Glastonbury, in the Somerset region of England, seems always to have been a spiritual center, from Celtic May Day festivities, to Christian worship, to present-day New Age festivals. Human habitation dates back many centuries before the contemporary era, based on findings of flints, the remains of two lake villages that rose above the marshes on artificial islands, and hundreds of planks that formed walkways held by pegs driven into the soil. Those remnants date back to at least 2500 b.c.e., the same period in which many other sites, such as Stonehenge and Silbury Hill, the tallest prehistoric man-made mound in Europe, were being erected.
Romans conquered Great Britain during the first century b.c.e. and established wharves on nearby Bristol Bay, thus enabling Glastonbury to become a shipping area. A legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea, who is mentioned in the Bible as the person who prepared Jesus Christ (c. 6 b.c.e.–c. 30 c.e.) for burial after his crucifixion, landed in Bristol Bay and established the first Christian church at Glastonbury. Later, according to some accounts, he traveled by sea and landed in Great Britain, bringing with him the Holy Grail. Several centuries later, according to legends, King Arthur's knights undertook quests to find the lost Holy Grail.
When Joseph arrived in Glastonbury, according to tradition, he pushed his staff into the soil on a ridge called Wirral. That staff miraculously became a tree, the famous Glastonbury Thorn. It flowers around the beginning of winter, usually around Christmas time. It is not known when the original Glastonbury Thorn first appeared, but it was already centuries old and revered in the sixteenth century, when a Puritan cut it down because it represented a prideful icon of veneration. The Glastonbury Thorn is unlike any native species of tree in Great Britain and is reputed to be related to a thorn tree of the eastern Mediterranean area.
The most distinctive and highest of the hills in the area is the Glastonbury Tor ("tor" is an old word for "hill"). An imposing hill, the tor can be seen from as far as 25 miles away. A ruined tower of a Christian chapel is perched on the top of the tor. Nearby are the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey and, reportedly, the oldest Christian church in England.
Glastonbury Abbey, a Christian monastery, was long established at the site when it became a focal point for Arthurian legends in 1190. King Henry II (1133–1189) had claimed that a bard told him that King Arthur's bones were buried deep at Glastonbury. In 1190, two monks at the monastery had a vision about a site where Arthur was buried in Glastonbury. After digging a hole sixteen feet deep, they claimed that they uncovered two stone markers and a giant coffin. Inside the coffin were the bones of a man and a woman together with a tablet identifying the remains as those of King Arthur and his wife, Guinevere.
The find was widely heralded, but was also quickly regarded as a hoax and the authenticity of the grave strongly debated. Nevertheless, the Norman kings, whose invading armies had conquered Britain a century earlier and were still attempting to solidify their power, embraced the find. By the sixteenth century, when King Henry VIII (1491–1547) dissolved all Christian monasteries in Great Britain, the bones and artifacts alleged to be Arthur's were looted and the authenticity of the burial find was generally disproved. In the popular mind, however, the claim continued to be taken seriously because of the area's associations with Arthurian legends. Even to this day, the Pomparles Bridge that spans the River Brue that runs through Glastonbury is reputed to be the site where Arthur's sword, Excalibur, was returned to the Lady of the Lake.
During the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, Glastonbury remains the site of official festivals and unofficial gatherings that celebrate its Celtic roots. Beltane Day, as the Celts called May Day, is celebrated with a festival for the rebirth of the sun.
Gordon, Stuart. The Encyclopedia of Myths and Legends. London: Headline Books, 1993.
Harpur, James, and Jennifer Westwood. The Atlas of Legendary Places. New York: Konecky & Konecky, 1997.
Maltwood, Katherine E. A Guide to Glastonbury's Temple of the Stars. London: Clarke, 1929.
A town in Somerset, England, that has become the focus of romantic legends of both Paganism and Christianity. It is situated among orchards and water meadows in the fen country surrounding Glastonbury Tor, a hill on what was once an island. Although there is an old Christian chapel on the Tor, Celtic legends state that this was the entrance to a pagan underworld, home of the fairy folk. The ruined abbey at Glastonbury is associated with the legend of Joseph of Arimathea, who is said to have brought the Holy Grail to the Vale of Avalon and planted a staff in the ground, which grew as a thorn, flowering on Christmas Eve.
The Glastonbury thorn actually existed until Reformation times, when it was destroyed, but varieties exist in other parts of Britain. Glastonbury is also believed to be the resting place of King Arthur.
During the early decades of this century, Frederick Bligh Bond received a number of messages—published as the Glastonbury Scripts —that directed his excavations of the abbey. In the 1920s, Katherine Maltwood began to examine reports that the land around Glastonbury was laid out as a giant horoscope, which became known as the Glastonbury zodiac. More recently Glastonbury became the home of magician Dion Fortune.
This "power complex" of traditions and legends has attracted many young people to Glastonbury as a pilgrimage center in the contemporary occult and mystical revival. New mythologies crossed with the old as thousands of young pilgrims spend magical weekends at Glastonbury, combining flying saucer cults, Hare Krishna incantations, and rock music with legends of King Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea.
Glastonbury is now regarded as a power center of the New Age of Aquarius, and a community magazine, Torc, has been founded to further knowledge of Glastonbury and its associations. (Address for subscription information: 3 Jacobs Close, Windmill Hill, Glastonbury, Somerset, U.K.) In 1989 the "alternative" community of Glastonbury, through an organization called Unique Publications, launched a journal, The Glastonbury Gazette.
For a skeptical account of the Glastonbury legends, see Christianity in Somerset (1976), by Robert Dunning. Dunning claims that all the stories of King Arthur and St. Joseph were twelfth-century fabrications used to attract funds for the rebuilding of the abbey.
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Howard-Gordon, Francis. Glastonbury: Maker of Myths. Glastonbury, England: Gothic Image, 1982.
Lewis, Lionel. St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury. London: James Clarke, 1955.
Michell, John. New Light on the Ancient Mystery of Glastonbury. Glastonbury, England: Gothic Images Publications, 1990.
Reiser, Oliver L. This Holyest Erthe: The Glastonbury Zodiac and King Arthur's Camelot. Bedford, England: Perennial Books, 1976.
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Williams, Mary. Glastonbury: A Study in Patterns. Hammer-smith, England: Research into Lost Knowledge Organization, 1969.
Revd Dr William M. Marshall
Glastonbury thorn a winter-flowering form of hawthorn, said to have sprung up at Glastonbury from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea; it is traditionally said to flower on Christmas Day according to the Old Style calendar.