Echoes of Avalon: Glastonbury
Perhaps the most revered of Britain's sacred sites is Glastonbury, the site of a former great abbey that many believe to be the ancient entrance to Avalon, home of Gwyn ap Nudd, lord of the Otherworld. Among the many legends surrounding Glastonbury, it is rumored to be the location of the entrance to Otherworld, the site of ancient Neolithic chalkworks, the grave of king Arthur and Guinevere, the home of St. Patrick, and even a depository of the Holy Grail! Glastonbury and its towering hill are mysterious, even magical places.
The most recognizable feature of Glastonbury is the Tor, a conical, terraced hill that rises from the surrounding plain. The plains that surround the Tor were once a flood plain, and because of this, the ancient Celtic name for the area was Ynys Witrin, the “Isle of Glass.”
There is much speculation about the Tor's seven terraces. Because of their unusual shape and number (seven), there is some debate whether they are natural or man-made and, if the latter, what their purpose might have been. When viewed from above, the terraces create a winding, labyrinthine path, which may have served some ancient ritual purpose.
On visiting the Tor, the visionary poet William Blake was inspired to pen some of his most famous lines:
And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England's mountains green?
Archaeological explorations of the area have found evidence of continuous occupation of the site, from Neolithic settlements to Roman fortifications, until finally it was home to Christian monasteries and a medieval church, which was destroyed in a thirteenth century earthquake. All that remains of the abbey is St. Michael's Tower at the top of the Tor. Ancient groves of apple trees give Glastonbury another connection to the Other-world, and it features in several mythological tales as the location of the entrance to Avalon.
Avalon and Arthur
Glastonbury is heavily connected with the legend of King Arthur. Early in the Arthurian cycle, Glastonbury was identified as Ynys Affalon, or Annwn, where the mythical Arthur is mentioned for the very first time, in the account of the quest for the Cauldron of Annwn. In the Arthurian romances of the twelfth century, Arthur returns to Avalon mortally wounded, to remain there for eternity.
Besides being connected with Avalon, Arthur's final resting place, Glastonbury is close to the ruins of Cadbury Castle, a hill fort closely associated with the historical Arthur. The fortification dates to the correct period, and nearby place names can be linguistically connected to the name Camelot. (Cadbury in the Saxon language is “battle fort”; the castle lies near the Cam River.) The connection was first made in writing by antiquarian John Leland in 1532, recording a local legend of some age. Evidence is mostly circumstantial, but it is clear from the archaeological evidence — including quantities of Roman gold and evidence of a great feasting hall — that the fortress belonged to a chieftain of some importance.
One Glastonbury legend links Arthur with the tradition of the fairy raid or wild hunt. Once every seven years, at sundown on Midsummer's Eve, Arthur and his party would ride out from underneath the Glastonbury hills, making a raucous circuit of the neighborhood before returning underground.
Local legends of Arthur and his court abound, but whether they spring from a germ of historical truth or are simply self-perpetuating is unknown. A number of legends linking Arthur with Glastonbury appeared in written form beginning in the twelfth century, when a Welsh story identified the Tor as the location of the fortress of Melwas, a rival king who kidnapped Arthur's wife Guinevere. Soon afterward, Geoffrey of Monmouth identified Glastonbury as the location of Avalon.
Less than sixty years later, the local monastery claimed to have “discovered” the burial plot of Arthur and his wife, although this was certainly of the genre of “pious fraud,” a hoax committed to add income to the monastery's coffers. The discovery was a fortuitous one, coming shortly after a fire had devastated the monastery. During the rebuilding, Abbot Henry de Sully sponsored a search that located a tomb inside a hollowed oak, which contained the skeletal remains of two people. And just in case there was any question of their identity, a leaden cross bearing the convenient Latin inscription Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arthurus in insula Avalonia (“Here lies interred the famous King Arthur on the Isle of Avalon”) lay above the stone cover. Glastonbury increased greatly in importance afterward, becoming the second most powerful church in England for a time. In 1278, the bodies were reburied with much pomp under the foot of the altar, with King Edward and Queen Eleanor in solemn attendance.
