Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Magick Without Tears

It’s time to return to the subject of the occult, a topic I dealt with all too briefly first time.

Particularly, I want to talk about the concept of Ley Lines. Leys are an idea with a wonderfully strange intellectual history. By the time they reach the milieu within which I am conducting business they have gone from archaeological theory to new age belief system to psychogeographic metaphor, via Atlantis, Glastonbury and other places between. Although when talking about the occult and psychogeography it might at first seem that we should be looking at the secondary evolutions of Leys (into great, world-encompassing mystic energy currents; more on that in a bit), but actually in many ways the use of Leys by figures such as Iain Sinclair signals a return to the origins of the concept.

The theory of Leys first finds expression in a frankly quite charming little book called The Old Straight Track, written (and illustrated) by travelling salesman, photographic pioneer, naturalist and amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins. ‘Ley’ was a neologism that he developed from the philological component of his ideas, and his theory (put very simply) was this: that the stone age peoples of Great Britain travelled around and organised themselves based around a network of straight pathways, marked by stones, arrangements of trees and notches cut out of the tops of hills and ridges. Watkins developed this theory during his career as a travelling salesman, from prolonged personal contact with the landscape of his native Herefordshire. It seems he first came up with the idea in a flash of inspiration, when reading a map and noticing chance alignments between church towers, standing stones and notches in the skyline. He went on to develop his idea painstakingly, trying to work out the position and purpose of various leys, and marshalling a body of evidence to support his ideas from various sources; place names, intricate maps, photographs. The Old Straight Track is obviously the culmination of several years of diligent and careful work, a fascinating record of one man’s obsession.

The theory, unfortunately, is not a very good one. It cannot be disproved, but all the evidence is circumstantial, and there are some powerful and compelling counter-arguments. Firstly, there is the well-known human capacity for pattern recognition, even when no pattern exists. Scatter thirty points randomly over a sheet of paper, and you will certainly be able to draw one or two or three lines that connect, or nearly connect, many of them. After that come selection bias; your pattern can be made even more compelling if you ignore, deliberately or not, those points which do not lie on or near the lines. Watkins was unfortunately rather guilty of this, with no real consistency as to the places he used and the places he did not; he was particularly subjective about hill notches. More damning still, his theory has since proven to be a rather poor indicator of the site of new archaeological discoveries. If the theory had any truth to it, we would expect to find new Neolithic sites, particularly important ones, clustered around Leys;  it turns out that we do not. More intuitively damning, for the rambler, is the fact that, apart from generally being routes between two high points, Leys don’t really make much sense on the ground; nor do any straight paths generally for walking, without some significant civil engineering anyway. The natural path, rather beautifully called the ‘desire path’ by theorists, is made the same by humans and animals; a winding thing, following the path of least resistance, hugging gradients, following banks, skirting marshy areas. The desire path is the original basis for much of the British road network, much of which has a very ancient provenance, with some roads following pre-Roman routes. Many of the straight Roman roads, indeed, were abandoned following the departure of the Legions. Although pre-historic Britons were indeed capable of prodigious feats of civil engineering and earthmoving, there’s no reason to suspect that they would have felt it worth maintaining such a difficult and counter-intuitive transport system.

But what does all this have to do with the occult? Well, after a brief flurry of arguments at the time, Watkins theory was largely forgotten, a dead-end theory that, coming from outside the archaeological establishment and riddled with methodological flaws, was unlikely to make much progress. This all changed when the idea was resurrected, with a wild twist, in the 1969 book The View Over Atlantis by British author and UFOligist John Michell. This book was phenomenally influential within the newly emerging psychedelic/new age/occult/pagan/hippy (delete as appropriate) underground. Michell turned Leys (now called ‘Ley Lines’) into a parapsychological phenomenon, re-imagining them as energy lines that criss-crossed the British countryside like a psychic version of the national grid, culminating and intersecting at ancient pagan sites such as Glastonbury tor (it is essentially because of this book that there was a festival first held at Glastonbury) and Stonehenge. This idea took on a life of its own with new age writers over the next three decades, cropping up in discussions of such diverse topics as crop circles, UFOs, dowsing and ghosts. Notably, it has been linked in with a wide variety of theories about the astrological alignments of ancient monuments, parallel dimensions, earth changes and other theories that posit deep connections between earth, man and the wider universe. None of this, of course, comes from Watkins’s original theory, which was entirely prosaic.

The final evolution of the ley concept comes with its adoption into the new occult form of psychogeography, for which Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat bears particular (though not sole) responsibility. Here, the concept becomes stripped of its more hippieish associations, as it becomes a synthesis of the original concept, the new age ideas and even of the criticism of Watkins’s thesis. Like much of the more ‘serious’ modern occult thought, the new concept of the ley line deflects criticism by rejecting any claims to truth. The ley is now neither the landscape archaeological ghost of a thousand years old pathway, nor is it a line of force, apparently detectable by repeatable methods. Rather, the ley line is a literary or poetic construction, subjective and personal. For psychogeographers, the ley line is a tool to interrogate the map-territory relationship. Sinclair uses them as (essentially) arbitrary theoretical lines used to direct his flânerie. The power of the ley line lies in the fact that, apart from their lack of common adoption, they occupy the same ontological category as political boundaries; they are shapes drawn on maps or described in words that can (potentially) cause real world effects. 

This is the concept of leys that I will be using in the book; the third written section (after the introduction and a section on the Island’s history) will be called ‘Magic & Politics’ and consist of a number of diagrams, as well as writing, exploring the relationships between the boundaries of the Island on the map and its internal space.

Progress on the rest of the book continues a-pace. More to come.

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