Beltane in Glastonbury- a Mixture of Pagan and Christian History
Years ago one of my dreams was to be in Glastonbury, Somerset, England on Beltane, May 1.
Beltane is an ancient Celtic festival celebrated on the evening of April 30 to May 1, welcoming Spring and Summer, a renewal of the earth’s riches. Bonfires are lit on hills and cattle are led to their summer pastures between the bonfires as fertility blessings. Fires in homes are doused before the Beltane bonfires are lit and then after the ritual, home fires are relit from the Beltane fires.
Wine and oatcakes are part of the festival with a small amount of each left outside as offerings to the spirits or fairies who are often around at this time of year. Leaving offerings could insure a good year.
Glastonbury’s mixture of pagan and Christian themes comes from its long history — from a Neolithic site to the Joseph of Arimathea Legend. Joseph was one of Jesus’ followers — the one who gave his own stone final resting place for the burial of the crucified messiah. After the resurrection, Joseph travel all over the known world, telling the story. He remarkably ended up in the gorgeous countryside of what is now Somerset County in England.
Somerset is known for its hills and, at the time, salt marshes. An exhausted Joseph and his followers walked up one of the small hills, where Joseph, stuck his staff into the ground. The staff grew into a hawthorn tree, several of its descendants still live in Glastonbury — one on Wearyall Hill over looking Glastonbury’s Street Road, one at the St. Michael’s Church in town, and one at the Chalice Well. Every Christmas, the Queen has a small branch of this tree at her place setting. The small ribbons are pace-settings for prayers said.
The legend continues that Joseph started the first Christian church in England — in Glastonbury — the Glastonbury Abbey was rebuilt in stone round the 10th Century but is now in ruins after Henry VIII dissolution of the monasteries.
Not far from Wearyall is the largest hill, the Tor, with St. Michael’s tower — the remains of a church destroyed by an earthquake.
Glastonbury is also famous as being The Isle of Avalon — the resting place of King Arthur. The area, including the tall Tor, had once been surrounded by salt marshes — and the use of a boat with poles instead of oars was needed to get to the village and abbey.
On one of my future visits, I was very lucky to meet a famous Arthurian scholar — Geoffrey Ashe.
Monks in the 12th Century, looking for a way to increase pilgrimages and donations, said they’d found Arthur’s grave. The remains were removed and reburied — as yet, not found. A drawing of a metal cross found on the bodies shows an inscription noting: “The Once and Future King.”
Another Arthurian legend is the search for the Chalice, the cup of Christ, supposedly hidden in a well. Glastonbury’s Chalice Well Gardens is a most beautiful, calming site, not far from the Tor.
On my first trip, I decided to spend a week in the town. I stayed in a lovely B&B on Street Road. I walked all over High Street, ate in local cafes and pubs, took a coach to Wells to listen to the cathedral’s choir. I went to the Abbey and the Chalice Well often — meditating and absorbing the history — real or not.
I even hired a driver to take me to Cadbury, a hillfort plateau that had been excavated by archeologists in the late 1960s — with the thought it was Camelot. There still is no agreement on that — hard to pinpoint a heroic figure of legend.
On May first, I got up early and began my trek up to the Tor — several blocks from my B&B. I was younger and in better physical shape back then and even though there are several ways to reach the top, I probably took the hardest. The morning was beautiful — with the mist around the Tor hiding the town. The Dragon’s Breath — the lovely mist. It was very easy to see how legend and fantasy grew from this magical place.
Part way to the top of the Tor, I found a bench and rested my fifty-plus year old bones. As I caught my breath, I noticed several other pilgrims climbing toward me, bells ringing along with happy female voices. They were dressed in long skirts and shawls for the morning was cool.
When they saw me, they greeted me with several “Merry Meets” and I knew they were Wiccan/Pagan. One asked me if was feeling okay. I told her I was fine and I was just resting at the Tor’s “Crone Level.” They laughed with “Merry Part and Merry Meet Again.”
It is still one of my favorite memories of my favorite spot on earth — even if all the Arthurian legends are just fiction, Glastonbury will always own my heart.