Glastonbury: More Christian “Borrowing”

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The abbey at Glastonbury and the inclusion of the Tor as a whole into the Arthurian tradition is yet another example of the Christian tendency to “borrow” sacred places and practices from other religions, add Christian precepts, and call the whole thing a Christian tradition.

This has been seen most famously in the initial Christian conversions of the Saxon tribes in Britain, beginning with Kent: The monks used the pagan chapels and swapped out the pagan idols for Christian symbols. Voila! A Christian church is born.

As the Germanic tribes made their way up and down the eastern seaboard of Britannia, the Christian converters followed their charges, establishing a monastery here and a house of worship there, until the Christian presence in Anglo-Saxon Britain was quite noticeable. The borrowing continued in this process, after all, for if something works well then it’s better not to change it.

Glastonbury: More Christian So, too, with Glastonbury did the Christian teachers take another tradition and make it their own. Glastonbury, the ancient “Island of Glass” (Ynis Witrin) was called, at various times, Avalon, Avalloc, and a host of other names. It was associated with fertility rites and with the passage of the dead into the afterlife. The Christians who built Glastonbury Abbey on the ruins of Wattle Church must have counted themselves lucky to have found such a good candidate for a prayer center.

Let it be said here that the practice of borrowing is not to be thought of as reprehensible or cheap. Rather, credit should be given to the monks and missionaries who came up with the very idea, since it made their job easier: They did indeed find that the Germanic tribesmen found it easier to accept Christian teachings when they were given under the mantle of a pagan roof. Said another way, “Why build a whole separate Christian church when you can use an existing church and change the focus of worship?” It’s not as if the Catholic Church had endless amounts of money and labor with which to produce such things anyway.

Still, the area of Glastonbury held for the locals as well as the newcomers a sense of fascination, both in a visual and a spiritual sense. It has been put forward that the Tor was once an island and the source of great power, be it magical or geophysical.

Strange, too, are a series of terraces ringing the Tor itself. Were they ley lines? Were they part of a maze that held special power for the people who built it thousands of years ago? Whatever the real answer, the Christian builders of Glastonbury found in the Tor a natural place to build a structure that would serve both as a house of worship and a house of lookout. (Remember the importance of high ground!)