An Original Article by Geoffrey Ashe
Glastonbury is unique, sacred, spell-binding. It is a small town town in Somerset, cradled in a cluster of hills that are all different shapes. The highest is the Tor, a whaleback formation with a tower on top, once part of a church dedicated to the Archangel Michael. Near the Tor is the smooth dome of Chalice Hill. Wearyall Hill is a long narrow ridge pointing toward the Bristol
Channel. Windmill Hill, on the side facing the cathedral city of Wells, is less clearly
defined and covered with houses, Below are the ruins of a great medieval abbey. |
Early in the Christian era, the hill-cluster was nearly encircled with shallow
water, the river Brue provided a deeper channel enabling sea-going craft to reach it.
An old name for it is Ynys-witrin, the Island of Glass; "island" because, from most
angles of approach, it would have looked like one. A more famous name is Avalon, the
Apple-place. In Celtic lore Avalon was an isle of enchantment.
This area was probably sacred long before Christianity. Around the sides of the
Tor is a strange system of terracing. Much weathered and eroded, but still well-defined,
it has been interpreted as a maze following an ancient magical pattern, which is found
in Cornwall, Wales, Ireland, Pompeii, Crete and India, and even among the Hopi of
Arizona, who call it the Mother Earth Symbol. If the maze on the Tor is real, human
labour formed it four or five thousand years ago, during the period of vast ritual
works that created Stonehenge and Avebury. There are grounds for thinking that the
Tor would have been a sanctuary of Goddess-worship. To come down to a somewhat later
time, archaeology has shown that toward the beginning of the Christian era, this
neighbourhood became an important centre of Celtic population, with far-flung trade. The inhabitants lived on small artificial islands.
According to a much-loved legend, Christian Glastonbury began with the arrival
of Joseph of Arimathea. He figures in the Gospels as a rich disciple who obtained the
body of Christ and laid it in the tomb. Some say he was an older kinsman and had brought
Jesus here as a boy, perhaps on a trading voyage to Britain. Reputedly, in the years
after the Crucifixion, he came to this remote country on a mission with several
companions. They made their home in Avalon and remained there as a community of hermits.
An offshoot of the legend concerns a local variety of hawthorn known as the Glastonbury
Thorn. It is said that Joseph planted his staff in the ground, and it became a tree
that blossomed at Christmas. Descendants of a medieval hawthorn on Wearyall Hill
actually do blossom at Christmas or thereabouts, While no other English hawthorn does
this, there are some that do in the Middle East, including Palestine.
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