The Working Site

Witchcraft for Tomorrow - Doreen Valiente 1993

The Working Site

A twisted tree, upon this Hallowe’en,

Rears branches black and bare against the sky,

The air is chill with presences unseen,

And fallen leaves before us drift and fly.

Steep is the hill, and dark the narrow lane,

And wavering our yellow lantern’s glow,

As softly tread the footsteps once again,

To keep our tryst and troth of long ago.

Up through the hanging wood to hill-top ring,

The bank and ditch o’ergrown with mighty trees,

There in the gloom the ritual flame we bring,

The witch-fire burning through the centuries.

And as it leaps, unto the pipe’s thin sound,

And chanted invocation, deep and low,

All hand in hand, we dance the circle round,

As wheeling stars and turning seasons go.

Then halt, and pass the wine-cup round the flames,

The fire’s glow reflected in each heart,

As in the wine we pledge the ancient names:

’The Old Ones! Merry meet and merry part!’

Such is the poem I wrote to describe a secret outdoor meeting of witches. Its site was a prehistoric earth-work that has a long tradition as a meeting-place for the old seasonal rituals of the Sabbats. Although the rite we performed was quite simple, it raised a wonderful atmosphere and provided an unforgettable experience for all those who took part.

Unfortunately, such outdoor rituals are seldom a practical possibility in these days. The countryside is so much more thickly populated than it used to be, that it is difficult to find a suitable place which is sufficiently private for such a purpose. Nevertheless, I feel that all covens and individual witches should attempt at some suitable opportunity to get out of doors and seek communion with the living forces of nature at first hand.

The particular site to which this poem refers has a curious history. It does not seem to like outsiders. People who have gone there, moved by idle curiosity, having heard some rumour of its connection with the Old Religion, have had strange and frightening experiences when they tried to perform some mocked-up rite for a laugh. Personally, however, I have always felt a sense of welcome there—so long as one did not take liberties.

If one lives in a fairly open and unspoilt part of the country, it may be possible to find a suitable site for regular working. If you do, however, please leave it unspoilt. Witches, even more than most people, should be concerned with the preservation of our countryside. Be particularly careful with bonfires and lanterns, especially if the weather has been dry for any length of time. Remember, even a carelessly-dropped cigarette can cause horrifying damage to trees and the habitat of wild creatures; so never leave any smouldering ashes of a bonfire behind you. If you have no water available, smother the embers with freshly-dug earth.

Be careful, too, of stones, especially flints. If these get in or near your bonfire, they may become so hot that they explode and send fragments flying dangerously around. They can be painful to tread on while dancing, too; in fact, it is a good idea to clear your site carefully in daylight before you actually perform your ritual there. A daylight reconnaissance is really essential, if you have never been to a particular site before.

Apart from the obvious requirement of privacy, there are certain other more subtle factors which may determine the suitability of a working site for witchcraft rituals. The site of an old pagan religious centre, for instance, would be instinct with power, just waiting to be re-awakened. There might, indeed, be so much latent power there that it would be advisable to tread cautiously until one became sufficiently attuned to the place to be sure of what one was dealing with. In general, the grisly tales of ’human sacrifice’ and ’unspeakable rites’ so often told of our pagan ancestors are sheer guesswork and exaggeration; but not always—although they never invented anything so grisly as the atom bomb. Moreover, power itself can induce fear, without anything evil being necessarily involved. So get the feel of a site before you actually use it for working. This is another reason for the daylight reconnaissance referred to above.

Get a good map of your district and study it well. Clues of place-names may appeal to you or intrigue you, bearing as they often do some reference to the old gods, either Anglo-Saxon or Celtic. For instance, the Ordnance Survey maps for the area around my home town of Brighton, Sussex, glanced over at random show Thundersbarrow Hill, inland on the Downs above Shoreham—evidently related to the old god Thunor, the Anglo-Saxon form of Thor. Near Rusper is Puck’s Croft, a place of the fairy folk who were often the old gods in disguise. There are a number of other ’Puck’ place-names in Sussex and elsewhere. South-east of Godalming is Hascombe, which means ’witch’s valley’. Hexe was the old Saxon word for ’witch’ and cwm is Celtic for ’Valley’, so Saxon and Celt mingled there. The old Roman road of Stane Street runs through Billingshurst, ’the wood of Belin’, that Druidic Belenos referred to in the previous chapter. Straight as a die it runs, just as the Romans built it—or did they merely pave an even older track? There is Faygate, just north of St Leonard’s Forest, another place-name connected with the fairy folk; and so on. It can be a fascinating and thought-provoking occupation, studying maps; especially when one’s study is later supplemented by investigation of the actual countryside.

