Walking myth into place: The damned landscape zodiac

The terrestrial or landscape zodiac is one of the more outré concepts to emerge from the 20th century discussions of ‘earth mysteries’, and unsurprisingly has not fared well in the more materialistic  intellectual climate of the 21st century. However, NE editor John Billingsley thinks the concept should not be dismissed outright, as it provides food for further intellectual consideration on several fronts and for proactive interaction as a psychogeographical entity.

This paper was first published on this website on December 3, 2023, as a spin-off from the Alt-Antiquarian on NE174 (Dec. 2023). © John Billingsley/Northern Earth, to whom credit must be assigned if using any part of it. Considered comments are invited.

 

 

“This is what we walk: the shape of the gods. We burn, by use, their outline upon the turf … The track is the heated spoor of our own ancestral animal-host: hare, raven, salmon, wolf, or boar, whatever lives in the recesses of memory-bones … Energies put on the most convenient disguises..”.

Iain Sinclair, Suicide Bridge, in Lud’s Heat & Suicide Bridge, Granta 1998, p152.

 

Abreality

The terrestrial or landscape zodiac is one of earth mysteries’ most contentious areas of attention, and with good reason − how much credibility can be attached to a claim that large chunks of British countryside (some zodiacs are also claimed in France, though tellingly in the more New Age hotspots like Rennes-le-Chateau) depict in due order figurative representations of the signs of the zodiac? This credibility strain has not been helped by the obvious wishful thinking behind some of the figure identifications − I mean, fish can look like blobs in real life anyway, but it’s another matter trying to persuade people that two blobs outlined by footpaths on the map represent Pisces.

Even accepting that such zodiacs might exist, the suggestions of how they got there also strain credibility. It’s just as challenging to credibility to suggest that a set of figures can be apparent in the landscape with no evidence of planning or documentary awareness of their existence; or to allege that they are evidence of divine management of the landscape. It is much easier − as it is with crop circles − to dismiss them all as hoaxes, Rorschach games, wishful thinking or plain errors of judgment, and think no more about them. And for all I know, that’s what they may be. But something in me suspects otherwise, or at least that they ask something more of us than a simple binary dismissal. I am reminded of the theoretical physicist Richard Feynman’s words, “I cannot define the real problem, therefore I suspect there’s no real problem, but I’m not sure there is no real problem”, which seem apposite to terrestrial zodiacs.[i]

The heyday of the terrestrial zodiac, as with so much of earth mysteries, was in the 1970s, and by 1995 over 60 examples had been claimed for Britain.[ii] Some of them were well researched and looked impressive, like the most famous of them all, the Glastonbury Zodiac. Some of them left clarity of form much to be desired, like Lewis Spence’s Pumpsaint Zodiac, which, in acknowledging the near-impossibility of recognising several of the figures he alleged, he claimed was a zodiac in formation. One − Kathleen Preston’s ‘Lamanche’ (Lancashire and Manchester) zodiac − was linear, which was about as much to do with a zodiac wheel as a wavy line is to do with a ley line. Some, like Jim Kimmis’ Ongar Zodiac, were later admitted as hoaxes − although Ongar is a case where Kimmis’ self-declaration as a hoax, despite the usual kind of ‘evidence’, could be seen as a failure of nerve, the emergence of rationality in a mind maturing to cynicism. Most have faded into obscurity, with their advocates no longer pursuing them or even replying to enquiries about them. Earth mysteries’ response to them has been similarly lukewarm − all the rage in the 1970s, terrestrial zodiacs have shifted out of the mainstream e.m. literature (where demonstrability has since attained a higher profile) towards a much less rigorous New Age milieu; by the mid-1990s they were described in Philip Heselton’s Earth Mysteries as “a modern phenomenon… a product of our imagination”.[iii]

That sounds damning, but it isn’t, necessarily. There are different kinds of imagination, which we can most usefully classify into two categories: imagination and Imagination, say. By the former, I mean something like those times in my youthful years when I thought someone fancied me, only to find it was all…in my imagination. This meaning is of course closer to fantasy, and is the sense in which imagination is generally used in today’s materialistic culture. By the latter, Imagination (capitalised in the 18th century style as a Meaningful Thing), we find ourselves in a world more akin to vision − the inspired Image such as we find in William Blake, that which is not the product of the individual mind, but the result of the mind’s interaction with other fields of existence and consciousness. So before we start, let us make this clear − when we discuss landscape zodiacs, we are attempting to work in the realm of Imagination, and not in a fantasia. And as Blake himself reminds us, “What is now proved was once only imagined”.[iv]

