Ever since Alfred Watkins announced his discovery of a network of ancient alignments criss-crossing the British countryside, the history of leys has been less of an old straight track and more of a long and winding road, one that has taken detours into everything from ufology to dowsing. Veteran ley hunter Paul Devereux sets out to map this remarkable journey and to see where it has taken us today.
by Paul Devereux, for The Fortean Times
Following Alfred Watkins’s famous vision of straight paths crossing the landscape, the concept of “leys” has evolved over several decades, but it has become increasingly obvious to research-minded ley students that there never were such features as “leys,” let alone “leylines.” At best, these were convenient labels to cover a multitude of both actual and imaginary alignments from many different eras and cultures. This was because most enthusiasts were projecting their own ideas onto the past in various ways. But the handful of research-minded ley hunters cared about actual archæology, and they followed where the mythical leys led—a journey in which they have made some unexpected findings, proving William Blake’s dictum that if the fool persists in his folly he will eventually become wise. These vary from discovering that culturally contrived altered mind-states in past societies caused markings to be left on the land to unravelling the meaning of a passage in a Shakespeare play that has revealed the vestiges of a spiritual geography in Old Europe.
Because the realisation that New World features like the Nazca lines of Peru and other pre-Columbian land markings throughout the Americas seem to be associated with entranced mind states (typically triggered by the ritual use of plant or fungal hallucinogens) has been sufficiently aired previously, we need spend little space on them here—save to note that in the late 1980s, when the present writer introduced the term “shamanic landscapes” to describe such ground markings, few people were aware of the scale of mind-altering drug usage in ancient America and so tended to dismiss the idea at the time as being over-fanciful. Subsequently, though, the role of altered mind-states in explaining certain imagery in prehistoric rock art has become more widely accepted. The land markings share a similar source to these rock art images, so features like the Nazca lines are not to be misunderstood as landing strips for extraterrestrial spacecraft but as the markings of a culture encountering inner space. The human spirit has left its signature on the planet in some surprising ways.
Less well known by academics and folklorists, let alone anyone else, is the fact that the leys led researchers to revelations regarding largely ignored features in the Old World.
A Secret History
In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Bard has Puck say:
Now it is that time of night,
That the graves all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In the church-way paths to glide.
How many actors who have uttered these words, and how many modern audiences of the play, understand what the hell Puck, the archetypal nature spirit, is on about? Some generalized notion of haunting? And what are “church-way paths” anyway?
Only slowly did the ley researchers themselves come to understand that Puck’s words were a reference to the tail-end of a deep-rooted spirit lore that stretched across the Eurasian landmass from China to Ireland, so archaic and widespread that it may even have accompanied modern humans out of Africa, dispersing in all directions from central Asia. It also became apparent that Alfred Watkins had picked up on sections of church-way paths in some of his church leys without realising it.
There are slight variations in different cultures and ages, but the core of the deep-rooted spirit lore is that supposed spirits of one kind or another—spirits of the dead, phantasms of the living, or nature entities like fairies—move through the physical landscape along special routes. In their ideal, pristine form, at least, such routes are conceived of as being straight. By the same token, convoluted linear features hinder spirit movement.
Shakespeare’s “church-way paths” refer to a special class of old pathway or road in Europe known as “corpse roads”. In Britain, they can also be known by a number of other names—bier road, burial road, coffin line, lyke or lych way (from Old English liches, corpse), or funeral road, to mention just some. The feature was called deada waeg in Saxon times, which may be the etymological roots of the Dutch term for corpse roads, Doodwegen (“deathroads”). Corpse roads are primarily mediæval or early modern features. Many have disappeared, while the original purposes of those that still survive as footpaths have been largely forgotten.
The basic, material facts concerning corpse roads are straightforward enough: they provided a functional means of allowing walking funerals to transport corpses to cemeteries that had burial rights. In the 10th century, there was a great expansion of church building in England, which inevitably encroached on the territories of existing mother churches or minsters. There was a demand for autonomy from outlying settlements that minster officials felt could erode their authority, not to mention their revenue, so they decided to institute corpse roads that led from outlying locations to the mother church at the heart of the parish, the one that alone held the burial rights. For some parishioners, this meant corpses had to be transported long distances, sometimes over difficult terrain. Fields crossed by churchway paths often had names like “Churchway Field”, and today it is sometimes possible to plot the course of a lost churchway simply by the sequence of old field names.
But Puck alludes to a secret history of these routes. They attracted already long extant spirit lore, for they ran not only through the physical countryside but also through the invisible geography, the mental terrain, of pre-industrial countryfolk. Vestiges of this archaic spirit lore are revealed by a variety of ‘virtual’ and physical features across Old Europe.
The virtual features were folk beliefs that, while having no physical manifestation, nevertheless had a geographical reality. An example existed in Nemen, Russia, where there was the tradition of a Leichenflugbahn, literally “corpse flightpath.” There were two cemeteries in the town, one Lithuanian, the other German, and the spirits of those interred in them were believed to be able to travel between the two places. These ghosts were said to fly along on a direct course close to the ground, so a straight line connecting the two places was kept clear of fences, walls, and buildings to avoid obstructing the flitting spectres.