A man whose discoveries in this connection are now being closely studied and more and more appreciated, is the late Alfred Watkins of Hereford, whose major work The Old Straight Track was first published in 1925 and has since been reprinted several times. It was the intuitive observation of Alfred Watkins which led to the rediscovery in our time of the system of alignments criss-crossing our countryside with an invisible network, to which he gave the name of ’leys’ (pronounced ’lays’, as in the expression ’the lay of the land’).

These alignments are marked by prehistoric standing stones and other megalithic monuments, barrows and other earthworks, beacons, moats, mark-stones, very old cross-roads and old churches which are built upon older pagan sites. Notches on the edge of hills which form the skyline, historic old trees and deliberately planted clumps of trees, or those which seem to be such, especially Scotch firs, come into the picture too.

Alfred Watkins realized that his discovery was a fantastic one in several senses of the word; but that it is not a fantasy can be proved by anyone who cares to study the subject—not, however, by merely drawing lines upon maps, though that can be intriguing enough, but by actual research upon the ground, taking in the message of the land itself. This is the idea behind the Chinese art of feng-shui, roughly translated ’geomancy’, by which for thousands of years the whole landscape of China was regulated as propitious places for building were selected and unpropitious ones avoided. The Chinese had straight tracks, too, which they called ’dragon-paths’; recalling the remarks made previously in Chapter 5 of this book about Chartres Cathedral and the orientation of old churches. The dragon seems to have been a worldwide symbol of invisible energy of a magical kind; magical, that is, to us, though seemingly well understood by those bygone people of east and west whose lore has been all but lost and is today being rediscovered and revalued.

John Michell’s work in this connection has already been alluded to. Another very comprehensive book on the subject of leys is Quicksilver Heritage, by Paul Screeton, editor of the magazine The Ley Hunter. It bears the sub-title ’The Mystic Leys—Their Legacy of Ancient Wisdom’, which indicates its scope, not so much providing all the answers as showing the extent of the questions, as it ranges over such subjects as the appearance of elementals on leys or at their convergence, sightings of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) at similar places, and the associated question of the existence of terrestrial zodiacs such as the Great Zodiac of Glastonbury discovered by Mrs Katharine Maltwood.

Alfred Watkins realized that he was going to have a hard time of it to convince the world of the existence of leys, without bringing anything metaphysical into the discussion. So during the lifetime he refrained from emphasizing such aspects of the matter in print, confining himself to proving his theory by field work. According to his son, Allen Watkins, however, Alfred Watkins fully realized that there was a lot more to the ley system than merely a collection of trackways; though even as trackways the leys meant that prehistoric Britain was not just a pathless wilderness. There was thought and organization behind the making of such a system. The maintenance of it had to be handed down from one generation to another, until it became second nature among country folk, even when its original significance had been forgotten. For instance, the planting of a clump of Scotch firs is obviously not prehistoric; yet such clumps of fir trees are a well-recognized ley mark. In this connection one recalls the importance attached to boundaries and landmarks, which was shown in such old ceremonies as ’beating the bounds’, whereby the younger generation were shown the place of the landmarks and received a symbolic ’beating’ as a practical means of impressing the lesson upon their memories, a custom which in itself might have taken the place of an earlier sacrificial rite.

In No. 18 of The Ley Hunter (April, 1971), Allen Watkins published a short but very thought-provoking article, ’The Straight Path In Wisdom Teaching’, in which he suggested that the traversing of a ley might actually be a way of initiation by means of the traveller’s encounter with the four elements of fire, water, air and earth. One has the plodding on across earth itself, the fording of streams, the clear air on the heights and the beacon hill where the ritual fire was lit. Fire and light have always been connected with inspiration, progress with an upward climb, ’scaling the heights’ and so on. For man, the pilgrim of eternity, the metaphor of a journey has often been used to describe his spiritual evolution: John Bunyan wrote his Pilgrim’s Progress, King Arthur’s knights rode forth in quest of the Grail, and William Blake saw himself in the image which he engraved and entitled ’The Traveller Hasteth in the Evening’.

