The Odor of Sanctity: Phantom Fragrance at Glastonbury Abbey

The Odor of Sanctity: Phantom Fragrance at Glastonbury Abbey

The Odor of Sanctity: Phantom Fragrance at Glastonbury Abbey St Mary’s Chapel, Glastonbury, 1908

Anno 1670, not far from Cirencester, was an apparition: being demanded, whether a good spirit, or a bad? Returned no answer, but disappeared with a curious perfume and most melodious twang. Mr. W. Lilly believes it was a fairy. Miscellanies Upon Various Subjects, John Aubrey, p. 81

A feature frequently mentioned in saints’ lives is a sweet odor, seen as a sign of  heavenly grace, the proverbial “odor of sanctity.” It is  usually found emanating from the saint’s dead body or oozing from their bones with oil that is then bottled and used as a relic. It can also be found in the saint’s dwelling, clothing, bedding, or stigmata. The scents of roses, cinnamon, violets, musk, and orange-blossom have all been reported. So what are we to make of the following story of mysterious fragrances at Glastonbury?

A Curious Report from King Arthur’s Country

The ruined abbey of Glastonbury in Somersetshire, England, and the neighborhood thereof have recently been the scene of some curious reports, which are significant from their association with that pre-Christian center of mystery and romance, about which so many beautiful Celtic legends cluster.

According to a correspondent of the London Daily Chronicle, many persons, including himself, have lately been mystified by the perception of an exquisite but unaccountable fragrance at various places in Glastonbury and neighborhood, particularly within the precincts of the ruined abbey, and in an ancient Manor House, called Ivythorne, formerly the property of one of the last of the abbots in the 15th century. It has also been observed in other houses in Glastonbury, and in a few places in the open air, in the streets of the town. The odor is said to come in whiffs or puffs, sometimes very powerfully; but it only lasts a short time, seldom more than a few minutes. Its curiously elusive character is noteworthy, as this feature has been observed in other similar cases. One investigator has made a series of careful experiments with various kinds of balms, gums, and fragrant woods, and he discovered that the nearest approach to the true scent was made by moderately heating a certain balsam on a metallic plate. He declares that the odor cannot be regarded as that of any incense used in the Western Church, but that it has a strong resemblance to Oriental perfumes.

Two things are brought to mind by the accounts of this curious and not unbeautiful phenomenon. The first is that mysterious, delicate, aromatic fragrances and incense or sandal-wood odors have always been associated with holy places and persons, irrespective of any forms of belief. In the Middle ages a perfume observed in the neighborhood of the persons of various Christian saints, both while living and for a while after death, was called the “odor of sanctity.” This was not a mere figure of speech. Its existence, strange and unaccountable as it may seem at first, is not really improbable when we recollect the tremendous potency of the emotions of the mind in modifying the bodily states and the secretions. Who would not dread a bite from a person infuriated by extreme passion? Modern scientific researches have proved that not only can dogs, but even human beings whose sensitivity is abnormally heightened by hypnotism or other means, detect the characteristic scent of every different person. The presence of a hidden cat in a room is perfectly clear and most unpleasant to certain individuals. Persons of high spiritual development who lead unusually pure and impersonal lives must necessarily be surrounded by quite a different atmosphere from others, and, according to the condition of those who are near them, a sweet odor, a radiant light, or musical sounds, maybe perceived.

Furthermore, that the reports of the sweet odor of a self-sacrificing and compassionate life are not mere fabrications of monkish chroniclers is rendered more likely by the wide diffusion of similar accounts in the Orient, among non-Christian peoples. In the purely mystical and occult work, the Revelation or Apocalypse, which has somehow got bound up with the more exoteric Jewish and Christian scriptures, there is a significant reference to the subject: having golden vials full of odors, which are the prayers of saints. {Rev. v, 8)

The second matter referred to above is the significance of the locality where the phenomenal manifestation of balsamic odors is said to be taking place. The town of Glastonbury is built upon a peninsula nearly surrounded by a stream, and was one of the greatest centers of the ancient Celtic religious life of the Britons. It was named Inys yr Avalon, the “Isle” of Avalon, the hallowed spot where the sacred apple-tree groves were cultivated. The Christian monks, in establishing their foundation there, carried out the general policy of the church of diverting the influence of the sacred associations connected with the seats of the older forms of worship by appropriating the sites of the ancient temples and erecting their churches thereon. The name of Avalon was changed, but the abbey inherited the traditional sacredness, and hence, doubtless, became a famous place of pilgrimage from foreign countries. The well-known Glastonbury Thorn, said to have been “grown from the staff of Joseph of Arimathaea,” was brought from the East. It was quaintly believed to have “miraculously” blossomed at Christmas time. The plant has disappeared.

