The English writer John Michell (1933–2009) occupied a significant position within British alternative religion. Michell’s manifold books revolve around his life-long aim to re-enchant the English landscape and launch a new golden age. Michell was a devoted Traditionalist and is widely considered the founding father of the vast field of British Earth Mysteries. Associated groups embrace speculative theories of the earth, claiming the existence of telluric (dragon) energies. As Michell’s impact on such groups is widely acknowledged, within the context of Earth Mysteries, this article centers on cerealogy and the Dragon Environmental Network as examples in exploring Michell’s discursive and enduring influence.
In the face of global climate crises, contemporary religions often integrate environmental concerns into their priorities.1 Recent scholarship subsumes the modes of interaction between the homo religiosus and nature,2 ecologies, and environments under the designation of eco-spirituality, or similar neologisms.3 While eco-spirituality is to most religious representatives primarily of ethical importance, certain groups predominantly define their religious identity by means of their devotion to religious environmentalism. This study concerns a specific branch in the vast spectrum of eco-spirituality: British Earth Mysteries. In what follows, British Earth Mysteries are discussed as closely entangled with the English writer John Michell (1933–2009), a seminal figure of British alternative religion and counterculture. His theories on landscape, terrestrial geometry, and sacred place had a lasting effect on Britain’s eco-spiritual landscape in the second half of the twentieth century, remaining influential today. Contemporary eco-spiritual and other alternative religious groups carry Michell’s legacy forward, as some of them directly refer to Michell, while others consider his ideas more indirectly. Despite Michell’s importance, previous studies overlook his influence on eco-spirituality,4 thus this paper aims to expand scholarship on Michell, exploring how he shaped the thematic directions of eco-spirituality, and more precisely, British Earth Mysteries. Over three sections, first, the central concepts of the discussion are defined, contextualizing eco-spirituality and the British Earth Mystery movement. Second, the controversial character of John Michell is examined, as well as his approach to nature. Third, Michell’s impact on eco-spiritual circles is discussed across two case studies.
2 The Spectrum of Eco-spirituality
In 1972, Norwegian philosopher Arne D.E. Næss (1912–2009) coined the term ‘deep ecology,’ inaugurating an early environmentalist movement and green philosophy. Næss emphasizes the intrinsic value of nature, and the urgent need for its protection in the light of increasing environmental pollution. Further, he suggests a strong link between spirituality and environmentalism.5 The eco-central philosophy of deep ecology represents a major historical pillar in an ever-increasing field centered around religion, nature, and environmentalism. While the “age of environmentalism”6 took off in the 1960s, deep ecology triggered a cohesive understanding on the value and vulnerability of nature.7 Pursuant to this zeitgeist, alternative religious voices, such as the US-American poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder (b. 1930) or the Wiccan priestess and author Starhawk (b. 1951), attached importance to religious environmentalism.8
Ever since, several categories have emerged seeking to define the field: dark green religion, green religion, green spirituality, eco-paganism, earth spirituality, earth mysticism, eco-spirituality, eco-mysticism, eco-theology, nature religion, nature spirituality, nature mysticism, religious ecology, spiritual ecology, deep ecology, religious environmentalism, radical environmentalism, and religious naturalism to name but a few.9 Central to these categories are the personal spiritual experiences of nature, the belief in the intrinsic value yet also vulnerability of nature, and the need for its protection.10
Based on a perspective of nature as sacred, religious environmentalism became the central aim of sundry religious groups,11 as a particular attitude was cultivated, transitioning beyond mere environmentally-friendly activities into a more militant eco-spiritual activism. The militant activism of radical environmentalists is thus differentiated from moderate environmentalism. While moderate environmentalists’ activism traces back to the late nineteenth century, their radical counterparts emerged later in the second half of the twentieth century. Religious and ideological beliefs within radical environmentalism merge with open hostility to anthropocentrism. Further, established (Abrahamic) religions and constitutions, suspected of advocating anthropocentrism, have been vigorously opposed by radical environmentalists.12 A major opponent of anthropocentric values was the fascist author Savitri Devi Mukherji (1905–1982, born Maximiani Julia Portas). Her ideological writings on Nazi Occultism, animal rights, and ecology have significantly influenced Neo-Nazi attitudes towards eco-centrism. Her work proves as an important example how eco-centered ideology is not limited to the left-wing political spectrum.13 The rest of this paper concerns an eco-spiritual stream, which is distinctive for Britain’s alternative religious landscape: the Earth Mystery movement.
