Earth Mysteries is Dead – Long Live Earth Mysteries!

In this article, NE editor John Billingsley raised the question of whether the earth mysteries tag, to the wider public, actually discredits alternative research in our fields of interest, and asks if it’s time for a fond farewell.


Earth mysteries began in the 1960-70s in a flurry of question-making that affected all of UK culture, as well as other societies: Something assumed? Challenge it. Does that stone look undisturbed? Then turn it over. The founders of what we now call earth mysteries were assiduous in rising to these challenges.

The old stones that we turned over in those early days soon revealed our global ancestors to be much more able than conventionally assumed, to have long-tern mystical, sacred or ritual objectives that were allied to their concept of science, and to be generally far more interesting than most people previously thought. From a host of some extraordinary but somehow isolated prehistoric sites (and many more mundane ones), we went to a web of interconnected sites – i.e. rather than places that we might visit as a tourist or sightseer, we acquired prehistoric landscapes that we might wander in, to the benefit of our understanding or our soul.

In this, earth mysteries followed two British traditions – for it has always had a very ‘British’ character and has made little headway elsewhere in the form it took here. One was a tradition of thinking independently, even ‘out of the box’, ruffling orthodox assumptions with wild ideas that might just – and sometimes did – turn out to have substance.  This tradition took root in antiquarianism from the 18th century (see NE97), and the scholarly endeavour and historical fascination of the antiquarians was also influenced by the other tradition that surfaced strongly in earth mysteries – Romanticism. The two inclinations informed each other like the happily married couple that, by the 19th century, they seemed to have become. Romanticism offered something to think about, a glass through which to view the relics of ancient societies and lore that surrounded them, and were all too visibly disappearing. Working on a fledgling academe, the antiquarians had a real impact as either opinion leaders or ginger groups, shaking up the orthodox complacency that originated all culture with the Greeks, and their influence persisted for decades. The heyday was the 19th century; but sadly the eclipse was the 1930-50s, as similar Romantic and revisionist hypotheses in Germany fed into the self-seeking mythology of the Third Reich. Traumatised by the Nazis, western and British society sank into a drab orthodoxy of secular materialism until the 1960s, when old ideas were brushed off to be prepared for re-evaluation in a more tolerant and libertarian cultural climate. It made for an exciting environment – ‘could it be that…’ was the dynamic behind the reassessment of social and sexual mores, of ideologies, of consciousness, of cultural expression, and – where we come in – of the past. Earth mysteries was born of this dynamic.

However, this is not the place for a history of earth mysteries – others have offered such histories. This is more a place to enquire of its future. The question has long been asked ‘but what exactly is earth mysteries?’, and long-winded definitions or encapsulations trotted out to try and answer the question. Sometimes, realising that the name offers little in the way of explanation, people within earth mysteries – NE included –  have tried, unsuccessfully, to find a better term, one that simultaneously describes our area of attention and doesn’t sound so, well, wet and uninspiring. Maybe we were barking up the wrong tree in seeing ourselves as some kind of field.

For looking back now, and looking at the topics that appear in ostensibly earth mysteries journals, we can see that earth mysteries is not a subject or field in itself. It has always dipped and delved into other fields, particularly archaeology, folklore, paranormal and Fortean studies, psychology, art and literature and a host of other topic areas, looking for patterns between them. It exists in the cracks of other people’s work – a parasite that can lead to illumination, inspiration or just a damned itch. In other words, it has always been, as it was in origin, a dynamic, not a substance – and earth mysteries as a field never really existed. Most of the classic ‘earth mysteries’ works were in fact classics of co-option – like the books of Gerald Hawkins and Alexander Thom, researchers who were doubtless surprised to find themselves heroes of a movement whose roots were clearly within the alternative milieu. This does not condemn earth mysteries, but rather reaffirms its status as a dynamic. Other agencies, usually academic, are better equipped to research and validate (or otherwise) new ideas – even global richkids like latter-day earth mysterian Graham Hancock must recognise that. Therefore, we have to listen to the world outside our camp-fires, and invite other voices, even dissenting ones, into the circle.

