Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Writing In Insula Avalonia – Suspending Disbelief

by Adam Alexander Haviaras

I’m walking into fabled mists today and, historically speaking, I may be on shaky ground.

I want to write about Glastonbury.

To most, the mere mention of this town’s name will conjure images of wild, scantily clad or naked youths and aged hippies. One thinks of thousands of people covered in mud as they wend their way, higher than the Hindu Kush, among the tent rows to see their favourite artists rock the Pyramid Stage.

It’s a great party, but to me that’s not the real Glastonbury.

Removed from the fantastic orgy that is the music festival, this small town in southwest Britain is an ancient place of mystery, lore and legend. It’s a place that was sacred to the Celts, Pagan and Christian alike, Saxons, and Normans. For many it’s the heart of Arthurian tradition, and for some it’s the resting place of the Holy Grail.

Across the Levels

I lived outside of Glastonbury for about 3 years, and I never tired of walking around the town and exploring the many sites that make it truly unique. The religious practices that have been carried out in this one place span from the Neolithic to the Celtic, early Christian, and beyond.

Today, Glastonbury is a place where those seeking spiritual enlightenment are drawn. The New Age movement is going strong here, yet another layer of belief to cloak the place.

Now I find myself back there not in person, but in story.

With my current novel, I’m in an interesting position. Some of the scenes in the story take place in what is now Glastonbury, in the early 3rd century A.D. Some of the characters I’m writing about are a Celtic priestess, a Druid (in hiding), an early Christian ‘priest’, and of course my Roman protagonist.

It would be easier, I think, to avoid the whole religious mélange and focus on my Roman protagonist. That way, I wouldn’t risk confusion or inaccuracy.

However, if I did that, I feel that I would be doing an injustice to the place, and missing out on a wonderful clash or confluence of beliefs that would add to the story. The Roman Empire was vast and encompassed many different religions. Many beliefs, gods or goddesses, were adopted by the Empire, others were persecuted, especially the Jewish, Druidic and Christian religions.

For the purposes of my current work-in-progress, I don’t think I can honestly write about Glastonbury in Roman Britain without touching on the mysteries and religious beliefs that run so deep there.

But what sites or aspects of Glastonbury should I incorporate?

There are so many historic and legendary treasures that make up this wondrous place known as the Isle of Avalon.

The Tor
From where I lived on the other side of the peat moors, I awoke every morning to see Glastonbury’s most prominent feature shrouded in mist – the Tor.

Tor is a word of Celtic origin referring to ‘belly’ in Welsh or a ‘bulging hill’ in Gaelic. Glastonbury Tor thrusts up from the Somerset levels like a beacon for miles around. Every angle is interesting.

Habitation of this site goes back to around 3000 B.C. It has been a religious centre and a Dark Age stronghold.

Somerset Levels flood
In Arthurian lore, the Isle of Avalon is a sort of mist-shrouded world that is surrounded by water and can only be reached by boat or secret path. In fact, during the Dark Ages and into later centuries, until the drainage dykes were built, the Somerset levels were prone to flooding. This flooding made Glastonbury Tor and the smaller hills around it true islands. With the early morning mist that covers the levels, this watery land would have been a relatively safe refuge for Druids and early Christians seeking to avoid too much contact with Rome.

In Celtic myth, Glastonbury Tor was said to be the home of Gwynn ap Nudd, the Lord of Annwn, the Celtic otherworld.

Gwynn ap Nudd was the Guardian of the Gates of Annwn, which the ancient Celts believed to be at the Tor. It is at Samhain that the gates of Annwn open. This was also the place where the soul of a Celt awaited rebirth.

Wearyall Hill and Thorn
Another place that I should like to include in my story is Wearyall Hill, which is home to one of Glastonbury’s most ancient treasures – the Holy Thorn.

