The ancient world was extremely confined with the concerns of everyday life, brigands, and simply the unknown keeping a vast majority of the population from roaming much beyond the villages of their particular civilization. For that reason, there were always lands just beyond their knowledge whose people, customs, and even the land were left to the imagination. That’s why Odysseus and his men landed on a shore where everyone fell asleep, and an island inhabited by a sorceress.
Traders and sailors realized this early on. Maybe out of some strange sense of humor or perhaps because they were telling their customers what they wanted to hear, they often told tales of islands beyond their sphere of knowledge where life was easy and good. Islands were especially easy to spread stories about. Those unaccustomed to the sea believed that they floated somewhat, while even trained pilots had a difficult time precisely locating anything out in the middle of the ocean with no visible background to use as a landmark.
Perhaps that’s why islands were so common when speaking of a land of the dead. The Elysian Fields were thought to lie in the Western Ocean (Atlantic), perhaps the Azores, Cape Verde, or even Bermuda. Mag Mell or Tir na nOg had the same function for the Irish, who believed their heaven was an island to the west or something under the water. The Avalon of the British was often linked to Sicily or other unnamed islands of the Mediterranean.
The common ground for all these places of the dead was that they were distant islands well beyond the reach of an ordinary person of which next to nothing was known and that was all rumor and innuendo.
Which brings us to the British land of the dead. It’s been said that Glastonbury was the land of the dead for the ancient Celts because a twelfth century writer named Gerald of Wales had once said as much. He even gave the area a name that relates to Avalon through it’s root of apple. However, the connection is not to be believed just because Gerald said it. If a person believed everything that has been written about Glastonbury he would have to start off by accepting that Jesus Christ himself founded the monastery there after his resurrection and that Joseph of Arimathea later visited it.
It is possible that Gerald of Wales spoke the truth about Glastonbury’s etymology. If he did, though, it means nothing. Apples are a common fruit in Britain because of the climate; it seems only natural that someone might have named the area after them.
Perhaps most convincing is the simple fact that Glastonbury has never been distant let alone inaccessible to the inhabitants of Britain. Islands in the Mediterranean have been, islands west of Ireland would have been, but the Glastonbury area was as easily reached as every other area of the island all through the historical period. The only reason why that truth has never been pointed out is prestige; Glastonbury spent the latter part of the Middle Ages trying to gain enough of a reputation that it could sustain itself through the income of pilgrims. Apparently, the monastery was so successful in that regard that even a blatant lie from that time is still accepted as truth.