[Friday - 05/07/99] Driving through Somerset towards the Mecca of all things Arthurian, we couldn't help but wonder, why is Glastonbury identified as the ancient Isle of Avalon where King Arthur was taken to be healed of his fatal Battle wounds? Surely, Glastonbury lies in the middle of Somerset, miles from the sea. How could it ever have been considered an island?
Driving into town, it was clear that Glastonbury is built on high ground surrounded on all sides by the Somerset Levels, some of the flattest land in the country. Today it is a rich agricultural area due to massive drainage over the centuries. In the Dark Ages, however, the Levels were marshland and Glastonbury stood as an island towering above them. Hence, its ancient British name was Ynys Witrin, which may translate as "Island of Glass," though this is certainly disputed.
'Island of St.Gwytherin' is a more plausible explanation. He may have lived in the Dark Age buildings excavated on the Tor. Glastonbury was cut off from the mainland by a defensive bank and ditch known today as "Ponter's Ball," while Pomparles (Pont-Perles) or the Perilous Bridge, kept communications open with land to the south. Local tradition contends, it was at the latter that Bedwyr returned Excalibur to the swirling waters after the Battle of Camlann.
An island then, certainly, but why Avalon? Avalon was the Otherworld home of one of the Celtic Underworld Gods, Afallach. Both names relate to the Apples that grew in this mystical land of the dead and show Avalon's possible relationship to other legendary realms such as the Garden of the Hesperides from Greek Mythology. Obviously, this is where a Celtic King, such as Arthur, would go when near to death, but there is still no hint of an identification with Glastonbury. The dubious Isle of Glass interpretation of the place-name could relate to Caer-Wydyr or "Fort of Glass," a third name for part of the Celtic Otherworld; but the real confirmation comes when you hear and old legend about Glastonbury Tor.
The Tor, that dominates the countryside around Glastonbury, is said to be the entrance to Annwfn, the Celtic Underworld, and the Palace of Gwynn ap Nudd, the primary Underworld God (and Afallach's brother) stands within it. The 7th century hermit, St.Collen was often told that Gwynn lived there, but the Saint would have none of it; until, one day, he was invited to visit by one of the God's fairy-folk followers. He entered the Tor and the Fairy Palace, and sat through a fairy banquet but refused to eat anything. He then flung holy-water all around him and all his surroundings disappeared!
So Glastonbury was considered to be the entrance to the Celtic Underworld, be it Annwfn or Avalon, and the town's claim to be the Isle of Avalon may not be quite as outrageous as some think.
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