The idea of enhancing one’s spiritual advancement by performing a pilgrimage to some holy place is found all over the world and in all ages. People still make pilgrimages to such places as Glastonbury and Walsingham, just as in prehistoric times they followed the ridgeways along the heights of Britain which converged upon the great spiritual centres of Stonehenge and Avebury. Ley lines leading to the old sacred places have also been traced, as mentioned previously in Chapter 5. Old roads often followed the course of a ley, which may have a bearing on the old belief that witches met at crossroads, where in Roman times the statue of Hecate or of Diana Trivia (Diana of the Three Ways) used to be erected. Statues of Hermes were also used as landmarks of boundaries, hence the word ’herm’ for a stone pillar. This was originally a simple phallic upright stone; later such stones were sculptured with the head of the god Hermes and a phallus. Hermes or Mercury was the patron of travellers and the messenger of the gods. He was also much involved with the lore of magic, its teaching and preservation.

What, however, is the real nature of the unseen force which flows along the ley paths? If we knew this, we might begin to answer the supplementary question, were the leys mapped out to conduct this power or to show where the power flowed?

That this power is profoundly connected with the life force of the earth seems evident from the system of beliefs which centres around it. Seasonal rituals were celebrated at the old sacred centres, all of which were ley centres. We know that these rituals had as their object the harmonizing of humanity with nature, the uplifting of the mind and spirit and the promotion of fertility in humans, animals and the earth itself. This, at once, gives the so-called ’fertility cult’ which is the origin of witchcraft an entirely new status. The old orgiastic rites were not merely a communal letting off steam, nor even just sympathetic magic which worked by a kind of induction, using the means of fertility in humans to arouse that of the earth. They were undoubtedly these things, but also something more, something perhaps even more fundamental, by which people got into sympathetic communion with the profoundest forces of the cosmos.

As mentioned above, Alfred Watkins deliberately played down any occult significance inherent in the ley lines. Yet it is a remarkable fact that the late Dion Fortune brought this aspect of ley hunting into one of her occult novels, The Goat-Foot God, which was first published in 1936. As this book was out of print for some years, this fact has been little noticed by the present generation of ley hunters. Now, however, in common with most of Dion Fortune’s other books, The Goat-Foot God is back in print. The question, therefore, arises, how did Dion Fortune know about the esoteric significance of the leys? She does not use the term ’leys’ in The Goat-Foot God; but from her description it is evident that this is what she is referring to.

Personally, I feel that, with the exception of The Mystical Qabalah, Dion Fortune’s works of fiction are more important and informative than her non-fictional books. A pagan inspiration seems to be coming through in her work, which becomes more and more marked towards the end of her life and which is very different from the present-day attitude of the fraternity she founded, the Society of the Inner Light.

Briefly, the story of The Goat-Foot God tells of the regeneration of the lives of two people, a man and a woman, by a successful invocation of Pan. At the beginning of the book, they set out to find a place in the country in which to take a house that would be suitable for such an invocation. The woman, an artist called Mona Wilton, has acquired a certain amount of occult knowledge which enables her to advise on where to look. As she tells the man in the book, there are certain places that are more suitable for invoking the Old Gods than others, just as there are some soils that are good for growing rhododendrons and others that will grow roses. They set about finding the right place by studying a map, one which shows not only the towns but also the geological strata of the country. According to Mona Wilton, the best sites are those which are on the chalk.

I have not seen this particular statement made elsewhere. However, it is worth considering. Any place which is on the chalk in the present day must at some previous date, very long ago, have been beneath the sea, that great primordial elemental mother of all life on this planet. The question of the influence of the actual geological make-up of a particular place is an intriguing one which seems to have been very little explored. However, I find it hard to believe that places on the chalk are the only ones which are suitable for a successful invocation of the ancient powers. It seems more likely to me that each particular place would have its own typical influence. For instance, how about the famous second sight of the Scottish Highlands, which I believe contain some of the oldest rock formations in the British Isles? Or of the many strange stories told about the lonely places of Iceland, which also consists of very old rock formations?

I have not the space here to pursue this particular subject, but point it out as a possible line of future enquiry. We may recall in this connection the remarks about geomancy as practised in ancient China, which was concerned with the actual conformation of the land, the message of the landscape. Also, that spirit of a place which the Romans personified and called the genius loci.

Returning to The Goat-Foot God, Mona Wilton advises that the great power-centres are very often occupied with Christian edifices in these times; but that where such edifices are built upon ancient pagan sites, as most of our very old cathedrals and churches are, then the older influence will still be there under the surface. (One remembers the altar to Cernunnos that was found beneath Notre Dame in Paris). However, she says, for practical purposes of seclusion and privacy, the lines between the power centres, especially when such lines cross chalk soil, are the best.