Yet we must still admit that the landscape zodiac is a hard pill to swallow in our modern culture (and might well have been even harder in any historical period or culture). If we think deities and dreams are questionable − and I do, except as artefacts of consciousness − then we must advance ways in which these zodiacs might be argued to have a life other than a bauble of fancy. Perhaps we can search for them through the application of farther shores of science, or as accidental phenomenological by-products of human activity upon an area of terrain, or as works of art, Imagination projected on to Place, rather than material reality, or − straying perilously close to a kind of ineffability − as manifestations of Patrick Harpur’s ‘daimonic reality’ (see below). To be honest, I don’t know what box they can be dropped in, or what level of materiality to ascribe to them − I just know that they raise questions which are worth thinking about, while dismissal misses the point entirely and is an inadequate intellectual response. They (or some of them) seem to me to have acquired some kind of material existence, yet one that is simultaneously spectral − to have their essential being as a work of Mind and Imagination. How can these be reconciled, if at all?

To reprise the basic premise; a landscape zodiac is an entity which is usually ‘discovered’ on a map, and consists of shapes made by features on that map which equate to the signs of the zodiac in their correct order. As such it is a material 2-D representation, and at this stage is at best a kind of artwork conjured up by the visual format of the map, which is itself according to a survey drawn up at a particular time and reproduced to production and representation preferences of that time.

Here is where the possibility of a Rorschach effect needs to be considered. Certainly the imagination can see unexpected patterns − that’s what it’s for, and someone once suggested to me you could draw an image of Frank Sinatra in the distribution of reed pillar boxes if so inclined.[v] That is probably true to an extent, but complications arise if things get more complicated or ordered − if not only Aretha Franklin, but the whole Stax stable, for instance, appear in the distribution of pillar boxes, moreover in the order of their sales rankings. One might well find a stray zodiac sign, in other words, but with each subsequent sign that appears in its appropriate place, the Rorschach claim loses validity. The curious frequency with which placenames or activities seem to coincidentally affirm the sign they are in chips away even further at such dismissals, and contributes to the apprehension that something’s happening here, though what it is isn’t exactly clear.

Even odder is that it isn’t a stereotypical modern zodiac we find in the British landscape, however; there are certain differences, such as a boat for Cancer or a bird for Libra. This would certainly be a problem, were it not for the level of consistency within the various landscape zodiacs; arguably they are largely following the template set down by Katherine Maltwood, who designated the first zodiac, around Glastonbury, in the 1920s. Even so, they are still open to the charge of wishful thinking, but the odds are getting smaller.

 Katherine Maltwood’s Glastonbury Zodiac

One weakness of the concept is that the map features which tend to draw most of the figure outlines are human-made, such as trackways and, less often, field and woodland boundaries, and to some extent on the face of it are rather random. Streams and rivers certainly play their part, as well as natural edges such as steep hillsides. Place-names or historical events typically pop up, also randomly, as if in affirmation of their sign.

But, like map representations themselves, these features are obviously subject to change over time, especially fields created by Enclosure awards. Indeed, these constituent features come from an assortment of time periods and show no consistency of age that a search for a point of origin would need. Most people would say this effectively puts paid to any argument claiming an ancient origin, and I certainly agree − though it doesn’t affect the fact of their contemporary manifestation as shown by their finder, thanks to “vagaries of pure chance which simply come together and produce at the endpoint a moment of recognition by the discoverer”.[vi] Moreover, too many of the features are self-evidently historic, and as such, if any design engineering of the landscape was involved, it would surely have appeared in documentary records of some kind. Nothing of the sort has come up (except perhaps in the last 100 years in some aspects of town planning and monumental land art), so I think we can confidently assume that landscape zodiacs are not planned and engineered entities. Nonetheless, this multi-period historical involvement indicates, I believe, that zodiacs can only evolve (and I use that word deliberately) when human activity is present in a place over a period of time.

This multi-period apparently happenstance character of signs’ defining features is actually one of the points about the phenomena that invite closer thought regarding how human communities interact with their landscape − how much of it is conscious or intentional, and how much a side-effect of a familiarity with their patch.

The easiest option for a zodiac finder stuck for an origin myth is, I imagine, to declare that they were put in place by some divine or mysterious agency, but the glibness of such wondrous assertions explains nothing and is just as enervating as an assertion of alien involvement would be. This is not, however, to deny the possibility of some as yet unexplained agency facilitating the appearance of zodiacs, but I’d prefer something that addresses the phenomenon more imaginatively − more Imaginatively.

