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, who remarked 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. However, Watkins believed that the word ‘trackways’ should be substituted for ‘boundries’.
Lockyer refers to the well known fact that the Egyptian god Thoth equates to 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.
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).
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. The artist conveyed the Earth’s landscape as littered with “snakes” or “serpents” – which we might now interpret to be twisting, snaking lines of energy, or sacred paths, between the hills or mounds. (Alternatively, the landscape and serpents could be symbolic)
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.
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
Some things I’ve pondered:
- Did such ‘hermits’ exist in other countries, performing the same duty – might the priests of Thoth have been employed in this capacity?
- Might hermits in Britain have been seen as performing a ‘priestly’ duty when guiding travellers?
- Would these same travellers have believed the hermit/possible priestly figure to be able to guide them in the Otherworld – might hermits have also been Shamans?
- Watkins speaks of how easily it would be to associate these stones with spirits. 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.
- Is it possible that a collection of real people – who were ‘sighting’ the land, and invaluable to travellers, may have evolved into these deities – spiritual guides as well as practical guides?