Surely many viewers of the Opening Ceremonies of the London Olympics were baffled by the stubby, terraced, tree-crowned hill in the center of the Olympic Stadium. We're used to seeing mountains play a huge role at the Winter Games, but at the Summer Games? To me, though, as a sacred landscape geek, it was instantly -- and thrillingly -- recognizable as Glastonbury Tor, a hill in Somerset that almost perfectly represents everything about the "Isles of Wonder" that the Opening Ceremonies tried to convey.
Why not set the Opening Ceremonies at Stonehenge instead? While that ring of standing stones is widely known as a site symbolic of Britain's ancient past, Glastonbury Tor captures far more layers of both the historic and mythic narratives. In very ancient times, it was an island rising above the low, flat, flooded Somerset Levels. Pathways were constructed more than 5,800 years ago to cross the wetlands. Legend holds that in pre-Christian Britain, Glastonbury was a major center of Druid learning, and some see in its terraces the shape of an ancient labyrinth. Those who study such things consider Glastonbury to be at the center of a cosmic energy vortex.
Today, a ruined church tower sits atop Glastonbury Tor, but in the Opening Ceremonies, it was crowned with a tree, perhaps a nod to another famous Glastonbury landmark -- a hawthorn tree said to have sprung from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea, as he leaned against it to rest from his journey. (I am fortunate to be able to visit a tree grown from a cutting from the Glastonbury Thorn on the grounds of Washington National Cathedral. ) Variations of the Joseph story say that not only did he come to England in 37 C.E., but that he also brought the boy Jesus with him on an earlier trip and that the lad had the opportunity to learn from Druid wisdom. Hence William Blake's words to Jerusalem, which was sung as the Opening Ceremonies began:
And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land
Glastonbury is identified in Arthurian legend with Avalon, where the sword Excalibur was forged and where King Arthur was taken to recover from the wounds inflicted by Mordred. Connecting Joseph and Arthur is the story that it was Joseph of Arimathea who brought to England a cup that Jesus used for wine at the Last Supper and that caught his blood at the Crucifixion -- this being the Holy Grail that was the object of quests by the Knights of the Round Table.
In the Opening Ceremonies, the initial pastoral scene gave way to columns of workers pouring from the top of the Glastonbury Tor, ripping up the green land, and replacing it with factories. Yet today, the Tor has outlasted the ebb and flow of industry and commerce. It still stands above the landscape, a fitting symbol for Britain's many-layered, wondrous past. And it was on a replica of this modest hill that the flag bearers of many nations planted their emblems so that the Bow of Burning Gold, the Arrows of Desire, the Spear, the Sword, and the Chariot of Fire could once again be invoked in service to that which is Citius, Altius, Fortius -- Faster, Higher, Stronger -- not just athletic achievement, but the capabilities of the human spirit that reach beyond our everyday knowing.