 

Daimonic reality

If I had to plump for a mysterious or esoteric origin, I’d be most inclined to consider them in the light of Patrick Harpur’s ‘daimonic reality’ − yes, something close to the dreaded ‘ineffable origin’, but one that doesn’t invoke agencies remote from direct human engagement. Perhaps the opposite − the ‘daimonic reality’ idea ascribes weird encounters in this world to a brush with an uncanny dimension that is amply recorded in testimonies from classical times through to the present, a dimension whose manifestations might include spirits, fairies, alien beasts and other impossible-to-us things. So perhaps even landscape zodiacs?: “We will never capture unequivocal evidence that any of these entities exist. However, they are daimonically real… The Daimonic is part of us and cannot be banished by denial and disbelief”. Neo-platonists in the 3rd-6th centuries CE considered daimons “as the inhabitants and expression of the anima mundi − the soul of the world… a middle realm… The role of daimons from a human point of view…was to make explicit, visible − even tangible − the broken thread”. A summary by Patrick’s sister Merrily makes the link with terrestrial zodiacs even more tantalising: daimons’ “common characteristic is to be contradictory… both there and not-there, sometimes ridiculous and sometimes impressive, often equally purposeful or meaningless … any attempt to grasp, categorise or classify them leads to confusion until one finally twigs: ambiguity is their point… They tease us into making sense of them in another way”.[vii] Locating the zodiacs in a spectral realm interlocking with ours reminds us that however cannily science and logic may explain the world, there will always be a mystery beyond our reach, to be accepted or denied, and surely this is the realm in which the genius loci might be encountered.

Of the 60 or so zodiacs claimed, very few have had the level and kind of dispassionate research put into them that would earn them further attention from different and ‘extra-mural’ perspectives in an attempt to understand what, if anything, has been going on with such extravagant claims. Of those, I would include the Glastonbury, Cheviot, Kingston, Nuthampstead and Hebden Bridge examples. Others, like Ongar and Cuffley, might in time have reached that level, and one, Robert Lord’s Pendle Zodiac, received the research but was confounded by its own counter-intuitive complexity.[viii] The five examples above have sufficient ‘presence’ to enable perspectives that are rather more likely than New Age examinations to shed light on the phenomenon of landscape zodiacs.

We are therefore left with a small collection of enigmas that defy conventional logic. Even as I write about them here, attempting to justify time spent on them and suggesting perspectives in which they might become valid subjects for reasoned discussion, my own notions of a worthwhile activity are challenged − partly because of their logical challenges, and partly because of the daunting complexity of positing some level of existence for them, some way of fitting them into at least the edgelands of our landscape experience, and rebuffing the possibility of sterile intellectualising. There’s something like that behind all of us who think dismissing (or glibly believing) them is too simple. I’m not a ‘believer’ in terrestrial zodiacs. I have no particular urge to demonstrate an empirical existence for them − if they are chimera, then fine. What I do want to demonstrate is that thinking about them raises lines of thought that are worth considering, and just might indicate there is more to the concept, beyond our species’ pattern-prone perception, than has yet been explored. Harpur’s daimonic reality is one avenue that might be considered.

 

Symbolic reality

We thus come back to one of the characteristics of landscape zodiacs; can they be said to exist or not? Having been drawn up, researched, and demonstrated to others with a degree of acceptance, a certain number must surely therefore be said to exist; yet their logical near-impossibility still demands that intelligence rejects them. They have a physical presence that is both there and not-there in the landscape; and they have just as elusive a mental presence. So one thing we can surely say of the terrestrial zodiac − and perhaps we can say this of anything seem on a map when transferred to the ‘real’ landscape − is that it is spectral, flitting subtly through the real and the imaginary; in other words, we are dealing with a hauntological phenomenon, and this is emphasised by the time disjunctions demonstrated in the multi-period character of their constituent features.

My own ‘discovery’ of the Hebden Bridge Zodiac emphasises the playful spectrality. It started off as a hoax; as I looked down from a high road one evening in the mid-1970s, I’d seen a mounted archer in the streetlamps of Mytholmroyd. A friend, poet Michael Haslam, had actually independently seen something similar as well, I heard later. I didn’t reckon much to this, except as an amusing observation, but around the time there were several claimed zodiacs whose claims to credibility seemed to me to verge on the ludicrous. So I picked up the OS map, drew up the horseman and gave it an appropriate Sagittarian context, planning mischievously to send it somewhere as a signifier of the village’s character. Then I had a dream, of a large scorpion curling its tail around a hillside; back on the map next day, I saw my Scorpio. Having two figures defined an area, and as I gazed at the map, out they popped, one by one − two fish for Pisces, a Paschal Lamb for Aries, etc., all with curious coincidences of place-name and historical character; and I suddenly found that what had started as a jape was demanding to be given more thought. At the beginning of the 1990s I led a series of guided walks around them, and the experiences I and my fellow walkers had reaffirmed, to us at least, that the damned thing wasn’t to be dismissed. (Another series of explorations undertaken around 2015-16 forms the basis of the zodiac walk articles also to be uploaded on this website).

