Feature Articles – Glastonbury: England’s oldest sacred landscape?
Glastonbury is often seen as England’s new age capital, with legends of King Arthur and Jesus, and the Grail. But behind such modern inventions, could the area be indeed a sacred landscape, much older than Stonehenge?
by Philip Coppens
English author John Michell wrote about Glastonbury that “pilgrims are drawn toward it from afar, and as one approaches one becomes aware of a peculiar change in the atmosphere: the light intensifies and takes on a quality unique to Glastonbury.” Glastonbury Tor, the hill that dominates the Glastonbury skyline, is seen by many as England’s answer to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount – at least it is so in the eyes of the “new age” community that has settled in the town. Its abbey has been linked with King Arthur, the town itself with Joseph of Arimathea, and some accounts even argue a young Jesus came with his uncle to this site, which some believe boasts the oldest Christian settlement in the country, Europe, if not the world.
These stories of the Grail, however, largely obscure a far more interesting – and older – history of Glastonbury, based on archaeological evidence. This is unfortunate, for it shows that this region was very important, if not sacred, from at least ca. 4000 BC onwards. Ynis Witrin, or the Glassy Isle, was the old British name for Glastonbury. In olden days, the area was an inland sea, with Glastonbury – or at least the Tor – an island, rising above the waters. The marshy conditions that once existed are best in evidence in the so-called “Sweet Track”, named afters its discoverer. The track was only discovered in 1970. It extended across the marsh between what was then an island at Westhay, and a ridge of high ground at Shapwick, spanning a distance of almost two kilometres. It is clear that this area was once thus engineered so that it could be passed on foot – and it means that our ancestors had a good reason for building it.
It is known that this was but one of a network of such tracks. Today, the Sweet Track has the honour of being the oldest engineered road in the world and the oldest timber trackway in Northern Europe. Tree-ring dating has concluded that it was built in ca. 3800 BC. The track consisted of crossed poles of ash, oak and lime, which were driven into the waterlogged soil to support a walkway that mainly consisted of oak planks laid end-to-end. Since its discovery in 1970, it has been determined that the Sweet Track was actually built along the route of an even earlier track, the Post Track, dating from ca. 3840 BC. It reveals that such tracks were constructed to shuttle people from island to island. Even though Glastonbury may not have the megalithic monuments of nearby Stonehenge, Avebury or Stanton Drew, the key to its sanctity appears to be its natural setting itself, and specifically, the Tor, which was and remains at the centre of the local landscape. There is a no doubt that from various nearby sites, there were alignments to the Tor – though perhaps “visibility of the Tor” is a better word. Hence, the Tor may have been on par with the role Silbury Hill plays within the landscape of Avebury, as was uncovered by Paul Devereux in “Symbolic Landscapes”. In the case of Glastonbury, from the church of Saint Michael on “the Mump” at Burrowbridge, Glastonbury Tor is visible behind the intervening hills. If we were to extend this alignment eastward, one would actually arrive at the southern entrance of the Avebury ring, but such an extension might be purely accidental. Another important site is Wells, home of the Cathedral of St Andrew, from where the Tor is visible too. Indeed, from wherever one approaches the town, the Tor shows the way – and may in origin have been the real destination as to why people came here. Burrow Mump © Tony Howell In appearance, both Burrow Mump (both words meaning hill) itself and the location of the ruin of St Michael on its top resemble Glastonbury Tor and this might not be a mere coincidence. Also, from this location, the top of the Tor is visually as high as the hills behind – a phenomenon Paul Devereux also observed at Silbury Hill and how this hill played with other features of the Avebury landscape. This sightline also crosses over Wearyall Hill, on the southern approach to Glastonbury. All three sites are natural, but was this fortuitous alignment seen by our ancestors as a key ingredient to make a sacred landscape, whereby the alignment could be “evidence” of a “hand of God” in the creation of this divine landscape? It means that from distance, the Tor was not only visible, but sat within a larger sacralised landscape. This is a somewhat unsubstantiated claim to make, but noting that the Tor has a conical appearance and that it sat within an inland side, means that it would have been a prime candidate to visualise the creation myths, which all speak of an island that rose from the waters of chaos.
