The constellation of the Great Bear …
… and the seven holy islands; after John Michell, ‘New Light on the Ancient Mystery of Glastonbury’.
OUR DISAPPEARING SACRED LANDSAPE
Information leaflet, September 2019
The land around Glastonbury and the River Brue has since time immemorial been seen to hold a particular numinous quality. The whole ‘island’ of Glastonbury contained many features that are associated with pre-Christian sacred sites. These included mineral springs, yew trees and other sacred trees, and a landscape in which the dividing line between dry land and water was indistinct. After the Romans had come and gone, the land reverted to its flooded, marshy state, populated by holy men in secluded chapels like the Celtic saints of that era.
The Celtic landscape here had a mystical quality that became the backdrop to the Arthurian legends, our national mythology, the ‘Matter of Britain’ that has been retold time and again over the centuries in different literary forms to suit the changing times. At the centre of this has been Glastonbury, with its ‘holy house at the head of the moors adventurous’, its sacred islands hidden away in the wetlands, and the iconic image of the Tor standing at its focal point like an ancient precursor to a medieval cathedral spire.
The seven holy islands were situated along the River Brue: Glastonbury itself, Beckery (Bride’s mound), Ferramere (Meare), Godney, Panborough, Martinsey (Marchey) and Andrewsey (Nyland). These were the principal eremitic sites during Celtic times, and even after the Saxon annexation of central Somerset their significance continued to far outweigh their economic importance. Now of course they are no longer islands, and over the centuries the visible sacredness of the local landscape has sadly faded.
Nevertheless, those of us who live here now are its guardians, and it is on this that we should base our vision for Glastonbury’s future. At the present time, however, we live in the midst of a culture that has very different values, and the intimate relationship with the land has increasingly been disrupted and eroded. We can and must change with the times, just as have the legends of King Arthur, but we can do this whilst staying true to the magic, whilst valuing the quality of inspiration, whilst remembering that this place is somewhere very special.
Five physical elements can contribute to the sacredness of the land:
– The shape and nature of the land itself.
– The people who live and work in the landscape.
– The ancestors, who have passed on the land in sacred trust.
– The stories that link the landscape with the people and the ancestors.
– The sense of patterns in the land that mirror patterns in the stars.
This goes back to indigenous times, but recently there have been efforts to tell new stories, to re-discover the broken link – such as the Glastonbury Zodiac, or the correlation between the Great Bear constellation and the seven holy islands (above). In this context the future we can create here – if we decide to – is one full of imagination and creativity, of fresh solutions to human problems, and of respect for our sacred landscape.