Hebden Bridge Zodiac

  

But that does not help define its nature. I have already dismissed conscious terraforming, whether engineered, ineffable, or alien, as had been suggested by others; even while being puzzled about how such a thing could be, I discarded such options within months as glib and even less demonstrable than the whole concept, and searched for other options. Like − Is It Art? Paul Klee, after all, asserted that the task of art is to make visible the invisible (cf above “The role of daimons from a human point of view…was to make explicit, visible − even tangible − the broken thread”).

A related question, applicable to artists like sculptors who work with existing materials, is whether an artist creates or helps reveal inherent form. A common assertion of those who work with natural forms is that they ‘see’ a form or presence latent within stone or wood or whatever, waiting to be released, so they just assist the process. If stone can possess such latent form, then can a landscape? And if so, might a long-established set of people with dense interactive and socio-economic ties living and working relatively collectively in that landscape subliminally recognise that latency, and unconsciously bring it to form over generations − a ‘collective unconscious’? (Likewise, will the diffusion of such communities through inward migration, individualism and loss of local socio-economic viability erode the collectivities created?) This would address the multi-period unplanned nature of the features that comprise the signs in the earth. And it would also invite in a phenomenological interpretation: the phenomenologist “enters into the landscape and allows it to have its own effect on his or her perceptive understandings. This approach means accepting that there is a dialogic relationship between person and landscape… which is to claim that landscapes have agency in relation to persons”.[ix] Agency in turn is a spur to events.

Yet why the signs of the zodiac, rather than, say, a more locally relevant deer or hare? And how great was awareness of astrological symbols in the public at large? Zodiacal depictions are sometimes to be found in mediaeval church carving,[x] as at Waltham Abbey, and we know that cunning folk and magicians spanning a range of social classes in later centuries were closely familiar with astrology. Is it not therefore reasonable to assume some degree of basic familiarity with zodiacal images and associations? But how far did such awareness percolate? Can the Jungian and post-Jungian notion of archetypes help us here? It’s relatively easy to imagine a set of inhabitants perceiving an archetype in their local environment and with it being an archetype rooted in the psyche find themselves psychologically and phenomenologically guided to manifest it (in the way of archetypes).

Moreover, perhaps this does not work at the visual level only, because of course astrological signs are not simply symbols, they have associations and meanings which after all form the basis of astrology. So we might find it less than surprising that the figure of Taurus contains one of the largest dairy farms in the upper valley (or did in the 1990s at least); or that the bumptious centripetal town of Hebden Bridge, with its pioneering industrial history and later culturally progressive movements, should fall within Leo. But then of course, what − if either − came first? The human culture or the buried archetype? If the latter, then is that straying too far towards the ineffable origin? Do we have the order of things mixed up?

 

Agency and creation

To posit a terrestrial zodiac as art, we have to posit an artist, a creator. The collective is one candidate, but since no records of these things have been found, it’s clear that the collective has not considered itself an artist, and is perhaps unaware that the work of art, if such it is, even exists. So who else could get the credit (assuming we’re keeping God out of the equation)? OK, maybe no one; it’s not up to collective or individual to claim credit for something that is inherent within the landscape. And given the dismissive way modern culture can treat ‘imagination’, is the idea of artist tantamount to saying that this created thing does not really have a meaning or reality beyond the aesthetic?

So the artist and sculptor Katherine Maltwood might not be entirely happy with being considered the artist behind the Glastonbury Zodiac. Most people call her the discoverer, a term that has been habitually employed for subsequent landscape zodiac revealers. There’s an assumption here, too; if something is discovered, that implies it already exists when the discoverer finds it, like America (a fact that, unfortunately for the indigenes, was lost on the European supporters of Vespucci or Columbus). But what if the act of recognising it is itself the moment, the instigator, of creation? Then Maltwood − or Pennick, or Thorley, or Billingsley − is no longer responsible for the work unleashed; that has already developed its own dynamic. We could call these ‘discoverers’ finders or percipients, words that incur fewer assumptions about time and existence (even though there might be a sense that the thing has been lost, even while we are positing a creative moment). But might we also call them influencers (though that term has already been soured by materialist online personalities)? I’ll return to this below.

