The Tomb of the Atheist
I’m standing, dazed, along the shores of Lake Michigan, staring into my distant reflection in the parabolic, ethereal polished glass of the Cloud Gate. The air’s chill, icy—a thin layer of rime had begun to form that morning along the edges of the sand.
I’d stopped in Chicago to visit a man I love deeply, a man to whom a god had introduced me. I’d just spent several weeks traveling in Ireland and Wales, speaking to gods and meeting the dead of Ireland, and this was the last stop of my pilgrimage before returning to Seattle.
The reflections in the Cloud Gate are fascinating, both distorted and yet hyper-realistic. It takes you awhile to pick yourself out of the throngs of others in the public square in which it sits, but once you do, it’s hard to lose yourself again. It seems as if you’re what the sky sees of you, rather than others. A strange perspective, but one you can get used to.
The man, for whom I’m waiting before the Cloud Gate, appears with his partner. We don’t know each other very well, have never met before, but it seemed we ought to meet. And I’m never in Chicago.
He smiles and introduces himself. And then, he places a gift in my hand.
“The only thing I could think of to give another Druid was an Acorn,” he said.
I held it, smiling. Here, in a sea of concrete, in the deepness of winter, my future quite unclear to me, I stare at the promise of an oak in my hand. It warmed me against the chill, grounded me into the world below the concrete.
I stood there, considering the acorn in my hand, the reflection of myself in that strange glass, and began to realize who had just died in a tomb in Ireland a week before.
On a grey and beautiful September morning I had woken, smiling, and kissed my lover before stumbling out of bed and making tea. He’d been visiting me all month, a long visit to determine whether we’d work out living with each other, as he lived several thousand miles away.
I made my morning tea and checked email as I sipped it, waiting for the morning to come to consciousness. And then I spilled my tea.
“You won’t believe this. I don’t myself, either. Check your email—I’ve forwarded it to you.”
My hand trembled, but not from excitement. Dread, perhaps. I knew what the email would say before I opened it. The friend who’d sent it would only have one reason to forward a message to me.
I opened it, scanned its words to confirm my terror, and then rolled several cigarettes, smoking each in turn until enough nicotine coursed through my brain to put me into that half-trance some smokers know quite well.
“Really?” I asked aloud, but no one answered, only a breathing, autumnal silence.
I waited to wake the beautiful man in my bed. The fur of his chest matted, his face peaceful, contentment radiating from his dreaming form. I wanted to watch him that way, perhaps keep him that way forever in my mind, stilled in the moment before I told him of my great fortune, fortune which we both probably knew, without saying, would make impossible many of our plans.
Even now, I see him sleeping there, before I nuzzled him awake, before I spoke the words which would change not just him and I, but everything else I knew.
“I’m going to Newgrange.”
The hiring manager looked at me. “What’s that?”
“Uh. An ancient burial mound. Aligned with the sun, sorta. Um, solstice. It’s in Ireland.”
“Oh,” he said. “That sounds cool. When—Oh. You can’t start yet, then, huh?”
“Not unless you’d let me take a few weeks unpaid leave at the beginning of hire?”
“Uh—I think HR would say now. Maybe you can start when you return…”
That’d be nice, I thought. Though I’d been hoping to start sooner, returning to the full-time social work position I’d held before my…uh, last pilgrimage, the one that’d sent me away from Seattle for almost a year. I was back in Seattle, working per diem, happy to finally be sitting still, with a permanent address. Also, my lover planned to move in with me, and my writing was going well—I might finally get to do the sort of grown-up life that I’d had before gods started talking to me.
Returning to full-time social work would cut into my writing. To write well, and often, one requires unoccupied time, and lots of it. It’s never just sitting in front of a computer and touching fingers against keys. It’s about the walks to a forest in the middle of the night, the hours spent staring listlessly out of windows or watching incense smoke curl from the glowing ember-tip. Sometimes it means getting drunk when you shouldn’t or don’t even want to. Lots of listening, thinking, with relentless false starts and stops. It’s an awful lot of work, actually
But writing doesn’t pay rent, or buy food, so you have to also work elsewhere. This is the plight of any artist, finding work that doesn’t detract too much from art. Few ever find work which helps one’s art, though such does exist—photographers who work in camera shops, potters and painters who take jobs as art teachers for access to kilns and cheap canvases.
