Monday 28 December 2009

Arthur: The Eternal Enigma

Part One

"its all true, or ought to be" [1]

The historical mystery of the search for the identity of King Arthur would appear to be never ending until someone unearths a document or archaeological evidence to reveal who the Dux Bellorum of Post-Roman Britain really was. Arthur is claimed by all the Celtic lands of North West Europe: Scotland; Wales; Cornwall; Brittany and so on, with many authors putting forward theories to reveal the identity of this defender of Britain in new books each year. When will it end, when will the true identity of Arthur finally be revealed?

The debate continues as to the origins of the name from the Roman 'Artorius' or from the Welsh 'arth' for bear, or from the circum-polar constellation of Ursa Major with the zodiac representing the Round Table and the constellations as Arthur’s Knights. Certainly we see a very different Arthur after Geoffrey of Monmouth and the French Romancers had spun their tales. In between these two ends of the debate we see continuous speculation as to the identity of an historical Arthur as a Dark Age warlord who rallied the beleaguered Britons against the incursions of the Anglo-Saxons.

For a short example: Graham Phillips & Martin Keatman identify Arthur as Owain Ddantgwyn, a North Wales warlord [2]; Originally suggested by Kemp Malone and taken up by PFJ Turner and expanded by Littleton & Malcor, Arthur has been identified as Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman Officer of the 2nd Century [3]; Chris Barber & David Pykitt claim he was Athrwys, a South Wales ruler, who retired to Brittany as St. Armel (Arthmael) [4]; Frank D. Reno sees him one man known by the epithets Ambrosius/Riothamus/Arthur [5]; Geoffrey Ashe identifies Arthur as Riothamus, last seen heading towards Avallon in Burgundy. [6] All entertaining and well presented theories, claimimg the true identity of Arthur revealed and you are left thinking “yes, perhaps, maybe” - but all these works lack one essential element: hard evidence.

Even Dark Age 'histories' have been constructed around a historical Arthur: Leslie Alcock, Arthur's Britain and John Morris, The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650. In 1977 David Dumville, concerned with this growing trend, stated: "The fact is that there is no historical evidence about Arthur; we must reject him from our histories and, above all, from the titles of our books." [7]

Although many authors adopt a “no smoke without fire” philosophy towards the existence of an historical Arthur, the fact is Dumville is quite correct; the historical evidence for Arthur is virtually non-existent, and what we do have is very much based on the 9th Century account of 'British History' [Historia Brittonum] compiled by the so-called Nennius. Many forests have been felled in providing the media for endless discussions of the battle list, described as a lost war poem, cited in Section 56 of 'Nennius' :

"Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the military commander ['dux bellorum']. His first battle was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein. His second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was above the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the forest of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle was at the fortress of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of holy Mary ever virgin on his shoulders; and the pagans were put to flight on that day. And through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the power of the blessed Virgin Mary his mother there was great slaughter among them. The ninth battle was waged in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was waged on the banks of a river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought on the mountain which is called Agnet. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor."

As Henry of Huntington stated in his Historia Anglorum "One historian [Nennius] tells of these battles, and the places where they were fought, though none of the places can be identified now. I think that this has happened by the providence of God, so that popular favour, adulatory praise, and transitory fame might be set at nought."

There are various manuscript versions of the Historia Brittonum but the version contained in the Harly collection, known as the Harlian 3859 manuscript is the only complete form, but omits the prologue. It is only one of two versions of the Historia Brittonum which contains Sections 67 through to 76, which includes the 'Wonders of Britain' (The Mirabila). This manuscript also contains an early version of 'Culhwch and Olwen' (or The Hunt for Twrch Trwyth). The Harlian 3859 manuscript is usually dated to the 11th Century - prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th Century pseudo-history. Significantly, out of twenty Marvels of the Island of Britain, The Mirabila twice refers to Arthur:

“There is another wonderful thing in the region which is called Buelt. There is in that place a heap of stones, and one stone superposed on the pile with the footprint of a dog on it. When he hunted the boar Troynt, Cabal, who was the dog of Arthur the soldier, impressed his footprint on the stone and Arthur afterwards collected a pile of stones under the stone, whereon was the footprint of his dog, and it is called Carn Cabal. And men come and carry the stone in their hands for the space of a day and a night, and on the morrow it is found upon its pile”.

“There is another marvel in the region which is called Ercing. There is to be found in that place a sepulchre by the well which is named Licat Amr, and the name of the man who is buried in the tumulus was called so, Amr. He was the son of Arthur the soldier, and he killed him in the same place and buried him. And men come to measure the tumulus, sometimes six feet in length, sometimes nine, sometimes twelve, sometimes fifteen. In what measure you should measure it in its turn, the second time you will not find it in the same measure, and I have tested it myself.”

