The Vernal (Spring) Equinox, the Saxon Ostara or the druidic Alban Eiler is celebrated on this date, the name meaning”Light of the Earth”. This rare balance in nature made this day a powerful time of magic for the ancient Druids. From this day forward the forces of light wax and the forces of darkness wane, but on this day they are equally balanced, poised on the razor’s edge. Alban Eiler is a between time, one of the eight portals of the seasons. The Vernal Equinox was celebrated long before the Celts, by the Megalithic people who lived in Britain before the Celts, the Romans and the Saxons. Ancient Greeks, Ancient Romans, Ancient Mayans all celebrated the equinox, as did Native Americans. Ancient Persians called it NawRaz, their New Year’s Day. A cluster of megalithic cairns from ancient times are scattered through the hills at Loughcrew, about 55 miles northwest of Dublin, Ireland. Loughcrew Cairn T is a passage tomb which is designed so that the light from the rising sun on the spring and summer equinoxes penetrates a long corridor and illuminates a backstone, which is decorated with astronomical symbols.
image: "Ostara" by Mikel Marton
Cú Chulainn & Fear Diadh
Men an Tol ~ Madron, Cornwall
Fingal’s Cave, located on the Scottish island of Staffa, is a 270-foot-deep, 72-foot-tall sea cave with walls of perfectly hexagonal columns. Queen Victoria, Matthew Barney, Jules Verne, and Pink Floyd are not names you usually hear in the same sentence, but they all share an association with this uncommon place. Fingal’s Cave bears a history and geology unlike any other in the world.
Seventy-two feet tall, two-hundred-seventy feet deep, what makes this sea cave so visually astoundingly is the hexagonal columns of basalt, neat six-sided pillars that make up its interior walls.
The cave was a well-known wonder of the ancient Irish and Scottish celtic people and was an important site in the legends. Known to the celts as Uamh-Binn or “The Cave of Melody,” one Irish legend in particular explained the existence of the cave as well as that of the similar Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. As both are made of the same basalt columns, the legend holds that they were the end pieces of a bridge built by the Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (a.k.a. Finn McCool) to Scotland where he was to fight Benandonner, his gigantic Scottish rival.
The legend, which connects the two structures, is in effect geologically correct. Both the Giant’s Causeway and Fingal’s Cave were indeed created by the same ancient lava flow, which may have at one time formed a “bridge” between the two sites. Of course, this happened some 60 million years ago, long before people would have been around to see it. The Dinosaurs, had already been extinct for some five million years. Nonetheless, the deductive reasoning of the ancient peoples formed the connection and base of the legend that the two places must be related.
Of course, the columns were not formed by gigantic hands as the legend would have it, but rather by an enormous mass of hot lava cooling so slowly that, like mud under the hot sun, it cracked into long hexagonal forms. These pillars make up much of the base of the island of Staffa - Old Norse for “Stave or Pillar,” and named so by the Vikings for the odd geology - where Fingal’s Cave is found.
The cave was rediscovered when naturalist Sir Joseph Banks visited it in 1772. At the time of Banks discovery, “Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books,” was a very popular poetic series supposedly translated from an ancient Gaelic epic by Irish poet James Macpherson.
Despite the fact that Macpherson was being challenged even at the time as to the poems authenticity - the work is believed to owe much more to Macpherson’s skill as a poet than as a historian or translator, and originals of this lost epic were never produced by Macpherson - the work was a massive hit. The book was an influence on Goethe, Napoleon and Sir Banks, who promptly named the Scottish cave, which already had the name Uamh-Binn, after the Irish legend, calling it “Fingal’s Cave.”
And though Banks is responsible for both rediscovering and renaming the cave, it would be a romantic German composer who truly vaulted the cave to world fame. The early romantic period brought with it a change in people’s perspective on nature. Nature was no longer a force to be survived or an enemy of peaceful living. No, wild nature, was becoming a source of inspiration and a desired counterpoint to the urban lifestyle in Europe. So it was that a composer not only came to visit a natural wonder, but chose to compose an overture based on it.
So moved was Mendelssohn by the splendor of the cave that he sent the opening phrase of the overture on a postcard to his sister with the note: “In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.” The Hebrides Overture, also known as Fingal’s Cave, premiered on May 14, 1832 in London. (The original name may have been based on the amazing noises the cave sometimes produces.)
In a one-two Romantic punch, artist J. M. W. Turner painted “Staffa, Fingal’s Cave” in the same year and together these launched the cave from a little known wonder into a must-see Romantic-Victorian tourist site. William Wordsworth, John Keats, Lord Tennyson, and Queen Victoria all visited the cave as did consummate traveller and lover of wonders Jules Verne. Verne wrote: “This vast cavern with its mysterious shadows, dark, weed-covered chambers and marvelous basaltic pillars, produced upon me a most striking impression and was the the origin of my book … ‘Le Rayon Vert.’”
Novelist Sir Walter Scott described Fingal’s Cave as “…one of the most extraordinary places I ever beheld. It exceeded, in my mind, every description I had heard of it … composed entirely of basaltic pillars as high as the roof of a cathedral, and running deep into the rock, eternally swept by a deep and swelling sea, and paved, as it were, with ruddy marble, baffles all description.”
