Originally published in Vol 59, no 1, Autumn 2019 issue of The American Dowser, the journal of the American Society of Dowsers.
Folklore has numerous tales of great heroes or saints killing dragons that are terrorising the countryside. Saint George is the best-known dragon-killing saint in Britain of course, but Saint Andrew is also sometimes shown slaying a dragon, such as on the war memorial in Kelso (Fig 1).
Other dragon-slaying saints include Saint Margaret of Antioch, Saint Theodore of Amasaea, Saint Martha, and Saint Michael the archangel to name just a few. Many cultures have comparable stories; for instance, some ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs depict people performing ‘serpent management’ with long lances, and Japan has the story of the storm god Susanoo slaying the multi-headed sea dragon Yamata no Orochi.
In geomantic lore, these dragon-slaying legends are metaphors for the act of foundation of churches or other sacred spaces with a ceremony of earth acupuncture. This ‘pinning the dragon’ fixes the meandering serpentine earth currents in place to allow the telluric energies to empower the structure. So, whenever we come across tales about heroes slaying dragons, it frequently indicates something of geomantic interest. A dragon story from Northumbria illustrates this idea.
The folklore ballad The Laidley Worm of Spindlestone Heugh is about a dragon associated with Bamburgh Castle (‘laidley’ or ‘laidly’ means ‘loathsome’). The story tells of a king whose second marriage was to an evil and cold-hearted sorceress, who so disliked the king’s daughter Princess Margaret that she turned her into a fearful dragon. The ‘worm’ was chased out of the castle and took refuge in a shallow cave at Spindlestone Heugh, a whinstone outcropping a few miles to the west, where it laid waste to the countryside in a seven-mile radius, devouring everything it came across. Local people consulted a mighty warlock in the area, who told them that the beast could only be appeased by being fed with the milk from seven cattle brought to it daily at sunset and poured into a trough at the foot of the Spindlestone, a natural rock column on the escarpment that the dragon liked to coil around (the site is still marked as ‘Laidley Worm’s Trough’ on maps).
For seven miles east and seven miles west,
And seven miles north and south,
No blade of grass or corn would grow,
So deadly was her mouth.
The milk of seven streakit cows,
It was their cost to keep;
They brought her daily which she drank
Before she went to sleep.
At this day might be seen the cave
Where she lay faulded up,
And the trough o’ stone the very same
Out of which she supped.
News of the dragon spread widely, and eventually reached the ears of Margaret’s brother, the Prince known as ‘Childe Wynd’, who was abroad on a long sea voyage. He immediately set sail to return to Bamburgh ‘with three-and-thirty men’, prepared to kill the worm and take his revenge on the evil Queen. But she raised a terrible storm at sea as he approached Bamburgh, forcing him to sail his ship into Budle Bay to the north of the castle, where the dragon lay in wait on the clifftops. Leaping ashore, the Prince raised his sword to strike down the fearsome worm, but at that point he heard his sister’s voice whispering in his ear, insisting that he must stay his sword and instead kiss the dragon three times ‘before the sun has set’ to release the enchantment. Overcoming his revulsion, he did so, landing the final kiss just as the sun was setting, whereupon the dragon transformed back into his dear sister Meg.
O’ quit thy sword, unbend thy brow,
And give me kisses three;
For though I am a poisonous worm,
No hurt I’ll do to thee.
O’ quit thy sword, unbend thy brow,
And give me kisses three;
If I’m not won ere the sun goes down,
Won shall I never be. So,
He quitted his sword and smoothed his brow,
And gave her kisses three;
She crept into the hole a worm,
And came out a fayre lady.
Returning to the castle with a wand of protective rowan wood formed from the keel of his ship, the reunited siblings confronted the evil stepmother, turning her magic back upon herself and transforming her into a large venomous toad, which they chased into the well of the castle keep where it is said to still reside.
There are a number of clues in this folk tale that suggests it may contain some geomantic truths worthy of further exploration. The first clue, of course, is the mention of a dragon. As we know, dragons are frequently used as metaphor for the serpentine flows of telluric energies. Looking at a map of the area, it is clear that Spindlestone Heugh escarpment is a geological fault line, so one might expect strong earth energy manifestations and possibly even minor earthquakes around the area.