Social work doesn’t help writing, but it doesn’t hurt it too much, either. On the worst days, it’ll make you distrust humanity completely, but on the better days, one at least goes home with a vague sense of having done something less horrible than what one could have.
Full-time job, a lover to become a partner—this is what I’d been hoping for, working towards, ready to embrace. Enough money to survive in the brutal inflationary city of Seattle and perhaps a little to save. Maybe I’d join a gym, get my teeth fixed, purchase a third pair of pants and a second pair of shoes. Even, I’d hoped, I might start my medieval rock band again, the one I broke up when the gods came and…
Uh, yeah. I’d been here before. Even the lover bit.
The Druid who handed me the acorn before the Cloud Gate asked me a question I didn’t quite answer fully. He’d asked about the gods, stating he hadn’t done much with them and wasn’t sure he would. They seem to demand a lot, he’d suggested, but it was also a question.
My answer sounded pretty, anyway. “If land spirits, the dead, and ancestors are all like notes in a symphony, a god is the melody.”
Pretty, but untrue.
A god’s like all the music written upon the pages of your existence, all the songs you hear wherever you go, each melody and each refrain. You are their instruments and they are the reason you’re sitting in a chair before a conductor in front of thousands of silent strangers straining to hear your notes.
Gods re-order the world around you, shut fast doors and destroy keys as if to say, “you won’t need these anymore. We’ve other places for you to go.” And then they hand you new keys and show you new doors to take you to different places that you’d never even considered visiting.
One of those places for me, apparently, was Newgrange.
The email from a friend that morning in late September was a forwarded message from the Brú na Bóinne visitor center, announcing I’d been selected by local schoolchildren for a chance to observe the Winter Solstice light from within the tomb. Access to Newgrange is relatively open the rest of the year—anyone can go and be part of the guided tours into the 5000-year old tomb. Lights are turned off during the guided tour, and artificial lights are shone into the chamber to mimic the effect which occurs the five mornings adjacent to and including the Winter Solstice.
The phenomena was rediscovered in 1967 by the archaeologists who’d taken it upon themselves to restore the ancient burial site. Knowledge of the alignment of the entrance to the Winter Solstice sun persisted much longer, encoded in folk tales. Archeologists and anthropologists too often end up ignoring the oral accounts of the peoples they study. But time and again, letting the stories of peoples inform academia rather than the other way around restores truth to the world.
It’s said that the smallpox vaccine, for instance, was developed after a researcher heard and than observed the folk custom of rubbing the pus of cox-pox wounds into the skin of children. The researcher gets credit for the “discovery,” as this is how The Science works.
The Science can tell us lots about how things work or how they were done, but it begins to look quite ridiculous when it starts to try to tell us “why.” Why did the inhabitants of Ireland, some five millennia ago, build a massive (and enduring) tomb in the valley of the Boyne river and align it to the rising sun one day a year? Why Stonehenge? Why the pyramids, or ziggurats, or colossal statues along the Nile or on Easter Isle?
Theories abound, and The Science is faddish. The Science hasn’t quite stopped doing lobotomies yet, but that exciting trend is happily almost over, replaced with chemicals to “right” what’s wrong with the brain when people start talking to gods or the dead. What comes next is as unpredictable as next decade’s hair fashions, and as permanent.
Another thing The Science cannot quite explain were the emails that my friend Joseph sent me from Dublin. “I saw you in Dublin today, at least five times.”
I’d read that email 8 months before the solstice. It was a curious thing. I wasn’t in Dublin, nor had I been before. It’s never been unusual for people to think they saw me, and even less unusual for others to recount vivid dreams involving me. My best friend dreamt of “Druid Rhyd” years before I decided to study Druidry; another friend told me where to find a god because he recalled me telling him later where I found him. I’m accustomed to such things and think little of them. One can only shrug when someone tells you that they taught you to shapechange in their dreams and remind them that you haven’t quite gotten the hang of it yourself yet.
The week after Joseph thought he saw me, he put my name in to the drawing for Sostice in Newgrange. He didn’t put his own name in, though he could have. He never quite explained to me why this was, nor why he did it in the first place.
It was to him they’d sent the selection email. 30 thousand others had put their names in hopes of attending, and only 50 are selected each year. Each selectee is allowed to bring a guest, and the 100 total attendees are divided up into three groups to be inside the tomb either December 20th, the 21st, or 22nd. I was invited to the first of the three days.
