Preprint, AVALON magazine, February-March 2007
GLASTONBURY'S LANDSCAPE SWAN AND THE MYSTERIES OF CYGNUS: THE KEY TO 2012
An Article by Andrew Collins
Standing on the slopes of Wearyall Hill, next to Glastonbury's Holy Thorn, gazing out across the sprawling sight of the busy town, with its tall medieval church towers, might not immediately conjure the image of a great white swan, gliding its way across the open waters of the Bristol Channel. You could also be excused for not realising that you were situated on the head of this great bird effigy, its long snake-like neck defined by a descending hill ridge between here and both Chalice Hill and the Tor, which, together with high ground as far north as Edmund Hill and as far south as Edgarley, form its expanding wings and body, as well as the shape of a passenger in the form of an 'old crone' (see below). This is the terrestrial swan effigy, approximately 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) in length and 2.75 kilometres (1.7 miles) in width, envisioned within the Glastonbury landscape by well-known Goddess devotee, expert and writer Kathy Jones.(1)
The Cult of Brigid
Glastonbury's terrestrial swan effigy, whether purely a work of nature or sculpted by ancient hands, might easily have been seen as an expression of a pagan goddess, possibly a form of Brigid, venerated hereabouts prior to the receding of the Bristol Channel to its current position over 14 miles away some 2,000 years ago. Glastonbury artist and writer Yuri Leitch has investigated the presence of the cult of Brigid around the Bristol Channel and notes that its river, the mighty Severn, was sacred to a water goddess named Sabrina. In the ancient Romano British language her name can be broken down as meaning 'san', i.e. sacred or holy, and 'bree', a putative form of the name Brigid (Britain itself might take its name from Brigantia, the Romano-British form of Brigid venerated in the north of England by the fierce war-like tribe known as the Brigantes).
In addition to this, the oldest form of the place-name Bristol is Brigstow, 'Brig's town', honouring Brigid once more, while the Bristol Channel's Welsh coast is rife with Brigid place-names, such as St Bride's Head, a promontory in South Glamorgan. Nearby is a large natural harbour serving the ancient port of Swansea, the 'swan's sea', providing yet another link with the cult of Brigid and, perhaps, Glastonbury's terrestrial swan.
Finally, there is the evidence now emerging from an archaeological site in Cornwall on the Bristol Channel's north coast of a Brigid cult that venerated the swan as late as the mid-seventeenth century. By a disused holy well on the banks of a river at Saveock archaeologists have uncovered a large number of earthen pits lined with swan feathers and containing the remains of birds, including chickens and cockerels, as well as a large number of hen's eggs, crystals and quartz stones. Marie Jefferis of the Saveock Water Archaeology unit, responsible for excavations here since 2001, believes that the pits relate in some way to a local cult of Brigid. In her words: 'There seems to be several connections with Brigit linking to the Saveock pits. The swan, whose feathers have been found in the majority of pits, is dedicated to Brigit.'
The Glastonbury Zodiac
Mrs Maltwood began looking at local Ordnance Survey maps, searching for geographical features and place-names that might conjure ideas, when she began seeing landscape effigies - first a lion around Somerton, then a giant composed of Dundon Beacon and nearby Lollover Hill, and finally out around Athelney a 'Girt Dog', noted in local folklore. This convinced her that the heavens were mirrored on the ground, and that she might have uncovered evidence of a prehistoric terrestrial zodiac. She looked and found a number of other effigies personifying the twelve zodiacal constellations, and wrote up her findings in a book entitled A Guide to Glastonbury's Temple of the Stars, first published in 1934.(3) Although little, if any evidence exists, to confirm the Glastonbury zodiac's greater antiquity, it exudes a psychic resonance, as I have realised myself over the past 25 years. Each 'sign', or house, reveals itself on a psychic level, and its genius loci can be interacted with during vision quests, and from experience I would say that this telluric inspiration has been available to mental sympathy for several thousand years at least.(4)
Glastonbury' swan effigy straddles two signs of the zodiac. One is Aquarius, defined by Katherine Maltwood as a bird identified by her as a Graeco-Egyptian Phoenix, a symbol of rebirth, defined by hills and high ground surrounding the Tor, which forms its curled head and beak. The other sign is Pisces, particularly Wearyall Hill, which was seen by her as one of two twin fish effigies. These two zodiac houses cover the periods between, respectively, 22 January to 21 February (Aquarius) and 22 February to 21 March (Pisces). The former embraces the feast of Brigid, 1 February, as well as the season that migrating swans journey north to their breeding grounds in Iceland and the Arctic regions.