Then we have the occurrence of sacred numbers in the text, in particular the number seven and the number 33 in the ‘three and thirty’ men that Childe Wynd brought as his crew. 33 is considered a ‘Master Number’ (along with 11 and 22) in numerological circles, and has many correspondences, not least being the 33 degrees of Scottish Rite Freemasonry. It can be considered to represent an enlightened or ‘perfected’ state of being.
The number seven has sacred and mystical associations by the bucketload across all cultures. In sacred geometry, it is known as ‘the virgin’, because it cannot be divided by any number less than seven and produces no other number by multiplication within the first dekad of ten numbers. A 7-sided regular polygon, or heptagon, is the only figure that cannot be precisely produced using the traditional geometer’s tools of straightedge and compasses; we can only attain a close approximation of the form.
A 7-sided figure is impossible to draw
With perfect mathematical precision;
And if you try to do it you are absolutely sure
To find your efforts treated with derision.
And yet there are philosophers who readily declare
That nothing in this world is really true,
And so I’ve drawn a heptagon by triangle and square,
For any human purpose it will do.
– John Michell
The feeding of the dragon with milk from seven cows is suggestive of a link to the goddess Bride or Brigid, whose sacred animal is the cow, and whose feast day is February 1st or Imbolc, one of the eight fire festivals of the Celtic year. Perhaps the seven in the text alludes to the remaining festivals? Seven of course could also represent the number of days in the week, but in either case some calendrical significance seems implied.
It is also tempting to interpret the seven as referring to energy centres or chakras in the manner of Peter Dawkins’ and Gatekeeper Trust’s ‘Zoence’ system. Peter describes these ‘landscape temples’ as having an ‘integral geomantic energy system with a complete set of chakras’, and much of his work involves pilgrimage through these landscape temples. This analogy works rather well in this instance if we consider the Laidley Worm, coiled around the Spindlestone, as a metaphor for the Kundalini energy that lies coiled like a serpent at the base of the spine. However, imposing this Eastern mystical system on such an alignment is an entirely modern conceit so I don’t feel that it is necessary to anthropomorphise the ley in this way. However, it is an interesting analogy and can certainly be a valid way to engage with the landscape.
The name Imbolc may derive from a Proto-European word meaning both ‘milk’ and ‘cleansing’, although it is most commonly thought to derive from ‘ewe’s milk’, indicating the start of the lambing season1https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imbolc#Etymology. Actually, many folklore tales of dragons seem to involve placating them milk; in another Northumbrian tale, the Lambton Worm has to be fed daily with the milk from nine cows. This idea probably descends from earlier folklore tales about serpents suckling on cows, an association that dates back at least as far as Roman times2 Pursuing the analogy that serpents and dragons represent meandering flows of earth energy, could this metaphor conceivably explain the apparent affinity that cows have for stone circles? Or am I barking up the wrong scratching post here? .
That the feeding of the Laidley Worm had to take place at sunset suggests that there may be a solar alignment involved. On studying the map, I discovered that there is a tiny island off the coast, one of the Farne Islands, with the name of ‘Megstone’. I can’t find any connection with the Princess Margaret of the story, but it seemed likely that there is some relation given the use of the diminutive name. The Farne Islands are the easternmost outcrop of the same whinstone ridge of the Spindlestone, so they are connected by the ‘dragon’ of the geological fault line. Furthermore, an alignment drawn from Megstone through the rock pillar of the Spindlestone runs over Chattonpark Hill, a Neolithic settlement with an extensive collection of cup and ring-marked stones, and on to Windy Gyle, a 619m peak lying on the border between England and Scotland with a Bronze Age burial cairn and a fallen standing stone called ‘Split the De’il’ (Devil) on its summit (Fig. 2).
