Sunday, May 9, 2021

Ancient Mysteries Books

As part of the Age of Aquarius and the counter-culture of the Nineteen Sixties and Seventies, there was a new surge of interest in what might be loosely called ‘ancient mysteries’. This included a creative and intuitive approach to antiquarianism, looking at prehistoric monuments from a fresh perspective, often disdained by orthodox archaeology.

In particular, there was a keen interest in finding shapes in the landscape – astronomical alignments, ancient trackways (‘leys’), giant figures, zodiacal and other symbols. Alongside this burgeoning interest there was a rise in new age and neo-pagan affinities and a yearning to know more about the beliefs and deities of our earliest ancestors.

Most of all, though, there was for some simply a pleasure in exploring relatively unknown and lonely country looking for obscure ancient monuments – fallen standing stones, hidden holy wells, lost turf mazes, remote hill forts, minor stone circles, ruined churches. It offered a different world to that of the sometimes all-too-real everyday.

These interests were soon reflected and encouraged by books issued both from specialist alternative small presses and, when they saw the way the wind was blowing, by major paperback houses. These titles are an interesting parallel to the explosion of interest in fantasy fiction in this period (most notably in the Pan Ballantine Adult Fantasy series) and in books of ghost and horror stories eg from Fontana, Pan, Corgi and Granada.They seem to share a similar ambience.

Indeed, these books can be seen to have their ground (whatever their specific themes) in the idea of haunted landscape, what Arthur Machen called ‘occult territory’; the possibility that particular parts of the country have a strange and numinous, or even brooding and sinister, quality.

John Michell’s The View Over Atlantis is often cited as the keystone book here and, because of its range, was certainly received with enthusiasm, but other books listed below were also important in fostering this interest. And probably for a wider audience it was Mysterious Britain, written by Janet Bord with photographs by her husband Colin, that really got readers interested in the ancient landscape of these isles.

There is an interesting interview with Janet Bord at Art Cornwall, where she discusses the background to the book, and confirms that it grew out of involvement with the alternative scene in the Sixties, notably the magazine Gandalf’s Garden.

By no means all that was going on was to be found in books: for the devotee, as noted in a previous post, there was a wonderful range of journals and newsletters that are also part of this picture, and there were also weekend conferences and ‘moots’, often with field trips, which enabled like-minded souls to get together. Other distinct but related dimensions of the period include UFOs/Flying Saucers; Forteana; Occultism; the Western Mystery Tradition; Goddess Spirituality; and, from the early Eighties, Psychic Questing.

Here is a checklist of what I think of as the leading, most influential books in this field in the relevant period, from the mid-Sixties to the early Eighties. I started by listing those I could remember (and often still have in my possession) from my own interest, and then branching out a bit. Without doubt, I have missed some, and other titles would have been more important to other readers and researchers (I welcome suggestions), but at least this is a start.

A Selected Checklist of Ancient Mysteries Books in Britain

Megalithic Sites in Britain – Alexander Thom (1967)

Pattern of the Past – Guy Underwood (1968)

The Quest for Arthur’s Britain – Geoffrey Ashe (1968)

Glastonbury: A Study in Patterns – Mary Williams (1969)

The View Over Atlantis – John Michell (1969)

Britain: A Study in Patterns – Mary Williams (1971)

The Light in Britain – Grace and Ivan Cooke (1971)

Mysterious Britain – Janet and Colin Bord (1972)

City of Revelation – John Michell (1973)

Geomancy – Nigel Pennick (1973)

Atlantean Traditions in Britain – Anthony Roberts (1974)

The Old Stones of Land’s End – John Michell (1974)

Quicksilver Heritage – Paul Screeton (1974)

Camelot and The Vision of Albion – Geoffrey Ashe (1975)

The Earth Spirit – John Michell (1975)

Brigantia, A Mysteriography – Guy Ragland Phillips (1976)

The Secret Country – Janet and Colin Bord (1976)

Earth Magic – Francis Hitching (1976)

The Stone Circles of the British Isles – Aubrey Burl (1976)