Dion Fortune, through the mouth of her fictional characters, then proceeds to outline the ley system and to do what other writers upon the subject up to then had, so far as I know, definitely not done; namely, to discuss the strange esoteric power which flows along these lines and which, she says, can be utilized for occult purposes. This, remember, was written back in 1936. Had Dion Fortune somehow drawn information from a body of knowledge that has been secretly handed down in esoteric circles for a very long time?

I myself have encountered a witch coven that possessed some scraps of knowledge that certainly tied in with geomancy and the ley system. They did not, however, refer to leys as such; they called them ’bearings’ and regarded certain places as being of more significance than others in an occult sense. I was told that gypsies shared this knowledge and used certain woods and heaths as traditional encampments for this reason.

I wonder if this is the reason behind those strange stories we see in the national press from time to time, of peculiar hauntings in recently built or even perfectly new houses, often upon council estates? Where there seems little, if any, cause for a haunting arising from the previous history of a house, can the ground it is built on have something to do with it, in the sense of somehow attracting psychic activity? This is another question for future researchers.

Reverting to the question of ancient sites and power centres, the great Stonehenge-Avebury complex has already been alluded to, with Avebury as probably the older site of the two. Glastonbury is the great spiritual centre of the West Country, the Avalon of ancient legend. It is a remarkable fact that in our day Glastonbury has come into its own again as a centre of pilgrimage, not only for Christians but for all those who seek spiritual insight. Indeed, I am told that the native inhabitants of Glastonbury have become rather impatient with the influx of hippies. But it is not only wandering eccentrics who seek the spiritual atmosphere of the great Tor. Not exactly secretly, but quietly, Glastonbury has been the centre for followers of the native mystic traditions of Britain for many years. At one time Dion Fortune lived there, and has told its story in her book Avalon of the Heart.

There are plenty of excellent guide books to the antiquities of Britain today, which detail our stone circles and other megalithic monuments. Taken in conjunction with the books on ley-hunting already mentioned, no one need be short of data to work on. Not so well known, however, are the locations of the ancient Druidic colleges of Britain, according to an old book entitled The History of Britain from the Flood to A.D. 700, Compiled from the Various Ancient Records, by Richard Williams Morgan. My copy of this book was published in 1933 but the author’s Introduction is dated 1857.

According to Morgan, the seats of the three Arch-Druids of Britain were Caer Troia, also called Caer Lud (London), Caer Evroc (York) and Caer Lleon (Caerleon). Under the rule of these were the seats of the Chief Druids, which were as follows: Caer Caint (Canterbury); Caer Wyn (Winchester); Caer Municip (St Albans); Caer Sallwg (Old Sarum); Caer Leil (Carlisle); Caer Grawnt (Cambridge); Caer Meini (Manchester); Caer Gwrthegion (Palmcaster); Caer Coel (Colchester); Caer Gorangon (Worcester); Caerleon ar Dwy (Chester); Caer Peris (Porchester); Caer Don (Doncaster); Caer Guoric (Warwick); Caer Meivod (Meivod); Caer Odor (Bristol); Caer Llear (Leicester); Caer Urnach (Wroxeter); Caer Lleyn (Lincoln); Caer Glou (Gloucester); Caer Cei (Chichester); Caer Ceri (Cirencester); Caer Dwr (Dorchester); Caer Merddin (Carmarthen); Caer Seiont (Carnarvon); Caer Wysc (Exeter); Caer Segont (Silchester); Caer Baddon (Bath).

It seems a reasonable supposition that these Druidic seats were not chosen arbitrarily. In our own day, some of them such as Palmcaster and Meivod have sunk into obscurity; but many of the others became the sites of our oldest cathedrals, which recalls the information given in The Goat-Foot God. How far back their importance and sanctity actually go is lost in the mists of prehistory. Here is further material for those who wish to redraw the lines of power.

A very curious and little-known place in Britain which I feel should receive mention here is Brimham Rocks, near Harrogate in Yorkshire. Thanks to the writings of authors like Louis Pauwels, Jacques Bergier and George Hunt Williamson, many people today have heard with wonder of the strange rocks of the high Andes, which so resemble various giant figures of gods and animals that they are believed to be the weathered remains of sculptures executed by some long vanished race. Indeed, more British people have heard of the giant sculptures of Marcahuasi than have heard of Brimham Rocks; yet the latter in some cases seem just as convincing as having been at least partially shaped by unknown hands long ages ago.

