Glastonbury Tor: Maker of Myths
by Frances Howard-Gordon
The myths associated with Glastonbury Tor are extraordinary. It has been called a magic mountain, a faeries' glass hill, a spiral castle, a Grail castle, the Land of the Dead, Hades, a Druid initiation centre, an Arthurian hill-fort, a magnetic power-point, a crossroads of leys, a centre for Goddess fertility rituals and celebrations, a converging point for UFOs.
These myths are still very much alive today, although they are constantly being built upon and undergoing change. This is not surprising, given that this 500-foot-high conical hill is a most striking and inspiring landmark visible at vast distances and yet invisible at certain angles close-by.
If you climb the Tor on a clear day, you will be astonished by the extent of the view: to the north you will see the Mendip Hills together with the city of Wells and its cathedral; to the west the island of Steep Holm in the Bristol Channel; Brent Knoll to the northwest; the Polden and Quantock Hills to the southwest, and the Black mountains of Wales in the far distance; the Hood Monument and Dorset to the south; to the east Alfred's Tower on the borders of Wiltshire, and Cley Hill a hill famous for UFO sightings.
On a misty day you can experience for yourself what it must have been like when Glastonbury was an island the Isle of Glass. From the summit of the Tor you will see only the swirling mists of Avalon with patches of green in between. What is now the flatness of the Somerset Moors and Levels has become watery marshes once again.
The mythology of the Tor reaches so far back into ancient times that it is impossible to give it a beginning. But if we try to look beyond Christianity and beyond the Celtic Druids, we may discover some of the truth concerning its origins and purpose. New information and interpretations have been coming to light about what was previously dismissed as paganism. As each new cult or religion supersedes another, so it tries to blot out what came before such is the nature of conversion. This is what must have happened in the case of Goddess worship, a way of life which existed all over the world until at least the fifth millennium BC.
The Goddess took many forms and was represented in a variety of different aspects, but believers would see her essential nature in the harmony and balance of the natural order, the ebb and flow growth and decay of life itself She was evoked and celebrated on hills and mountains, these being her seats or thrones on earth. It is interesting to note that many early images of the Goddess have spirals on their breasts, resembling the spiral on the Tor. Spirals also symbolised the coiled serpent or dragon, both regarded as sacred in the old religion. The dragon or serpent represented the natural energies of the earth and the sky energies which were cooperated with and revered. In the Shakti cults of southeast Asia and China, dragons and serpents were associated with clouds and rain, and the Sumerian goddess Tiamat was a sea-serpent and Great Waters goddess. The Greek Mother of all things was the serpent Eurynome, who laid the world-egg. The dragon was also regarded as a manifestation of the psyche in which the real and the imaginary are blurred and are, as in nature, only different aspects of life.
The maze pattern on Glastonbury Tor, similar to Cretan labyrinths, was created for ritual purposes long before the Druids are said to have used it in their rites and initiation ceremonies. Spiral mazes are deeply symbolic, their most usual interpretation being that of the soul's journey through life, death and rebirth. The seven-circuit Tor maze would probably have been made and threaded during the time of the Goddess religion. Although Philip Rahtz, who excavated the summit of the Tor from 1964 to 1966, has not committed himself to the existence of a human-made maze, he has said that if it is there, its probable date would have been around the second or third millennium BC. Archaeologists are interested but cautious, and presumably they will remain so until the maze is excavated. However, in the summer of 1979 Geoffrey Ashe made a long study of the Tor and concluded that the maze did indeed exist. His booklet The Glastonbury Tor Maze gives the evidence he found and shows the maze to be one of the great ritual works of early Britain.
Therefore, if we visualise the Tor as a dragon, symbol of the Primal Mother and the place where the ceremonies of rebirth and initiation took place, we can imagine a ritual where the participants would come face to face with the Mother, enter into her subterranean darkness, chaos and death, and be reborn and nourished again by her life-giving properties.
Celts and Druids
Around the third century BC, the Celts founded two lake villages at Glastonbury and Meare. Their burial ground was called Ynys Witrin, an old British name meaning Isle of Glass. Also in Celtic legend the name Avalon occurs, derived, it seems, from Avalloc or Avallach a Celtic demigod who ruled the Underworld. However, Avalon also signifies apple-orchard or isle of apples, very apt for the cider-making county of Somerset. Apples were associated with the Goddess in many mythologies and with a western paradise where the sacred apple tree is guarded by the serpent or dragon. Some names for this paradise garden derive from an ancient root word meaning apple.
