The Glastonbury Zodiac
of Katharine Maltwood
copyright Alison Sinclair 2008
This is an academic project for the Sophia Centre, University of Wales, Lampeter in partial completion of an MA in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology
Sacred space is a human construct - Discuss.
This project will discuss sacred space as a human construct focusing on Katharine Maltwood's “Glastonbury Zodiac”. In Glastonbury's complex and contested spiritual landscape,
the bi-directional influences between environments and individuals provide the geographical and
cultural context in which vernacular religious beliefs and praxis occur. Much of the complexity
of social relations in Glastonbury arises from the large number of stories told about it, and the
key to understanding the ongoing interpretations of religion lies in myth. “Myth” is employed as
meaning “significant story”, regardless of issues of truth or proof (Bowman, 2005, p.16).
“In Glastonbury, the interaction of myth, belief story, vernacular religion and
contemporary spirituality provides a constantly evolving means whereby varied groups of
people interact with the past, the landscape and whatever they perceive as their
spiritual goals” (Bowman, 2005, p.17).
The traditions and myths about Glastonbury, together with an archaeological survey,
provide a cultural and historical context for Katharine Maltwood's work. Other influences on
Maltwood from her cultural milieu will also be examined, including the work of H.P. Blavatsky
(1831-1891), theosophist. The way in which Glastonbury Zodiac functions as sacred space in the
present time will be discussed, with reference to Eliade, Durkheim and Bowman. Finally, an
approach to deconstructing sacred space will be discussed with reference to Ayers' Bodmin Moor
Glastonbury is a small market town (population about 9000) that rises up from the
Somerset Levels, an area of drained marshland, in the south west of England. The centre of the
town contains the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, one of the most significant British pilgrimage
destinations of the Middle Ages until its dissolution at the Reformation in 1539. The town is
dominated by the hard-sandstone capped Tor, which has for millennia formed a prominent
landmark, an apparent island in the often flooded lowlands (Gathercole, C., 2003). Many of the
stories and myths about Glastonbury come from early literature (Watkin, 2001). The twelfth
century English historian William of Malmesbury's De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesie (c.1135 )
sought to trace the story of Glastonbury abbey, stating that Arthur, after being wounded by
Mordred in the year 542 and taken to the Isle of Avalon to be healed, died there at about
hundred years of age. Twelfth century cleric and chronicler, Geoffrey of Monmouth in his
Historia Regnum Britanniae (c.1138) also said that Arthur was carried to Avalon to heal, as well
as in the Vita Merlini (c.1150), where Avalon was called the insula pomorum, or Isle of Apples.
Glastonbury Abbey monk, John of Glastonbury (1393-1464) made an interpolation to the Vita
Merlini calling Avalon the Isle of Apples, the New Jerusalem and a holy burial place. Cleric and
chronicler Gerald of Wales (c. 1146 – c. 1223) in De instructione principum identified Avalon with
Glastonbury and adding that it has been called Inisgutrin, or Isle of Glass, as did the Welsh monk
Caradoc of Llancarfan, author of the Life of Gildas and contemporary of Geoffrey of Monmouth.
The Welsh poem, “The Spoils of Annwn” in the Book of Taliesin (probably written before 1050)
describes a voyage of Arthur to Caer Wydr, the Fortress of Glass, representing the Celtic
underworld Annwn, to obtain a magic cauldron. Finally, in the legend of St. Collen, the monk
made a cell on Glastonbury Tor and there heard men referring to Gwyn ap Nudd as the king of
Annwn. The saint then destroyed Gwyn's stronghold. Thus, by the middle of the 11th century,
Glastonbury had become associated with a Celtic otherworld, a magical place of healing, which
was called the Isle of Glass and/or the Isle of Apples.According to William of Malmesbury, in 166 AD, a wattle-church was built there by Christian missionaries.
