Let the Sunshine In
The mythology and madness of the summer solstice on Glastonbury Tor.
The strangeness starts with the Steven King fog — or, more accurately, with the cackling scarecrow demons that live in the fog. To get to Glastonbury Tor in time for the summer solstice sunrise, I leave London at midnight. Halfway there I’m gazing at the swirling Hammer Horror-movie mist with childlike wonder. I allow myself to hallucinate scythe-wielding straw men racing alongside me, through the twisting and rolling, silvery moonlit high-hedged English West Country lanes. It is horribly easy. And the closer to Glastonbury I get, the easier it becomes.
Any half-educated rationalist with access to a search engine could tell you that Glastonbury’s reputation as the ley-line criss-crossed hub of some mysteriously immeasurable Earth power is as bogus as the stories of King Arthur or the “ancient” Wiccan religion and the hundreds of other mumbo-jumbled New Age mythologies that jostle for attention in the overly-expanded minds of the hippies, crusties, witches, hedge-monkeys, Tibetan flap-hatted didgeridoo players, septuagenarian acid casualties, and other seekers of enlightenment and/or excess who’ve flocked for decades to this Haight-Ashbury with tea shops.
But if you’ve ever wondered why this area should be such a prolific generator of mythology and madness, climb Glastonbury Tor (“tor” being a Middle English world for hill) just before sunrise on the summer solstice. It’ll make you want to believe in something. Possibly dragons.
The Tor rises from the surrounding reclaimed fenland like a pendulous church tower tipped tit. At the summit white-clad Morris dancers — looking eerily like the rural cousins of the droogs from A Clockwork Orange — are strutting their priapic stuff. Weed is smoked. Flaming torches are juggled. An enormous brass horn is polished. Lesbians cuddle under a blanket. Several groups of druids mix with the witches and dog-on-a-stringers and convoy-ravers and several score members of countless other tribes and sub-tribes.
Most of them are staring east. I turn and am awed. The sun is just below the horizon and the mist ripples over a patchwork of fields like a Lord of the Rings CGI. First church spires and them entire villages appear and disappear. It’s gut-stirringly beautiful. This is a softer, greener, busier, and much more intensively farmed England than the bleak, Viking-settled Yorkshire moors I pine for when abroad. It’s the England where the locals still talk like pirates (or like Americans, if you scrunch your ears a tad), and less than 150 years ago still wore smocks, chewed straw, and held loud conversations about how it’d be good for the crops if they held the public executions a little closer to harvest time.
This is the birthplace of the Merrie Olde English myth, the place where the racists who founded the American folk music industry claimed to find ancestral roots. Here men of a certain age and class wear clipped moustaches and mustard-colored corduroy trousers (that they have absolutely no idea were first brought into England by despised railway-building Irish navies) while their Land Rover-driving wives sport Queen Elizabeth-style headscarves, no-nonsense tweed skirts, and green Wellington boots. And this is where, in the town of Glastonbury in 2006, young Catholic pilgrims physically attacked resident pagans, yelling “Burn the witches” and throwing salt in their faces. There is more kookery, mumbojumbilism, ningnangnongery and magic-crystal-stroking and feng-shui-believing anything-is-possibilism in these few tourist-ridden square miles than in all of California. Glastonbury is England’s crazy auntie in the attic.
As dawn approaches, a wild-eyed hedge-witch lets out a Middle-Eastern sounding ulululululul. The anklebell jangling, hankie waving, and pig’s-bladder-on-a-stick battering Morris dancing becomes ever more violent and sexually explicit. It’s all about getting pissed and fighting and fucking, this music. Which, whatever its origins (probably North African), makes it quintessentially English, a direct ancestor of the Gin Riots and the Sex Pistols and the drunken, violent, puking carnival that take place in every English town and city when the pubs close on Friday and Saturday nights. Meanwhile, in some modern northern English church halls, totally sober families gather to Morris dance to current pop hits. I have no idea how this sits with the purists.
