Order of the Shining Helmet of Athena: Sacred Landscape by John Merron

'Cairn T' on the Hill of the Witches, photo © John Merron

Order of the Shining Helmet of Athena: Sacred Landscape

Astral Visit to the Hill of the Witches

by John Merron

In 1980, as in other years, I had helped to organise the annual Earth Mysteries conference ‘The Ley Hunter’s Moot’, which attracted researchers and fellow-travellers from all over the world. One of the talks really struck me and seemed to reach into my soul.

The illustrated talk was by an Irish American graphic analyst called Martin Brennan on the subject of the enigmatic decorations carved into passage mounds, chiefly in Ireland’s Boyne Valley, but spread throughout Ireland and West Wales. By applying his expertise, studying as many of the stone-age sites as possible, taking measurements with precision and using archaeological surveys, he was able to come up with an astonishing theory.

Beam of light inside cairn, photo © John Merron

What emerged was an elaborate system of mound- building, aligning tunnels or passages with the sun moon or stars, creating “beam dials”. The tunnels align precisely on major astronomical events during the year, to project a light beam onto the end wall of the passage. Along the passage, seemingly randomly placed stones along the passage manipulate the light beam to either project a square light pattern or project a precise shape onto symbols carved into the stones.

These solar projectors, where still intact, or reassembled, still function accurately despite being constructed 5000 years ago!

The spirals, zig-zags, chevrons, concentric circles, and cup & ring marks were extensively analysed and found to represent sun, moon, stars, numbers and calendrical calculators. It emerged that standard measurements were often used to create the carvings which appeared to have a proportional relationship to what has been dubbed the Megalithic Yard, a measurement derived empirically by the mathematician and surveyor Alexander Thom. Thom spent many decades surveying stone circles throughout the British Isles and discovered that multiples of a unit he named the Megalithic Yard was 2.72 feet.

In an attempt to test the theory that the same culture had been involved in Brittany in Northern France and Galicia in Celtic Northern Spain, Martin was joined with other researchers on a visit to Gavrini and other passage mounds on Brittany’s South coast. Here they tried out his measuring sticks on some of the spectacular “Petri-glyphs” deeply incised into the granite stones used to construct the famous monumental 5000 year old structures adorning the coast. In each case, key geometrical features fitted the carvings just as in Ireland!

So it was with great anticipation that I planned to visit my spiritual homeland. Although I was born and brought up in West London, my mother came from a village called Ballyjamesduff in county Cavan. I planned to visit Ireland to coincide with the spring equinox, one of the key astronomical events which were literally “set in stone” by the ancients. I arranged to stay at Martin Brennan’s loft apartment near Merrion Square in Dublin. Martin was putting the finishing touches to his landmark book “The Stars & the Stones” (published by Thames & Hudson). The best-preserved site associated with the equinoxes, within easy reach of Dublin also happened to be close to County Cavan.

Martin wanted to make some last minute observations in the passage mound at the moment when the light beam illuminates the carvings, mainly to measure the dimensions of the beam width and resurvey which markings were lit up and the duration of the illumination events. So he appreciated my being able to drive him up to Loughcrew to climb up the Slieve Na Caliah “The Hill of the Witches”.

Our alarms were set to wake us around 4.30am when we would check the weather forecast for clear skies before setting off. As the sun starts to hit the symbols at the back of the mound about eight mornings around the equinox, it was not imperative that we be there exactly on the equinox itself.

The first morning, the weather looked like it was going to be fine, so we set off North into the darkness of pre-dawn. When we arrived the sun had illuminated the sky revealing a rather daunting growing cover of clouds. However, as we had made the effort to get there, we climbed the hill and made our way across to the mound known as Cairn T. My first impression was that the pile of rocks and boulders would not readily reveal its ancient secrets.

As part of the Dragon Project, I had volunteered to take Geiger readings at the Irish sites we visited as part of a global survey of background radiation at ancient sites calibrated against “control” sites, such as hill tops with no known ancient sites, city centres, towns villages and farmland. To this end I had a Geiger teller with me, which beeps when an electron / charged particle reaches the detector. These are counted for 3 minutes, divided by 3 to get an average background count. It felt incongruous entering the ancient mound with what seemed like a pile of equipment – a camera and tripod, Geiger teller, stopwatch torches, (flashlights) measuring tape etc.

As we entered the mound the twilight was quickly giving way to dawn and a cold mist was blowing through the mound, which, when it was reconstructed, had a 2ft square opening created in the roof of the structure to allow daylight into the depth of the mound to view the stone decorations. We set up the equipment, with the camera set in a side chamber ready for any light spots which we may be lucky enough to experience. Sadly, the sun failed to show her face, however, at the moment of dawn, the radiation count raised in intensity for the period of time the light beam would have entered the chamber. Also during this time a sort of greyish light lit up the inside of the chamber, but no intense beams of light.

While we chatted it emerged that Martin had trained for some time in Japan with a Shinto Priestess who taught him shamanistic techniques to contact his ancestors. It was intimated that insights gleaned from his ancient ancestral spirits assisted in the development of his theories and in the analysis of some of the patterns. In the cold pre-dawn light Martin had an aura about him that seemed otherworldly. I saw him as being as truly enigmatic and connected to the ancient wisdom as these prehistoric sites we were investigating.

