WALK UPON ENGLAND'S MOUNTAIN'S GREEN?
AND WAS THE HOLY LAMB OF GOD
ON ENGLAND'S PLEASANT PASTURES SEE?"
"The Abbey is holy ground, consecrated by the dust of the saints; but up here, at the foot of Tor, the old gods have their part. So we have two Avalon's: 'the holyest erthe in Englande,' down among the water-meadows; and upon the green heights the fiery pagan forces that make the heart leap and burn. And some love one, and some other. The Tor is the most pagan hills; never once has it cried: Thou hast conquered, O Galilean!" (from Glatsonbury)
The earliest group known to move into the Tor was the fairies. In those days, fairies were nothing like our twee pictures of them. They were described as tall, youthful despite great age, and 'fair' – ie. beautiful. At that time they were associated with certain constellations – the Pleiades, Ursa Major, and Sirius. They were said to have brought knowledge to the local people, especially about astrology and healing. Different peoples from all over the world have strikingly similar mythologies.
Stories about these fairy people became merged with Celtic personifications of the forces of nature. Gwyn ap Nudd, who later became the Tor King of the Fairies, began his career as a symbol of death. He was Lord of the Underworld, like the Norse Odin. His feared Wild Hunt was a harbinger of death, and bringer of bad luck to all who saw it. It would hurtle across the night sky, the white Yeth hounds running before, hunting souls to take back to the underworld.
As the arts of cultivation began to tame the power of nature, the Wild Hunt lost its raw terror. The faintest echo of it still rides our winter nights in the form of Santa’s merry sleigh. Somewhere along the way, Gwyn ap Nudd changed from Lord of the Underworld to King of the Fairies. His court established itself in the magically hollow Glastonbury Tor. But memories of the Wild Hunt lingered, and people remained wary of fairies. They were described as tall dark beings, just itching to play mocking tricks on mortals, kidnap or even kill them if they had half a chance. Gwyn was seen as a kind of mediator between them and the human race. He was said to be sometimes the only thing that stood between people and their complete destruction by these scary fairies. Even so, he was apparently barely able to restrain his crew, and couldn’t resist a bit of malice himself at times.
Creiddylad and Gwythyr
As the agricultural life settled people into working with the seasons, the forces of nature began to feel cosier. It was then said that every year Gwyn ap Nudd stole the spring maiden Creiddyladd from Gwythr ap Greidawl. The rivals were then fated to fight an annual, unwinnable battle over her on the Tor every May Day till Doomsday, in a dramatisation of the yearly cycle of the seasons.
As the Middle Ages farmed on, people learned that potential threats from both fairies and nature could be avoided by heeding certain rules. By then fairies were seen as mostly helpful, but still with a few nasty surprises up their floaty green sleeves. That side of their nature was placated with offerings. It became the custom to leave little servings of food and drink out for them, which the fairies seemed to like.
There are still other observations about fairies that might have come from experiences of actual encounters with some form of non-human entity. The church did all it could to suppress these stories. Anyone talking openly about this kind of experience stood in danger of a witchcraft trial. Despite that, a large number of these tales survive.
A huge number of fairy encounters are associated with magical hills. Fairy hills were thought of as hollow, in the sense that there was another realm within them, making the hill seem bigger inside than out. This inner realm was called Annwn or Avalon. A persistent ancient belief says there’s an entrance to Annwn somewhere on the Tor, which was well known as a strange, magical place.
Not many sought that entrance, because of certain dangers everyone knew about in those days. One problem was the difference between fairy time and ours. A heedless Annwn adventurer might slip permanently into the past or future. Anyone who returned from a fairy foray was likely to discover large chunks of missing time in their lives. More than one medieval experiencer reports having spent only half an hour or so with the fairies – but when they returned, found that many years had passed in their world. Everyone they knew had grown old or died.
Another danger was the food. The rule was, if you visit Annwn, don’t eat or drink anything. The fairies were friendly and hospitable, usually offering visitors food and drink. But any human who accepts fairy fare will never be able to leave their world again. The food and drink might stand for magical powers or advanced knowledge available in the other realms. Once these are assimilated – understood – it would be impossible to return to the old ways again.
A famous Tor story is the encounter between St. Collen with Gwyn ap Nudd. St. Collen, a devout Christian monk, had heard about the heathen fairies of the Tor, and decided to do something about it. He found the special place on the Tor that locals said was the entrance to Annwn, settled himself down, and put out for an encounter. Before long, Gwyn the mediator answered him in person. He led St. Collen into his court, where the fairies offered their food and drink. The monk refused these offerings, and threw holy water at his hosts. At that, he was instantly back on the grassy slopes of the Tor surface. He wound his way home, satisfied that his actions had banished fairies from the surface of the Tor. Whether this encounter was a literal event or not, it dramatically illustrates how the church was driving the other realms more and more underground.
Although cautious about the fairy world, people did like their fairs. These were festive occasions to gather, exchange news, and trade horses or magical wares. The Tor was naturally one of the major venues. By 1127 the annual Tor Fair was so successful and popular that King Henry I granted a charter for them to continue as long as they were held on the Tor at least two days a year. It was at one of these Tor fairs that the famous Blondin did a tightrope act so good we still have the reports praising it. Today’s psychic fairs are continuing a tradition begun hundreds of years ago, and which, according to history, was originally inspired by the fairies.