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Glastonbury Tor, Somerset, England. Source: gary / Adobe Stock

Glastonbury Tor: The Mysterious British Hill Steeped in History and Legend

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Glastonbury is a small town in Somerset, England, where a very important hill exists known as the Glastonbury Tor. On top of the Tor stands the remains of St. Michael’s Tower, with a strange system of terraces around its sides. In legend, these terraces are said to form a  maze with magical symbolism.

The Tor rises to an elevation of 518 feet (158 meters) and is clearly visible from many miles around. It is formed from rocks dating to the early Jurassic Period. The low-lying ground is known to produce a visual illusion known as Fata Morgana, where the hill appears to rise out of the mist. It occurs due to the bending of rays of light as they pass through layers of air of varying temperatures.

A Rich History

The recovery of Neolithic flint tools from the top of the Tor has revealed that the site has been visited since prehistory. Archaeological investigations show that there was an Iron Age settlement there in about 300-200 BC. Roman pottery, 6 th century Mediterranean amphorae, a Saxon staff, medieval burials and a metalworker’s forge show repeated occupation of the Tor throughout the centuries.

During the late Saxon and early medieval period, there were at least four buildings on the summit, which may have been a hermitage. In the 11 th or 12 th century, a timber church dedicated to St Michael was built atop the Tor. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 1275 AD and rebuilt out of sandstone in the 14 th century by the Abbot Adam of Sodbury.

St Michael's Church survived until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 when it was demolished, except for the three-storey tower which remains on the Tor today.

St Michael’s Tower at the top of Glastonbury Tor. Source: Vincent / Adobe Stock

St Michael’s Tower at the top of Glastonbury Tor. Source: Vincent / Adobe Stock

The Legends of Glastonbury Tor

There are many myths associated with Glastonbury that go back thousands of years to figures like  Joseph of Arimathea  and King Arthur  . Myths about the Tor claim that it was a 'land of the dead', a portal, a magic mountain, and a glass hill among many others.

One of the legends mentions that more than two thousand years ago, the Tor was in the middle of the sea, which later became a lake. The old Celtic name of the Tor, according to this legend, was the ‘ Island of Glass’  , known in Welsh as ‘Ynys Gutrin’. During the Roman Empire there are references mentioning the Tor as an island. At this time, the plain was flooded, the isle becoming a peninsula at low tide.

Avalon, Meeting Place for the Dead

One legend attributes the name  Avalon to the Tor, linking it to the Avalon of Arthurian legend. The 12 th century historian Gerald of Wales recounted the discovery of King Arthur’s and Queen Guinevere’s labelled coffins in 1191, which were later moved. The myths say that Avalon was a meeting place for the dead and that the Tor was the home of the Lord of the Underworld. In these legends, the Tor is the gateway into the land of the dead (Avalon).

The Holy Grail

There is also a Christian legend which mentions that Joseph of Arimathea brought a young Jesus to Glastonbury Tor. When Joseph came to England, it is said that he established the first Church of England at Glastonbury. Indeed, according to archaeological studies, there may have been a very  early Christian Church at Glastonbury  . Another Christian legend claims the Holy Grail is buried in Glastonbury. Author Christopher Hodapp asserts that the Tor is one possible location of the grail due to its close proximity to the monastery that housed the Nanteos Cup, a wooden bowl believed to offer a supernatural healing ability, allegedly due it being fashioned from a piece of the True Cross.

Mystery of the Terraces

The sides of the Tor have seven deep, roughly symmetrical terraces, their origins of which remains a mystery to this day. One explanation is that they were made during the Middle Ages to make ploughing for crops easier. However, this has been largely discounted due to terracing also being on the north side, which would have provided little benefit. Another explanation includes the construction of defensive ramparts, possibly linked to Ponter's Ball Dyke, a linear earthwork about 1 mile (1.6 km) east of the Tor. Some historians have alternatively proposed that they are the remains of a "spiral walkway" or labyrinth created for pilgrims to reach the summit. The terraces that circle the Tor seven times would lead the pilgrim to the church of St Michael. But Celtic legends would say that this maze is the path that would lead you to the entrance of Annwn, the Celtic underworld.

The terraced hillside of Glastonbury Tor. Source: David Woolfenden / Adobe Stock

The terraced hillside of Glastonbury Tor. Source: David Woolfenden / Adobe Stock

Glastonbury is immersed in extremely interesting mythology and fascinating legends and is a very special place that is worth a visit.

Top image: Glastonbury Tor, Somerset, England. Source: gary / Adobe Stock

By Joanna Gillan

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