Across the street from the Safeway, you can climb up Wearyall’s gentle slope to see a hawthorn tree known as the Glastonbury Thorn, or ‘Holy Thorn’. One popular legend associated with Wearyall Hill and the Holy Thorn is that in the years after Christ’s death, his uncle Joseph of Arimathea came with twelve followers by boat to Glastonbury. When they set foot on the hill, tired from their journey, Joseph plunged his staff into the ground and it took root.

There is actually archaeological evidence for a dock or wharf on the slopes of Wearyall Hill that date from the period. Did Joseph of Arimathea actually arrive in Britain with the Holy Grail?

Well, that depends on what one believes. And Glastonbury is just that, an amalgam of beliefs living, for the most part, in harmony.

The Thorn
Cuttings of the Thorn grow in three places in Glastonbury. What is interesting is that this type of hawthorn is not native to Britain, but is rather a Syrian variety. Curiously, it flowers at Christmas and Easter, both sacred festivals for Pagans and Christians. Every holiday season, the Royal family is sent a clipping of this very special tree that hails from the earliest days of Christianity in Britain.

The current Thorn is not the original, but rather a descendant of the original which was burned down by Cromwell’s Puritans in the seventeenth century as a ‘relic of superstition’. How much destruction has been wrought on the ancient sites of Britain during the wars waged by Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell? It’s horrifying to think about.

Whatever legend or myth one believes, or doesn’t believe, about Wearyall Hill is up to the wanderer. The stories are many and convoluted, but such is the fate of great and sacred places of the past.

Since my own days In Insula Avalonia, it seems that tragedy has struck Wearyall Hill. During the night a couple of years ago, vandals came and cut off all of its limbs leaving only a stump. It was heartbreaking to see those pictures. But the Thorn has seen worse, and I feel hopeful that it will carry on.

Chalice Well Fall
Another place of pilgrimage for some in Glastonbury is what is known as The Chalice Well, which lies at the foot of the Tor.

The Chalice Well is one of those places that you don’t quite know what to make of at first. When you enter under the vine-covered pergola you are met by colour, soft light, and the gentle trickle of water playing about your senses.

Chalice Well Yew Trees
You see young, wildly coloured blossoms exploding from the soil, and Yew trees that have seen centuries of summers.

The thing about this place is its overwhelming sense of peace and harmony, from which all can benefit.

But what exactly is the Chalice Well?

Scientifically-speaking, Chalice Well is an iron-rich spring, the source of which is unknown. Some believe it comes from deep in the Mendip Hills to the north. The Chalice Well is where it comes out of the ground.

Springs were sacred to the Celts. To those who inhabited this area from the pre-historic era on, the Well may have been a healing place beside the Tor. The waters that run red were sacred to the Goddess and were perhaps considered her water of life.

Chalice Well Gardens
It is also believed that Glastonbury was the site of a Druid ‘college’ of instruction and that the avenue of sacred Yew trees, some still remaining in the Chalice Well gardens, were part of a processional way to the Tor, passing beside the Well.

Later legend, and the reason for the name given to the Well, relates how Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail to Glastonbury around A.D.37. It is said that he buried the Grail near the Well and that the water runs through it, hence the redness of the water.

The Goddess’s blood was replaced by that of Christ, and though that has changed, the sanctity of the place remains intact. The spring has never failed, even in drought.

Just over the hill from the Chalice Well, giants still dwell in Glastonbury.

They are tall, and broad, and green, and together they have stood the test of time. Their names are Gog and Magog.

The giants of which I speak are not the evil powers of the Old and New Testaments, nor the giants of the British foundation myth in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae.

Gog and Magog
They are in fact two magnificent oak trees that represent the last of the great oaks of Avalon.

Gog and Magog are all that remain of an avenue of oaks that once led to the Tor, and which was used as a processional way by the Druids in ages past.

Sadly, the avenue was cut down for farmland in 1906, and these two trees are all that remain.

Oak trees like Gog and Magog were sacred to worshippers of the Great Mother, and later the Druids. Before Rome and mass farming came to Britain, the whole of the south of Britain was covered in forests from Hampshire to Devon.

