Avalon (probably from the Celtic word "abal": apple; see Etymology below) is a legendary island featured in the
Arthurian legend, famous for its beautiful apples. It first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 1136 pseudohistorical account " Historia Regum Britanniae" ("The History of the Kings of Britain") as the place where King Arthuris taken to recover from his wounds after his last battle at Camlann, and where his sword Caliburn (Excalibur) was forged. The concept of such an "Isle of the Blessed" has parallels in other Indo-European mythology, in particular the Irish Tír na nÓgand the Greek Hesperides, the latter also noted for its apples.
Geoffrey of Monmouthcalled it in Latin Insula Avallonis in the Historia. In the later Vita Merlinihe called it Insula Pomorum the "isle of apples".
In Arthurian legend
In Geoffrey of Monmouth
According to Geoffrey in the Historia and much subsequent literature which he inspired, Avalon is the place where King Arthur was taken after fighting
Mordredat the Battle of Camlannto recover from his wounds. Welsh, Cornishand Breton tradition claimed that Arthur had never really died, but would inexorably return to lead his people against their enemies as disscussed in King Arthur's messianic return. The "Historia" also states it is where his sword Caliburn (Excalibur) was forged. Geoffrey dealt with Avalon in more detail again in his " Vita Merlini", in which he describes for the first time in Arthurian legend the enchantress Morgan le Fayas the chief of nine sisters who live on Avalon. Geoffrey's description of the island indicates a sea voyage was needed to get there. His description shows the magical nature of island:
The island of apples which men call “The Fortunate Isle” gets its name from the fact that it produces all things of itself; the fields there have no need of the ploughs of the farmers and all cultivation is lacking except what nature provides. Of its own accord it produces grain and grapes, and apple trees grow in its woods from the close-clipped grass. The ground of its own accord produces everything instead of merely grass, and people live there a hundred years or more. There nine sisters rule by a pleasing set of laws those who come to them from our country. [ [http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/vm/index.htm The Vita Merlini] ]
This description indicates Geoffrey's Avalon was based on the Classical myth of the
Fortunate Islesas well as the longstanding Celtic legend of the Otherworldor "Isle of the Blessed" where the dead especially heroes might be found such as the Irish Tír na nÓg. A significant parallel in Irish tradition is to Manannán mac Lirwho is connected with Emhain Abhlach, the Isle of Apple Trees, where the magical silver apple branch is found. There also may be a connection to the mysterious Afallacha person mentioned in Welsh genealogies, certainly later Welsh writers connected him to Avalon. It is highly significant that Geoffrey who usually gives the current name for any location he deals with does not do this in the case of Avalon indicating that it was unknown and thus probably mythical. Given the way Geoffrey's account fits in with Celtic legend and Geoffrey's use of other folk traditions concerning Arthur it seems likely that in mentioning Avalon Geoffrey was recounting a genuine tradition dealing with Arthur's expected return, though Geoffrey may very well have elaborated on the details.Avalon in Norris J. Lacy, Editor, The Arthurian Encyclopedia (1986 Peter Bedrick Books, New York).] "Glastonbury: Alternative Histories", in Ronald Hutton, Witches, Druids and King Arthur]
The Legend develops: Connection to Glastonbury
Around 1190 Avalon became associated with
Glastonbury, when monks at Glastonbury Abbeyclaimed to have discovered the bones of Arthur and his queen. It is in the work of Giraldus Cambrensiswe find this connection made for the first time and it clearly draws on Geoffrey:
What is now known as Glastonbury used, in ancient times, to he called the Isle of Avalon. It is virtually an island, for it is completely surrounded by marshlands. In Welsh it is called 'Ynys Avallon', which means the Island of Apples and this fruit used to grow there in great abundance. After the Battle of Camlann, a noblewoman called Morgan, who was the ruler and patroness of these parts as well as being a close blood-relation of King Arthur, carried him off to the island, now known as Glastonbury, so that his wounds could be cared for. Years ago the district had also been called 'Ynys Gutrin' in Welsh, that is the Island of Glass, and from these words the invading Saxons later coined the place-name 'Glastingebury.' [ [http://www.britannia.com/history/docs/debarri.html Gerald of Wales, "Liber de Principis instructione" c.1193 Two Accounts of the Exhumation of Arthur's Body] ]
Though no longer an island in the twelfth century, the high conical bulk of
Glastonbury Torhad been surrounded by marsh before the surrounding fenland in the Somerset Levelswas drained. As Gerald says Glastonbury's earliest name in Welsh was "Ineswitrin" (or Ynys Witrin), the Isle of glass, a name noted by earlier historians which shows that the location was at one point seen as an island. The discovery of the burial is described by chroniclers, notably Giraldus Cambrensis, as being just after King Henry II's reign when the new abbot of Glastonbury, Henry de Sully, commissioned a search of the abbey grounds. At a depth of 5 m (16 feet) the monks discovered a massive treetrunk coffinand a leaden cross bearing an inscription : "Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arthurus in insula Avalonia." ("Here lies renowned King Arthur in the island of Avalon"). Accounts of the exact inscription vary, with five different versions existing the earliest is by Gerald in "Liber de Principis instructione" c.1193, and he says he saw the cross, and it read: "Here lies buried the famous King Arthur with Guinevere his second wife in the isle of Avalon". Inside the coffin were two bodies, who Giraldus refers to as Arthur and "his queen" the bones of the male body were described as being gigantic. The account of the burial by the chronicle of Margam Abbeysays three bodies were found the other being of Mordred. Fact|date=October 2008 In 1278 the remains were reburied with great ceremony, attended by King Edward I and his queen, before the High Altar at Glastonbury Abbey, where they were the focus of pilgrimages until the Reformation.
