Putting Things Straight -
(introducing earth mysteries)
By David Taylor
(Originally published at Beltane 1994)
Earth Mysteries is a living subject. It isn't simply a study of things in the past. Essentially Earth Mysteries is about our relationship with the earth and how we interact with the landscape and the genius loci (spirit of place). Central to the subject is the concept of "leys", which were "rediscovered" in 1921 by the Hereford antiquarian and pioneer photographer Alfred Watkins. Out riding his horse one day, the surrounding landscape suddenly came "alive" like a flood of ancestral memory.
He saw the landscape covered with interconnecting lines, joining churches, tumuli, hill forts, wells, crossroads and other ancient sites. Watkins called these lines "leys" after the Old English word for a cleared glade. He believed these "leys" were the remnants of prehistoric traders' tracks. Needless to say, Watkins' theories didn't cut much ice with the established archaeological community and so his theories went underground.
Watkins' criteria for a ley and the accuracy expected sets strict guidelines for the ley hunter to follow. To get yourself started, purchase a 1:50,000 scale map of the area in which you live. Taking a good hard pencil and a ruler, see if any features on the landscape can be connected by a line. Good things to look out for are: barrows, castle mounds, standing stones, wells, old churches and wayside crosses. In some cases tree clumps, particularly of Scots Pine, are encountered on tumuli. Whilst it is very difficult to prove that they are descendants of earlier trees, they do provide excellent landmarks. Yew trees, which current research also seems to suggest can live as long as 1,000-3,000 years, can be worth considering. Place names, too, can be significant, although this is such a grey area and such evidence can be "dodgy" to say the least. For example the word "stowe" in a place name seems to suggest an Anglo-Saxon pagan site. The word "ley" is not significant, however! A "true" Watkins ley should have a minimum of four sites accurately aligned within a distance of a few miles. In ley hunting size is very important - the smaller the better!
A few researchers have even tried to show statistical evidence for leys, with so far inconclusive results. However no amount of map work and armchair research can replace actual field work. In fact that is exactly what Earth Mysteries is about - getting your hands (and feet!) dirty. Earth Mysteries, as its name implies, is a study of the earth. Like paganism, it is not a pursuit that can be done from the warmth and security of your favourite armchair. But I digress.
With the outbreak of WWII ley hunting went underground, only to resurface in the 1960s with the hippy culture. Leys had now magickally transformed into dowsable lines of "energy". Exactly what this "energy" was no-one seemed able to define. Comparable with feng shui, which believed that energy called ch'i flowed along the Earth's surface in straight lines called lung mei or dragon's veins. It wasn't long before other phenomena began to be lumped together with Earth Mysteries and leys. Suddenly, thanks to the New Age culture, the "energy" in leys was being harnessed by inter-galactic UFOs and all haunted houses stood on these ancient alignments. A lot of this New Age 'nice thoughts will change the world' philosophy seriously set back the study of Earth Mysteries. Suddenly dowsing workshops teaching you how to detect earth "energies" began to spring up. Now before any dowsers start to froth at the mouth, I am convinced that dowsing for water, buried remains and minerals is valid and well-proven!
What I have so far failed to do is to define the subject of Earth Mysteries. Various researchers have been debating what the subject actually means now in the 1990s. The last few years have seen a basic re-evaluation of the subject. So what is Earth Mysteries?
The Ley Hunter , the foremost magazine on the subject, sums it up:
There you go. Quite a noble pastime for someone with a pencil, a ruler and a map!
Two areas central to Earth Mysteries we haven't discussed yet are geomancy and astro-archaeology. Geomancy relates to symbols in the landscape. In the late 1960s Professor Thom published the results of his work into stone circles, which seemed to show that the circles themselves were constructed with an apparent understanding of Pythagorean geometry which pre-dated Pythagoras by 2,000 years! Thom also produced some brilliant work on astro-archaeology. His work shows that many stone circles are oriented towards sunrise or sunset on the solstices or equinoxes. Some sites even seemed to be oriented towards lunar and stellar events. And this is where we begin to touch directly upon paganism.
It has been suggested that there is a need for bridges to be built between Earth Mysteries and paganism. This article is, I think, sad proof that this is the case. The two subjects can learn an awful lot from each other. The latest research in Earth Mysteries is very important, if not central, to paganism itself. How we react with the living landscape. Paul Devereux, the editor of The Ley Hunter and author of several Earth Mysteries books, heads the Dragon Project Trust which was established to research ancient sites. The excellent work done so far proves that all known stone circles in this country are built close to natural earth faults. It is theorised that these faults can interact with the environment to produce light displays (UFOs) and even with human consciousness to produce dreams and visions. In fact the latest part of the Dragon Project Trust's work involves people sleeping at specific ancient sites. The natural radiation of the site apparently induces visions. And this leads us nicely onto the latest research into leys.
After looking at ancient linear features worldwide, the new paradigm suggests that such features as the desert lines at Nazca in Peru and other native American landscapes and the leylines of Britain, result from archaic experiences of trance states. What the theory basically says is that the ancient shamans went into induced trances at these ancient sites and "flew" in straight lines during their journey to the spirit world. Is it possible that the ancient peoples of the world (for shamanic "flying" in straight lines is reported worldwide) symbolically marked the lines of spirit flight onto their ceremonial landscapes as physical demonstrations of a spiritual event? It would appear that spirit and straightness have always gone hand in hand. Research, only recently coming to light out of Europe, has revealed the existence of 'dead straight' roads leading to cemeteries, and the importance which was traditionally placed in ritually taking a copse to the cemetery in a straight line.
This linear landscape is not unique to Europe. In his book The Songlines the author Bruce Chatwin tells how the Australian aborigines link together sacred sites in their landscape by singing the songs that tell how each God and Goddess lives at each place. Only when an aborigine is taught the relevant sacred song can he "own" and travel along that sacred songline. The fusion of Earth Mysteries and paganism is our chance to learn to sing those songs together.
A number of magazines which deal with Earth Mysteries and related subjects can be found on the Exchange Listings page.
Those titles shown as recommended are ideal starting places for anyone with a serious interest. Heselton's Earth Mysteries is a good starting place for the vaguely intrigued and curious.
Paul Devereux announced his retirement as Editor of The Ley Hunter at the end of 1995/early 1996 after 20 years in the job. He and his wife are in the process of moving to California where Charla has business interests and where Paul will no doubt be continuing his investigations of the interaction between human consciousness, ancient sites and the landscape. Much of his work in recent years has been into ancient linearity in the Americas.
The illustrations in this article are by the author, Dave Taylor, a Mercian pagan and a freelance illustrator working with pagan, folkloric, EM and similar themes and ideas and has a particular interest in the Northern Tradition. He is available to undertake commissions to illustrate books and articles and can be contacted by writing to WHITE DRAGON or emailing us.