His hound 'cafall' must have been gigantic as it is named after the Latin caballus = horse. This pile of stones is now called Corn Gafallt, in the north of Breconshire. Ercing as been identified as west of the Wye, 'Archenfield', Herefordshire and Gamber Head, 'the eye-spring of the Amir', in Llanwarne. We see here that Arthur is referred to as a warrior, not a king, and by the 9th Century had already become associated with folklore.

Appended to the Harlian 3859 manuscript version of the Historia Brittonum is the Annales Cambriae (The Annals of Wales), the earliest copy which has survived. The Annals, a simple list of events entered by year date, in chronicle form, makes two mentions of Arthur, considered by some scholars as authentic:

516 - The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors.

- The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell: and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.

The entry for 516 sounds suspicously like it was taken from Section 56 of Nennius, compare with the “The eighth battle was at the fortress of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of holy Mary ever virgin on his shoulders”. Dated to the 10th Century, The Annals of Wales make the first reference to the battle of Camlann, from which a mass of legendary material has developed in Cornwall and Wales, although Arthurian authors have offered sites across the country, from Hadrian’s Wall in the North to Hampshire in the South. It is also the first mention of Medraut who in later tradition became known as Mordred (or Modred) best known today as Arthur's illegitimate son by his half-sister Morgause. The first detailed account of Mordred is found in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) in which he further developed the traitor role who brought about the downfall of Arthur.

Significantly, no reference to Arthur, King or warrior, appears in two key texts; Gildas, a 6th-Century British cleric writing around 540AD delivered a sermon called De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) from the period of Arthur's flourit, nor Bede's 8th Century Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. After Nennius, oustide of early Welsh poetry, "Arthur" does not appear again in an “historical” work until Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his History of the Kings of Britain in the 12th Century. Notably, Gildas and Bede, along with Nennius and even Geoffrey of Monmouth all credit Ambrosius as the British dark age resistance leader. As the Harlian Manuscript 3859 twice mentions Arthur as the victor at Badon in accordance with Gildas, our only contemporary historical source, we should equate Ambrosius as the Dux Bellorum – the Historical Arthur.

>> Continued in Part Two

Copyright © 2009 Edward Watson


1. Winston Churchill - “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples” - “It is all true, or it ought to be; and more and better besides. And wherever men are fighting against barbarism, tyranny, and massacre for freedom, law and honour, let them remember that the fame of their deeds, even though they themselves be exterminated, may perhaps be celebrated as long as the world rolls round. Let us then declare that King Arthur... slaughtered innumerable hosts of foul barbarians and set decent folk an example for all time”.
2. Graham Phillips & Martin Keatman - "King Arthur: the True Story" (1992).
3. Kemp Malone, "Artorius," Modern Philology 23 (1924), P. F. J. Turner - "The Real King Arthur: A History of Post-Roman British History AD 410 - AD 593, Volume 1" (1993) & C. Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor "From Scythia to Camelot" (2000)
4. Chris Barber & David Pykitt - "Journey to Avalon" (1993).
5. Frank D. Reno - "Historic Figures of the Arthurian Era" (2000).
6. Geoffrey Ashe - "The Discovery of King Arthur" (2003).
7. Leslie Lcock, Arthur's Britain: History and Archaeology A.D. 367-634, Penguin, 1971
John Morris, The Age Of Arthur: A History of the British Isles, 350-650, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1973.
David Dumville, Sub-Roman Britain: History and Legend in "Histories and Pseudo-histories" Variorum, 1990,  (originally published in History 62, (1977), pp.173-92, 1977).
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Wednesday 11 November 2009

Arthuriana: Early Arthurian Tradition and the Origins of the Legend

Thomas Green

ISBN 978-1-4452-2110-6
Published by The Lindes Press
29 October 2009
290 pages - Perfect Bound

Following the publication of 'Concepts of Arthur' by Tempus in January 2008, Thomas Green has now issued a hard copy collection of the academic and popular articles which have appeared on his ‘Arthurian Resources’ website since 1998.

Arthuriana: Early Arthurian Tradition and the Origins of the Legend was published by The Lindes Press on 31 October 2009. This book has been created in response to requests from readers for a print version of the material on the website, for both ease of reading and referencing of the material archived online; as such, the articles from the website are reproduced with the minimum of alteration but have been professionally typeset and formatted.

However, be warned, if you are looking for yet another identification for the historical King Arthur you won't find him in Green's work, who concentrates on the Arthur before Geoffrey of Monmouth, pre-Galfridian, the Arthur of early welsh poetry who was accompanied on his adventures by an early mythological pantheon of Gods. This Arthur is far removed from the knight in shining armour of Mallory's tales.