Within this sacred landscape, in recent years, a lot of attention has gone to Bride’s Mound, a tiny little mound to the west of Glastonbury, at Beckery, just near the foot of Wearyall Hill. This mound is linked with the legend of Avalon, another name given to Glastonbury in medieval times. The legend has it that it was here that pilgrims arrived by boat from Ireland and Wales, would stay in vigil through the night, before walking on a processional way to Avalon itself. The processional way went from there via the Iron Age Castle mount (now destroyed by modern development) and St Benignus’ (Benedict’s) church. A bridge at Bride’s Mound, known as the Pomparles Bridge, i.e. the Perilous Way, is now on the road between Glastonbury and Street, which used to be an oak causeway. The name Beckery itself has been linked with beehives (“beekeepers’ island”), and it is known that bees played an important role in ancient rituals. It is also said – based on medieval information – that a perpetual fire was held here.
It is difficult to argue that these medieval practices dated back to prehistoric times. Though certain modifications must have been made, it is clear that whether we are in 3800 BC or 1400 AD, “something” attracted pilgrims to the area, and that the area was deemed sacred. The Sweet Track People could approach Glastonbury by boat up to late medieval times. The old River Brue flowed close in to Wearyall Hill on its south side, then swung round its western end to meander past Bride’s Mound, then the Glastonbury Lake Village (the remains of which were identified in 1892, and which was an Iron Age settlement from 300-200 BC), Godney, Panborough Hill, Martinsey, Nyland, Brent Knoll and finally Brean Down – a two-day journey by boat to the sea.
Hence, another important site seems to have been Wearyall Hill, which is for many the best vantage point to look across the town and the Tor. Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea landed here, rested on his staff, and it sprouted branches and leaves. It is clear that the legend of Joseph was used to extend a shamanic message into modern times, namely that this was yet another important, sacred site.
John of Glastonbury stated that on Wearyall Hill there was “a monastery of holy virgins” – the first reference to a women’s community in the area. Across the ancient world, holy virgins were located on islands, in groups of nine, normally made up of one widow and eight maidens. They were kept apart because of their virginity, which was of importance in some of the ancient rituals that were performed at the holy sites, such as the Greek site of Delphi. But communities of “nine maidens” are known to have existed in the Celtic world of Great Britain too – and one, it seems, was located at Glastonbury – again underlining the sacred nature of the site. However important these then-islands were, none was as important as Glastonbury Tor itself, which today majestically dominates the skyline even more so than before because of the remains of St Michael’s church on its top. Just below the Tor, however, we need to note a small street, known as Dod Lane, which becomes a footpath over the flank of Chalice Hill. For some, this street is part of a line that goes over St Michael at Gare Hill and onwards to Stonehenge, but it is specifically its name that is important: Dead Man’s Lane. Paul Devereux has convincingly shown that the mystery of the so-called leylines was, in origin, nothing more – or less – than paths created for spiritual travel (the soul said to be able to travel only in straight lines). Hence, Dod Lane is yet another remnant from a distant past that there was an ancient spirit path by which the souls of the dead passed to the other world. During excavations on the Tor between 1964 and 1966, Philip Rahtz found two burials oriented north-south, and thus unlikely to be Christian, suggesting the Tor was used for pagan burials. Noting the path led up to the Tor and noting that hills were seen as gateways to the Afterlife, it is clear that the Tor was seen as one such gateway. And thus, the true importance of this area may be explained. And should we see in the various pilgrims approaching this area by boat, echoes of those old legends, of Charon the Ferryman ferrying the dead – as well as the living wishing to enter the Land of the Dead – over the River Styx? Which brings us to the Tor, where a series of artificial terraces are actually known to be laid out in the shape of a huge labyrinth, a ritual pathway. Like a spirit path, a labyrinth is connected with the afterworld; the curves of the labyrinth known to ensnarl the soul, which, as mentioned, was believed to be able to travel in straight lines only.
That the terracing that can still be very visibly seen was a maze, was put forward by Geoffrey Russell in 1968. He saw them as a long, twisting, devious approach to a centre – unlike the straight path that leads to the summit and which is followed today. Professor Philip Rahtz has dated the spiralling paths to the 3rd or 2nd millennium BC.