To recap. There is a someone who collects these figures together on a map and presents them to the world. Often, these individuals have some kind of artistic background. The display of a landscape zodiac is a synthesis of i) recognition of something latent and ii) creation of a new thing; that makes a case for them being works of art, and the display of the annotated map is akin to Richard Long’s depiction of walks as lines inscribed on an OS map, only considerably more figurative. I’m happy with that, we can appreciate and leave landscape zodiacs at that artwork level if we choose. If there is anything in the idea of archetypes in human psychology, then a zodiac seems more likely than most to be employed even in the context of a community unversed in classical astrology. So we are dealing with a kind of artwork.

Only this does rather imply that the figures and compositions are just lines drawn on a map, über-Rorschach trifles. And it still implies a need to employ one’s senses phenomenologically, looking for psychological meaning, when considering landscape, and that may go further than just transcribing them on to a map. The implication that these things are in the landscape itself, being shaped continually over a period of time by human activity − ‘accidental phenomenological by-products of human activity upon a zone of terrain’, as I described them earlier, but more descriptively explained by Anthony Thorley as “a complex process of drift over centuries into the formation of a figure – like the land is singing a song, for a person in the 20th century to recognise”[xi] − deserves more attention. Two things particularly might generate, separately or together, the phenomenological impression that leads to something taking shape: a latency in the physical landscape, or a perceived character of a place, both of which imply agency. The scale of ‘taking shape’ involved is far more than any individual could encompass, so while we may have a kind of work of art, we clearly do not have an artist.

I think it’s going to be impossible − for the foreseeable future anyway − to name a process by which these things might take shape, if they are indeed more than figments of imagination. The footpaths and field boundaries that draw part of an outline, enhancing the form in the land, the fortuitous location of streams and wells and buildings, and places that acquire names that seem to echo the zodiac sign they fall upon − all these are the product of different generations, even eras, even the natural world itself. How can they be more than figments? But nonetheless the finder can point to the shapes on the map, show background investigations that oddly affirm the signs, and say ‘But this is a reality − of sorts, but still a reality’.

A trickster reality, perhaps, that comes from Harpur’s ‘daimonic reality’, subject to continual change, full of jests and ironies and plenty of opportunity for the finder to be thoroughly mocked, as were the alchemists who worked in the zones where the Platonic precipitates into the Material. This reality is the messenger realm between Anima Mundi and the material world, from which we receive regular messages that, however confident and complacent we may be in what we pedestalise as our science, all is not as we might wish. Such uncomfortable messages include apparitions, precognitions, time slips, Fortean phenomena, and so on − perhaps even hoaxes. They remind us not to be too sure of the extent and validity of our empirical and quantifiable insistences − in short, a reminder that mysteries are still viable, and to keep asking questions.

    Scorpio in Mary Caine’s Kingston Zodiac

Retro-causation

I see the development of earth mysteries since the 1970s in terms of the philosophy of ideas − spawned from a generation intent on questioning assumptions and trialling alternative perceptions, it is imperative that this founding dynamic be maintained. Even if a thing’s existence turns out to be ephemeral, the questions it raises may illuminate a range of other questions.

What happens when an amateur tries to look through a quantum lens held up by bona fide researchers (apart from something more committed scientists will instantly label pseudoscience)? I am emboldened by Philip Ball’s remark “physicists do not agree on the best way to interpret these quantum experiments, and to some extent what you make of them is (at the moment) up to you”.[xii] In particular, I am intrigued by the idea of retro-causation and the impact that might have on our thinking about landscape zodiacs. It challenges our customary ‘common-sense’ ideas of causes predating effects, but might neatly explain the multi-periodicity of the features comprising zodiacs, although this is perhaps the least challenging of its implications.

I might begin this line of thought with the observer effect. It has long been noted by physicists that observation of quantum phenomena can actually influence the phenomena measured. To put it another way, “the state of all possibilities of any quantum particle collapsed into a set entity as soon as it was observed or a measurement taken… a participatory relationship existed between observer and observed”; experiments by Helmut Schmidt implied that the first observer established a pattern, and the more focussed the attention of the observer, the stronger the ‘setting’ effect − “Any form of focused attention seemed to freeze the system into final being… It suggests that observation by living observers brings things into some form of set being”.[xiii] Anthony Thorley puts that in a zodiac context: “The moment of perception of the discoverer becomes the moment of the Zodiac first being realised, and its breakthrough into manifest reality”.[xiv]

This might seem entirely reasonable in a world where time flows in one direction, but what if we have the nature and/or direction of time wrong? Dean Radin, thinking about premonitions, speculated that, on a quantum level, impressions about the future might constitute sending out waves to meet our own future; the Wheeler-Freeman absorber theory says a wave can travel, as well as forward, backward in time from the future. If we think therefore in terms of throwing a stone into a pond, the ripples will flow towards and past us as well as away.

