There are endless debates on precisely how the Celts celebrated and observed the Wheel of the Year. This is a challenge for archaeologists, anthropologists and those aligned with what we know (or think we know!) of the Earth-based Celtic spirituality.
Why? Much of the history of their practices comes through an oral tradition passed through time. And, we do know that practices differed across the Celtic world, which at one point covered most of Western Europe and the islands of Great Britain and Ireland. The Celtic practices were also captured in the writings of the Romans, who conquered much of their lands, and later the monks of the Catholic Church, and no doubt both of those groups shared from their own perspective.
Some argue that the Celts celebrated the cross-quarter days (what we would recognize as Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtainne and Lughnasadh) much more than the Equinoxes and Solstices. The cross-quarter days for them, based on their climate and the changes in Mama Earth they saw around them, also marked the start of their seasons of Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn.
But is that the whole story . . . the only evidence?
We see many stone monuments around the world, celebrating the Winter and Summer Solstices, still standing from the Ancient World masters who crafted them (the pyramids, Stonehenge, Avebury, etc).
Clearly, the solstices were important to many cultures.
And when you look at the sacred places built by the Celts, such as stone circles, barrows and burial mounds, it is clear that both the Equinoxes and the Solstices were also important to them.
If we look at the four main “passage tomb” sites in Ireland — Brú na Bóinne, Carrowkeel, Carrowmore and Loughcrew — we see physical evidence to support that theory.
Many are familiar with the Winter Solstice alignment at Newgrange at Brú na Bóinne, but in 1980 an Irish-American researcher (Martin Brennan) discovered that “Cairn T” in the Loughcrew, County Meath, monuments was actually built in alignment with the rising sun at the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes. He found additional alignments throughout the site. The site is known as Sliabh na Cailli / Slieve na Cailliagh (The Hill of the Old Woman, The Cailleach’s Mountain), suggesting — perhaps — that the site has a spiritual association with An Cailleach. Legend has it that the hills were created by An Cailleach, who dropped large stones onto the landscape to create the hills and sacred monuments we now see.
The alignment of these monuments at Brú na Bóinne and Loughcrew would indicate that the Solstices and Equinoxes were of importance to the Celts, although for what specific purposes we do not know.
It is possible that the legends of Saint Patrick, an Anglo-Roman priest now recognized as a Patron Saint of Ireland, were aligned with earlier Spring Equinox celebrations. Is it a coincidence that his Holy Day of March 17th is so close to the traditional Equinox date of March 20/21?
The legend of that Saint Patrick driving snakes out of Ireland is actually more likely a metaphor, as the serpent was a strong symbol of wisdom and spirituality to the Celts. The shamrock, associated with the threefold-way of Celtic spirituality, was allegedly used by Patrick to demonstrate the meaning of the Christian Trinity (God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).
For me, at Spring Equinox, I choose each year to not celebrate Saint Patrick but to celebrate my Irish Celtic heritage and ancestors.
I like to think that there was a spiritual connection to the Equinox(es), celebrated by the art and permanence of the structure, in addition to the astronomical markers. And you can choose to celebrate An Cailleach (her birth at the Autumn Equinox and her rest/dormancy at the Spring Equinox) at this time . . . or Saint Patrick.
In the video below, you can observe the Equinox light reach and illuminate the rear wall of the monument in Spring 2005. Pure magick . . . as are the images scribed into the rock!
This piece was originally published at the Fall Equinox in 2018, as part of our free year-long “Wisdom from Grandmother Moon” course, an exploration of the Celtic Wheel of the Year. In our current free course, we explore 13 Moons, 13 Goddesses. Click here for more information.