In June this year thousands will descend on Glastonbury in Somerset for a music festival.. As always, images in the media from past years show that there is a certain amount of licence to partake in various shenanigans during the days and nights of the festival.. but there is nothing new in history.. And who knows what ancients stand on Glastonbury Tor looking down on the festival site, laughing at the amateurs emulating a much more fascinating and sometimes deadly time in history.
The Dancing Floor of Glastonbury Tor by Paul Andruss
Somerset Levels Flood 2014 (Daily Mail)
For those who don’t know, the hill of Glastonbury Tor dominates a huge area of low-lying land called the Somerset Levels, which you may remember from the UK media coverage of the disastrous floods submerging large parts of the area during winter 2014.
Ancient Somerset Landscape (Andruss)
The Somerset Levels are marshy fenlands medieval monks drained for agriculture. Before silting up with eroded run-off from the surrounding hills, the area was a sea flooded valley scattered with wooded islands. It would have made Glastonbury Tor a wonder to behold. You can appreciate how it looked on magical winter days when a sea of grey mist leaves the Tor hanging above the horizon like a Fata Morgana; a mirage named after the powerful sorceress of Arthurian legend as it appears to leave places suspended in air like fairy castles.
Fata Morgana (unknown credit)
The hill is topped by the ruined tower of the ancient St Michael’s Church. It was demolished during the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII and not destroyed by the earthquake (felt all the way to London) as is sometimes claimed. That earthquake happened in the 1200s and destroyed an earlier wooden church on the site.
Glastonbury Tor showing the terraces (Geoff Ward)
Seven worn and weathered terraces spiral around Glastonbury Tor. Various explanations are given for them, such as natural features; bank and ditch fortifications; early agricultural terraces; cattle paths or even cart tracks. None hold up. Some antiquarians suggest they are the remains of an ancient labyrinth or maze leading to a great Celtic sanctuary on the crest of the Tor. Although parts have crumbled away, they maintain you can reconstruct the shape from what survives.
Reconstructed terraces (Geoff Ward)
Aerial photographs often turn up ghosts of labyrinths cut from the turf in fields near ancient lost villages. All of these labyrinths have the same pattern, or are close variations. Unlike modern mazes labyrinths have no walls. They are simply a turf cut double spiral path that was danced during Easter.
Like dancing around a maypole, the Easter maze dance was a relic of an old pagan fertility ritual. It took place in villages across Britain right up to recent times. Men and women each taking one of the two paths, strutted and hobbled into the centre and then out again.
The same hobbling fertility dance, on mazes of exactly the same design, can be traced back through history. The Ancient Greeks thought it copied the mating dance of the lascivious partridge. Such a belief indicates the dance dates back to the very first farmers, for whom the annual arrival of partridges provided a welcome food source in early spring. The partridges were so intent on mating they were easily caught and so came to epitomise lewdness to the ancients.
Cretan Labyrinth Coin (Pinterest)
Because the maze design was found on ancient coins from Crete, the Greeks thought it was the labyrinth where King Minos kept the Minotaur. In the story Theseus killed the monster at the centre of an underground maze before successfully negotiating his way out by following a scarlet thread from Minos’ sorceress daughter Ariadne. Yet the word labyrinth did not originally mean a maze, it comes from labrys: a Minoan double headed ceremonial axe that was a symbol of sovereignty.
Greek myth has it that the inventor Daedalus built the labyrinth for Minos. Daedalus was the chap who made wings for himself and his son to escape Minos. When his son Icarus flew to near the sun the wax holding the wings together melted, and the boy drowned. Homer (the poet… not the guy from The Simpsons) adds, without explanation… Daedalus in Cnossos once contrived a dancing-floor for fair-haired Ariadne.
The earliest Welsh and Irish books of Celtic myth claim the Celts were descended from ancient Greeks and linked Minos’ daughter Ariadne with the Welsh goddess Arianrhod (meaning Silver Wheel – the Moon).
Robert Graves in ‘The White Goddess’ believes the myth of Theseus remembers the overthrow of the old religion of the Bull god Minos by the moon goddess Ariadne during the collapse of Bronze Age civilisation about 1,000 BC. This places the change to the collapse of the Minoan civilisation around the time of the Santorini explosion. At this time human sacrifice became common on Crete, and may be associated with a new agricultural religion, one that originated the Middle East and involved the sacrifice of the sacred king or Green Man- the male fertility principle.
Ancient Egyptian document from round this time speak of a group of pirates, traders and invaders they call the Sea Peoples. It is thought these were from the coast of Turkey and Phoenicia. These areas worshipped the Harvest Mother Goddess Cybele (Sybil) and her consort Attis, a dying and reborn harvest god slain by the boar’s tusk of winter: just as Dermot O’ Dyna was in Irish myth. Castration featured in the Attis cult as the god’s fertility was given to the fields to ensure the coming harvest.
