by Philip Carr-Gomm
There is on the confines of western Britain a certain royal island, called in the ancient speech Glastonia, marked out by broad boundaries, girt round with waters rich in fish and with still-flowing rivers, fitted for many uses of human indigence, and dedicated to the most sacred of deities.
St Augustine of Canterbury, 6th cent AD
Glastonbury, in south-west England’s cider-making region of Somerset, is known to spiritual seekers as Avalon, the ‘isle of apples’. Standing on Glastonbury Tor when the mists have rolled in and only hilltops are visible, it is easy to imagine the area as it once was – islands and lake villages on stilts surrounded by water. In medieval times the town and its Abbey rivalled Canterbury as a destination for pilgrims. During Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the sixteenth century, the abbey was sacked and its bishop hung on the Tor.
Christian pilgrims still come to the town but they are outnumbered now by Pagan and New Age pilgrims and by spiritual seekers who are drawn here by the numerous legends that coalesce around key features of the town and surrounding countryside. Echoes of the Druids, Joseph of Arimathea and Jesus, King Arthur with his Queen Guinevere can all be found here.
Avalon is a place of meeting – every year the Glastonbury festival attracts thousands of music lovers, and hundreds are drawn to the Goddess Conference and gatherings of the Order of Bards Ovates & Druids. It is a place of meeting of the inner and outer worlds too, of the essence of Paganism and Christianity, which merge in the story of the grail, and of the God and the Goddess embodied in Glastonbury Tor and Chalice Hill.
The secret of Glastonbury is that we are invited to enter an earthly paradise.
John Michell, New Light on the Ancient Mystery of Glastonbury
Glastonbury, a small town in south-west England, is considered by many to be one of the most sacred spots on earth. To the west of the town lie the moors of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall – Exmoor, Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor. To the south, the hills of Dorset and the rampant figure of the Cerne Abbas giant waving his club. To the east, the great sweep of Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire with its barrows and circles of stone – Avebury and Stonehenge. To the north, the mouth of the river Severn and the southern coast of Wales beyond.
Visiting the town today you could be forgiven for finding it unremarkable at first glance. But spend a little while here, start to explore the old churches, the countryside around the town, read about its history and the legends associated with it, and the facade of an everyday English provincial town will start to fall away, and you will be led to experience this place as somewhere quite different – as somewhere sacred.
To help in this process of revelation, of the deepening of experience, try sitting beside the Holy Thorn tree on Wearyall Hill. Just a short walk from the High Street, Wearyall Hill is a green ridge of common land south-west of the town that can be clearly seen on GoogleEarth. It was here that legends say Jesus was brought to Glastonbury as a boy by his uncle Joseph of Arimathea during the ‘silent years’ – the time between the ages of 12 and 33 when the Bible says nothing of his life. Some believe he spent these years studying with the ascetic Essenes in the desert. Others suggest he may have been in training here with the Druids in Britain.
His uncle brought him, so the legend runs, when he travelled as a tin trader, sailing across the Mediterranean, around Cornwall, and over the sea which swept in across the Somerset levels, to land here on Wearyall Hill.
A Landscape of Islands
Until the Levels were drained for farming, this was a landscape of islands. There were island villages supported on wooden platforms over the shallow waters. There were wooden trackways that allowed villagers to walk across the flooded land, and each hill that we see today was an island in a fertile region teeming with fish and game.
Joseph stuck his staff into the ground at Wearyall Hill and it miraculously sprouted and became once more a living tree. It was cut down in the Reformation by zealots wanting to rid the town of the ‘superstitious’ devotion it had attracted, but monks had carefully preserved cuttings of the original, and the tree you see today is a direct descendant of that first tree. Once more it has become a place of devotion. Clooties (prayer-ties) hang from its branches, messages and offerings are tucked into its bark or left by its roots.
Sitting by the tree you look down on the town with its church spires and the ruins of the Abbey in its broad grounds below. Here you can sense how it must have looked in the old times. John Michell, author of the 60’s cult classic A New View Over Atlantis which introduced a generation to the idea of Britain’s sacred landscape and re-awakened their interest in its pre-Christian heritage, believes that here seven islands in particular were held in great reverence. In pre-Christian times they would have been sacred to the Druids and inhabited by hermit sages. By the medieval era each island housed a chapel, maintained by the great Abbey of Glastonbury, and were called God’s Island, Beckery, Martinsea, Meare, Panborough and Nyland.
Glastonbury and King Arthur
Michell has noticed that these seven islands form a pattern that mirrors the positions of seven stars in the constellation of the Great Bear. This he believes points to one of Glastonbury’s great secrets – its relationship with that spiritual hero of Albion King Arthur, since his name derives from ‘Art’ – the Bear.
The town’s claim to fame in medieval times derived from this relationship between the half-historical half-legendary king, when two bodies were discovered in the abbey grounds, supposedly of King Arthur and his queen Guinevere. The Arthurian romances had already fused with the grail legend and the story was told that Joseph of Arimathea, accompanied by eleven missionaries, had returned to Glastonbury after the crucifixion, bearing the Holy Grail. The discovery of Arthur and Guinevere’s tombs ensured that Glastonbury became a major site of Christian pilgrimage.
Some believe the grail lies buried to this day beneath Chalice Hill, whose gentle rounded form provides a perfect image of femininity in contrast with the rugged hill surmounted by a tower that is Glastonbury Tor. The Tor and Chalice Hill can both be seen from Wearyall Hill and provide the traveller, weary of the town’s New Age shops and traffic, with the next goal on their journey.
