by Glenys Livingstone Ph.D.
The Triple Spiral of ‘Newgrange’ – as the place is commonly known – in Ireland, is just one motif amongst a whole collection of art that represents the first major Western European art tradition since the Ice Age.1 The significance of this collection has been largely unrecognised, because its context of megalithic mounds spread over an area, has not been understood. This complex art collection is engraved on stones throughout the large stone structures, that are dated between 3200 and 3700 B.C.E. – which places these mounds among the world’s oldest remaining buildings.2 The Triple Spiral then is an ancient highly abstract visual design, left by the ancestors of this place, in a context whose meaning is still being unravelled and contemplated.
The story of the un-covering of the Triple Spiral at ‘Newgrange’ is one that I can identify with. The indigenous name of the place is Bru na Boinne – ‘Boinne’ being derivative of Boann, understood to be Goddess Creator of the River Boyne. By 1142 C.E., the humans inhabiting this place had long forgotten its numinosity, and it was part of farms known as ‘granges’, and by 1378 the mound that is home to the Triple Spiral “had been completely stripped of its former identity and was called merely ‘the new grange3’.” The process of remembering and unfolding the significance of the place in the context of the many other nearby sites similar to it, over the hundreds of years since then, has been fraught with complexities. The motif itself – the Triple Spiral – has only received the light of the Winter Solstice again, as it was evidently designed to do, since the 1960’s, after a millennia or two of being hidden away. Since then, there has been a slow dawning in the minds of some contemplating it, that this motif may represent the indigenous ‘Goddess’ of that place, the Land Herself,4 as She was known in Her three aspects – Eiru, Fodla and Banba5 – this being the Sacred metaphor for the great cosmic energies. The megalithic mounds of which Bru na Boinne is a part, are oriented towards astronomical indicators – mostly Sun’s annual movement on the horizon. The mounds with their passageways, orientations and artworks are now thought to be primarily calendars – designed to indicate seasonal changes. Such changes, along with other astronomical events apparently seemed to the minds of ancient peoples “simultaneously the cause and symbol of the world’s great forces”.6
The Triple Spiral – dated at 2400 B.C.E., inscribed on the inner chamber wall at ‘Newgrange’, is lit up by direct sunlight at Winter Solstice, the annual seasonal point that traditionally celebrates the birth of Light and Form. As recently as 1969 C.E., Michael J. O’Kelly became the first archaeologist to directly observe and confirm that this event occurred.7 At that time, not only was the event not understood but the possibility of it being deliberately designed to occur, was stubbornly resisted.8 This new knowledge was not in keeping with previously held theories of these places being tombs, and having no relationship to seasonal movements of light and the telling of time.
It is significant that places like Newgrange, Stonehenge and Silbury Hill can only be comprehended when one is actually there and observes the relationship between the place and the cosmic/seasonal events – the Moon and Sun over a period of time, over years … and this is what the researchers had to do. These sites are alive texts – that still speak when the receptive observant mind is present.
The similiar lack of comprehension – by minds that could not get outside of their cultural frame – that was brought to bear on the monument of Silbury Hill, is documented by Michael Dames in The Silbury Treasure. The subtitle of that book is The Great Goddess Rediscovered – and that is the mindset that is required for the comprehension of this prehistoric structure, and also for the comprehension of the Triple Spiral. As Dr. Claire French points out most mythographers (and also archaeologists) have omitted ‘the importance and functions of the female deity and her possible role among the people of the Celtic realms”.9 The mind required for the real comprehension of art and monument from this period and place is one that allows the female metaphor for the Sacred … Goddess, functions beyond the purely ornamental or an orgiastic ‘fertility cult10’. And that mind has been hard to come by, until very recently.
The work of Marija Gimbutas has been notable and extensive in this regard. Gimbutas in her book The Language of the Goddess, notes the extensive use – all across Old Europe – of the ‘tri-line’, appearing as early as 24,000 B.C.E11. She notes its later association with energy symbols like the whirl, or sometimes contained within uteri or seeds, or alternating with crescents, sometimes coming from the mouth or eyes of a Goddess, or with continuous v motifs on pottery: all indicating symbols of ‘beginning’ and ‘becoming12’.