The cave never left the public imagination. Pink Floyd named one of their early, unreleased songs after the cave - their 1970 “Zabriskie Point” soundtrack sessions is called “Fingal’s Cave”. Matthew Barney also used the cave as a location in “Cremaster 3”, a 2002 fever dream of a film that formed part of his Cremaster Cycle art installation.
Recently, geologists have had to contend with creationists who want to frame both the Giant’s Causeway and Fingal’s Cave as the product of a creationist 5,000-year-old timeline, a timeline which the geology of the sites directly contradicts.
One can visit the cave via cruise (though boats cannot enter the cave, they make regular passes by it) or can travel to the small island of Staffa and hike into the cave by stepping from column to column.
Influential Manx artist Archibald Knox is known for having been instrumental in the revival of Celtic design as seen in the 20th Century, making the style famous worldwide within the age Art Nouveau. His legacy is celebrated this year with the 150th anniversary of his birth.
Knox (09 April 1864 – 22 February 1933) as a designer is now associated with the Art Nouveau movement although by all accounts he would not like the designation. His designs were more informed by his Celtic roots rather than the spread of art nouveau as expressed on the continent. His inspiration being the landscape and Celtic carvings on the stones and monuments that he had seen on his native Isle of Man (Mannin). However, the art nouveau movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was heavily influenced by natural structures and forms. This international movement has different names in various countries; for example in Germany Art Nouveau is more commonly known as Jugendstil, taking its name from the magazine Jugend. However, it was in the Belgian journal L’Art Moderne during the 1880’s that the term Art Nouveau appeared when describing the work of Les Vingt.
Art Nouveau and was seen as both a style and philosophy that drew inspiration from the natural world rather than looking back into history and recreating historical styles. It was heavily influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement which sought to promote handicraft and skilled workmanship at a time when industrialisation was seen to be debasing the work of skilled artisans through the process of mass production. The Art Nouveau movement encompassed all aspects of art, design and architecture and was developed by a generation of skilled and energetic designers and artists who sought to advance an art form appropriate to the modern age. Those associated with the movement included; Charles Rennie Mackintosh (Scottish artist, designer and architect), Aubrey Beardsley (illustrator and author),Louis Comfort Tiffany (American artist and designer who is particularly known for his work in stained glass), René Jules Lalique (French glass designer), Émile Gallé (French artist in wood, glass and ceramics) Victor Horta (Flemish designer) and Alfons Mucha (Czech painter and decorative artist).
Knox’s interest in Celtic Art is clearly revealed in his designs. Celtic art is that associated with the people who spoke the Celtic languages of Europe from pre-history until the modern period. Continuity in decoration and style can be seen from the Neolithic age right through into early Celtic art and the medieval period. A continuity that reflects the revision of old theories of invasion and migration to the position held by many today where the Celts of present day northwest Europe are seen as the direct descendants of the ancient people of pre-history who inhabited these lands. The designs and patternation of later work can be seen to have a striking similarity to that on the megalithic carvings found on the ancient monuments of Ireland, Brittany and the other nations defined as Celtic today. Designs that carried on into the metalwork, torcs, items of jewellery found in the Bronze age, Iron Age and through to the present. A feature of which is the distinctive knot work, spiral designs, decorative themes and curvilinear lines that give a sense of balance in their layout.
He became a prolific designer for Liberty & Co the famous London department store. During the early years of the twentieth century he was the master designer for Liberty’s new range of Celtic metalwork and jewellery range. By nature he was a very private man who did not seek self-promotion. This suited the founder of Liberty & Co, Arthur Lazenby Liberty, who had strict policy of not attributing the objects on sale to their designers.
Knox remained a reserved man throughout his life. His privacy only really punctured by what can be gleaned from his remarkable artistic creations. His unique style is obvious in the years 1897 to 1908, when he was most engaged in his work with the store. in the end, it was Knox who designed the gravestone of Arthur Lazenby Liberty who died in 1917.
After a period teaching in London and a brief time spent in the United States, Archibald Knox returned to his native Isle of Man in 1913. He taught art in local schools, painted landscapes, which like so much of his early designs were inspired by the Manx countryside.
He beautifully illustrated two manuscripts The Deer’s Cry and the Book of Remembrance. Knox’s version of the Deer’s Cry is based upon the early Irish prayer The Deer’s Cry or Lorica (Breastplate) of St Patrick contained in the ancient Irish manuscript the Book of Armagh. Parts of the Book of Armagh were at one time said to be by Patrick’s own hand. However, it has been dated to 807AD and the earliest part of the manuscript was the work of Ferdomnach of Armagh some hundreds of years after the death of the fifth century St Patrick. Copied into the book were extracts of the writings of the seventh century monk Muirchú who wrote an account of the life of St Patrick. The Book of Armagh is a remarkable manuscript written mostly in Latin and also contains some of the oldest examples of Old Irish. This is the ancient Gaelic language that is the ancestor of modern Irish, Scottish and Manx Gaelic.
