The Pagan Tradition and Christianity

Hugh A Murphy sees striking similarities between the two traditions

This intermarriage of the Christian and the pagan has found its best statement in modern literature so far in Brian Friel’s, by now much celebrated, Dancing At Lúnasa. In Father Tom is represented the dilemma of the two influences, the two fires.

The Parish Priest who condemns him doesn’t realise that he too walks the circle of the Sun, as do all priests, in many religious rituals, consecrating sacred places, blessing an altar, incensing a coffin etc.

The Druids were the first to shave their heads in a circle in homage to Lugh, the Sun-God. This custom was later adopted by Irish monks. It found its way into ancient stone engravings of the pagan era, where variations of the circular form is the most common feature. It transferred from there into Christian symbolism, as seen in Celtic Crosses, and into calligraphy in the illuminated manuscripts of the early Christian era, the most notable being the Book of Kells.

An excellent example of the combination of both of these in this area is seen in the famous stone of Killnasagart. This stone, the earliest inscribed Christian memorial in Ireland, stands just a few hundred yards below Moyry Castle in the Gap of The North.

It was inscribed with its Christian motifs in the year 714 AD, by Ternoc, son of Ciaran the Small, and dedicated to Saint Peter. The stone, however, has stood there much longer than that. It was, in fact, an ancient druidic memorial, marking a pagan burial site. The new Christian inscription was superimposed on the original pagan symbolism of circles and Ogham writing.

A fairly sizeable portion of the right corner of the stone has been chiselled away where the main part of the Ogham inscription stood, (the remains can still be seen clearly at the back of the stone) and crosses carved in its place, still set inside the ritual pagan circles. These seem here, as in the manuscripts and Celtic crosses, to have been given a new Christian interpretation, the circle of truth, light, eternity etc. Or, as some suggest, in a rare convolution, the triumph of Christianity over Paganism.

At Killnasagart the graves in the pagan burial site were laid in two circles, one inside the other, below the pillar stone. The feet of the dead in both circles faced inwards towards another stone set in the middle, only the base of which survives. This unusual formation was clearly an attempt to form a kind of symbolic Sun-disk in honour of Lugh.

The name Cill Na Sagart, the Church of the Priests, suggests, quite obviously, a Christian edifice, no sign of which remains. But the name itself is quite significant, not referring to a Saint, like other early Christian insignia, as indeed in the case of the stone itself, but to 'Priests'. This would seem to suggest an attempt to overshadow their pagan counterparts, the Druids.

I have already said that in some stories in mythology it is suggested that Sualdamh is not Cuchulainn’s father, but rather the great God Lugh himself. Clear evidence of this is given in the Táin, with the appearance of Lugh at Cuchulainn’s side before the great carnage, his statement to him that he was his father from the Sí (the Tuatha Dé Danann), and his assurances for his safety in the battle. It is clear that it is from Lugh that Cuchulainn inherited the superhuman powers which he possessed.

This presence of the Sí runs through the Táin. Its influence is seen even amongst the Connacht forces when Meave’s charioteer turns her chariot in a circle to the right following the path of the Sun, before they left Cruachain, to invoke good fortune for a safe return. We see it also in the case of the Goddess of war, the Morrígan who assisted Cuchulainn.

If we turn to the Ring of Gullion area we can see a lot of these influences coming together, and begin to understand the part this area played in this whole culture of the Tuatha Dé Danann, which lies at the centre of so many of these legends.

It is from the God Lugh that County Louth derives its name, Condae Lú. It is there that he was born, the son of Eithne, a leader of a branch of the Tuatha De Danann from Connacht, and Cian, the man who gave his name to Killen Hill, the place where his son Lugh buried him after he was killed by the three sons of Tuireann.

According to Eoghan Ó Camhraí, one of the compilers of the Annals of the Four Masters, Dealga Fort itself, where Cuchulainn was born, derived its name from Delga, an ancient warrior of the tribal cousins of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Firbolg. This explains the form Dealgan ( i.e. 'of Delga') in the genitive singular in the name Dún Dealgan.

In mythology, we know that Cuchulainn’s divine father, Lugh, had close blood ties with the Fir Bolg, being fostered in youth with one of their famous female warriors, Tailte. It was at the place named after her that the last great battle was fought between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Celts, Cath Thailteann, the Battle of Teltown, in County Meath.