If, then, the substance of earth mysteries is actually a dynamic, then the question remains – what is it for? Or, Grail-like, whom does it serve? Essentially, the implication is that complacency is its fall – earth mysteries and ‘earth mysterians’ (another reason why earth mysteries is such a damnable label) need to keep asking questions about what they know, or what they think they know, and never take an idea or ‘fact’ for granted. It must keep on co-opting, as before, other work which conforms to the dynamic of inquiry that informed earth mysteries’ origins. It must be restless – the Dragon Project, set up by The Ley Hunter in the 1980s, was well named to capture the spirit of earth mysteries enquiry. If in any way it rests on its laurels, if it does not acknowledge the work that is done, from whatever source, on the kinds of questions it has raised – and a lot of work has been done since the 1970s – then its role is nullified. The dynamic, of earth mysteries or any other endeavour, must be towards greater understanding, the acquisition of new knowledge and renunciation of outdated ideas.

Does this still describe earth mysteries today? It does, but is this characteristic understood by those outside the earth mysteries core? Probably not. Academics still use the term (for their own comfort, one suspects) as a term of abuse or exclusion, as do alternative-baiting journalists, and many people (probably, again, for their own comfort) seem to place it in the same basket as New Age ideas. As far as the latter goes, though there can be no doubt that we share origins in the counter-cultural foment of the 1960-70s, there can similarly be no doubt that we have diverged considerably since then, just as there can be no doubt that our knowledge of the topic area has moved on. Yet many popular books about earth mysteries topics trot out the same ideas as were current in the 1970s, as if they were facts rather than hypotheses, as if no further work has been or needs to be done to them – wrong on all counts. Frequently, such books come from a New Age or neo-pagan perspective, and thus as such have a belief system to advocate – never the best starting point to view the world as it is, rather than as one would wish it to be.

So if earth mysteries is dynamic and not substance, as I maintain, and it is so misconstrued, how might we see the future of earth mysteries? There are two main alternatives, I believe, and they can co-exist.

One is to recognise that contemporary earth mysteries embodies the ideas that were popular in its heyday of the 1970s. This leaves us with ideas such as leys as energy lines, the Green Man as a pagan Celtic deity, widespread pagan survivalism in mediaeval England, an ancient primordial religion of the Great Goddess, early and tribal peoples in harmony with their environment, UFOs attracted to leys and ‘energy centres’, and so on. Even as I write them, I am struck by how attractive these ideas are – but whether we like it or not they have all been pretty much undermined by later research, and need treating with caution. That is no reason, of course, why we should not choose to incorporate them into our world-view, and treat them as proven to our satisfaction, facts for our own purposes – after all, an it harm none, do as thou wilt. But this is the way of a belief system, a way of fitting the world into one’s personal universe, rather than fitting oneself into the ways of the world; and it is an alternative that allows outsiders to ally earth mysteries with the contemporary mysticism and subjectivity of the New Age or the earthier (and admittedly better suited) neo-paganism.

The other alternative is to stay true to our antiquarian roots. Traditional antiquarianism is not so far in spirit from earth mysteries – it straddles the boundaries of other disciplines, eclectically following leads, cross-referencing and cross-fertilising, ever curious and ever-so-slightly batty. It is informed and more welcoming than academe – it was traditional antiquarianism that provided the framework in which Alfred Watkins arrived at the concept of leys, and it was antiquarians who gave him a tolerant ear and the space to pursue the hypothesis. It was antiquarians who laid the groundwork for archaeology and folklore, and it remains antiquarians who are best placed to collect and piece together the antiquities of their area. The nature of earth mysteries has more in common with antiquarians than with mystics and magicians; but ironically its subject area is closer to the latter. So some amongst us have for some time been describing our sphere of interest as neo-antiquarianism – a forum for informed research and inquiry into antiquities, lore and traditional culture, with particular reference to issues of the sacred, the supernatural and the folkloric, encounters with ‘the other’; but at the same time ‘neo-‘, recognising that the present is on a continuum with the past, that reality and consciousness do not change, just the stories we tell about them and the way we approach them. Neo-antiquarianism crosses boundaries, straddles time, looks into another world – a liminal approach to a liminal subject area, history on the fringe.