Terrestrial Zodiacs in Britain – Nigel Pennick & Bob Lord (1976)

Glastonbury: Ancient Avalon, New Jerusalem – Anthony Roberts (ed) (1978)

A Guide to Ancient Sites in Britain – Janet and Colin Bord (1978)

Needles of Stone – Tom Graves (1978)

The Silbury Treasure – Michael Dames (1978)

The Ancient Science of Geomancy – Nigel Pennick (1979)

In Search of Lost Gods – Ralph Whitlock (1979)

The Ley Hunter’s Companion – Paul Devereux & Ian Thomson (1979)

Rites of the Gods – Aubrey Burl (1981)

Earth Lights – Paul Devereux (1982)

Earth Rites – Janet and Colin Bord (1982)

Mysterious Wales – Chris Barber (1982)

Megalithomania – John Michell (1984)

Sacred Waters – Janet and Colin Bord (1985)

Ancient Mysteries of Britain – Janet and Colin Bord (1986)


John Billinglsey, editor of Northern Earth, kindly suggests these further titles: 

Stonehenge Decoded - Gerald Hawkins (1965); The Reader's Digest Folklore, Myths & Legends of Britain (1973); Dowsing - Tom Graves (1976); The Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain - L V Grinsell (1976); The Megalith Builders - Euan Mackie (1977); Mysterious Derbyshire - Philip Rickman & Graham Nown (1977); Mysterious Lancashire: Legends and Leys of Lancelot's Shire (1977) - Philip Rickman & Graham Nown (1977); Science & Society in Prehistoric Britain - Euan Mackie (1977); The Glastonbury Zodiac - Mary Caine (1978);  Albion - A Guide to Legendary Britain - Jennifer Westwood (1985). 

(Mark Valentine)

Image: Art Cornwall. 



  1. I've got quite a few of these, mostly the Michell and Ashe titles, but I have a copy of Mysterious Britain that's now rather worn from being carried in a rucksack on visits to Glastonbury and Stonehenge. Great photos in that one. I still hope to find a cheap copy of Michell's View Over Atlantis with the Roger Dean cover. US-only, I think.

    I'd add Hitching's World Atlas of Mysteries to the list, a volume with a larger format (and MC Esher cover art for the UK edition) that encompassed other enigmas such as cryptozoology, UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, etc.

  2. Thanks, John, the World Atlas is not one I know but yes certainly cryptozoology and UFOs were in the same heady mix. Mark

  3. Fitting here, also, would be Mark Alexander's "British Folklore, Myths and Legends" (Weindenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1982), with its evocative maps at the end listing shrines, holy wells, hillside figures, Arthurian sites, fairy hillocks, etc.

  4. I collect these kinds of books as well. I'd love to see this list expanded with comments on the salient features of each book, and interesting tidbits, quirks, or conceits noted. I see a few here I don't already have; great topic, much appreciated!

  5. A fascinating list. Writing as a professional archaeologist there is a line to be drawn somewhere in here between the mainstream archaeology and the less orthodox approaches, although it's not clear where it is. I still have my copy of Hitching's World Atlas of Mysteries, read repeatedly as a child in the late 70s - maybe that's what got me started?

  6. How splendid to be reminded of such interesting times! An original 1969 copy of The View Over Atlantis has accompanied me over the years as has the 1970 reprint of The Old Straight Track, which I think should be added to your list. Other books I recognise have come and gone but I can't remember parting with Aubrey Burl's The Stone Circles of the British Isles. This confusion arises from too many house moves, down-sizing and endless small press acquisitions requiring shelf room. I'll have another look!

  7. When I was a kid in the 1960s we had a a couple of books on “unexplained mysteries” but I can’t remember the actual name of them. I loved poring over those books. I remember the moving coffins of Barbados, Spring-Heeled Jack, UFOs, the Cardiff Giant, and maybe the Oak Island “treasure” if I’m not mistaken. It wasn’t a matter of whether they were true or not, it was just so much fun in that little world of imagination. My dad eventually sold them at the flea market. I don’t blame him - I never expressed an interest in keeping them, and it’s all on the internet now, anyway.