The Swan as Psychopomp
It is well to recall that until Roman times, Glastonbury, or more precisely its hills and higher ground, were elevated islands in the Bristol Channel, and thus the swan link would have been in keeping with its watery placement. Quite simply, Glastonbury could easily have been seen as a great swan upon the misty waters that led to an ethereal Otherworld, where the souls of the deceased entered the afterlife.
Cygnus and the Cosmic Axis
Around the world, Cygnus was once seen as the entrance and exit to the sky-world, making it a candidate for the original location of heaven, which before the rise of Christianity was often seen as existing in the extreme north, and accessed via the Pole Star and north-south meridian line, which splits the heavens in two along its longitudinal zenith. This cosmic axis of the Northern Hemisphere was seen as linked with the axis mundi, or centre point (omphalos in Greek) of the terrestrial world, via a sky-pole, which has featured extensively in shamanic practices across Europe and Asia. Indeed, the Tungus reindeer shamans of Siberia constructed sky-poles topped by swans, up which they were meant to climb in order to reach the sky-world.
Very similar religious ideas are behind the manufacture of totem poles in Native American tradition, which were often topped by a cosmic bird. In North America Cygnus was identified as an asterism known as either the Cross Star, Bird Foot or Turkey Foot, seen as the point of access to the sky-world, which could be reached either via the sky-pole, synonymous with the north-south meridian line, or the Milky Way. Both routes worked just as well as each other in the Native American worldview of the cosmos. Bird effigy mounds, such as Eagle Mound at Great Circle, Newark, Ohio, and Rock Eagle Mound in Putnam County, Georgia, were aligned some 2,000 years ago to face the sun at dawn on the summer solstice. However, just two hours prior to sunrise the Milky Way would have been seen towering upwards from the very same position on the horizon, allowing a direct astral passage for either the shaman or the dead to reach the sky-world. Bird effigy mounds constructed by early Native American cultures such as the Hopewell and Woodland Indians have been identified by at least one archaeoastronomer with the stars of Cygnus.(6)
Interestingly, Cygnus occupied the position of the northern celestial pole, or Pole Star, from 16,000-13,000 BCE, which is why it is shown in Upper Palaeolithic cave art as early as 15,000 BCE as a bird on a pole in the famous cave at Lascaux in southern France. It is also why the recently discovered, 11,500-year-old megalithic complex at Gobekli Tepe in southeast Turkey, which is now being hailed as the oldest temple in the world and the site of biblical Eden, bears sight-lines towards Deneb, Cygnus's brightest star. Moreover, Cygnus features in key alignments at the Avebury megalithic complex in Wiltshire, as well as at Wayland Smithy in Berkshire, at Callanish in the Scottish Western Isles, and at Newgrange in Ireland's Boyne Valley. According to Irish earth mysteries researchers Anthony Murphy and Richard Moore of mythicalireland.com, Newgrange's well-known passage grave has an interior shaped like the Cygnus constellation. What is more, it was the 'palace' of the legendary hero Angus mac Og (or Aonghus mac an Og), who takes the form of a swan to marry his swan-maiden lover Caer Ibormeith ('Yew Berry'), while Newgrange's famous midwinter sun alignment comes each year from the direction of a smaller passage grave known as Fourknocks, the entrance chamber of which the two men found to be aligned precisely to the rising of Deneb, c. 3100 BC.(7)
Cygnus and the Cosmic Mother
In Egyptian mythology, the sky-goddess Nut is said to nightly swallow the sun, and then give birth to it each morning from between her thighs. Egyptologist Dr Ronald Wells has identified Nut as a personification of the Milky Way, with her thighs and vulva - from which the new sun was born - marked by the commencement of the Great Rift in the vicinity of the Cygnus stars. He has written that in 3500 BC, when Egyptian myth and ritual began, ceremonies would have celebrated the annual rebirth of the sun at the time of the winter solstice, when Cygnus hung low in the eastern sky. A very similar scenario might have existed at Newgrange c. 3200-3000 BC, when the passage grave was built to let in the first rays of the midwinter sun.