An extrapolation from this is that future events already exist as potential, not as events in time and space, and the observer effect of paying close attention may help to bring an event into being in time and space (perhaps depending on the amount of human attention extended): perhaps “our future already exists in some nebulous state that we may begin to actualise in the present” in what William Braud called ‘seed moments’ − the first of a chain of events, potentially able to project influences back in time to alter pivotal moments or initial conditions. We might add to this David Bohm’s speculation that “if consciousness is operating at the quantum frequency level, it could also naturally reside outside space and time, which means that we theoretically have access to information, ‘past’ and ‘future’. If humans are able to influence quantum events, this implies that we are also able to affect events or moments other than in the present”.[xv]

It might help to imagine time, then, not as linear, but as vertical, past and present happening (or ready to happen) in a kind of layered simultaneity. Imagine further an elevator in time representing an eternal present passing up and down, offering glimpses of the various floors in this immense tower, occasionally stopping for premonitions, apparitions, actualisations to board, or our thoughts to jump off. And of course, just like the ripples from the pond, the elevator travels both in the direction we are going, and the other way. Towards us, away from us, above us, below us, and our present moment moving between them. Roland Penrose noted this is certainly theoretically possible: “All the successful equations of physics are symmetrical in time. They can be used equally well in one direction in time as in the other. The future and the past seem physically to be on a completely equal footing. Newton’s laws, Hamilton’s equations, Maxwell’s equations, Einstein’s general relativity, Dirac’s equation, the Schrodinger equation – all remain effectively unaltered if we reverse the direction of time”.[xvi]

Taken even further, one realm of possibility being offered by threads in quantum physics as outlined above would seem to “lay the groundwork for attempting to explain how the mind/brain/brain waves initiate transactions in the natural; how our thoughts commingle with everything else, and cause matter to manifest in our lives. … If thoughts equal energy and energy equals matter, then thoughts become matter”. Or as artist Paul Nash remarked, “according to the Surrealists… the found object is created by your finding it, yet it has always been your own, waiting in the unconscious until the accident of your perception gives it birth”.[xvii]

Time to recap again. The percipient comes across what seems to be a landscape zodiac. They might find themselves amused, and dismiss it; mildly interested enough to draw it up and tell one of the earth mysteries or New Age outlets about it, but not enough to develop it into a project; or intrigued enough to examine the fascinating and sometimes disconcerting questions it raises, and posit some kind of raison d’être. In the third attention-intensive option, they become the ‘first observer’, ‘freezing’ the zodiac into ‘some form of set being’ which potentially does not have the time referents we are used to, but exists in an ever-present likelihood, subject to modification according to contemporary circumstance.

It is in this scenario, then, that the percipient is not artist or discoverer (nor visionary) so much as influencer (though I do not propose to use this now-tainted word any further). Their finding and investigation of a zodiac becomes a seed moment to which reality must adjust itself, setting off the waves of intention that create impacts on different levels of time, levels that we would usually construe as past or present. In other words, in order for the zodiac seed moment (and subsequent developments) to happen, the basis for the zodiac has to already exist, or already have come to exist: inherent agency, the moment of discovery and the attendant focus have created conditions for retro-causation, for events − like paths, field boundaries, place-names − to occur in the past, but randomly. Hence the multi-periodicity of zodiac features – they co-exist in what Thorley calls ‘Zodiacal Dreamtime’.[xviii]

 

A psychogeographical drift

So what can we do with landscape zodiacs? Although this may seem a rather materialistic take on the ‘problem’ of terrestrial zodiacs, the preceding discussions and speculations give some idea of how they may lead us along some unfamiliar pathways and broaden our perception of and attunement to the landscape and its potentialities, as well as the construction of time and its impact on history. Similarly, they invite us to choose how to interact with them (and yes, dismissing them as nonsense and having no more to do with them is certainly one option, if a little insipid). Four years before Philip Heselton described them as “no more than a modern phenomenon”, he was appreciating their alchemical promise and reaching towards my own argument: “If terrestrial zodiacs are the product of our own imagination, we can either dismiss them as pure delusion, or work positively with the same idea, seeing their description and charting it as a work of art in its own right. Imaginary or not, they can provide a focus for pilgrimage, ritual or performance art and add significance to the interaction between an individual and the landscape… We will fail to understand the significance of terrestrial zodiacs if we merely pick up on the generally insignificant evidence for their physical reality”.[xix]

With terrestrial zodiacs, one is either at the periphery of earth mysteries − or its heart. Perhaps even in both places at once. In an empirical perspective, they never stood a chance. But there are perspectives, as I hope to have shown, where they might be more than chimerae, and at the moment, even with a degree of scientific backing, they remain mysteries not just of earth, not just of mind and perception, but of physics too. This is what the earth mysteries field was designed for. However, even in this field, the challenge of the terrestrial zodiac has only been fitfully met, and in the main since the early 1980s zodiacs have been quietly put aside – in a field that has championed dowsing, leys, faerie encounters and feats of ancient engineering, and aiming to be taken seriously by a materialist audience, perhaps this extra imponderable was just going too far, and even a little embarrassing. Landscape zodiacs were abandoned to the New Age movement and never again had to justify themselves intellectually − they were taken on trust, or faith, as extra wonders for the spiritual toybox.

