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Sacred Places: Prehistory and popular imagination
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'In Heaven as on Earth'

Royal roads and the Milky Way

Penny Drayton

Recent developments in Earth mysteries have focused on the ritual significance of paths, for instance as corpse ways or spirit paths [1]. But there is another way in which roads were seen less as utilitarian routes but rather as deeply embedded in cosmological mythology.

For instance, back in Mercian Mysteries No.12 there was a reprint of an intriguing snippet from a book of 1912 which drew clear links between Watling Street and the Milky Way:

'The plain meaning of Waetlinga straet is 'the road (or street) of the Waetlingas', or 'the sons (or descendants) of Waetla'. Florence of Worcester and Roger of Hoveden both wrote, under the year, of Watling Street as 'the road which the sons . . . of Waetla made across England'.

'I suggest that Waetla was a demi-god or hero of one of the more Teutonic tribes who settled in England during its occupation by the Romans, or soon after their departure, and that to them, or some of them, the Milky Way was then known as Watling Street. Many nations have associated the Milky Way with the idea of a road. The Welsh know it as Hynt St Ialm (St James's Way) and Heol y gwynt, the way of the wind; the Italians as 'the holy street to Loretto'; the Spaniards as 'the road to St Iago' (of Compostella), the Mohammedans as 'the Hadji's way (to Mecca), the Roumanians as 'Trajan's way', after the Emperor who spent much time and executed great works in Dacia.' [2]

Our forefathers knew the Milky Way as Watling Street. Chaucer, writing in the fourteenth century, says:

Now, quod he thoo, cast up thine eye, See yonder, lo, he galoxie, Which men clepeth the milky weye, For hit is white; and some, parfaye (by my faith), callen hyt Watlyng strete.[3]

The complaint of Scotland, a Scottish work of 1549, speaks of the Milky Way as being called by mariners Vatlant (Watlin) streit and Gawin Douglas (1474-1522), in his Virgil's Aenid, terms the Milky Way Watlingstete.

Jacob Grim writes: 'Now it is not unimportant that one of the highways, Waetlinga Steaet, is . . . translated to the sky, and gets to look quite mythical . . . who the Waetlings were, and how they came to give their name to an earthly and a heavenly street, we do not know. . . . Among other nations also fancy and fable have let the names of earthly and heavenly roads run into one another.' [4]

Rydberg writes that 'The Waetlings, after whom the Milky Way is named, are descendents of Vate-Vada, Volund's father', and further, 'Vate, Vada or Ivalde and Waetla are synonyms, and Slagfin-Irung, Volund or Weland, and Orvandel-Egil were Waetla's sons; hence by legend and saga their names were associated with the Milky Way and transferred from Norse to Saxon, crossed to England and took root in both heavenly and earthly ways.' [5]

The same notion of the Milky Way manifesting as a sacred route also emerges in medieval Europe. In Germany it is known as Jacob's Way, presumably linked in some way with the Biblical vision of a ladder ascending to heaven. Although the original source of the information is unclear, it is said that in medieval England the Milky Way was known as the Way of St James. This is, of course, the translation of 'Santiago', the medieval pilgrimage route to Compostella and the shrine of St James [6]. It is quite reasonable to suppose that this is a pre-christian sacred way. Interestingly, in the thirteenth century poem Thurkill's vision a ploughman is taken in a trance to Santiago where he meets St James and sees the souls in Purgatory. Indeed, St James seems to have been seen as something of a psychopomp as there are legends of dying pilgrims being miraculously transported to their destination by the saint's intervention [7].

Royal roads map (6k)

Royal roads

The same work by Duignan also sheds light on a topic discussed by Nigel Pennick and Paul Devereux [8] - that of 'royal roads'. Part of the Law of Edward the Confessor, written in Latin around 1050, translates as: 'the peace of the King is of many kinds, one given under his hand. . . . Another, which the four roads enjoy, to wit, Watlingstrete, Fosse, Hikenildestrete, and Ermingstrete.' These four roads remained in use and are now known as Watling Street, Fosse Way, Ickneild Way and Ermine Street. The Laws of William the Conqueror reaffirm 'on the three royal roads, that is Watelinestrete, Ermingstrete, and Fosse, whoever kills a man passing through the country, or makes assault on him,breaks the King's peace.' A later Norman version of these laws reinstates the Ickneild Way: 'on the four roads, that is Watlinge stret, Erminge stete, Fosse, Hykenild, whoever on any of these four ways kills another who passing through the country, or assaults him, breaks the King's peace.'

