And did those feet...?
difficult to know where to start on Glastonbury's myths and legends - there are so many. But one story, with its various extensions and frills, stands out amongst the rest. It concerns Joseph of Arimethea, the Holy Grail, the introduction of Christianity to Britain, and the fight to preserve it against paganism.
Joseph appears in our modern bibles but once - as the benefactor who paid for Jesus' tomb. But tradition gives him much greater depth (these traditions are not just local to Glastonbury - separate traditions in Cornwall, in Syria and in Galatia strengthen their provenance). The tradition has Joseph as uncle to Mary, mother of Jesus. He was a Roman citizen - a "decurion". This was a rank most commonly held by traders - particularly metal merchants.
The bible contains a curious gap concerning the life of the young Jesus. We see him at the age of twelve, astonishing the elders with his knowledge and wisdom. Then the story leaps forward 18 years to the beginning of his ministry. What happened in between?
Tradition states that during this time, Joseph of Arimethea took the lad into his business, to show him the world. The world of a metal merchant of that time would inevitably include Britain. Although not yet part of the Roman Empire, it was already one of the most important sources for lead & tin - with some silver and iron to be found as well.
If this much is true, Joseph would have brought the lad to the Mendips and to Glastonbury. This last site would already have been a holy site of some kind, perhaps of Druidism, perhaps of some unknown religion.
There is no tradition that Jesus did anything special while he was here, although some versions of the tale say that he returned for a second visit, without Joseph, at a later date (but before beginning his ministry).
After the crucifixion, and Joseph's involvement in the mystery of the open tomb, it is said that Joseph fled Palestine, to evade the threat now gathering over those associated with Jesus. Some say he took his niece, Mary, with him. In all versions of the tale, he carried with him the Holy Grail - generally supposed to be the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper, although some suggest that it was a vial of Jesus' blood. It would have made sense to go somewhere he knew, but somewhere outside the (then) Empire. Britain (and Glastonbury) fits the bill.
When Joseph landed on the island of Avalon (at the time, Glastonbury would risen above flood waters for most of the year), he set foot on Wearyall Hill - just below the Tor. Exhausted, he thrust his staff into the ground, and rested. By the morning, his staff had taken root - leaving a strange oriental thorn-bush on Wearyall. (Today, a scion of this tree - the "Holy Thorn" - remains, as well as another in the grounds of St.John's church in the middle of town.)
Thereafter, Joseph established a Christian church in Glastonbury, dedicated to Our Lady (his niece). If so, this (the "the Wattle Church") would have been the earliest Christian church, anywhere in Christendom.
As for the Grail, its fate was a mystery - hence the Quest for the Grail. This Quest is central to the fuller tradition of Arthurian legends; Arthur's knight rode off in pursuit of this unknowable object. If they found it, they would transcend their base natures and get a better knight's sleep, or something.
At any rate, there is a Chalice Well in Glastonbury, running with red-tinged water, to which has been credited many miracles, mostly small, personal ones.
What are we to make of all this?