AskDefine | Define ley

Dictionary Definition

ley n : a field covered with grass or herbage and suitable for grazing by livestock [syn: pasture, pastureland, grazing land, lea]

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  1. alternative spelling of lea





  1. law

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Extensive Definition

Ley lines are hypothetical alignments of a number of places of geographical interest, such as ancient monuments and megaliths. Their existence was suggested in 1921 by the amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins, whose book The Old Straight Track brought the alignments to the attention of the wider public.
The existence of alignments between sites is easily demonstrated. However, the causes of these alignments are disputed. There are several major areas of interpretation:
  • Archaeological: A new area of archaeological study, archaeogeodesy, examines geodesy as practiced in prehistoric time, and as evidenced by archaeological remains. One major aspect of modern geodesy is surveying. As interpreted by geodesy, the so-called ley lines can be the product of ancient surveying, property markings, or commonly travelled pathways. Numerous societies, ancient and modern, employ straight lines between points of use; archaeologists have documented these traditions. Modern surveying also results in placement of constructs in lines on the landscape. It is reasonable to expect human constructs and activity areas to reflect human use of lines.
  • Cultural: Many cultures use straight lines across the landscape. In South America, such lines often are directed towards mountain peaks; the Nazca lines are a famous example of lengthy lines made by ancient cultures. Straight lines connect ancient pyramids in Mexico; today, modern roads built on the ancient roads deviate around the huge pyramids. The Chaco culture of Northwestern New Mexico cut stairs into sandstone cliffs to facilitate keeping roads straight.
  • New Age: The ley lines and their intersection points are believed by some people to resonate a special psychic or mystical energy, often including elements such as geomancy, dowsing or UFOs, stating that, for instance, UFO's travel along ley lines (in the way that one might observe that cars use roads and highways). This belief postulates that points on lines have electrical or magnetic forces associated with them.
  • Skeptical: Skeptics of the existence of ley lines often classify them as pseudoscience. Such skeptics tend to doubt that ley lines were planned or made by ancient cultures, and argue that apparent ley lines can be readily explained without resorting to extraordinary or pseudoscientific ideas.

Alfred Watkins and The Old Straight Track

The concept of ley lines was first proposed by Alfred Watkins. On June 30, 1921, Watkins visited Blackwardine in Herefordshire, and went riding near some hills in the vicinity of Bredwardine when he noted many of the footpaths therein seemed to connect one hilltop to another in a straight line. He was studying a map when he noticed places in alignment. "The whole thing came to me in a flash," he would later explain to his son. Some people have portrayed this "flash" as being a mystical experience.
However, some time before Watkins, William Henry Black gave a talk titled Boundaries and Landmarks to the British Archaeological Association in Hereford in September 1870. Here he speculated that "Monuments exist marking grand geometrical lines which cover the whole of Western Europe." It is possible that Watkins' experience stemmed from some half-recollected memories of an account of that presentation.
Watkins believed that in ancient times, when Britain had been far more densely forested, the country had been crisscrossed by a network of straight-line travel routes, with prominent features of the landscape being used as navigation points. This observation was made public at a meeting of the Woolhope Club of Hereford in September 1921. His work referred back to G. H. Piper's paper presented to the Woolhope Club in 1882 which noted that
"A line drawn from the Skirrid-fawr mountain northwards to Arthur's Stone would pass over the camp and southern most point of Hatterill Hill, Oldcastle, Longtown Castle, and Urishay and Snodhill castles." The ancient surveyors who supposedly made the lines were given the name "dodmen."
Watkins published his ideas in the books Early British Trackways and The Old Straight Track. Nevertheless, they were generally received with skepticism in the archaeological community. The archaeologist O. G. S. Crawford refused to accept advertisements for the latter book in the journal Antiquity, and most archaeologists since then have continued to be unaccepting of Watkins' ideas.
In 2004, John Bruno Hare wrote, "Watkins never attributed any supernatural significance to leys; he believed that they were simply pathways that had been used for trade or ceremonial purposes, very ancient in origin, possibly dating back to the Neolithic, certainly pre-Roman. His obsession with leys was a natural outgrowth of his interest in landscape photography and love of the British countryside. He was an intensely rational person with an active intellect, and I think he would be a bit disappointed with some of the fringe aspects of ley lines today."
Despite the largely negative reception to his ideas, some experts have made observations similar to Watkins': Megalithic researcher Alexander Thom offered a detailed analysis of megalithic alignments, proposing a standardization of measure by those who built megaliths. However, Thom avoided using the term "ley line" in his discussion of megaliths. The discovery by Europeans of the Nazca lines, man-made lines on desert pavement in southern Peru, prompted study of their astronomical alignments.

