The area around Glastonbury has been inhabited since at least 4000 BC. With the exception of four hills, this area of Somerset is relatively flat. Ice ages and subsequent floods formed an inland sea or marsh around the base of the area’s highest hill, known in local parlance as the Tor.
Glastonbury Tor – The Tor rises 518 feet above the surrounding plain. Seven man-made rings are carved into its side, giving it a terraced or labyrinth-like appearance. It is believed these were made by Iron Age people, possibly for farming or to allow a great number of people to meet in a central place at once, perhaps for a sacred ritual.
The Tor has long been believed to be an opening between heaven, earth and the underworld. Some believe that like many of earth’s holy places (Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, etc.), it sits on intersecting lines of mystical energy called ley lines, which are thought to attract magic and powerful spiritual forces.
For those who have read The Mists of Avalon, the mists are real, although they rise naturally at dawn and dusk, not through magical means. However, Glastonbury is protected/separated from the outside world by a man-made earthwork called Pointer’s Ball.
There is archeological evidence that the Tor was occupied in the early part of first millennium, possibly for military purposes, and that a hill fort once occupied the site. That fits with the Arthurian story that Glastonbury is where either Meleagant or Mordred (depending on the version) held Guinevere hostage after kidnapping her.
Christian lore holds that Joseph of Arimathea, made wealthy in the tin and silver trade, visited Glastonbury with his nephew Jesus. Alternately, Joseph was said to have fled to the isle after Jesus’ death with either the Holy Grail or two cruets, one containing Jesus’ blood and the other water from his side. When he buried the cruets, the red and white springs (see below for more) flowed from their sacred liquids. Joseph is also credited with either transplanting or miraculously growing a hawthorn bush in the area that blooms (according to some legends) only on Christmas day.
Joseph is said to have built the first Christian church on the Tor, probably a hut made from sapling branches. This evolved into a monastery somewhere between 600-800 AD that stood on the site until King Henry VIII dissolved England’s monasteries in 1539. Today, all that remains is a single tower, known as St. Michael’s Tower.
White Spring – The white spring has its source somewhere under the Tor. It is named for the white mineral deposits (calcite) it leaves on the cave as it emerges from the Tor. It is thought to have healing powers and is said to represent the life-giving forces of milk and semen.
Red Spring/Chalice Well - The red spring has its source in Chalice Hill, the area’s second highest hill. It is named for the iron in its waters, which turns everything it touches red - including rocks and tree sap. At Chalice Well, the spring that maintains a constant temperature of 52 degrees (11 Celsius). It is considered sacred and represents blood, which has associations with both life and death. Both springs rise to the surface in the valley between Chalice Hill and the Tor.
Today, Glastonbury is an eclectic town that attracts tourists, locals, Arthurian legend enthusiasts, Christians and pagans alike. What it may once have been can only be guessed at, but everyone seems to agree there is something unique about the site. Exactly what that is is up to you.
If you’d like to learn more, I recommend:
- The Isle of Avalon by Nicholas R. Mann
- The Chalice Well Trust
- Glastonbury Tor
- The Isle of Avalon
- The White Spring
Next week I’ll share with you the back story on Avalon in my books.
Have any of you been to Glastonbury or are you planning to go? If so, please share your stories below. (And I’d love to see photos if you have them!) Do you think this is location of Avalon? Why or why not? If not, where do you think it is?