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The Glastonbury Zodiac - Part 1: Arthurian Mythology

"So now the Holy Thing is here again
Among us, brother, fast thou too and pray ...
That so perchance the vision may be seen
By thee and those, and all the world be healed."

Katharine Maltwood's professed unveiling of a giant prehistoric zodiac in the region of Glastonbury in Somerset was the result of her intensive study of medieval Arthurian romances. Having moved to Chilton Priory, some eight miles from Glastonbury, she had become fascinated by the history and legends associated with the local area. Celtic Druids were apparently among the early inhabitants of these sea moors of Somerset. In mythology it won renown as the ancient Isle of Avalon and the Camelot of Arthurian romances and still later became a great Christian pilgrimage centre with Glastonbury Abbey as the first church of Britain. Thus Glastonbury has always been a major sacred focal point and no other area of the British Isles has generated quite the same mystical charisma. The mythic landscape and legendary atmosphere of spirituality and physical sanctity have lead many to believe it represents a cosmological world-centre where there was once a fusion of cosmic and terrestial forces, a long-lost paradise on earth awaiting restoration.

As mentioned, an interest in Arthurian myths was common among artists of the Arts and Crafts movement and thus Katharine Maltwood's researches were in many ways an extension of her artistic ambitions. Neglected by writers for four hundred years, the legends of King Arthur flooded back into literary popularity in the nineteenth century, to inspire among others, Tennyson, Arnold, Morris and Swinburne. It was their symbolic potentialities that brought them back. Writers and artists began turning to subjects concerned with the inner life of man, to the dreams, aspirations, fears and visions of the human soul."49 They believed the symbols of the human situation to be found in folklore and ancient myth offered some fundamental truths or lessons relevant to nineteenth-century society. The Arthurian legends held particular appeal since they had grown to be Christian legends with a moral content which fulfilled the romantic Victorian concern for sin and atonement and the search for salvation. In addition the stories of King Arthur had advantage over classical myths in that they were more mysterious, providing symbols closer to the secrets of the soul that artists wished to convey. In the same way Katharine Maltwood was seeking a surer awareness of hidden realities in her study of Arthurian myths believing they expressed the collective unconscious, the race memory, which would act as a redemptive force in modern life.

She was interested above all, in the legends of the Holy Grail and their connection with the visit of Joseph of Arimethea to Glastonbury. The Christian Grail story identifies the Grail as the cup of the last supper in which it was claimed Christ's blood was collected at the cross and brought to Glastonbury by Joseph of Arimethea. After the cup was buried by Joseph in Chalice Hill, near Glastonbury, the legend continues to tell how Christ's blood spring, Chalice Well, healed people of their ills and brought an undiminished supply of food and plenty. Later the growth of evil in the land caused it to disappear and thus the Christian King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table set out on their quest of the Holy Grail. King Arthur's court and kingdom are also considered to have been in the vicinity of Glastonbury and it is claimed the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere were discovered there by monks in 1191. The story of the search for the Grail was particularly significant to many late nineteenth century artists including Burne-Jones and Rossetti since it symbolized a search for the self fulfillment of the soul. The Grail became the receptacle for the spiritual quest leading to a consciousness of the unity of existence and a recognition of the individual's place within the harmonies of natural cycles.

There are numerous versions of the Grail story existing in various languages. Katharine Maltwood referred to many of them in the course of her researches including Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal, the Welsh Mabinogian, the Didot-Perceval, and Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval. In addition she consulted Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur and Tennyson's nineteenth century interpretation, Idylls of the King. Many theories have been developed about the origin of the Grail legend and in particular she studied the ritual or vegetation theory which traced the origin to ancient prehistoric nature rites and also the Celtic theory where the Grail was considered a mystic cauldron of plenty.



All content on this page is copyright © 30 January, 2006
Rosemary Brown, the Maltwood Art Museum and Gallery, and the University of Victoria

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