The life of St. Dunstan written in about the year 1000 stated that “the first neophytes of the Catholic law found... an ancient church, built it is said, by no human skill, but prepared by God for man's salvation...” Furthermore, one of William's interpolators wrote that these were disciples of St Philip headed by Joseph of Arimathea, who received from a pagan king twelve hides1 of land (about 1440 acres).
Archaeological Survey The Somerset Extensive Urban Survey Glastonbury archaeological assessment (Gathercole, C., 2003) states that the Prehistoric trackways and ‘lake settlements’ nearby are the remains of thousands of years of exploitation of a wetland environment. Preserved wood from Prehistoric trackways dates back into the fifth millennium BC. While Glastonbury controlled routes and springs on the peninsula access to the marshland Brue Valley landscape, the context of Glastonbury cannot be wholly explained in such terms, for it can reasonably be regarded as being a site of unique ritual importance in the Prehistoric landscape of Somerset (2003, p.11).
The Survey states that the theory that the terraces on the slopes of the Tor are theremains of a gigantic Neolithic ritual maze cannot be absolutely ruled out, though there is no archaeological evidence which unequivocally supports it. Excavations on the Tor have recovered flints of the Upper Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic periods; and the remains of a settlement in use between the 5th and 7th centuries. Furthermore, Prehistoric and Roman activity at Wearyall Hill was indicated by terracing on the hillside, and possibly a Roman temple. The remains of a Roman Yew stump were found by the Chalice Well, suggesting possible religious associations.
“High status dark age occupation on the Tor, perhaps a chieftain’s stronghold (though perhaps a monastic site), has been confirmed by archaeological excavations” (2003, p.6). This is a place about which tales of the miraculous have been told for over 1000 years, and where the sacred could be encountered in the landscape. Into this rich historical and cultural context, Maltwood introduced the concept of the Glastonbury Zodiac.
The Chalice Well, copyright Alison Sinclair 2006
Katharine Emma Maltwood (1878-1961) was a sculptor, art collector and scholar, as well as a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement (Brown, 2006). She was born in London, and in 1901 married businessman John Maltwood, whose personal fortune enabled her travel, collect art, sculpt and write. In 1938, they left England to settle in British Columbia, Canada. Her early works reflect the influence of, inter alia, Art Nouveau, and her later researches into origins of the Arthurian legends reflected the interests of William Morris (1834-1896, English artist and writer) in folklore and romance literature. Her work on the Glastonbury Zodiac began in the summer of 1929, when she was staying near Glastonbury and illustrating The High History of the Holy Grail (Evans, S. (trans.), 2003).
She suspected that the Grail Quest had occurred in Somerset, and as she looked at maps,
she noticed that configurations of the landscape resembled astrological effigies in a circle ten
miles in diameter with its centre near Butleigh, three miles south of Glastonbury Tor. Maltwood
became convinced that the Grail Quest had been recorded in the form of a huge system of
earthworks. This circle she considered to be the original Round Table.
Merlin. By its name the Round Table is meant to signify the round world and the round
canopy of the planets and the elements in the firmament, where are to be seen the stars
and many other things” (Maltwood, 1982 p.1 from La Queste del Saint Graal).
As an artist, Maltwood was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, who painted a world of
poetic beauty, inspired by nostalgia for a legendary past (Brown, 2006, p. 14); as well as the
growing interest in mysticism and occultism, typified by the magician Eliphas Levi (Brown, 2006,
pp. 29-30). In support of her theories, Maltwood cited Blavatsky's mystical and controversial
magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine, (Maltwood,1982, p. 31):
Westerly direction, by land ... for the purpose of supervising the building of menhirs and
dolmens, of colossal Zodiacs in stone, and places of sepulchre ... ” (Blavatsky, 1888,
Maltwood referred to another similar concept from Blavatsky:
Earth, an inland sea, was consecrated and called “the Abyss of Learning”; twelve centres
on it in the shape of twelve small islands representing the Zodiacal signs — two of which
remained for ages the “mystery signs” and were the abodes of twelve Hierophants and
masters of wisdom” (Blavatsky, 1888, p.502).
