Magical Mystery Tor
The soft green hill of the Tor, crowned with its enigmatic tower, has become a symbol of Glastonbury. It dominates the town and the surrounding landscape, and is the first sign to the traveller that Glastonbury is drawing near.
Centuries of legends and folklore have gathered around this Tor. In their various ways, these tales all demonstrate one thing that the Tor is a place where the veil between the worlds is thin. Strange experiences here are usually interpreted according to the beliefs of the times. An otherworldly being met on the Tor might be called a fairy in one century, a nature spirit in another and ET in more recent years.
Like Glastonbury, the Tor has come to host a large variety of mystical beliefs. Nature mythology, paganism, Christian legends, and newer ideas about life the universe and everything have all found a comfortable, nurturing niche for themselves within Tor lore. Its as if the genius loci of the Tor is an especially powerful spirit of place: able to attract and foster all kinds of ideas, but bigger than all of them like a giant ancient tree with its ever-changing population of little birds and squirrels.
Its certainly ancient. Modern archeology agrees with the folklore about that. Many thousands of years ago, the Tor may have been one of seven islands that were left unsubmerged by a great flood. This would make it an important focus of regeneration and life, both symbolically and practically. It may even have been designed as such by those who foresaw the flood, and who deliberately infused the Tor with extra power and intent, thus making it our direct link to an ancient lost world.
Legends say that the top once sported a stone circle like Stonehenge. In the 1970s a West Country seer, who prefers not to be named, described her vision of how it might have been: "The Tor is not the same now as it was then. It has had a portion taken off the top, and there was a temple built on the top, like a Greek temple, but circular. Within it was the most beautiful mosaic type of floor, and it was set out like a zodiac. There were twelve columns around it, whitish in colour. Under the flooring there was a hidden vault. The top was domed. There were seven guardians there in pale blue robes. The white temple was on top of the Tor with trees and rushes and water all the way round. There was a very fragrant scent there. Just being on that islet was restorative in itself."
Since writing this, an exciting development has taken place. On 22.2.2002, archeologists Nancy and Charlie Hollinrake of the Glastonbury Antiquarian Society announced that they have unearthed on top of the Tor the foundations of what looks very much like an ancient circular temple!
The Tor was an islet for centuries, as the floodwaters took a long time to recede. "Somerset" is short for "summer settlement" because the area was too flooded to inhabit in winter. The Tor was called "Ynis Witrin" or "Isle of Glass", connected to the mainland by only a narrow strip of land at low tide. The people who recognise it enhance the power of any sacred place. This long period of semi-isolation may have not only preserved the otherworldly nature of the Tor, but also added to its aura of specialness through the eyes of the people.
In archetypal symbolism, hills and high places are like bridges between earth and sky. They represent a link between material reality and the unseen dimensions. The early Celts thought of high places as gods powerful beings in a world where all nature was inhabited by conscious entities. Roman influence later modified that idea, saying its not the hills that are alive, but the gods who live in them. The combination of these beliefs with the special qualities of the Tor made it almost inevitable that Glastonbury Tor would come to be seen as the home of many strange beings.
The earliest group known to move into the Tor was the fairies. In those days, fairies were nothing like our twee pictures of them. They were described as tall, youthful despite great age, and 'fair' ie. beautiful. At that time they were associated with certain constellations the Pleiedes, Ursa Major, and Sirius. They were said to have brought knowledge to the local people, especially about astrology and healing. Different peoples from all over the world have strikingly similar mythologies.
Stories about these fairy people became merged with Celtic personifications of the forces of nature. Gwyn ap Nudd, who later became the Tor King of the Fairies, began his career as a symbol of death. He was Lord of the Underworld, like the Norse Odin. His feared Wild Hunt was a harbinger of death, and bringer of bad luck to all who saw it. It would hurtle across the night sky, the white Yeth hounds running before, hunting souls to take back to the underworld.
As the arts of cultivation began to tame the power of nature, the Wild Hunt lost its raw terror. The faintest echo of it still rides our winter nights in the form of Santas merry sleigh. Somewhere along the way, Gwyn ap Nudd changed from Lord of the Underworld to King of the Fairies. His court established itself in the magically hollow Glastonbury Tor. But memories of the Wild Hunt lingered, and people remained wary of fairies. They were described as tall dark beings, just itching to play mocking tricks on mortals, kidnap or even kill them if they had half a chance. Gwyn was seen as a kind of mediator between them and the human race. He was said to be sometimes the only thing that stood between people and their complete destruction by these scary fairies. Even so, he was apparently barely able to restrain his crew, and couldnt resist a bit of malice himself at times.