Gimbutas notes the link of this motif with the Triple Goddess, ‘an astonishingly long-lived image’ documented as early as 15,000 B.C.E. … ‘continuous throughout pre-history and history’ down to the Greek and Roman, Irish, Germanic, Baltic and Slavic triple matrons13. Gimbutas says the repetition of the threes – in engravings and structure – at Newgrange Ireland is striking and seems to represent the Goddess as ‘the triple source of life energy necessary for the renewal of life14’, as Michael Dames later re-iterates.
Some researchers are now realizing that this Triple Spiral was inscribed by minds that understood their Place – Earth and Cosmos – as Mother-Creator: this Place itself as the Sacred Entity. For these ancestors of indigenous Western tradition – Pagans – the Land ‘itself’/ (Herself) was Mother Deity. And in our times, as the sense of this Land/country is extended to a huge Universe, the Pagan person perhaps becomes ‘PaGaian’: as we come to know Gaia in Her whole Cosmic and evolutionary context. And for these ancient forebears, She was triple-faced: there was the aspect of the whole – Eiru – Mother, the aspect of the differentiated individual parts – Fodla – Virgin, and the aspect of the hidden sentience within – Banba – Crone. In the representation as tri-line or as Triple Spiral, She is not anthropomorphised – but is expressed and apparently understood as a cosmic dynamic – one that is suggested to be Creative in an essential way.
Humans have for a long time identified a Creative Triplicity that runs through every part of the Universe. Author Caitlin Matthews identifies it amongst the Celtic peoples and says that this “innate triplicity” known as the Triskele, “may grace our lives with an ever-living energy”.15 It is also embodied in every breath – as it waxes, peaks and wanes – as all Being does. This ubiquitous Triple-faced Creative Dynamic is most likely Lunar in its original representation – as humans witnessed the Moon waxing into fullness, waning into darkness, and re-emerging.16
Martin Brennan, who spent long periods of time in the context and place of Bru na Boinne observing and documenting events there, says that the Triple Spiral is ‘perhaps the most powerful representation’ of the sacred heritage of ritual celebration of eternal Creation represented in the Wheel of the Year, the phases of the Moon and the lives of all beings.17
The ritual celebration of the Seasonal Wheel of the Year may be an embodiment and year-long celebration of the Creativity that unfolds the Cosmos: a celebration of Cosmogenesis – the Creativity in which we live everyday. Cosmogenesis, in brief, is the ongoing creative activity of the Cosmos, the unfolding/evolution of the Universe – referring to the form producing dynamics of the Cosmos.18
In recent work, cultural historian Thomas Berry and mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme, state that Cosmogenesis will be characterised by three governing themes, that ‘the Universe arises into being as spontaneities governed’ by these three ‘primordial orderings’, that the ‘very existence of the universe rests on the power’ of these orderings:19 which are by their awesome nature, beyond any one-line univocal definition. In their discussion of the three features, Swimme and Berry cover the full gamut of creative manifestation – from particles to biological life to stars. They name their three faces of Cosmogenesis as differentiation, communion, and autopoiesis: offering many synonyms for these terms: and also leaving room for the deepening and altering of these three “as future experience expands our present understandings”.20 The terms may be summarized as follows:
differentiation – to be is to be unique
communion – to be is to be related
autopoiesis – to be is to be a centre of creativity21
There is nothing simple about the defining of these characteristics nor about the defining of waxing, peaking and waning, creation-preservation-destruction – and one cannot Be without the others. They are best imagined with a Poetic mind or “fuzzy” logic,22 for they are deeply complex, interactive and multivalent. I have augmented my understanding of the Triple-faced Creative Dynamic with Thomas Berry’s three features of Cosmogenesis in this way:
Differentiation – to be is to be unique … it is the Universe’s “outrageous bias for the novel”,23 associated with the Virgin aspect. It is the differentiated parts – the Urge to Be – felt in the beginning of the breath. This is the budding of new leaves, shoots of early Spring, the first sliver of the new Moon, your tentative new beginnings – at any time in your life.
