A few years ago, a paranormal investigator acquaintance who knew I was a geologist asked me what I thought about ley lines related to paranormal phenomena. I wasn’t familiar with this association or the history of ley lines then. After consulting several references and poking around the Web, I am now! Take a trip with me traveling down some spooky paths to make sense of ley lines.
Last month, I finally got around to watching the new Ghostbusters movie (with the all-female team). There they were: ley lines at the crux of all the paranormal trouble in town! It is indeed past time to deal with these pesky ley lines – a larger-than-life, distorted, misrepresented concept that manifested like the Stay-Puft marshmallow man in paranormal circles.
“What do those look like to you?”
“What’s ‘ley lines’?”
“It’s a hidden network of energy lines that run across the earth; it’s a current of supernatural energy.”
“Supposedly if you look at sacred sites and weird events all over the world and connect them with lines, where they intersect, it’s an unusually powerful spot.”
“He’s using the devices to charge the ley lines. He’s creating a vortex.”
Ley lines as first proposed had NOTHING to do with energy or ghostly activity. How did we get to this?
As usually occurs with people and ideas, mix real bits with some imagination, blend it all into a confused mess, then jazz it up Hollywood style, and you have the very convoluted answer. How about a walk down the fairy path? Or maybe it’s a UFO runway…
Watkins’ Old Straight Track
There are several books written on ley lines but the term was coined in books by amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins – Early British Trackways (1922) and The Old Straight Track (1925). Watkins observed that places of pre-historic and historic significance were aligned across long distances in the British countryside. Ancient henges, barrows, cursuses, building sites, monuments, tors, ponds, holy wells, etc., could be mapped as points along a straight line regardless of the terrain. He wasn’t the first to notice the connection to other sites that some thought were akin to “beacon hills” (think Lord of the Rings call for aid) where you could see the next journey point from your current point, but he was the first to say that they were ubiquitous. Astronomical alignments had also previously been noted.
Watkins encouraged people to take a map and a camera and do their own exploration for “leys”. It became a hobby for some in the 1930s when there was a strong national sentiment for the romance, lore, and legend of British ancient heritage.
Watkins idea was purely utilitarian. The Old Straight Track is tedious reading – wordy, dry and full of speculation (and suspected ley lines). But his hypothesis was rejected by academia and his work was discredited and ignored. Connecting four points to make a line was not difficult in a country where there were thousands of prehistoric and historic monuments. The width of the lines varied to allow inclusion of other points. And, there certainly were straight segments of some significance used as travel ways or for ceremonial processions (such as funeral paths or “corpse ways”), perhaps later to become Roman roads.
At some point, “leys” shifted from being a guide to where special places were located to being forces of nature that dictated where these special places would be located and why that made them special, even magical. Watkins ideas were adopted by more imaginative types.
Straight lines already had some supernatural significance. For example, the paths where bodies were carried from the town to a burial site were called “corpse road” and associated with routes of the spirits, which became spirit paths that you were encouraged to avoid. Spirits were said to have a preference for straight lines. Or the paths were said to be used by fairies and you surely you had better steer clear of those!
Ceremonial paths, visible from the air and ground, are obvious in many cultures. In 1958, French author Aimé Michel in Flying Saucers and the Straight-Line Mystery said that UFO sightings in France had occurred along invisible lines across great distances that formed a grid. He called this idea orthoteny and suspected the lines might be associated with the terrain.
Ley lines and orthotenic lines were joined in concept by John Michell. Michell wrote The View Over Atlantis which heralded the “earth mysteries” idea in 1969. Kate Shrewsday writes:
Enter John Mitchell, Eton-educated member of the hippy hierarchy, author of The View Over Atlantis and so many other books which re-ignited our passion for the old places. It was Mitchell who resurrected Watkins’ lines and used them to mystify a landscape which had become mundane.
His premises were so engrossing, so seductive, that a whole counter-culture grew green and vigorous around it.