As the agricultural life settled people into working with the seasons, the forces of nature began to feel cosier. It was then said that every year Gwyn ap Nudd stole the spring maiden Creiddyladd from Gwythr ap Greidawl. The rivals were then fated to fight an annual, unwinnable battle over her on the Tor every May Day till Doomsday, in a dramatisation of the yearly cycle of the seasons.
As the Middle Ages farmed on, people learned that potential threats from both fairies and nature could be avoided by heeding certain rules. By then fairies were seen as mostly helpful, but still with a few nasty surprises up their floaty green sleeves. That side of their nature was placated with offerings. It became the custom to leave little servings of food and drink out for them, which the fairies seemed to like.
There are still other observations about fairies that might have come from experiences of actual encounters with some form of non-human entity. The church did all it could to suppress these stories. Anyone talking openly about this kind of experience stood in danger of a witchcraft trial. Despite that, a large number of these tales survive.
A huge number of fairy encounters are associated with magical hills. Fairy hills were thought of as hollow, in the sense that there was another realm within them, making the hill seem bigger inside than out. This inner realm was called Annwn or Avalon. A persistent ancient belief says theres an entrance to Annwn somewhere on the Tor, which was well known as a strange, magical place.
Not many sought that entrance, because of certain dangers everyone knew about in those days. One problem was the difference between fairy time and ours. A heedless Annwn adventurer might slip permanently into the past or future. Anyone who returned from a fairy foray was likely to discover large chunks of missing time in their lives. More than one medieval experiencer reports having spent only half an hour or so with the fairies but when they returned, found that many years had passed in their world. Everyone they knew had grown old or died.
Another danger was the food. The rule was, if you visit Annwn, dont eat or drink anything. The fairies were friendly and hospitable, usually offering visitors food and drink. But any human who accepts fairy fare will never be able to leave their world again. The food and drink might stand for magical powers or advanced knowledge available in the other realms. Once these are assimilated understood it would be impossible to return to the old ways again.
A famous Tor story is the encounter between St. Collen with Gwyn ap Nudd. St. Collen, a devout Christian monk, had heard about the heathen fairies of the Tor, and decided to do something about it. He found the special place on the Tor that locals said was the entrance to Annwn, settled himself down, and put out for an encounter. Before long, Gwyn the mediator answered him in person. He led St. Collen into his court, where the fairies offered their food and drink. The monk refused these offerings, and threw holy water at his hosts. At that, he was instantly back on the grassy slopes of the Tor surface. He wound his way home, satisfied that his actions had banished fairies from the surface of the Tor. Whether this encounter was a literal event or not, it dramatically illustrates how the church was driving the other realms more and more underground.
Although cautious about the fairy world, people did like their fairs. These were festive occasions to gather, exchange news, and trade horses or magical wares. The Tor was naturally one of the major venues. By 1127 the annual Tor Fair was so successful and popular that King Henry I granted a charter for them to continue as long as they were held on the Tor at least two days a year. It was at one of these Tor fairs that the famous Blondin did a tightrope act so good we still have the reports praising it. Todays psychic fairs are continuing a tradition begun hundreds of years ago, and which, according to history, was originally inspired by the fairies.
The original Arthur was a valiant defender of the Celtic/Christian West Country against Angle and Saxon invasion after the Romans had left in the 6th century. Tintagel and Cadbury Castle were probably his main strongholds but so was Glastonbury Tor, according to both legends and evidence. The Tor had enough strategic and symbolic importance for this to be more than likely.
Apart from being an outstanding leader, Arthur also stood for a newish kind of spirituality that had taken hold in Britain. This was a strong mix of Celtic mysticism and Christian morality, with a good dash of Roman codes of honour. The barbarian invaders did not share those beliefs or attitudes. They were therefore a threat to the new faith, and the way of life that went with it. Thus Arthur was a defender of much more than the land and the people he was also the champion of these values, and fighting a kind of holy war.
The new beliefs were still firmly rooted in the Celtic underworld of Annwn, which was closely associated with Glastonbury Tor. A story about the young Arthur says he visited that realm, and while there was presented with the cauldron of rebirth and the sword of power. Although he was defeated in battle in the end, the enduring power of what Arthur represents suggests that these gifts were real in a way that has long since gone beyond sixth century military matters.
