Nov 2008 - Andy Norfolk

The Songlines of Cornwall

A presentation at North Hill Village Hall by Andy Norfolk

My only experience of Songlines (or Dreamlines as perhaps they should more accurately be called) was of standing in the raking heat of the red heart of Australia and asking, rather too casually as it happened, if I could dowse for one. The sudden and strident ‘no’ took me by complete surprise, and all but threw the rods out of my hands. So much for Songlines, then!

Andy Norfolk got the Tamar Dowsers winter season of talks off to an excellent start with his comparison of the better known Australian aboriginal concept of the Songline with indigenous Cornish folk tales that have many characteristics in common.

The antipodean version is a mixture of tribal legend and creation myth. It embodies the sense of deep integration of the individual with the land they inhabit. To the aboriginal outlook, their country is not so much a place ‘out there’ as a feeling of concurrent existence within a wider consciousness. In the west, we are just starting to discover, or maybe that should be rediscover, that state of mind. It is implicit in the writings of James Lovelock and others, when discussing the concept of Gaia - the world as an entity in itself, which includes us. Even in Australia the western view of a simplistic animation of the features of the landscape is giving way to a more even-handed understanding of the different perspectives of native Australians, old and new.

Andy has researched the various texts of this much-troubled subject, and he has extracted a list of aspects of the Australian Songline phenomenon that define it as something very distinctive. It helps to explain the relationship of geological features to a shared history - and it presents the resulting mixture as a recordable narrative, which could be transmitted orally through subsequent generations. Most importantly for the dowser, it combines the subtlety and power of an almost tangible mythology with the hard-edged features of a modern-day topological map. A Songline may be eternal, but it should be capable of being dowsed in the here and now - with permission, of course.

Are Songlines features that are unique to an Australian culture that is gradually slipping away - or are they just one well-known example of an archetype that can be found across the globe, even very close to home?

Andy quoted the work of John Michel, who sought to create some clarity in the long-running debate on the essence of ley lines. One of the main criticisms of the ley features, as found by the late Alfred Watkins, was that they seemed to link sacred and ancient sites across a vast spectrum of historical time. Supporters argued that the sites were merely built sequentially on previously used sacred places, but to the sceptics this was a fatal flaw. So, Michel sought to find a series of lines, where the nodal points were all aligned and all of much the same date. He found them in Penwith - standing stones, barrows, stone circles and cairns, all reasonably well dated to the late Bronze or early Iron Ages, marching across the landscape in arrow-straight alignments.

Where Andy Norfolk has made a connection that is unique in my experience, is that he has taken the concept of the Songline as part of the Akashic record, which embodies the living traditions of countless generations of ancestors - and he has applied it here in the far South West.

The traditional stories of old Cornwall are a strange mixture of the unpredictable and the unfathomable. Seemingly implausible stories of giants and mythical creatures, witches and warlocks are told against a backdrop of real places. Some of those real places have been renamed, while others have all but disappeared - yet there is enough evidence from the archives to match at least some of the stories with locations on the 21st century Ordinance Survey map. It is quite possible that the strange style and vocabulary not only encrypts history for all time for those in the know, but also provides a cipher to prevent the unwelcome understanding of outsiders.

Even more strikingly, some of these stories actually correspond quite well to the verified leys that John Michel documented. The legends that speak of giants or monstrous creatures throwing rocks or weapons from place to place certainly indicate that the routes mentioned in the various texts were straight. If the Cornish tales that have survived in a fragmented and degraded form do in fact relate to a time when the standing stones and the burial mounds were being constructed - or at least were still in use - then those stories could possibly relate to a half-remembered history of real events from the pre-Roman times.

It is clearly stretching academic credulity even further to equate a Celtic tradition, maybe 3,000 - 4,000 years old, with the quite separate dreamtime Australian tradition, which anthropologists now feel may be upwards of 10,000 years old. However, as with many of the elements of practical dowsing, the concept is often more important than the detail.

Andy was asked if he had looked into similar ideas that might exist in the lore of the native North Americans. So far he hasn’t. But ley lines and earth energy lines exist all over the world, as readers of the TD archives will know only too well. So, it is quite likely that many of the ancient myths and legends of countries and communities across the planet may well have effectively recorded the interconnection with their own sense of place, for example in epic Greek stories and Norse poems.

It is apparent that Andy has alighted on a niche subject that could be a vital missing link between the intangible, faint and distant echo of folk memory and the very tangible everyday experience of the living dowser.

The Songlines of the Celtic, Nordic and Teutonic lands should be much closer in culture to our own heritage than their distant interpretation down under. So, hopefully, we will get a more positive response when we come to follow up this fascinating strand of dowsing for ourselves. Let’s get the rods out and see!

My thanks to Andy Norfolk for journeying up from Penwith to talk to us - and to all those who helped with the refreshments and the arrangements for the hall.

Nigel Twinn

Tamar Dowsers

November 2008