Stones of Adoration
Stones of Adoration:
The Sacred Stones and Mystic Megaliths of Ireland by
Irish Mythology can be confusing and difficult to grasp, Christine Zucchelli
brings Irish Mythology to life in the Stones of Adoration
through well researched and accessible writing, enhanced by beautiful
photographs of Sacred Stones, Stone Circles, Standing Stones, Dolmens,
Sheela na Gigs
, Ogham Stones and Wishing Stones.
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Sacred stones and stone monuments feature the world over and Ireland is no exception.
Our landscape is dotted with them, from the Royal Pillars of
in Meath to Meadhbh's Grave in Sligo.
Since prehistoric times people have acknowledged their special nature, an
unbroken link from ancient sun-oriented monuments to the present.
Some are considered the abodes of deities or otherworld ladies, some are
memorials to mythical heroes and historical kings, others are reminders of the
miracles of early saints. Stones of Adoration
explores their secrets, myths, legends and
folktales, many persisting to this day, and describes the role of sacred stones
in the religious and spiritual life of modern Ireland.
Different beliefs, practices and rituals behind the notion of their magical powers and virtues are
revealed, and the situations in which people resorted to them, such as
determining chieftains, establishing the truth, curing sickness, and promoting
fertility. This is a wonderful reminder of our spiritual past as some of these
stones and monuments enter their fifth millennium and the wisdom of the
Stones of Adoration - Introduction
One of the earliest references to the veneration of an individual stone in
Ireland is a glossary to an Old Irish law tract. It dates back to the seventh or
eighth century and gives a list of landmarks, among them a stone of adoration
The writer did not reveal the nature of the stone; perhaps his mind was set on
one of the numerous pre-historic monuments that dot the Irish landscape, or on a
natural rock of conspicuous shape or size. Writing in the early medieval period,
he might have thought a stone was considered adorable
for its Christian connotation.
In numerous cultures all over the world, adorable or highly revered stones and
stone monuments form integral parts of what we can describe as 'sacred
landscapes'. Other prominent aspects of these spiritual landscapes would be
sacred trees, waters, islands or mountains. The term sacred is used here to
denote a spiritual or religious significance, and does not necessarily appear in
its Christian understanding. Generally spoken, sacred features of the landscape
come into being when humans acknowledge the presence of an anima loci, the
spirit or the essence of a place.
The nature of the anima loci is determined by
the concept of beliefs that prevails within a society. With history being a
continuous process of cultural development and change, the spiritual and
religious concepts develop and change as well, and so does the definition of
what is considered sacred for a particular reason. A perfect mirror for the
changing perceptions of sacredness is folklore, because it is conservative by
its nature yet also absorbs new ideas and influences from outside, and likewise
adapts older ideas to new situations.
The earliest spiritual concept is the animistic tradition, which regards all
natural features as spirited, animated parts of the earth. Where the earth is
seen as the body of her creator, natural features in the landscape are regarded
as body parts of the creating earth mother or earth goddess. This concept
predates formal religions, and would still surface in the oral tradition of
stones that walk about or speak. When polytheistic religions emerged, the earth
mother manifested herself in the shape of various goddesses; male deities
appeared by their sides. Usually presided over by a father god; sacred stones
and stone monuments became interpreted as the homes of goddesses and gods.
Monotheistic religions finally identify sacred sites as places chosen and
blessed by members of the holy family, or by saints or prophets.
The body of Irish stone folklore that lies before us today is mainly
aetiological, that is, explaining the origin of stones or stone monuments. The
narratives reflex the spiritual world of pre-historic to early medieval Ireland,
and are only slightly influenced by later impacts from outside. The main actors
of legends and tales, however, are seen through the filter of Christian
spirituality; hence, ancient goddesses survive in folklore as otherworld women,
hags and fairies, the gods became mythical heroes and kings, or giants; and
several deities were transformed into saints. In all these guises they would
usually retain their link to their traditional sacred places. Alternatively,
Christian legends would demonise the ancient deities, have them overpowered by
the new faith and their places of worship taken over by saints.
From the seventh century, when the monasteries of the Celtic Church had become
centres of education and literary traditions, clerics compiled biographies of
saints, and historical or pseudo-historical tracts, annals and genealogies. For
the first time, ancient oral lore and history were preserved in writing, and
these writings provide the earliest sources for the veneration and folklore of
stones in Ireland.
The composers of hagiographical texts drew their inspirations mainly from
Biblical texts, especially from the Old and New Testaments, and from the Lives
of continental saints, but they also included motives that were current in
native Celtic lore. Even deeper steeped in ancient native traditions are myths,
sagas and hero tales. The tales were initially orally transmitted, and many of
them might have been current from the fourth century. They survive largely in
manuscripts from the twelfth century, which were written more or less completely
in the Irish language and had often been copied from older manuscripts. Today,
the ancient sagas and tales are conveniently grouped into four cycles of tales -
the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian or Ossianic Cycle and the
Historical Cycle or Cycle of the Kings.