So let’s take a different angle and bring out the psychogeographical toybox, to engage with zodiacs. For this, a readiness to walk, probably alone, will inevitably be required. Oh, and a willingness to suspend any disbelief in astrology, because this is now psychogeography.

A simple approach would be to walk a specific sign, perhaps one’s own birth sign, in awareness of that sign’s correspondences − colours, plants, part of the body, mythological associations − and see what turns up, in actuality or in oneself; or to walk the sign which is current as you walk it, similarly looking for resonances; or to explore a sign which you feel you might need better personal familiarity with. All this requires an attitude of inner reflection, something to which solo walking lends itself anyway.

If astrology really isn’t one’s thing, if one seeks to engage with place in a way in which the zodiac signs are clues rather than constructs, there is a deeper dive into the narrativisation of place.

One recurring feature of all the landscape zodiacs is their association with myth and legend, sometimes quite eclectically, as Mary Caine eloquently showed in her work on the Glastonbury and Kingston zodiacs. Why not? Myths are accepted as encoding some of the deepest realms of the human consciousness, as is astrology; the two are bedfellows. Landscape zodiacs bring the latter down to earth, and invite us to walk the astrology as suggested above, but also by extension to walk the myths, to transfer their wonder to our world. It doesn’t matter whether King Arthur or Persephone have any inherent role in the manifestation of the landscape signs − this is psychogeography after all. If we call the myth or legend or astrological correspondences into consciousness while we walk, we are using the landscape zodiac to activate those ancient archetypes (or whatever they might be) in ourselves and in the present. That doesn’t make zodiacs facts; but it makes them catalysts for mythical explorations that will draw a person closer to an affinitive relationship with the place. Whereas early speculations were seeking vainly for objective reality, for a lost time and ancient wisdoms to emerge, we can consciously project lost times upon a place, to render a place as if inhabited by ancient narratives, like a legend is retold as if it is truth. Folklorists refer to projective engagements with place − such as visiting a place associated with a fictional existence or some influential person’s grave with a view to acquiring some meaningful personal experience − as ostension (though equally it could be seen as a kind of psychic vampirism embedded within such tourism); But ostension, in my suggestion of ‘mythical exploration’, can also function by using place as mirror rather than screen.

This is a point where psychogeography and phenomenology draw close to each other. Psychogeography as praxis asks us to enquire into the meaning and implication of a place, the layers of a physical space; phenomenology that one “enters into the landscape and allows it to have its own effect on his or her perceptive understandings … landscapes have meanings, whose significance we can attempt phenomenologically to make manifest and interpret; they also do things and have experiential effects in relation to persons… Through the bodily process of experiencing the landscape, we learn to think in terms of metaphors”.[xx] Christopher Tilley has explored the narrativisation of place, which is something that can take place at any time: “Through an act of naming and through the development of human and mythological associations… places become invested with meaning and significance…[transforming] the sheerly physical and geographical into something that is historically and socially experienced…By the process of naming places and things they become captured in social discourses and act as mnemonics for the historical actions of individuals and groups”.[xxi]

We see in terrestrial zodiacs a bizarre recurring incidence of places named as if the naming community were aware of the zodiac’s existence, which we can easily see to have been extremely unlikely, and which can usually be ascribed to some mundane etymological process.[xxii] Nonetheless, they invite an understanding of the landscape which is far from mundane, and to anchor this perception it is advisable to walk that reconfigured place, to walk our borrowed myths into place, in the modern, personal, landscape. Empirical reality or mystical speculation need not be arbiters of value – the terrestrial zodiac can be reclaimed for its potential as a tool for dissolving perceptual boundaries.

For this, the percipient needs to use local history and their own perception together with vignettes adapted from past cosmologies, legends and astrological understandings, in an attempt to understand place, how people interact with place, and even the nature of time in a place. The psychopomp god Hermes might not be familiar with your own place, but that’s no reason why he might not be a guide leading us from a worldly place into an other-worldly journey that will take in symbolism, esoterica, Imagination, art, quantum physics, local history, folklore, geography, disbelief or mockery and more.[xxiii] All that is asked is commitment to the work.