So I was selected to go. I hadn’t put my name in. I’d never planned to go to Ireland, despite how many others had suggested I ought to, despite the voice of an Irishman met on a previous pilgrimage, showing me his spiral tattoos and insisting that I “must go” to Newgrange one day. The selection was exciting, and also eerie.
One can’t go attributing every bit of strange fortune to the gods, of course.
One also can’t go not attributing bizarre bits of fortune to the gods, either, at least if you’ve gone about worshiping them and telling them you’ll do what they’d like.
Going to Ireland would mean not taking the full-time job I’d been offered. I wouldn’t be able to get the approval for unpaid time off during the holidays, and they couldn’t start me early enough to have sufficient paid-time for the trip. I’d also intended to help my lover with expenses for the move to Seattle. We’d planned on the first of December, but this would mean he’d be in a new city on his own during the week of Christmas while I traipsed about ancient holy sites without him. And I would already have to do a fundraiser to pay for the trip, as last-minute tickets to Ireland during the holidays aren’t something my income could ever hope to cover.
I’d asked a diviner about a different matter, a question I’d not been able to answer on my own. She hadn’t known about the Newgrange trip, but had mentioned Lugh had my attention for some reason.
“Huh,” I’d said. “So I just got selected to go to Newgrange in Ireland. I can’t afford to go, but maybe…”
“Oh, you’re going,” she said, and her laughter almost scared me. “That much is very, very certain.”
The next day I started a fundraiser, an Indigogo “campaign” and asked for 500 dollars. I raised that in the first 4 days, and received another 500 the next week.
So I was going.
The night before I left, my lover told me he was not ready to move. The specifics were unimportant—underlying the reason was an unspoken statement, the unacknowledged hesitancy which makes easily-surmountable obstacles suddenly impossible to overcome. Suddenly, going to Newgrange seemed the most unreasonable thing I could possibly have chosen to do, and it wasn’t even my idea in the first place.
I woke at 5am the morning of my flight, hefted a rucksack full of books and clothes, stones, an altar box, gifts for people along the way. I was ‘told’ I didn’t need to pack certain things, like my alder wand. “One will be provided for you,” I’d heard. I played with the words, waited to see if they changed. They repeated, the same tone and certainty as before. So I left it on my altar, perplexed.
“But bring the bee.”
I stared at the yellow and white patch in my hands. I’d meant to sew it on my coat months before, soon after it was given to me. I was never certain why I’d waited, put it off. I’ve many intentions like this, intentions I rarely find the time to manifest. But perhaps I’d find a needle and thread along the way? So I placed it, without much thought, in my wooden altar box before packing it into my giant rucksack.
I stayed a few days in Florida with family before leaving to Dublin. I’d visited them last year at the end of a pilgrimage; it seemed poetic to visit them again just before the next. My sisters and I laughed and talked and ate, catching each other up on our lives and hopes. They’d been as perplexed and amazed as I was regarding the Newgrange selection. “It seems really weird, right?” I’d asked. “The probability of getting chosen without even putting in your name…”
They understood, agreed. Though I’d met no one who had shrugged off the serendipity of the trip, and even my more cynical friends had suggested it seemed “something wants you there,” without reference to other people’s conceptions of causation, the mystic becomes forced to ely on self-generated checks against magical thinking.
These artificial “devil’s advocates” can be ridiculous, a caricature of the angry and cynical voices of others. Mine has the arrogant certainty of Richard Dawkins, the drunken wit of Christopher Hitchens, and the pop-appeal of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, a curmudgeon with a grudge always eager to tell me, “that’s not a god—you need psych meds. And oh, you’re poor because you’re lazy.”
But even that compound, inner atheist naysayer was having trouble convincing me this wasn’t all about what I’d suspected it was, and the perspective of my sisters demolished all my inner cynic’s attempts. They knew what we came from, the abject poverty and misery, all the leaden weight of fate crushing every dream. When you’ve seen all the horrible things which can happen to a human, every nice thing already seems a miracle. Perhaps it’s why the poor, the homeless, the downtrodden and miserable are more likely to believe in gods and spirits than the middle-class lawyer or IT worker. Voltaire’s atheism was as elitist as Sam Harris’s, and both have enjoyed steady diets.
Still. I liked that atheist in my head. Unlike Harris and Dawkins, he didn’t justify the torture of Muslims and suggest we should eradicate Islam off the face of the planet. He mostly just told me I’m insane and should be more reasonable and stop believing in crazy stuff and go shopping for nicer clothes.
The first thing I noticed about Dublin was the dead.