Joseph of Arimathea
Even older than the legend of Arthur is the widespread belief that Glastonbury was where Christianity was first established in the British Isles. The emissary was no less a figure than Joseph of Arimathea, the wealthy apostle of Christ, who was said to have traveled there after the crucifixion. This idea was first put to paper in the ninth century by Archbishop Rabanus Maurus, in his biography of Mary Magdalene. In this work, Maurus claimed that Joseph traveled to Britain along with Mary Magdalene, Lazarus, and other members of Christ's inner circle. In later, more fanciful versions, Joseph arrives accompanied by a youthful Jesus, who receives training from the druids of the island.
The claims about Joseph could be dismissed as so much fantasy, were it not for one curious fact. Church father Tertullian, writing around 200
… all the limits of the Spains, and the diverse nations of the Gauls, and the haunts of the Britons — inaccessible to the Romans, but subjugated to Christ.
Why he believes this to be the case is unknown, but his observation probably reflects a widespread belief. The sentiment was echoed about a century later by Church historian Eusebius, who accepted as fact that Jesus' apostles had visited the “Britannic isles.”
Through Joseph, the Holy Grail was said to have traveled to England, providing a connection between the chalice and the legendary King Arthur that has excited so many imaginations. The Joseph idea was first put to paper in the twelfth century Arthurian tale “Joseph d'Arimathe,” by French poet Robert de Boron. In de Boron's story, Joseph uses the chalice of the Last Supper to catch the blood of Christ as he hangs on the cross. Joseph then carries the cup with him to Avalon, to keep it safe until it comes to be discovered by Arthur and his knights. This is the first story that connects the Grail explicitly with Christianity. The idea proved so popular that by the fourteenth century, the incident was recorded as historical fact by the Benedictine historian John of Glastonbury.
Another legend that connects Joseph with Glastonbury is the sacred thorn, an otherwise ordinary hawthorn tree that grew outside the abbey. It was reportedly remarkable in that unlike other hawthorns, it flowered twice a year — first in the spring, and again at Christmastime. The tree became entwined with Joseph in the sixteenth century, when the legend first began to circulate that the tree originated from the staff of the saint. Supposedly, when Joseph came to the end of his journey, he struck his walking staff into the earth, where it blossomed. It became traditional to make gifts of cuttings from the thorn to monarchs and other VIPs. That tradition continued until the seventeenth century, when the tree was burned as a pagan superstition by Oliver Cromwell's troops. The tree was eventually replanted from one of its own cuttings, but the new tree died in 1991. The original thorn was propagated with many cuttings, however; its offspring, given as gifts, can be seen throughout Britain and as far away as Canada.
The holy thorn was so well regarded that its opinion was sought after the then-unpopular Gregorian calendar was adopted. It was reported that visitors flocked to the tree on the date of the “new” Christmas, but that the tree preferred the “old” date, refusing to bloom until then.
The Chalice Well
Today, Glastonbury is extremely well trodden by spiritual pilgrims of all stripes. Without a doubt, the biggest draw is not the Tor itself but the sacred well that lies at its foot. The spring that fills the well is believed to have been in continuous flow for nearly 2,000 years, and it has likely been regarded as a holy site for at least that long. The water of the well is heavily pigmented with iron, giving it the appearance of blood. Because of this reddish hue in the water, it is sometimes called the “red spring” or even the “blood spring.”The well is tied into the legend of Joseph, where it is suggested as the hiding place of the Grail, which continually refreshed the water with the blood of Christ.
In 1908, archaeologist Frederick Bligh Bond was named director of excavations at Glastonbury Abbey. He made several important discoveries and recreated the original layout of the ancient buildings on the site, which he believed to be of great spiritual significance.
A decade later, still profoundly affected by the site, Bond designed an ornate cover for the sacred well, which he presented to the site as a gift. The wooden and metal cover features an ornate design based on sacred geometry. A vesica pisces design of two overlapping circles represents the goddess and the intersection of the Upperworld and the Underworld. A sword symbolizes the divine male and the sword Excalibur, and a foliage design meant to represent Joseph's holy thorn surrounds them.