Hermes and the Heap of Stones, Snakes Among the Hills

This post is an attempt to gather some thoughts… please feel free to add comments if you have any insights or ideas!  I enjoy exploring ideas, and a good discussion 🙂

In his book ‘The Old Straight Track’ , which is one of the first studies into what are now more often referred to as Ley Lines, Alfred Watkins has a chapter dedicated to Hermes and Hermits.

Watkins writes of how the straight tracks (or leys) were used by man since the earliest times as a means of crossing the country, with strategic markers placed as a guide, these being ‘sighted’ by specialists  (hermits) who have been commemorated in folklore as being able “see” through hills or to tunnel through the earth.

He quotes another writer, Sir John Lubbock, as remarking on all of the different activities associated with Hermes, but who reached the conclusion that they all follow from the custom of marking boundries by upright stones. Watkins believes the word ‘trackways’ should be substituted for ‘boundries’.

Lockyer, among others has spoken of the Egyptian god Thoth becoming Hermes in Greece and Mercury among the Romans. Stone heaps with pillars were sacred to Hermes. These could be found at crossroads, or paths that traders or merchants would use, and he became associated with the Roman god Mercurius as a patron to tradesfolk in this manner. He was also seen as a shepherd with a crook, eventually becoming the messenger of the gods with his staff or caduceus.

Watkins quotes from a book named ‘History of Hampshire’ in which the author, Shore,  has collected records of hermits and hermitages, and says that ideas concerning hermits are very different from the truth. The hermit did live a solitary life, but it was not just for the sake of seclusion; rather, they received means of support for the role they played in guiding travellers on their way. There were 8 in Hampshire, all of whom were employed in this way – guiding travellers across dangerous waterways or through Ancient Forests. Similar hermits are recorded in Cornwall, and those recorded all have archaeological evidence to support that they lived on ley ‘sighting’ points. These sighting points on leys are often marked with an upright stone or mound.

The majority of mounds are sited on the highest point the eye can see, and in-between, the paths regularly go out of sight, though another mound will mark the direction needed to be followed.

If this was not the case, then I’m wondering if there would always have been a hermitage, with the guide taking travellers, traders etc. to the next point where a mound could be viewed?  Did such ‘hermits’ exist in other countries, performing the same duty – might the priests of Thoth have been employed in this capacity? Would hermits (in Britain for instance) also have been seen as performing a ‘priestly’ duty when guiding travellers? And would the travellers have known they were following the earth’s own ‘map’, and considered the paths sacred in some way, or have just known it was the simplest way to get from A to B without getting lost? Would these same people then have trusted the hermit to be able to guide them in the Otherworld – would all hermits have also been Shamans?  Paul Devereux has suggested that the straight lines/leys were used by shamans to guide the spirits of the deceased from one sacred place to another, using the paths and mounds as landmarks.

There is an alchemical illustration ‘Snakes Among The Hills’ included in one of the most famous of all Alchemical books entitled, The Book of Abraham the Jew – who is purported to have been met by – and who influenced – the legendary alchemist, Nicolas Flamel, in the 14th century as he made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella.
It shows the Earth’s landscape littered with shimmering snakes or serpents in between mounds. It seems that the artist was trying to convey that the Earth’s landscape is littered with “snakes” and “serpents” – which we might now interpret to be twisting, spiralling and snaking lines of positive and negative energy .

Nicolas Flamel – The Figures of Abraham the Jew: This series of seven figures, purports to be a copy of an original ‘Book of Abraham the Jew’ which Nicolas Flamel is supposed to have found in the 14th Century, and which inspired him to undertake his quest for the secrets of alchemy. There are no early manuscripts of these figures, but there are many beautifully coloured manuscripts dating from the late 17th and the 18th century.

Flamel figures

individual links
Mercurius meets with Saturn
Planetary dragons on a hill
The workers in the garden
The massacre of the innocents
The winged caduceus of Mercurius
The crucified snake
Snakes among the hills

Watkins compares Thoth and the Celtic God Tout (Romanised as Toutates) as guides over pathways. Caesar wrote of the Gods of the Druids that ‘Mercury, whom they regard as the guide of their journeys and marches, also had influence over mercantile transactions and was their chief divinity.’ The God’s name was inscribed on a Romano-British altar.

He draws attention to the fact that many mounds are called Tot, Toot, Tout, Tute and Twt. This is pronounced Toot (places like Tottenham and Tooting in London get their names from this root).

Watkins speaks of how easily it would be to associate these stones with spirits; I would imagine the next step, would be towards actually associating them with ‘personalities’ – maybe as the origin of deities.

The most interesting thing for me is that a collection of real people – who were ‘sighting’ the land, and invaluable to travellers, may have eventually evolved into deities – spiritual guides as well as practical guides.

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9 thoughts on “Hermes and the Heap of Stones, Snakes Among the Hills”

  1. Wow, that Songlines link really does add to it – as the aboriginal people were more nomadic, and instead of mounds they had landmarks like Uluru, or they used far more of the landscape as this passage notes:
    “In some cases, a songline has a particular direction, and walking the wrong way along a songline may be a sacrilegious act (e.g. climbing up Uluru where the correct direction is down). Traditional Aboriginal people regard all land as sacred, and the songs must be continually sung to keep the land “alive”.

    That’s an interesting thought about Shamans/Druids also guiding travellers. So much food for thought here… I think it was Devereux who suggested that the Shaman’s role was to guide spirits of the deceased from Woodhenge to Stonhenge via the river, possibly the living making the same ceremonial journey on foot and by boat. I have his book here somewhere..

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  2. Yes, the celtic druids who roamed Europe up from India to as far as Great Britain and Ireland were in touch with some kind of ‘earth-magic’ we’ve long lost getting in-tune with. That TOT, TUT connection is v. interesting to a Brit. This is the same Sir John Lubbock who was an orchestra conductor and unveiled the statue of Sir Thomas Browne in Norwich in 1905. Norwich on the river Yare has the villages in a line of of HardLEY , LangLEY, cantLEY and Lowestoft (LEY STOFF/END. Call me a crazy scooby-do but I lived on that ley line for 5 years and can testify to its psychic energy in the collective psyche/anima mundi.

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  3. Fascinating details about Sir John Lubbock and the village names! I don’t think that’s scooby-do at all, what you say about living on that ley Kevin! I grew up in Liverpool, and I think Jung was right when he picked up on the magic of that place so I’m quite open to suggestions re the psychic energy. This is part of what led me to creating this post. There’s so much more than just alchemical imagery going on in those drawings, and I love the mix of the practical and the symbolic, the mystical and the development of folklore and how much of this is still alive. My passion is in finding the connections, without making assumptions that they ARE connected 🙂

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  4. I used to have a website that had a page that went into a lot of connections re earth-magic and the “veins of the dragon” but I took it down because it DID go a bit too Scooby-do in places, style-wise, and I still need to verify some of the information I found, such as this:
    A mound below and to the left of The Uffington White Horse in England,is known as Dragon Hill and research suggests several images of this power (earth energy) are superimposed beneath the present horse.”
    Anyone ever heard of these images?

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  5. The best way to understand the ley line “circuits” is to actively get out and follow them, using divining rods, the same way our ancestors were able to find and control these natural energies.
    I spent eight years and walked well over 3,000 miles following the leys here in Scotland to discover how they work and what they were used for. See my website http://www.ley-man.co.uk.
    The home page has a picture of a remarkable serpent carved in stone, on the edge of a CIRCULAR ley!
    This is the only website which can explain the ley system.

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