Ley lines were also seen as “arteries” of the earth, “veins” of energy flow, and equivalent to chi (qi) pathways said to be utilized in acupuncture of the human body. Standing stones, for example, were like acupuncture of the earth. (I wish I was kidding with that.) Also borrowed from Asian culture was the idea that monuments were placed in balance and harmony along the ley lines as a sort of geographical feng shui. Conductive minerals like iron, gold, and silver were said to be associated with ley lines. (Hmm, a testable claim.)
It was a small jump to connect genuine scientific concepts of magnetic anomalies and telluric current to sciencey-sounding “earth energy lines”. The notion of telluric currents was co-opted by dowsers, but that is a completely different discussion I’m not prepared to have in this entry. Some suggested that the power in ley lines drew from the telluric current and that such power could be manipulated or used for societal advantages. Watkins did not think ley lines could be found with dowsing rods, but this creative subversion of his ideas occurred rather smoothly. Author Guy Underwood pushed the dowsing craze associated with ley lines in the 1970s in the midst of the New Age wave of magical earth ideas. Underwood also espoused the idea of lines related to water-bearing zones. I’ll return to this concept shortly.
So, in the 1970s, ley lines were seen as channels of mystical “energy”. We can measure energy, yet no one was successful in measuring this particular energy scientifically, though. Ley proponents said the energy was too subtle or that research on the lines should be funded because of the potential to humankind. Locations associated with ley lines became more magical as New Age popularity increased – places like Glastonbury (St. Michael’s ley and many others; see map above) and Stonehenge. Giants were said to be buried in the barrows as they were associated with incredible ley line power. This power was said to even cause the stones to come alive and move. (Another testable claim where evidence was never provided.)
When the lines Cross
Crossed lines have always been associated with magic. Crossroads are particularly notable as supernatural areas. Where ley lines supposedly crossed, a strong “power spot” was created. These nodes could produce an energy “vortex”. Vortexes (vortices) are handy devices to explain an area as particularly prone to strange phenomena. No evidence for such energy vortexes exists, either.
Ley lines as plot devices or explanations in fantasy fiction media began in the 1960s with authors like Thomas Pynchon and continued with concepts of conspiracy ideas of secret knowledge about sacred geometry of the earth. And, of course, we have ley lines and the vortex as key plot device in the new Ghostbusters, which brings us to the paranormal community connection – the intersection where supernatural ideas and vague scientific concepts crash and merge.
I liked this opening for an article about ley lines in Fortean Times of June 2007:
Ever since Alfred Watkins announced his discovery of a network of ancient alignments crisscrossing 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.
Poor Watkins! He was only trying to put some sort of order system into mapping remarkable places and things really spiraled out of control. This happens quite often as conceptual concepts related to actual factual or scientific concepts lose original meaning and clarity, or the terms get conflated. The above quote is the intro to a piece by Paul Devereux, a leading authority on ley lines from the 1970s to the present. I found a 2003 interview with Devereux by paranormal personality Jeff Belanger on the Ghost Village site signaling that the American paranormal community was keying in on the concept of ley lines around that time. Devereux’s opinion is that leys are not what Watkins thought or what the New Agers believed but something else related to sacred paths and possibly the supernatural.
Amateur paranormal research ramped up big time in the 2000s with the popularity of DIY spirit-seeking TV shows. But even before that, there were paranormalists who connected various geological features to reports of hauntings and poltergeists. A popular concept was taken from the Tectonic Strain idea of Dr. Michael Persinger who suggested that geological circumstances in fault zones might be responsible for anomalous luminous phenomena (also known as ghost lights) or related to earthquake lights. He thought these might be misconstrued as UFOs. (Ghost lights and Tectonic strain theory are future topics to explore here.) Ley lines as sources of some undefined kind of energy were picked up as potential explanations for the manifestation of psychic energy that ghost researchers assumed was real. Genuine magnetic anomalies were turned into magical areas and connected to paranormal reports. Often, the researchers never actually checked for historic ley lines or geological anomalies, they just assumed they were there because it was a very sciencey conclusion to make that sounded plausible (and the public accepted it). Use of dowsing rods to find this psychic energy is also common for paranormalists.