There are lingering traditions linking Brimham Rocks with the Druids. It has been claimed that on one gigantic rock known as ’The Druid’s Idol’ the marks of tooling can definitely be seen, especially on the base of the pedestal which supports a great mass of rock on a small pivot. However, less imaginative writers explain all the strange shapes of the rocks by weathering and other natural causes, as they do in the case of the similar sculptures of Marcahuasi.

Certain it is that Brimham Rocks are situated on a plateau which affords a wide view over the surrounding countryside, allowing many landmarks to be seen; a natural ley centre. Perhaps this brief notice of this neglected wonder of Britain may inspire further and more imaginative research than it has received in the past.

It has been for too many years a curious characteristic of the British race that they have admired the mystic traditions of other lands while ignoring and neglecting their own. Today, I am glad to see this viewpoint being reversed and the Mystery Tradition of Britain being appreciated once more. I feel that this is yet another sign of the times, the approaching Aquarian Age.

Slowly, but surely, humanity is rediscovering the Old Gods. People are being compelled to appreciate the value of their relationship with nature. We are learning that we cannot continue to pollute and violate the surface of our earth and to destroy animals and vegetation, without paying the penalty for our callousness. But more than this, the Old Gods themselves are returning actively to human consciousness.

Carl Gustav Jung opened the door to the exploration of the collective unconscious of humanity. His archetypes have been demonstrated to make their appearance in the various religious systems and myths of all ages and countries. Sometimes such archetypal figures are benign, sometimes malignant. They may display either a positive or a negative aspect, which can be an active thing and not by any means merely legendary. Research into Jung’s ideas in the realm of psychology is still continuing. But even more striking is the way in which physical science has now caught up with psychology in this respect and even overtaken it, in the presentation of the Gaia Hypothesis.

The propounders of this revolutionary theory of our relationship with the planet Earth are Dr James Lovelock, FRS, and Dr Sidney Epton, who presented their views in the issue of The New Scientist, dated 6 February 1975. Briefly, they suggest that the earth is a self-controlling organism, a vast living creature, which is somehow able to regulate the conditions of its own biosphere, so as to enable life to exist and evolve within it. For this fundamental and obviously superhuman power, the novelist William Golding suggested to them the name Gaia, which is the name of the earth goddess of ancient Greece.

Instead of the materialistic scientific view that life arose on earth fortuitously, simply because the conditions happened to be right, the Gaia Hypothesis postulates that life itself defined the material conditions necessary for its survival, brought them about and ensured their continuation, and that this moreover is a continuous living and evolving process which is still going on.

Dr Lovelock and Dr Epton list some of the reasons for their advancement of this theory. For instance, how has the critical temperature of the earth’s surface been maintained for millions of years, not becoming either too hot or too cold to support its evolving life? How has the composition of the earth’s atmosphere been maintained in a steady state, far from chemical equilibrium? What purposes are served by the presence in the atmosphere of certain trace gases and how did they get there? What really causes climatic changes? These and other questions are discussed by the propounders of the Gaia Hypothesis in scientific terms; but it is their conclusions which vitally interest us here.

We need, they say, to make peace with Gaia, the great Mother Earth, on her terms. We need to stop thinking of our relationship with nature as a battle and begin to think of it as a need for peaceful co-existence, finding ways of entering into harmony with the life-force of our planet. Our survival may, indeed probably does, depend on it.

This planet is our home. Our life and hers are interdependent. It is suggested that the human race on Gaia may be in a sense the equivalent of the central nervous system in the human body. In other words, we need Gaia and Gaia needs us. Otherwise, why would we have been evolved?

When I read this article, I was reminded immediately of the old idea mentioned by Gerald Gardner in Chapter 10 of Witchcraft Today, namely that witches in ancient times believed in gods who were not all-powerful. The gods wished well to humanity, they desired the fertility of humans and animals and the realm of all nature; but in order to attain this they needed man’s help. The dances, festivals and rituals of the Old Religion were intended to further this aim, the harmonizing of humanity with the life-force of the universe. This is the same aim as that of what the occult philosophers called the Great Work, the union of the Microcosm, the human being, with the Macrocosm, the universe. Such union would surely have to start with entering into sympathetic relationship with our own world, Mother Earth whose children we all are.

When witches today go outdoors to perform their rituals, however simple the rite may be, whether they go as a coven or as individuals, these are things to be mindful of: the communion of the living earth, the inner causes of things, the perception of the realm of form as a veil before the realm of forces. They should bring us to a respect for nature, not in a sentimental way but with a deep feeling of kinship which will manifest itself in attitude and actions.