It is in the Book of Armagh that is copied the Deer’s Cry, which is a poem or prayer of protection. It is from this early Irish prayer that Archibald Knox based his beautiful water-colour manuscript which is widely acclaimed as a masterpiece. This work also reflects his strong Christian faith.
Oik Postagh Ellan Vannin (Isle of Man Post Office) has recently released a new set of stamps featuring designs from Archibald Knox’s Deer’s Cry. This stamp release is a very welcome tribute to Archibald Knox who was a skilled water-colourist and exhibited in the 1920’s abroad in Britain and also Canada. Although a private and unassuming man he would have been delighted to be remembered for his superb designs and skilled artistry.
He died in 1933 and the simple inscription on his gravestone says it all ‘Archibald Knox, Humble Servant of God in the Ministry of the Beautiful’. He lies in new Braddan graveyard in his beloved Manx homeland. Not far from his final resting place is Old Braddan Church which now houses several Celtic and Norse Crosses. Celtic Crosses (Manx Gaelic: Crosh Cheltiagh) like those found throughout the Celtic nations; intricately and richly carved by the hands of skilled craftsmen that so inspired some of Archibald Knox’s own work.
It is fitting that in this year, the 150th anniversary of his birth, that we remember this talented artist and designer. It is also this year 2014 that Mannin celebrates the Island of Culture with many events planned throughout the Island. Details can be seen on the website of Culture Vannin. Included within these are a number of tributes to Archibald Knox including an Exhibition called Celtic Style at Thie Vanannan (House of Manannan), Purt Ny h-Inshey (Peel). It looks at Celtic style from pre-history to the present day open until 8th February 2015.
Other commemorations can be seen @ www.archibaldknoxsociety.com
courtesy: Alastair Kneale
Known as, among other names, Midsummer, All-Couples Day, The Feast of St. John the Baptist, Feill-Sheathain or “Swithin’s Eve” (Swithin being an old form of John) ~ today is the summer solstice, the first day of summer. William Shakespeare described the magic of this day in his masterful comedy, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Astronomically, this occurs 21 June, but many of the above-mentioned celebrations occur a day or two earlier or later than the actual summer solstice. The date for these celebrations was set long ago as a part of various religious activities.
June is the most common month for marriages, hence the designation as All-Couples Day. This is also the day that a young, unmarried woman may find her true life-mate. Rituals designed to find the perfect man varied from the bizarre to the comical. If a young, unmarried woman fasted on Midsummer’s Eve and then set a table at midnight with a clean cloth, bread, cheese and ale and simply waited with her door wide open, the man she was to marry, or his spirit, would enter and feast with her.
If a woman gathered nine wildflowers in silence — it works best if gathered from a churchyard — and placed them under her pillow on the Midsummer’s Eve, she would dream of her future husband. Or a young woman could write all the letters of the alphabet on separate pieces of paper and float them facedown in a bowl of water. By the next morning, the initials of her true love would be found floating right-side up.
When the early Christians leaders were attempting to convert pagans to the new religion, they had to move the pagans away from their rituals and celebrations of nature into worship of God. One tactic they used successfully was to assign special Christian holy days to the dates of those pagan celebrations, thus weaning them from the old religions to the new one.
The Feast of St. John the Baptist is an example. Normally, a saint’s special day is commemorated on the day he or she was canonized. But John the Baptist’s day occurs on his birthday, which happens to be Midsummer’s Day. John the Baptist remains as one of the most important people in the Christian faith, and the need for a major celebration at the time of the pagan Midsummer’s Day led the church to celebrate the Feast of St. John the Baptist. In times past, it was only surpassed in importance to the Catholic Church by days such as Easter and Christmas.
It may seem odd that Midsummer’s Day occurs at the astronomical beginning of the summer season. Logically, the summer solstice ought to be the middle of summer as it is the middle of the growing season. The four seasonal days ~ spring equinox, summer solstice, fall equinox and winter solstice ~ mark the times of specific locations of the sun in the sky. The summer solstice marks the most northern position of the sun. For us in the Western Hemisphere, it represents the highest point in the sky the sun ever reaches. Winter solstice is the opposite point, when the sun is farthest south and, for us in the north, lowest in the sky. The spring equinox marks the point in time when the center of the sun sits directly over the equator moving from south to north, and the fall equinox marks the same point in time when the sun is moving southward. In ancient times, these solar locations were easy to measure, whereas the midpoints between are more difficult to determine without modern technology.
The summer solstice was commonly celebrated 24 June until the calendar reform by Pope Gregory in 1582 moved the date of the summer solstice back three days to 21 June. Even though the summer solstice falls within a day of 21 June, Midsummer’s Day has been celebrated 24 June.
This time is/was also recognized by other names and observations ~ Alban Heflin, Alben Heruin, Feast of Epona, Gathering Day, Johannistag, Litha, Sonnwend, Thing-Tide & Vestalia. Whatever the the name or tradition, the day commonly celebrates the highest point of the sun in the sky and the fertile blessings of summer season…