by Paul Devereux
Paul Devereux is
the former editor of The Ley Hunter, a researcher of
earth lights, archeo-acoustics and ancient cultures, and
a regular FT contributor and columnist.
His latest book,
Spirit Roads, is now
This account has been assembled from a great many
sources ancient and modern, documented and oral, but
special recognition is given to John Palmer in Holland,
Ulrich Magin in Germany, Jeremy Harte in England, and
Eddie Lenihan in Ireland. A far more complete and fully
referenced account of spirit roads worldwide is given,
with field examples, in Paul Devereux’s new book, Spirit
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.
Following Alfred Watkins’s famous
vision of straight paths crossing the landscape, the concept of
“leys” has evolved over several decades (see panel, pp31–32), 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
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 archeology, 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 unraveling
the meaning of a passage in a Shakespeare play that has revealed the
vestiges of a spiritual geography in Old Europe.
Because the realization 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
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
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?
generalized notion of haunting?
And what are “church-way paths”
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 realizing 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,
Corpse roads are primarily medieval or
early modern features. Many have disappeared, while the original
purposes of those that still survive as footpaths have been largely
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 ministers.
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 church way paths often
had names like “Churchway Field”, and today it is sometimes possible
to plot the course of a lost church way 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 country folk. 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
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
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
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”.
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
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
generalized 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 medieval
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
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 medieval 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?
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
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
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 seer-ship 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
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
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
antenna 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 dream-catchers, 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.