Myth or magic, song or dance, art or history go solo with a theme – just for fun
At the third hotel I called I heard the same story: “There’s a Goddess Conference on. No rooms available.”
Well, I’m Nemesis, the Goddess of Vengeance and Fate, I wanted to say. Any chance you can squeeze me in?
Nowhere else but Glastonbury would I be competing with over 300 goddesses for a room. This mystical Isle of Avalon is a point of pilgrimage for Christians and Pagans alike. It is notable as the site of the first Christian church in England, the hiding place of the Holy Grail, and the burial place of Arthur and Guinevere.
Myths abound in this tiny Somerset town, and it’s impossible to weed out the facts. But for many drawn by ley lines (alignments of ancient sites), legends, or even the huge annual music festival, Glastonbury is a magical place. I’m just curious to see if this spirituality will affect me, or if, as I suspect, I’m mystically thick as a plank.
I finally find a place to stay at the George & Pilgrims, an ancient hotel that has been housing pilgrims since the 15th century. A tunnel underneath, now blocked off, used to connect it to the once mighty Glastonbury Abbey down the street.
A miniature statue of Henry VIII stares at me defiantly from the wall of my Henry VIII room. Too much patriarchal energy for the goddesses? Maybe that is why it’s still available. I’m surprised pilgrims would want it either, as it was Henry who caused the destruction of the Abbey after his break from the Roman Church. A word with Oddvar, the Norwegian desk clerk who has made Glastonbury home, assures me that Henry didn’t actually stay in the room.
From my 500-year-old window, I look out over flocks of goddesses in colorful flowing skirts. They’re here to celebrate womanhood, no doubt. I’m a bit lonely with nothing but the statue of Henry for company, so I decide to join them. I’m female, what more credentials do I need.
I head to the town hall and leaf through a program. Labyrinth Ceremonies, Goddess Alphabet Dance, Meditation, Weaving the Goddess E-Web . . . I don’t understand a thing but decide to sign up, until I learn the price – £45 for one day. Reluctantly, I forgo goddess kinship for the solitary role of a pilgrim. It may be lonely, but it’s free.
I head, instead, to the Tor, the strange grassy hill that rises like a cone behind town. I follow the posted arrows, but instead of the paved footpath, I end up on a rambling dirt trail winding around the back of the hill. The morning light slants across the path as I tramp through the brush, rich with the smell of damp greenery and smoky traces of campfire. And my trek isn’t without danger – a grunting pig behind a hedgerow scares me half out of my wits.
Finally I reach the base and start climbing. Some say the Tor is hollow, dwelling place of the fairies. Others think it’s the entrance to the underworld. Panting when I reach the top, I flop on the grass and look out over the Vale of Avalon. Pale green fields stretch like waves, merging into a hazy blue sky. In the shade of the 15th century tower behind me, the only remains of a much older chapel, a man softly strums the guitar.
It should be tranquil but it isn’t. Either I’m adversely affected by the ley lines, which intersect here, or I’m sensing the lingering spirit of Richard Whiting, the elderly abbot who was dragged up here and hung in 1539, thanks to Henry’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. It’s a gruesome image for such a pastoral view.
On my way down I meet the minstrel guitarist, Murray, and his girlfriend, Wendy. Together we decide to go to the Chalice Well. Wendy tells me that just before she met Murray, she was doing her fairy cards, and turned up the pixie, which signifies unconditional love. So here I am off to an ancient well with a fairy and a pixie. My spirits perk up.
In the Eden-like Chalice Well Garden, I dip my feet into the healing Pilgrims’ Bath. When Wendy and Murray decide to stay for a spot of meditation, I stroll to the back of the garden. Surrounded by the fragrance of roses is the source of the spring. Joseph of Arimathea, the Virgin Mary’s uncle, hid the Holy Grail here – either that or in the hills behind. We don’t know for certain as it has never been found.
Next morning I slog through a steady rain over to the town hall for the goddess procession up to the Tor. It’s open to the public, and it’s free.
After waiting around for 20 minutes, the sodden goddesses huddled there don’t look as if they’re marching anytime soon, so I head around the corner to the Abbey.
