Ley Lines

The subject of ley lines is a controversial one. It has many passionate supporters and many even more passionate detractors. The long-running magazine the Ley Hunter’s Journal closed when its last editor concluded that ley lines do not exist.

As long ago as the eighteenth century British and French researchers noticed that sacred sites fell into straight alignments, but the modern debate on ley lines proper began back in 1921. Alfred Watkins, a brewer, was travelling on horseback in Herefordshire when he observed that ancient sites across the county seemed to fall in plumb arrangements, sometimes stretching for many miles across the countryside. These included standing stones, mounds, fords, cross-roads, barrows, tumps, stone circles, moats, islands, holy wells, beacon points and old churches and castles.  He had what he called a ‘flood of ancestral memory’ and deduced that these sites marked archaic trackways across the landscape, probably trade routes that fell into disuse during the early Christian era. Watkins called these straight tracks ‘ley lines’ because the word ley often occurred in connection with the alignments. Ley or lee is a Saxon word and means ‘meadow’ or ‘cleared ground’. It can be discerned in many English place names, such as Hinckley in Leicestershire, which means ‘Hinca’s Ley’ or, in other words, ‘a meadow belonging to Hinca’.

Alfred Watkin’s definition of ley lines, now called classic leys, consist of simple alignments: a minimum of four sites stationed within ten miles, terminating in a natural hill or peak. He thought that the leys were laid down by ancient surveyors then cut through the countryside. He theorised that Pagan sacred sites were placed on the trackways rather than pre-existing sites being linked by leys, and in some cases these sites were taken over by Christians and changed into churches, holy wells and so on. Watkins called finding leys ‘detective work’, and would search maps to discover ancient locales, ring them, then check with protractors and rulers for alignments. Next he would walk the alignments armed with a compass, then photograph and document them. It was painstaking work. However, by 1929 Watkins had ceased to call these alignments ley lines, and referred to them as ‘old straight tracks’ or ‘archaic tracks’.[1]

Watkins detailed his theories in the book ‘The Old Straight Track’, first published in 1925. Though they were ridiculed by historians and archaeologists [and still are] they found much popular support, and before long societies were formed to trace ley lines all over the country. The Straight Track Club ran until the advent of the Second World War halted its activities. It closed down completely in 1948 through lack of interest. 

However, it was not long before some were to claim that ley lines were far more than simple trackways. Occultist Dion Fortune’s 1936 novel ‘The Goat Foot God’ suggested that ley lines are pathways of energy that stretch across the country, connecting sacred sites of various kinds such as Avebury and Stonehenge. This idea of leys as lines of energy – a long way from Watkin’s original straight track- was immensely appealing to a variety of people and rapidly gained currency. Arthur Lawton, a member of the Straight Track Club, wrote a paper in 1938 that claimed that leys were dowsable lines of force. Some dowsers profess to be able to detect these energy leys or natural leys, either on the ground or on a map. They say that these lines reflect the earth’s magnetic field, forming a grid or energy matrix, on which sacred sites mark node points. Contrary to Watkin’s theory that sacred sites grew up on pre-existing leys, these dowsers maintain that sacred sites were sited on spots of anomalous energy. 

In the 1950s a solicitor and enthusiastic dowser called Guy Underwood decided to test an earlier French theory that underground streams cross under prehistoric sites. He said that his dowsing rod responded to some kind of magnetic force within the earth, and claimed that at sites like Stonehenge this force formed an energy spiral, then the energy ran across the countryside for miles in straight tracks, which animals seemed to use for navigation. In his book ‘Pattern of the Past’ Underwood concluded that the positioning of these sites reflected the pattern of underground fissures and water flows, with water lines forming large spirals around stones, even sometimes several spirals converging on the same stone or stone circle. He assumed the energy he was dowsing was ‘electrical equipotential’ arising from geophysical anomalies which interrupted the ‘earth force’.

Ley hunting itself fell into abeyance until 1962 when Philip Hestleton and Jimmy Goddard started the Ley Hunter’s Club, inspired by Tony Wedd’s 1958 booklet ‘Skyways and Landmarks’. Wedd, an ex-RAF pilot, asserted that the occurrence of UFO sightings was connected with ley lines. He claimed that flying saucers used ancient mounds as landing beacons and lines of magnetic force as an aid to navigation. The sixties saw a flurry of new interest in the subject, all mixed up with the dawning of the New Age, psychedelia, astronomy, UFOs, new energies, and a mass of hitherto unconnected phenomena. In 1974 an unknown writer in the Whole Earth Catalogue referred to the whole subject of ley lines, landscape folklore and earth energies as Earth Mysteries, a title which stuck.

