Glastonbury – Utterly Ridiculous and Hugely Important

My thoughts after chatting to Morgana

I was feeling a bit overwhelmed after launching this blog – within 24 hours my first post ‘What’s Normal for Glastonbury?’ had been viewed by over a 1000 people, and reached 2000 within 48 hours. I was getting incredibly enthusiastic feedback on Facebook, friends were sharing it with their friends and family, I was getting views from all around the world.

Initially, I was elated, how lovely that my writing was striking a nerve with others that loved the town, it was particularly gratifying to receive appreciative messages from teenagers brought up here. After a couple of days though I began to panic, that first post had been intentionally humorous, a series of wry observations and funny anecdotes. Could I carry on being funny? What if my next post wasn’t funny and everyone was disappointed? What would happen when I run out of silly stories? Although as several people pointed out, with Glastonbury as my subject matter, this was unlikely.

The Well in the King Arthur Pub Garden, Glastonbury
The Well in the King Arthur Pub Garden

Then I began to wonder, did I actually want to produce an endless stream of amusing stories about people, many of whom might be considered by some to have mental health problems, doing weird shit? Didn’t the fact that my blog might end up being read by considerable numbers of people around the world give me a certain responsibility to represent Glastonbury in a way that acknowledged its significance as something more than just a town of harmless eccentrics?

It’s hard to get a balanced view on Glastonbury, most national newspapers will churn out the same old cliches about sandals and lentils, while more esoteric publications will waffle on endlessly about its enormous spiritual significance. But, I realized, it is hard to have a balanced view on Glastonbury, even (perhaps especially) when you live here. It is simultaneously both utterly ridiculous and hugely important.

I decided to go and see my friend Morgana for a chat and to get some perspective on it all. Morgana does interfaith work, see Unity Through Diversity, and works at Glastonbury’s Pilgrims’ Reception Centre, from the website  I learned that:

‘Over 70 different faiths, paths and beliefs are upheld in Glastonbury, a greater concentration per capita than anywhere else in the world and whilst we might not necessarily agree, we can respect our differences and work together combining our efforts for the benefit of Glastonbury and the wider world.’

The Keepers of the Gates

As Morgana gets out into the real world more than me, I asked her how people perceive Glastonbury, she said, in her no-nonsense Northern way “The majority see it as full of nutters, hippies and skanks. But a percentage see it as very special, a great place of learning and a way to connect with their own spirituality”

Another bloody crystal shop, sorry, lovely crystal shop
Another bloody crystal shop, sorry, lovely crystal shop

We discussed the fact that the when people visit the town they encounter the ‘Keepers of the Gates’ – those elements which are most visible, both the new age shops full of sparkly things, glitter, crystals and bright shiny reflections and the darker more gritty underbelly represented by the street drinkers, beggars and homeless crusties (In Glastonbury they are given the imaginative collective noun of ‘Benchers’ due to them being generally found sitting on benches in the High St).

Morgana said “People are often attracted by one of these sides of Glastonbury and repulsed by the other”. I found this curious at first, I could see how the twinkly crystals and shelves of ‘Sort your life out in 10 minutes a day’ books appealed to many, even though, having spent nearly a decade of my working life in New Age bookshops, I find the quick fix, commercial aspects of the New Age off-putting. But were people really ‘attracted’ by the seamier underbelly of Glastonbury’s crusties? I then thought of it in terms of the ‘Fool’s Journey’ the fool is represented in the Tarot as “the madman” or “the beggar”, he is a fresh, open and spontaneous youth, about to set out on life’s journey unaware of the perils he will face, and not restricted by society’s norms or rules.

The freshly hatched hippies with their dreadlocks and drums on the Tor, full of talk of leylines, living in a bus, visiting Glastonbury in between festivals in the Summer and making their living from fruit picking in Autumn are appealing. They offer the promise of a life of spontaneity unencumbered by a suit or a mortgage. Many of them will, with enough perseverance, enthusiasm and application, go on to ‘Live the Dream’, finding ways to make a living from doing what they love. These are the ones on the benches who are passing through, resting a while between adventures, while the others have rested too long, often falling prey to an excess of drink and drugs, and become teenagers in ageing bodies, still ranting about Anarchy and how they will organise a festival much better than Glastonbury, once they get their shit together.