The Mythological Cycle of tales - though not acknowledged by historians as a
reliable source of Irish pre-history
, gives particular insight into the
spiritual world of ancient Ireland, and provides the most valuable pieces of
information on the earliest beliefs behind the sacred stones and stone monuments
of the country. The core of the Mythological Cycle of tales is the Leabhar
Gabhala Eireann or the Book of Invasions of Ireland, a compilation of
pseudo-historical texts which reconstruct the conquest of the country by
successive groups of peoples.
The authors of such works as the Leabhar Gabhala
were Christian monks; occasionally they even tried to establish a Biblical
origin of the ancient Irish, and relate that it was Cessair, daughter or
granddaughter of Noah, who led the first ever settlers to Ireland.' The Leabhar
Gabhala itself begins with the story of Partholan and his sons. Coming from
Greece, they arrived in Ireland after the Flood in about 2678 BC, and settled in
the west. Centuries later, their descendants were wiped out by the plague. The
people of Neimheadh, from Scythia, and his wife Macha wen the next to appear in the country.
They cultivated land in south Armagh, but were soon defeated and
destroyed by the Formhoire or Formorians, who were either invaders or an already
present earlier culture. Neimheadh's sons managed to escape to different parts
of the world. Generations later, two rival branches of their descendants - the
Fir Bolg and the Tuatha De Danann - should return. The Fir Bolg are said to have
come from Greece; they divided Ireland into provinces and established the system
of sacral kingship. On their arrival from Denmark or Greece (the myths differ
on their provenance) the Tuatha De Danann or the People of the Goddess Danu
fought and defeated the Fir Bolg and the Formorians, thus taking the sovereignty
of Ireland. They had finally to submit to the Sons of Mil or Milesians, the
ancestors of the present Celtic people, who came from Asia Minor and landed in the south west.
The three remaining cycles are characteristically heroic and deal with the deeds
of Celtic warriors and kings. Tales are set from around the time of the birth of
Christ, but again many of their motifs, plots and characters seem to derive from
earlier narrative traditions. They reflect particularly Celtic spirituality, and
give insight into the role of sacred stones in an aristocratic warrior society.
The ancient myths and sagas, legends and biographies of saints were read out,
and consequently various episodes from the literary tradition filtered back into
folklore. From medieval times, Vikings, monastic orders from the Continent,
Normans, English and Scottish settlers introduced motifs from their own
spiritual worlds, but their ideas were largely absorbed into the native
perceptions of other-world women, heroes and saints as the divine characters
behind sacred stones and stone monuments.
When people seek the divine at sacred places, when they communicate with the
divine through certain rites and offerings, they recognise and reconfirm the
sanctity of the location. Anciently, we have to understand these rites as
ceremonies to please the divine, but as there are no written records from the
customs in pre-Christian Ireland we depend on the biographies of Irish saints
for the earliest information on the practical implementation of sacred stones in
religious, social and spiritual affairs. The survival of archaic traits and
elements as key parts of the rituals, however, indicate that some practices are
considerably older then Christianity.
A prerequisite to release the indwelling powers and virtues of sacred stones is
the physical contact between the applicant and the material. The act of
literally connecting with the stone is an ancient trait of contagious magic,
based on the belief that the essence of spirits or people to which an object
owns its virtues is still alive within that object. Likewise of ancient origin
is the crucial importance of the direction of movement during the performance.
In Ireland, as in many parts of the world, anticlockwise motions are considered
unlucky, and only suitable for sorcery and destructive magic. Popularly referred
to as left-hand-wise, widdershins or tuafal, they are usually applied in cursing
rituals. Clockwise or sun-wise, also known as right-hand-wise or deiseal, is the
appropriate movement for constructive magic and blessings, and subsequently
reserved for healing and wishing.
The early Celtic Church, distinguished by her ability to adapt pagan ideas and
reinterpret them in a Christian context, had no problems with incorporating
older traits into her own complex of religious observances. Only from the
twelfth century, when ecclesiastic reforms from the Continent had swept over to
Ireland, should the Church hierarchy change her attitude and begin to consider
semi-pagan practices as superstitions. Monastic orders from the Continent were
encouraged to settle in Ireland and to bring the Celtic Church spiritually and
structurally in line with the principles of the Papacy.
All over the country, stone churches and monasteries were built, usually in the Irish Romanesque style
with its arched doorways and figural carvings. Replacing earlier timber
structures and open-air altars, the churches should provide a venue for
controlled and organised Christian observances. Whether it was desired by the
orders or not, it seems that the cult of sacred stones was to a certain degree
transferred or extended from sacred places in the landscape to the stone
carvings in and about those new religious centres.
An even deeper influence on the role of sacred stones in folk customs and
popular religion had the political and social development of the country from
the late medieval period. In 1155, Pope Adrian IV (the only English pope in
history) granted the sovereignty of Ireland to the Anglo-Norman king of
England, Henry II. Justified as a tactical move to aid the process of Church
reform and to copper-fasten the papal influence on spiritual matters in the
country, it was practically a licence for the ensuing Norman and English
conquests of Ireland.
