6 Oct 2017

The Pagan Sites of Europe Remembered (28): Bull Rock, Ireland

With Halloween approaching, let us consider a site connected with the Irish god of the dead, Donn.

Out in the sea off the South West coast of Ireland, beyond the Island of Dursey, is a large and impressive rock that is a major hazard to shipping. Accordingly it has its own lighthouse that is commonly reached by a helicopter. There is also a large tunnel that has been carved by the sea through its base. It is not surprising that such a remarkable geological feature became associated with a pagan deity of some importance.

How did this happen? The first point to consider is the Celtic belief that the souls of the dead passed across to the "Otherworld" by heading in the direction of the setting sun. The West is therefore associated with the Land of the Dead or the routes to that mystic realm. This is why Santiago de Compostela has long been a sacred site in the Galician part of Spain -- it is the extreme West!

Bull Rock is in an ideal position in this respect, especially in the Autumn and towards the holy day of Samhain, as it points in the direction of the Sun setting in the West by South West.

Secondly, there appears to be an historical legend connected to the place, with the idea of the god of death becoming conflated with someone who may well have been a historical person. This possible historical person (aka "a legend") was Donn, the leader of the Milesians, one of the waves of invaders recorded in Irish legend.

The invasion of the Milesians is documented in the Lebor Gebala Erenn and the Annals of the Four Masters. Arriving in  a fleet of sixty five ships, they were led by seven brothers, the sons of Mil, possibly from Spain. The chief of them all was Donn.

When they landed in Ireland, they marched to Tara, but the Denann kings, who then ruled the land, claimed they could not fight as their army was not ready, so the two sides arranged to repeat the landing. But when the Milesian ships were out at sea again the druids of the Denann kings caused a great storm to arise that killed four of the brothers, including Donn, whose ship was destroyed on the Bull Rock, which became known as Teach Duinn (the "house of Donn" or "house of the dark one").

Despite this great setback, the surviving Milesians subsequently defeated the Denaan, and thus Donn became the irish Lord of the Dead, and the great rock where he died was identified as the portal to the Other World. When the night was stormy it was said that Donn was riding across the sky on a white charger.

Each year, the spirits of the dead would walk the land until at Samhain they would hear Donn's horn, calling them to Teach Duinn, from where they travelled to the West.

Image from the Gundestrup Cauldron, showing a Celtic scene symbolic of death and rebirth in the Otherworld.

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