I didn’t always hear the dead and wasn’t always aware of their presence. I have the city of Eugene, Oregon, the grave of Demetria and Dionisia Palazios, and a Guédé that I met under an Elm tree to thank for that, as well as a drunken priest, who helped me stay on this side of the living after I met them.
The streets of Dublin breathe the dead. Signs point the way to famous graves of revolutionaries and poets, but there’s no clear marking for the Croppy Acre along the River Liffey. You hear them before you find out why, what the large field before you precisely is: a mass grave of Revolutionaries, Republican fighters, their bodies dumped together in pits by the British. When we think “mass grave,” we like to kid ourselves that such things happen in “other lands,” though everyone in America is virtually living upon one.
The connection between starved and slaughtered native and starved and slaughtered Irish-folk isn’t hard to make; if anything, it’s awfully hard to ignore. The dead scream, too, in the signs and graffiti smeared across the city proclaiming more revolution, more resistance, this time directed against the very system which drives colonial occupations for the last 300 years.
Dublin isn’t far from Brú na Bóinne, a 45 minute bus ride away. I’d traveled already several thousand miles to get to Ireland, had just taken a several day detour to view Caer Arianrhod and speak to giants near the ancient Welsh town of Beddgelert, so the bus-ride from Dublin to the village of Donore wasn’t long at all.
Still. That dread that I had felt when I first learned of my selection returned, this time accompanied by a spiraling, physical terror upon stepping foot off the bus.
My inner Atheist had little to say about the matter. “Maybe you need a nap, that’s all. There’s no god here.” He was always saying stuff like that.
I slept with my clothes on, clutching an Alder wand that washed up on shore by Caer Arianrhod in Wales.
“You know Brân attacked the Irish, right?” This was a priest talking, one I’d hoped might explain to me why the earth seemed to want to shake me off into the sky around Brú na Bóinne.
“Yeah,” I assented. “But it was their fault.”
“Still–” he replied, rather patiently. “Newgrange is the home of The Dagda, and, well…”
Another priest I asked confirmed my dread. “You have to buy passage. Dirt money, beer, spit. Pay the same on the way out. Someone will help you–you know who, I don’t.”
And I checked a third oracle, just because my inner Atheist was having fits. “His mother’s body lies rotting in the summer ground.”
Neil Dawkins Harris was gritting his teeth. It was actually interesting to hear from him again, though, as he’d seemed to have gotten lost on the ferry ride to Wales and wasn’t with me when I climbed 100 feet up a cliff face to ask some giants for help rebuilding the Cult of the Blessed Raven. He wasn’t there when Bran showed up to me in a dream and told me he’d be waiting after this was all over. He’d been silent when a Druid pulled my beard and wouldn’t let go until I pulled his back.
I had three confirmations from others. Three other people didn’t think I was crazy. Druids like threes.
I bought a beer, put a coin in my mouth, swished the beer around and then spit it all out on the ground, asking the Dagda for passage, and reminded him that the god who’s mother lied rotting in the summer fields had called me there in the first place. My inner atheist was awfully pissed at me, more than The Dagda had been.
Reason told me that I’d done an awfully silly thing, maybe even a crazy thing. One doesn’t just risk a relationship and one’s livelihood to go on a pilgrimage to try to resurrect a god’s cult.
Joseph and I talked a lot about this sort of thing while he hosted me in Dublin. He was as shocked as I about the selection, and I relied heavily on his narrative to help place my own. He moved to Dublin the year before to work in IT. He doesn’t like IT, didn’t know anyone in Dublin before taking the job. Didn’t quite even know why he put my name instead of his for the drawing.
His best friend had died recently, and it’s a strange thing that I’m aware of dead spirits clinging closely to the living. His beloved friend wasn’t far, and I accepted quietly how much she was present to him when I was near. She and I even shared a birthday, and were both social workers.
Because I could take a guest into Newgrange with me, I took him. It seemed the gods wanted him there as much they wanted me there.
We walked that morning mostly in silence to the Brú na Bóinne visitor center, joining 20 other groggy but excited people awaiting something very few humans ever get the chance to try to see. And it was a chance, of course: there’s never a guarantee the sun will shine into the tomb on solstice morning, on account of clouds. There’d recently been a 6-year stretch where none of the visitors saw what we got to see that morning.
