Spirals are universal, in the mathematics of nature and in much of what humans design.
For example here is a spiral of branches and flowers, seen at the Melbourne Garden and Flower Show, March 2016.
I used to doodle spirals. I would spiral in class, when I was trying to think and while talking on the phone. My spirals always curled inward and were usually in threes. I don’t doodle now. But could I have been attuned unconsciously to the ancestors? They carved spirals in significant places where the spiritual powers flourished. And triple spirals had plenty to say to them.
Although the image is far older than the Celts, the triple spiral is often called the Celtic spiral. This is because of Ireland. Here Celtic culture was not destroyed by Roman conquest nor was it suppressed by early Christianity (that happened later). We don’t know when Christianity came into Ireland but it was before St Patrick arrived in the fifth century − he found Christians already there. As Christianity gained a foothold, old symbolism was adapted. The triple spiral became a symbol of the Trinity and it is abundant on Celtic crosses and in illuminated manuscripts like the famous Book of Kells, housed in Trinity College, Dublin. When Celts across the British Isles claimed the triple spiral as their own they assured its longevity, all along the years to the early 20th century art nouveau curves of Scottish designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and into the ‘Celtic’ jewellery shops so popular today.
My Celtic ‘triskele’ earrings and the triple spiral transformed in Rennie Macintosh’s iconic rose designs
Spirals appearing in the Megalithic age
Thousands of years before the Celts, Neolithic farmers in Ireland helped to build Newgrange (Sí an Bhrú) in County Meath. Its construction is dated between 3200 – 3100 BCE, that is, around 5000 years ago. These folk, growing their crops and raising animals, had not yet developed metal, so all their tools would have been made out of stone, wood, bone or antler. The whole site, near the river Boyne is called Brú na Bóinne and has many Neolithic structures, the three largest being Knowth, Dowth and Newgrange. They are described as passage tombs although they are much more than tombs.
Newgrange was the only monument open when I visited last year in late autumn (when surprisingly for Ireland it wasn’t raining). A few details: it is a circular mound covering 4,500 square metres. You can still wander around it and contemplate the masterful incised patterns, including spirals, on the heavy kerbstones. The interior has a nineteen metre stone passageway leading to a large central chamber with three smaller alcoves. The chamber has a high corbelled stone roof, made without mortar, that remains waterproof after five millennia. Originally the whole was then covered with stones and earth. What you see now is a grassy hill with a reinforced retaining wall at the front. This was constructed in the 1970s using original quartz lying around – the structure had collapsed on this side. That’s why it looks rather like a modern building.
At the entrance is a massive five tonne stone that would have been part of the structure like the other kerbstones. It is incised with spirals and features what is possibly the megalithic age’s most famous triple spiral.
Newgrange was constructed so that at the winter solstice the rising sun penetrated the inner chamber. At Knowth the sun penetrated the interior at the summer solstice. Dowth had passageways at both ends so it received sunrises at both solstices.
One of Newgrange’s attractions is a re-enactment of what took place at dawn on that midwinter morning. Twenty of us ducked along the passageway to the main chamber, helped now by electric lighting. When we were all inside we were asked to stand back on either side. The lights were switched off. We waited in complete darkness. And then a beam of light entered through a stone ‘box’ above the entrance and pierced right along the passage and into the central chamber.
So we glimpsed what chosen ones among those Neolithic people would have experienced. Once a year, at the winter solstice exactly at sunrise, the sun would stream through that strategically placed box and illuminate the interior, revealing the carvings inside, including the triple spiral on the rear wall.
As ages passed the site’s purpose was forgotten. Legend and folklore filled in the gaps. It was said to be inhabited by the Tuatha Dé Danann, the people of the goddess Danu, a supernatural race in pre-Christian Ireland. Later the mounds were reputed to be the burial places of the ancient kings of Tara. Children would be warned off by superstitions about the wicked faery folk who lured people into their realm. When the interior was accidentally
rediscovered in 1699, there were many theories but little understanding of what it was all about.
The Great Mother and the emergence of Triple Goddess
We take our thinking process as normal. But by assuming consciousness was exactly the same in the past, investigations into ancient life have been severely limited. It is only being recognised now that shifts take place in human consciousness, and will continue to take place. Reconnecting with ancestral consciousness is not straightforward. Yet from ancient stories and living traditions − like those of Indigenous Australians that did not cast aside an older way of knowing − we can peer a little into other realms. And with a combination of research, interpretation and imagination it’s possible to venture into that territory.