Among adherents of Earth Mysteries, a dominant narrative highlights how many geophysical phenomena of the earth are not easily understood, or remain unexplained. Such unexplained phenomena attract most attention and are likely to be viewed as mysteries of deep, spiritual significance. The term ‘Earth Mysteries’ is an umbrella term encompassing a range of speculative theories, referring to assumed mysterious processes of the earth and its natural environments. Theories of Earth Mysteries are aimed at specific places and distinctive phenomena, and Traditionalism is important to these ideas, which trace any achievement to a distant superior past – adherents of Earth Mysteries believe in a continuum of an ancient spiritual tradition.14 The details of this tradition are believed to be located throughout the landscape, as sacred places accumulate telluric energies, preserved since prehistory, indicating the intrinsic power and sacredness of such sites. The belief in telluric energy, however, expands beyond sacred places. Theories of Earth Mysteries assume a global grid of energy currents, interconnecting the entirety of sacred places, both ecocentric and anthropocentric. Global energy grid theories imagine the earth as a living, sentient being, with whom humanity can communicate and interact.15 The field of Earth Mysteries is thus a contemporary phenomenon centered on spiritual matters, with assumed ancient mysteries entwined with the earth, landscape, and nature. Perceived insights are treated as universal truths, leading to a holistic perspective on life, and enabling an alternative interpretation of both history and the present-day.16
The latter half of the twentieth century witnessed the emergence of a loosely networked movement, investigating these perceived mysteries across disciplines. Corresponding to the wide range of applied techniques and methods, such as ley hunting (the collective roaming through rural landscapes in quest of yet undiscovered ley lines), dowsing, clairvoyance, or astrology, a broad spectrum of fringe researchers was linked to the movement, such as alternative archaeologists, cerealogists, sacred geometrists, and pyramidologists.17
Most individuals devoted to Earth Mysteries agree on the movements’ origin. The story is narrated within the movement as follows: On a pleasant summer day in 1921, the English businessman Alfred Watkins (1855–1935) stood on a hilltop in the English countryside region of Herefordshire. In a flash, the scales fell from Watkins’ eyes, and he envisioned the landscape around him as a network of overlapping, straight lines, passing through various landmarks. He named these tracks ‘ley lines.’ In his seminal book The Old Straight Track: Its Mounds, Beacons, Moats, Sites and Mark Stones (1925), Watkins outlines his influential ley theory, whose major insight concerns the alignment of ancient sites along these straight tracks. This was the origin of a myriad of similar theories.18
While today’s Earth Mystery movement traces its origins back to Watkins’ ley theory, the movement’s central topics have shifted. Energy currents, flying saucers, radical environmentalism, and crop circles supersede ley lines and rural ley hunting as popular pastimes. The notion of telluric energy currents dates back to the waning 1960s, when the discourse on ley lines as propagated by Alfred Watkins was supplemented by claims of earth energies.19 This innovation resulted in two distinctive camps: supporters of Watkins’ old straight tracks, as opposed to innovative advocates of vibrant energetic pathways, such as John Michell. Michell’s claims of telluric energetic forces in particular gained wide credence within the Earth Mystery movement.20
In response to the popularization of the energy discourse, new approaches have emerged, often associated with the image of the living earth, at times interpreted as Mother or Goddess Earth.21 In line with this metaphor, most Earth Mystery devotees approach the earth and its energy places innovatively based on Michell’s rather than Watkins’s theories.22 Beyond doubt, Michell triggered the renewal of the Earth Mystery movement in the twentieth century, standing as the primary figure in its new orientation, cherished by the movement’s members as its founding father. In the following section, Michell as a figure is explored in depth.
3 Traditional Nature: John Michell and His Perception of Nature
Michell’s world expanded beyond a single environment, as he inhabited various milieus. There was John Michell, the English gentleman, a privileged figure born into wealth and educated at prestigious colleges, physically imposing, yet known for his good manners by his contemporaries.23 However, there was also Michell, the countercultural celebrity of the waning 1960s and 70s: an aficionado of heretic, unconventional lifestyles and theories, such as New Age, Fortean topics, psychedelic counterculture, and radical Traditionalism.24 In an eloquent and ever-elegant manner, he harmonized and maneuvered between these distinct personas, dependent on social context. Michell is thus equally associated with Glastonbury’s festival scene, as he is with alternative archaeology, and conservative politics. Among his greatest achievements are the revival of Glastonbury as Britain’s alternative religious capital and, as discussed, his popularization of Earth Mysteries.25
Michell’s status as countercultural icon was sparked in London in the 1960s. He enjoyed a hedonistic, bohemian lifestyle as a well-known member of the Soho and Notting Hill Gate scene, the cultural milieu of many London artists. Eventually, his decadent lifestyle thrust him into the job market, and he decided to become a writer.26 Throughout his life, he published more than forty books and drafted countless articles. Notwithstanding his voluminous literary output, his first three books remain particularly important: The Flying Saucer Vision (1967), The (New) View Over Atlantis (1969/1983), and City of Revelation (1972). These texts are representative of Michell’s worldview, covering his major topics, such as alternative archaeology, sacred geometry, and modes of transmission of knowledge. He owes his position within the alternative religious landscape of Britain in a large part to these initial books.
Michell’s preferred topics highlight traditional and aesthetic themes grounded in a strong distrust of the modern world. As a self-proclaimed radical Traditionalist, Michell’s disapproval of Darwinism, socialism, and capitalism pair with his belief in perennialism and nationalism.27 His vision of England returning to a state where people live in harmony with nature and the cosmos is a golden thread running through his oeuvre, comprising his life’s aim. In his second book, The View Over Atlantis, Michell propagates the significance of England’s landscape for his cause, interpreting the English landscape with its hills, streams, and megalithic sites as a meaningful pattern, with the small Somerset town of Glastonbury as its sacred heart.28 Michell claims that Glastonbury and its surrounding landscape are key in his efforts to launch a new golden age on English soil.29 Alternative religious and eco-spiritual circles enthusiastically embraced this notion, accepting Michell as their spokesman and at times, even as their prophet.30
Michell strongly dismissed what he perceived as the widespread disenchantment of nature brought about by science and Christianity. Despite Michell’s emphasis on nature’s sacredness, his major concern was not to protect the environment, nor involve himself in environmentalism. He approached nature as an instrument to trigger a spiritual revolution. Such a revolution was dependent on the manipulation of nature and landscape, which would ultimately merge macro- and microcosmic systems. Michell’s key priority was thus the resurrection of what he perceived as England’s ancient landscape. The significance that Michell attached to England’s landscape features pertains to their assumed pattern, which Michell interpreted as meaningful.31
In a Traditionalist manner, Michell insists that ancient knowledge on manipulating terrestrial landscapes is the only means for reestablishing heavenly conditions on earth. The crucial aspect of Michell’s theory of terrestrial patterns concerns the close interconnection of nature and mathematics. He assumed that sacred places were distributed in the landscape according to principles of sacred geometry and numerology, and that the natural landscape numerically reflected the divine realm. In his view, the landscape encompasses astronomical links to terrestrial phenomena, as discussed within the para-scientific field of astroarchaeology. Michell’s approach to nature and the cosmos was saturated by speculative spiritual and Traditionalist ideas, and he imagined his ideas as part of a forgotten numerological lore. He posited that the arrangement of natural features according to numerology could powerfully manipulate the course of events.32 Prehistoric landscapes, as imagined by Michell, could be shaped by means of geomancy and numeric methods, harmonizing landscape features in accordance with the macrocosmic scheme: “The whole landscape of Britain has been laid out to a celestial pattern. Every hill has its astrological meaning, every district its centre of symmetry from which its hidden nature can be divined.”33 He followed the premise ‘as above so below,’ fixating on correspondences of macro- and microcosm, and holding his concepts of nature-as-number in high esteem, encompassing terrestrial geometry, and the associated distribution of sacred places. In the final section, I consider how Michell’s numerical approach to nature has been adopted and implemented by the British Earth Mystery movement, focusing on cerealogy and the Dragon Environmental Network.