We packed our stuff and headed back down the 1000 feet mountain to the warmth of my car and made our into Oldcastle for a hearty breakfast before driving back to Dublin.

I spent the day in the National Museum meeting up with Martin in his local pub in the evening, where we drank the sacred nectar of Ireland in the form of Guinness. Martin had become quite a celebrity following an article in the national press in which he berated the official ‘Board of Works’ for their negligence of Ireland’s antiquities. In the interview with the journalist he pointed out that over 50% of the scheduled monuments had been destroyed by agriculture during the previous 20 years. Little or no opposition had been presented by the “establishment archaeologists,” with whom Brennan had been fighting a feud for several years. This was mainly fuelled by his determination to demolish the established “Diffusion Theory.” These academics had not tested Martin’s idea, and many of his circle of supporters were students at the university under the tutelage of the same professors Martin was warring with.

Martin and I shared stories about various sites visited before getting an early night back at his flat, ready for another pre-dawn start again.

The last flash of light beaming into Cairn T, photo © John Merron

After a few hours sleep, I awoke naked in the stone-cold chambered mound. The freezing mist was breezing past me as I sat up startled, staring about me – trying to remember how I had got there. My fingers dug into the damp earth I was sitting on as I panicked. I looked up and saw the stone roof of the chamber. In the half-light I could see the carvings. I felt in a heightened state. I shook my head and the scene faded, the sensations of coldness and dampness were replaced with cosy bedclothes and the stone side of the chamber merged into the magnolia painted sloping ceiling of the loft. I was still in Dublin. I checked my watch and the experience had occurred at the precise moment of dawn!!! Martin had decided not to wake me as, when he checked the weather, it was definitely going to be heavily overcast. I told Martin of my experience and he was intrigued and not at all surprised. I had a shamanic journey to the forgotten mound where the day before I had been bathed in the forgotten equinoctal solar magic that had been taking places for thousands of years, observed or not. Martin considered the possibility of an ancestral link between my family and those who built the mounds, as Ballyjamesduff was within walking distance of Loughcrew. This would have been enhanced by most of my leisure time being spent investigating Ancient Sacred Sites, and psychic research.

My Mother’s family name was Fegan, a name – some have speculated – derived from Pagan. Although known as Phyllis to everyone that knew her (derived from Philomena) her first name was Brigid. My grandmother taught my mother how to make Brigid crosses from the local bulrushes. As she was named for St Bride, it was her duty to make and distribute the crosses (dollies) to all the village. My mother told me that her parents had spelt her name wrongly, as she thought they meant it to be Bridget. However I pointed out that it was probably deliberate as it was the more ancient – non-Christian version of the spelling. Many years later, on visiting my grandmother’s grave I was astonished to read Brigid “Dolly” Fegan, meaning that she too was generally know by her nick-name, and the tradition of ‘the Bridgids’ making the St Bride dollies was also acknowledged in her name.

The following morning had clear weather and we set off into the starry darkness of the Irish countryside and were rewarded with a magnificent display of golden rays passing through the passageways and across the ancient carving. The sun bathed the symbols during the hour-long journey across the ancient carvings. It penetrated the darkness of the mound as if in an act of sacred creation. The dry run two mornings previously paid off as I knew exactly where to position myself and my camera to capture the scene for posterity – knowing that, apart from Martin and a small number of other researchers no one had watched this display for thousands of years!

Martin finished his manuscript over the next week as I met up with Caroline Wise in Shannon where she was working and had a week off. We monitored other sacred sites in Ireland for the Dragon Project. We met Martin for a farewell Guiness, and he told us he couldn’t trust his dramatic discoveries to the post. This was in the pre home-computer days, and his manuscript was hand written with some parts typed on a typewriter. The attacks on him and his work from officialdom and academia were serious. Although such findings are now part of mainstream archaeology, they were heretical then, and slurs and ridicule on his work by aggravated ‘authorities’ were being leaked to this small island’s press. He entrusted Caroline, myself and the elements to take the original manuscript, tied up in brown paper, across the rough Irish Sea and deliver it by hand to his publisher in Bloomsbury.

There is a curious post-script to this. A few weeks later I visited the Chalice Well in Glastonbury. As I got out of the car by the entrance, I felt a weird sensation and a heard a high pitched buzzing. I approached the well, took a sip of the iron-red water, and felt myself pitch out of my body, with the same sensations as with my astral dawn journey to the mound. My friends saw me stagger and I nearly lost consciousness. We discussed the possibility that my centres had been opened by being in Hill of the Witches at the equinox, subject to powerful forces of the magical meeting of sun and earth. Being at another sacred site so soon had an immediate affect on this novice shaman! My colleagues took me from the potent well, and worked on my chakras and aura.

I believe it was these experiences that led me over a decade later to become dedicated to Elen of the Ways in the Fellowship of Isis. Caroline’s research links her to shamanic out-of-body experience and the networks of ancient sacred sites.

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Originally published in "Mirror of Isis" Volume 3, Issue 1, Beltane 2008, re-published in "Finding Elen: The Quest for Elen of the Ways" by Caroline Wise, March, 2015.