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Newgrange and a Hundred Generations November 2, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval, Prehistoric , trackback

Newgrange, standing near the Boyne, is one of the great treasures of Ireland and, indeed, of Europe. Built some four thousand years ago by the first Gaels it is mysterious and, when the mist comes in, vaguely malevolent. It is also exclusive. Each year a tiny group of fortunate men, women and children – chosen by lottery – are invited into the central chamber at dawn at winter solstice and they wait while the sun breaks over the hills and shines its first rays into the heart of the huge complex, signalling the return to life after the cold and snow. But Newgrange may offer something more, the proof that human memory is not quite as hopeless as historians sometimes allege.

Here we need to turn to a question that has long bothered those interested in the past. How long can the generations transmit information orally, that is from mouth to mouth, without any writing? Put in as concrete terms as possible: I teach my daughter a rhyme to repeat and repeat and repeat and I tell her that her well-being depends on repeating it to her heirs, Musgrove Ritual style. How many generations will the rhyme survive intact before being altered out of recognition or simply forgotten?

Most historians are pessimists and doubt that information passed through the generations can remain unaltered much beyond three or four generations. And the question is very difficult to test in any case because of the presence of writing. Writing has been around for the last one to four thousand years depending where you live and we can never be sure that oral memories are not supplemented with writing. And when there is no writing we, in any case, don’t know what is going on…

The only way we can safely test the reliability of oral legends in their pure state is when a literate and illiterate civilisation clash. An event –  say, a battle – is recorded by the literate civilisation in its books and by the illiterate civilisation in its legends. Then three or four hundred years later (the presumably more factual) books and legends are compared. In these very few instances when these kinds of comparisons are possible the oral legends do not prove particularly good conveyors of historical truth: a nice example (another day, another post) are Inuit oral ‘memories’ of wars with the literate Vikings in Greenland.

But strangely enough New Grange may offer us an insight into the ability of oral legend to transmit knowledge not just over decades or centuries but over millennia. When Newgrange was constructed, c. 3000 BC one of its purposes – perhaps its principle purpose – was to allow the sun in through a shaft above the door on the dawn of Winter Solstice. Soon after it was finished the central corridor was sealed though, c. 2800 B.C, after a collapse. Then it was not until 1967 that archaeologists finally realised that the space above the door allowed the Winter sun in. In other words, from c. 2800 BC to about 1967 AD there was no yearly reminder that Newgrange was connected with the sun.

However… That excellent Celticist John Carey has noted that there is an uncomfortable fact lurking away here, a fact that cannot be easily ignored or explained. In an early Irish tale entitled The Taking of the Otherworld Mound the Dagda, a god responsible for the Irish mounds, who lives at Newgrange, gives all the mounds out among his followers, all except his son Mac Oc, who goes without.

‘I have nothing for you’, said the Dagda; ‘I have finished the distribution.’ ‘Obtain for me, then’ said the Mac Oc, ‘just a day and a night in your own dwelling’. That was granted him then. ‘Now go to your companions’, said the Dagda, ‘for you have used up your time’. ‘It is manifest’ said he, ‘that the whole world is day and night; and that is what has been granted me.’ Then the Dagda went forth and the Mac Oc remained in his mound.

Essentially Mac Oc tricks his father out of Newgrange using a ridding formula, Dagda gives him day and night, but all of time is day and night. This story has variants but every one revolves around a trick involving night and day or time more generally.

The tale may date back to the eighth century A.D. It may even date back to the beginning of Irish literary culture in the fifth century or our era. But from about 2800 BC to about 400 AD the Irish had no access to writing. And yet… And yet… The tale of the Dagda seems to recall the idea that Newgrange was concerned with time and the measurement of time. John Carey who made this connection back in an article in 1990 wonders whether we may not have a coincidence here. Perhaps instead there is no real parallel. After all, how close is gambling between father and son over the night and day to a Neolithic calendar? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Close enough to make us think, but not close enough to seal the deal. John Carey’s argument remains a hint and no more that knowledge can be transmitted orally through a hundred generations and beyond.

6 November 2012: KR writes ‘The illustration given in the adorable link  is a very simple one. This little song was copyrighted in 1835, with sheet music (although it was likely sung well before copyrighting!) Now does any western mother have to read the sheet music or look up the rhyme to teach it to her child? Of course not! It is so well-established in memory that a great-grandmother can still teach it. Ergo, it is quite effective over generations without the necessity to be literate to recall it. From nursery songs and rhymes to bardic-type songs recalling genealogies and cultural history; from warrior/hero songs to hymns reminding the faithful of moral obligations; the addition of melody, rhythm and rhyme to words has been used over centuries to pass knowledge from generation to generation. Rituals reinforce the repetitions required to remember, and the importance/sacredness of remembering.  Grade school lessons in rhythm/rhyme help to keep historic/mythic events in memory as well. Off the top of my head and rather quickly: “Listen my children and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of Paul Revere”  or “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward, All through the valley of death rode the six hundred.” I am sixty, so these bits have remained longer than “a generation” if one is referring to familial generations. I do not recall every word of these poems but, had they been also set to music, I might do better. I can recall every word of many songs from my youth.  Even today, in modern music, songs about historic events are being written, and sometimes used in teaching.  Song and dance also teaches cultural histories with the mnemonics of rhythm, music, and acting out dramas: Native American dances are but one example.  The combination of song, rhythm and rhyme has been recognized as mnemonic for a very long time. Aristotle says, in his “On Memory and Reminiscence” (as translated by J.I. Beare) “…in the case of words, tunes, or sayings…People give them up or resolve to avoid them; yet again they find themselves humming the forbidden air, or using the prohibited word.” Of course, Aristotle also said, in the same treatise, “…very young…persons are defective in memory…” to which my first link may not agree.  So, to answer your question about how long unwritten tales can be transferred to future generations in a culture, you might want to look at the age of legends in songs, dances and rhythms (if not rhymes) of peoples who are still somewhat illiterate, or who were so in recent times. And if you are looking to teach your own children lessons so that they do not forget, try setting a simple lesson to simple rhyme, rhythm, dance/action or tune. (Stamping the foot, clapping, skipping rope, making faces can substitute easily for “dance/action.”) A bit of fun and a bit of drama always helps a lesson, and makes it more worthy of passing down in future, also works so much better than yelling… [My little song whilst combing out wet hair for granddaughter: "We start at the bottom and work toward the top, Less ouchy tangles, and no ugly mop." (singsong "Twinkle twinkle little star" tune.) Very simple, she gets it, no crying, she holds still, I'm not yelling, and when she tries it herself she remembers how to best get the tangles out all by herself. Now my great-great granddaughters might get the same little tune-lessons in the same less-painful, non-yelling way!]‘ thanks KR!