4 Michell’s Influence on Contemporary Perspectives of Eco-Spirituality
Michell was an expert at merging distant fields, understanding how to capture the attention of the (countercultural) crowds by means of his books, pamphlets, and lectures. Especially The View Over Atlantis was of particular importance for Michell’s authority within the Earth Mystery movement, as it outlined the entire order of ideas forming the basis of the movement, inciting people to get involved, as they published books and articles on similar topics. As noted, his conceptions on interconnected sacred places and the spiritual power of landscape attracted wide interest among eco-spiritual devotees. To contextualize this claim, cerealogy and its speculative theories revolving around crop circles and eco-paganism are examined, as exemplified by the Dragon Environmental Network.
The phenomenon of crop circles has historically evoked strong emotions, polarizing debates on the part of believers and sceptics.34 Today, crop circles are widely demystified and disenchanted, yet from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, the phenomenon of flattened crops depicting vast geometrical formations has provoked a myriad of explanatory theories. Devotees of Earth Mysteries, ufology, and eco-spirituality interpreted the formations according to their sets of beliefs. Naturally, John Michell shared in the short-term enthusiasm for these enigmatic landscape designs.
Before considering Michell’s contribution, basic information on crop circles and the associated subculture is necessary. While in their early days, crop circles were confined to circles strictly speaking, by the late 1980s, more sophisticated designs prevailed: circles were complemented with rectangles and triangles, creating complicated patterns, and in 1990, the first pictogram was discovered. The term ‘crop circle’ traces back to the initially circular shapes of uncovered formation, remaining the predominant umbrella term. Before long, a subculture emerged, which may be subsumed under the designation cerealogy.35 This scientistic36 and eco-spiritual field comprises believers, investigators, and creators of crop circles, commonly dubbed cerealogists, or more casually ‘croppies.’ Most cerealogists aimed to unravel the mysteries of these geometric formations, showing a special interest in their origin and use functions. Circle makers outlined their theories in designated books and journals, participating in conferences, symposia, and competitions. Early celebrities in the field were the meteorologist Terence Meaden (b. 1935), whose ‘plasma vortex theory’ attracted wide attention, and the circle researchers Colin Andrews (n.d.a.) and Pat Delgado (n.d.a.), who remained authorities in the field until the 1990s.37
As a result of the increasing number, size, and evolving complexity of crop circle designs, interest in them grew, with a plethora of contrasting theories arising. Some believers assumed an extra-terrestrial or supernatural origin, interpreting the inscribed symbolism as a spiritual message or secret, inviting decoding. The intriguing aspect of elaborately executed crop circles’ construction overnight contributed to the spike in interest and theories. Eco-spiritual theories highlighted the potential involvement of telluric energies, or “the trickster-like response of Gaia […] to the environmental crisis”.38 Such ideas took Earth Mysteries as their point of departure, emphasizing the significance of crop circles’ precise positioning. Scientistic theories, such as Meaden’s meteorological approach, also enjoyed popularity. Sceptics, on the other hand, considered crop circles as hoaxes, devoid of any higher purpose or meaning. They downplayed the challenging, complex production process, condemning the damage caused by these interventions in the landscape. A third, rather unbiased party praised crop circles as the “the most powerful art form of the 20th century,”39 admiring their aesthetic, or formally compelling features. Crop circles were thus a hotly debated topic among cerealogists and their skeptical opponents, as well as individuals from diverse walks of life, from art historians to science fiction fans.40
Crop circles were documented in detail from the early 1980s onward, after their initial appearance in the 1970s, yet the crop circle phenomenon can be traced back to the post-war period, when the probability of flying saucers was a matter of popular public debate in the United States and Northern Europe. In the early 1960s, reports of craters and so-called ‘flying saucer nests’ were common, claiming that unidentified objects had caused bare patches of reed, grass, or wheat in the midst of an otherwise untouched field.41 Curiously, in Britain, the South-English County of Wiltshire became the center of accounts of saucer nests.42
A few years later, Wiltshire witnessed the creation of the world’s first crop circle, by two English men, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, aiming to imitate saucer nests. In their detailed account on crop circle art, history, and philosophy (2006), Rob Irving and John Lundberg recall this seminal moment:
The two men talked about […] the lights and sounds and the ‘saucer nests’ seen at Warminster. […] Then Doug Bower uttered the words that would herald a new era in the history of crop circles: ‘What do you think would happen if we put one over there?’ he asked Dave casually, pointing at the sea of wheat beside them, ‘People would think a flying saucer had landed.’ Dave liked the idea, and before they knew it the idea had hatched into a fledging plan.43
The origin of crop circles thus dates back to the deliberate decision of two instigators, who subsequently concealed their role in the popular emergence of crop circles for fifteen years. The quotation above also foregrounds the entanglement of crop circles with the belief in flying saucers. In 1991, Bower and Chorley revealed their activities, announcing that they had not merely initiated the hype, but had also created over 250 formations. This confession notwithstanding, cerealogists were unwilling to relinquish their theories: “Crop circle enthusiasts were less than pleased […] and less than convinced.”44 Despite Bower and Chorley’s public announcement, a minority of believers adhered to their claims of the supernatural origin of crop circles, remaining certain that not all formations were hoaxes. One such denier of the profane origin of crop circles was John Michell.