This alignment has an azimuth of 239 degrees, which is the direction of the Imbolc (and Samhain) sunset at this latitude (Fig. 3). This is the astronomical information that is encoded in the tale and explains why the sunset plays a significant part in the story. Of course, it is also entirely possible that the reverse alignment was of interest to the ancient peoples living in the settlement on Chattonpark Hill. I haven’t checked this, but if the Spindlestone is visible from Chattonpark Hill, it should mark the position of the rising sun at Beltane and Lughnasadh (May 1/ Aug 1). The cup and ring marks may have been carved to record this sightline.
There are other ‘worm’ tales associated with the north-east of England, such as the Lambton Worm of Wearside, the Linton Worm of the Scottish Borders (of which more in a moment), and the Sockburn Worm of the Tees valley, which has links with Durham Cathedral and is thought to be the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. Some historians speculate that these dragon stories allude to the serpent-like meandering explorations of an invading army unfamiliar with the territory, which in this area probably means Viking raiders in their dragon-prowed longships. This seems a little simplistic to me, but if we accept this idea of a Viking origin for the story, could the Laidley Worm tale be a distorted folk memory preserving some encoded information used by Viking navigators? A radius of seven miles around the Spindlestone encompasses the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne and also Knivestone, which is the outermost of the Farne Islands and the most hazardous to shipping. Conceivably, sighting for this alignment enabled them to avoid the treacherous Knivestone and the other Farne Islands and safely land their ships in the sheltered waters of Budle Bay.
However, returning to our geomantic interpretation where the dragons represent earth energy flows; Gary Biltcliffe and Caroline Hoare have tracked a long-distance ley alignment running from the Farne Islands, through Bamburgh and on to Iona, which they call the ‘Holy Axis’. As with other long-distance leys, this one carries associated male and female dragon currents that weave around the alignment. The first node point (where both currents cross) on land is in the well in the keep of Bamburgh Castle – the abode of the erstwhile Queen-turned-toad. Frogs and toads have several magical associations in folklore – is this some folk memory of the nodal power centre here? The male dragon current then continues on to pass through the Spindlestone itself on its way towards Scotland, while the female dragon current, after detouring northwards through Lindisfarne castle and priory, swings southwards again to cross the border at Kirk Yetholm and Linton, home of the legendary Linton Worm3The female current also runs through the statue of St Andrew pinning the dragon in Kelso, shown in Fig. 1. Thanks to Gary and Caroline for allowing me to share this information. .
So, what are we to make of this tangled web of dragon lore? Is it simply a folk memory of Viking invasions in the area? Or does it record some geomantic knowledge of the landscape, enabling effective land management techniques, perhaps for crop fertility? I tend towards the latter explanation, but either way, there is undoubtedly more in the story that could yet be unravelled. The ‘Childe Wynd’ for example, seems a rather portentous name for the Prince. ‘Childe’ is an Old English term for a young nobleman who has not yet attained knighthood. ‘Wynd’ in this context could mean ‘wind’ and refer to some aspect of weather lore; yet in Old Scots, ‘wynd’ means ‘a narrow lane’, which could be an oblique reference to the ley alignment marking the distant Windy Gyle. ‘Gyle’ is thought to be a Northumbrian word meaning ‘a hollow passage between hills’, which seems appropriate in this context4http://www.cheviotwalks.org/art2.html. The ‘Split the De’il’ stone on the summit definitely sounds like a visual sightline marker, and the ley running to Windy Gyle ‘splits’ the skyline between The Cheviot and Hedgehope Hill (the ‘hollow passage’?). It could also be said to split the ‘Devil’s Causeway’, the name given to the Roman Road of Dere Street, which crosses the alignment almost exactly halfway along its length at roughly 13 miles from both Windy Gyle and Megstone.
Many of these interpretations may seem highly speculative, yet they provide meaning and context to the landscape that is useful to the practising geomancer by creating an intricate psychogeographic tapestry that highlights several nodal points where connection with the genius loci, or Spirit of Place is enhanced. This allows dowsing and geomantic techniques to be profitably applied towards the healing and revitalisation of the land. By approaching the wider landscape in this way, the geomancer becomes psychically connected to the area, enhancing their ability to affect change on a more localised level.
© Grahame Gardner