Other associations with the Tor weave in and out of Arthurian legend. There are echoes of Gwyns kidnapping of Creiddyladd in the story about Guineveres abduction. A local chieftain, Melwas, had a stronghold on the Tor. He kidnapped Arthurs wife Guinevere, and held her prisoner there. The marshes and swamps surrounding the Tor made it difficult for Arthur to attack with any hope of success. Recent archeology has found that there was a fifth century fort on the Tor, accessible by only one narrow and well-fortified strip of land. So Arthur asked for help from the Christian Abbot, Gildas. St. Gildas obliged, and was a diplomatic hit. Without a battle, Melwas returned Guinevere to Arthur.
But the advantages of the Tor were clearly not lost on Arthur. Perhaps with some of Guineveres newfound inside knowledge, he returned later, better prepared. This time he successfully conquered Melwas and made the Tor his own. This was also to protect the entrance to Annwn, although that may have been how people saw it in retrospect.
Another spooky story says that after Arthurs final departure to the mystic realms, the ghost of a knight with glowing red eyes and black armour began to haunt the Abbey. His mission was to suppress or destroy all records of Arthur. There could be some truth in this, although the knight may not have been a ghost. After winning the Battle of Camlan c.535-537CE, the invaders probably felt insecure with the continuing West Country loyalty towards Arthur, and decided to eradicate all memory of him.
Although most records of Arthurs career may have been deleted, the troubadours, 500-600 years later, more than made up for it. Living by the news and entertainment they brought, doing the rounds of the courts and castles, they spread the story of Arthur throughout Britain and Europe. Ever since then, Arthurian stories have been celebrated, romanticised and refined, with fresh interpretations still flowering from that rich soil. Fifteen hundred years on, the spirit of Arthur is alive and well in the legends that have become a vital part of the British psyche.
Anyone who wants to see Arthurs ghost in person could try Hunting Causeway between Cadbury Castle and Glastonbury next Christmas Eve. This runs along a ley line linking Cadbury, Glastonbury, and another centre in South East Wales. According to folklore, every Christmas Eve the once and future king leads a ghostly procession of knights along that route from Cadbury to Glastonbury. Sometimes only the silver glint of horseshoes can be seen, but many say they have heard the sounds of this procession passing by. It seems apt that the spirit of Arthur is seen as moving in this stately and ceremonial way towards his old mystical stronghold, the Glastonbury Tor.
The stones from Arthurs fort on the Tor were later used to build the 12th century Church of St.Michael there. Hilltop churches were often dedicated to St.Michael, who was the Christian version of older gods connected with high places and power meridians of the earth sometimes also called dragon lines.
On Sept 11th 1275, an earthquake shook down the Tors new church. Some said this was the fairies doing. The church was built again but again, it didnt last. All thats now left of it is the tower that was added in the 1360s. By whatever means, the Tor has successfully turned its church into the pagan symbol of an upstanding tower.
The stones from the rubble of this church, originally part of Arthurs fort, then went to build the Abbey. With the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, the Abbey was reduced to a stone quarry. People then used those stones for local building works. If stones could speak, some of the older houses, pubs and hostelries around Glastonbury would have some interesting tales to tell.
After the dissolution, there was a grim episode when Richard Whiting, the Abbeys last abbot, was dragged up the Tor on hurdles and hanged there, along with two of his priors. The wealth of the Abbey was supposedly sent to swell Henry VIIIths coffers in London. But theres a good chance he didnt get it all. There are stories about secret tunnels radiating in many directions from the Abbey, one of which links directly with the Tor. The limestone in the White Spring is geological evidence of tunnels under the Tor. Some of the Abbeys assets may have found their way into these tunnels, and may even still be there. Legends say that when the secret treasure is found again, it will herald a new age of peace and happiness. This treasure may not be the old booty from the Abbey though.
There are stories about monks who found these tunnels, but were 'insane' or 'unable to speak' when they returned. Maybe something in the experience unhinged their sheltered monastic minds. Maybe their accounts sounded so weird they were dismissed as mad. Or maybe destroying their credibility by calling them mad was a wily ploy to keep certain things quiet. The tunnels under the Abbey and the Tor may still hold forbidden secrets no one knows to this day or speaks about.
"The historical story, from a very old source, 17th century, says of a large tunnel leading into the Tor which had a large cave in it, with two pools of natural spring water that flowed underground to the Chalice Well. It is said the cave was part of a Druidic initiation, a journey into the dark and the inner self. There were also steps leading down from the top into the cave, which was rediscovered, then promptly covered up (for reasons unknown).