It’s silent and serene here. I walk through the vast crumbling ruins, walls half-standing like decaying trees in a forest of moss. The rain stops as I’m standing in the roofless Lady Chapel. I feel a tremendous sense of peace. My audio tape confirms that the chapel stands on a potent spot. Joseph built England’s first Christian church here in AD63 – a mud and wattle hut dedicated to Mary.
Outside, on a smooth stretch of grass, a plaque marks the original tomb of Arthur and Guinevere. A leaden cross buried with them (which vanished in the 17th century) certified that: Here lies the illustrious King Arthur buried in the Isle of Avalon.
In reality here lies controversy – perhaps the oldest tourist trap in existence. The monks found the grave in 1191, conveniently when money was needed to rebuild after a devastating fire. What better way to attract pilgrim donations?
Hungry from myth hunting, I head out to the High Street for a meal at the Spiral Café. Over chick pea stew, I chat with the British couple beside me. In his lavender shirt and pressed beige pants, I’d pegged Mike for a tourist, but he’s well acquainted with Glastonbury and has accompanied his wife Liz to the Goddess Conference. Mike’s beliefs are hard to define, but universalist with neo-pagan and Gnostic tendencies comes close. Liz prefers a female divinity.
“It’s a feminine energy here,” she says. “The hills form the shape of a reclining woman.”
That explains the goddesses. And here the woman at the tourist information office told me it was because the Tor was in the shape of a breast. But Liz informs me that Glastonbury is an age-old center of goddess worship. Avalon is Morgan la Fay’s kingdom, and though she’s usually seen as Arthur’s enemy, she was also a healer; it was here she brought him to tend his mortal wounds.
“Morgan got a bum rap,” Liz says.
With a surge of satisfaction, I recall that it was the Lady’s Chapel that affected me the most deeply. In my own way I’m celebrating the female spirit, too.
The restaurant fills up and two German women sit down at my table.
“Here for the conference?” they ask.
“No,” I say cheerfully, moving over to make room. I may not be a goddess, or even close, but it’s nice to be mistaken for one.
Info: Glastonbury Tourist Information Centre, 9 High Street, Glastonbury. Tel. +44(0)1458-832954; Fax +44(0)1458 832949.
Getting there: Glastonbury is about 220 km west of London and 28 miles or 40km south of Bristol. No trains run directly to Glastonbury.
Lodging: George & Pilgrims Hotel, 1 High Street, Glastonbury, Somerset BA6 9DP. Tel. +44(0)1458-831146.
In times past, lowland Somerset was a marshy sea with a scattering of platform villages, raised causeways and, here and there, an isolated island such as Glastonbury Tor. This island refuge attracted primitive settlers, then Romans, then Saxons – as recalled in the town’s original name, Glaestingaburgh, meaning “hill-fort of the Glaestings.” Meanwhile, the isle was also developing as a religious center. Fact shows there was a Celtic monastery here by 500AD which, during the next 1000 years, evolved into one of England’s wealthiest and most influential abbeys.
Legend identifies Glastonbury as the fabled Isle of Avalon – in Celtic mythology, the Island of the Blessed Souls, and accordingly the resting place of the hero-king, Arthur. In the twelfth century this tradition was reinforced when monks at Glastonbury Abbey discovered bones from a Dark Age burial, reputedly alongside a cross bearing the inscription: “Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur with Guinevere his second wife in the Isle of Avalon.”
An even earlier legend links Glastonbury with Joseph of Arimathea. It relates that after the Crucifixion, Joseph brought the Holy Grail, containing Christ’s blood, to Glastonbury. Accordingly, his boat sailed up the swampy inlets and landed him at Wearyall Hill where his staff took root and blossomed out into a flowering thorn, which still blooms twice a year. Joseph and his followers then erected a wattle chapel – possibly the first Christian church in England. Another strand in the story claims that Joseph, a wealthy merchant with lead-mining interests, was Christ’s uncle and had once taken his young nephew on a visit to Somerset; hence William Blake’s “Glastonbury Hymn,” better known as “Jerusalem.”
Whether fact or fiction, these traditions - and others - served to establish Glastonbury’s reputation as the “holiest earthe in England” and, throughout the Middle Ages, turned it into a major center of pilgrimage.
Added Information Courtesy Glastonbury Tourist Information Centre