Glastonbury is the real-world site of the mythical Isle of Avalon and a Mecca of the New Age. As such, it boasts a bustling market for spiritual goods and services. This photo-essay is taken from our research into the consumer-invented spiritual practices that emerge from what Jim Twitchell has described as a "multiple supplier" religious marketplace, a society in which many different spiritual influences compete for attention and affinity, leaving would-be consumers of spirituality free to choose their own "brand," or even to "mix and match" disparate traditions.1
After a brief recounting of the historical basis for Glastonbury's current status as the heartbeat of the New Age in England, we will show photographs documenting the shops and vendors that support this bustling other-worldly economy.
An otherwise typical English town, set down amid the flatlands of Somerset, Glastonbury is nestled between two hilltops of equal and opposite historical meaning, Glastonbury Tor and Wearyall Hill.
Glastonbury Tor is a flat-topped elevation that has been surrounded since ancient times by a marsh that generates swirling mists at its base. Archaeologists argue that the Tor has been the site of sacred rites and pilgrimages since humans appeared in the area. They believe that the natural setting logically gave the Tor this status: the view from its flat top offers a sweeping picture of the entire night sky, the misty curtain creates mystery and secrecy at the point of access, and an internal maze of caverns carved out by two springs, one red and one white, provides seclusion in addition to the stuff of myth. Since the Tor is also incapable of supporting agriculture, it only made sense, scholars argue, that it became a religious site thousands of years before the Celts.
On the opposite side of town, geographically and thematically, is Wearyall Hill, the site of the founding of the Christian Church in England. As legend proclaims, Joseph of Arimathea, the uncle of Jesus Christ, came to England with a group of followers. Upon reaching Wearyall Hill, he plunged his staff into the ground. The stick immediately rooted and flowered, producing a thorned tree, to be forever known as the Holy Thorn. Joseph declared that a church would be built on that spot, the first in the British Isles.
The "church," a circular dome of wattle and daub, is believed to actually have been built some distance into what is now the town of Glastonbury, on the site that later became Glastonbury Abbey. This Abbey was, until the time of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, the leading Catholic institution in Britain.
Glastonbury Abbey, in addition to a long and distinguished history as the central site of the Catholic Church in England, also claims to be the final resting place of King Arthur and his queen, Guinevere. Arthur's half sister, Morgan le Fay, was said to live with her priestesses among the mists of Glastonbury Tor, a narrative recently repopularized by Marion Zimmer Bradely's The Mists of Avalon. Indeed, Morgan and her priestesses shared the invisible dimension of the Tor with a number of special folks. The Tor's caverns and marshes have long been populated by fairies, according to the long history of British fairy tales.
The Holy Grail, a key symbol of both Christian mythology and the Arthurian legend, was allegedly given to Joseph of Arimathea, who hid it at the Chalice Well when he came to England. This well, which is fed by the red-running spring inside the Tor, is now surrounded by the Chalice Well Gardens, a park at its base.