Monday, 13 January 2014

Glastonbury: A Place Apart 2

As you approach Glastonbury from any direction, the Tor dominates your vision, indeed it is visible from the “black mountains of Wales to the North West and from the hill of South Cadbury in the opposite direction”.{1} On its summit stands a tower, all that remains of a church dedicated to St Michael, one of several summit churches in the area dedicated to this archangel, which seem to have been designed to create a protective barrier around the area. Dion Fortune describes it thus:

Seen from a distance, the Tor is a perfect pyramid; but as we draw nearer a central hill detaches itself from the crowding foothills, and we see that it is shaped like a couchant lion bearing a tower upon its crest, and round the central portion, in three great spirals, sweeps a broad, graded track, known as the Pilgrim Way. […] Whether the full moon is sailing serenely in the night sky behind the tower or whether a dark sky blots out the stars, whether the sun is blazing in a sky of Italian blue or sheds of cloud are driving past in a storm, the Tor dominates Glastonbury. [...] In the centre of this, ‘the holiest erthe in Englande’ rises the most pagan of hills. For the Tor keeps its spiritual freedom. It has never cried: ‘Thou hast conquered, O Galilean.’{2}

According to Fortune the major function of the Church of St. Michael, which was erected on the summit of the Tor some centuries before the Norman Conquest, was to ‘hold down the powers of the underworld.’ But in the earthquake of 1000CE, the main body of the church collapsed, leaving only the tower: 

   thus was the Christian symbol of a cruciform church changed into the pagan symbol of an upstanding tower, and the Old Gods held their own. Over the door that gives entrance to the tower are carved two curious symbols […] upon one side of the lintel is a bas-relief of the soul being weighed in the balance, and upon the other is a semblance of a cow. What are these symbols doing on a Christian tower?{3}

Fortune makes, in my mind, the obvious readings of these symbols: the soul being weighed in the Judgement Hall of Osiris against the Feather of Truth; and the cow-goddess Hathor with the Moon between her horns. Hathor is, in many respects, synonymous with Isis: so it may well be that on the front face of the tower Osiris and Isis are referenced. All roads for me at present, seem to lead back to Egypt.

The Tor is ringed by seven carved ridges which form a labyrinth which leads to the Tower at the top. This Pilgrims Way allows for a gradual immersion in the energies, a swapping of place/ time and a threshold to be crossed. Labyrinths combine walking and contemplation and, on a deeper level, are said to represent the journey of the soul: Life, Death and Rebirth. For those who prefer the more direct approach, a tiered path leads to the summit. The labyrinth that girdles the Tor finds an echo in the much smaller labyrinth to be found in the Churchyard of St John’s Church on the High Street.

Blood:Water: Grail 

Nestling at the foot of the Tor, in the vale between it and the Chalice Hill, stands the Chalice Well; a place which is profoundly peaceful: a Living Sanctuary for the soul and a place to revive the spirits. I have written previously on this blog about Holy Wells: since ancient times they have been visited by those requiring healing and restoration: they also are extremely numinous thresholds – giving the pilgrim potential access to the Worlds beyond This and to the Divine. In the past the well was known as the Blood Spring because of the red iron deposit the water leaves on everything it touches. This connection to blood and the Chalice or Grail is heightened by one of the guardians of the Well: a Robin Redbreast( a bird connected like the Grail with the crucifixion in folklore): coincidentally it is a bird which seems to be ever-present as we make our way around the wells and holy sites of Britain and Ireland.

Chalice Well Head 

Water as we know has healing properties, but it also has, I believe, a subtler dimension which lies in its capacity to store and transmit energetic information. (The water at the well is of course free to collect and use as you wish.) On a previous visit we walked barefoot on the meadow which overlooks the well; experiencing the exceptional heat created by the energies emanating from the earth. Meditating here, whether it be in the meadow, at the well-head or in any of the nooks and crannies which permeate the site,  is a revitalising and deeply moving experience: if you get to Glastonbury, make sure to place it high on your “to do” list. 

One of the most interesting of legends associated with Glastonbury is connected to the Holy Thorn, which until recently, sat upon the summit of Wearyall Hill. Its origin springs, as most things, from an amalgam of Pagan and Christian Past; and also answers the question of why this relatively small place isolated in the Somerset Marshes, has played, as it has, such a significant part in the spiritual history of Britain. As John Michell notes in New Light on the Ancient Mystery of  Glastonbury, “in medieval Christendom the site of the first English Church, at the west end of Glastonbury Abbey, was called the ‘holiest earth of England’, and its precincts were sanctified as a model of earthly paradise.” This sanctification dates from “the time when Glastonbury was a Druid sanctuary […] long before the introduction of Christianity.”{4} 

The myth of the Holy Thorn is directly linked to what Paul Weston describes as “one of the greatest mythological event” connected to Glastonbury.

Joseph of Arimathea, who the New Testament tells us provided the tomb for Jesus, journeyed from Palestine to make his home in Somerset, either in 37 or 63 AD.[…] This mythos has become perhaps the most enduring of all Glastonbury tales, resolutely refusing to dissolve before the sceptic […] The Joseph story has left us with perhaps the last functioning medieval-type saintly relic. Supposedly he arrived at Wearyall Hill and planted his staff into the ground. It sprouted and became the famous Holy Thorn.{5}

Abbey Ruins 

A few years ago the Holy Thorn was vandalised, but it regenerated at that time; last year a more brutal attack was made totally destroying the Thorn. However, thankfully in the medieval period slips were taken from the original and planted in the monk’s garden of the Abbey and in the churchyard of St. John’s church. The thorn blossoms out of season just before Christmas – as it is actually a type which is to be found in the Middle East it is naturally blossoming in its season, not ours – and adorns the high altar of the Church for the Christmas celebrations.

In the 17th Century the highly influential Elizabethan Magician/ Mathematician/ Royal advisor and Spy Master –John Dee postulated an idea of the existence of a great topographical zodiac which surrounds Glastonbury. In the 1930s evidence of the Temple of the Stars was provided by Katherine Maltwood in her book Glastonbury’s Temple of the Stars.  As this will be the subject of a future blog, I will say no more at this stage. 

Somerset Plains and Blakean Thistle

Glastonbury as a town is unique in that the majority of shops are in some way connected to the furthering of esoteric/ pagan studies. Springing from the Gothic Image bookshop, founded in Glastonbury in the late flowerings of the Hippy Sixties, the High Street is now the antithesis of other town centres where you may find only one New Age type shop. The glamour of such fecundity of commercial outlets seeming to satisfy the spirit, will overwhelm the first time visitor. However, as your stay develops, it is the surrounding spiritual sites, and the myriad thresholds abounding in this place apart, which will deeply and subtly influence and remain with you. 

Blessed Be.

1 John Michell: New Light on the Ancient Mystery of Glastonbury, Gothic Image: Glastonbury P3
2 Dion Fortune: Glastonbury: Avalon of the Heart, Weiser Books: Boston,  P51
3 Fortune, P53
4  Michell P ii 
5 Paul Weston: Avalonian Aeon, Avalonian Aeon Publications: Glastonbury P i-ii

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