Maltwood observed that each island around Glastonbury in this “Abyss of learning” took
the form of a zodiacal figure, also linked to the Twelve Hides, associated with the twelve
disciples of the original monastic community.
According to Maltwood, an ancient stellar religion had been adapted to Christianity and
found expression in the landscape Zodiac and its mythological figures depicting the Grail Quest,
since like the circle of “twelve Giants”, the Round Table had twelve places. Drawing on
Arthurian legends, the Ordnance Survey large scale maps, and aerial photographs, she showed a
unique circular design of Zodiacal and other constellation figures corresponding with their
Maltwood found that the Knights of the Round Table in Somerset quested roughly in a
circle, encountering characters and creatures reflecting the movement of the Sun through the
year. She concluded that the Knights were Christian reincarnations of nature gods or perhaps
were born under particular astrological signs: “We have a dual myth of earth and sky - the star
constellations laid out on earth, and the Knights impersonating the stars above them” (1982,
She claimed that the zodiac figures were outlined by irrigation and earthwork
construction dating from about 2700 B.C. For example, the Tor and the Chalice Well were
encompassed by Aquarius in the form of a Phoenix, holding a vessel of water in its beak (1982,
p.7). She believed that Sumer-Chaldean astronomer and astrologer priests, possibly led by
Nimrod (recorded in the Old Testament as the builder of the Tower of Babel), were responsible
for this structure.
For Maltwood, the area covered by the Glastonbury Zodiac was a multivalent symbol,
suggestive not only of the Round Table as a symbol of the 12 signs of the Zodiac, but also the
Holy Grail itself:
unfailing supply': it had three properties – inexhaustibility, inspiration and regeneration.
We are told by the Welsh bards ...that it was stolen from the 'Divine Land' for it was
Annwn itself. Taliesin... sings in the Spoils of Annwn of the recovery by Arthur of the
magic Cauldron of inspiration and that it was found at Caer Sidi, the zodiac” (Maltwood,
In later discussions about Maltwood's “temple of the stars”, it was claimed that the
Elizabethan alchemist John Dee had described Glastonbury in 1582 as a place where: “the
starres which agree with their reproductions on the ground do lye onlie on the celestial path of
the Sonne, moon and planets...” Opinions vary about the authenticity of this text but the phrase
is most likely a misrepresentation of Maltwood's own work (Mann and Glasson, 2007, p. 2)2.
In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), Durkheim concluded that religious
representations expressed social realities (1912, p.206). Since the perception of space was
shared among members of society, it's social origin could also be implied (1912, p.13). Further,
Durkheim saw totems as linking the clan to the environment and the sacred. In the “dreamtime”
Aboriginal totemic ancestors were believed to have left evidence of their journeys in the
physical landscape. Parallels could be drawn with Maltwood's Zodiac, within which she believed
the knights of the Round Table had quested. They could be viewed as ancestral figures marking
the landscape in a similar way to totemic ancestors. Furthermore, Maltwood's Zodiac
encompasses elements from Glastonbury's diverse traditions, from the Druid wisdom concerning
the Celtic otherworld, Christian elements, and Goddess forms, as well as everyday occurrences
of roads, farms and other contemporary elements of the landscape.
As an example of the sacred within the Zodiac landscape, a closer examination will be made of Wearyall Hill, where according to legend, St. Joseph of Arimathea's staff took root to become the Glastonbury Thorn.
The ceremony of cutting the Holy Thorn in order to send a sprig to the Queen has become a significant event for many members of the community, including members of the town council, as well as alternative groups (Bowman, 2006).
Eliade considered that religious man experienced space as having qualitative
interruptions and breaks. A hierophany, or manifestation of the sacred as something “wholly
other”, revealed a fixed central point, irrupting and detaching a territory from the surrounding
spacial milieu as the central axis for all future hierophany which ontologically founds the world
(1987, p.21). The profane experience, on the contrary, maintained the homogeneity and the
relativity of space.
