Glastonbury is unique, sacred, spell-binding. It is a small town town in Somerset, cradled in a cluster of hills that are all different shapes. The highest is the Tor, a whaleback formation with a tower on top, once part of a church dedicated to the Archangel Michael. Near the Tor is the smooth dome of Chalice Hill. Wearyall Hill is a long narrow ridge pointing toward the Bristol Channel. Windmill Hill, on the side facing the cathedral city of Wells, is less clearly defined and covered with houses, Below are the ruins of a great medieval abbey.
Early in the Christian era, the hill-cluster was nearly encircled with shallow water, the river Brue provided a deeper channel enabling sea-going craft to reach it. An old name for it is Ynys-witrin, the Island of Glass; “island” because, from most angles of approach, it would have looked like one. A more famous name is Avalon, the Apple-place. In Celtic lore Avalon was an isle of enchantment.
This area was probably sacred long before Christianity. Around the sides of the Tor is a strange system of terracing. Much weathered and eroded, but still well-defined, it has been interpreted as a maze following an ancient magical pattern, which is found in Cornwall, Wales, Ireland, Pompeii, Crete and India, and even among the Hopi of Arizona, who call it the Mother Earth Symbol. If the maze on the Tor is real, human labour formed it four or five thousand years ago, during the period of vast ritual works that created Stonehenge and Avebury. There are grounds for thinking that the Tor would have been a sanctuary of Goddess-worship. To come down to a somewhat later time, archaeology has shown that toward the beginning of the Christian era, this neighbourhood became an important centre of Celtic population, with far-flung trade. The inhabitants lived on small artificial islands.
According to a much-loved legend, Christian Glastonbury began with the arrival of Joseph of Arimathea. He figures in the Gospels as a rich disciple who obtained the body of Christ and laid it in the tomb. Some say he was an older kinsman and had brought Jesus here as a boy, perhaps on a trading voyage to Britain. Reputedly, in the years after the Crucifixion, he came to this remote country on a mission with several companions. They made their home in Avalon and remained there as a community of hermits. An offshoot of the legend concerns a local variety of hawthorn known as the Glastonbury Thorn. It is said that Joseph planted his staff in the ground, and it became a tree that blossomed at Christmas. Descendants of a medieval hawthorn on Wearyall Hill actually do blossom at Christmas or thereabouts, While no other English hawthorn does this, there are some that do in the Middle East, including Palestine.