Temple, Gods and Sacrifice in Ireland

It’s colder now, and wetter. The men stand nervously huddled within the shadowy chamber. They lightly restrain their drugged victim, as a steadily weakening sun falls ominously to mark the end of the year.

The climate has cooled, the crops are yearly failing. To appease their fickle deities the tribesmen must make a powerful sacrifice. They look, from the selected one to the three stone basins inside the cruciform structure, its central pit holding the sacred flames that will turn flesh to ash. Their stomachs clench with fear and anticipation. Any of them might have been chosen.

It’s 3000 B.C. and the people fear the wrath of their Gods. The place is Calliagh’s Temple, dominant upon the summit of sacred Slieve Gullion. It is the time of the winter solstice, and the setting sun.

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The pagan cathedral, known locally as Calliagh Berra’s House, sits at an altitude of 1894ft in south Armagh, commanding a spectacular 360° view of a wide swath of Ireland. From the Wicklow Mts. to the Leitrim Hills, and from Slemish Mt. to the neighbouring Mournes, penitents then and now are rewarded for their climb with stunning scenery and the privilege of entering a granite Temple dedicated to an ancient fertility cult.

Calliagh’s House, built around 5000 years ago, was used consistently as a major place of worship for more than 1500 years. It is a Passage Temple, as opposed to a Passage Tomb, as it was not used for interment, and served as a granite representation of the womb of the Dark Goddess of Winter. The male principle of the Sun (and thunder?), possibly named for a version of Targitai/Tara, originating in the Scythian/Sarmatian pantheon, was drawn into the structure during the solstice alignment, which is still witnessed today with the setting winter sun.

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(entrance to the passage temple on the summit of Slieve Gullion)

As the ancient climate cooled by as much as 2°C and the great pine forests began to disappear, conditions for the superstitious populace continued to worsen. Such drastic events led to a spate of building of such structures throughout the northern half of our island. Sacrifices were made, becoming ever more powerful as the supplicants grew desperate. The greatest offering of all was that of human life and so, in pathetic hope, lives were taken, their ashes placed on the altar set into the rear recess, symbolizing new life fertilized by the rays of the encroaching sun.

Of recent archaeological interest is the small lough located at the northerly end of the long summit. As such dark, mysterious bodies of water were considered by ancient cultures across the globe as portals to the underworld and the deities within, it is now felt that Calliagh’s (Gaelic: Callí) Lough is one such opening and is very likely to have been used as a votive site. Thus we can see that this one mountain has an association with the God of the Sun, the Goddess of the Winter Earth, and perhaps the Gods of the Underworld.

Imagine a gathering of tribal people, murmuring quietly as they carry flaming torches across the mountain. Picture them as they deposit urns, weapons and goods into the lough seeking good favour, before the procession moves tentatively along the summit towards the Temple; the sun sinking towards the cold earth. They are pinning their hopes upon the godly acceptance of their offerings. They need divine intervention, and pray for a cloudless sky so that the sun might successfully mate with the earth. Try to feel their fear of failure, the resultant disappointment and anger as the climate continues to cool; their confusion and despair as they lose hope, and lives.

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Today, Calliagh’s Temple is increasingly popular with visitors to the Ring of Gullion Area of Natural Beauty. A path has been created to aid those who wish to view this less well-known contemporary of Newgrange. The inner chamber is still safely accessible via the same 5000 year old passage and a skylight provides illumination. Two stone altars remain and it is possible to quietly re-imagine the grisly yet powerful rituals that were conducted. The natural pit in the bedrock, which formed the centre-piece of the chamber, today lies filled with debris, but the rear recess is there and those with an eye for detail will notice the unique size of the base blocks used to strike out the granite chamber.

Both lough and temple are strongly associated with the mythical giant Fionn Mac Cumhail. The slopes of the mountain are reputed to have been hunted by that greatest of Irish Warrior Heroes, Cúchulainn. The famous rapparee, Redmond O’Hanlon, is known to have frequented the rocky hills and bluffs, evading the marauding English forces of the 17th century. Rebel Voice rejoices at the thought of walking where they did.

Such history and mythology contribute greatly to the appeal of the mountain. But it must surely be the chance to step inside a time capsule of great antiquity, that will entice today’s clans towards the storied Temple of the lonely, yet majestic, Dark Goddess of Winter Earth… Callí.

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