It is quite apparent that the latter alternative embodies the dynamic better than the former, yet I believe it is the former scenario that springs most readily to most people’s minds when they hear the term ‘earth mysteries’. This is surely a disservice to the contemporary researchers whose work, in books and journals, is constantly asking questions of the past and the way we perceive it. The strongest trait of earth mysteries has been that it allies right-brain insight and experience with left-brain objectivity and reason. This approach is not something that should languish under a New Age umbrella any more than under an academic umbrella, because it has something of both. Equally, we don’t fit in academe – we don’t fit in the New Age. We belong on the fringe, among the ginger groups of informed amateurs and outsiders that have always been instrumental in moving ideas forward.

It is time to move our ideas forward. We know, in a vague and amorphous way, what we mean by earth mysteries, but not many other people do. To do so, they would have had to have been with us since the 1970s; like me, they probably have grey hair and no longer run up hills in a straight line. This is not a recipe for future development.

So perhaps we should leave our millstone by the wayside and allow ways to part. Those who persist in holding on to 1970s hypotheses in the 2000s are welcome to them, and maybe we should leave them the term ‘earth mysteries’ too. Let earth mysteries be capitalised – Earth Mysteries – and express the underlying conviction that most of us have held since we were first attracted to its approach – beliefs in the immanence of the sacred in our world, past and present, expressed through megalithic engineering, lore and legend, mythology and traditional religious perceptions. Earth as in inclination, and Mysteries as in Eleusis. It is a beguiling idea – but it is not a dynamic, it is a set of beliefs, and it is the dynamic that has brought us so far.

   Northern Earth, over the last 25 years, has, like other similar journals, always sought to pursue the original dynamic, to draw attention to new information relating to our areas of interest, to encourage people to resist cosy complacency in what they believe about the past, to celebrate changing paradigms and to allow understanding to move on. Insights are not facts, but metaphors, or bootstraps to a further step of understanding. We encourage people to go out into landscapes and architectures and ask their own questions, not to lean complacently on others’ interpretations or indulge in wishful thinking. We believe this approach is non-denominational, welcomed as much by neo-pagans, Christians, Buddhists, Shintoists and others whose preferred belief system does not preclude objective enquiry into the past; but it does not sit comfortably on the shelves marked ‘Mind, Body & Spirit’ or ‘Occult’.

But where then should it go? Should it locate itself where the roots of its founding figures lie, in the free-thinking and open-minded and often contentious tradition of antiquarianism? But does that incorporate the strands of modern art, perception and consciousness, the cognitive approaches that are today so much a part of the enquiry into how humans relate to landscape and the sacred/ritual impulse? Does it include the contribution of geography and its investigation into the nature of place? Or psychogeography? Does it encompass the other still-vibrant theme of what we now call ‘Forteana’, the anomalous world? Our objective may be rooted in the past, but it does not confine itself to the past – it is a quest in which past, present and future shed light on each other, in which empirical and objective inquiry (as far as those things are possible) crazy-pave, bit by odd-shaped bit, the paths towards insight.

I have no answer for this question of where to lump our especial and holistic dynamic. I have no answer to what we might call this dynamic – if indeed we call it anything at all – should we choose to leave ‘Earth Mysteries’ to those who still accept the founding hypotheses of the 1970s. As long as the spirit of inquiry remains alive, the dynamic that once was earth mysteries remains with us. But given the misperception of ‘earth mysteries’, and the consequent drop-off in interest among serious researchers of related fields, the chances are that our particular approach will die if we persist with the cranky old handle.

Perhaps it’s time to put earth mysteries out to the grass of those lush green fields of 1970s ideals. Maybe this 1970s (albeit updated) editor, too, to make way for a younger generation…


Published NE98 (Summer 2004), pp.22-26