The Glastonbury burial, is tainted with the suggestion of forgery as an example of
Pseudoarchaeology. Historians today generally dismiss the authenticity of the find, attributing it to a publicity stunt performed to raise funds to repair the Abbey, which was mostly burned down in 1184. [ Modern scholarship views the Glastonbury cross as the result of a probably late 12th-century fraud. See Harvnb|Rahtz|1993 and Harvnb|Carey|1999.] Long before this William of Malmesbury, a historian interested in Arthur, said in his history of England "But Arthur’s grave is nowhere seen, whence antiquity of fables still claims that he will return." [O. J. Padel, "The Nature of Arthur" in "Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies" 27 (1994), pp.1-31 at p.10] As William wrote a comprehensive history of Glastonbury "De antiquitae Glatoniensis ecclesie" around 1130 which discussed many pious legends connected to the Abbey, but made no mention of either Arthur's grave or a connection of Glastonbury to the name Avalon, stating firmly it was previously known as "Ineswitrin", this raises further suspicions concerning the burial. It is known for certain the monks later added forged passages to William's history discussing Arthurian connections. [Glastonbury in Norris J. Lacy, Editor, The Arthurian Encyclopedia (1986 Peter Bedrick Books, New York).] The fact the search for the body is connected to Henry II and Edward I both Kings who fought major Welsh wars means scholars also believe that propaganda too may have played a part. [Harvnb|Rahtz|1993] Gerald, a constant supporter of royal authority, in his account of the discovery clearly aims to destroy the idea of the possibility of King's Arthur's messianic return: "Many tales are told and many legends have been invented about King Arthur and his mysterious ending. In their stupidity the British [i.e Welsh, Cornish and Bretons] people maintain that he is still alive. Now that the truth is known, I have taken the trouble to add a few more details in this present chapter. The fairy-tales have been snuffed out, and the true and indubitable facts are made known, so that what really happened must be made crystal clear to all and separated from the myths which have accumulated on the subject." [ [http://www.britannia.com/history/docs/debarri.html Gerald of Wales - Two Accounts of the Exhumation of Arthur's Body] ]
The discovery burial ensured that in later romances, histories based on them and in the popular imagination Glastonbury became increasingly identified with Avalon an identification that continues strongly today. The later development of the legends of the
Holy Grailand Joseph of Arimatheaby Robert de Boroninterconnected these legends with Glastonburyand with Avalon an identification which also seems to be made in Perlesvaus. The popularity of Arthurian Romance has meant this area of the Somerset Levels has today become popularly described as The Vale Of Avalon. [ [http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/1990/jun/25/glastonbury2003.glastonbury "The Guardian" - Treadmill in the Vale of Avalon 1990] ] In more recent times writers such as Dion Fortune, John Michell (writer), Nicholas Mannand Geoffrey Ashehave formed theories based on perceived connections between Glastonbury and Celtic legends of the otherworld and Annwnin attempt to link the location firmly with Avalon drawing on the various legends based on Glastonbury Toras well as drawing on ideas like Earth mysteries, Ley linesand even the myth of Atlantis. Arthurian literature also continues to use Glastonbury as an important location as in The Mists of Avalonand A Glastonbury Romance. Even the fact Somersethas many apple orchards has been drawn in to support the connection. Glastonbury's connection to Avalon continues to make it a site of tourism and the area has great religious significance for Neopagans Neo-druids and as a New Age community as well as Christians. Hippy identification of Glastonbury with Avalon seen in the work of Michell and in Gandalf's Gardenalso helped inspire the Glastonbury Festival.
Other Locations for Avalon
In medieval times suggestions for the location of Avalon ranged far beyond Glastonbury. They included on the other side of the Earth at the
antipodes, Sicilyand other unnamed locations in the Mediterranean. In more recent times just like in the quest for Arthur's mythical capital Camelota large number of locations have been put forward as being the real 'Avalon'.
These theories include l'Île d'Aval or Daval, on the coast of
Brittany, and Burgh by Sands, in Cumberland, which was in Roman times the fort of Aballavaon Hadrian's Wall, and near Camboglanna, upwards on the Eden, now Castlesteads. Coincidentally, the last battle site of Arthur's campaigns is said to have been named Camlann. Other candidates include the Bourgognetown of Avallon, suggested by Geoffrey Ashe, as part of his theory connecting the Romano-British king, Riothamus, to King Arthur, and Bardsey Islandin Gwynedd, famous for its apples and also connected with Merlin. Others have claimed the most likely location to be St Michael's Mountin Cornwall, which is near to other locations associated with the Arthurian legends. St Michael's Mount is an island which can be reached by a causeway at low tide. The matter is confused somewhat by similar legends and place names in Britanny.
Avalon also plays a role in non-Arthurian French literature, such as the stories of
Holger Danske, who was taken there by Morgan le Fayin a medieval romance, and in the story of Melusine.
*citation|last=Rahtz |first= Philip |title=English Heritage Book of Glastonbury |place=London |publisher= Batsford |year= 1993 |isbn=978-0713468656.
*citation| last= Carey |first= John |chapter= The Finding of Arthur’s Grave: A Story from Clonmacnoise? |editor1-first= John |editor1-last= Carey |editor2-first= John T. |editor2-last= Koch |editor3-last= Lambert |editor3-first= Pierre-Yves |title= Ildánach Ildírech. A Festschrift for Proinsias Mac Cana |place= Andover |publisher= Celtic Studies Publications |year= 1999 |pages= 1–14 |isbn= 978-1891271014.
And did those feet in ancient time"
Province of Avalon
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