The Germans had similar virtual paths they called Geisterwege. Although invisible, these spirit paths had a definite geography in local folklore, and people would be sure to avoid them at night. A German folklore reference work (Handwortbuch de 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 right through them. The paths end or originate at 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 and other Celtic lands, there were fairy paths that, again, while being invisible nevertheless had such perceived geographical reality in the minds of the country people that building practices were adopted to ensure they were not obstructed. There are startling similarities to the beliefs underpinning Chinese feng-shui landscape divination, in which homes and ancestral tombs had to be protected from straight roads or other linear landscape features (“arrows”) because troublesome spirits travelled along them and would bring bad luck. In Ireland, people who had illnesses or other misfortune, or who suffered poltergeist activity, were said to live in houses that were “in the way” or in a “contrary place”. In other words, they obstructed a fairy path.
Fairy paths typically linked fairy forts (a class of circular earthwork dating from the Iron Age), “airy” (eerie) mountains and hills, thorn bushes, springs, lakes, rock outcrops, and Stone Age monuments. Although the form of specific fairy paths tended to be mentioned only in passing in the earliest written sources, it is possible to gradually assemble a general picture of their characteristics. Most sources implied that fairy paths were straight. Writing in 1870 (in The Fireside Stories), Patrick Kennedy stated it clearly: fairies “go in a straight line, gliding as it were within a short distance of the ground”. Other accounts record that if fairies marching out at night encountered an obstacle such as a bush “in the way”, they would simply go round it and re-join the course of the fairy route beyond.
An example of this fairy straightness is provided by an account concerning a croft (now a cattle shed) at Knockeencreen, Brosna, County Kerry. In an interview in the 1980s, the last human occupant told of the troubles his grandfather had experienced there, with his cattle periodically and inexplicably dying. The front door is exactly opposite the back door. The grandfather was informed by a passing gypsy that the dwelling stands on a fairy path running between two hills. The gypsy advised the grandfather to keep the doors slightly ajar at night to allow the fairies free passage. The advice was heeded and the problem ceased. It so happens that the building is indeed on a straight line drawn between two local hilltops, and is, moreover, at one end of a long, straight track. If the croft were in China, it would be said to have bad feng-shui.
Fairies and the spirits of the dead enjoyed a curiously ambiguous relationship in the peasant mind: for instance, American folklorist Evans Wentz was told about paths of the dead in Brittany that he could not distinguish from the beliefs about fairy paths. Similar could be said of invisible ghost routes in Albania and elsewhere.
These virtual spirit roads were always conceived of as being straight, but the physical corpse roads of Europe vary between being straight and not particularly so—virtual routes are less affected by contingencies than are physical tracks. Examples of straight physical spirit/corpse paths include a Viking funeral path at Rösaring, Sweden, which runs to a Viking and Bronze Age cemetery, a stone road in the Hartz Mountains in Germany, and the Dutch Doodwegen, which were officially checked on an annual basis to ensure their straightness and regularity of width.
In Old Europe, then, there seems to have been a “virtual blueprint” concerning spirit ways relating to physical cemeteries and material, pragmatic paths actually used for conveying corpses to burial. The precise relationship between these virtual and physical features has not been fully explored, but as Shakespeare revealed, there is no doubt that the physical corpse roads came to be perceived as being spirit routes, taking on qualities of the archaic “blueprint.” For a start, there is an abundance of generalised lore about how corpses were to be conveyed along corpse roads to avoid their spirits returning along them to haunt the living. It was a widespread custom, for example, that the feet of the corpse be kept pointing away from the family home on its journey to the cemetery. Other minor ritualistic means of preventing the return of the dead person’s shade included ensuring that the route the corpse took to burial would take it over bridges or stepping stones across streams (for spirits could not cross open, running water), stiles, and various other liminal (“betwixt and between”) locations, all of which had reputations for preventing or hindering the free passage of spirits. In Old Europe, crossroads fell into a similar category—the corpses of suicides were buried at crossroads, for example, so that their spirits would be “bound” there, and for similar reasons gallows were often erected at them. The living took pains to prevent the dead from wandering the land as lost souls—or even as animated corpses, for the belief in revenants was widespread in mediæval Europe.
All these customary precautions obviously suggest that people using the corpse roads assumed that they could be passages for ghosts, but there is more specific evidence too. For example, a documented contemporary tradition relating to a corpse road at Aalst, Belgium, informs us that mourners had to intone: “Spirit, proceed ahead, I’ll follow you.” This indicates that the spirit connection existed when the roads were being used and is not some falsified folk memory added later. This is reinforced by the fact that one Dutch term for a corpse road was Spokenweg —spook or ghost road. German lore maintained that corpse roads took on the “magical characteristics of the dead” and should not be obstructed. “Church-way paths” were definitely associated with spirits, so Puck knew what he was talking about.
The archaic spirit lore that attached itself to the mediæval and later corpse roads also may have informed certain prehistoric features. In Britain, for instance, Neolithic earthen avenues called “cursuses” link burial mounds: these features can run for considerable distances, even miles, and are largely straight, or straight in segments, always connecting funerary sites. The purpose of these avenues is unknown, but some kind of spirit-way function must be at least one possible explanation. Similarly, some Neolithic and Bronze Age graves, especially in France and Britain, are associated with stone rows—sometimes with blocking stones at their ends. What was being blocked?
