24 Jul Labbacallee Wedge Tomb
“In 1233, Pope Gregory IX issued the first papal bull to encourage the persecution of people who deviated from the dogma issued by Rome. Soon, alleged witches…were to bear the brunt of the inquisition, the hunt for heretics and dissidents. Between 1484 and 1782, about 300,000 [see footnote] people were murdered in Europe for their alleged pact with the devil—the majority of them were women. Wherever witch hysteria has raged, folklore will preserve the memory…”
Drag within the image to explore the Labbacallee Wedge Tomb in virtual reality.
On one day sometime around 2300 BCE, the Labbacallee Wedge Tomb would have presented a very grisly scene. A woman’s partially decomposed and decapitated remains, wrapped in a crude shroud, were being entombed here, in a hidden chamber only .9 m (3 ft) long. Her head was placed separately, in the large main chamber, upright on the ground and braced between two fragments of a teenage boy’s skull (see photo, below right). Could this have been a ritual purification? Was this a ceremony intended to mute her malevolent powers? Thousands of years later the tomb in local lore acquired the name Leaba Caillighe, which translates to “the Bed of the Witch [or hag].”2 Could there possibly be a connection between this bizarre Bronze Age decapitation burial, and the modern legends of the witch?
The Labbacallee Wedge Tomb, Ireland’s largest monument of this type, was the first megalithic tomb in the country to be described by an antiquarian writer, in John Aubrey’s manuscript of 1693. Aubrey included a sketch of the tomb, which may be seen in the gallery at the bottom of this page.3 Labbacallee was also the first megalithic tomb in the country to be the subject of a modern scientific archaeological excavation, by H.G. Leask in 1934.4 Its impressive dimensions, with its larger chamber the size of a domestic hut, may have been why it attracted this attention. In fact the tomb did serve as someone’s home, many centuries after it was constructed. During the excavation archaeologists discovered one of the uprights pushed aside to provide an entryway to the larger chamber, where they found deposits suggesting a domestic use during the Iron Age. In the virtual-reality environment, above left, you can use the hotspot to enter this chamber.5
The entire tomb, with its two burial chambers, is some 13 m (43 ft) long and 6 m (20 ft) wide at the larger end of its wedged shape. The front of the structure, where it is highest and widest, receives the rays of the setting sun on the equinox dates in March and September. Labbacallee’s western chamber, its larger one, is 6.5 m (21 ft) long. When first built the entire tomb was covered by a cairn of stones, probably some 15 m (49 ft) long and 19 m (62 ft) wide. While there is no obvious entrance to the chambers, upon its excavation archaeologists discovered that one of its three capstones, although weighing 2.7 tonnes (3 tons), could easily be slid back to rest on conveniently projecting orthostats. This, they conjectured, might have been the original means of access to both chambers of the tomb. There are three capstones in all, the largest one an impressive 7.6 m (25 ft) in length.6
In total, the remains of at least five individuals were found buried in the Labbacallee tomb, including the bones of a young woman found in a cist burial outside the monument’s ruined western end. Originally a grand ceremonial entrance to the tomb may have been located there as well, but the western end of the monument was lost when the roadway and stone wall were constructed in the nineteenth century. Only two of the orthostats at that end remain.7
When the excavators slid back the capstone and first discovered the smaller chamber of the tomb, the space was filled to the top with a packing of stones, intermixed with sherds of pottery and fragments of cremated human bone. One corner of the orthostat separating this chamber from the larger one was broken off, creating a portal from one chamber to the other. Perhaps this was used to add something to that chamber—gifts for the afterlife or additional cremations. It wasn’t until all the materials in the small chamber were removed that the archaeologists discovered, at ground level, the decapitated skeleton of the “witch” (see photograph in gallery).8
The excavators noted that the skeleton seemed to have been buried after the flesh had decomposed, but with some of the tendons still in place holding most of the bones together. They surmised from this that the woman had first been buried elsewhere, perhaps to allow for the tomb’s construction, and then reburied when the chamber was ready for her.9 A bone pin found beside the skeleton (see drawing in gallery) may have been used as a clasp to draw together the bag or shroud in which the body was carried to its final resting place. Carleton Jones, noting that the woman’s skeleton showed evidence of a deformed leg, speculates that her handicap may have doomed her in life as one who was shunned by the spirits, and “marked out as a witch.”10
The Cailleach Bhéarra (Hag of Beare) is a classic character in Irish folklore, variously depicted as a witch, a female divinity with magical powers, or (after the legend’s mingling with Christianity) an ancient nun. In Co. Armagh, the witch was thought to live in a passage tomb at the summit of Slieve Gullion. The legends of the Cailleach Bhéarra are considered in some detail in our page on the Loughcrew Passage Tombs located on Slieve na Calliagh, or “The Hag’s Mountain,” in Co. Meath.