In India, the goddess Saraswati, whose vehicle is the swan-goose hamsa, was the personification of the Saraswati river, which once flowed from the vicinity of Mount Kailash in Tibet through northern and western India to empty into the Arabian Sea. Both the goddess and the river - which before it dried up in around 2000 BC was more sacred than the Ganges - are both seen as reflections of the Milky Way, making Saraswati a Cosmic Mother like Bóann in Ireland and Nut in ancient Egypt. No surprise then that in Vedic astronomy hamsa is identified with the stars of Cygnus.
The idea that the Cosmic Mother, personified as the Milky Way, was once seen as having given birth to the sun at the time of the solstice might be very ancient indeed. In the Chauvet cave in southern France, discovered as recently as 1994, an abstract 'goddess', showing only her swollen thighs and turkey-like legs, gives the visual impression of the Milky Way's Great Rift, and thus the Cygnus constellation as the Goddess's vulva, which is abstractly depicted in Palaeolithic rock art as three upward pointing lines, known as the bird's foot symbol. It was as the Bird's Foot or Turkey Foot asterism that Cygnus was known among Native American tribes, and also seemingly in the Near East. More significantly, the bird's foot symbol was the so-called 'mark' of Brigid, which people searched for in hearths on her feast day. The picture in the Chauvet cave is painted and accentuated by the rock itself, and is thought to be as much as 30,000 years old. If correct, then it suggests that the veneration of the Milky Way and Cygnus as expressions of the Cosmic Mother is at least this old, and thus one of the oldest religious traditions anywhere in the world.
Bringing us back to Glastonbury is the fact that among the peoples of the Scottish Western Isles, Bride and not Bóann was said to have been the mother of the solar hero Angus mac Og. Early Christian legend makes Brigid the milk maid at the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born, and it is in this form that she is seen in a carved relief on Glastonbury Tor's St Michael's Tower. This guise of Brigid, along with her connection with Bóann and her avian form as the swan, all make it clear that she too is an expression of the Milky Way as the Cosmic Mother, with the stars of Cygnus, the swan as her chief avatar or totem (the other being the snake). In Ireland Brigid gained the title 'Mary of the Gaels', through her role as Divine Mother to the Irish people, while some legends even went so far as naming her the mother of Jesus, a claim that must have been abhorrent to some Christians. Yet such an assertion can be put down to the fact that as the Cosmic Mother she was seen to have given birth each year to the new sun in the form of Angus mac Og, a name which, according to Murphy and Moore can also be translated as 'Angus, son of the virgin'. This, along with the fact that in Christian tradition, the Milky Way, or Via Lactea, was seen as 'the Road to the Virgin Mary in Heaven', helps explain why Brigid became synonymous with Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Thus we can understand why Cygnus in the ancient mindset was universally associated with cosmic creation, or cosmic life and death. The north was the direction of the Primal Cause, as well as the location of heaven, the sky-world, viewed as the place of the afterlife, from which life came, and would ultimately return in death. In addition to this there is now good reason to suspect that Cygnus might have played an altogether different role in human evolution.
The Cosmic Ray Mystery
By far the best source for these cosmic rays is a suspected black hole or neutron star binary system in the constellation of Cygnus, known as Cygnus X-3. In the 1980s particle detectors deep underground around the world began detecting the decay of incoming cosmic rays from this stellar source. So inexplicable were these strange sub-atomic particles, resonating at some of the highest energy levels ever detected in the universe, that they were quickly dubbed 'cygnets', meaning 'children of the swan'. This amazing data led to controversial claims that Cygnus X-3 was the first identified cosmic particle accelerator in the galaxy.
