And did those feet in ancient times

Glastonbury Tor

Glastonbury Tor

There can be few Englishmen who do not know the hymn “Jerusalem” written by William Blake be they devout Christians or atheists. So popular and well known has the hymn become, it is almost like a second national anthem.

Stirring as the hymn is, sometimes the origin of the words are overlooked. One might easily initially believe from the title the hymn refers to the biblical Middle East but the words are actually entwined with the myth and legend of Somerset, England and in particular with Glastonbury. For centuries Glastonbury  has been steeped in myth. It has at times been linked to the legendary Island of Avalon of Arthurian myth and is a name the area still goes by today. There can be little doubt that in the past before the surrounding marshland of the Somerset Levels was drained, Glastonbury with its mighty abbey and distinctive towering tor would have seemed like a mystical island thrusting upwards from the surrounding watery landscape.

The Bible tells about the life of Jesus as a baby and a child and is then silent on what would have been his teen years only picking up the story again of his much later life. This apparent absence of detail of his teenage years has led to many unproven theories including the possibility he may have travelled abroad during this time. One such theory is that he may have travelled to England and in particular Glastonbury in Somerset. A story that developed during the Middle Ages was Joseph of Arimathea  who may have possible been an uncle or a councillor to Jesus, also during this time had connections with Glastonbury and that Jesus possibly accompanied him on his travels there. The myth developed further after the crucifixion to say that Joseph of Arimathea  travelled once again to Glastonbury carrying the Holy Grail which he buried on Glastonbury Tor. Although the is no real evidence to support such a theory there is a well at the foot of Glastonbury Tor which has been named the “Chalice Well”. The opening line of the hymn Jerusalem, “And did those feet in ancient time. Walk upon England’s mountains green.”, alludes to this legend.

Joseph of Arimathea  is also attributed in the legend of donating his tomb to Jesus’s body following the crucifixion and returning to England where he planted his staff in the ground at Glastonbury which miraculously took root and flowered into the tree known as the Holy Thorn. Off-shoots of a tree by that name certainly exist there and a sprig of the tree is sent to Buckingham Palace every Christmas to adorn the monarch’s dinner table.

Another phrase of the hymn Jerusalem refers to the “Dark Satanic Mills” and this is thought to refer to the author William Blake’s experiences of the early Industrial Revolution with it’s newly created dreadful working and housing conditions.

Are any of these stories true? There is no known evidence to support them but by the same token, there is also no known evidence to disprove them.

Whatever the truth, the unwritten tales of Jesus’s teenage years entwined with the Arthurian legend certainly attracts those in search of the spiritual and mystical plane to Glastonbury every year.

So the next time you either hear or sing the hymn Jerusalem, perhaps you will cast a thought at the unproven myth behind the words.

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