Communion – to be is to be related … “even before a first interaction … the primal togetherness of things”,24 associated with the Mother aspect. It is the whole, the Place of Being – felt in the peaking of the breath – the dynamic reciprocal interchange. This is the fullness of the flower, the ripeness of the fruit, the fullness of the tide and Moon, your creative engagement peaking.
Autopoeisis – to be is to be a centre of creativity … “the interior dimension of things … the power each thing has to participate directly in the cosmos-creating endeavour”,25 associated with the Crone aspect. It is the hidden sentience within, the transformer. It is the creating of Space to Be – felt in the release of the breath. This is the seedpod forming, the grinding of the grain, the Autumn decline, the waxing Dark of the Moon, your letting go of your achievements, your small self dissolving into Larger Self.
The story – the unfolding – of the Universe, of Gaia/Earth, of Creativity, is an interaction of these three dynamics. To be attuned to these dynamics, as one may be in ritual celebration of them, is to be attuned to the everyday Creativity of the Cosmos, wherein conscious deep transformation is possible – the work of the ‘Crone’ aspect, conscious deep relationship is possible – the work of the ‘Mother’ aspect, the astounding beauty of particular self is known – the work of the ‘Virgin’ aspect. And one doesn’t have to go anywhere – it is as close as your breath.
We may develop ethics and action based on these principles – we may ‘develop community, support diversity, and treat each other as sacred subjects”.26 The Triple Spiral may represent a powerful indigenous Earth-based jurisprudence – law – that is not separate from its representation of Being itself.
The Seasonal Wheel of the Year may be celebrated as an embodiment of this triple dynamic – like Gaia’s Breath … waxing, peaking and waning, and re-emerging. The ritual celebration of the annual cycle of Earth-Sun Creativity – our everyday Sacred Site – may be an expression of the dance of form and dissolution, that eternal dance in which we participate. In summary: the light part of the cycle is about coming into Being, celebrating the Virgin phase – new differentiated being. Early Spring and High Spring are about the Beauty and Joy of particular form and its process. The dark part of the cycle is about returning to the Great Plenum whence all emerges, celebrating the Crone phase. Early Autumn and Deep Autumn are about the Beauty and Grief of transformation and its process – that can be more of a challenge: we are often filled with hubris and take it all so personally. The Solstices, which are about the fullness of dark or light, and the interchange, celebrate the Mother phase – the relationship that this Place is – between the ‘manifest’ reality (of light) and the ‘manifesting’ reality27 (of dark). The Equinoxes are points of balance – in the Dark and the Light phase – wherein we may pause a moment and recognize the presence of all Three – the Sacred Balance. The ancient story of Demeter (as Mother) and Persephone (as both Young and Old One) – the Mysteries of Eleusis – celebrate the Sacred Balance of Joy and Grief, of Being and Loss, and the Continuity of Life. The Equinoxes, and the ancient icons of Demeter and Persephone, may express the delicate ‘curvature of space-time’, the fertile balance of tensions which enables it All.
Adam McLean, a researcher of alchemy primarily, who has spent much time studying and meditating upon the Triple Goddess, describes relationship/alignment with this Dynamic as releasing “such a powerful current of creative energy as few have ever experienced”.28 He contends that She ‘remains a key to unlocking the store of ancient energies and spiritual wisdom’ bound up within. He speaks of the complexity of her guises, how She challenges our usual thinking with seeming contradictions and inconsistencies, yet he senses that She holds within Her all polarities – an integration of being that seems necessary for the ‘spiritual energies of the future’ as he describes.29
I like this very brief summary of the Seasonal Wheel of the Year, which may embody this Creative Triplicity:
Deep Autumn/Samhain … death of the old, conception of the new
Winter Solstice/Yule … Birth of the new, Birth of All – Origins
Early Spring/Imbolc …nurturance of & dedication to the unique self
Spring Equinox/Eostar … the Joy and Power of Being
High Spring/Beltane … the fertility, Desire and Dance of Life
Summer Solstice/Litha … the Fullness and Wholeness of Being
Early Autumn/Lammas … the Harvest of Life – the Sacred Consuming
Autumn Equinox/Mabon … the Grief and Power of Loss
And back to Deep Autumn – deep transformation … the circle begins again, ever new.
