ireland, powerful families, like those who built Newgrange, could rise above the rules.
Source: Irish Tomb Reveals Truth About The Country's Past.

While all of the foregoing might seem like a strange piece of mythology echoing the Biblical story of Nimrod, or the plot of A Game of Thrones, a major new study on Ancient DNA was published in Nature in June of 2020. The paper, which summarised a the genetic histories of more than forty individuals found in archaeological contexts, discovered that a man buried in the chamber at Newgrange was born of incestuous union, with his parents being either father and daughter, or brother and sister.

We sampled forty-four whole genomes, among which we identify the adult son of a first-degree incestuous union from remains that were discovered within the most elaborate recess of the Newgrange passage tomb. Socially sanctioned matings of this nature are very rare, and are documented almost exclusively among politico-religious elites—specifically within polygynous and patrilineal royal families that are headed by god-kings. We identify relatives of this individual within two other major complexes of passage tombs 150 kilometers to the west of Newgrange, as well as dietary differences and fine-scale haplotypic structure (which is unprecedented in resolution for a prehistoric population) between passage tomb samples and the larger dataset, which together imply hierarchy. This elite emerged against a backdrop of rapid maritime colonization that displaced a unique Mesolithic isolate population, although we also detected rare Irish hunter-gatherer introgression within the Neolithic population.

Source: A dynastic elite in monumental Neolithic society.

Cuchulainn at Dowth

The great mound of Dowth also features in the Ulster Cycle of mythology. The great hero of Ulster, Cuchulainn, was conceived, during a strange and magical episode, within the great passage-grave at Newgrange. As a young adult, on the day he recieved his first set of weapons and chariot, Cuchulainn travelled to Dowth where he fought a giant, the first of three brothers at a ford over the river. After slaying the three siblings, Cuchulainn brought their heads back to Ulster as trophies. Perhaps the story, in some symbolic or shamanic fashion, represents him bringing the wisdom of the three mounds back with him in the three heads.

Dowth is mentioned several times in the old Irish collections of lore and history called the Annals. Both Dowth and Knowth were entered in historical times. The Annals of Ulster, 862 recorded that:

'The cave [uam] of Achadh Aidai and of Cnodhba [Knowth], and the cave of Fert Boadan over Dubadh [Dowth], and the cave of the smith's wife, were searched by the Foreigners [the Norse] which had not been done before . . .' (trans. Hennessy 1887, 373).

The mythological origin of the name of Dowth fits the monument well as both of the internal passages are oriented to sunsets. The now buried northern passage points to the position where the sun sets at Samhain, when the sun 'dies' for the year as it goes underground. The second smaller and circular chamber is oriented to the setting position of the sun at the winter solstice, when the solar orb can be said to be reborn at Newgrange after the longest night of the year. The name Dowth can also mean eclipse in Scots Gaelic, as mentioned above.

The Stone of the Seven Solar Eclipses

Canadian eclipse researcher Robin Edgar had a eureka moment in the mid-1990s when he saw a captioned photograph of one of the apparent rayed sun symbols petroglyphs carved into Dowth’s kerbstone K51, which Martin Brennan has dubbed 'The Stone of the Seven Suns', in the TIME-LIFE book ‘The Monument Builders’. The caption reads, "Either the sun or an eye may be signified in this carving in a kerbstone of a retaining wall that was built to protect the base of a burial mound at Dowth, County Meath, Ireland."

A rubbing of two of the images carved into the Stone of the Seven Suns on Kerbstone 51 at Dowth.
A rubbing of two of the images carved into the Stone of the Seven Suns on Kerbstone 51 at Dowth.

Edgar understood that this caption contained a false dichotomy in that the rayed sun petroglyph appeared to be a depiction of the sun (more properly the moon) surrounded by its corona during a total solar eclipse. Total solar eclipses look very much like the pupil and iris of a disembodied eye staring down from the sky. Hence the petroglyph could represent both the sun and an eye. In subsequent research Edgar found a number Victorian astronomical drawings of total solar eclipses that resemble the four most detailed rayed sun petroglyphs. Edgar believes that the carvings most probably depict the total solar eclipse “eye of God”, and may even commemorate a number of solar eclipses that could have been observed above Ireland by the neolithic monument builders during the 4th millennium BCE.

Archaeologically, we are pretty confident that the builders of the passage-graves, who had originated in and migrated from Anatolia several thousand years before, had arrived in Ireland by as early as 4,150 BC. The foundation monument constructed by early farmers is a type of ritual structure called a causewayed enclosure, well known to be a precurser to colonisation in ancient Europe.

Magheraboy causewayed enclosure.
The oldest known causewayed enclosure in these islands was founded at Magheraboy in County Sligo around 4,150 BC.