Morgana went on to say “Past the Gatekeepers, looking through or past the illusion, you enter the Mystery School that is the heart of what Glastonbury has to offer”.

The Mystery School

So what is a Mystery School? the best definition I could find is here. The Mystery Schools teachings were esoteric, another Wikipedia entry here defines esotericism:

“One scholarly model adopts its definition of “esotericism” from certain esotericist schools of thought themselves, treating “esotericism” as a perennialist hidden, inner tradition. A second perspective argues that it is a category that encompasses worldviews which seek to embrace an ‘enchanted’ worldview in the face of increasing de-enchantment. A third view, propounded by Wouter Hanegraaff, views Western esotericism as a category encompassing all of Western culture’s “rejected knowledge” that is accepted by neither the scientific establishment nor orthodox religious authorities.”

The Red Spring from the lion's Head at Chalice Well, Glastonbury
Red Spring at Chalice Well

In other words, a Mystery School taught magic, the belief that the Universe operates under different laws than those revealed by either mainstream religion or Western science, and that these laws once understood and employed through the use of ritual, can be used to manipulate the physical world using the power of the mind. In other words, the inner world can be used to transform the outer. In the past the practice of magic involved secret initiations and years of training, nowadays magic appears more often in the form of ‘personal self-development’ – the belief that by following simple thought exercises (often after self-purification through diet and exercise for instance) you can ‘manifest’ the lifestyle you desire. This takes as many forms as there are practitioners – at one end of the spectrum magic is used to gain material success, power and sex, at the other to train the mind and body into a state where you transcend these things altogether and become an embodiment of compassion and Universal love. Most of us settle somewhere in the middle ground, wanting simply to learn to be better, nicer, kinder, more creative people, while retaining a sense of the world as a magical place of enchantment, where there just might be a fairy up for a chat on the Tor.

I think it is fair to say that all of us who have chosen Glastonbury as our home, literally or figuratively, have a belief in magic. The one single thing that I have observed in everyone who spends any time here is their openness to change, to learn and to grow. 

Morgana suggested that people coming to Glastonbury were running away from the life they had, and becoming what they were always meant to be: This transition phase is very hard, as she said: “they end up working through a lot of shit”.

It is said that Glastonbury was once the ‘Isle of the Dead’, a sacred burial ground which went on to become a Druidical college (the first of Glastonbury’s Mystery Schools). In the Middle Ages the town grew up to service the Abbey and it’s visiting Pilgrims. It’s interesting that several hundred years later we still have the same dynamic, Glastonbury as the sacred centre, with a thriving service economy built around feeding, accommodating and entertaining thousands of visitors here to breathe in the magical Glastonbury air, then selling them a memento of their visit. The difference being that now the barkeeper may well offer you Reiki and the lady in the cake shop might just be a Hedgewitch. The lines between the sacred and the profane have become so blurred that there is scarcely a line at all, which may well be a good thing, except that just about anything can be labelled ‘sacred’, and given a correspondingly higher price tag.

Many of the healing techniques practised in Glastonbury could be described as ‘magical’, that is to say, coming from a worldview that accepts that healing can be affected in ways that are seen as outside of the ‘laws’ of Western Science. Many healers regard themselves as channels of healing energy from the cosmos. With so many people suffering from conditions which Western medicine doesn’t adequately treat, it is no wonder that they flock to Glastonbury in their thousands in their search for Wholeness (as they have for many years to take the ‘healing and magical’ waters of the Springs).  A bewildering number of new healing practices have arisen, many of which sound like utter hogwash to me, but as Morgana pointed out, healing has been practised for thousands of years, it’s just constantly being repackaged to suit the patient and their worldview. If the healer has genuinely found a way to ‘channel healing energy’ freely available in the ether or to facilitate the client to create the conditions for their own recovery, then what does it matter if they call it Dolphin Rainbow Reiki?

The Spiritual Supermarket

Not sure if this stuff repels or attracts unicorns or angels
Not sure if this stuff repels or attracts unicorns or angels

Many people, myself included, have mixed feelings about Glastonbury’s success as a commercial centre of the New Age. Morgana suggested that some of the people who have become very successful financially in town didn’t actually come here with that intent, but rather on their own spiritual quests, but perhaps those with natural business acumen can’t help but see, and seize the opportunity. If it’s a spiritual healing practice that has become the source of their income they will defend it at all costs.

