Glastonbury. Search for the Holy Grail

April 22, 2019 in UK | Comments (44)

Like a ghost from the past, I found a very old website of mine devoted to my poetry and creative writing – I thought it was long gone. This is one of entries

Among the green hills of Somerset lies Glastonbury. A magnet for pilgrims and travellers, searching back through early Christian myths to Celtic roots and Druid and goddess magic…

Pilgrims have been coming to Glastonbury for centuries, Christian pilgrims. Now its also a New Age ‘Mecca’. Travellers come in search of the Holy Grail, King Arthur and Celtic roots, crystal healing, goddess mysteries and New Age festivals, with the Tor and Chalice Well as the most holy of the visible icons.

The Tor broods over Glastonbury, a rather bleak and strange conical hill with its stone tower and windswept grassy slopes. But any time of the day or night there is someone here – new age tourists in rainbow colours, druids in robes and leafy crowns, Celtic inspired refugees from city slickness in rough cottons and woven capes, drummers, pipers, partymakers, trippers and hangers on and thieves.

Gill Dwyer in search of the magic cauldron and Holy Grail

The hill is said to be manmade and honeycombed with a maze of tunnels from which legend has King Arthur descend to Annwn to bring back the cauldron of regeneration. At the foot of the Tor is a narrow lane with a stone wall from which spouts the clearest spring water. Behind the wall is a garden and the Chalice well. In the summer shuttle buses from the town bring tourists and pilgrims to the Tor and the well. The other big attraction is the ruined Abbey, built over the first Christian church.

The Abbey is also part of Arthurian legend. Arthur and Guinevere’s tombs were found in the Abbey in the reign of Henry II, with a cross proclaiming: Here lies buried the island of Avalonia, the renowned King Arthur.

The town itself celebrates a long and fascinating history coloured with Christian, Arthurian and pagan legend. Its a mix of old stone, Gothic arches, Saxon turrets, Celtic crosses, and cosy cafes along with a good variety of shops bearing witness to New Age dawning. Glastonbury shopwindows show a fair number of ‘plastic Davids’, vulgar sculptures of cult figures entwined in an overflow of plastic flowers. But not enough to obscure its charm lying so happily with its monuments to history under the starkly simple Tor.

In a sunny square just off the high street, I noted these shop names offering books, crystals, essential oils and therapy:





Two women who had not seen one another a while burst into delighted conversation outside the crystal shop:

“How are you? How are the kids?” “Fine…waiting at home” and then as if this was the real explanation of how she had been since the last meeting she said:

“It was the day of my solar return – my moon was in my sun – Neptune and Pluto were hitting my personal planets – it crept in and retreated again…”.

She looked very sensible and down to earth. This is everyday conversation in Glastonbury.

In the streets you notice Celtic hippies and earth people, rainbow hippies with rainbow hair and rainbow clothes. Plenty of grey haired men with long hair and peasant cloaks.

Leaflets placed out in a vegetarian cafe advertise Goddess workshops and other alternatives to male dominated and dry intellectual religion.

In the bookshops you find much on Arthurian legend, Celtic tradition and art, flying saucers, tantric orgasm, aliens – a mix of intellectual and ‘fluffier’ new age spiritualism (divorced from the need to check sources, theories built on others’ intuitions can sometimes reach for the sky like the Tower of Babel).

Following leads picked up browsing we went searching for the magic of Mort d’Arthur. One source suggested that the river down on the flats once made Glastonbury an island – Isle of Avalon. This was where Arthur’s sword was thrown and the hand came out ‘mystic, wonderful’. Passing a car where two lovers were making out we walked along the muddy bank and thought how slimy that mystic arm would be.

Still, contrary to what might sound like cynicism Glastonbury is ‘amazing’. Despite the plastic fairies and giddy aliens it does feel real, deep and quivering with mystery somewhere in Christian, pagan and archetypal roots.