Then in 2000, NASA announced that Cygnus X-3 was the galaxy's first blazar, a collapsed star producing twins particle jets of superheated ionized gas along its line of axis. These stretch out for ten or even hundreds of light years into space, an are held together by magnetic sheaths that combine to produce powerful emissions in a variety of frequency ranges within the electro-magnetic spectrum, including x-ray, infrared, radio and gamma rays. This is not uncommon in so-called compact stars, like black holes or neutron stars, but what makes one a blazar is the angle of direction of its jets, for the label is only applied if one is pointing straight at the Earth, which is the unique case with Cygnus X-3. This means that we are looking straight down the barrel of the most dangerous cosmic cannon in the galaxy, and have been, according to astrophysicists, for anything up to 700,000 years. The significance of this is that such jets might well be responsible for increased levels of cosmic rays reached the Earth. More importantly, recent findings by Japanese and Chinese scientists using data from a facility in Tibet have shown that there is even today a huge excess of high energy cosmic rays coming from a point in the Cygnus constellation, close to the astronomical coordinates of Cygnus X-3.
This staggering scenario might well explain why our ancestors came to recognize the celestial swan as so important to their religious mindset, since there is every reason to conclude that ancient shamans who achieved altered states of consciousness in deep caves, most obviously using hallucinogens, somehow became aware of the effect Cygnus was having on their lives. Uniquely, they would have been able to see the disintegration underground of the cygnet particles, through a process known as Cherenkov radiation, which allows decaying cosmic rays to be seen as flashes of white or blue-white light as they pass through the viscous part of the eye.
Such 'visions' in total darkness would have increased and decreased in accordance with the presence overhead of Cygnus, enabling the Palaeolithic shamans eventually to synchronize their underworld activities with its cosmic ray cycle, and thus identify it as the source of origin of these profound experiences. Moreover, the appearance of these seemingly objective flashes in the eyes might additionally have been seen as manifestations of divine light, triggering more complex connections with the mysteries of Cygnus through contact with supernatural entities and the attainment of otherworldly knowledge and wisdom. This scenario might well have led our ancestors to learn what science is now confirming today - that life came from the stars. Indeed, the modern theory of panspermia, literally 'life everywhere', proposes that the most primitive forms of life probably arrived on this planet having hitched a ride either on a comet, meteor or asteroid.
In my opinion, this communion with the great unknown in deep cave settings led the ancients to celebrate the idea that we were star-stuff by teaching that the sun was periodically reborn from between the thighs of the Cosmic Mother, symbolised by the Milky Way's Great Rift and the Cygnus constellation. This event was most probably seen to occur at the time of the winter solstice, the shortest day in the year.
The Swan at Sunset
The other sunset to which the Glastonbury swan targets is 4 November, just one day adrift from the ancient cross-quarter day that falls between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice - 5 November in the modern calendar. This was the original date of what became the Celtic festival of the dead, known as Samhain, remembered today as Hallowe'en, 31 October; All Saints Day, 1 November; All Soul's Day or the Day of the Dead, 2 November, as well as Guy Fawkes' Night, 5 November. It was at this time that the veils dividing the worlds were said to be thin, allowing the souls of the dead to return to the land of the living. What is more, the nights were said to be alive with witches, demons and spirits, who rode invisibly on the winds.
More significant to this debate is that the November cross-quarter day marks the time when migrating swans, as well as greylag geese, return from their breeding grounds in the north. Were these birds seen as bringing souls back to the world of the living? Of interest here is that in the Baltic countries it was the swan and not the stork that brought babies into the world. Another possibility is that the swans' return marked a time when the living were once again vulnerable to unexpected death, since the birds were now present to take away the souls of the departed, the reason why lanterns were lit at this time to ward off evil spirits.
Time of the Cailleach
Another feast day that has its roots in the November cross quarter day, and thus the Celtic festival of Samhain, is Martinmas, 11 November, once seen as the beginning of winter. Ageing oxen were slaughtered and lanterns lit to ward off evil spirits. What is more, swan or goose feasts traditionally took place at Martinmas, and in some European countries the birds were ritually sacrificed and offered up in the name of St Martin of Tours (316-397), after whom Martinmas is named. Even though some feeble story links geese to the saint, it is quite clear that the swan and goose feasts have a pagan origin that predates the spread of Christianity across Europe.