This work on Green's Arthurian Resources website was the precursor to the book 'Concepts of Arthur', published last year, presenting a detailed study of the ultimate origins of Arthur and the nature and development of the early Arthurian legend, providing a comprehensive overview of recent scholarship, including the author's own academic research into the sources of the early Arthurian tradition.

Fundamentally, 'Concepts of Arthur' provides an analysis of the entire non-Galfridian Arthurian legend. Unlike many previous studies of Arthur, it avoids a priori assumptions about the origin and development of the Arthurian legend, preferring to argue from first principles. Most importantly, it considers the 'historical Arthur' as a genuine part of the tradition itself, to be treated alongside – and not artificially separated from – all the rest of the early source material.

Green knocks down the myths of later Arthurian Romance, without ever 'poo-pooing' them, and presents a stripped down, originally folkloric or mythical figure who became historicised in the 9th century, but in doing so never comes across as negative or anti-Arthur, and produces the most common sense approach yet to the eternal enigma of Arthur.

Arthuriana: Early Arthurian Tradition and the Origins of the LegendThomas Green

1. The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur
2. A Bibliographic Guide to Welsh Arthurian Literature
3. A Gazetteer of Arthurian Onomastic and Topographic Folklore
4. Lincolnshire and the Arthurian Legend
5. Arthur and Jack and the Giant-killer
* Jack & Arthur: An introduction to Jack the Giant Killer
* The History of Jack and the Giants (1787)

* The 1711 text of The History of Jack and the Giants
* Jack the Giant Killer: a c.1820 Penny Book
* Some Arthurian Giant Killings
6. Miscellaneous Arthuriana
* An Arthurian FAQ - Some frequently asked questions.
* The Monstrous Regiment of Arthurs - A critical guide.
* An Arthurian Reference in Marwnad Gwên? - the manuscriopt evidence examined.
* The Other Early Arthurian Cycle: the Tale of Tristan and Isolt.
* Myrddin & Merlin - a guide to the early evolution of the Merlin Legend.

* 'But Arthur's Grave is Nowhere Seen' - Twelfth-century and later solutions to Arthur's current whereabouts.
* Bibliographic guide to the characters of the Pre-Galfridian Arthurian legend.
* A Guide to Arthurian Archaeology

>> Thomas Green's Arthurian Resources website

Arthuriana: Early Arthurian Tradition and the Origins of the Legend is available online as a 'Print on Demand' book and can be either purchased directly from the print company Lulu (from October 2009 onwards) or from Amazon (from January 2010).

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Tuesday 20 October 2009

Historic Figures of the Arthurian Era

Authenticating the Enemies and Allies of Britain's Post-Roman King

15th September 2009 saw the welcome publication in paperback of Frank D Reno's second Arthurian work Historic Figures of the Arthurian Era: Authenticating the Enemies and Allies of Britain's Post-Roman King. This book was published in first edition hardback in 1999, following Reno's earlier work The Historic King Arthur: Authenticating the Celtic Hero of Post-Roman Britain (1997). Some of us obsessive Arthur freaks couldn't wait for a paperback edition to be published and paid rather high prices for these two hardback books a few years ago, although at nearly £30 a piece the paperback editions don't exactly come cheap, but on saying that you do get a lot of Arthurian info for your money. If you are a fellow Arthurian klepto sufferer you'll have to have them, so put them on your Christmas wish list.

Historic Figures of the Arthurian Era
Authenticating the Enemies and Allies of Britain's Post-Roman King
Hardback, 450 pages, McFarland & Co 1999 – published in paperback edition, McFarland & Co, September 2009.

According to the Author's website, the title of this book is misleading, since in actuality scholars rightly claim that there was no Arthurian era in the fifth century. The content of Frank D Reno's second Arthurian book is more accurately described by the original working title, Ambrosius Aurelianus: Allies and Adversaries. Leon Fleuroit was probably the first in modern times to postulate that Ambrosius Aurelianus is a doublet of Riothamus; following Fleuroit, E.K. Chambers, among others, indicated that Arthur and Ambrosius are in all probability scribally corrupted names of the same persona.

Reno demonstrated in his first Arthurian book “The Historic King Arthur,” in attempting to separate fiction from history, that the true King Arthur was a Celtic king of post-Roman Britain who lived in the late fifth and early sixth century. This book is a further effort to authenticate the legendary Arthur as a historical Celtic king. In this work Reno examines the roles of six major figures of the period from AD 383 to 518: Vortimer, Vitalinus, Cunedda, Cerdic, Octha and Mordred in an attempt to unravel the mystery of Arthur's identity, which has proven to be a perennial problem for historians. The author provides an extensive analysis of Arthur's 12 battles as listed in the "Historia Brittonum", exploring not only the influences of the King's allies, but also the switch of allegiance by some Britons who joined forces with Arthur's English and German enemies. Providing suggested geographical locations for each of the battles, culminating in a proposed new site for Arthur's fateful battle at Camlann.

