Outside of the UK, the word “Glastonbury” is synonymous with music and mud. Within the UK, the definition is pretty similar, with the annual(ish) music festival regularly dominating headlines. Tickets for the 50th anniversary in 2020 recently sold out in under forty minutes, and even I took the time to brainstorm how litter could be reduced at future festivals after seeing it mentioned in the news. However, the town of Glastonbury itself tends to get overlooked in all the noise surrounding the event, yet it has been a spiritual hub for centuries, with both Christianity and paganism making their mark.
MrElaineous—a veteran of over ten Glastonbury Festivals himself—and I recently paid a visit to the town on a gorgeous day in late summer, just a few days before the autumn equinox. We started with the town’s most visible landmark, the Tor. The prominent tower at the very top is the only thing that remains from the 14th century church of St. Michael, itself a replacement for an earlier church that was destroyed in a 13th century earthquake.
Standing over 500 feet tall, the hill and its tower can be seen from miles around. From the top, climbers are rewarded with the splendour of the Somerset countryside stretching out in all directions. The distinctive shape of the hillside is owed to a quirk of the local geology and manmade terracing that archaeologists still haven’t come to a consensus about. Some say it was for agriculture. Others argue that it was related to the spiritual practices of the location. And some believe it may have been used as a Bronze or Iron Age hillfort; the nearby Cadbury Castle—associated with King Arthur’s Camelot—are pointed to as possible contemporaries.
In addition to Arthurian legend, it is a place seeped in Celtic mythology: it is said that a cave under the hill is the entrance to the fairy realm and the underworld of Gwyn ab Nudd and his Cauldron of Rebirth. However, the historical connections are far darker: in 1539, the last abbot of Glastonbury Abbey and two of his monks were hung, drawn, and quartered at the tower as part of Henry VIII’s Reformation.
The Reformation spelled the end for the town’s other major religious landmark, Glastonbury Abbey. However, half a millennium earlier, in 1086, the Abbey was recorded as the richest in the country in the Domesday Book, a survey of England and Wales completed under the order of William the Conqueror. A fire in the 12th century that destroyed many of the Abbey’s treasures may also be responsible for the initial connection of Glastonbury and the Somerset levels to the legend of Arthur and the Isle of Avalon.
When I was a budding archaeologist, the story told by my lecturers was that in order to raise money to rebuild the Abbey, the monks needed a star attraction to bring in the pilgrims. In 1191, they dug up two skeletons in coffins helpfully labelled Arthur and Guinevere. A century later, the monks were advised to put on a good show for the visiting King Edward I, so they reburied the skeletons in a black marble tomb.
This showmanship worked. By the 14th century, the Abbey’s fortunes had increased yet again, and it was second only to Westminster in wealth. This made it a prime target during the Dissolution of the Monasteries: Henry VIII and his marriages turned out to be the final nail in the Abbey’s coffin. Yet Christianity’s ties with Glastonbury do not end there.
Taking advantage of the fact that the Bible glosses over most of Jesus’ childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, a legend also sprang up that Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus’ uncle (or, depending on the reference, a secret disciple*), was a tin merchant who travelled to southwest England for Cornish tin, bringing a young Jesus along with him. This tale inspired the poet William Blake to pen the famous poem Jerusalem, which was later turned into the country’s unofficial hymn by Sir Hubert Parry.
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
Believe it or not, the tale of Jesus: The Lost Years was followed by a sequel, which says that Joseph of Arimathea returned to England after the crucifixion, bringing with him the holy grail. Some legends say that he buried the grail at the foot of the Tor, which caused a spring to burst forth. This is the Chalice Well, the water of which is tinged with red. The science behind the Chalice Well, also known as the Red Spring, is more straightforward: it comes from a deep aquifer and contains dissolved iron oxide deposits.
As I learned during my time-travelling adventure with John Swann of the Travelling History Company, many such holy wells have been found to have higher than normal iron levels. It’s easy to imagine that people would feel much better after drinking it—iron deficiency remains the most common nutritional deficiency today, even in the developed world—and this would give rise to the belief in a supernatural cure.
But Joseph’s miracles do not end there. It is also said that he plunged a thorn staff into the ground and it took root, growing into a tree that flowered around Christmas and Easter. As a result, the real thorn trees in the area were considered holy for centuries but cut down by Puritan soldiers during the 17th century Civil War because they were viewed as objects of superstition. Glastonbury residents, however, had taken cuttings and it’s thought the thorn tree that still grows on the Abbey ground is descended from one of these branches.
After MrElaineous and I climbed down the Tor, we stopped at the White Spring to refill our water bottles. The water here is from a shallower aquifer than the Red and colourless, with a high calcium content. People come from miles around to stock up on it, and those waiting in the queue ranged from those with traditional water bottles like ours all the way up to 25-litre containers.
We then took a walk through the town of Glastonbury itself, which appears to be the crystal and incense capital of the southwest. Stores selling everything and anything related to witches, faeries, and goddesses seem to flourish, and, outside of the music festival, the connection of Glastonbury with neopaganism is perhaps what the town is now best known for. In particular, Glastonbury is considered to be on a powerful “ley line”.
Landscape photographer Alfred Watkins identified what he called ley lines in 1921, “ley” being the Old English word for clearings or tracks. According to his theory, these were paths where ancient British monuments were in alignment and could have been used as trading routes or for navigation. On one hand, there is a practicality to this: after all, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and this makes complete sense where the geography allows for it. The problem? The monuments he linked were often built at different times, which seems to preclude a grand infrastructure plan. On top of this, it’s been shown that straight lines can be drawn to connect any high-density clustering, whether it be ancient monuments, telephone boxes, or London pizza restaurants.†
From their origins as an archaeological theory, ley lines were hijacked during a rise in esoteric beliefs in the mid-20th century and transformed into lines of energy criss-crossing the globe. Ever since, the mystical powers attributed to ley lines have continued to grow, ranging from healing qualities to guiding UFOs as metaphysical runway lights. Needless to say, no evidence has been found to support any of these beliefs.
While I don’t believe in ley lines or that Glastonbury marks the final resting place of Arthur or Guinevere or the holy grail, I do think there is a third m that can be added to the Glastonbury list: magic … of a sorts. I found standing on top of the Tor on a beautiful (albeit windy) day to be the very definition of awe-inspiring. Seeing the countryside from this vantage point made it easy to imagine why early Christians flocked to this spot seemingly on the top of the world: it was as close as they could get to God. My visit to Glastonbury was a reminder of the importance of enjoying the wonders of the natural world as they are: there is no need to create stories or embellish the past, especially when the actual history and the location itself is so fascinating.
The Bible records Joseph of Arimathea as the person who gave up his tomb for Jesus’ body after the crucifixion … and that’s about it.
Trying to make sense of random patterns is a very human activity. In World War II, there was a fear that the Germans had developed self-guided, precision bombs to hit particular targets in London, but a detailed bomb map and a bit of mathematics showed that the bombing was random. Going even further back in time, the familiar constellations aren’t the result of a deliberate aim by the stars to make a “great bear” or “little dog”, but they are a manmade attempt to impose order on the night sky (hence the reason constellations differ by culture).