So we can say that regardless of whether Glastonbury's landscape swan is merely a natural feature, or was in any way sculpted or merely recognised as symbolically potent by our ancestors, its orientation towards the sunset enables it to exude the spiritual potency of both Brigid at the time of her feast date in February, and also the Cailleach at her most potent time around Samhain. Interestingly, the same orientation of 245 degrees azimuth is found at the passage grave of Dowth in Ireland's Boyne Valley. Along with another passage grave at nearby Knowth, Dowth and nearby Newgrange form a triad of passage tombs on the River Boyne, all of which reflect different aspects of a Neolithic worldview.
Like Glastonbury's swan, Dowth is aligned to the two sunsets that mark the arrival and return of migratory swans from and to their breeding grounds in the north. Swans since time immemorial have settled in the water-logged meadows of the Boyne Valley, and it was their presence, along with the tale of Angus mac Og, whose legendary 'palace' was Newgrange, that set Irish researchers Anthony Murphy and Richard Moore on their own quest to understand the monument's relationship to the stars of Cygnus. Very similar religious influences concerning the cult of the swan would seem to have been present among the Neolithic peoples of Avebury in southwest England, and arguably also at Glastonbury in Somerset, which I believe was a prehistoric centre for the cult of the dead, as well as a Celtic otherworld, and an access point into the afterlife via the Milky Way.
Stand on Glastonbury's Wearyall Hill, the swan effigy's serpentine neck and head, after sunset on the eve of the November cross-quarter day and you will see something quite spectacular indeed. For at around eight o'clock the Milky Way stands erect on the south-western horizon, exactly where the sun has set three and a half hours beforehand. If we were better able to see this splendour above the constant glow of modern street lighting we would see the Great Rift cutting a swathe through the centre of the Milky Way and opening out just above the horizon. Follow the line of the Great Rift and it takes you straight to Cygnus, the sign of the celestial soul-bird and vulva of the Cosmic Mother, its brightest star Deneb visible in the eastern sky at an elevation of around 68 degrees. This beautiful image in the night sky confirms that in Britain and Ireland at least, the pathway to the stars was accessible at the time of the November cross-quarter day from a position on the horizon where the sun had earlier set. In Glastonbury this access point to the sky-world, where the souls of the deceased live in eternal bliss, is emphasized by the precise orientation of the great swan effigy. Yet this astronomical spectacle now brings to mind an important spiritual nexus that in less than six years time almost all of us are scheduled to experience.
The Key to 2012
If cosmic rays from the Cygnus region did accelerate human evolution in Upper Palaeolithic times, leading to the establishment of a sky-religion based around the concept of the Milky Way as the Cosmic Mother, as the source of life and death on Earth, might the Cygnus region be playing some role in the corridor of events surrounding 2012? Do its cosmic rays still exude their influence on us today?
When the new sun of 21 December 2012 aligns with Galactic Center, it is born via the Cosmic Mother's 'birth tube' or 'birth canal', the Milky Way's Great Rift, identified by Egyptologist Dr Ronald Wells as the womb and vulva of the sky-goddess Nut. Thus, in line with ancient beliefs and practices from places as far away as Ireland and Egypt, the new sun of 2012 is born from Cygnus, the womb and vulva of the Cosmic Mother, something the Maya are unlikely to have been unaware of when they chose this date as the culmination point of their 13-Baktun cycle. So the fact that Glastonbury's landscape swan exudes these arcane mysteries of religion, which are arguably as much as 30,000 years old, calls for a celebration in the Isle of Avalon on 21 December 2012 unlike anything ever seen before, and I propose that it starts at Samhain, the time of the Cailleach, the force of death and renewal. I suggest the 4 November - the eve of both the cross-quarter day and Guy Fawkes' Day - which for all of us now becomes Glastonbury's Cygnus Day according to the flight of its terrestrial swan.
Notes and References
All other Notes and References are to be found in Andrew Collins's book THE CYGNUS MYSTERY (Watkins, 2006), which fully expounds many of the themes explored in this article. To buy THE CYGNUS MYSTERY click here.
Thanks to Sue Collins, Rodney Hale,
Kathy Jones, Yuri Leitch, Anthony Murphy, Geoff Stray and Paul Weston
for their help in the preparation of this article.