“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” so Hamlet tells his old friend and intellectual sparring partner in the play. Actually there are more things in heaven and earth, particularly earth, than are dreamt of in most philosophies. Shakespeare knew this; for he was in possession of a wisdom and understanding long vanished, sublimated under a heavy defensive crust of rationalism.
Let me give you some more words, this time from A Midsummer Nights Dream, the most magical of the bard's plays, full of mystery and music. The words in question are those of Puck, also known as Robin Goodfellow;
Now it is the time of night
That the graves all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In the church way paths to glide.
Perhaps you know the play well, seen it performed or even performed in it yourself. I did, when I was at school. When I was fourteen years old I was Titania, Queen of the fairies. Ever since it has had an abiding fascination for me, particularly some of the more enigmatic lines. Do you know, for example, what a church way path is? I didn't that midsummer of my teens. I do now; I have done for some time.
I'll tell you in a bit, but first a word on ancients paths or roads. Alfred Watkins was an amateur archaeologist born in the county of Hereford on the Welsh border. The Welsh name for Hereford, incidentally, is Henffordd, meaning an old road, a striking coincidence, considering that old roads were to have a major impact on his life. In the early 1920s, while examining some county maps, he noticed that various ancient sites, including barrows, standing stones and stone circles seem to occur in an exact alignment. Straight lines could be drawn between them. Looking deeper, he subsequently found that old churches built atop pagan shrines could be similarly aligned.
In 1922 he published his findings in Early British Trackways, followed up three years later by The Old Straight Road, the book he is best known for. Watkins had discovered what came to be known as 'ley lines', chosen because the tracks passed through place names that often ended with the syllable 'ley.' Yes, he named them, that's true, but he 'discovered' them, in might be said, in the same way that Columbus 'discovered' America!
In Harper's Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience ley lines are defined as follows;
Ley lines are alignments and patterns of powerful, invisible earth energy said to connect various sacred sites, such as churches, temples, stone circles, megaliths, holy wells, burial sites and other locations of spiritual and magical importance.
In fact what Watkins had stumbled upon was a feature that for centuries before his time had been known as fairy roads; spiritual highways, in other words. Shakespeare knew, hence the mysterious (not for him) reference to church way paths. This is just the English name for something that occurs across so many different cultures and ages, the belief that that spirits of one kind or another, living or dead, move through the physical landscape along special routes.
The church way paths constitute a special class here, known elsewhere in Europe as 'corpse roads.' In Britain they are also known by other names, such as burial road, bier road, coffin road or lych way, the latter derived from lyches, the Old English word for corpse. In Saxon time they were known as the 'deada wegg.' I don't think there is any need for translation here, is there?
The church paths were simple enough: they were the prescribed route by which the dead were carried to their allotted burial place, straight to the gate. But more than this they accumulated a long tradition of spirit lore, routes believed to be followed by the dead after death, as Shakespeare revels in A Midsummer's Night Dream. This was a belief so widespread in Medieval Europe that the remains of those whose return was not desired in any form were often buried at cross roads, specifically to confuse their spirits. Unable to travel, the spirit would thus be 'locked' in a single location.
Just as Watkins had inadvertently stumbled across church paths, the people of the Middle Ages had stumbled across something even older, a more archaic spirit lore. We now know of Neolithic earthen avenues called “cursuses” linking burial mounds. These features can run for a considerable distance, some for many miles, and are largely straight. All of them connect funerary sites. We know the exist, yes, but we have no idea what the were for. It's not beyond possibility that they were specifically intended to serve as spirit paths. Some Neolithic and Bronze age graves, particularly in Britain and France, are fitted with blocking stones. Why? What was being blocked?
We are not simply dealing with man-made features or human superstition here. In 1987 the New Scientist magazine published an article suggesting that species as diverse as pigeons, whales, bees and -of all things – bacteria can navigate using the earth's magnetic field. Ley lines may be human but we know that they, too, have a close relationship with the same magnetic field. So, take your pick: the lines are are simply areas of altered magnetic fields or they carry traces of all past energies, of those who have trodden these mystical ways since before history and before time.
Puck's words, you see, have a wider significance than even Shakespeare may have understood. They connect with a spirit lore that extends all the way from Ireland in the west to China in the east. It's possible to come across references time after time and place after place. In Germany they were called Geisterwege, routes to be avoided at night. The Handwortbuch der deutschen Aberglaubens describes them thus;
The paths, with no exception, always run in a straight line over mountains and valleys and through marshes...in towns they pass the houses closely or go through them. The paths end or originate in a cemetery...therefore this way or road was believed to have the same characteristics as a cemetery...where spirits of the deceased thrive.
In Ireland these were the fairy paths, routes that had such physical reality in the minds of the living that building patterns were adapted to ensure that they were not obstructed. Does this sound familiar? It should do if you have any acquaintance with Chinese culture; for the same belief underpins feng-shui divination, in which homes and other places have to be protected, so to speak, from the straight and narrow! The belief is that troublesome spirits travelling along such ethereal pathways will bring bad luck if blocked on their journey. In Ireland those who suffered unforeseen misfortunes, or sudden illness, were said to live in houses that were in a “contrary place.”
Now a real life story, one I got from Paul Devereux, writing in the Fortean Times. There is a croft, now a cattle shed, at Knockeencreen in County Kerry. In an interview carried out in the 1980s, the then occupant told of troubles his grandfather experienced with cattle dying from wholly unexplained reasons. The front door is exactly opposite the back door. A passing gypsy told the grandfather that the building stood on a fairy path between two hills. “Keep the doors slightly ajar at night”, she advised, “to allow the fairies free passage.” And so he did, and so the cattle stopped dying. No more bad feng-shui.
The important thing here is that the energy is not obstructed, either on the ley lines or the dragon paths of Chinese tradition. For if they are...well, you've been warned. If you would like to discuss this further you might care to join me for a drink at the Ancient Ram Inn in Wooton-under-Edge in the county of Gloucestershire. I should warn you, though, that it is reputed to be one of the most haunted places in England. A few years ago an investigation was carried out by a team from the UK Paranormal Study, headed by Kieron Butler. Mr Butler – silly man – decided that a spot of Ouija game play was called for, which called for an unexpected entity:
We asked for a sign outside the board and we heard a deep kind of groan or yell. I felt his presence rush across the attic towards us as did Mr Al and the others felt a freezing blast of air hit us with force. I felt him at first right behind me, we continued then I felt him stand in the spot I was sitting, I felt overcome by a feeling I cannot explain but I think he was trying to get into me as if I could be used as a channel. This was getting unbearable and I then felt a terrible stabbing pain in my back, moments later the board spelt out stab & die...then I felt all the pain and feelings return before I passed out.
What's the problem with the Ancient Ram Inn? Why, it's right over a ley line.