Sacred Sites

October 1st, 2008

Maeshowe

Orkney Islands, Scotland

Our Pagan pilgrimage begins with a drive to the northernmost part of Scotland, were we board a ferry that will take us across the North Sea to Orkney. You can imagine stepping back into time as you cross the water to the small set of islands in the north. It’s barren landscape due to the fact that Orkney has been largely treeless for over two thousand years, this feature adds to the striking quality of the land.
Orkney has been inhabited for at least 5,500 years, originally by neolithic tribes and then by the Picts. Invaded and settled by the Norse, it is now considered part of Scotland. However most Orcadians regard themselves as Orcadians first and Scots second.
Home to several sacred sites such as the Ring of Brogar, The Standing Stones of Stenness and Skara Brae, we begin our journey with one of the most intriging, the portal passage tomb known as Maeshowe. The origin of the word Maeshowe can be translated to a bit of Old Norse meaning Hill or Howe, the translation for Maes is still uncertain.
In last months Pagan Pages, we examined Newgrange a passage tomb in Ireland which was built around 3500BC. Maeshowe was built around 2,800 – 2500 BC about 800-1000 years after Newgrange. We find that the builders of both tombs had the same motivations, a shared community interest in the construction of the passage tomb and a common belief that the solstice played a part in the transition between life and death.
Like Newgrange, one of Maeshowe’s most famous attributes is its midwinter alignment – The difference between them is that, Maeshowe is illuminated at sunset while Newgrange uses the sunrise.
The Living and the Dead
Ancestors played an important part in the daily lives of these people. From what we learned about Newgrange, ritual and celebration were woven together. Here we have ancestors who constantly moved the bones of their dead in and out of chambers at frequent intervals.
According to the Guide of Historic Scotland, in the western isles there was evidence of Bronze-age people circulating generations of mummified bodies  before burying them under their houses.
“The assertion of ancestral connections to a particular place was common to most prehistoric societies including Neolithic Orkney, communal tombs were one visible way of associating a local community with a given area, weaving the remains of the dead into the fabric of daily life”, Mamwell, Caz.
Building on the similarities at Newgrange we can tell that the builders of both had a common link to the dead, but what makes this passage grave even more intriguing, are the VIKINGS.
The Norse Discovery
According to our guide at Maeshowe, the initial excavation was in 1861; the entrance passage was inaccessible so they made an access shaft through the top of the mound and what they discovered was that they were not the first to break into the tomb.
What makes this passage tomb so unusual, is what amounts to Viking vandalism, with the graffiti they left behind. Runic “graffiti” was found on the inner walls and it confirmed the “Orkneyinga Saga” that several groups of Norsemen had entered the tomb – known to them as “Orkahaugr” – in the middle of the 12th century and recorded their presence on the ancient stone.
As the story goes, a group of Vikings seeking shelter from a storm, they broke into the tomb through the roof. It was here that they whiled away their time in a drunken booze fest. Alright, I admit that the booze fest is an assumption on my part. Mostly I wanted to see if you were paying attention.
To pass the time, they carved on the walls of the chamber, over 33 runic inscriptions and 8 sketches. This is the largest collection of runic inscriptions that survive outside of Scandinavia.
Some of the carvings boast of women “Ingigreth was the most beautiful” the sketch of a slavering dog carving next to this inscription suggests an appreciation of her charms. There was also talk of a treasure that they found in the tomb, and more bragging about which man was the best rune carver in all the land.
Understanding the Runes

The letters used in the carvings belong to runic alphabets developed by the Germanic peoples from the 2nd century AD. These letters could be quickly cut into stone, wood or bone. They are used as an alphabet, a language and they have magical meaning.
The standard runic alphabet as used by the 12th century Norse consisted of 16 letters. If the Norse wanted to be clever and tease their readers they wrote in twig runes. This is a combination of standard runes and staves (or Oghams). According to the Maeshowe visitor guide, it is one thing to know the runic characters, but quite another thing to work out which letters are represented on the walls of the tomb and to make sense of what they say in Old Norse. Often the translations can be, at best, tentative.
Has Society Really Changed?
It strikes me that society hasn’t changed very much in all these years. Men still speak of their conquests of beautiful women and they tell the tale of it by writing on walls about them, “for a good time call”.   Ah another link to our ancestors.
World Heritage Site

It’s designation as the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney” a UNESCO World Heritage Site makes it one of the best reasons to traveled there. Orkney contains some of the oldest and best-preserved Neolithic sites in Europe.
Unless you plan on staying several days in Orkney, it’s recommended that you leave your car behind and take the ferry over. Do yourself a favor and hire a guide, better yet an archaeologist. They will pick you up at the ferry and drive you to the sites. This saves time trying to navigate these small islands, and provides a wealth of knowledge by having your own personal archaeologist with you.
Resources:
Maeshowe and The Heart of Neolithic Orkney – The Official Guide of Historic Scotland.
Maes Howe Web sites:
http://www.maeshowe.co.uk/
http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/westmainland/maeshowe/index.html
http://www.stonesofwonder.com
http://orkneyjar.com
http://www.orkneyarchaeologytours.co.uk/# – Archaeologist Caz Mamwell


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