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Glastonbury Zodiac

On a brisk English day this past May, I found myself climbing Glastonbury Tor in the presence of none other than Anthony Thorley, an expert, indeed in my opinion perhaps the foremost living authority, on the Glastonbury Zodiac. A retired psychiatrist who for over three decades has been studying landscape traditions, histories, and energies, Thorley is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Wales (Trinity Saint David) focused on landscape zodiacs, such as the Zodiac found at Glastonbury.

I had come to Glastonbury at the invitation of Hugh Newman to speak at the 2013 UK Megalithomania Conference, and I quickly fell in love with the village and became fascinated by the local history, particularly the Glastonbury Zodiac. As we climbed to the top of the tor, Mr. Thorley shared freely and enthusiastically his penetrating insights concerning the landscape zodiac that surrounded us. Later, at the parking lot in the center of Glastonbury near the bed and breakfast where Katie (my wife) and I were staying, I was honored when Thorley inscribed to us a copy of the recently released, large-format, multi-authored anthology titled Signs and Secrets of the Glastonbury Zodiac (edited by Yuri Leitch; Avalonian Aeon Publications, Glastonbury, 2013).

Thorley contributed the opening and closing chapters to this massive tome. Thorley and I had had some deep and profound discussions during the better part of a day we had spent together, as Katie and I had joined a small group Thorley led on a tour of Glastonbury Abbey and Glastonbury Tor. He assured me that I would learn much more from this new publication, and he was right. Yet, like any good book, it only sparked my interest to read and research further! Soon I was in possession of secondhand copies of the original 1930s descriptions of the Glastonbury Zodiac by Katherine Maltwood. I was hooked, but it turns out not for the reasons that initially attracted me to this enigmatic Zodiac that stretches some ten miles in diameter across the landscape.

I have always had a fascination for old things, for deep antiquity, and my initial interest in the Glastonbury Zodiac came from a passage I had read while researching the Elizabethan scientist, mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, geographer, occultist, alchemist, and general polymath Dr. John Dee (1527–1608/9). In his biography of Dee, Richard Deacon (the pseudonym of Donald McCormick, 1911–1998) wrote, “Certainly there is evidence that Dee mapped out some of the zodiacal effigies in this district, though the puzzle is how he found the key or code to locate them as they were purposefully designed to be invisible to all who did not possess the key.” (John Dee: Scientist, Geographer, Astrologer and Secret Agent to Elizabeth I, 1968, p. 174; quoted by Thorley, p. 7, and by Yuri Leitch, p. 195, in Signs and Secrets). Deacon claimed that Dee had drafted a map of the Glastonbury Zodiac, and in his biography Deacon published a direct quotation concerning the Zodiac purportedly transcribed from a Dee manuscript. As we climbed Glastonbury Tor, I asked Thorley about the Dee connection to the Zodiac. He responded quickly and definitively: there is no solid evidence that Dee ever visited or investigated the Zodiac. Indeed, in Dee’s time much of the current landscape that comprises the Zodiac was under water!

This is not to say that Dee never had a connection with Glastonbury and the Abbey there, for he certainly did. Glastonbury was a well-known medieval pilgrimage site and center of esoteric and arcane knowledge (along the same lines, today Glastonbury is a focal point of the New Age movement). Glastonbury is located in Somerset in southwestern England—originally an area predominated by marshlands that were drained, even if again flooded at times and during certain seasons. Glastonbury Tor is a natural hill, although apparently artificially terraced in ancient or medieval times, which rose like an island above the flooded lowlands. This may be why some have identified Glastonbury as the legendary island of Avalon. Was this the site of the Arthurian legends? Here, too, it is said that Joseph of Arimathea came, bringing with him various relics, including the Holy Grail; in addition, Joseph brought the Holy Thorn Tree to Glastonbury.

Perhaps even Jesus himself visited Glastonbury, according to some legends. Joseph (or Jesus) founded the earliest Christian church in the British Isles, which would become Glastonbury Abbey, a thriving community until it was dissolved in 1539 during the Reformation when the last Abbot, Richard Whiting (Whyting), was executed on Glastonbury Tor. The graves of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere reputedly were discovered within the confines of the Abbey. Returning to Dr. Dee and his Glastonbury connections, it was from or near Glastonbury that Dee’s assistant, Edward Kelley, purportedly acquired a rare alchemical text as well as a magical powder. Dee may have traveled to Glastonbury seeking out ancient books and manuscripts that had been abandoned with the closing of the Abbey.

Before he passed away, Richard Deacon had been questioned about the “Dee connection” with the Glastonbury Zodiac, but he was evasive at best. He never produced the original manuscript from which he took the Dee quotation—had the manuscript disappeared? It has been suggested that the “Dee quotation” was actually a fabrication, plagiarized, and turned into pseudo-Elizabethan language, from a 1930s publication by Katherine Maltwood (see below). The general agreement seems to be that Deacon perpetuated a hoax in connecting Dee with the Glastonbury Zodiac. If so, the question is, why? Why did he compromise his scholarship in an otherwise laudable biography? I have read his entire book and the connection of Dee with the Zodiac is simply superfluous.

As it turns out, no definitive evidence has been uncovered thus far to demonstrate that the Glastonbury Zodiac is anything other than an early twentieth century “creation” by its “discoverer” Katherine Maltwood (see the various articles in Signs and Secrets). On learning this, initially I was profoundly disappointed. I, like so many people, wanted the Zodiac to be a relic of the distant past, hoary with antiquity. I was almost ready to dismiss it as totally lacking in any real significance or interest, but as I spoke with Thorley at length about his research, I began to change my mind.

