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Sacred Sounds at Newgrange

This week’s news story about the integration of acoustics into ancient sacred sites brought to mind a passage in Paul Devereux’s wonderful book The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia (available from Amazon US and Amazon UK), which I had the privilege of publishing in an updated edition a few years ago. In this short section, Paul speculates freely about the possible use of acoustics at a site such as Newgrange, in Ireland.

On stones in the passage and within the chamber are engraved lozenges, spirals, triple spirals and other form constants. Outside, there is an entrance stone in front of the passage entrance which is richly carved with similar patterns, as are three of the exterior kerbstones to the mound. Are these markings the equivalent of those in the Chumash shaman’s cave? Did a calendrical, ritualised vigil take place here, of mythic significance to the builders of Newgrange, where the ancient Lords of Light are said in legend to have dwelt? Did some Neolithic shaman or shamanic elite take a mind-altering infusion and then sit within the inky blackness of the awesome chamber, perhaps amongst the ancestral bones, intoning deep, echoing chants until the very walls reverberated, waiting to receive the ecstatic golden blast of soul-searing solar light at the dark turning of the year?

We may never know for certain, but the evidence leads to interesting
speculation. The structure was clearly related to midwinter solar astronomy, the entoptic-style rock art there does speak of altered mind states, and acoustical tests conducted within the chamber in 1994 by Robert G. Jahn, myself and colleagues showed that the resonant frequency of the Newgrange chamber was 110 Hz (cycles per second), within the baritone vocal range. We could speculate further, and suggest that chanting at the resonant frequency of the chamber might itself “drive” the brain and help induce trance states – initial EEG studies are currently indicating that the 110 Hz frequency does cause alterations in brain activity. And we can stretch speculation to guesswork. Inside the chamber there are large stone dishes; if these had been filled with water on ritual occasions and hot stones placed in it, clouds of steam would be produced creating a “sweat-lodge” type of environment (there is evidence of this kind of practice in early Ireland). The droplets of moisture in the steam would have vibrated with the resonant chanting within the chamber. Experiments have shown that in such a case water droplets (or other aerosol components) floating in air assemble into wave patterns reflecting the frequency of the sound, and these show up when subjected to a lightbeam. We can therefore picture the solstitial sunbeam cutting a vivid shaft of light through the steamy interior of the Newgrange chamber revealing shifting light and dark patterns relating to the 110 Hz frequency of the sound. Interestingly, these patterns would be similar to the sort of rock art motifs we find at Newgrange. The acoustically-driven steam patterns would probably also have assisted the “flicker” mechanism in the sunlight that Dronfield has found evidence for. In this scenario we can see the combination of at least five mind-altering techniques: the use of a hallucinogen, be it psilocybin mushrooms, an ergot derivative, or henbane, taken at the start of a long initial period of sensory-deprivation in the silent blackness of the chamber, followed by prolonged resonant chanting in a sweat-lodge type of hot steamy atmosphere, culminating in powerful flickering light.

Paul has of course immersed himself in this very topic – he wrote a book titled Stone Age Soundtracks, and has written articles examining ‘archaeoacoustics’ – so while he’s speculating, it is informed speculation.

The Long Trip itself is a great book – if, like me, you’re interested in both ancient cultures and the human mind, it’s really a must-have for your collection (and of course, purchasing a copy helps support both Paul and The Daily Grail). You can grab a copy right now by ordering from Amazon US or Amazon UK.

  1. Newgrange sound etc.
    There are five traditional Celtic performed arts, poetry, music, storytelling, song and dance. One common dominator in all is the use of sound to create ‘moods’ and mind altered states.

    To contextualize my remarks, from childhood I have been involved in traditional poetry, sometimes referred to as Bardic poetry. This is always orally performed, sans script as a singer would a song. While at this stage of my life I have accumulated more than a few grey hairs, some years back I had the honor to be All Ireland Champion Poet For Live Performance Poetry. I have also a some other Irish and International awards picked up over the years for ‘conventional’ poetry.

    This may also give some authority and credence to my observations, depending on the readers viewpoint!

    A poet performing poetry in the traditional mode is not just uttering words to convey or communicate as in a prose or poetry reading in the usual sense of the word. If they are skilled in their craft they can set up a mood altering vibrations in a room or even outdoors in their immediate surrounding space to the extent that most there can feel the emotions encapsulated in the poem as well as hearing it !

    In ancient Ireland the earliest writings record three types of musical sound that a Master Musician should have the ability to play, one could be used to sooth anger and calm down a crowd, one could be used to vent sorrow and reduce the crowd to tears and the third was for gaiety; to infect the crowd with laughter and merriment. The salient factor in all of these three was…….they were irresistible……the mood, altered with the use of sound, would effect, or rather infect, all present.

    This whole area requires a far longer and detailed elaboration. For now the outline information provided should be sufficient to show that Paul is in the right general area and that while perhaps not specifically correct, his speculations have much merit. Sound have always been at the centre of the Celtic Sacral and in all probability the same also applied to most pre-Celtic societies in Western Europe.

    1. Wondrous
      I would love to have the chance to hear you recite a poem, Sean.

      But in the meantime, I haven’t forgotten your promise of starting your own blog in TDG –and I can tell you I’m not the only one waiting for it 😉

      1. Newgrange sound etc.
        Thanks Red…..’ cardiac problems, nothing serious but medication changes etc disrupted more than a few deadlines. Getting there!

        This is not great as there are two adjoining venues and the other one had a lot of background noise that particular night. However it do convey something of what is involved. I did the same poem among others in a West Belfast festival to a crowd of over a thousand, a musician grabbed a didgery doo and picked up the rhythm of the chant, it was awesome as our Yankee brethren would say !

    2. Poetry
      I’d love to hear your work. Is there anything on youtube. I write too. Its a blessing and a curse. It takes over, I have to write. And yes I have a wee bit of Celtic blood in me. 🙂

  2. Well, informed speculation is
    Well, informed speculation is always the best to write on. It gives the writer credibility and it is always good to hear from someone who knows their way around the subject. Thank you for this.


    Sometimes people write about easy things that they have no idea about then there are other times when they write on what they know and it's the better way to go.

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