Michell, the father of the Earth Mystery movement, cherished the enigmatic formations as one of the greatest mysteries of modernity. He was fascinated by the geometric form of crop circles and their supposed unknown origin, which remained uncontested for him. The crop circle phenomenon fused many of Michell’s favorite topics: Earth Mysteries, geometry, ufology, and modes of transmitting knowledge. He was convinced that crop circles were a sacred, yet modern mode for communicating ancient wisdom. He professed that hints of the sacred lore of prehistoric times were scattered all over the English landscape, beckoning to be unraveled by illuminated minds – of course, such as his own.. Michell writes that “[t]hese are times of revelation, and corn [sic!] circles are a powerful catalyst in this process. That is not a theory or opinion, just a straightforward perception.”45 Michell interpreted the messages of crop circles, which were inscribed upon the landscape by an unknown force as divine revelations.46
He expounded these claims in several books, articles, pamphlets, and talks: Most notably in Dowsing the Crop Circles: New Insights Into the Greatest of Modern Mysteries (1991), which he edited; in Crooked Soley: A Crop Circle Revelation (2005), which he co-published with Allan Brown; and in After the Harvest: An Illustrated History of Crop Circles (1992), a small booklet with drawings by Merrily Harpur (n.d.a.). Most of his other publications also included chapters or sections on the alleged messages from grain fields. In his final book, How the World is Made, published posthumously with Allan Brown (2009), Michell continued to muse on the topic. Seeking to defy rational explanations of crop circles, he stressed their sophisticated numerological contents:
[Crop circles] have appeared mysteriously, overnight, as large-scale impressions on fields of wheat and other crops […]. From the beginning they attracted pranksters and hoaxers, and no one to this day (in 2008) can say to what extent these enthusiasts amplified the evidence, by copying the designs or inventing their own. Every summer new designs occur, sometimes with references to the traditional code of number and geometry […]. Behind the glamour and trickery in the crop circle enigma is a serious, subtle mind and, evidently, a serious, high-level purpose.47
Further, along with Christine Rhone (n.d.a.) and Richard Adams (n.d.a.), Michell founded the magazine The Cereologist.48 The importance of this magazine cannot be over-emphasized. While also other magazines covered the topic, The Cereologist had enduring influence on cerealogists,49 with its first issue distributed in summer 1990, and its final issue printed in spring 2003. Michell left the editorial board in 1994, after which George Wingfield and finally John Sayer edited the journal. Occasionally, however, Michell continued to write articles for the magazine. Apart from The Cereologist, probably Michell’s most seminal contribution to the field was his annual conference on cerealogy, in Glastonbury.50 Over the course of two days, several speakers gave talks, showed pictures of the latest crop circle designs, and met for a collective meditation in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. In 1991, the conference took place shortly before Bower and Chorley terminated the golden era of cerealogy. At this final occasion in cerealogy’s heyday, John Michell gave a speech on divine revelations found in crop circles, which was well received by attendees. The speech’s content serves as a prime illustration of how Michell situated crop circles in his body of work, and how he influenced some of the circles’ designs.51
Michell discussed a crop formation near Wiltshire, known as Barbury Castle. By means of numerology, gematria, ancient measurements, and sacred geometry, he analyzed the formation as part of what he perceived as traditional cosmology. He confidently augmented his claim with a vast body of numerological evidence, correlating geometrical shapes, sacred sites, and distinctive numbers with the crop circle in question. His conclusion focused on the supposed capacity of crop circles to transmit ancient wisdom, as discussed above – an idea permeating his entire oeuvre. This shows that Michell was not interested in crop circles per se. For Michell, crop circles constituted a piece of a much bigger jigsaw puzzle, a microcosm in a macrocosm.
Michell’s 1991 Glastonbury lecture was also significant, as Irving and Lundberg note, as Michell was familiar with the geometry of the Barbury Castle crop circle. While the circle’s measurements did not perfectly correspond to those presented by Michell, it is probable that Michell’s idealized geometry, and the crop circle’s formation are connected. Irving and Lundberg suggest that the circle was back-engineered, pondering on possible preparations prior to its creation:
Someone with an intimate appreciation of John Michell’s interests, who is also a circlemaker, sets out to make a crop formation that is tailor-made to Gematriac calculations. The idea might have even indirectly come out of a conversation with Michell. […] In short, the Barbury Castle formation was back-engineered.52
This quotation underpins Michell’s key position within the spectrum of Earth Mysteries, stressing that Michell’s concepts had a bearing on cerealogy’s direction – not merely his numerological considerations, but also his firm belief in the spiritually-charged nature of the English landscape, and its sacred places as a point of departure for many cerealogists.53 Michell’s claims about energetically-charged British sites and landscapes also served as an inspiration for other potential crop circle locations. Yet the charm of such Michellian claims was not confined to circle-makers. The next section concerns a distinctive eco-spiritual group who fused their environmental-friendly behavior with the concept of telluric energies, as defined by Michell.