We ate cookies and drank tea and waited for the bus that would drive us to Newgrange. Others had gone on ahead, a crowd of people waiting who hadn’t won the drawing but still hoped for a chance to watch the sun rise from outside.
The awkward anticipation of the others in our group was as exhilarating as my own excitement. Listening to strangers speak of what may come, how they’d been chosen, how they’d never dreamt of such a chance filled me with such warmth that I almost didn’t care if the sun would rise that morning. Gods written on the faces and the lips of others are as present as those whispering in dreams, and more tangible.
When we arrived at the site of Newgrange, Joseph and I walked silently up the hill, both turning at once to stare at the hundreds of corvids which had taken to a barren tree just at the base of the mound. I’d told him of Brân and what I’d been doing in Wales. He smiled, wordlessly, and I was glad of a witness even as my inner atheist stamped his feet angrily, reminding me I’d have a lot more money if I stopped buying peanuts to feed crows in Seattle.
Just outside the tomb was a man who drew my attention immediately. I noticed my hand rubbing the fabric of the bee patch in my pocket, the one that I ran back into our hotel room to grab because I heard a voice say I’d need it.
And then we entered.
It’s dark inside a tomb.
We were led in by a guide who kindly walked us through what we might see, her voice assuring us in the darkness once the lights had been extinguished. We were allowed no photography, since it would distract from the experience of others, but she encouraged us to speak to each other, adding that she’d kindly guide anyone out who experienced any sudden terror in the claustrophic blackness in which we huddled.
She spoke of the history of Newgrange; what The Science knows and particularly what The Science doesn’t know. She spoke fondly of the archeologist: the one who had confirmed that the folk stories about the chamber becoming illuminated in the Solstice sunrise, and then she reminded us that it was not certain we’d see it.
“There was no light yesterday. We keep solstice vigil for 6 days each year, and I’ve only seen it a handful of times since I started working here.”
And then her voice caught in her throat. “Ah,” she said, all awe. “Here we are.”
Just at sunrise, the angle of the sun shines into a small window-box above the entrance to the tomb. From inside, one cannot quite see this window due to the angles of the construction, nor can one see the exit from within the inner chamber. We stood in complete darkness, and then suddenly, just as she spoke, the thinnest shaft of light, a spear of sun, shot through the window into the chamber.
I still feel that great, collective inhalation of the gathered crowd huddled in the tomb at that first thin needle of light. There was nothing to say, nothing to understand, nothing to be done except watch.
The light grew, and as it did a few people put out their hands to touch it, tentatively. They seemed so hesitant, unsure if it was appropriate, uncertain what it might do or mean. One could almost hear their inner atheists thumbing copies of Stephen Pinker’s latest drivel as mine was, but then, like a storm, the exuberance released, acceptance descended, and we basked in the sight.
It was difficult to see what others were doing, but I noticed, just to my right, a man put on a pair of glasses that were not his. I’d seen those glasses: they were on Joseph’s mantle, next to the picture of his deceased friend. They’d belonged to her, and he’d put them on to gaze upon the light with her eyes, to see the way she might have seen, and perhaps to help her see, too.
I left my inner atheist impaled upon Lugh’s shining spear in that tomb.
Outside the tomb, the voices were raucous, full of joy and wonder. Those outside waited word from we who’d been within to hear what it was like. We who’d been inside tried to find the words to describe what we’d seen to faces full of as much wonder as we.
Behind the tomb, I found the man I was supposed to find. He was standing in front of a stone that a friend had asked me to say a prayer before, and so I waited until he moved, my hand clutching the fabric in my pocket.
There was no voice to tell me “no” any longer, no inner atheist to chide me for entertaining such ridiculous thoughts.
I said hello to him. “Hey–I…can I give this you? I’m supposed to, I think.”
The man looked at the patch in his hand. “It’s a bee.”
I nodded. “Yeah. It’s from my friend Alley Valkyrie.”
“I keep bees,” he said, his face betraying confusion and awe.
Of course he keeps bees, I thought to myself. That’s why it’s for him. “It’s definitely for you, then. Happy Solstice.”
Joseph and I left Newgrange soon after. I had to, as The Dagda had made it clear I was to take the first bus out.
I got what I’d came for, though, saw what I needed to see. I’d recited the prayers I’d been asked to, delivered the bee I’d been directed to by unseen voices I’ve learned to trust much more than the suddenly silent, sadly deceased corpse of my inner atheist.
I figured The Dagda could use some overly-reasonable company for a little while.
(this essay originally published 2015)