According to Eliade, the preliterate people of the North American and North Asian Arctics
assimilate a central post to the axis mundi i.e., to the cosmic pillar or the world tree which
connect heaven with earth. “The pole (= axis mundi), the stripped tree trunk whose top emerges
through the upper opening of the yurt (and which symbolizes the cosmic tree) is conceived as a
ladder leading to heaven” (Eliade, 1987, p.53).
Therefore, Joseph of Arimathea drove his staff into the ground and it grew into the Holy
Thorn3, he could be said to have established a new axis mundi, and the time of origin.
According to Maltwood, he planted the “wooden peg that must be stuck in the Calendar – as was
the custom with primitive calendars”. (Maltwood, 1982, p.51) Having thus marked the spot for
the new spring equinox, he established the British Church by settling “twelve disciples” in the
Isle of Avalon. The "flowering staff" is a common folkloric motif, associated both with special
people and the identification of sacred places; in Numbers 17:8, for example, Aaron's staff
flowers and fruits as a symbol of his priestly status, and flowering staffs are commonly
connected with Celtic and West Country saints.
While the planting of the staff established one axis mundi, other symbolic centres have
been identified in the Maltwood Zodiac. For example, some see Glastonbury Tor itself as the
Axis Mundi (Mann, 2001, p.135), while Maltwood believed that a mystical stone lay at the centre
of the Zodiac emanating the Divine Light that the star worshippers sought (Brown, 2006, p.42).
Glastonbury is a significant sacred site for a great range of people being variously
considered the Isle of Avalon, the site of a great Druidic centre of learning, a significant
prehistoric centre of Goddess worship, the "cradle of English Christianity," the "New Jerusalem,"
the epicentre of New Age in England, and the "heart chakra" of planet Earth (Bowman, 2006, p.
However, the Glastonbury landscape should be regarded as contested. From the 1970s
onwards, the local economy underwent great change when the largest employer, Morlands, made
a high percentage of its workforce redundant. Around the same time of this economic and social
turmoil, Glastonbury became firmly part of the alternative scene, with "New Age travellers" and
assorted spiritual seekers feeling drawn there. Meanwhile, “Glastonians” (regular townsfolk)
carried on as normally as they could, but many felt uneasy and sometimes threatened. The
nature of the "alternative" community has changed since then, and relations have become less
strained. Many “Avalonians” have settled in Glastonbury, running businesses and events (such as
the annual Glastonbury Goddess Conference) that contribute significantly to the economic wellbeing
of the town. The town could still be viewed as split to some extent along ideological lines
between the “Avalonians” and the “Glastonians” (Bowman, 2006).
With regard to Maltwood's Zodiac, the archaeological community has not been
enthusiastic. Ian Burrow (1975), Somerset’s Planning Department staff archeologist, stated that
while the outlines of the effigies may be plotted today, their antiquity is illusory. The
particulars of terrain and land use have come into the current form only in the last several
centuries through modern waterways and drainage engineering and other landscape alterations.
Since the Somerset landscape morphology is relatively contemporary, it is erroneous to claim
ancient Celtic or Chaldean origination. Also along these lines, Liz Bellamy and Tom Williamson,
ley line debunkers, (1983) criticized the Zodiac hunters for their makeshift approach to plotting
zodiacal figures. Zodiacs, they contended, were constructed by picking and choosing figures in
order to complete a pattern, which was not preexisting.
According to Tilley, “The key to any phenomenological approach is the manner in which
people understand and experience the world” (1994, p.11). Phenomenology involves the
understanding and description of things as they are experienced by a subject. Being-in-theworld
resides in a process in which people objectify the world by setting themselves apart from
it, resulting in the creation of a gap. To be human is to both create this distance and to attempt
to bridge it through a variety of means – perception, movements, intentionality and awareness
residing in systems of belief, decision making and evaluation. In the study of vernacular
religion, it is also important to consider how people experience the sacred (Bowman, 2007).
