Glastonbury Tor


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A tower built by Celtic Christians in the seventh century CE stands atop Glastonbury Tor, a hill associated with many myths and legends from both Christian and Pagan traditions. Fortean Picture Library.

Glastonbury Tor (England)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Glastonbury Tor, a teardrop-shaped hill, dominates the landscape around the town of Glastonbury, England, and the surrounding plain, the Summerland Meadows. In times past, at least part of the year it was an island. Today it is surrounded on three sides by the river Brue. Known through much of Britain’s prehistory, it drew religious fervor and played a part in various popular legends. Modern New Age practitioners have added significantly to its spiritual lore.

Inhabited as early as 300 BCE, residents found it an easily defended position with a natural moat. Called Ynis Witrin, or Isle of Glass, the Tor was connected to the surrounding territory by anarrow strip of land, above water only at low tide. Several trade routes converged at Glastonbury, drawing Romans and other travelers. In the seventh century, a Celtic Christian monastic community settled on top of the Tor. The tower attached to their center is the only remaining structure on the Tor proper. (Some sources say the monastery was founded by the Welsh Saint David late in the sixth century.) The monastery was later relocated to the foot of the hill, and in the tenth century it became the home of the future saint, Dunstan (d. 988). Dunstan was one of the leaders of the monastic revival in England of the late tenth century, and he launched the history of Glastonbury as a center of British monastic life.

The thriving monastic community was able to level the top of the Tor and construct a large stone church on its height. This church was destroyed by an earthquake but was rebuilt in 1323. After Henry VIII closed and looted all of England’s monasteries, the church on top of the Tor was destroyed a second time, this time by local residents who raided it for stone to be used in other structures.

During the Tor’s monastic era, it also became associated with King Arthur. Arthur, probably a Celtic ruler who attained legendary status by defending his land against the movement of Saxons into the region, was supposedly buried at Glastonbury Abbey. Any use of the Tor would have beenfrom its military strategic value. One of the more enduring stories concerns a local chieftain named Melwas who, it was later claimed, kidnapped Arthur’s wife, Guinevere, and held her prisoner there until Arthur could negotiate her release.

In the modern world, the Tor has become the focus of a spectrum of mystical and esoteric lore. At the foot of the Tor is the Chalice Well, which some claim is the site where Joseph of Arimathea buried the chalice used at Jesus’ Last Supper. Many ghost stories have accumulated around the Tor. The megaliths, medieval church buildings, and other notable sites around the Tor have been mapped and provide material for speculation about ley lines (straight lines connecting ancient sites believed to suggest that their placement was planned by the original builders). Among the more enduring legends, first recorded in medieval times, is that the Tor is hollow and the location of the entrance to the underworld. The hollow Tor stories connect the hill to fairy legends.

From a distance, the terraced pathway that wraps around the Tor is one of its most distinguishing features. Some have suggested the pathway was made as early as four or five thousand years ago, making it contemporaneous with Stonehenge. Noting that the pathway is similar to a labyrinth, some suggest it was the product of conscious human planning rather than simply a haphazard path up the mountain, possibly made originally by animals.

Today the Tor has been integrated into the New Age interest in Glastonbury and is an important site on the local tourist board’s list of the community’s sites. The revived and growing Neopagan community has pressed the case that Glastonbury be recognized as ancient Pagan territory. Some have claimed the top of the Tor was an ancient site for Pagan ceremonies, though convincing evidence is in short supply.

The many stories weaving in and out of the history of the Tor make it (along with the adjacent town) a tourist magnet and a popular goal for pilgrimages.

Sources:

Lewis, Lionel Smithett. St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury. London: James Clarke, 1976.
Roberts, Anthony. Atlantean Traditions in Ancient Britain. London: Rider and Company, 1977.
Wilcock, John. A Guide to Occult Britain. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1976.
Williams, Mary, ed. Glastonbury: A Study in Patterns. Hammersmith, UK: RILKO, 1969.
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