Oak groves were sacred and were the sites of the Goddess’ perpetually burning fires. They were also where the Druids, who used oak leaves in their rituals, held their rites.

The sanctity of the oak was not relegated to Celtic Europe either, but also goes back to ancient Greece. At the sanctuary of Zeus at Dodona, priests would glean the will of Zeus from the rustling of the leaves in the sacred oak groves.

At Glastonbury, Gog and Magog would likely have seen many a ritual or procession.

If they could only speak in a way we could understand, I’m sure they would have some fantastic tales to tell.

Going from the town, past the Tor, and down Paradise Lane to see Gog and Magog was always one of my favourite walks. Because there are no roads nearby, the sound of cars is absent and all that can be heard is the chirruping of birds and the whisper of the wind as it blows across the Somerset levels.

Glastonbury Abbey
What about the site of Glastonbury Abbey? In the early third century A.D. it was certainly not there. The lovely ruins that can be seen today are a medieval creation, the remains of which date from the twelfth to sixteenth centuries. But the place itself is said to be the site of the first Christian church and oldest religious foundation in the British Isles.

According to tradition, Joseph of Arimathea and his followers built a wattle church on the site on land he was given by the local king, Arviragus, around the middle of the first century A.D.

Lady Chapel

Circa A.D. 160, two Christians named Faganus and Deruvianus are supposed to have added a stone structure on the site of what is the Lady Chapel. It is here that there is an ancient well dedicated to St. Joseph.

St. Joseph's Well
Perhaps this structure and the well would have been there when my protagonist comes onto the scene? It would have been a much simpler place than the magnificent ruins of the abbey we see today.

Somerset was settled by Romans after Vespasian stormed the southern hill forts. The people became Romano-British and the Roman peace began. There was lead mining in the Mendips, a thriving villa economy, and larger settlements like Illchester and Aquae Sulis.

But Glastonbury was more neutral, or on the fringe, during the centuries of Pax Romana in the south, and seems to have remained untouched by polytheistic Roman religion. It was an island of sorts, surrounded by wealthy villa estates.

Despite its isolation, and because of the direction my story is taking, my Roman protagonist will come into contact with the three characters mentioned above, the priestess, the druid, and the Christian who dwell in their sacred isle, away from the wider Roman world.

What sort of place was Glastonbury like then? If my Roman somehow finds his way there, what will the people be like? How will they receive him?

The prospect of thrusting Lucius into this world is exciting for me as a writer and historian. It’s the ‘What if?’ of various situations that I like the most.

Glastonbury is suffused with layers of history, legend, and belief, and I have but scratched the surface of its secrets. I think it only fitting that some of that mystery be reflected in my story.

And in order to do that, I will need to believe.

Thank you for reading!


Adam Alexander Haviaras is an author of historical fiction/fantasy set in the ancient world. He has studied history and archaeology in Canada and the United Kingdom. Adam blogs weekly on his website, Writing the Past, about ancient and medieval history and historical fiction. You can Tweet him at @AdamHaviaras or find him on Google+ and Facebook. He loves to hear from readers, writers, and fellow history-lovers.

Adam’s website
Twitter: @AdamHaviaras


  1. Fascinating blog, fascinating subject.

  2. The Celts are now as far into the realms of fantasy as the Holy Grail....time to move on?

  3. What a fascinating post! I regret that I only spent a couple of hours in Glastonbury many years ago. I wanted to go to the Tor, but there just wasn't time; the bus back to Wells, connecting with one to Bath, where we were staying, was going at 3.00 pm and was the last for the day. :-( So we visited the Abbey ruins at least, and wonderful they were too.

    1. Cheers, Sue! The first time I went to Glastonbury it was the same - a quick visit and then back to Bath. It was years later my path led me back there and I was able to enjoy. If you ever get the chance to go back, it's worth taking a good week or so at the least.

  4. My journey to this post through the internet was almost as complicated and fascinating as the post itself. I have been writing a bit of this into my current project and this post was extremely helpful. Cheers

    1. I'm glad you found us and that the post is helpful. Come visit again!


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