4.2 The Dragon Environmental Network
The so-called Dragon Environmental Network (Dragon) owes its origins to British environmental protest movements of the 1980s and was officially founded by Adrian Harris in London on 18 July 1990. Ever since its first campaign in the Oxleas Wood, Dragon remained active to a certain extent at least until the mid-2010s.54 Dragon’s initial members were (eco-)pagans, wiccans, and occultists, operating in the entangled contexts of religious environmentalism and eco-paganism.55 As mentioned in the introduction, for the sake of preserving natural environments, religious environmentalists regard green activism as a religious duty. Considering nature’s perceived sacredness, vulnerability, and its interpretation as a mother, activism in such circles enjoys great consent. The narrative of a planet hurt by human behavior, in particular, aligned with the emotionally-charged bond to a mother has encouraged (at times violent) activism. Dragon combined its environmental work with eco-magic56 and was identified with road protests and direct action.57 On Dragon’s homepage the group describes itself in the following way:
Dragon links environmental action with magical practice. We draw from many magical traditions and everyone is welcome. We focus our energies on eco-magic, using magic and ritual to stop environmental destruction and channel positive energy to those who protect the land.58
This quotation highlights several crucial aspects of the group’s self-conception. Above all, eco-magical practices and rituals were styled as effective means to diminish environmental destruction. Dragon considered the success of environmental campaigning as a direct result of their eco-magical action at protest sites. The quote also illustrates how Dragon perceived its environmental commitment as part of a broader network: a global movement. Whereas the core group involved only approximately three hundred members at Dragon’s heyday in the mid-90s, the group networked widely,59 targeting its ritual work not merely at the earth’s well-being, but also towards the support of fellow eco-activists. As Dragon aligned itself with the work of other (eco-)activist collectives, and a general criticism of politics and industry, it accused political as well as religious establishments of environmental ignorance, embracing green activism to halt environmental destruction and raise environmental awareness.60
Dragon members agreed that along with practical environmental work, eco-magic was the most promising approach to reinforce the earth’s well-being. In the group’s Eco-Magic Journal, members and other eco-spiritual devotees described how eco-magical rituals accompanied their environmental activities.61 These rituals involved drumming, chanting, and dancing at protest sites during direct-action campaigning, but also at sacred sites and music events. Dragon’s central symbol, the ‘Dragon World Tree Rune,’ was ritually charged, drawn on protest sites, and worn by protesters as a talisman for magical protection: “The rune is used in all kinds of magical work and campaigning. Typically, it has been used like a battery, being ‘charged’ in ritual or meditation, and ‘discharged’ in campaigning.”62 Dragon states that many magical traditions inspire their eco-magical work. Founder Adrian Harris, i.e., outlines the primal role of the Wiccan priestess and author Starhawk. Sources from which the members of Dragon drew their inspiration, however, were not confined to specific magical traditions. Goddess worship, British counterculture, psychedelic culture, and Earth Mysteries also influenced Dragon’s development.63
One fascinating aspect of Dragon’s eco-magic is the claim of activating earth energies through eco-magical rituals. At campaign sites and at prehistoric sanctuaries throughout Britain, Dragon performed eco-magical rituals to charge energy lines. Members of Dragon referred to such telluric energy lines as ‘dragon lines,’ and emphasized their importance by Dragon’s self-designation. On their homepage they state: “Why are we called ‘Dragon’? The Dragon is an ancient name for the energies of the Earth, and ley-lines are sometimes also called ‘Dragon lines’.”64 The ‘dragon energies,’ which Dragon claimed to rise by virtue of their eco-magical rituals, supposedly recharged and cleansed sacred sites and their immediate surroundings. Energy lines occupied a crucial position in their eco-magic rituals, as Dragon believed these recharged lines would assist their spiritual endeavor to protect endangered natural space.65 Dragon’s rituals integrated those ideas cemented in British alternative spirituality. The Earth Mystery movement, along Michell’s concepts paved the way for this evolving dissemination of similar concepts. Let us elaborate more closely on how Michell initiated the energy discourse, shaping Dragon’s and other eco-pagan’s conceptions of earth energies.
As discussed above, during the 1960s the energy discourse was integrated in the set of beliefs that characterized the Earth Mystery movement. Michell’s The View Over Atlantis proved an influential source for the evolving discourse on telluric energies. There Michell wrote: “There are places all over the earth, spots associated with strong supernatural or spiritual manifestations, which have been spoken of as centres of terrestrial magnetic current.”66 His theories were initially limited to such energetically-charged sacred places. Later, however, he augmented this claim with a theory on energy lines, connecting such energetic places. The nature of the energy in question varied: in some instances, Michell bases his energy concept on previous theories by the German physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815) and his Animal Magnetism. In other cases, he draws on the ideas of German chemist Carl Ludwig von Reichenbach (1788–1896) and his Odic force, or those of the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957) and his orgone energy.67 In other works, Michell defines the concept of energy in terms of an intrinsic component of the earth and its natural environments, dating it back to primordial times. Michell portrays these ‘archetypal,’ terrestrial energies as Chinese energy currents, so-called lung-mei or ‘dragon paths.’ In the context of dragon myths, Michell interprets certain historical sites as ‘dragon sites’ and their associated earth energies as ‘dragon currents.’68 Chinese telluric energies, he suggests, are linked with British ley lines:
The Chinese lung-mei and the leys of Britain have an identical function, for the Chinese believe that lung-mei stretch over the entire globe. Many centres of the English dragon legend stand at the junction of well marked leys, and in one case at least the straight line between them is of the highest precision […]. This is the St Michael’s line that runs from Avebury circle to the extreme west of Cornwall.69
Michell underscored his theories on ley lines and earth energies with a comparison to Chinese beliefs in dragon currents, suggesting that both Chinese feng shui and pre-Celtic Druidic geomancy constructed sacred monuments, according to the occurrence of telluric currents. One pivotal idea concerned the prevalence of churches and shrines attributed to Saint Michael, the dragon slayer. Michell wrote that many such sanctuaries devoted to Saint Michael were constructed along a distinctive ley line: “The St Michael line of traditional dragon sites in south-west England.”70 By tying Saint Michael and Chinese dragon currents to his concept of ley lines, Michell revaluates Alfred Watkins’ straight lines, transforming them into pulsating dragon lines.
The View Over Atlantis instated the idea of ley lines and energy currents, while re-popularizing the dragon symbol. Legends and metaphors concerning dragons and dragon slayers originate in British folklore, remaining popular in British alternative and vernacular religions, albeit in modified forms.71 The View Over Atlantis draws on this rich cultural history of dragon legends. By linking ley lines, energy currents, and sacred places to legends of dragons and dragon slayings, the book promotes the re-popularization of the dragon motif. Michell supports this endeavor with Chinese geomancy. Chinese geomancers, as Michell argues, arranged the entire Chinese landscape, along with its dwellings, temples, and roads, according to the principles of feng shui. By this logic, the so-called ‘dragon pulse,’ which Michell interprets as magnetic currents, permeates the Chinese landscape. In The View Over Atlantis, Michell assumes that British ley and energy lines correspond to Chinese dragon paths. At the intersection of important leys, he claims that the dragon pulse is particularly discernible,72 crediting ley intersection points with a high concentration of earth energy. Notably, Michell’s designated energy spots correspond to places deemed sacred by eco-spiritual groups,73 and unsurprisingly, Dragon’s eco-magical rituals also occurred for the most part at such sacred places.
