If you enjoy Irish gifts, you have probably seen the distinctive triple spiral design often referred to as the Newgrange spiral. But do you know where it came from and what it means? This triple spiral is one of many swirling spirals that decorates the ancient site of Newgrange. It is carved on the entrance stone.
Newgrange is one of the three passage tombs that make up the Bru na Boinne site. The site is named for its location near the River Boyne in County Meath. Newgrange was discovered first, and is the star of this constellation of pre-Christian monuments. It is a World Heritage Site that is older than the pyramids. Knowth, another of the three sites, is also open to visitors. The third site, Dowth, is not.
Our most ancient legends refer to the Bru na Boinne site, and to Newgrange. While our ancestors did not leave us any clear explanations of their beliefs and their reasons and purposes for building these amazing sites, we can glean a few key things. The most amazing thing about Newgrange is that they designed it very precisely so that one day of the year – and one day only – the rising sun hits an opening above the entrance to the mound in such a way that it illuminates the interior and shines on another triple spiral inside the tomb. That day is the winter solstice. So we know our ancestors felt this was a very special day, and that they had some kind of event here. And clearly, they were brilliant engineers and astronomers to be able to do the calculations required to get Newgrange so right.
What Does the Spiral Represent?
That triple spiral at Newgrange speaks to us as strongly as it spoke to our ancestors. Just think of how popular it is on Irish gifts. Three has been an important number in Irish spirituality and consequently in Irish design. We have this triple spiral, the three-leaved shamrock and the trinity knot. Now we know the shamrock and the trinity knot have been used to represent the Christian Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But the Newgrange triple spiral is much older than Christianity. What did it represent?
Scholars believe that our Celtic ancestors worshipped a triple goddess. Theories on exactly what this triple goddess was vary. Some believe it referred to the three stages of life – maiden, mother and crone. Other theories are far more specific. Before we had St. Brigid, we had a triple goddess named Brigid. Her three personas were poet, healer and smith. But she was not the only triple goddess on the ancient Celtic scene. We also had Macha, Neaim and Badh, collectively known as the Morrigan. Again, we have nothing from our ancestors clearly spelling out their beliefs. We have these stunning triple spiral carvings and conflicting scholarship. And perhaps most importantly, we have our own instincts about it. Each of us can find our own meaning in that intriguing triple spiral design, and perhaps that is why we love it on so many different Irish gifts.