During the past fifteen years or so, Pauline MacLaran, Diego Rinallo, Lisa Peñaloza, and I have done a great deal of research on witchcraft/goddess movements, culminating eventually in a book on the intersection between material culture, markets, and spirituality. Lisa Peñaloza and I studied the Reclaiming movement (described in today’s blog) in Chicago, as well as attending events and “witch camps” held all over America. Pauline, Diego, and I worked on neopaganism in the UK, with a special emphasis on the goddess movement as manifest in Glastonbury (legend insists that Glastonbury is this dimension’s version of Avalon, home to Morgan Le Fay, also mentioned in today’s blog).
The extraordinary array of shops that line the High Street in Glastonbury became a central site for our research. We studied the history of Glastonbury from an economic perspective. It is a town that is ill-sited for ordinary commerce, but the natural setting makes it perfect as a pilgrimage destination. And so, this tiny town has been an economic drawing card for the “spiritual tourist” of many centuries gone by—and when it was not viable in the market for pilgrimage, it usually fell into economic depression.
I took this photo of the walk up the Tor myself. It is quite a climb.
The history goes from ancient times, when the mists of swamps separated the Tor, Glastonbury’s oddly pointed mountaintop, from the rest of the Somerset Levels. The Tor is cavernous inside, which probably provided a space for rituals. It has incredibly steep sides that have long since been carved with terraces that look to be a pathway for processions (the land itself is not good for growing things). The Tor has two springs sprouting from it, one that runs red and another that runs white. The fog from the swamps must have always given the place a mystical feel, separating it visually and geographically, as well as conceptually, from everyday life. The top of the Tor is a perfect place to look at the stars and call down the spirits—and history suggests that is exactly what our ancient ancestors did. The Tor has been said to be the home of the faerie king and it has been the site of religiously-motivated murders. The Chalice Well Garden just below has a highly feminine landscape, all cuddling rolls of grass and growth, as well as a system of pools fed by the red spring. You couldn’t make this stuff up, right?
One of the Chalice Garden pools is said to be the last hiding place of the Holy Grail. Joseph of Arimathea is said to have founded the Christian Church in England on a hill opposite the Tor. Glastonbury Abbey, at the start of the High Street, was the richest and most famous of the Catholic monasteries, called “the New Jerusalem” before it was robbed and destroyed by Henry VIII. King Arthur and Queen Gueneviere are allegedly buried in Glastonbury Abbey. William Blake wrote poems about this English “Jerusalem.” In the 1920s, Glastonbury was home to a famous occultist group founded by “ceremonial magician” Dion Fortune. In modern times, two ritual processions were the key events of the year, the Anglicans walked one way through the town and the Catholics the other. Today, Glastonbury is the grand finale of the Guy Fawkes Carnival season (Guy Fawkes being the Protestant oppositional holiday to All Souls Day and Halloween). The Goddess March in July draws people from miles away. And these are just the headlines.
So you can see that the marketing possibilities are endless. The High Street has shops that cater to an astonishing array of religious persuasions, offering everything from cauldrons to Buddhist statuettes to crucifixes. You can buy ready-made spell packages and hand-dipped candles, colored and beautifully labelled for ceremonial use. There are goddess temples to meditate in and elaborate crystal shops to visit. The psychics are elbow-to-elbow, offering everything from palm-reading to aura cleansing. The little spas will give you a manicure or rub your chakras, as you prefer. All these retail outlets appeal to the tourist, but also support the very individualized spiritual practices of the assortment of believers who actually live in Glastonbury. The Glastonbury High Street is, essentially, this dimension’s version of Diagon Alley.
We had many opportunities to attend the meetings and rituals of various pagan and Wiccan groups in both the US and the UK, as well as to speak with participants. The overall attitude is life-affirming, standing against cruelty and the abuse of power in any walk of life, including gender. What these folks are staking out is a very upbeat conceptual space, with often beautiful expressions of an oppositional position. The Glastonbury shops exude this optimistic, but deviant, attitude.
Some of what we saw during this research was pretty silly. But much of it was quite extraordinary and nothing at all “Satanic” or dark. The rituals are often public and are beautifully staged with costumes, terrific music, and lots of audience participation. I have met many, many mainstream clergymen and women at these gatherings; they have usually been sent, even with a grant, by a seminary or central church to find out what is so attractive about the New Paganism. The appeal is not hard to explain. Everything from the drums and chants to the banners and costumes are more fun than what you would see in the halls of established places of worship, even on a festival day.
The pagan year is marked by a series of holidays that reflect the seasons, as well as the position of the sun and stars. Samhain (pronounced “Saw-wen” and known to us as Halloween) occurs at the autumn equinox, marking the end of harvest. And, in the pagan world, Samhain is a big deal. Indeed some observe that what Christmas is to Christians, Samhain is to pagans. It is the biggest night of the year, a time when the veil between worlds is said to be its thinnest. It’s a time to celebrate the past and the future, to have your fortune told or light a memorial candle. But above all, Samhain is meant to be fun, a celebration of the harvest. I am sure they are gearing up for big times in Glastonbury tonight. Wherever you are, join the dance! Have a Happy Halloween and a spectacular Samhain!