According to pagan British as well as Celtic lore, Avalon was the meeting-place of the Dead the point where they passed on to another level of existence. Not only was Avalon a hill surrounded by water, but it was also linked with Caer Sidi the Faeries' Glass Mountain or Spiral Castle where the natural energies of the earth met with the supernatural power of death. In very ancient times Caer Sidi was described as the abode of Cerridwen, the enchantress who possessed the Cauldron of Wisdom, a goddess with powers of prophecy and magic.
The remnants of stones scattered around the lower slopes of the Tor point to yet another possible use of this hill. It could have been used as a moon observatory in conjunction with the threading of the maze, for there is a good deal of evidence connecting megalithic stones with Druid initiation ceremonies.
To many the key document on the whole question of Glastonbury is the Life of St Collen by a Welsh saint of 650 AD. The manuscript tells the story of a Christian hermit living in a cell on the Tor who is visited by two emissaries of the Faery King Gwyn Ap Nudd. They persuade him to visit their king on the summit of the Tor. Because the hermit believes faeries to be demons, he takes holy water with him. He enters the other world of the king's castle, refuses to eat what is offered him, splashes holy water everywhere and immediately the castle and faeries disappear.
During the sixth and seventh centuries, a mass of Celtic sagas appeared concerning the heroes of Britain. These sagas linked the Faery King Gwyn with the Glass Island, and also with Annwn the Celtic land of Faery, King Arthur, and the cauldron of plenty. However, the earliest reference to the Tor is in the Charter of St Patrick compiled around the middle of the thirteenth century. It mentions two lay brothers, a fact which suggests the beginning of a monastic settlement on the Tor, and if not that, then it at least points to a Christian interest in the place.
More evidence that the Tor was a monastic site occurs in the thirteenth century in a charter of Henry III of AD 1234, giving permission for the holding of a fair "at the monastery of St Michael on the Tor." Faery fairs turn up in folklore time after time and they always appear to have been held near mazes, mounds, standing-stones, hill-forts or earthworks. There is still an annual Tor Fair in Glastonbury, but it is no longer held on the Tor.
The oldest story connecting King Arthur with Glastonbury is told by a monk of Llancarfan, called Caradoc, in his Life of Gildas. Queen Guinevere was kidnapped by Melwas, king of Summer Land (Somerset) who kept her at Glastonbury. Arthur arrived to rescue her with soldiers from Devon and Cornwall, but was hampered by the watery country. A treaty was arranged between the two so that Arthur and Melwas ended their quarrel in the church of St Marythe Old Church and Guinevere was handed back to Arthur. Glastonbury Tor would have been an obvious place for Milwas to have a fort, and excavations on the summit point to a hillfort of that period.
In a pre-Christian version of The Quest of the Holy Grail, namely the Welsh poem Spoils of Annwn which occurs in the Book of Taliesin, King Arthur and his company enter Annwn, the realm of Gwyn Ap Nudd, to bring back a miraculous cauldron of inspiration and plenty. The Tor is featured as the Corbenic Castle (Grail Castle) where the procession to the heavily-guarded grail or cauldron takes place. As the cauldron was associated in those times with fertility and plenty, it is very possible that an ancient fertility ritual was performed there, traces of which survive in the later legends of the Holy Grail. Another link between the Grail and the Tor is the saying that if a rainbow is seen over the Tor, someone has seen the Holy Grail.
In Arthurian legend Avalon was also the home of Morgan le Fay, a Celtic goddess or Faerie Queen, but she was more commonly regarded as Arthur's sister. Her name occurs in Celtic Europe as Fata Morgana in Italy and as Morgain la Fée in France. As Fata Morgana, she lived beneath the waters of a lake, leading one to suppose that the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian mythology and Morgan le Fay were at one time one and the same goddess. In volume one of her Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood, the author Merlin Stone draws yet another parallel:
The powerful Fata Morgana was but another name for the holy goddess Fortuna... and there are those who say that Fata and Fortuna were but other names for the Three who were known as The Fates, for are not Fata, Pay and Faerie simply other ways of saying Fate?
Excavations on the Tor between 1964 and 1966 give us a chronological outline which, although open to varying interpretations, gives us something to go on with regard to dating the uses of the Tor through the centuries. Remains of graves on the summit dating back to the fifth and sixth centuries (the Dark Ages) suggest a pagan religious site.