It spirals round the Tor seven times, as is in evidence with the seven levels of terracing, each of which today is almost continuous, suggesting that in origin, they might easily have been so. The few total gaps are either at the lowest levels, where farming has altered the surface, or at the highest point, where the gradient is steeper and erosion thus more present. That is not all: Nicholas Mann has observed that from Windmill Hill, at the winter solstice, the rising sun can be seen to roll up the side of the Tor. The phenomenon last approximately half an hour. As a consequence, Mann has proposed that astronomical alignments were clearly one aspect as to why Glastonbury became sacred. Russell himself connected the Tor with early Welsh poetic allusions to Caer Sidi, which was a point of contact with the Annwn, the Celtic Otherworld. The otherworldly connection is also in evidence in the medieval “Life of St. Collen”, on the 7th century Welsh saint that retired to a hermitage at the foot of the Tor. The story states how “as he was one day in his cell, he heard two men conversing about Gwyn ab Nudd, and saying that he was king of Annwn and of the Fairies. And Collen put his head out of his cell, and said to them, ‘Hold your tongues quickly, those are but Devils.’ ‘Hold thou thy tongue,’ said they, ‘thou shalt receive a reproof from him.’ And Collen shut his cell as before. And soon after, he heard a knocking at the door of his cell, and some one inquired if he were within. Then said Collen, ‘I am; who is it that asks?’ ‘It is I, a messenger from Gwyn ab Nudd, the king of Annwn, to command thee to come and speak with him on the top of the hill at noon.’” It took three invitations in total before he climbed up the hill. “And when he came there, he saw the fairest castle he had ever beheld, and around it the best appointed troops, and numbers of minstrels, and every kind of music of voice and string, and steeds with youths upon them the comeliest in the world, and maidens of elegant aspect, sprightly, light of foot, of graceful apparel, and in the bloom of youth and every magnificence becoming the court of a puissant sovereign.”
What happens next is very similar to some of the Grail accounts, and the story of King Arthur: a magical kingdom, set in another dimension. “And he beheld a courteous man on the top of the castle, who bade him enter, saying that the king was waiting for him to come to meat. And Collen went into the castle, and when he came there, the king was sitting in a golden chair.” Shortly afterwards, when Collen decided to use some of the holy water he had carried up, both castle and inhabitants vanished from his sight – surprise, surprise. Legends also speak of the Tor’s hollow interior, that it is actually a glass hill, and it is here that its ancient name, Glassy Isle, comes to the forefront. As mentioned, St Michael’s tower is the remains of the church, but the choice of Michael as patron saint is no doubt no coincidence. Not only was he linked with slaying the dragon, a carving in the tower actually shows him as weighing the souls of the dead. Very appropriate, and unlikely to be a coincidence.
Furthermore, it is known that Michael and the Tor was linked with beacon fires, no doubt bringing into focus the reason why on Bride’s Mound a perpetual fire was kept by a college of priests – and/or priestesses. To underline the connection, another carving on the tower shows St Bride milking her cow. As such, it is clear that the Tor was seen as a sacred, conical hill of creation, featuring centrally in the religious life of the community, where it was no doubt seen as a “mound of creation”, and thus linked with the New Year festivals, which involved the lighting of sacred fires. Noting that the area was an inland sea, the Tor was actually a geological curiosity, noting that it has underground waters and sacred springs (e.g. Chalice Well) and today its slopes still conceal a reservoir that supplies the district with water.
The sacred role the Tor played within the landscape might also be underlined by anomalous events that occurred around it. As John Michell has observed, balls of light are often seen emanating form the Tor, giving rise to legends about fairies, demons, or UFOs. Chariots of the Gods? Finally, the importance of Glastonbury within ancient Britain as a whole is also in evidence in one of the traditional Welsh Bardic verses, the Triads, where it is named as one of the old perpetual choirs of Britain. These choirs of holy men maintained a constant liturgical chant that varied over the seasons, but which was nevertheless sung 24/7, 365 days a year. Their song – a practice which brings to mind the “songlines of the aboriginals” – literally en-chant-ed the land and it is no doubt no coincidence that Glastonbury was one of three such sites. Part of any sacred site, is its ability to be a magical site. I used Glastonbury as a base for a week in August 1995, when not only there was a full moon, but one night, the Great Bear was visible – from my vantage point – above the hill. In a consultation about the Tor by the National Trust in 1998, the Tor was indeed said to be special for its “amazing views, (including those at night with a full moon)”. Noting how the sun and the moon played an intricate role in and with the otherworld, the sense of awe we experience today, is akin to that of our ancestors.
It underlines why, as early as 3800 BC, centuries before the building of the pyramids or the construction of nearby Avebury and Stonehenge, man was hard at work civilising this landscape, making it accessible. It shows that early on, Mankind was present here. And with early Mankind, came religion – which is dear to us for at least 20,000 years, as the cave paintings of Lascaux and elsewhere in Southern France and Northern Spain have proven. For the early settlers that came here, what was more inspiring than the Tor? Though six millennia separate us from them, they had the same eyes as us, and were no doubt impressed by the same scenery that we continue to hold dear, and which continues to attract modern pilgrims to this site. It is not such a case of “as above, so below”, but “as then, so now”.