Note that there is more than one stretch of 'Roman' road now referred to as Ickneild Way. One road now known by this name (although for no apparent reason) runs from Stow on the Wold to Birmingham and on to Lichfield, Burton, Derby, Alfreton and Chesterfield. The Ickneild Way referred to in the early medieval laws seems to be the prehistoric trackway running from Avebury, via Wantage, Wallingford, Watlington, Princes Risborough, Wendover, Ivinhoe, Dunstable, Hitchin, Baldock, Royston, Newmarket to Norwich (i.e. the territory of the iron age Iceni, whence derives the earliest recorded Old English form icenhilde weg) - a total length of about 140 miles. Perhaps the Royston to Norwich section is Roman rather than prehistoric in origin - possibly the original prehistoric track bifurcated or 'braided' through Norfolk. [9]

Royal road on Man

John Michell has researched the concept of sacred central places and his recent book, At the centre of the world [10], provides some detailed arguments, especially for some of the islands around Britain. In the case of the Isle of Man it is possible to identify two lines dividing the island four-fold. Strictly, this is five-fold division as the central place, St Luke's Church at Baldwin, was clearly the most important meeting place on the island in former times.

The axis of the line running to the northern tip of Man closely follows a route, recently dubbed the Millenium Way footpath, but traditionally the legendary Royal Road of King Orry. He was a mysterious ancient ruler whom the Manx regard as their first and best king. According to the medieval Chronicle of Mann [11], after conquering the island and showing great clemency for the lives of the losers, Orry ascended Sky Hill and followed the old Royal Road, which in the legend is identified with the Milky Way. 'This means,' affirms Michell, 'that it was a sacred path, a processional and pilgrimage road leading to the 'pole star' of a central sanctuary.'

Michell also makes the observation that in early christian times the paths to the major pilgrimage centres, such as Walsingham and Compostela, were likewise known as the Milky Way and poets of the time saw these routes were reflections of the celestial pathways taken by the gods.

The Track of the White Cow

In Irish legends the Milky Way appears as Bothar Bo Finne - 'The Track of the White Cow'. Thinking for a moment about the source of milk and its characteristic colour makes this a poetic but rational extension of the Milky Way. In a recent article in The Ley Hunter [12] Nigel Jackson has argued that this links further to a wider European mythology in which the Daena or 'lactating cow' acts as psychopomp empowering spirit. Jackson also notes that in Lancashire dialect too the Milky Way was the 'Cow's Path'. Although I do not want to repeat the details of this article, the conclusion of Jackson's article is that there may be 'a mythic affinity between the churchway/deathroad and the Milky Way as the 'Way of Souls'.'

Back to the rulers

Another fairly-well researched aspect of royal roads links in closely. This is the observation that in many European languages the words for 'kingship' link to 'correctness' and 'straightness'. The clearest example in English is 'ruler' which refers either to a monarch or to a straight edge. The origin of this seems to be buried in the earliest Proto-Indo-European languages, and a root word-element '*reg-' is generally accepted as being the origin of this complex concept. I would refer readers to Alby Stone's article in Mercian Mysteries No.17 [13] and a detailed discussion by Pennick and Devereux in Lines on the landscape. [14]

Clearly, royal roads are straight roads. It seems that, in the medieval mind, it was important that the king was seen to be travelling in straight lines. And this is not so alien to modern minds - think of Pall Mall, the royal route which runs arrow straight direct to Buckingham Palace. What we find more difficult to grasp is the overt cosmological symbolism which such regal progress would have evoked in the medieval mind.

If I may be permitted a concluding speculation, it is that the linking of kingship with straightness is itself an adaptation from a link between straightness and more profoundly sacred concepts in the prehistoric mind. It is exactly this area which Bob Trubshaw explored in Mercian Mysteries No.20 in his article 'Otherworldly straightness'.

There are a number of rich ideas which have been recognised by a number of writers; I hope that this brief overview weaves them together more clearly.

References

1: Shamanism and the mystery lines, Paul Devereux, Quantum 1992 and various articles in recent issues of The ley hunter.
2: W.H. Duignan, Warwickshire place names, Oxford UP, 1912; similar remarks are given in the same author's Staffordshire place names, publ. Henry Frowde, 1902.
3: House of Fame, Book II. l.935
4: Teutonic mythology; cited in Duignan op. cit.
5: ibid.
6: See R.N. Trubshaw, 'Santiago de Compostela' in Mercian Mysteries No.11, 1992
7: Phinella Henderson, letter in The ley hunter No.122, 1995
8: N. Pennick and P. Devereux, Lines on the landscape, Hale, 1989; N. Pennick, The cosmic axis, Runestaff, 1987.
9: Duignan op. cit.
10: Thames and Hudson 1994
11: Cited in Michell op. cit.
12: N. Jackson, 'Bird's way and cow-lane: the starry path of spirits' in The ley hunter No.121, 1994
13: A. Stone, 'Straight talking', Mercian Mysteries, No.17 1993
14: op. cit.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.23 May 1995.


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