What’s the deal with Glastonbury?

Glastonbury Tor; or the island of Avalon emerging from a sea of mist?

Glastonbury in Somerset is known as a pilgrimage site for neopagans and adherents of various “alternative spiritualities” world wide. The mythology of the place is full of stories about Arthurian knights, primeval British Christians, druids, the lost tribes of Israel, healing wells, and the Holy Grail. Theories about secret connections between ancient monuments, and hidden correspondences or “lay lines” connecting features in the landscape of Glastonbury are easy to find.

What is the history of all this local myth? How did this small village become such a major centre of heterodox pilgrimage? What does the phenomenon of Glastonbury tell us about religion generally, and its British history specifically? These are among the questions that Hereward Tilton explores in an ongoing research project. He spoke about it at the Contemporary Esotericism conference in Stockholm this August, and the paper has now been made available online at the ContERN website.

Tilton explores the development of a lively folklore around Glastonbury, and explains its origins in the sociocultural and economic contexts of the middle ages, the impact of the reformation, and much later the rediscovery of Glastonbury by a generation of occultists at the end of the 19th century. In addition to many intriguing historical details, about which one can read more in the published paper, Tilton seeks to explore some concerns that are of broader interest. One of these is the intriguing confluence of British Israelism (the notion that the British people is in fact one of the lost tribes of Israel, and the British monarchs descend from king David) with esoterically oriented notions of prisca theologia (i.e. the notion of “primitive revelation” and ancient wisdom), and local myths at Glastonbury:

“While the origins of British Israelism proper can be traced to the early nineteenth century and writers such as John Wilson and Edward Hine, the relationship of their work to earlier post-Reformation narratives concerning the lost Semitic tribe of the British and the Druidic prisca theologia is clearly of central import to an understanding of the history of esotericism at Glastonbury. Of particular interest is the legend of Christ’s visit to Glastonbury, and his building of the first British church there, which as we may recall descended from on high like the New Jerusalem.”

Another intriguing aspect Tilton mentions, but unfortunately did not get to explore in any detail in the present paper, concerns the place of psychological factors in accounting for “esoteric” motifs. In particular, Tilton is interested in schizotypy and apophenia – both of which come to mind when one considers the associative, pattern-seeking, sometimes paranoid reading of signs and symbols in buildings, text, nature, and culture, so characteristic of esoteric material. Tilton connects them to Faivre’s old characteristics:

“The esoteric mindset as defined by Faivre corresponds in many particulars with what may be termed an ‘esoteric schizotypy’, in accordance with a contemporary psychiatric category encompassing a broad spectrum of personalities exhibiting schizotypal traits (e.g. visual and auditory hallucinations, paranoid or conspiratorial ideation, a tendency to distant associations); of particular significance in this regard is the phenomenon of ‘apophenia’, the discovery of meaningful patterns in apparently random data that we find exemplified in the creative interpretations of Glastonbury’s sacred landscape … . My purpose in this regard is not to psychopathologize esotericism, but rather to understand the interaction of dominant and deviant psychologies within those processes of marginalization that currently constitute a central historiographical concern of our field.”

It is interesting work, even if it is no doubt going to be controversial in certain circles. But there is already a lot of related research in the cognitive study of religion that might serve as a basis for further research along these lines. It was, for example, only a month ago that the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology published a study that found “religious” and “believers in the paranormal” to be more prone to apophenia (illusory face perception in this case) than “sceptics” and “non-believers”. Tom Rees recently blogged about this research at Epiphenom  (which, by the way, is an excellent resource for staying up to date on research that explores the relations between psychological,  sociological and cultural factors in accounting for the disparate phenomena we call “religion”). Studies exploring the relation of conspiracy belief and schizotypy are also not hard to come by (see e.g. this recent paper from Personality and Individual Differences). One should not exclude the possibility that research along similar lines might have a role to play in future theorising about esotericism as well. I for one certainly look forward to see what Tilton will do with these connections in the future.
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This blog post by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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  1. […] of August’s conference on contemporary esotericism is slightly different from previous installations in the series. It is not too contemporary, but it adds a discussion that should be quite […]

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