What exactly was the Isle of Avalon?
Most scholars agree that it was some sort of spiritual center dating from very ancient times. Its tight association with the historical side of the Arthurian legends draws us to Celtic Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries, where clues of Avalon’s existence begin to emerge from the mists of antiquity.
Literature provides the first references. Probably the most popular version was written by the twelfth-century Welshman, Geoffrey of Monmouth. In his History of the Kings of Britain, King Arthur is carried to the Isle of Avalon to rest and heal after his last battle. The magical sword Excalibur was forged there. Geoffrey further describes Avalon in The Life of Merlin as the home of the enchantress Morgaine le Fey, the island named in Welsh as Ynys Avallach, or "Island of Apples." This is apt, as apples symbolize plenty and magic in Celtic tradition.
In the Black Book of Carmarthen, one of the ancient Welsh books on which Geoffrey of Monmouth very likely based much of his History, it is said that Arthur’s tomb was secretly located in Avalon. Pagan Celts did not believe in death, but that the soul lives forever. Therefore, Arthur would not be thought of as dead, but merely sleeping, waiting for the call to his next coming. Presumably, because of its significance to the society of Arthur’s day, Avalon had very likely existed for quite some time and was considered the only place special enough to take the mortally wounded king. Why else would a leader of his great stature be taken there? No other leader before or since is associated with the Isle.It is nearly impossible to define Avalon’s purpose without seeking its physical location as part of the same task. While no location can be absolutely proven, just as Arthur’s very existence has never been conclusive, the legends are very probably rooted in reality. Most indications infer, albeit circumstantially, that Glastonbury in Somerset, England was the location of Avalon. Glastonbury’s name is the Anglicized descendant of the Celtic (primitive Welsh) name Ynys Witrin, or Glass Isle.
In the fifth century, the marshy area around Glastonbury flooded cyclically, cutting off higher ground and creating an island. In calm weather, the water would lie smooth as glass. Glastonbury Tor, a large, oblong-shaped hill rising above the town, is flanked by apple orchards, and has been for time out of mind, giving the name Ynys Avallach credence as well. And in Arthur’s day, the area was occupied by people of the same stock the modern Welsh descend from, their names, traditions, stories, and legends following.
Many theories as to Avalon’s purpose have crossed the scholarly world. Using the assumption that Glastonbury is the likely location, one of the most intriguing ideas arises from the strong sense of ancient paganism tied to the area. In the Book of Taliesin, the poem The Spoils of Annwn tells how Arthur and his knights descend into Annwn, the Celtic Otherworld, to steal a mystic cauldron of inspiration and plenty. Annwn is the realm of Gwyn ap Nudd, king of the Faeries and lord of Annwn, and the Tor is his sacred mountain. Avalon is portrayed as a gathering place for departed spirits preparing to go to Annwn, and Gwyn guards the portals. The cauldron magically provides unending nourishment and rebirth. This is the original grail which Arthur’s knights quested after so desperately, before Christian believers shifted its importance to their own purpose. Supportive evidence shows that Glastonbury Tor is artificially terraced in a pattern reminiscent of pre-Christian ritual paths, similar to others across Europe associated with Goddess worship. Archaeology has determined that the pattern is more ancient and complex than originally thought, a seven-circuited labyrinth rather than a simple spiral. There are also persistent rumors of a secret chamber within the Tor, into which people wander and return to the world mad, a trait identified with faery encounters.
In a more recent line of reasoning, author Marion Zimmer Bradley takes this interpretation a bold step further. Combining it with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History in her book The Mists of Avalon, she beautifully portrays Avalon as Morgaine le Fey’s domain. Morgaine is the last high priestess of the ancient goddess religion before Christianity takes over. She is the Lady of Lake, and Avalon is the most sacred site in Britain, the obvious location for Excalibur to have been forged, the grail to be kept, and Arthur to be taken as he lay dying from his battle wounds. It is the mystical place where one crosses from Cylch y Abred, the middle world we live in , to Annwn, the Otherworld. While Bradley’s interpretation has been presented as fiction, there is logical research behind her theory. Ancient Celtic tradition across Britain and Europe includes the belief that we are connected to the earth by an umbilical, known by the Greek term, omphalos, the "navel of the world." A cosmic axis, sometimes symbolized by an upright stone, connects the upper world of Gwynvyd (heaven) and lower world of Annwn, running through the middle world (Abred). The omphalos is considered a place of spiritual power, a center where this world and the others cross most powerfully. Consistently, Glastonbury Tor is a prime candidate as an omphalos. Its very shape is womb-like, and its persistent tradition of spirituality has always been and still is like a magnet to people of all faiths.
History is purely an interpretation of the evidence we have gathered about life in the past. Many times the "facts" are circumstantial, a combination of archaeology, literature, and human supposition; for each historian you have, each will give a different viewpoint. Into the fifth and sixth centuries, the Celtic oral-based customs prohibited writing down stories, genealogies, scientific knowledge. There is little left to forge our theories from, and we may never truly understand Avalon. Sadly, and literally, nothing was written in stone.
This article first appeared in Faces of the Goddess magazine, Spring 1998
© Kathleen Cunningham Guler
Photo © Lynne Newton