Besides Dragon, other eco-pagan groups and networks integrated the notion of the dragon into their set of beliefs and rituals. The Paganlink Network, for example, covered the topic of rituals involving earth energies in magazines and booklets prior to Dragon, including the booklet Awakening the Dragon: Practical Paganism, Political Ritual and Active Ecology (c.1989). This text by Rich Westwood and John Walbridge achieved cult status among British eco-pagans.74 Paul Devereux’s Dragon Project constitutes another striking example. Founded in 1977, the project, still active today, targets the measurement and documentation of unusual energy streams.75 The Donga Tribe, an eco-pagan group devoted to direct action, likewise applied earth energies as part of their rituals and environmental campaigns. ‘Donga’ Alex Plows described in Dragon’s Eco-Magic Journal such a ritual during an environmental campaign in 1992:
We would sometimes spend all night in ritual, and then take the energy down the Hill to the diggers. One morning, after a night of ritual, with everyone painted up, we ran down the Hill along the currents of earth energy. The workers were freaked and stopped work.76
Plows clearly applies the jargon of the Earth Mystery movement, especially the use of terms such as ‘currents of earth energy,’ suggesting the direct influence of John Michell’s theories. By comparing Plows description of an eco-magical ritual to a similar account by Michell, parallels are further evidenced:
At certain seasons the [ley] lines […] were believed to become animated by a current of invisible energy, and on one particular day, when the current was at its zenith, certain magic rites were performed by which the fertilizing influences were drawn through the land.77
While the two rituals in question pursue different objectives (a campaign contesting a construction site versus fertilizing rituals), the association with earth energies constitutes their shared precondition for success. Michell’s application of energy lines, as the underpinning concept in his eco-spiritual arguments, has significantly shaped subsequent endeavors, paving the way for the symbiosis of Earth Mysteries and energy discourse – a symbiosis which closely corresponds with Dragon’s eco-magical rituals.
Taking the English landscape as point of departure, the modern variations of eco-spirituality have been highlighted throughout. The ideas of one of the major players of England’s eco-spiritual field, John Michell, are echoed in the Earth Mystery movement’s ideas and actions. Drawing on speculative theories, the movement aimed to prove nature’s sacred properties, and the attendant urgency to protect specific, energetically-charged sites, and the wider environment. These motives were actioned by Earth Mystery’s designated father, the English writer John Michell, a dweller in many different worlds, with Earth Mysteries and alternative archaeology as some of his earliest and most favorite playgrounds. As noted, Michell, published widely on Earth Mysteries, significantly contributing to key topics and activities of the Earth Mystery movement. Despite Michell’s notable role in British alternative religion in the second half of the twentieth century, little attention has been paid to his influence on a large swathe of eco-spiritual devotees. The present study has thus aimed to enhance understanding of Michell’s role, detailing his involvement in British eco-spiritual movements.
Further, this study seeks to contribute to a better understanding of late twentieth century, countercultural spirituality. As shown across case studies, the second half of the twentieth century witnessed an increasing segmentation of religious groups, mostly considering themselves as opposed to perceived ‘mainstream’ or ‘conventional’ religion. One narrative shared among these countercultural groups, as demonstrated, was the perception of the sacredness of nature. While the means of worshipping or protecting sacred nature varied significantly across groups, their shared narrative yields parallels across these groups. In tracing narratives, with Michell’s concepts at the center, a better understanding of the big picture of contemporary spiritualities arises with respect to eco-spiritualities and activisms. Michell is a predominant protagonist, as his ideas influenced the behavior and beliefs of several alternative religious groups, bridging them by means of his thematic underpinnings. This study uses Michell, crop circles, and the Dragon Environmental Network to outline the basic features of contemporary spiritualities and their integrative narratives.
Michell’s belief in the value of landscape did not arise from an environmentalist perspective but was rather grounded in his Traditionalist worldview. As Michell portrays the English landscape as a hitherto unknown source for pursuing ancient knowledge, he remains enigmatic on the precise quality of this knowledge. His oeuvre reveals his belief that the preservation of what he perceived as England’s ancient fields and hills is key to unravelling the landscape’s concealed, spiritual revelations. On several occasions, Michell emphasizes that the general well-being of the environment depends on the preservation of England’s pristine natural features. By means of terrestrial geometry and numerology, he aims to ‘read’ England’s landscape, triggering similar claims by the Earth Mystery movement. Especially his interpretations of ley lines, energy spots, and the revitalization of dragon myths contributed to the popularization and dissemination of his theories. In inspecting the recent history of British alternative religion and eco-spirituality, Michell’s impact becomes evident.
I have discussed two distinctive examples affiliated with the Earth Mystery movement. The first example pertained to cerealogy, the recent and short-lived enthusiasm for crop circles. This is a classic case of Earth Mysteries and perfectly illustrates Michell’s influence. Michell’s affinity to crop circles was based on the remarkable geometrical patterns of such crop circles and the symbolism that he ascribed to them. Crop circles harmonized with Michell’s eco-spiritual and numerological considerations. Circlemakers, in turn, derived much of their inspiration from Michell’s manifold numerological and geometrical theories. Michell’s direct association with cerealogy is shown clearly by his own, well-documented involvement as an editor of books and magazines and as an organizer of conferences and competitions. This has also resulted in a demonstrable direct impact of his theories and books on the creators of crop circles. The second example took the eco-pagan Dragon Environmental Network into consideration. Dragon has assumed the existence of unusual energy currents that were linked to the mythology of the dragon. It performed its eco-magical rituals predominantly at places traditionally associated with dragon slayings, using dragon energies. Dragon believed that these telluric energies were essential means for the protection of sacred places and their surrounding landscape. The group thus drew on speculative theories about energy lines, sacred sites, and dragon legends, which were prominently advocated by Michell. The theories in questions were not confined to Michell’s oeuvre, however their embedment within Michell’s extremely popular books merited particular attention. Thus, while there was no direct reception of Michell in Dragon, Michell’s discursive impact paved the way for Dragon’s conceptualization of dragon energies. Accordingly, the group’s references to Michellian core topics and terms underpin the argument of Michell’s leading role in the British eco- spiritual field.