Vernacular religion is defined as religion as it is lived: as humans encounter, understand,
interpret and practice it (Primiano, 1995, 44).
Pilgrimage is a phenomenon closely linked to the development of ritual topography.
Pullman (1993, p.27 ) considered that the importance of the pilgrimage journey needed to be
emphasized. It is not simply a visit to a holy place, but the idea of movement is to an even
greater extent the essence and determining factor of pilgrimage. The itinerary was within a
continuum between sacred and profane; sometimes the journey included a more holy and
sometimes a less holy place. Maltwood envisages that walking in the Zodiac could contain
elements of pilgrimage, for example she refers to.
Glastonbury Tor looks down, but can no longer distinguish”(1982, p.3) and “...a devotee
could ride from one constellation effigy to another, in contact with the path of the sun,
without leaving the beaten track, which is now a motor road” (1982, p.15).
The Gatekeeper Trust, an educational charity founded in 1981 'devoted to personal and
planetary healing through pilgrimage', in 1998 held an event in Glastonbury to introduce
participants to “the special energies and celebrations around wells on each of the Zodiacal signs
and their use as spiritual gateways.” More recently it has publicized the Glastonbury Milky Way
Pilgrimage, a 21 mile walk across the Zodiac. The Gatekeeper Trust publicity explained how
walking the earth helps the earth. Like medieval pilgrimage routes, “the Australian Aborigines
still go on their “walk abouts”, walking the “song lines' to enhance the natural energies that
flow through the Earth, as can dance, song and prayer, helping to bring healing and balance to
the environment” (Bowman, 2008, p.273). The Glastonbury Zodiac Companions have held
regular walks to different sites at appropriate points in the astrological year, while some
individuals seek particular areas of the Zodiac according to their star sign (Bowman, 2008,
In Walking the Glastonbury Zodiac, Jonathan Fryer recounted his experiences of working
with the Glastonbury Zodiac.
“One could perhaps visit critical points in one’s birth chart at the turn of major transits
to seek resolution of crisis. If out of balance one could seek an appropriate place
(example - if feeling lethargic take a stimulating walk through the dynamic fire signs...)”
Similarly, in a recent post in an on-line discussion group4 “Avalon/Glastonbury of the
Heart”, a participant wrote about the Glastonbury Zodiac:
be taken with a bit of salt, but there really is no doubt of the Magical existence of it!!
During the 6 years I lived in G'Bury, I had many experiences out in the Zodiac that can't be
put down to mere coincidence. Personally, I don't think proving the physical existence of
it matters so much ... For whatever reason, it has a very deep psychic presence in the
According to Leviton, a new age writer, the use of any authentic landscape zodiac is
geomythic, which means “living the myth in the landscape” through an active,
participative, personal process of re-enacting myth in consciousness. (1992, p.5). He
emphasizes the importance of a reliable methodology for plotting a landscape zodiac, which
includes preparing a reverse planisphere and overlaying it on the Ordnance Survey Map. He
recommends finding the brightest stars in the constellation, not plotting the constellation
figures, which are constructs. “In this initiation, one's natal horoscope is the road map” (1992,
Nicholas Mann, writer and researcher, who has lived in areas relating to four different
signs of the Zodiac, states that for the perceiver: “The quality of each sign begins to permeate
actions. Walking, driving, building and naming places achieves resonance within a far greater
context” (Mann, 2001, pp. 97-98). He considered it to be superfluous to pin the existence of
the terrestrial Zodiac on the work of ancient peoples, as an attempt to achieve a legitimation
based upon antiquity for ideas and actions which need no such legitimation.
It is apparent, therefore, that in spite of a lack of physical archaeological evidence,
some people continue to have meaningful experiences in the context of Maltwood's Zodiac.
