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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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The hills are alive . . .

Bob Trubshaw

'...with the sound of music' I hear you all chant, grimacing at the thought of Julie Andrews' grin permanently putting paid to Switzerland's credibility. But, as good pagans all, we know the hills are alive and, as I hope to show, they should resound to music.

First, we must journey even further afield, to the Antipodes, where Bruce Chatwin has provided a clear account of how the Australian aborigines link together sacred sites in the landscape by singing the songs that tell of how the various gods live at each place. Only when an aborigine is taught the relevant sacred song can he 'own', that is travel along, the relevant song line.

'Aborigine creation myths tell of legendary totemic beings who had wandered over every continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path - birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes - and so singing the world into existence.' [1]

Each totemic ancestor travelled through the country scattering a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints. The Dreaming tracks lay over the land as 'ways' of communication between far-flung tribes. A song is both map and direction finder. Providing the song is known one could always find the way across country. Chatwin suggests that the whole of Australia could be read as a musical score, where a musical phrase is like a map reference. There is hardly a rock or creek that has not been sung. A heap of boulders may be the eggs of the Rainbow Snake, a lump of reddish sandstone the liver of a speared kangaroo. But also the spaces in between have their songs.

Aboriginals only believe the country exists when they could both see it and sing it. There must be a mental concept - the words of the song - before the landscape can be said to exist. Indeed, all the aborigine words for 'country' are the same as the word for 'line'.

Is the song line the ultimate synthesis of sacred sites, folklore and songs - all linked in the mind as a linear sequence? Could we not imagine our own ancestors walking between sacred sites, recalling the legends and lore associated with each?

The intensity of experience that the traditional aboriginal way of travelling over the earth allows is, without doubt, sacred. But take away the myths and the melodies and what are left? Just a strange assortment of funeral sites, water holes, stone circles, perhaps with a bare vestige of the 'folklore'. Would this, perhaps, be a fair description of our own leys?

That Britain and Ireland may have had a richness of topographical lore similar to the Aborigines' is implied when references to the Irish 'fairy paths' suggest that they are straight lines. The renowned specialist in our early literature, Caitlin Matthews, has written:

'Celtic Tradition reveals that deities and spirits, as well as mythic heroes, were associated with places. Land features, natural outcrops of rock, springs, wells and trees are the loci of these deities, not temples built by men. The Irish dindschencas (place-name stories) relate the topography of Ireland by association with deities and mythic peoples whose great deeds are remembered at particular spots and who gave their names to these loci. The British chroniclers, such as Nennius, reveal a very similar tradition. History is the land beneath our feet. The earth is sacred because it is deeply infused with mythic activity, invisible to mortal sight but perceptible to seers and story-tellers who, in Celtic Tradition, are the priests of the gods.' [2]

Brian Larkman has discussed how, although the anthropologists have translated the aborigines' word into 'dreaming', the true sense may be more that of a non-material reality - closely akin to, say, the non-material energies associated with dowsing. Larkman also emphasises the close similarities between Aboriginal 'rock art' (which, using precise symbolism, narrates the features of a 'song line') and surviving examples of European prehistoric cup-and-ring 'rock art' [3,4].

Other early examples of the use of sound to enhance the sacredness of a place have been recognised in the caves at Ariege beneath the French Pyrenees. These contain extensive paleolithic wall paintings; recently Iegor Reznikoff and Michael Dauvois have found that at certain places very close to significant motifs anyone singing or whistling at the correct pitch will set up dramatic resonances. This is not an isolated example; in later periods temples were designed to amplify sound as part of the ritual procedures. At Hal Saflieni on Malta a voice speaking into a certain recess resonates throughout the vaults. 'The faithful must have listened in awe to a disembodied voice emerging either in whispers or tones of thunder from the depths.' [5]

Bob Dickinson has recently reviewed such examples of sacred resonances in caves, mosques and even English cathedrals, such as Lincoln [6]. In a separate article [7] he has also described the efforts of various avant garde composers to produce environmental music, such as the acoustic 'sculptures' of Max Eastley which use wind or water energies to create and determine the sound. Dickinson, himself a composer and musician, and fully aware of both Earth mysteries and neo-paganism, performed Castle Rigg Improvisations at that stone circle under the full moon at midnight on August 6th 1990. Walking around the perimeter of the circle at a steady, unchanging pace, as each stone was passed he struck a pair of stones together. This created a cyclical rhythm where the sounds and silences were set by the spacing of the stones.

Activities of this kind blur the distinction between 'art' and 'ritual'. Such music is furthest removed from the synthesised products packaged with pictures of rainbows and crystals that feed the gullible market for 'New Age' hype. Substitute the synthesisers and breathy flutes and the same chord sequences could be heard being brayed by the asinine masses at any Sunday church service. Am I alone in thinking that emulation of Victorian hymn-singing is not what the Great Mother wants to hear?

Rather let us go back to the roots of our music - the lullabies and nursery rhymes, the ancient carols and the plaintive wailing of pibroch, the classical Scottish bagpipe music that follows its own musical scale quite removed from the equal-temperament of the keyboard. And do not neglect the ancient melodies of 'Gregorian' chant - these have their origins in the rituals of the pre-christian liturgies, even if the words belong more with the Church [8].

A modern visitor to ancient sacred sites may benefit by attempting to change their world view and attempt to fully experience the numinous integration of ideas conveyed by Matthews' words: 'History is the land beneath our feet.' For us, as residents of the materialistic twentieth century, this is something of an altered state of consciousness. If we endeavour to explore such 'non-material realities' of our landscape perhaps we can begin to resonate with our landscape, begin to experience its sacred places as harmonious vibrations, indeed to make these sites 'sing'. The hills are alive; their music requires the resonances of our bodies and minds.


1: Chatwin, B., The Songlines, Cape, 1987
2: Matthews, C., Arthur and the Sovereignty of Britain, Arkana, 1989
3: Larkman, B., 'Walbiri ways of seeing' in Northern Earth Mysteries, No.4, 1980
4: Pennick, N. and Devereux, P., Lines on the Landscape, Hale, 1989
5: Sibylle van des-Reden The realm of the Great Goddess, Thames and Hudson 1961.
6: 'Sacred resonance' by Bob Dickinson, Markstone No.4, Oct 1990.
7: 'Sounding the landscape', Bob Dickinson, Markstone, No.4, Oct 1990.
8: Folksong-plainsong: a study in musical origins, G.B. Chambers, Merlin Press, 1956.

Part of this article is based on an earlier piece, 'Straight thinking', published in Northern Earth Mysteries No.43, 1990.

Originally published in Touchwood Vol.4 No.21 August 1991.

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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Created April 1996; updated November 2008