copyright: Glenys Livingstone 2007
Originally published with the title Celebrating the Triple Spiral as Cosmogenesis in the Seasonal Wheel in June 2007 on my former website, and published in this form and with this title in Goddess Pages issue 8, Autumn 2008.)
There is a related YouTube video: Triple Spiral @ Bru-na-BigTree
1 Martin Brennan, The Stones of Time, p.37.
2 Martin Brennan, The Stones of Time, p.7.
3 Martin Brennan, The Stones of Time, p.18.
4 For the peoples of this time and place, the sacredness of the Land as ‘She’ was apparently a common consciousness that did not necessarily need designation as ‘Goddess’, as we humans may need it today.
5 Michael Dames, Ireland: A Sacred Journey, p. 192.
6 Martin Brennan, The Stones of Time, p.39.
7 Martin Brennan, The Stones of Time, p.36.
8 Paul Devereux, Earth Memory, p. 120.
9 Claire French, The Celtic Goddess, p.22.
10 Claire French, The Celtic Goddess, p.22.
11 Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess, p. 89.
12 Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess, p. 92-94.
13 Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess, p. 97.
14 Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess, p. 97.
15 Caitlin Matthews, The Celtic Spirit, p.366
16 Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess, p.18 and p. 596.
18 Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story, p.70.
19 Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story, p.72.
20 Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story, p.72.
21 This summary definition was on the editorial page of issues of Original Blessing in the 1990’s, editor Matthew Fox.
22 See Vladimir Dimitrov, “Fuzzy Logic in Service to a Better World: the Social Dimensions of Fuzzy Sets”, in Complexity, Organisations, Fuzziness, p.3. The website address of “Introduction to Fuzziology” is http://www.lulu.com/content/169752
23 Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story, p.74.
24 Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story, p.78.
25 Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story, p.75.
26 Sarah Pirtle, “A Cosmology of Peace”, EarthLight Vol 15 No.1 Fall 2005, p 10.
27 I take these terms from David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, p. 191.
28 Adam McLean, The Triple Goddess, p.12.
29 Adam McLean, The Triple Goddess, p.17.
30 Adam McLean, The Triple Goddess, p.12.
Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. NY: Vintage Books, 1997.
Baring, Anne, and Cashford, Jules. The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image. Penguin Group, 1993.
Brennan, Martin. The Stones of Time: Calendars, Sundials, and Stone Chambersof Ancient Ireland. Rochester Vermont, Inner Traditions International, 1994.
Dames, Michael. Ireland: A Sacred Journey. ELEMENT BOOKS, 2000.
_____________. The Silbury Treasure: The Great Goddess Rediscovered. London: Thames and Hudson,1976.
Devereux, Paul. Earth Memory: The Holistic Earth Mysteries Approach to Decoding Ancient Sacred Sites. London: Quantum, 1991
Dimitrov, Vladimir. “Fuzzy Logic in Service to a Better World: the Social Dimensions of Fuzzy Sets”, in Complexity, Organisations, Fuzziness, p.3. The website address of “Introduction to Fuzziology” is http://www.lulu.com/content/169752
French, Claire. The Celtic Goddess. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 2001.
Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. NY: HarperCollins, 1991.
Matthews, Caitlin. The Celtic Spirit. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2000.
McLean, Adam. The Triple Goddess. Grand Rapids MI: Phanes Press, 1989.
Original Blessing. Newsletter of Friends of Creation Spirituality, Oakland CA, 1997.
Pirtle, Sarah. “A Cosmology of Peace”, EarthLight Volume 15 No. 1 Fall 2005, p. 10-11.
Swimme, Brian and Berry, Thomas. The Universe Story. NY: HarperCollins, 1992.