It could also have been a small Celtic Christian monastic site as the type of pottery found is common to other early Christian sites, although the large quantity of meat bones suggests that these were not Christian ascetics. A sixth century bronze head with a Celtic face points to metal-working on the Tor and the site could also have been used as a stronghold or hill-fort. The Celtic Christian culture probably derived from the late Roman way of life and certainly predates any settled Saxon administration.
The discovery of a wheel-headed cross confirms a Christian basis in the eleventh century (late Saxon, early medieval) and the preponderance of fish, bird bones and eggshell among the animal remains definitely supports the theory that a Christian settlement, with a hermitage, existed on the Tor at this time.
The first church on the Tor was probably of the late twelfth or early thirteenth century and was dedicated to St Michael a dedication which was characteristic of such a hill-top site. St Michael, apart from being the ruler of archangels according to Christian tradition, was also the dragon-slayer and the personal adversary of Satan. Early Christianity believed the gods of the old religion to be fallen angels, or demons. The Christian church seems to have had a definite policy of building churches dedicated to St Michael on the old religious sites and sacred mounds. Since the Tor and its spiral maze represented the dragon, symbol of the Primal Mother or Earth Spirit in pagan times, the building of a church dedicated to the dragon-slayer was obviously meant to act as a powerful deterrent to any kind of pagan celebration.
In 1275 there was an earthquake and the church of St Michael crashed to the ground, hopelessly ruined. Another church was built and the tower or chapel, which is all that remains, dates to the fourteenth century, with some later alterations and embellishments. The markings on St Michael's tower show Michael holding the scales and St Bridget milking a cow. St Bridget was originally the Celtic goddess Brighde who, at her festival of Imbolc in February, presided over the lactation of domestic animals, sheep in particular. She was the goddess of fire, and probably also of the sun, of poetic inspiration, of childbirth and metal-working.
Tunnels and waterways
There are many stories, both real and imaginary, about a series of tunnels beneath the Tor. Jazz sessions used to take place in one such tunnel entrance in the early 1960s, but since then it appears that they have all been blocked up. However, the most famous tale is about a tunnel from the Abbey to the Tor. At one time some thirty monks are rumoured to have entered the Tor via this tunnel, but only three came out again, two insane and one struck dumb. Wherever these entrances begin and end, a point worth noting is that many experienced dowsers are convinced of the Tor's hollowness and the existence of a variety of underground springs forming a vast network of hidden subterranean waterways. It is also believed that the spiral maze is represented within as well as without, and that a Druid cave or temple lies within.
There is no mistaking the powerful elemental quality on the Tor. Some would describe it as a whirlwind, a vortex or meeting-point of energies in their purest and wildest form; others would describe a primordial dragon twisting, turning, and roaring to be let out. Please note this dragon can be calm and serene too.
Many visitors to the Tor have had strange psychic experiences there including suddenly leaping into the air, feelings of weightlessness and disorientation, or disappearing into subterranean passages. In 1969 a group of night-shift workers saw a saucer-shaped object hover over the Tor, and later, a big fiery-red ball appeared over the hill and then moved rapidly over Glastonbury. In 1970 a police officer saw eight egg-shaped objects in formation over the Tor. These cases were reported in the local paper. Sightings continue to occur.
Glastonbury Tor also plays a significant part in the alignment of sacred prehistoric sites known as the St Michael line. According to the renowned author and thinker John Michell in his book New Light on the Ancient Mystery of Glastonbury,
Geographically it is the longest line across land that can be drawn over southern England, extending from a point near Land's End in the far west to the eastern extremity of East Anglia. On or near its straight course lie major St Michael sanctuaries of western England: Glastonbury Tor, Burrowbridge Mump, Brentor, Roche Rock, St Michael's Mount, Carn Brea.
Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller, the authors of The Sun and the Serpent, have used dowsing to track for 300 miles the course of this enigmatic line on the landscape with fascinating results regarding Glastonbury Tor and its environs.
People who live in Glastonbury speak of the way they are sometimes impelled to go up the slopes of the Tor, while on other days they would find themselves unable to approach it. The Tor maze is often walked with the intention of solving seemingly impossible problems as its disorienting effect can lift the veil between dimensions. For some this leads to new perspectives on life. A day or so before childbirth some expectant mothers have felt a strong urge to climb the Tor and this has heralded the onset of labour. However one perceives Glastonbury Tor as a magnetic centre, as a cosmic power point, as an ancient oracle or a fairytale castle the evidence unavoidably indicates the existence of a prehistoric culture deeply concerned with the forces of the earth and sky, forces which were depended upon, utilised, celebrated and understood in a way which has yet to be fully re-discovered.