While the first case, cerealogy, showed Michell’s involvement in eco- spirituality, the second case shed light on Michell’s discursive impact on eco-spiritual groups. This paper therefore suggests that Michell’s influence on theories related to eco-spirituality was vast, if subtle. By means of his extensive oeuvre and his speculative theories on earth energies, he substantially contributed to the thematic priorities of the Earth Mystery movement. Though certain eco-spiritual groups are neither aware of Michell’s work, nor of his impact on Earth Mysteries, as argued, he nonetheless laid much of the foundation for contemporary eco-spiritual thought and action in Britain. For a minority of believers, Michell indeed re-enchanted the British landscape.
Marleen Thaler holds degrees in Social and Cultural Anthropology, Oriental Studies, and Religious Studies, all from the University of Vienna. Her current projects involve her PhD research on modern kundalini discourses (funded by the FWF, the Austrian Science Fund, and the OeAD, the Austrian Agency for Education and Internationalisation) and her monograph on John Michell’s Sacred Place Theory, which will be published in 2023 by Equinox. At the moment Marleen conducts research at UC Santa Barbara, California.
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See Alper, How Religion Intersects With Americans’ Views on the Environment, for recent poll results on religious groups’ views on climate change and related matters.
The notion of nature is ambiguous, and its frame is vague. It may be defined as “the physical world, including all living beings beyond the control of human culture” (Sullivan, Nature, p. 324). In religious contexts, however, nature plays several roles that exceeds this basic definition. The scholar of environmental thought and culture, Adrian Ivakhiv suggests several nature metaphors that cover most religiously colored interpretations, i.e., nature as resource, nature as home, or nature as spirit (see Ivakhiv, Claiming Sacred Ground, p. 38). Michell’s distinctive understanding of nature shall be addressed below.
Eco-spiritual modes of interaction include means of protection (i.e., eco-activism or rituals) or communication (i.e., between energy healers and the earth at energy spots or so-called earth vortexes). Scholarly publications concerning eco-spirituality and related topics have grown exponentially since the 1990s. Tucker, Religion and Ecology, and Sponsel, Spiritual Ecology and Radical Environmentalism provide useful surveys of the field.
While many books and papers mention Michell, there are few scholarly studies on his theories. Most references shed light on Michell from an emic perspective only, with the notable exceptions of Nicholson, The Times of the Signs; Hale, John Michell; and Thaler, How Modern is Technology.
See Næss, Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, p. 163.
Taylor, Introduction, p. x.
For a critical reading of deep ecology, see Garrard, Ecocriticism.
See Taylor, Introduction, pp. xiv–xvii; Taylor, Dark Green Religion, p. 505 et seq.
For the sake of lucidity, in this paper I follow Sponsel’s suggestion to apply ‘eco-spirituality’ as an umbrella term for this vast and complex field (see Sponsel, Spiritual Ecology and Radical Environmentalism, p. 220).
See Sponsel, Spiritual Ecology and Radical Environmentalism, p. 220 et seq.
Christian faiths, e.g., consider nature as a crucial part of God’s creation and thus sacred. Pope Francis gained notable attention for his religious environmentalism. See Burton, Pope Francis’s Radical Environmentalism.
See Taylor, Earth First!, p. 518.
A comprehensive introduction into Savitri Devi’s thought and work is yet to be written. For a biographical account, see Goodrick-Clarke, Hitler’s Priestess.
The school of Traditionalism was founded by the French philosopher René Guénon (1886–1951) in the first half of the twentieth century and ideologically redirected by the Italian Traditionalist Julius Evola (1898–1974). In general, Traditionalism favours the past over the present and thus considers modernity as a regressive condition. For a comprehensive introduction into Guénon’s Traditionalism, see Sedgwick, Against the modern world.
For an introduction into eco-spiritual concepts of terrestrial energies, see Thaler, Gaia’s Subtle Energies.
See Ivakhiv, Earth Mysteries, p. 528; Sheeran, The Ideology of Earth Mysteries, p. 67 et seq.
See Stout, What’s Real, and What is Not, p. 3 et seq.
See Hutton, Modern Druidry and Earth Mysteries, p. 324; Michell, The View Over Atlantis, p. 8 et seq.
See Ivakhiv, Earth Mysteries, p. 528.
The energetic shift, as carried forward by Michell, was initially influenced by various factors, such as the growing popularity in flying saucers and theories associated with the New Age. An even earlier advocate of telluric energy lines in the context of Earth Mysteries was the occultist Dion Fortune (1890–1946). She believed that ancient sacred sites emitted earth energies, which subsequently disseminated throughout the country (see Fortune, Glastonbury, p. 90).
Two authors have significantly shaped modern perception of the earth as mother: Robert Graves (1895–1985) and and James Lovelock (1919–2022). The former with his influential book The White Goddess (1948), the latter with his book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979) – better known as the Gaia Hypothesis.
See Hutton, Modern Druidry and Earth Mysteries, p. 322; Ivakhiv, Earth Mysteries, p. 526 et seq.
See Screeton, John Michell, p. 2.
The term ‘Traditionalism’ needs to be distinguished from the term ‘radical Traditionalism.’ While the former concerns a philosophical school that cherishes and discusses the merits of past ages, ‘radical Traditionalism’ further underlines the importance of (political) actions against modern society. The meaning of ‘radical Traditionalism’ mostly pertains to an ideology advocated by Evola. This notwithstanding, the term was not coined by Evola himself but by Michell, who frequently used the term to describe the context of his ideas. (See Hale, John Michell, p. 92).
See Screeton, John Michell, p. 3.
See Lachman, The Old Stones of Notting Hill, p. 39.
See Michell, A Rad-Trad Englishman, and an Italian, p. 130.
