Other ancient sites in the area, and shown on the map, all have their origins in Megalithic times too – Brent Knoll, Brean Down, Cadbury Castle, Dundon Beacon, Burrowbridge Mump, Priddy Circles and Nine Barrows, Stanton Drew and Cley Hill. They are all well worth a visit, and each play a role in a wider integrated system.
All ancient sites are probably older than their official dating, since engineered works of earth, stone and wood were not their first incarnation – many of them will have started simply as a glade, a cairn or the abode of a spirit, recognised by the people as a sacred or special place. The post-holes marked at Stonehenge car park, dating back past 4000 BCE, suggest this. The Megalithic period spanned at least 15 centuries, during which time Britain transformed from a multiplicity of tribal areas to something akin to a nation, and back again – a cycle which also took place in Celtic, Roman and Saxon times.
The Glastonbury Zodiac
Crazy and improbable as its existence might seem to many people, the Zodiac does seem to outline an energy-zone across the landscape. Living inside the zodiac area is different from living outside it – subtly, it's a different world from the rest of Somerset. The distribution of the zodiac signs was seen from in a vision by Katherine Maltwood and from the air before WW2, and a small band of dedicated followers has advocated for the Glastonbury Zodiac ever since – though there is some debate over the precise shapes, symbols and locations of the landscape zodiac signs, and some re-designs have been suggested over time.
It is traced out by field boundaries, old roads and landscape features in a 12ish-mile wide circle, centred on Park Wood, near Butleigh. The Tor, Stone Down and St Edmund's (Windmill) Hill form the sign Aquarius and Wearyall Hill forms half of Pisces – the other half being in Street. If only this were mere wishful thinking we could discount the idea of the Glastonbury Zodiac, yet there are interesting correspondences of atmosphere and zodiac sign around the landscape, and a large number of strange coincidences concerning place-names and landscape features – somehow the whole thing 'fits' very well. Katherine Maltwood [Glastonbury's Temple of the Stars, Katherine Maltwood, James Clarke, 1935] averred that the Zodiac was designed by Sumerian Chaldeans, presumably around 3000 BCE, who allegedly settled in the Cary area around Cadbury Castle. While there is a slender rational basis for the existence of the Zodiac, there's nevertheless something about it which won't go away – it's an enduring idea.
The Ring of Hills
Dundon Beacon from Glastonbury Tor
Looking from the Tor, another kind of landscape ring (or arc) is noticeable – this time it's topographical and seems to be unmentioned in lore and tradition. It comprises the upstanding hills northwards between Glastonbury and the Mendips, Pennard Hill eastwards, the Polden Hills and Dundon Beacon southwards – all at about four miles distance – and then there is a gap westwards on the Moors. This ring of shapely hills acts as something of a topographical containing-field for the Tor. No specific mythology has come down to us concerning this, except John Michell's identification of a series of small hills outlining the constellation of the Great Bear, shown on the map and described in his book New Light on the Ancient Mysteries of Glastonbury [John Michell, New Light on the Ancient Mysteries of Glastonbury, Gothic Image, 1990].
Glastonbury is regarded as a place of the Goddess [The Goddess in Glastonbury, Kathy Jones, Ariadne Publications, 1990]. Early in the 20th Century it was a suffragette centre and during the 1980s the island was a leading centre for feminist thought, politics and magic. The Glastonbury-think of today generally emphasises feminine values. Today there is a Goddess Temple in Glastonbury too. Apart from the Marian dedication of the Abbey, little conclusive but a lot of suggestive evidence commemorates Glastonbury's Goddess connection. Yet this situation of 'little evidence' applies to much of Glastonbury's past and consistently fails to disprove or satisfactorily debunk its mystic traditions. Many features of the local landscape, such as Chalice Hill, and the very atmosphere of Glastonbury nevertheless evoke feminine feelings.
This feminine thread, popularly pursued in Marion Zimmer Bradley's book The Mists of Avalon [The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Michael Joseph/Sphere, 1983], goes back a long way. Though the book was weak on historical accuracy, it struck a strong chord, presenting a women's side to the Arthurian traditions. The Arthurian period symbolised a time of transition where the late vestiges of the ancient sacred order were giving way to new, Christian and more profane times – it was the divide between Britain's ancient and medieval periods.
It is quite feasible that there have been significant matrifocal phases of Glastonbury's prehistory – the spirits and place-memory of Avalon whisper it during quiet moments, on dark nights and when the Glastonbury women of today are singing (and plotting) together. There are suggestions of an ancient phase when the island was populated by women (even if only for a few generations) and womanly magic prevailed. The red spring at Chalice Well, the Chalice Hill, the egg-stones half-way up the side of the Tor and Bride's Mound are all important to the Goddess-lovers of today, who exert a vibrant presence in the community. Intuitive logic would have it that if this is the case today it has also been the case in ancient times – otherwise it would likely not be the case today.
The Abbey has strong Marian connections, though today Mary Magdalene gets higher approval ratings in Glastonbury than Mary the Mother, to whom it was dedicated. One of the medieval Irish saints of Glastonbury, Bridget, plays a part in the feminine continuum threading its way through the local heritage – her retreat chapel was on Bride's Mound at Beckery, now ignominiously overshadowed by an industrial estate currently being ponderously transformed into a new development, yet it is still worth a visit.
When living here, individuals of whichever sex are inevitably obliged to come to terms with the hidden 'opposite' gender within themselves. My own view is that Glastonbury's essence is not specifically feminine, but represents a meeting and interaction of the genders – a spiritual-magical tantrism. But this involves a strong expression of the feminine, relative to the predominant masculine imprint on our landscape from the Christian and modern periods. Seen from a distance (especially from the southwest and northeast, along the Michael Line) the Tor is dramatic and phallic, while when seen from above it is dimensional and vulvic. All this said, Glastonbury has today become Britain's Goddess centre, which must mean something, and women exert a marked input in the community's culture.