A brace of lesbians are married in a druid ceremony. A cider and skunk-addled didgeridoo player lies on his back and blasts a long, mournful single note into the heavens. A burly man dressed as the 20th-century version of the Victorian version of the late medieval version of the almost certainly mythical Celtic warrior King Arthur points his sword to the four winds in an ancient ceremony that he probably composed on his computer last week. A green man — possibly the old pagan Christ-figure John Barleycorn himself (or maybe the DC Comics Earth-elemental superhero Swamp Thing) — exudes virility while one of his supporting cast of garlanded maidens sneaks a crafty fag behind his leafy back. The air smells faintly of dew and cuckoo spit and patchouli and marijuana and crackles with anticipation. A druid in a Panama hat raises a huge brass horn to his lips. The sun lumbers over the horizon.
The crowd roar like they’ve just witnessed a goal scored in the dying seconds of a knife-edge soccer match. The witches keen like hyenas. The druids trumpet. The Morris dancers prance. Drummers drum. John Barleycorn anticipates his inevitable slaughter and rebirth. The smoking maiden lights up another Silk Cut. Crusties spliff up. The cuddling lesbians toss off the blanket. Hedge monkeys swig scrumpy. King Arthur points his sword at the bringer-of-all-life and roars like a 19th-century Shakespearean actor delivering words or great import and solemnity.
I fall into conversation with a couple of self-described “hedge-witches.” One of them is a working-class woman who hung around with the Beatles “before they sold out,” then single-handedly raised a couple of boys on a rough-as-fuck northern English council estate and then — in her 60s — re-invented herself as a pagan free spirit, traveling the country with her van and her dog. In a few moments I’m convinced that there isn’t a non-mainstream belief these women don’t hold. ESP? Check. UFOs? Check. And that’s just for starters. I learn that the surrounding area is honeycombed with what might be secret alien and/or faerie tunnels (but might equally be the entrance to the Celtic underworld), that the British royal family and the rest of the ruling class are probably baby-eating alien space lizards, and that roads are deliberate attempts to smother ley lines.
I notice one of them staring directly into the rising sun and remark that this might be bad for her eyes. “That’s what they want you to think,” she says. Turns out they don’t want us to benefit from the sun’s energy. The baby-eating lizard bastards.
I look around. Almost everybody is stoned or smashed or experiencing religious ecstasy. Or Morris dancing. Actually, these categories are not mutually exclusive. The rising sun tears the fog off the beautiful, farmed-to-fuck-and-back old English countryside. John Barleycorn is risen. Sensible, sober, straightlaced, and shy England is off its sun-kissed tits on herb and cider, dressed up like folk dancers and Bronze Age death-cultists and hippy grannies on shrooms and wailing like a maniac. What fun.
Almost everybody here is English and white. It’s a sight that would stir the soul of the extreme right-wing British National Party (on the rise and making inroads in London and other cities). If they could ignore the lesbians. And the drugs. And the crazy “afro-saxon” crustifarian hair. And the fact that just about everybody here literally wouldn’t piss on a BNP member if he were on fire (they’re just tools of the baby-eating space lizard conspiracy, man).
All over the Anglophone world, witches and druids will be conducting (or already have conducted) similar ceremonies, despite the fact the last real druids were exterminated by the Romans in A.D. 60. And that far from being an authentic ancient tradition, Western witchcraft (or Wicca) was invented from scratch by an outrageous liar in England in 1946.
And the rest of this New Age menagerie has equally sketchy and recent roots — most of them right here, in the probably non-existent King Arthur’s sacred Glastonbury, where Jesus’ uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, almost certainly didn’t hide the Holy Grail (but there are plenty who reckon he did). Mohammed and Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard have nothing on the New Age ningnangnongers.
Not that I think that matters. I’m guessing the original druids and witches kinda made it up as they went along as well. • 20 June 2008
Steven Wells is a writer in Philadelphia.
Photo by colsta via Flickr (Creative Commons).