"As for the cave under the Tor, it was bricked up by the local water board and [only re-opened recently now the 'White Spring'.] A local who was very interested in the history of the site relayed to me that in the 60s his dad was part of a project to hollow out the Tor further and place a water tower inside, to harness the natural spring, thereby hiding a potential eyesore, though ruining the cave and profiting at the same time. This same person showed me one of the mentioned tunnels which still lead into the Abbey from outside of town. The bit I walked was, or at least seemed to be, several hundred yards."
Legend speaks more gently of another Christian secret protected by the Tor Joseph of Arimethaeas concealment of the Holy Chalice. The chosen spot is thought to be near to the Chalice Well natural spring at the foot of the Tor. The spring is associated with blood, because of the red colour of the water and its strong iron content. This has been interpreted in different ways. Christianity says that it represents the water and blood of Christs crucifixion, and was turned that way by the nearby burial of the sacred chalice. There are undertones in that story of older blood sacrifices to propitiate the gods. Many people today prefer to think the Chalice Well water represents the life-giving blood of the earth mother.
Fashions in belief are changing again, and once again the Tor is somehow the perfect model for the latest style, while never a fashion victim. Dion Fortune, the twentieth century writer and mystic said: "For the Tor keeps its spiritual freedom. It has never cried Thou hast conquered, O Galilean!"
Dowsing methods have now traced many power lines in the earth that for centuries were known to folklore. These are geomagnetic lines in the earth, like acupuncture meridians in the body. Ancient people found that using them made all forms of travel, messages and communications easier. Christian churches later replaced the older sacred sites that were built along these lines. The Michael line is called that because most of the churches on it are dedicated to St.Michael, who was the Christian version of the protective male deity originally associated with this line. In the same way, St.Mary churches delineate the Mary line and replaced older shrines to a nurturing and gentle earth mother. The male and female nature of the two lines was thus preserved and continued by the Christian interpretation.
The Michael and Mary lines are especially powerful. They connect major sacred sites throughout the South West and beyond. But its only on the Tor that their energies combine. In a harmonious dance of earth patterns, the lines move ever closer as they approach the summit. At the top, they merge and unite. Perhaps this is what makes it easy for so many other kinds of opposites to harmoniously come together on the Tor.
When they flow down from the Tor again, the lines then pass through the other major Glastonbury sites Chalice Well, the Abbey and Wearyall Hill. Their energy may be an important source of the strong mystical element thats been associated with these places for many hundreds of years.
Apart from their connection with sacred sites, these lines are also associated with strange lights, and other unexplained phenomena. Over the years, a substantial number of credible witnesses have seen balls of light around the Tor. These are described as luminous, alive, and somehow conscious. People say it feels as if the lights present themselves on purpose in some way. They can be round, oval, small as ping pong balls or big as beach balls; misty, sparkly, luminous or glowing; sometimes alone, sometimes in groups; hovering, floating or travelling purposefully through the air, appearing and disappearing at will. Not only white, but reds, greens, mauves and other colours have been reported. During the great solar eclipse of August 1999, two separate and unconnected groups of people reported seeing a large orange ball of light hovering to the south of the Tor. Adventurous people who sleep in the tower talk about strange and vivid dreams, and a white light that sometimes fills the place. Whatever these lights are, they seem connected in some way with the powerful energies of sacred sites and earth meridians.
A physical indication of what might have been some ancient ritual, is the terraced pathway that spirals around the Tor. Although very worn now, it can still be traced. Scientific surveys currently think that it was made about four or five thousand years ago at about the same time as Stonehenge.
Starting at the bottom, it winds around and up the Tor in a backtracking maze. The pattern it makes is almost identical to the labyrinth found on ancient Cretan coins, and also the Native American Hopi peoples representation of Mother Earth.
An examination of this path has found that it seems to end before getting to the top. The place where it suddenly disappears is marked with a large, smooth, oval-shaped stone locally known as the eggstone. There are very few big stones on the Tor, and from their positioning they look like deliberately placed markers. When the solemn St.Collen decided to have it out with the King of the Fairies, he chose the best spot hed heard about for this kind of contact. He described it as "a little place under a rock in a secret, out-of-the-way place". This sounds like the eggstone, which is quite difficult to find, in an obscure spot and hidden by bushes and brambles.
Like much else about the Tor, the terraced pathway still seems active. Some have seen it glowing with a strange light. Dion Fortune says: "Many times the Tower is reported to have been seen rimmed in light; a warm glow, as of a furnace, beats up from the ground on wild winter nights, and the sound of chanting is heard from the depths of the hill. Towering forms of shadow and light are seen moving on the lower slopes."