So what was the function of the triple spiral in such astrologically based, nature-orientated places of worship? For the pre-Christian farmers across Europe, linked to the seasons and cycles of both sun and moon, the triple spiral was associated with the moon in its threefold rhythm of waxing, fullness and waning.
If the Brú na Bóinne structures were formed to receive the power of the sun god, the moon also had to be represented. The rhythm of the moon was as necessary for life as the sun’s journey across the days and seasons. Even today tuned-in gardeners and growers follow the moon’s cycle. Bio-dynamic agriculture’s spiritual approach works according to an astrological and lunar calendar to produce nutrient rich organic crops. In Neolithic cultures the moon was a threefold goddess as maiden, mother and crone. And in a world where spirit and the earth were not seen as separate she held all nature’s wisdom within her, and the power of life and death.
The goddess is even more ancient than this. Early humanity was enfolded in the earth, and they paid homage primarily to their awesome and all powerful Mother. Occasionally she was anthropomorphised, all hips, belly and breasts.
The Palaeolithic ‘Venus’ of Willendorf, 28000 − 25000 BCE, about 11 cm high, carved from limestone. She was discovered in an Austrian cave and is now in the Natural History Museum of Vienna.
Debate is still going on as to whether, with her strange beehive shaped head, she is an ‘idealised’ and exaggerated fertility symbol, or just a very fat woman (unlikely; this was during the Ice Age when food was never abundant).
We don’t know when symbolic thinking emerged and with it the ability to represent profound experiences as symbolic images. But in Palaeolithic caves across Europe, such as the famous ones at Lascaux in France, among the superb rendering of animals there are many lines and shapes, including spirals.
There was a period of transition, perhaps with the first farmers, during which the Great Mother mutated to become triple-faced. Through the ages she became known by many names and it was she who guided people in their planting, growing and harvesting. As the virgin-like seed shimmering with potential she invited her people to dance and sing; when she came to fullness they knew her as the Mother again and suckled metaphorically at her breasts. When crone-like she withered, and covered the land in darkness in preparation for the next awakening, ceremonies would have ensured their readiness for her re-emergence. But did they call out to her in dread that she might not return? Personally I think that kind of fear is much newer and relates to a linear mode of thinking.
Re-acquainting ourselves with the triple spiral
We have almost abandoned the goddess, just as we have disregarded the living earth. Yet even though today’s human societies are so removed from the earth’s rhythms, the triple spiral continues to resonate. Its meaning is often discussed, such as in the numerous approaches to the psychology of symbolism. I have heard the spiral explained as our life journey of birth, lifespan and death – a chronology of the line with beginning, middle and end and then a worrying nothing, unless the idea of an eternal state is tacked on. Similarly it has also been described as past, present and future, which too is linear chronology. It can lead us, like a river, towards conscious exploration of our potentials. Or it can drive us to quake before the future that reaches darkly ahead of us. In our time, future anxiety has reached chronic levels. Fear is a well-established power and tyrants petty and monstrous make use of it.
But really, threefoldness symbolises unity, the resolution of duality. The poet T.S. Eliot grappled with our temporal conundrum in his mystical meditations on time called the Four Quartets. ‘And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back,’ he writes, and ‘to make an end is to make a beginning.’
The powerful mythology of the threefold goddess challenges our linear thinking. The symbolism of the triple spiral speaks to us of past, present and future as one whole. Perhaps if we were more respectful of the unity of time we would take more responsibility for our actions. We are beginning to acknowledge that the past continues to live in our present, in for example the dreadful continuing effect of child abuse, of war and violence. But what if we fully accepted that our actions right now arc in upon us from the future? What if we made that imaginative leap? If we take to heart the knowledge that our future also lives in our now, might we become less careless in our own deeds? Might we even become less afraid?
Our thinking continues to evolve. As this happens, we can embrace the geometry of the spiral as well as the straight line, so that we comprehend existence from multiple viewpoints. Could this gradually bring about a new integrated kind of consciousness? Yes, it could and that’s why we are fortunate that the old goddess eternally, although never in linear time, spirals on. Her triple spiral reminds us that in our ongoing journey we don’t have to reject the holistic, ever-present meaning of three.