According to tradition, King Arthur and his wife Gwenhwyvar were buried in the cemetery of the Abbey; and Giraldus Cambrensis (11461220) states that a leaden cross, bearing the following inscription, His jacet sepultus inclytus Rex Arthurus in insula Avallonia, was found under a stone 7ft. below the surface; and 9ft. below this was found an oaken coffin, containing dust and bones. Layamon in his Brut (1204), makes Arthur say:

I will fare to Avalon, to the fairest of all maidens, to Argante the queen, and elf most fair, and she shall make my wounds all sound; make me whole with healing draughts. And afterwards I will come again to my kingdom and dwell with Britons with mickle joy. Even with the words, there approached from the sea that was a short boat, floating with the waves; and two women therein, wondrously formed; and they took Arthur anon, and bare him quickly, and laid him softly down, and forth gan depart. Then it was accomplished that Merlin whilom said, that mickle care should be of Arthur’s departure. The Britons believe that he is alive, and dwelleth in Avalon with the fairest of all elves; and the Britons even yet expect that Arthur shall return.

While the Glastonbury district was held very sacred by the pre-Christian Celtic people, it is nevertheless plain that the mystic Isle of Avalon to which King Arthur went in a faery ship to be healed after his last “dim battle in the West,” is no earthly region. Careful research has recently been made by scholars into the meaning of the Celtic legends of Faery Lands, joyous sunlit places where heroes pass a hundred years as if they were but one day, where beautiful, godlike beings welcome them, and to which access cannot be gained during life except by special favor, the passport generally being the possession of a golden or silver branch of the sacred apple-tree bearing fruit, given by some queen from the Land of the Everyoung. In many particulars the Celtic legends of the heaven- or Faery-world closely resemble those of the classical writers, such as the stories about Proserpine and Aeneas, each of whom had to get a magic bough before entering the underworld. When the almost universal belief in Reincarnation held by the ancients is considered, it becomes quite clear that the spiritual realm to which the dead return and which can occasionally be visited by specially qualified beings, is the Devachan of Theosophy, the heaven-world of rest and recuperation between the trials of physical life on earth.

The narrowness of view and the materialistic bias which characterize so large a part of the world today, have been curiously displayed in some of the explanations advanced to avoid the necessity of admitting anything but known causes for such happenings as those, whether genuine or not, reported from Glastonbury. One wiseacre, apparently ignoring the fact that the odor is said to be rarely perceived, that it comes in sudden puffs, and that at times it has been noticed at considerable distances from the ancient stonework, propounds the theory that the stones and cement of the abbey must have been impregnated with perfumed substances by the builders! Another learned person, an eminent French chemist, admits the objective reality of the sweet odors, but tries to save the situation from the materialistic standpoint by claiming that they arose from the extremely diseased state of their bodies; he even gives the chemical formula of the perfume, C8 H12 O2.

While, as students of Theosophy, we need not take much account of supposed psychic phenomena such as those at Glastonbury, it is of some consequence to watch the impression they make both on biased and unbiased minds.

C. J. Ryan

Century Path: A magazine devoted to the brotherhood of humanity, the promulgation of theosophy and the study of ancient and modern ethics, philosophy, science, and art. Volume 13, Part 2 1910



The strangest ghost story on record comes from Glastonbury, England.

The supernatural manifestations take place in broad daylight on the busiest street of the town as well as in secluded places at night which is the only time “spooks” are supposed to appear.

The Glastonbury ghost is unlike all other “haunts” in other respects; it does not make its presence known by being seen or felt, but it makes itself smelt. This unique visitant from the spirit world was first detected in an upper room of an old manor house built and occupied by one of the Glastonbury abbots late in the fifteenth century. A guest at the manor first became conscious of the pungent odor of burning sandalwood and balsams as he was dressing for dinner one evening. Since that time the fragrant smell is to be found there nearly every night at about the same hour, always being strongest in the middle of the room, and fading away in a few minutes as if evaporating.

It makes itself known indoors only after nightfall, and seems to have scheduled itself to visit certain places at certain hours of the day, which is the greatest mystery about it. The odor appears every morning at a spot on the grass about forty feet from the north side of St. Mary’s Chapel in the old abbey grounds.

The powerful fragrance can usually be noticed about noon on High Street, close to the gateway of St. John’s Church. Two or three persons have traced it across the churchyard, where it is said to have vanished near an old tomb.

In the afternoon the aromatic smell lingers round an old house known as St. Dunstan’s which is partly built of wood taken from the old abbey. The perfume is not at all like modern incense, but has the powerful and pungent aroma of the Eastern gums and spices used in Oriental worship.

Many psychologists, and some sceptics, have visited Glastonbury to unravel the mystery, and the most plausible explanation offered so far is that made by an old resident of the town. He believes that heat or dampness draws the heavy aromatic scent from old permeated with the smoke of centuries of incense burning.

His theory is supported by the fact that in every case the place haunted by the smell is near either the abbey or some of its buildings, while the houses in which it is detected are either partly or wholly constructed of timbers and beams from the old abbey or have been occupied at some time by the abbots.  The New York Times 7 August 1910

Does anyone have personal experience of incense permeating wood to the extent that it can be smelled hundreds of years later? It runs in my mind that some wood in Egyptian tombs has been so scented. Chriswoodyard8 AT

Significantly, Frederick Bligh Bond, who excavated Glastonbury according to the instructions of a dead monk received through automatic writing, does not mention anything about phantom incense. The Gate of Remembrance, his 1919 book which discusses the sittings that yielded the locations of the Edgar and Loretto Chapels, is silent on the subject.


Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.



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