|Glastonbury Tor and some of the surrounding land used to be pretty much an island. You can get a glimpse of this sometimes when the Somerset Levels are sodden and the water reflects the sky. In 'Celtic' thought there was the idea of an Otherworld island. King Arthur was buried in Avalon when he died, but you don't have to see the Underworld as being inhabited by the 'dead'. Gwyn ap Nudd was the king of the underworld, Annwn. Later he was seen more as a fairy figure. One of the legends associated with the tor combines his non-christian and fairy characteristics:
St Collen had come to live as a hermit on the Tor. Glastonbury of course had been long associated with Christianity - Joseph of Arimathea was supposed to have visited and planted his staff, which blossomed into a thorn tree.
He overheard two men talking about Gwyn ap Nudd and told them off for talking such un-Christian nonsense. They warned him that Gwyn would not look kindly upon such an attitude, but Collen dismissed their remarks. A few days later a messenger appeared in Collen's cell with an invitation to Gwyn's court. Collen declined the offer. The messenger came back every day but each day was turned away. Eventually he lost patience with the saint, threatening that 'it would be the worse for him if he did not go.' Perhaps tired of being pestered, Collen at last agreed.
They entered a secret door in the side of the hill and Collen was led along tunnels, finally emerging into the grand throne room, which was filled with courtiers. Gwyn welcomed him warmly and invited him to eat at the feast that had been prepared in his honour. 'If this does not please you there is plenty more of all sorts.'
However, Collen wasn't blinded by fairy 'glamour' and could see perfectly well what was on the table. He replied 'I do not eat the leaves of a tree.' A shudder of horror rippled through the court. Collen clearly didn't care about the dangers of being rude to fairies. Next he laid into the dress-sense of the king's pages: their clothes were 'scarlet for the ever-living flames' and 'blue for the eternal ice of Hell'. Collen didn't believe in fairies - to him they were the demons of the Christian religion's Hell.
To top off his rude behaviour he whisked out a bottle of holy water he'd had stashed under his cloak and sprinkled it liberally in every direction. The palace disappeared and Collen found himself in the pale light of dawn on the summit of the Tor. To him this proved the point that they were demons - but maybe they were just fed up of their discourteous guest and ejected him.
(details from various sources, for example 'Culhwch ac Olwen' - see Lady Guest's Mabinogion notes here at 'sacred texts'..)
Of course it's possible that the story has nothing to do with Glastonbury at all - St Collen and the story is comprehensively discussed in Bord's 2004 'Fairy Sites' book. The saint is far more associated with Llangollen. Perhaps early writers equated Annwn (Annwfn) the Celtic otherworld, with Avallon, and thus Glastonbury.
Posted by Rhiannon
8th April 2004ce
Edited 26th January 2005ce