In 1921 an amateur archaeologist named Alfred Watkins noticed on a map that various ancient monuments and spiritual places were aligned in a straight line. He spent the following years researching the phenomenon of what he termed ley lines, and in 1925 published The Old Straight Track in which he proposed that they were traders’ tracks dating back to the Stone Age.
The idea was taken up in the 1960s, when interest in the occult led to theories that they might be lines of energy or magnetic nodes. There was talk too about UFOs being attracted by ley lines. By the 1970s ley hunters began to split into two camps: one that researched possible ancient tracks; and one that investigated lines of energy running through the earth, akin to meridian lines in acupuncture. Nowadays the notion of energy lines has become widely accepted, and Glastonbury Tor is held to derive its power from standing at a conjunction of those of St Michael and St Mary.
There’s nothing specially New Age about the notion of place and power. For the Romans it was taken for granted that places had a spirit of place – the genus loci. Personified, it became the guardian deity of the locale.
Down the ages artists and writers have tried to capture the spirit of place in painting and words. In modern times D.H. Lawrence was instrumental in popularising the notion:
‘Different places on the face of the earth have different vital effluence, different vibration, different chemical exhalation, different polarity with different stars: call it what you like. But the spirit of place is a great reality.’
You’d expect animist religions to be sensitive to the spirit of place, and many Shinto shrines are clearly situated at places that resonate with power. Some are associated with striking natural phenomena, such as Nachi Shrine located by a waterfall radiating negative ions. Others celebrate holy hills, sacred rocks and sites of spirituality.
‘There were no bogs before Dickens, no sunsets before Turner,’ said the great Oscar Wilde. It’s a typical Wildean paradox, startling yet true in its own way. It shows the significance of celebrating the physical world in art and religion, by helping us see things as if for the very first time. For me the great attraction of Shinto and paganism lies precisely in this: in helping us be more aware of the spirit of place, of the wonder of creation, of the special qualities of place and natural phenomena.
Recent years have seen a boom in ‘power spots’ in Japan, many of which are famous or ancient shrines. How far this has borrowed from New Age notions in the West I’m not sure, but the boom was sparked by a television programme about psychic matters called Aura no izumi (Well-spring of the aura), starring Ehara Hiroyuki. One of his books Shinkikou (2005) promoted the idea of power spots. I’ve got some of the popular power spot series which followed, based on a mix of tourism and whatever special power the place or shrine is traditionally thought to possess.
Booms come and go in Japan, but as long as humans don’t destroy it the spirit of place will continue undaunted. Shinto shrines mark its most striking manifestation, and I’m pleased to announce in this respect the beginnings of a new website on Shinto Shrines by my collaborator, Joseph Cali. Please see http://shintoshrinesofjapanblogguide.blogspot.jp/