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Music

Dark pastures: An occult history of Glastonbury

@SamWKemp

In a couple of months, music fans all over the country will amass on Worthy Farm for one of the world’s most celebrated music festivals. Glastonbury Festival attracts a diverse crowd, ranging from seasoned veterans to optimistic first-timers armed with flimsy tents that, by the end of the four-day affair, will have seen more body fluid than a first-year student doctor. While your average Glastonbury Festival attendee might be more focused on indulging in a stint of unrestrained hedonism than they are on the area’s strange occultist history, Glastonbury has been a breeding ground for a spiritualist activity for centuries. We’d like you to join us as we lift the veil on one of the most mythologised landscapes in the British isles.

Let’s begin at ground level. With its top-heavy shop fronts and honey-gold limestone, Glastonbury Town is nestled in the Somerset Levels, a low-lying landscape reclaimed from the sea. Above this English idyll stands the looming bulk of Glastonbury Tor, a lonely hill capped by St Michael’s Tower. The turret is all that remains of the church built in the 14th century after an earthquake destroyed the previous site. But that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. The hill has been home to Roman, Celtic and neolithic fortifications and, if we are to believe the stories, has watched over all manner of mythical and religious figures. Joseph of Arimathea, King Arthur, Jesus: all of them are said to have walked through Glastonbury’s “pleasant pastures”, as William Blake later wrote.

Hybrid landscapes always attract mysticism, and Glastonbury is no exception. Neither sea nor land, the area has been a vessel for magical thinking since its early history. To the Celtic tribes, the hungry landscape was home to a hidden cave through which it was possible to enter the realm of Annwn, where the lord of the underworld, Gwyn ab Nudd was said to dwell. While the Christianisation of Britain largely did away with the belief that the spirit world existed in tandem with that of the living, the monks of Glastonbury Abbey couldn’t help but feel the landscape held some hidden power. In 1191, they claimed to have uncovered the final resting place of King Arthur himself. The modest grave was said to contain not only the skeleton of Arthur but that of his queen, Guinevere. They extracted the remains and re-interred them in a marble tomb inside the church. Although, rather conveniently, the bones were lost in 1539 when the reformation led to the dissolution of the monasteries and the abbey was destroyed.

This sense that Glastonbury was built on old magic continued well into the 19th and 20th centuries when archaeological research of the area coincided with a blossoming spiritualist movement among the British middle and upper classes. For British archaeologist Alfred Watkins, the abundance of sacred pagan and neolithic sites around Glastonbury was due to its position on the intersection of numerous ‘Ley Lines’. In The Old Straight Track, Watkins argued that these invisible pathways uniting three or more ancient sites had been drawn by ancient societies and carried spiritual power. Watkins’ theory coincided with an influx of unorthodox thinkers into Glastonbury, including occultist writer Dion Fortune.

After being expelled from The Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn in 1924, she established The Society of the Inner Light and founded a guest house in Glastonbury, which served as the organisation’s cultic centre. Fortune and her followers were joined by a spiritualist, clairvoyant and writer called Elsie Hartshorn, who claimed to receive messages from a cosmic entity known as The Lord Mikaal. Her most famous book, The Winds of Truth, became the central text of a small society known as the Group of Solar Teachings, which lives on to this day.

This period also saw the first ‘Glastonbury Festivals’, although they were a far cry from the modern music bash we know today. From 1914 to 1925, English socialist and composer Rutland Boughton, attracted by its Arthurian legacy, used Glastonbury as the incubator for an English cultural revival. Encouraged by the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Edward Elgar, Boughton set about forming a colony of artists who would share the running of a collective farm on the grounds of the opulent Mount Avalon. The first festival kicked off with a performance of Boughton’s The Immortal Hour, an opera set in a dark English wood, where faery folk – The ‘Lordly Ones’ – meddle in the lives of unsuspecting mortals. The festivals soon became the epicentre of the English Celtic Revival, running until 1925, when Boughton ran out of money and was forced to abandon the Mount Avalon estate.

While the hippies who flocked to the first Glastonbury Festival (Then the Pilton Pop, Folk and Blues Festiva) on September 19th, 1970, hoped to cut themselves adrift from tradition, the New Age thinking that underpinned hippiedom would have been impossible without the spiritualists and revivalists of the early 20th century. For this new generation, Glastonbury was what it had always been: somewhere between the real and the imagined.