Spirit Road Necromancy
In the course of their corpse way revelations, research-minded ley hunters uncovered a forgotten form of necromantic divination. In Britain, we pick it up as the “church porch watch” or “sitting-up.” In this, a village seer would hold a vigil between 11 pm and 1 am at the church door, in the graveyard, at the lych-gate (where the cortège entered the churchyard), or on a nearby lane (presumably a corpse road), in order to look for the wraiths of those who would die in the following 12-month period.
Typically, this “watch” took place on St Mark’s Eve (24 April), Hallowe’en, or the eves of New Year, Midsummer, or Christmas. The wraiths of the doomed, but still living, members of the community would usually appear to the inner eye of the seer as a procession coming in from beyond the churchyard and passing into the church, and then returning back out into the night. However, in some cases, especially in Wales, watchers were more likely to hear a disembodied voice tell the names of those who were soon to die. One apocryphal story tells of a church-watcher who saw a spectral form that was so hazy he had to lean forward to try to identify it. As he did so he heard a disembodied whisper: “’tis yourself!”
It is a reasonable guess that the spectral processions would have come into the churchyard via the corpse roads, the church-way paths. This is supported by the fact that an old woman at Fryup, Yorkshire, who was well known locally for keeping the “Mark’s e’en watch”, lived alongside a corpse road known as the “Old Hell Road.”
The church-watcher custom in Britain seems to have been a variant of a Dutch tradition concerning a class of diviners called voorlopers or veurkieken, “precursors,” who were specifically associated with the Dutch death roads, the Doodwegen. They were seers able to tell who was going to die soon in the community because they had the ability to see spectral funeral processions pass along the death road they visited or lived alongside. Folklorist WY Evans Wentz recorded a similar tradition near Carnac in Brittany.
The Dutch precursors, the Breton funeral seers, and the British churchyard watchers would seem to fall into the same general class of divination as did those who perceived the spirits of the dead in trance by “sitting out” (utiseta) in cemeteries or on burial mounds in old Norse tradition, or by sitting entranced at certain times between St Lucy’s Day (13 December) and Christmas—a seers’ custom known in Hungary as “St Lucy’s Stool.”
Another manifestation of spirit road necromancy in Britain was “stile divination”. An illustration of this is provided by a Cornish folktale in which the ghost of a woman’s dead husband carries her over the treetops and deposits her on a stile on a church-way path leading to Ludgvan church where she is able to interrogate passing ghosts. Stiles were considered “favourite perches for ghosts.” Until now, stile divination has been mentioned in the folk record without its context being understood.
A further facet of this same overall class of seership is described in Icelandic folklore, in which a seer would visit a crossroads “where four roads run, each in a straight unbroken line, to four churches,” or from where four churches were visible on New Year’s Eve or St John’s Day, cover himself with the hide of a bull or a walrus, and fix his attention on the shiny blade of an axe while lying as still as a corpse throughout the night. He would recite various spells to summon the spirits of the dead from the church cemeteries and they would glide up the roads to the crossroads where the seer could divine information from them. Crossroads divination was also conducted in former times in Britain and other parts of Europe, and is associated with traditions that the Devil could be made to manifest at such intersections. This complex of crossroads lore is also related to the idea that spirits of the dead could be “bound” at crossroads, specifically suicides and hanged criminals, for along with the idea that straight routes could facilitate the movement of spirits, so contrary features like crossroads and stone and turf labyrinths were thought to be able to hinder it.
This was part of a broader fear of spirits that might flit into dwellings. In Bavaria to this day, one can find convoluted patterns of pebbles at doorsteps to confound dangerous entities, or just inside the front door there can be spirit traps looking like little antennæ stuck into ceiling beams. Witch bottles were common throughout Europe – bottles or glass spheres containing a mass of threads, often with charms entangled in them, to forestall the passage of witches flying about at night. ‘Cats’ cradles’ of threads would be laid on the chests of corpses to stop them wandering prior to burial, and nets of threads mounted on poles would be placed along church-way paths that were believed to be haunted. Beyond Europe, too, similar devices were employed—in Tibet, for instance, thread crosses, mdos, would be placed on the roof ridges of houses as “devil catchers,” and much larger ones deployed around monasteries.
These European and Asian devices look very similar to American Indian dreamcatchers, revealing curiously similar notions about the passage of spirits. Curious that is, unless one accepts the premise that it all derived from a common and extremely archaic source in central Asia. The alternative explanation is that the common “wiring” of the human brain produces similar concepts in the minds of people in technologically similar societies. A final option, of course, is that pre-modern peoples around the world were responding to the actual perception of spirits moving through the land. But however far we follow them, the “leylines” cannot lead us to an answer about that.
Paul Devereux is the former editor of The Ley Hunter, a researcher of earth lights, archæoacoustics, and ancient cultures, and a regular FT contributor and columnist. His latest book, Spirit Roads, is now available, published by Collins-Brown.