There are some five possible examples known in Ireland and at least seventy in England. The oldest by far, which began as early as 4,150 BC is the example discovered at Magheraboy just south of Sligo Town in 2002 during construction of a new motorway. The great early passage-grave complex of Carrowmore is located just two kilometers west of Magheraboy. The use period of Carrowmore - once considered to contain the oldest megalithic structures in Europe - has been recalibrated to approximately 3,800 - 3,000 BC. The large focal monument which is named Listoghil began as a huge platform or tertre, possibly as early as 4,000 BC according to Göran Burenhult, the Swedish archaeologist who led the Carrowmore excavations.

Around 3,560 BC, it seems that a large chamber was constructed within a stone circle at the centre of the platform. This, the largest of the Carrowmore dolmens, has many unique features. It is the only monument where neolithic engravings have been found. It is the only monument where the people buiried within it were not cremated. However, it seems that the bodies of the seven individuals interred were dismantled, disarticulated and de-fleshed. The monument was dated using a fragment of the skull of a 54 year old man, which had cut-marks showing that the flesh had been scraped off with a flint knife.

The chamber of Listoghil at Carrowmore.
The chamber of Listoghil at Carrowmore which is illuminated by the light of the rising sun around Samhain and Imbolg. The modern restoration which added a large cairn to the monument interferes with the view of the horizon.

Listoghil also has a fascinating astro-archaeological alignment: at sunrise on Samhain and Imbolc, the two cross-quarter days in November and Febuary, the sun appears to rise from the sacred lake called Lough Da Ge, the Lake of the Two Geese, high up in the Ballygawley Mountains, six kilometers to the southwest. The female form of the mountain appears to be literally and symbolically giving birth to the sun.

What has all this to do with Dowth, a younger site 150 kilometers to the southeast, you may ask? In 3,574 BC, around the time the chamber was constructed at Listoghil and the old man dismembered and de-fleshed, a solar eclipse took place in the skies above Sligo. About the same time the second great passage-tomb complex was established at Carrowkeel, high in the Bricklieve Mountains some 25 kilometers to the south of Carrowmore. Again in 3,315 BC, about the time when the dolmen at Listoghil was buiried within a substantial cairn, another Solar eclipse occurred.

By this time the great passage tomb complex at Loughcrew had been established, and it seems quite likely that the 3,315 BC solar eclipse was recorded in several engravings, most notably the large complex engraved panel within Cairn L, at Loughcrew. It is also highly likely that the Stone of the Seven Solar Eclipses contains a record of this series of quite possibly terrifying series of cosmic events. Both myself and Robin Edgar believe that more lunar and solar eclipse symbolism is encoded in both the east and the west passage at Knowth, and specifically the large and elaborately carved stone basin within the right-hand recess of the east chamber.

The first modern photograph of the Stone of the Seven Suns taken by Thomas Mason in the early 1935's, not long after the stone had been exposed from material fallen from the cairn after the 1847 excavations.
The first modern photograph of the Stone of the Seven Suns taken by Thomas Mason in the early 1930's, not long after the stone had been exposed from material fallen from the cairn after the 1847 excavations.

So to summarise, the carvings on the Stone of the Seven Suns at Dowth may well be a cultural record and repository of the series of solar eclipses which led to the foundations of the four great complexes of neolithic passage-tombs in Ireland during the fourth millenium BC.

The Piper in the Cave

A final piece of folklore found at Dowth is a common musical motif found in Ireland, which may well have surprisingly ancient origins:

There is a legend told of an old piper, who entered this vast monument about a century ago, with a party of young men and women, on an exploring excursion. I suppose "Darby the Blast" was a bit of a virtuoso. Well, 'twas a fine summer's morning in the month of July, and Darby entered first playing his most sprightly tune, "the humours of Glynn" with variations. But poor Darby and his friends were doomed never to return, but the people heard from them, for the old piper was heard busily playing under ground at Stanleon, a hill on the opposite side of the river.- Probably that was Darby's last tune, for from that day to this he has never been heard of.

Research has shown that this kind of legend, which is found all across Ireland, is most likely to have originated in the near east. We are certain, as mentioned above, that the passage-grave builders are the descendants of Anatolian farmers, the first people to domesticate cattle. Some of the Anatolian farmers migrated west through the Mediterranean; others moved east to settle in the Land of the Two Rivers, while another group invaded and then established the great civilizations of ancient Egypt. These groups all share a common ancestry and set of religious symbolism and ritual construction. In the ancient near east, where both pipes and harps are first found, it was customary to sacrafice musicians who were proficient on both these instruments, and bury their remains with the kings, queens and rulers of these ancient societies. It is possible, if not highly likely, that the story of Darby the Blast is an extremely ancient echo of these rituals and customs which arrived here with the first farmers.

The great sycamore and a line of kerbstones
      on the south side of the great mound.
The great sycamore tree of Dowth, considered by many to be the guardian spirit of the monument, and the line of visible kerbstones on the south side of the great mound. Fifteen of the kerbstones, including the famous Stone of the Seven Suns have neolithic engravings, while others are still buried, especially around the north side of the mound.