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…The general belief is that the discs relate to a cult of the sun and that the cruciform shapes of the design are intended to represent its life-giving rays. There is little direct evidence of this cult in Ireland… One interpretation of the gold discs is that they were placed as symbolic breasts on the chest of a king, creating an image that fused the leader with the life-giving deity…
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The working of metals may have come late to Ireland, but the island then became one of the most important metal-producing centres in Europe. Ireland had large resources of copper and gold: new sources of wealth and power.
Early smiths made copper axes and traded them to Britain. That this trade worked both ways is evident from the development of bronze objects. The tin that was alloyed with copper to make the bronze probably came from Devon and Cornwall. The working of metal was a cultural as well as an economic activity. Even into the beginning of the modern era the idea of alchemy—the transformation of one substance into another—combined science with magic. In the Early Bronze Age the ability of metalworkers to turn crude rock into objects of dazzling brightness must have imbued them with some sense of the magical. This must have been especially true of gold, not least because it was extremely rare. The people who sifted gold in streams and rivers in the Mourne Mountains had searched hard for something they knew to be especially precious. It was gold, then as now, that had the brightest aura of ritual significance.
There is a natural connection between the brightness of gold and the power of the sun. In Indo-European languages, including that spoken in Bronze Age Ireland, the word for ‘god’ is derived from a root meaning ‘shine’. We know from the older Irish megalithic tombs that rituals of the sun had deep meaning. That some of this was now focused on gold objects is suggested by the creation of decorated discs of sheet-gold. These were probably attached to a backing material and may have been worn to indicate high political status, high religious status or both.
These discs from Tedavnet, in Co. Monaghan, are by far the biggest and most sophisticated yet found; their crosses are elaborated with rows of dots, lines and zig-zag patterns, created using a variety of techniques. The general belief is that they relate to a cult of the sun and that the cruciform shapes in the design are intended to represent its life-giving rays. There is little direct evidence of this cult in Ireland, but rock-art images from contemporary Denmark clearly show people worshipping the sun, which is represented in the same way as on the Irish discs. The sun, in this cult, may have been a goddess rather than a god. One interpretation of the gold discs is that they were placed as symbolic breasts on the chest of a king, creating an image that fused the leader with the life-giving deity. If this is so, the discs belong to an Irish tradition of associating kingship with the sun that continued long after the arrival of Christianity.