During the 6 days of mourning at the end of the year, which commemorated the god’s death, want-to-be priests of Cybele would dress as women and emasculate themselves in his honour. Running through the streets, although staggering is probably the more correct word, they would throw their severed genitals through an open doorway. If their aim was true the household would be obliged to nurse them back to health. If they missed, they were left to die where they fell.
According to Sir James Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough’, there are legends all over Europe of sacred kings being ritually murdered at the end of his reign. His severed genitals were secretly buried and his blood spread on the fields to ensure the coming harvest. No one wanted to leave the King’s ritual death to chance; especially with the harvest depending on it. It is likely the king was first drugged and forced to dance the maze as part of a ritual to induce a hypnotic altered state; offering a vision of the otherworld before his murder.
There is evidence of such a ritual being performed in the Neolithic mound of Newgrange in Ireland. When scientists played drumming through loudspeakers in the inner chamber, the noise caused the sandy floor of the passageway to dance, forming regularly repeating patterns such as circles, waves and chevrons. The corbelled ceiling created infrasound echoes promoting nausea and disorientation. Coupled with psycho-active drugs such a foxglove, deadly nightshade and the hallucinogenic fungus still known as The Old Man of the Woods, any victim would have been confused, faint, ecstatic, disoriented and hallucinating as he proceeded up the passageway to his fate.
Glastonbury Tor was believed to be the Celtic Underworld. The early Welsh poem, the ‘Spoils of Annwn’, calls Glastonbury Tor Caer Sidi; which not only means a Fairy Castle, but also the Spiral Castle; which may refer to the ceremonial spiral labyrinth, carved into the side of the hill. Perhaps it is referring to the ‘dancing floor’ leading the sacred king to the afterlife.
To the Celts the afterlife was real as this one, so much so they left debts to be settled in the next world. They believed doors between the two realms opened on Samuin and the dead returned, real as the living: ideas which still haunt our Halloween. They believed also in reincarnation – a Greek idea adopted from Pythagoras, but much, much older and found across ancient Asia. In their version of reincarnation you might not only be reborn, but somehow return to life looking exactly as you always had.
By Roman times, the partridge dance was performed by young noblemen. Called the Troy Dance, it was supposed to remember the legend of Roman descent from survivors fleeing the fall of Troy. Troy fell when the Greeks left a hollow wooden horse as an offering to the Trojan gods after they packed up and went home. It was a ruse. The Greek fleet was holed up over the horizon, and the wooden horse was stuffed with soldiers. The Trojan horse was dragged into the city and when everyone was flat out from celebrating, the Greek soldiers emerged and opened the gates to their comrades, who slaughtered everyone.
It led to the old adage: ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’. Although one could equally say… ’Beware of gifts bearing Greeks.’
The turf-cut mazes were called ‘Troy Town’ in English, which is ‘Caer-droia’ in Welsh. According to the 9th century chronicle of the ‘Historia Britonum’, Britain was settled by survivors of Troy. The first British King, Brutus, was the grandson of a Trojan prince. Geoffrey of Monmouth recounted the tale in his ‘History of British Kings’.
The Brutus legend was believed true up to Tudor times and many ancient documents, referred to Britain as a ‘Remnant of Troy’. Legend says Brutus and his followers landed at the town of Totnes in Devon, around 80 miles from Glastonbury. A stone in the town, known as the ‘Brutus Stone’, commemorates his arrival.
The original pattern of the labyrinth circling Glastonbury Tor may date as far back as 8,000 years to the Neolithic period, or New Stone Age, when farming first spread to Europe. The same design is found from the eastern Mediterranean to Scandinavia, North-eastern Russia and Ireland. Two mazes are carved on a rock slab near Bosinney in Cornwall; and another is carved on a massive granite block from the Wicklow Hills in Ireland. All are thought to date from the same period.
Rocky Valley Labyrinth Carvings (Britain Express)
My thanks to Paul for this intriguing article that will make me pay more attention to those attending the Glastonbury Festival in future… Little do they know that their shenanigans are minor compared to others who have danced there.
About Paul Andruss
Paul Andruss is a writer whose primary focus is to take a subject, research every element thoroughly and then bring the pieces back together in a unique and thought provoking way. His desire to understand the origins of man, history, religion, politics and the minds of legends who rocked the world is inspiring. He does not hesitate to question, refute or make you rethink your own belief system and his work is always interesting and entertaining. Whilst is reluctant to talk about his own achievements he offers a warm and generous support and friendship to those he comes into contact with.
Paul is the author of two books and you can find out more by clicking the image.
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Thank you for dropping in today and as always please leave your questions and comments for Paul… thanks Sally.