Reading My Way Around the World

Monday 5 September 2016

Around These Parts: The Janus Figure

The Janus Figure
Recently we took a visit to Caldragh Cemetery on the East end of the Boa island to see the famous Janus Figure.  The Boa Island is a 5mile long island on Lower Lough Erne in Co. Fermanagh, with bridges joining it to the mainland with the most wonderful views of the lough on both sides of the road at the bridges.   There are always birds on the water and fishermen out in their boats.  It's a fabulous drive and I love going that way when I head home to West Fermanagh.

Boa Island across the top of Lower Lough Erne
The Janus Figure dates back at least 2000 years and predates Christianity.  Although Janus is a Roman god and is associated with the month of January as he looks both ahead and behind, this figure, also facing both ways, is considered to be Celtic rather than Roman - the Romans never made it as far as Ireland. It's more likely that this was a statue to the goddess Banba after whom the Boa Island is named - one of three sister goddesses of ancient Ireland.  
In Irish mythology, Banba (modern spelling: Banbha, pronounced [ˈbˠanˠəvˠə]), daughter of Ernmas of the Tuatha Dé Danann, is a patron goddess of Ireland. She was part of an important triumvirate of patron goddesses, with her sisters, Ériu and Fódla.
This statue is considered to be male and female with the indent in the top thought to have been for antlers.   The markings down the side could have represented hair. 

The two faces
and the hands on the stone alongside
Tom leaving a coin in the indent between
the two heads for luck

In the 1980s a primary school project from schools in Belleek and Kesh at opposite ends of the Lough did a lot of research into the area and even though this site is only a few miles from my home, I can't imagine why we've never visited before.

The Celts, along with many other races of the time, believed that the soul resided in the head, hence the large head and eyes on the carvings.

There is a definite ancient feeling when you walk into the graveyard and the misty day on which we visited helped highlight the air of mystery from another time and space.

Looking from the side

A smaller figure was moved from a neighbouring island Lusty Mor in the early 20th century.   It is badly disfigured but you can still see the face there.
The second smaller figure - quite badly disfigured
with lots of offerings at his feet

The late great poet Seamus Heaney wrote the following lines about the Janus figure after a visit in 2006.

January God by Seamus Heaney
Then I found a two faced stone
On burial ground,
God-eyed, sex-mouthed, it's brain
A watery wound. 
In the wet gap of the year,
Daubed with fresh lake mud,
I faltered near his power ----
January God. 
Who broke the water, the hymen
With his great antlers ----
There reigned upon each ghost tine
His familiars,
The mothering earth, the stones
Taken by each wave,
The fleshy aftergrass, the bones
Subsoil in each grave. 

And then beside the two figures and the other stones lying around the field, there is the most wonderful fairy thorn.  The superstition is still very strong here to never cut a fairy thorn and this one has twisted into all sorts of ancient shapes.   There were some ribbons on the branches so obviously others think so too.
A fairy thorn protects the space

Spot the blue ribbon where someone has left an offering

There are only a few recent gravestones in the cemetery.   The theory is that the stones littered around the field would have been markers for burial sites and every family would have known where their spot was without the need of a big stone which would have been the preserve of only the wealthy.

very few modern gravestones in the cemetery

Lough Erne has 365 islands on it - so we were always told in school.   Mind you I heard that said of another lake somewhere recently, so perhaps it was just a convenient number to let us know there were LOTS of islands on the lake:)  

Some day soon I want to visit Devenish Island  which is another ancient island, but with more monastic connections rather than pre Christian.

There is more about the Janus Figure at this lovely wee site - Ireland's Hidden Gems


  1. That is interesting Fil. There are so many mysteries about where these things came from and why. Stonehenge, Easter Island etc. etc.

    1. There's a real atmosphere around them as well isn't there - I love that feeling of ancient-ness

  2. Hi Fil - it's amazing what we don't see in our own backyard ... but I'm glad you've elaborated on your Janus and Boa island.

    Wonderfully carved and incredible to think it's lasted 2000 years or so ... love the other stones too ... the 'Fairy Thorn' - we know as Whitethorn (a species of hawthorn) ... I'd never heard of the tale of not cutting them and leaving them to twist and turn in growth - I expect that restricts their growth anyway.

    Fascinating ... and look forward to you visiting Devenish Island .. cheers Hilary

    1. Oh yes, that's a huge thing here Hilary - anyone who has cut down a fairy tree has nothing but bad luck, so they say. We once rented a house where the owners had cut one down on the site - a bus driver dropped me off at the door and said oh no you live in the house where they cut a Fairy Thorn! And this was a youngish man ! - there was a room that you simply could not heat and the family never had much luck.

  3. Both islands seem to be amazing, dear Fil! Devenish and Boa! I loved the Janus figure and the smaller figure, and loved the poem - also, the thorns :) I wouldn't cut them either :) I loved to know about the patron of Ireland and her sisters! Also, I love stories like that, pre Christian. I am really glad that you went to this site and are planning to go to Devenish Island too! I did love Janus very much, cause I was born in January :) Hope you have a nice week, dear Fil!

  4. I am so glad you explain about this fascinating stone, I was greatly intrigued when you posted the image for the photo hunt. really interesting - I love pre-christian stories and lore - thank you!

  5. Oh Fil, what a fabulous post - I'm filled with delight to have gotten a peek at your Janus figures! I've never heard of fairy thorn - another magical discovery for me. You're clearly doing a good job of inspiring me to dust off my passport.

  6. What an intriguing island! What an interesting place to visit!x


Do drop me a line ... I love to read your comments :)