Katherine Emma Maltwood née Sapsworth (1878–1961) was a well-to-do artist (best known for her sculptures), collector, and patron of the arts. She was born in a suburb of London and married the successful businessman John Maltwood. She had a keen interest in various arcane subjects such as theosophy (H. P. Blavatsky mentions the concept of a landscape zodiac in her writings, and this may have influenced Maltwood), Eastern religion and spirituality, ancient cultures, secret knowledge and rituals, and the Arthurian legends. One of the books Maltwood studied closely was The High History of the Holy Graal (translated by Sebastian Evans, originally from a thirteenth-century French manuscript; first published by J. M. Dent and Co., London, 1898). Maltwood became convinced, apparently by circa 1917 (see Thorley in Signs and Secrets), that the Arthurian legends had their setting in the Somerset landscape around Glastonbury. In 1917/1918, John and Katherine Maltwood moved to a small country mansion in Somerset that overlooked some of the landscape zodiac signs Katherine identified. From this vantage point, she continued to study and develop her theory of the local landscape zodiac. In 1935, she published anonymously, in a large-format edition (12 inches by 10 inches), A Guide to Glastonbury’s Temple of the Stars, Its Giant Effigies Described from Air Views Maps and from “The High History of the Holy Graal,” and two years later she published, under the name “K. E. Maltwood,” a large-format supplement, Air View Supplement to A Guide to Glastonbury’s Temple of the Stars, containing reproductions of aerial photographs showing the Zodiac features. In 1950 she published a small-format (8.75 inches by 6.5 inches) revised edition of her Guide.

Maltwood describes her concept of the Glastonbury Zodiac as follows:

“It is now possible to localize the Arthurian Grail legends by means of photographs taken from the air in conjunction with . . . Ordnance Survey maps of the district between Somerton and Glastonbury, because in this neighborhood of the Lake Villages there are prehistoric earthworks and artificial water courses which have at last given up Merlin’s secret.

“Looking down from the air, with the aid of these maps, it can be seen that they delineate enormous effigies resembling Zodiacal creatures arranged in a circle . . ., as we shall find, they differ very little from the constellation figures and the corresponding stars fall within their boundaries. . . It is around these archaic Nature Giants that the Arthurian romance accumulated.” (Maltwood, 1950, p. 1)

“William of Malmesbury’s [an English historian of the twelfth century] expression: ‘A Heavenly Sanctuary on Earth,’ where lies King Arthur, might certainly be taken to mean the constellations laid out on Earth, one of which represents King Arthur, for literally this is true. The pre-Christian Temple there was that of the hills and rivers, adapted in such a way as to resemble the Dome of Heaven inverted on Earth.

“To understand, one has to study the traditional picture of the northern hemisphere…, and visualize it laid out on the earth, like an enormous garden—it is called in the High History the garden of Eden—and there is the setting of the Arthurian drama, the ‘System of the Round Table.’ ” (Maltwood, 1950, p. 4)

“To realize at all the magnitude of the prehistoric ‘Round Table of the Grail,’ one is obliged to think in miles instead of inches, in thousands of years instead of hundreds; for the Temple is ten miles in diameter, it is about 5,000 years old, and this counterpart of the heavens, corresponds with the constellation figures recognized by astronomers today.” (Maltwood, 1950, p. 5)

“No doubt our star-gazing ancestors thought by sympathetic magic to realise Heaven on Earth, when they fashioned, what Homer in the Eleventh Book of the Odyssey might have described as a ‘wondrous zone’ . . . ‘where woodland monsters grin’ . . . ‘inimitably wrought with skill divine.” (Maltwood, 1950, p. 5)

Honestly, studying Maltwood’s maps and photographs, I have yet to be firmly convinced of the reality of her landscape zodiac. The various signs and constellations, as expressed in the landscape, range from a little over a mile to about five miles long. Not all of them correspond to the “standard” images of the zodiac, and they seem to be composed of a miscellaneous concatenation of ancient landscape features (hills and river courses), medieval constructions, and modern roads and other developments combined with a good dose of imagination, or might we say the insight of an artistic eye? A bird, said to be a phoenix or eagle, with outspread wings a mile and a half across outlined by hills and fields represents Aquarius; Glastonbury Tor is located on the bird’s head. It all seemed to me, at first glance, merely psychological projection onto a chaotic maze, like seeing images in the clouds, or simulacra on the scale of an entire landscape.

Whether the Zodiac “objectively” exists in the landscape is, at some levels, perhaps rather beside the point. The case can be made that is does “exist” because people can feel it; people are influenced by it, even unknowingly. As I discussed these notions with Anthony Thorley (and read further about them in his contributions to Signs and Secrets), I gained a different perspective on, and appreciation of, the Glastonbury Zodiac. Each sign of the Zodiac, along with a thirteenth effigy commonly known as the Girt (Great) Dog of Langport (five miles long) located outside of the Zodiac circle, and seemingly guarding the other signs, when explored on the ground appears to embody key elements related to that constellation or sign, such as place names, local legends, and the experiences of those visiting, living, or working there. Thus in the case of the Girt Dog, the fields do indeed appear to outline the head of a canine, and the landscape fills in the body. Earlake is near the ear; Head Drove is near the head; Heals by the feet; Wagg, a long road forming the tail—these are just a few of the examples mentioned by Thorley (see Signs and Secrets).

To explain these, Thorley has developed the

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