This doesn’t ‘explain’ landscape zodiacs, but it gives them a context in which empirical existence is a side issue − a level of experiential reality that perhaps one day might even be more apposite than we currently expect.

Exploration of a landscape through the different eyes and pathways afforded by unfamiliar mythologies and concepts may take on the nature of a quest – a quasi-shamanic journey in territory rendered less familiar by a route through the ancestral underworld of our minds – and like any good psychogeography, any good underworld journey, one might bring back something that will be of benefit to one’s own world, that may bring a new ray of illumination. Because if not, what is the point?

https://northernearth.co.uk/category/alt-antiquarian/

Notes

[i] https://quotepark.com/quotes/1921902-richard-feynman-i-cannot-define-the-real-problem-therefore-i-susp/, acc’d 20-8-21.

[ii] Philip Heselton, Earth Mysteries, Element 1995, p72.

[iii] Heselton 1995, p.72

[iv] William Blake, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’.

[v] A similarly dismissive attitude is heard in relation to simulacra, of faces or animals in stones; they are imaginary, but archaeological evidence shows that ancient cultures saw the same likenesses and construed cultural significance or sacredness from them, thereby influencing how those places were appreciated and treated.

[vi] Anthony Thorley, ‘Contemplating Zodiacal Dreamtime’, in Yuri Leitch (ed.), Signs and Secrets of the Glastonbury Zodiac, Avalonian Aeon 2013, p309-327; p316.

[vii] Patrick Harpur, Daimonic Reality, Pine Winds Press 2003, dust cover blurb. Merrily Harpur, Mystery Big Cats, Heart of Albion 2006, p130; ‘Anomalous Big Cats: The mystery continues’, Fortean Times 406, June 2021, p32;

[viii] Katherine Maltwood, A Guide to Glastonbury’s Temple of the Stars, James Clarke & Co. [1925] 1964; Mary Caine, The Kingston Zodiac, priv. 1978; Mary Caine, The Glastonbury Zodiac: Key to the Mysteries of Britain, priv. 1978; Nigel Pennick & Robert Lord, Terrestrial Zodiacs in Britain: Nuthampstead Zodiac and Pendle Zodiac, IGR 1976; Jim Kimmis, The Ongar Zodiac, IGR Occasional Paper 9, 1977.

[ix] Christopher Tilley, Interpreting Landscapes. Left Coast Press 2010, p26

[x] Shelley Morwenna Williams, ‘The Zodiac on Church Portals: Astrology and the mediaeval cosmos’, Peregrinations 7(3), 2021, https://digital.kenyon.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1400&context=perejournal

[xi] Anthony Thorley, ‘Landscape Zodiacs of Britain’, presentation at ‘Megalithomania’, Glastonbury, May 8 2010.

[xii] http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170215-the-strange-link-between-the-human-mind-and-quantum-physics, acc’d 18-8-21.

[xiii] Lynne McTaggart, The Field, Thorsons 2001, p13, 226.I should point out that McTaggart journalistically presents the Zero Point Field and the suggestive experiments she presents as facts, rather than hypotheses. Caveat Emptor, and that includes me, but the hypotheses are intriguing in their own right, and I think well summarised by the author; and I advance them in the context of zodiacs in an equally hypothetical spirit (cf Philip Ball’s comment above):  http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170215-the-strange-link-between-the-human-mind-and-quantum-physics acc’d 18-8-21.

[xiv] Thorley 2013, p316. Thorley and I have evidently been thinking along the same lines for a number of years without realising it.

[xv] McTaggart 2001, p228-9, 231.

[xvi] The Emperor’s New Mind, Vintage 1989 p392, q. in Celia Green, The Lost Cause, Oxford Forum 2003, p87.

[xvii] Peter Baksa, ‘The Zero Point Field: How Thoughts Become Matter?’, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/zero-point-field_b_913831, 3-10-11, acc’d 18-8-21. Paul Nash, letter to Dudley Tooth, Nov. 1943.

[xviii] Thorley 2013, p327.

[xix] Heselton 1996, p72. Philip Heselton, The Elements of Earth Mysteries, Element 1991, p83-4.

[xx] Christopher Tilley, Interpreting Landscapes, Left Coast Press 2010, pp25-31, 487.

[xxi] Christopher Tilley, The Phenomenology of Landscape, Berg 1994, p18.

[xxii] See, for instance, Thorley 2013 on the place-names on the Glastonbury Zodiac’s ‘Girt Dog’, p313.

[xxiii] This is likely to be more productive than the psychogeographical trope of exploring a town or city using the street map of another.