Travel by satellite to view the landscape and (Or: On GoogleEarth) you can easily spot the Tor, with its peculiar ridged sides which have led some to speculate that they were artificially sculpted as an initiatory labyrinth. But look closely between the Tor and Chalice Hill. Imagine the Tor as a god, Chalice Hill as a goddess. Where they meet - the centre of their ecstasies as the poet Rilke would put it - is hidden from the prying eye of the satellite. There amongst and beneath those trees is the place of their marriage, and perhaps the most sacred spot of all Avalon.
Walk now from the thorn tree to this meeting place between the hills – or travel there in your imagination. As if arriving at a sacred grove, you will find yews and oaks, and other trees and plants in profusion, guarding a sanctuary of two springs – the White Spring gushing perpetually from the side of the Tor, the red iron-rich water of the Chalice Well spring flowing through a garden maintained by the Chalice Well Trust.
Today a lane separates the two springs but the waters eventually flow together. The white spring cascades through a series of channels and pools in an old water board building that has become a shrine filled with images of the Goddess. Nearby a footpath leads to the Tor, past the house of one of Britain’s most famous magicians, Dion Fortune. A walk up to the Tor is exhilarating – daunting to some. At its summit you will find a tower - all that remains of the 14th century church of St.Michael, built to replace its predecessor destroyed by an earthquake in 1275. There are tales of caverns beneath the Tor and on some days it seems as if there is a dragon stirring within it. Perhaps it last woke up and stretched itself with a great yawn in 1275 before falling asleep again.
Gazing out across the countryside you might be able to spot the signs of the zodiac that Katherine Maltwood in the 1930s believed were etched in the landscape – the boundaries of fields, rivers and ancient lanes marking out the figures and making Avalon a sacred land that mirrored the perfection of the heavens and united the land and sky in a mystical union.
But this marriage of Heaven and Earth can best be experienced in Chalice Well Garden at the foot of the Tor. Flowers and shrubs chosen for their colour associations to the chakras, spiritual energy centres of the body, lead you past pools, a waterfall and channels to the well-head. Its cover stands open and proclaims that this is the place of Mystical Marriage, where paradise on earth is found. Its design of two circles merging provides the clue: a ‘Vesica Piscis’ is formed where they meet – this fish-shaped form symbolising the Philosopher’s Stone, Christ, or the vulva of the Goddess.
In the tranquility and beauty of Chalice Well garden the idea of paradise on Earth no longer seems an impossible dream.
Somewhere upon the slopes of the Tor lies the entrance to the Underworld of Annwn and the Cauldron of the Dark Goddess. It may be near Her heart or through Her Yoni. There are tales of subterranean tunnels and caves where strange apparitions lurk, of people who went into the Tor through the hidden entrances, only to return years later old and white-haired or mad. On the north side of the Tor is a manhole cover, where the sound of continuously roaring water can be heard. Beneath this cover is a room belonging to the Water Authority, full of dials and wheels which control the water flow in the reservoir beneath the Tor. Seeing this room makes the idea of underground tunnels seem real.
What constitutes the magic of Avalon if it is not symbolised by the flooded land of still water, the magic mirror, with the tall finger of the Tor rising above it as the magician’s wand of power, and in the middle the little island where the Apples of Wisdom grew?
Christine Hartley, The Western Mystery Tradition
4500 BC – sea level falls turning the low-lying area around Glastonbury into marshland
c 3rd cent BC – The lake villages of Glastonbury & Meare created
3807-06 BC the date the wood was felled to build the neolithic Glastonbury Sweet Track that was a raised walkway over marshland of 2km (1.24 miles)
37 AD – According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea brings the Holy Grail to Glastonbury
63 AD – According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea and eleven companions build the first church in Britain on the site of Glastonbury Abbey
160 AD – Pope Eleutherius sends two missionaries who repair the church
488 – In the 15th cent William of Malmesbury & John of Glastonbury write that St Bridget visited Glastonbury at this time in the 5th century, spending time at Bride’s Mound.
5th & 6th cent AD – evidence of a settlement on the Tor found
650 AD The Life of St.Collen tells of a Christian hermit living on the Tor
1135 – Geoffrey of Monmouth writes ‘Arthur’s last earthly destination was Avalon’
1184 – Fire destroys much of the Abbey. It takes 120 years to rebuild.
1190 – Sixteen feet below ground two oak coffins are found under a stone slab and lead cross whose inscription reads: ‘Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur with Guinevere in the Isle of Avalon.’
1275 – Earthquake destroys church of St Michael on Tor
1582 – Dr John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s astrologer, announces he has found the Elixir of Life at Chalice Well
1750 – Chalice well becomes popular as a healing spa. A healing pool is erected there which can still be seen.
1892 – The Glastonbury Lake Village is discovered by Arthur Bulleid
1907 – a blue glass bowl is found which some believed was the Holy Grail. It is now kept at Chalice Well.
1912 – Celtic revivalist Alice Buckton buys Chalice Well from Catholic seminary
1914 – The composer Rutland Boughton initiates the first Glastonbury Festival
1918 - Bligh Bond, the director of excavations at Glastonbury Abbey, publishes The Gate of Remembrance in which he reveals he was helped in his discovery of two lost chapels by communications from monks in the spirit world.
1935 – Katherine Maltwood announces her discovery of ‘the Glastonbury Zodiac’
1958 – Chalice Well Trust established
1922 – Bligh Bond dismissed from his post.
1969 & 1970 – Major UFO sightings above Tor
1971 – The first modern Glastonbury Festival is held at nearby Pilton and is called The Glastonbury Fayre. It is now the biggest rock festival in Europe attracting over 100,000 visitors.