The small Somerset town runs like the spine through Michell’s work. In books like The View Over Atlantis (1969), New Light on the Ancient Mystery of Glastonbury (1990), or The Traveller’s Guide to Sacred England: A Guide to the Legends, Lore and Landscapes of England’s Sacred Places (2003), Michell credited Glastonbury with an outstanding sacred character and history, leading back to ancient times. For a comprehensive overview of Glastonbury’s association with untold myths and legends, also see Ivakhiv, Claiming Sacred Ground, pp. 93–142.
See Michell, The View Over Atlantis, p. 191.
See Godwin, The John Michell Reader, p. 1.
See Michell, The View Over Atlantis, p. 189 et seq.
See Michell, The View Over Atlantis, p. 166.
Michell, The View Over Atlantis, p. 34 et seq.
See especially Irving and Lundberg, The Field Guide, which provides a great introduction into various perceptions of the crop circle phenomenon.
The term ‘cerealogy’ derives from Ceres, the Roman goddess of vegetation. However, there is no consistency in its spelling. While ‘cerealogy’ is most common, ‘cereology’ is also in use (see Ivakhiv/Thomas, Crop Circles, p. 439).
For an introduction into the religious appropriation of science, i.e., scientism (similar terms are also in use), see, e.g., Hammer, Claiming Knowledge.
See Irving/Lundberg, The Field Guide, pp. 10–12, 70–72.
Ivakhiv/Thomas, Crop Circles, p. 439.
Irving/Lundberg, The Field Guide, p. iii et seq.
See Ivakhiv/Thomas, Crop Circles, p. 439.
The best-known case of such a ‘saucer nest’ occurred in 1966. In the town of Tully, Queensland, Australia, a farmer called George Pedley reported the sighting of a rising flying saucer. According to Pedley’s report, the flying saucer’s take-off had caused a bare patch of swirling reeds. Pedley’s report of the Tully saucer nest was followed by similar accounts of such nests throughout Australia and Europe. See Irving/Lundberg, The Field Guide, pp. 49–53.
See Irving/Lundberg, The Field Guide, p. 50 et seq.
Irving/Lundberg, The Field Guide, p. 61 et seq.
Devereux, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Ancient Earth Mysteries, p. 46.
Michell, in Screeton, John Michell, p. 57.
See Irving/Lundberg, The Field Guide, p. 97.
Michell/Brown, Crooked Soley, p. 57.
The title of the magazine changed over time. While the first and last issues were labelled The Cereologist, from the eighth until the nineteenth issue, the magazine carried the title The Cerealogist.
Besides The Cerealogist, the most important journals that exclusively treated the crop circle phenomenon were The Circular (published by the Centre for Crop Circle Studies from 1990 until 2005) and Sussex Circular (edited by cerealogy’s heavyweight Andy Thomas from 1994 until 2000). Other journals that included articles or special issues on crop circles are for instance Awareness, Bufora, Enigma, Flying Saucer Review, or Magonia, among others. See The Croppie, Documents.
The scope of this paper does not allow to outline Michell’s multifarious activities. Another pivotal event was the International Crop Circle Making Competition in 1992, which Michell co-organised with Rupert Sheldrake. It caused a lot of media attention and lively interest from different parties (see Sheldrake, The Crop Circle Making Competition, pp. 74–76).
See Irving/Lundberg, The Field Guide, pp. 95–100.
Irving/Lundberg, The Field Guide, p. 101.
See Irving/Lundberg, The Field Guide, p. 102.
Adrian Harris and Andrew Hill designed a homepage in 1990, the year of the network’s origin. While the last update on the network’s homepage was in December 2015, the group has continued its exchange on social media. Its Facebook group ‘Dragon Environmental Network’ has remained moderately active since its creation in 2010 and comprises around 230 members. Other past activities involved the Dragon Eco-Magic Journal, which was published annually from 2001 until 2005; a newsletter, which Dragon sent to its members four times a year; the Dragon Eco-Magic Conference, held in 2000; and eco-magic courses. See Harris, Frequently Asked Questions; Letcher, Raising the Dragon, p. 186 et seq.
Against the backdrop of the protection and defence of nature’s well-being, Letcher merges various British eco-spiritual groups under the designation of eco-paganism. First and foremost, they share the goal of political and social change within the framework of religious environmentalism. While affiliation or sympathy with contemporary paganism is of secondary importance, eco-pagans nonetheless differ from fellow green activists. The most distinctive feature are their means of action (see Letcher, Eco-Paganism, p. 556 et seq.; York, Pagan Spirituality and Politics, p. 1 et seq.)
Also spelled eco-magick or ekomagic (see Letcher, Raising the Dragon, p. 182).
See Harris, Dragon Environmental Network, p. 507; Letcher, Raising the Dragon, p. 187.
Harris, Frequently Asked Questions.
See Harris, Dragon Environmental Network, p. 507.
See Letcher, Eco-Paganism, p. 556.
See Harris, The Ecology of Magic; Plows, Earth Magic.
Harris, Pagan Activism.
See Harris, Eco-magic, p. 554; Letcher, Raising the Dragon, p. 189.
Harris, Frequently Asked Questions.
See Harris, Eco-magic, p. 554; Letcher, Raising the Dragon, p. 189.
Michell, The View Over Atlantis, p. 166.
See Michell, The View Over Atlantis, pp. 76–78. For a discussion on the development of the energy discourse, see, e.g., Baier, Meditation und Moderne.
See Michell, The Flying Saucer Vision, p. 146; Michell, The View Over Atlantis, p. 63 et seq.
Michell, The View Over Atlantis, p. 61, original emphasis.
Michell, The View Over Atlantis, p. 64.
For a detailed study on British appropriations and recent manifestations of dragon legends, see Letcher, Raising the Dragon, pp. 178–182.
See Letcher, Raising the Dragon, pp. 179–182; Michell, The View Over Atlantis, p. 61.
See Letcher, Raising the Dragon, p. 190.
See Letcher, Raising the Dragon, p. 183.
See Devereux, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Ancient Earth Mysteries, p. 58 et seq.
Plows, Earth Magic.
Michell, The View Over Atlantis, p. 41.