It’s easy to be cynical about all this, especially when some are seen to be doing very well selling things with all the substance of a fairy’s fart, but Morgana suggested that Glastonbury is giving us all the lessons we need, we need to let others learn those lessons, in whatever form they take, without imposing our own judgement.

We do need to be aware however that for many Glastonbury feels like a place of safety, but in that safety, they can be open to abuse, spiritual practice may leave them vulnerable if there is no aftercare. It’s a small community and those abusing that sense of trust for their own power don’t necessarily get to hang around.

Buskers dressed as monks outside St John's Church, Glastonbury
Buskers dressed as monks outside St John’s Church

It is necessary to keep your feet on the earth here. I think the main reason I have lasted so long in this town is that I don’t take it all seriously and I stay out of the petty politics. I enjoy the Pantomime of it all, the Monty Pythonesque nature of the place. After a while, you notice people arrive on the same old trip, convinced they are going to be the Saviour of us all, and the locals are all thinking “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy”. Problems arise when people start taking themselves seriously.

In writing this blog I feel a great responsibility to those who love Glastonbury to present it in a way that honours its importance around the world, but also acknowledges its contradictions. Like any school, it is full of people making mistakes and being corrected, but unlike most schools here we are all both pupils and teachers whether we realize it or not. There’s no headmaster, we are all making the school rules up as we go along, as we reinvent ourselves. See my post ‘Glastonbury – the Perfect Place to Reinvent Yourself‘.

Glastonbury is a spiritual supermarket full of relics and souvenirs. Exit through the gift shop – go home with a memento. But perhaps you might go home irrevocably changed, with a new perspective, some tools and tricks that give you more control of your life, a step on the path to Wholeness. Or perhaps, like those of us who find Glastonbury’s pull irresistible, you might never go home at all….

The Glastonbury Experience, where you'll find the Pilgrims' Reception Centre
The Glastonbury Experience, where you’ll find the Pilgrims’ Reception Centre

Coming to Glastonbury? Do visit the Pilgrim’s Reception Centre  now located in the Glastonbury Information Centre in St Dunstan’s House, by the Abbey Car Park in Magdalene Street. It was set up so that “All those on the journey through the Glastonbury environs can find a warm welcome, regardless of beliefs and ideals, in a spiritually supportive, yet practical way.” 

If you are interested in Glastonbury as a Mystery School you can check out the Glaston Centre for their talks and workshops. 

I actually started writing this post back in April, it’s taken me this long to process the conversation with Morgana and work out where I was at with it all before finishing it!. It’s also taken me this long to build up the confidence to publish something a bit more serious, rather than just amusing anecdotes.

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9 thoughts on “Glastonbury – Utterly Ridiculous and Hugely Important”

  1. This is what I’ve come to expect of you Vicki, a frank and balanced appraisal with only a modicum of ‘being a local’ bias…and I’d find it very hard to disagree with any of your observations and experiences – they literally are the ‘glastonbury experience’, and by reflection, you almost always end up questioning and then potentially solidifying your own sanity on a daily basis!

    Nice article….
    Keep doing everything you’re doing

  2. I like your article but also wonder if you are aware that more and more deeply sane and balanced people also are drawn to, and/or live in Glastonbury?? People who have held good responsible jobs in the mainstream world and are able to manifest as well as dream. People who value a spiritual life and enjoy living in or around Glastonbury as a spiritual vortex. I think Glastonbury is a diamond with many many facets, all with their own beauty and value. Keep writing your wonderful blogs. Morgana is a wise and wonderful woman. X

  3. What a truly excellent, balanced and heartfelt overview of the social and cultural phenomenon that is Glastonbury.

    So much of it I feel to quote a repost, share with others – it’s so potent and poky, I’m not surprised it’s spreading liberally like spores in a moor of mounds.

    I hope Morganna prints and laminates it, and shows it to pilgrims. Or maybe not – who’d want to give the blow-in benchers a spoiler, after all?


    Best wishes,

    Looking forward to the next installment, funny or serious.

    • Thanks Nathan, “spreading liberally like spores in a moor of mounds” reminds me, found a massive Puffball mushroom the other day in Wookey Hole, nearly managed to eat it all before it went powdery. x

  4. Really love this one Vicki ( have loved and laughed at them all) but this one strkes a good balance….looking forward to meeting another faery up the tor for a chat 😀


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