Ley nodes were commonly attributed to areas of “high strangeness” – a higher than normal occurrence of weird things like anomalous lights, poltergeist activity, bizarre creature encounters, and UFO sightings.
That paranormal investigator who asked me about ley lines years ago was certainly hearing it from the buzz in his community. Again, we see the short jump to connect spooky feelings and unusual occurrences to the idea that there is some energy in the earth affecting the humans on the surface. Their house, the moon phase, and solar activity were presumed to be amplifying the effect. Here is an example from Supernatural magazine of what paranormalists can believe about ley lines (unedited):
Well most of the Earths leys are positive but when two of these leys cross or intersect a vortex of negative energy is then created. It is like a powerful magnet attracting all kinds of lower vibrational spirit, energy or entity and even sometimes people. These entities can then draw off the energy, feed on it and use it to manifest. Bodmin Jail (Cornwall) is a place where two such energy lines cross and therefore they form lower energy vortexes and this, in turn, will also affect the way people behave in such places. They will be prone or influenced to lower vibrational thoughts, paranoia, anger, ego and fear etc………it can be a source of food to an entity to recharge their essence.
Ley lines appear to be an (at least moderately) accepted speculative explanation for ghosts and hauntings. Because of the emphasis on other geological aspects (like minerals, fault lines, and water-bearing zones), I wondered if some paranormal investigators could be mistaking energy lines with lineaments. Geologic lineaments are any linear feature that contrasts with the surrounding ground identified via maps (stereoviews being most helpful) and associated mostly with carbonate terrain and groundwater well productivity. It was not unreasonable to think that natural lineaments might be obvious enough features to have been noticed by prehistoric societies who might have constructed wells into these fracture zones with great success. True lineaments are usually areas of structural weakness (not “power”) that have weathered more than surrounding rocks. Drilling into a fracture trace can result in a kick-ass well yield. I was not able to find any examples of ley lines that really were geologic lineaments, though it’s hard to imagine some enthusiastic person hasn’t done so a few times.
Paranormalists have misunderstood and mixed up ideas of mineral veins, fault lines, contacts between rock formations, and fracture zones, and attributed a nebulous idea of “energy” and “flow” to seismic, structural, mineralogical and hydrogeologic characteristics to reach a conclusion that ley lines are real and are associated with hauntings and other weird events people experience.
In no way does this foray into ley line history come close to sharing all the information, creative notions, and opinions about them. Anyone interested can get lost for years in all the literature (some first decent choices are in the references). But, most of the current popular perceptions about ley lines are based on presumption and suitable only for entertainment.
Ley lines have become a very confused melange of ideas about energy, electromagnetic fields, geologic fault lines, telluric current, voltage and frequency conjured by paranormalists. It’s a concept that sounds just sciencey enough for non-scientists to think it might have some merit. It doesn’t.
Ley lines have not been scientifically shown to have any measurable energy differential. Objective studies have not conclusively shown that independent reports of odd phenomena are concentrated along discrete lines. Dowsing for ley lines (or for anything else) has also never been reliably demonstrated. No tests, as far as I know, have shown that ley lines can even be independently mapped by two different people. Even Watkins’ lines were never fully substantiated as a theory though many proponents insist they were.
In examining ley lines we’ve seen them associated throughout the past few decades with an array of occult and paranormal ideas. Their ambiguous reality and flexible definition allow for seamless application from one strange phenomenon to another. The modern mystical concept of ley lines that conduct earth energies and can be harnessed for supernatural chaos is fiction derived from genuine earth processes. Going back to Alfred Watkins, even his old straight tracks may just be us connecting points because it feels satisfying as people want to find connections and will see them when they simply aren’t there. This has happened with ley lines. Layers of lore and imagination have made ley lines a useful trope to connect to spooky things.
A. Watkins (1925) The Old Straight Track. [Available in reprint from many publishers.]
D. Sullivan (2004) Ley Lines: The Greatest Landscape Mystery. Amazon Kindle edition.
T. Williamson and L. Bellamy (1983) Ley Lines in Question. Littlehampton Book Services Ltd.