The authority of the Papacy in Ireland began to decrease
considerably from the 1530s, when King Henry VIII had set up the independent
Anglican Church (in Ireland established as the Church of Ireland) under the
supremacy of the English monarch. The Reformed Church did not have the cultural
insight nor the language for large scale conversions; although declared the one
and only official Church, she became the Church for those loyal to the English
Crown, while wide sections of the native Irish population did not convert and
held on to the Catholic faith.
Irish Catholicism in those days still held many elements and views of the early
Celtic Church. On the Continent the Counter-Reformation, inspired by the Council
of Trent (1545-1563), had widely succeeded in erasing semi-pagan practices from
Catholic devotion. Papal attempts to modernise Catholicism in Ireland came to an
abrupt end with Cromwell's offensive in 1649. The persecution of the Catholic
faith under Cromwell's regime, followed by oppressive laws in the aftermath of
the Battle of the Boyne
at the end of the century, deprived the Catholic Church
of the structure and means to effectively eliminate what it considered
At the same time, the political circumstances
created an atmosphere that allowed magic practices to flourish, and Irish
Catholicism developed an even deeper popular character with an eclectic mixture
of orthodox and pagan elements. Often ridiculed by hostile contemporary
observers, many of these archaic customs and traditions were, in fact, social
and spiritual utilities created and fostered by oppression and poverty. In times
of crisis or emotional unrest, people resorted to healing stones where no proper
medical service was available, and to protective stones to find truth, justice
and revenge when they could not trust the courts. Due to the destruction of
Church property, Irish Catholics had none or few churches to attend, and Mass
was offered in private houses or at the ancient ceremonial places like holy
wells and sacred stones.
It was only after Catholic Emancipation in 1829, and especially after the famine
years In the 1840s, that the Church hierarchy In Ireland gained sufficient power
to modernise herself and to rid Catholic devotion from unconventional archaic
The leading figure of this reform was Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Armagh from
1840 to 1870. Determined to spiritually structure Irish Catholicism along the
lines and principles of Rome, Cullen banned pilgrimages to holy wells,
suppressed the celebration of Mass in private houses and at Mass Rocks, and
ordered or encouraged the removal or destruction of several sacred stones. Under
his supremacy, new churches were built, often of impressive dimensions. Aiding
his intention to transform religious worship from outdoor affairs into
well-organised public services in consecrated buildings, they were at the same
time demonstrations of the rise and increasing power of the Catholic Church in
Characteristically, there was a tendency to dedicate these new churches
to the Virgin Mary rather than to a local patron saint. From the times of the
Crusades, a passionate veneration of Mary has spread throughout western
Christendom. On the Continent, encouraged by the Catholic Church, countless
sacred places and chapels have since been re-dedicated, with Mary replacing the
earlier patron saints. In Ireland, re-dedications are rather scarce; the love
and devotion to the Virgin, however, is apparent in the erection of statues and
Lourdes-style grottoes throughout the country, and in her intense veneration in
the context of apparitions.
At about the same time, when older popular traditions and religious practices
began to lose their significance in people's everyday lives, a rise of national
sentiment and growing interest in the cultural heritage of the country became
apparent among scholars from various disciplines. Antiquarian societies such as
the Royal Irish Academy or The Royal Society of Antiquities in Ireland were
founded to research archaeological, historical and folkloristic aspects of Irish
culture. Their reports, together with the letters and memoirs of the Ordnance
Survey, established in 1823, contributed to the preservation and documentation of popular traditions.
An invaluable source of Information on all aspects of
folklore is the manuscript collection of the Irish Folklore Commission in the
Department of Irish Folklore at University College Dublin. The commission,
established in 1927 as An Cumann le Béaloideas Éireann or the Irish Folklore
Society, had focused on a systematic documentation of folk traditions and oral
lore. Since 1956, the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Bangor is committed to
illustrate and preserve the traditions of people in the North.
References regarding the practical use of stones are numerous in surveys,
travellers' accounts and reports of antiquarians, and in the folklore
collections of the Irish Folklore Commission. They give a lively picture of
public performances in the context of pilgrimages and patterns, and of rather
private observances at healing, swearing, wishing and cursing stones. The most
detailed data relate to the period from the early nineteenth to the early
decades of the twentieth century and show that, in spite of a certain decline
due to the suppressive measures in the course of Cullen's Church reform, most of
these practices continued at least into the middle of the last century. With the
rapid urbanisation, modernisation and industrialisation of Irish society
throughout the last decades, the old popular traditions came again under serious
threat. Fortunately, there are clear indications that they are not entirely lost and gone.
Christine Zucchelli first visited Ireland in the 1980s. Captivated
by the wealth of the country's heritage, after graduating from Innsbruck
University, she studied Irish Folklore at University College Dublin and
travelled the country in search of the myths, legends and folklore behind
the veneration of particular stones.
Christine worked as a guide and organiser of special interest tours to Ireland but now concentrates on research into
aspects of the sacred landscape. She lives in West Clare and Innsbruck.
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