Joseph of Arimithea is said to have built the first Christian church in Glastonbury. This later became the Abbey, destroyed during the reformation but for centuries a focus of pilgrims and still a tourist attraction. One myth goes that Joseph of Arimithea brought Jesus to Glastonbury. Another is that Arimithea brought two vessels, one containing the sweat and the other the blood of Christ. A window in St John’s Church depicts Joseph bringing the two cruets to Glastonbury.

Legend has this container of Precious blood as the Holy Grail, blood collected in the cup of the last supper when Longinus pierced Christ’s side with the holy lance (A demoted Christian relic once in the Vatican)

The very same Grail is later shown to King Arthur. It disappears and so he goes in quest of the Holy Grail. As did Parzifal, and metaphorically speaking pilgrims and travellers still do in Glastonbury.

The biggest event of the year is the Glastonbury Festival at the summer solstice, held a distance from the town. Tens of thousands of people come for a range of music from rock to techno, healing and magic in the ‘Green Fields’ in the hills, drumming in the stone circle, and stands selling crystals, handmade jewellery and chai. It is also much talked about for its food stalls inspired by cuisine from all over the world.

Pilgrims and the Holy Grail

Browsing in the Celtic and New Age bookshops of Glastonbury I found two books that inspired the following outline on the ‘pilgrim instinct’ and the deep psychological relevance of the myth of the quest for the Holy Grail.

The embers of the pilgrim instinct lie deep within us all….¨

To find ourselves we make an outer journey that reflects the inner journey.

The Search for the Holy Grail is the most powerful Christian legend embracing such a journey. The mystic symbol leads knights to leave complacent and ailing society and risk all to materialize it – at the inner level seeking integration of heart, body and soul, ‘divine purpose’, the meaning of existence.

In one version the grail is the cup of the last supper, in which Joseph of Arimithea caught the blood of Christ. Joseph was imprisoned for 40 years and crossed the seas to Cornwall bearing the Grail. He eventually settled in Glastonbury and built the first Christian church in Britain. Centuries later the Grail was brought to King Arthur at his Round Table by two angels. It disappeared and Merlin inspired Arthur to go looking for it.

The Grail stories which sprung up suddenly at the beginning of the 12th century became the most popular in Christian Europe but never got the complete approval of Rome. They are believed to have Celtic roots and were spread all over France and Britain by troubadours. Pagan myths of cauldrons and other magic vessels were transformed into the Christian grail and incorporated a new dimension – the search for self knowledge.

Among 12th century literary works that immortalized these legends were: Contes del Graal by Chretien de Troye and Parzifal by Wolfram von Esenbach.

In Parzifal ‘s quest and growth to manhood he meets archetypal characters and symbols that reflect his inner development from a lethargic youth through an ambitious upstart to someone with self-awareness, uniting heart, body and spirit. You find such symbols as Mother, Arthur and the Round Table, The Red Knight, The Wasteland – the condition of the self when development is misdirected towards base ends, The Grail King /the unconscious guide/ the suffering Fisher King, the Grail Castle – a glimpse at his own spiritual potential, The Sword- the ability to cut though prevarication and pretence, the Lance – symbol of inexhaustible spiritual power, The Loathly Damsel – ugly woman who is a reflection of the state of his own soul and who makes him realize he should search for the Holy Grail with his brother who is black and white – Feirifiz, Gawain, who uses his heart…and the Grail, divine power at work in the depths of our psyche.

“A pilgrim is not seeking to discover something new but is seeking to remember what the Soul has always known. And in this search it helps to stand amid the sacred groves and stones in order that this archaic memory might be triggered.”

Yes, I think Glastonbury can do that….

Not the end of a pilgrimage maybe, but a beginning.

Gill Dwyer

© 1999


Michael Bagent (preface) and authors Ean & Deike Begg, In Search of the Holy Grail and the Precious Blood: a Traveller’s Guide (Thorsons, 1995)

Ian Forrester Roberts, Symbols of the Grail Quest (Spirit of Celtia, 1990)

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