The New Age approach: magical and holy lines

Watkins' theories have been adapted by later writers. Some of his ideas were taken up by the occultist Dion Fortune who featured them in her 1936 novel The Goat-footed God. Since then, ley lines have become the subject of a few magical and mystical theories.
Two British dowsers, Captain Robert Boothby and Reginald Smith of the British Museum, have linked the appearance of ley lines with underground streams and magnetic currents. Guy Underwood conducted various investigations and claimed that crossings of 'negative' water lines and positive aquastats explain why certain sites were chosen as holy. He found so many of these 'double lines' on sacred sites that he named them 'holy lines.'
Two German Nazi researchers Wilhelm Teudt and Josef Heinsch have also claimed that ancient Teutonic peoples contributed to the construction of a network of astronomical lines, called “Holy lines” (Heilige Linien), which could be mapped onto the geographical layout of ancient or sacred sites. Teudt located the Teutoburger Wald district in Lower Saxony, centered around the dramatic rock formation called Die Externsteine as the centre of Germany. Nazism often employed ideation of superiority and associated Aryan descent with ancient higher cultures, often without regard for archaeological or historic fact. See Nazi mysticism.
By the 1960s, the ideas of a landscape crossed with straight lines had become conflated with ideas from various geomantic traditions; mapping ley lines, according to New Age geomancers, can foster "harmony with the Earth" or reveal pre-historic trade routes. John Michell's writing can be seen as an example of this. He has referred to the whole face of China being heavily landscaped in accordance with the laws of Feng Shui. Michell has claimed that Neolithic peoples recognised that the harmony of society depended on the harmony of the earth force. And so in China, ancient Greece, Ireland and Scotland men built their temples where the forces of the earth were most powerful. Rosslyn chapel is located on the Roseline which the Knights Templar had alleged mystical knowledge of its significance.

A skeptical approach: chance alignments

Some skeptics have suggested that ley lines do not exist, and are a product of human fancy. Watkins' discovery happened at a time when Ordnance Survey maps were being marketed for the leisure market, making them reasonably easy and cheap to obtain; this may have been a contributing factor to the popularity of ley line theories.
One suggestion is that, given the high density of historic and prehistoric sites in Britain and other parts of Europe, finding straight lines that "connect" sites (usually selected to make them "fit") is trivial, and may be easily ascribed to coincidence. The diagram to the right shows an example of lines that pass very near to a set of random points: for all practical purposes, they can be regarded as nearly "exact" alignments. Naturally, it is debated whether all ley lines can be accounted for in this way, or whether there are more such lines than would be expected by chance. (For a mathematical treatment of this topic, see alignments of random points.)
Regarding the trade-route theories, skeptics point out that straight lines do not make ideal roads in all circumstances, particularly where they ignore topography and require users to march up and down hills or mountains, or to cross rivers at points where there is no portage or bridge.

Are alignments and ley lines the same thing?