The Labbacallee Wedge Tomb was built two millennia before the ascendancy of the Celtic tribes in the Iron Age, whose legends named this monument as the Bed of the Witch. Can it be possible that a folk memory from the Late Bronze Age about the woman whose decapitated remains were found here was somehow preserved in oral tradition long enough to find an expression in the Celtic tales of the Cailleach Bhéarra? This seems an unlikely, though tantalizing, proposition. Some have made the suggestion, now discredited, that the witches who were tried and executed in the sixteenth century were practicing the survival of a prehistoric tradition, also expressed in Ireland’s fairy lore.11
There are, of course, more mundane explanation of how the woman’s skeleton in the Labbacallee tomb came to lose its head. Perhaps when her remains were disinterred prior to her final burial in the wedge tomb her head fell away when the corpse was being transported. By the time it was recovered perhaps the small tomb had been sealed up, and thus the skull was given a resting place in the larger chamber. Or, perhaps the placement of the skull was a tribute, a very early expression of what would come to be known as the Celtic “cult of the head.” Perhaps the woman who was buried in Labbacallee’s inner recess was thought to be a goddess, and only after the coming of the new religion did her tomb develop its folkloric connections to the hag or witch?
In the part of Co. Cork where the tomb is located, the tales of the Cailleach Bhéarra describe her hostility toward her husband, the druid Mogh Ruith. As recorded by the excavator H.G. Leask in 1934, an 86-year-old man, John Egan, repeated the tale he heard from his father:
“[The Cailleach Bhéarra] was annoyed with her husband because he took the dew off the grass before her. She was carrying a child and felt very bad and he told her go and see her sister on the hill above Gurtroche near Ballyhooly. And when she’d gone he put his coat on the big stone and went across the stream, and she came back and thought it was he was standing there, and she struck the stone with her sword. So she followed him then, and threw the stone, and he was crossing the river and she struck him and he was drowned there.” 12
John Aubrey, writing nearly 250 years earlier, noted a similar tale of the Cailleach Bhéarra in his own brief report on the tomb; see citation #3, above. The hag’s husband, Mogh Ruith, is said to be buried atop nearby Cairn Thierna.
In local folklore, retold by Crofton Croker in his 1826 Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South or Ireland, the witch of Labbacallee made a prophesy that the infant son of the Lord of Fermoy would drown before he had a chance to grow to manhood.13 This story, and how it culminated in the ruin of the Lord’s castle, is explored in our page on Cairn Thierna.
Another legend about megalithic tombs and their connections with hags or witches featured the “White-Woman,” a sorceress, “robed in white,” who resided in an ancient monument while she dispensed her prophesies or cast her spells. An illustration from William Borlase’s Dolmens of Ireland (1897) of such a White Woman prophesying from a megalithic tomb in the Netherlands may be seen below, to the right.14
Some prehistoric burial mounds, upon excavation, were found to contain artifacts perhaps associated with witchcraft: coils of human hair, a gambling die, and a horse’s skull.15
Ireland never experienced the brunt of the bloodbath from the witch inquisition that plagued continental Europe and Britain. In Ireland, the Celtic version of Christianity from the sixth century until the Norman Invasion stood apart in its ability to incorporate indigenous practices, including magic and sorcery, into its belief structure, transforming them into the special attributes of saints. Thus such concepts as witch and devil, which caused so much tragedy elsewhere, had little impact in Ireland. The relatively benign Celtic analogue of the witch, the Cailleach Bhéarra, did not act in her folklore as a conspicuous opponent of Christianity. In fact, by the ninth century, the Cailleach Bhéarra of ancient Celtic tradition had been transformed into the Nun of Beare, who turned in her old age to Jesus and Mary for consolation.16
This is not to say that Ireland experienced no persecution of witches whatsoever. The most notorious event occurred in Kilkenny, long after the Celtic church had been suppressed and supplanted by Catholic orthodoxy. In 1324 Lady Alice Kyteler was accused of having meetings with the Devil, culminating in murderous assaults on her four husbands. A record from the trial gives the names of all who were said to have taken part in the ceremonies, which were said to include:
“…nightly conference [intercourse] with a spirit called Robin Artisson, to whom she sacrificed in the high waie nine red cocks and nine peacock eies…In rifling the closet of the ladie, they found…a pipe of Oyntment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon the which she ambled and gallopped through thicke and thin, when and in what manner she listed. The businesse about these witches troubled all the state of Ireland…” 17
Implicated by her maid Petronilla at her trial, Dame Kyteler escaped to England and suffered only banishment. Petronilla was not so fortunate, as she was first flogged, and then became the first person in Ireland to be burned at the stake as a witch, on November 3, 1324.
Those implicated in this tragic burning in Kilkenny we know by name. We have no way of knowing anything about the woman, witch or not, who is today represented by the decapitated skeleton found in the Labbacallee Wedge Tomb. Did her Late Bronze Age culture even have a name for what we today refer to as witches? In our culture, witches and black cats have traditionally been seen as accomplices, but one story of a cat “with fire erupting from its tail” may have helped to preserve the monument known as the “Bed of the Witch” from avaricious gold-seekers.
“Long ago, four men went digging one night for gold that lay hidden at Labbacallee. Soon after they began to dig, a strange cat, with fire erupting from its tail, appeared to the men. Dazzled by the light, they ran in terror through the darkness till they fell into the nearby River Funshion. Although one man died in the dark river, three of the would-be gold-diggers survived to tell their cautionary tale and neither the gold nor the cat were ever seen again.” 18