According to Leviton, almost two dozen terrestrial zodiacs have been proposed by
independent British researchers since Maltwood (p. 1992, p.4). In a recent example, Nigel
Ayers, artist, investigated the Bodmin Moor Terrestrial Zodiac as a historical and sacred
landscape using archival research and field techniques. He followed the procession of the Zodiac
signs anti-clockwise in a series of ritual walks, as form of spatial detournement. The walks left
mimetic traces, including digital logs, photographs, sound recordings, internet postings and text
(Ayers, 2007, p.5).
Ayers aimed to deconstruct imposed behaviour patterns, moving beyond logic and belief.
Encounters with the sacred, such as seeing a stained glass depiction of Christ sitting with his
disciples around a round table, are juxtaposed, with mundane observations about the way sheep
are standing in a field and random street signs. According to Ayers, the pre-existence of a vast
planispheric diagram imprinted on the landscape goes against commonsense from the viewpoint
of a rational thinker, but he and his collaborators nevertheless believed that they had “accessed
a massively powerful thought-form with a strong etheric existence” (2007, p.5).
It would appear that the strict division of the profane and sacred according to Eliade can
become blurred when chance everyday elements are incorporated into ritual walks. The
Maltwood Zodiac, conceived as earthworks from an ancient Sumerian star cult, now includes
modern roads and farms.
partly from our own preconceptions and partly from our examination of the digital traces we
have encoded. Our perception is also shaped by other walkers, commentators, mythologists,
architects of public space, the people who live on and pass through the Moor.... last but not
least, our walks have inevitably been influenced by our social conditioning...” (Ayers, 2007,
The Somerset Extensive Urban Survey archaeological assessment (Gathercole, C., 2003)
recorded that Glastonbury had been a site of unique ritual importance in the Prehistoric
landscape of Somerset. Early literature associated Glastonbury with the Celtic otherworld, and
later Christianity and the quest for the Holy Grail. More recently, in Glastonbury, the interaction
of myth, belief story, vernacular religion and contemporary spirituality provides various groups
with the possibility of experiencing their respective world views in a contested sacred
As the discoverer of the Glastonbury Zodiac, Maltwood's social milieu influenced her
thinking and perceptions, including art movements such as Art Nouveau and the Pre-
Raphaelites, and a growing interest in occultism and Theosophy. The grail knights reflected in
the terrestrial Zodiac, according to Maltwood, were embodiments of astrological types, similar
to the sacred totemic ancestors of the Australian aboriginals described by Durkheim as
representing social elements. Maltwood's Zodiac also demonstrated elements of the sacred as
described by Eliade, notably the legendary establishment of a new axis mundi on Wearyall Hill
The continued reverence for the Holy Thorn has provided a focal point for both traditional and
new age social groups.
Debunkers may point to a dearth of scientific evidence to support the physical existence
of Maltwoods Zodiac. Ayers, in his Bodmin Moor Zodiac project, intentionally deconstructs the
sacred by moving beyond logic and belief, rendering more explicit the blurring of the concepts
of sacred and profane as experienced in the landscape. However, the Maltwood Zodiac
demonstrates how the interaction between the environment and people provides a geographical
and cultural context in which vernacular religious beliefs and praxis occur. Whether through an
organized pilgrimage or an individual quest, Maltwood's Zodiac is an example of a human
construct that provides a framework through which people can experience a sacred landscape,
integrating archaeological features with perceived astrological lore, Arthurian legends, Christian
traditions, and other beliefs.
1 Originally the hide represented an amount of land sufficient to support a peasant household.
2. Dee’s reference to the Zodiac lies in the story of Dee's biographer Richard Deacon who went to the Warburg Institute where Dee’s papers were kept. Looking through them, Deacon reported finding a map with Dee’s zodiac quote written on the margin. He copied it down but the next time Richard Deacon went to see these documents, the ‘zodiacal map’ could not be located.
3 There are numerous stories of the original tree being attacked by Reformers, Puritans and
Roundheads, and by the seventeenth century the tree was badly mutilated. The Holy Thorn is
propagated either by grafting onto a common hawthorn, or by cuttings (Bowman, 2006).
4 Facebook discussion group on 14 November 2008.
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