The existence of the observed alignments is not controversial. Both believers in magical and ancient theories of ley lines and skeptics of these theories agree that these alignments exist between megaliths and ancient sites.
Most skeptics believe that their null hypothesis of ley-line-like alignments as due to random chance is consistent with the evidence. They believe that this consistency removes the need to explain the alignments in any other way. Some Chaos Magicians have views consistent with that approach, claiming it to be in accord with their generative view of chance. Still, others believe that further theories are needed to explain the observed evidence. See hypothesis testing, falsifiability and Occam's razor for more on these topics.
In discussing the arguments for and against the chance presence of ley alignments it is useful to define the term "alignment" precisely enough to reason about it. One precise definition that expresses the generally accepted meaning of Watkins' ley lines defines an alignment as:
a set of points, chosen from a given set of landmark points, all of which lie within at least an arc of 1/4 degree.
Watkins remarked that if this is accepted as the degree of error, then:
"if only three accidentally placed points are on the sheet, the chance of a three point alignment is 1 in 720."
"But this chance by accidental coincidence increases so rapidly in geometric progression with each point added that if ten mark-points are distributed haphazard on a sheet of paper, there is an average probability that there will be one three-point alignment, while if only two more points are added to make twelve points, there is a probability of two three-point alignments."
"It is clear that a three-point alignment must not be accepted as proof of a ley by itself, as a fair number of other eligible points are usually present."
"A ley should not be taken as proved with less than four good mark-points. Three good points with several others of less value like cross roads and coinciding tracks may be sufficient."
The Leyhunter's Manual (page 88), 1927
One should also bear in mind that lines and points on a map cover wide areas on the ground. With 1:63360 (1-inch-to-the-mile) maps a 1/100-inch (1/4 mm) wide line represents a path over 50 feet (15 m) across. And in travelling across a sheet, an angle of 1/4 degree encompasses something like an additional 600 feet (200 m).


The demonstration of the plausibility of the current evidence under the null hypothesis is not a formal disproof of ley line claims. However, it does make skeptics likely to consider ley line theories as unsupported by the current evidence.
Most skeptics would be willing to reconsider the hypothesis of ley lines if there were non-anecdotal evidence of physical, geomagnetic or archeological features that actually lie along the lines. Skeptics believe that no such convincing evidence has been presented.
There is a broad range of beliefs about and theories of ley lines, many of which are not falsifiable, and which are thus not generally amenable to the scientific method. Some people find ley lines compatible with a scientific approach, but much of the literature is written by people who are indifferent to or actively oppose such an approach.

Scientific investigation

According to claims by investigators of ley line theories, some points along the lines possess higher magnetic energy than the average geomagnetic intensity. These claims have been published in "Places of Power" (Paul Devereux; Blandford Press, 1990) and "Lodestone Compass: Chinese or Olmec Primacy?" (John B. Carlson; Science, 1975).

Ley lines in fiction


Further reading

  • Alfred Watkins, Early British Trackways (1922)
  • Alfred Watkins, The Old Straight Track: Its Mounds, Beacons, Moats, Sites and Mark Stones (1925); reprinted as ISBN 0-349-13707-2
  • Alfred Watkins, The Ley Hunter's Manual (1927)
  • Tony Wedd, Skyways and Landmarks (1961)
  • Williamson, T. and Bellamy, L., Ley Lines in Question. (1983)
  • Tom Graves, Needles of Stone (1978) -- mixes ley lines and acupuncture; online edition at
  • Paul Broadhurst & Hamish Miller The Sun And The Serpent (1989, 1990 (paperback), 1991, 1994, 2003 (paperback))
  • Bruce L. Cathie, "The Energy Grid"
  • Lucy R Lippard: Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory. New York 1983 ISBN 0-394-54812-8
  • John Michell, A Little History of Astro-archeology, rev. ed. 1989, Thames & Hudson, New York.
  • Alignments connecting London's sacred sites in a significant pattern of sacred geometry are to be found in the books of chris street - Earthstars (1990) and Earthstars The Visionary Landscape (2000)

External links

Data sources:
ley in Afrikaans: Geopatiese stres
ley in Czech: Geopatogenní zóna
ley in German: Ley-Linie
ley in Spanish: Líneas LEY
ley in Dutch: Leylijn
ley in Japanese: レイライン
ley in Finnish: Ley-linja
ley in Swedish: Ley-lina
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