In 1969 John Michell published The View Over Atlantis, mixing the theory of ley lines with Feng Shui, sacred geometry and number systems. [Feng Shui means ‘wind-water’ and concerns two forces, Yin and Yang, which flow in forces around the landscape. These paths are called lung mei or ‘dragon’s veins’. Where the two forces cross is considered to be a good place; the forces should be in balance with each other and flow evenly and unrestricted.] He also put forward the idea of the St Michael Line running for 400 miles across southern England, marked by its preponderance of churches dedicated to St. Michael. Pagans and New Agers began to talk about ‘the dragon power of the earth’ speculating that as legends of dragons, serpents and white worms are connected with many ancient sites it may be that lines and spirals of earth energy were known to the ancients as ‘dragon power’. Furthermore, perhaps stone circles, standing stones and ley lines mark the path of this power, with those Christian churches built on top of Pagan sites named after dragon slaying saints- such as St. Michael and St George- denoting Christianity overcoming the power of the old Pagans.

During this period, most ley hunters would have agreed that the lines were paths of energy, possibly magnetic. In his 1978 book ‘Needles of Stone’ Tom Graves stated that circle stones have bands of alternating charge, usually seven, and suggested that these move up and down with the lunar cycle. He added that energy is derived from the blind spring at the centre of the circle and transmitted by the concentric circles outward from the centre to be stored at the perimeter, which can be released as required by inserting a small amount of energy into the relevant stone. Graves describes having done this, releasing a pulse of energy that travelled in a straight line for 6 miles to another stone. This lead him to suggest that leys carry energy of various types and plug into patterns of energy at sites, which mark or carry energy flows, like a kind of colossal acupuncture. Graves later retracted much of what he said, but these theories are still adhered to by many.

Ley lines were fast becoming all things to all men- Erich Von Daniken’s landing strips for aliens, nets of power extending over the earth, cosmic energy matrixes extending to and from space, healing forces, conduits of magical or psychic power, navigation aids for animals and aliens alike, Neolithic radio transmitters and so on. The Fountain Group in England said that mental influence could be transmitted down ley lines. You name it, ley lines were it. From its British origins, the theory of natural leys was enthusiastically taken up by American New Agers, further elaborated on, and shipped back to Britain and Europe in a variety of books. Watkins style ley hunting, however, remained an exclusively British activity.[2]

To try to clarify these increasingly muddy waters Paul Devereux, then editor of The Ley Hunter, set up the Dragon Project, now a charitable trust. Based at the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire scientists, psychics and dowsers spent 10 years trying to track down ‘earth energies’. Their findings were documented in Devereux’s Places of Power, published in 1990. To the dismay of many the project concluded that there was no new type of energy, though Geiger counter and magnetometer readings did indicate some anomalies in the earth’s geomagnetic fields at sacred sites. Moreover, they found no evidence of overground energy lines, magnetic or otherwise.

A split occurred among the adherents of earth mysteries. Some energy doswers still claimed to be able to detect energy leys, node points at stone circles, and ‘black streams’ [harmful or negative earth energies]. However, the 1990s saw the title ‘earth mysteries’ disappeared from several small press magazines and a mass backtracking on the part of many energy ley hunters and claimers. Even some physical dowsers began to dismiss ‘energy dowsing’ as subjective, unreliable and unprovable. A new explanation was demanded for ley lines. With the 90’s fashion for shamanism it is not surprising that this explanation should be that they were maps for shamanic out of body spirit-flights. Ley lines sometimes occur in connection with rock carvings and other glyphs, such as the spirals carved at the New Grange tomb in Ireland and the animal drawings at Nazca.  Dobkin de Rios noted that these glyphs appear where tribal shamans are known to have practised and to have used hallucinogenic drugs. [3] With certain of these narcotics users often ‘see’ straight lines, spirals, dots, grids and tunnels. She concluded that lines across the landscape were symbols or even maps of a shaman’s spirit flight.

