It’s interesting that Danny Boyle has chosen to put Glastonbury Tor at the centre of his Olympic opening ceremony, in his vision of a mythical countryside that will somehow capture the essence of ‘who we are’ as British people.
You can read this in many ways – and I’m sure all will become clear when the ceremony unfolds. On the one hand, Christians should be delighted that a place full of such Christian significance – both in myth and in history - takes centre stage at the Olympics. Glastonbury is where, so the legend goes, Jesus once walked with Joseph of Arimathea. The tree that grew from Joseph’s staff and became the holy thorn is a central part of the Olympic set – linking Jesus’s own supposed international travels with those of the Olympians. And Glastonbury Tor itself has been a Christian shrine for centuries – an outpost of the local abbey, that then became a place of Catholic martyrdom and witness when Richard Whiting, the Abbot, was hanged there for refusing to follow King Henry’s religious reform.
On the other hand, Glastonbury is at the heart of the mythology of pagan Britain, and has become a centre of New Age spirituality and the occult. And surely it is no accident that St Michael’s tower, which dominates the Tor, is completely absent from the models presented to the public by Boyle recently. So I don’t think this will be a nuance-free celebration of the Christian roots of British history and culture.
Paul Kelso writes about Boyle’s presentation:
Revealing details of the opening scenes of a ceremony that will be watched by more than 500 million people, director Danny Boyle said he was creating a vision of the “mythic” British countryside that he hoped would capture the essence of “who we are”.
The main stadium will be transformed into a meadow, with landscaped real grass laid over the infield and a game of cricket unfolding in one corner. The theatrical maxim of not working with children or animals will be thoroughly ignored, as 12 horses, three cows, two goats, 10 chickens, 10 ducks, nine geese, 70 sheep and three sheep dogs feature in the opening scene.
At one end of the stadium work is already under way on a replica of Glastonbury Tor, with an oak tree on top instead of the chapel that stands on the real thing.
In front of the Tor will be a mosh-pit, decorated with the recognisable Glastonbury flags, where up to 100 members of the public will be allowed to stand.
At the other end of the stadium, beneath a giant bell, will be the posh-pit, which will also include members of the public, and reflect, Boyle said, the spirit of promenaders. In between will stand four maypoles, each styled as the national flower of the home nations, a rose, a thistle, a daffodil and flax. Overhead on the model unveiled on Tuesday were model clouds, one of which Boyle said would deliver rain “just in case it doesn’t rain anyway”.
The National Trust, which runs the Tor, explains it’s Christian significance:
For centuries, Glastonbury Tor has been one of the most spiritual places in the world. For many Christians, the Tor was a very important place of pilgrimage.
People have always flocked here to soak up the history surrounding this special site.
Joseph of Arimathea
Some believe that Jesus visited his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, who came to the Mendips to trade in lead and silver.
The story goes that when Joseph was walking on Wearyall Hill and planted his staff into the ground, it took root. It grew into the holy thorn, which is still there today. This was a sign to him to build a church on this site.
The church was made from wattle and daub, and was the first church in England. It’s now known as Glastonbury Abbey. The thorn blooms at Christmas and at Easter time.
The Holy Grail
Legend has it Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail with him after the crucifixion. He hid it in the cavern underneath Glastonbury Tor, which caused two springs to form.
You can fill up bottles of water from this spring today at Chalice Well Lane.
It’s said that Joseph of Arimathea brought his sister, Anne, to Israel, where she gave birth to Mary.
Jesus wanted to see the birthplace of his grandmother, so he came to Britain with Joseph of Arimathea.
It’s also said he came to Glastonbury and walked among ‘England’s green and pleasant lands.’
St Patrick visits the Tor
St Patrick is also said to have spent some time at the Tor, as a hermit before he moved on to Ireland.
The Tor quakes
There’s evidence that monks were living on the Tor as far back as the 9th century.
We believe the monks came from the local abbey, to be in solitary reflection at the Tor.
At this point, the church would have been wooden. A stone church was built in the 12th century.
After an earthquake in 1275, the church fell down. In its place a much smaller and sturdier building was put up.
St Michael’s Tower was added later and still remains one of Somerset’s most iconic symbols.
Dissolution and danger
Pilgrimages to the Tor continued, but became more difficult due to the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII.
The abbot of the abbey, Richard Whiting, refused to swear his allegiance to Henry. As a consequence, he was hanged from Glastonbury Tor.
His body was then quartered and sent to Wells, Bath, Bridgwater and Illchester. After this, the church fell into disrepair. Its stone was removed, and only the tower remains today.
And if you want to read Simon Jenkin’s guess at where this is all really going, click here.
What was going on? I am reliably informed that this is all a highly crafted – and risky – bit of spin. Two weeks ago Boyle gave a totally different interview about the ceremony, splashed by the Hollywood Reporter. It made no mention of sheep and meadows but said Boyle was “partly inspired by Frankenstein”, about whom he directed a play at the National Theatre last year. The ceremony would be “more like a cauldron, with all the people hovering over and around you.” This implies that something terrible is going to happen to the sheep – and explains the last-minute dropping of pigs as allegedly vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder.
The countryside set was a feint, inducing critics into taking it at face value and “the show”, thus to make the eventual spectacle more shocking. This explains otherwise inexplicable references to The Tempest, William Blake and Frankenstein, which are guiding the subsequent “acts” of Boyle’s show. The second act is a total contrast, the dark side of Blake’s vision, a tableau of storm clouds and satanic mills, of industrial Britain as a place of noise and filth, suffragettes and striking miners.
This is to be followed by a pastiche of cool Britannia. James Bond helicopters zoom up and down the Thames while 900 nurses dance in glorification of the NHS and hi-tech “best of British” products. It sounds like loyal workers dancing in honour of a North Korean “dear leader”. We are told that 10,000 people have needed 157 rehearsals to get the scenes right, and threatened with dismissal if they reveal what they are doing to outsiders or to other parts of the show. The set for prancing nurses at Dagenham is guarded like Guantánamo Bay.
The contents list for all might be a script for the BBC satire, 2012. It is a politically correct miasma of Shakespeare and Frankenstein, Trainspotting and Slumdog, humour and irony, ploughmen and miners, all summoned by a gigantic bell, strangely in honour of Caliban. It is as if Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal and Jamie Oliver were asked to cook the same casserole in the same kitchen. The music is by Underworld, who wrote for Boyle’s Trainspotting and Frankenstein. Paul McCartney will rasp the closing number. This could hardly be further from Tuesday’s vision of Delius and Vaughan Williams. In other words, the countryside was an ironic hors d’oeuvre, to be exploded and splattered over the face the Olympics.