If we move a short distance down the Ring of Gullion we find one of the forts of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Lios of my own area, Lislea (Lios Liath). It is not, perhaps, without significance that we have another townland of exactly the same name in the vicinity of Dealga Fort, and one beside Eamhain Macha, the home of Cuchulainn’s uncle.

Towering in the centre of this area, the highest point of all, is the great mountain of Slieve Gullion, the place where Lugh’s son was given his name, rising directly above this Lios. If we climb to its summit once more and look around at the clear circle of hills which form the Ring Dyke, we might well be forgiven for thinking that nature itself has got in on the act, the greatest symbolic shrine of all, one could say, to the God Lugh, the massive circular mound of the Ring of Gullion.

This is almost a mirror image of the circle of the Sun, engraved indelibly into the earth in this ring of mountain tops. Such a symbolic setting was the obvious place to select for the consecration of the God Lugh’s son, Cuchulainn, into his heroic form, held aloft in the arms of Slieve Gullion, the altar of the Gods. It was appropriate also that it was in this area that his greatest battles should be fought, fulfilling the promise of his childhood first shown on this mountain.

It is clear that the Ring of Gullion and the area at the centre of which it stands is inlaid with the symbolism of this ancient pagan mysticism, which has seeded itself into many legends, and into numerous figures who have been formed inside its womb, both in mythology and, even, in modern history.

Here beneath the shades of Lugh’s people we walk, along a marginal line between pagan fantasy and modern reality, embracing a new Christian world, with our pagan past still subconsciously at our back.

Finally, one of the most surprising places where this ancient homage to Lugh is still found alive and flourishing, out in the open, is in a tradition that has come in recent years to symbolise the spirit of Ireland itself, Irish dancing. The wheeling, circular formations which run as a vein throughout its movements are an echo of the ancient pagan ritual dance in honour of Lugh. This is especially true in reels where it is most evident.

The swinging circles follow the path of the Sun in this timeless ritual of fertility, a celebration of life itself. Today, breaking free from the formal restrictions of Christian mores placed upon it, it has danced, rejoicing, into the liberated freedom of River Dance.

I had occasion recently to have this brought home to me during the course of a family wedding, which I had been asked to record on video. In the process of making copies of it I was watching, again and again, this weaving, wheeling movement of the dance. It came to assume an almost hypnotic form, drawing me closer and closer to it, until I was carried back through time to its rhythm.

It beat its way to the dances held in the houses in this area in my youth, to the rusted tin hall in Lislea, and to the old type weddings, which were always held at home, where the celebrations went on all day and throughout the night. The barns, cleaned out of the hay, straw, and instruments with which they had been cluttered all year, suddenly became new, exciting places, the arenas of this ancient fertility ritual, their floors glistening to the polished sheen of candle wax.

Women, whom we may last have seen in their traditional smocks, feeding the hens or giving hay to the cows, were transformed with a new, unbelievable beauty, into rhythmic, sensuous forms. They weaved their way across the floor, lost in the rhythm of the dance, stirring young men to begin to dream new, and of times impossible dreams. They danced to the beat of time back through Brighit, the pagan Goddess of fertility, through Anu, back to the Garden of Eden itself, to the most celebrated temptress of them all, Eve.


She danced before us in the moonlight,
In her eyes the fire of sun,
As on a forest floor she danced
Where ancient wars were won.
Her dancing feet wove patterns
That rhythmed her from dancehall
Into naked stone,
Where she danced in hieroglyphics,
Through Ogham and Celtic crosses,
Along lines once chiselled finely
In the sculpture of man’s timing;
Through the Book of Kells and Leinster

To where I found her
In barns swept clean for passion,
Of hay and barrels standing,
Where she danced to ancient twinings
Of the harp strings and the lyre,
On fiddles played by maestros
Of notes long stored in hillsides,
In the staff of rock and cradle,
On fingers plucked, long chiselled
To the lines of their refinement,
Where she weaved and danced
Till dawn’s bright sun was shining
Through oak beams cracked
Which cast her naked shadow
On walls where halters hung
In tune with bridle bit and britching;
And young men wove their dreams
Around her naked image
In fields of Summer where the scythes
Through corn and wheat were swinging,
And their hearts were dancing
Tunes of joy and sorrow
On foot rigs where their hopes were glimpsed
In fleeting shadows
Through gaps in walls, barns and in cabins,
Of the day that they would twine
Their arms around her naked body
And dance in moonlight
Till their hearts were burning,
As on a forest floor they danced
Beneath the fire of summer.