Of course, straight lines and tracks do not just occur in Britain. In continental Europe similar alignments of ancient sites and avenues of standing stones can be found. In the New World the Hopewell Indians of Ohio built a sixty mile long ceremonial roadway to a burial ground at Chillicothe.  In California the Miwok Indians built straight tracks running up and down hills with no deviation in their straightness. In New Mexico the extinct Anasazi people built straight routes, as long as sixty miles, linking ceremonial houses. In southern Mexico the Maya built straight roads called ‘white ways’ connecting temples, cities and sacred sites. The famous Nazca lines stretch across Peru in lines several miles long. Paths are found in the Bolivian antiplano, running completely straight over rough and hilly ground from mountains to shrines, reaching lengths of twenty miles.

In all of these cases straight lines are associated with the sacred or the supernatural. We have to ask ourselves why this should be. The explanation seems to be that straight lines do not occur in nature except perhaps, as Steve Wilson pointed out, the shaft of sunlight piercing the clouds. [4] These shafts are spoken of as the ‘fiery arrows of the sun’ or ‘darts of the sun’, ostensibly connecting the sun god with the earth. While the natural world is full of curves and bends anything straight Otherworldly, associated with gods, spirits and the souls of the dead.

In many places it is believed that spirits, including the ghosts of the dead, travel in straight lines. In Ireland fairies pass from one mound to another in straight lines on paths between the raths. Folklore has it that these paths should not be blocked or built on or very bad luck will follow. The fairy dog makes its lair in the clefts of rocks and travels in a straight line. In China bad spirits travel on straight paths, and these were therefore unlucky and avoided at all costs: a straight path would drain the good luck from a place. In Europe it was believed that because spirits travel only in straight lines they can be caught in webs, nets or bottles filled with tangled threads [called witch bottles or spirit bottles] as they will get lost trying to follow the strands. [5]

The Hmong people of Loas have a tradition that one house should not be built directly in front of or behind another, as spirits travel in straight lines.[6] When corpses are moved out of a house for burial they must go in a straight line. It is widely believed that the dead must travel by the shortest route and in a straight line. This gives us the basis for another fashionable theory about ley lines- that they were death roads or corpse ways for the dead to travel to the burial ground. Most surviving examples of these are rather late, however.  In Holland mediaeval funeral routes called doodwegen [‘deathroads’] or spokenwegen [‘ghostroads’] are still detectable, converging on cemeteries. Similar paths called corpse ways, coffin paths and church roads are found in Britain.[7] A death road was unearthed by archaeologists in Laasa, Sweden. It was the practice to carry dead Viking chieftains along straight cult roads to their burial places. It can be argued that stone circles are associated with the dead in folklore, and straight avenues sometimes lead to them. This death road theory can be connected back to the idea of shamanic flight paths, since the shaman in trance is thought to be undergoing a type of death in order to visit the world of spirits.

It sometimes seems that theories of ley lines have to conform to the fashion of the age. In the fifties they were connected with space men and UFOs, in the sixties with Aquarian Age philosophies, in the seventies and eighties with dragon power, in the nineties with shamanism. What theories will be attached to them in this new millennia we will have to wait and see. Do they exist? We know that Watkin’s type alignments do occur. The ancient sacred sites of Britain were undoubtedly deliberately placed along straight-line arrangements. The ancients obviously associated the straight line with the sacred, the Otherworldy. Their holy places may have been placed along ley lines to facilitate the passage of the souls of the dead to the Otherworld, or to allow gods and spirits to travel through this one. Perhaps they were even placed to allow a magical energy to flow from one site to another after it had been invoked. Perhaps there really is a global net of power. No one knows for certain. But I am sure we will continue to speculate for a long time to come.

[1] Paul Devereux, Leys/’Ley Lines’,  paper given at Ways of Spirit-Ways of Power Conference, 1996

[2] Paul Devereux, Leys/’Ley Lines’,  paper given at Ways of Spirit-Ways of Power Conference, 1996

[3] Marlene Dobkin de Rios, Hallucinogens: Cross Cultural Perspectives, Prism, 1990

[4] Steve Wilson, Robin Hood the Spirit of the Forest, Neptune Press, London, 1993

[5] Paul Devereux, Leys/’Ley Lines’,  paper given at Ways of Spirit-Ways of Power Conference, 1996

[6] Paul Devereux, Leys/’Ley Lines’,  paper given at Ways of Spirit-Ways of Power Conference, 1996

[7] Danny Sullivan, Ley Lines:Dead and Buried?, 1997


Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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