Table of Contents:
1. New Perspectives of Ancient Insular History
2. Other Early Manuscripts
3. Riardd Ambrosius
4. Who's who: Ambosius's Father, the Superbus Tyrannus Vortigern.
5. Vortimer and Vitalinus: Arthurian Enigmas.
6. The Breach of Colours: Cunedda's Role in Civil War
7. The Breach of Colours: Romanitas Versus Cunedda's Progeny and the Saxons.
8. Arthur's Battle with the Saxons.
9. The Strife of Camlann
Appendix A: A Century and a Half of Dark-Age History
Appendix B: Two Tales of the Mabinogion

Reno's first Arthurian book discusses in detail who he considers to be the historical King Arthur of the 5th Century and how the story originated.

The Historic King Arthur
Authenticating the Celtic Hero of Post-Roman Britain
Hardback, 450 pages, McFarland & Co 1997 – published in first paperback edition, McFarland & Co, 2007.

Through careful research of primary documents, Reno produces a picture of who he claims is the true Arthur. The author claims that Arthur reached power shortly after the Romans left Britain at the end of the fifth century and died at the Battle of Camlann. Reno does not dismiss Geoffrey of Monmouth's account totally out of hand as some scholars do, claiming Arthur did became king at 15 years of age, but under the name of Ambrosius Aurelianus who fought against the Saxons on the mainland and on the continent as Riothamus. Reno claims this accounts for the regeneration motif so closely tied to the mythical Arthur.

The Author's website states that The Historic King Arthur focuses upon laying the foundation for authenticating a historic Arthur of Britain. Containing twelve chapters, the first eight (approximately two-thirds of the book) create the under- pinnings for the hypothesis that the Roman equestrian Officer Lucius Artorius Castus was an authentic figure whose origin is found to the end of the second century, and whose name became conflated with a British king named Ambrosius Aurelianus of the fifth century.

This is yet another one of those books claiming to reveal the truth about King Arthur, identifying a triad of Arthur-Ambrosius-Riothamus as one warrior King, claiming he fought in Britain as Ambrosius Aurelianus and on the continent as Riothamus. The literary and archaeological evidence is examined in some detail, calibrating the Arthurian chronology of the source documents is discussed and he stresses the importance of differentiating between Continental Saxons and the Saxons in Britain. You may not agree with all Reno has to say on Arthur but he certainly puts forward a persuasive argument.

Table of Contents
1. Introduction
2. The Ancient Manuscripts
3. The Cardinal and Ordinal Years for the Arthurian Chronology
4. Hillforts and Roman Roads
5. The Geography of Mount Badon
6. The Geography of Camlann
7. Other Sites: Camelot and Tintagel
8. The Isle of Avalon: Arthur’s Resting Place
9. Ambrosius Aurelianus: History and Tradition
10. Riothamus: The Briton from Across the Ocean
11. Arthur: Historical and Literary Data
12. The Phoenix Arises
Appendix A: The Arthurian Chronolgy
Appendix B: Harleian Manuscript 3859

>> Greenman Review of The Historic King Arthur

Visit the author's website based upon the texts and research of Frank D. Reno:


The Author's website provides an analytical breakdown, chapter by chapter, of the contents of each book. On this website, Reno discusses historical allusions and legendary accretions attached to Arthur, attempting to define the differences between legend and history. Reno argues that the legendary King Arthur has become melded with the historic “King Arthur” Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman Officer posted in Britain at the end of the second century. Castus left Britain to fight on the Continent, echoing Riothamus (said by the 6th century historian Jordanes, to be "king of the Brittones") and Arthur's continental adventures in Geoffrey's story, these accounts became conflated with “Historic King ArthurAmbrosius Aurelianus of the fifth century, and onward to the legendary King Arthur memorialised by Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur in the sixteenth century.

King Arthur is undoubtedly the most enigmatic hero in literature, whenever his name is mentioned, it is commonly associated with what is now referred to Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th Century "pseudo- history" History of the Kings of Britain, but surprisingly Reno does not dismiss Geoffrey's account but uses it to assist in unravelling the confusions. The combining of the legendary King Arthur with a historic King Arthur has caused a great deal of confusion in chronology and distortion in the many Arthurian epithets: Arthus, Arthurex, Arcturus, Ursus (Bear), Pendragon, UterPendragon, Utherpendragon, and Riothamus.

However, neither of Reno's books will mark a definitive end of the quest for the historic “King Arthur” of the fifth century. Reno suggests that as public or private collections are studied, an even clearer picture will reveal the reality of Lucius Artorius Castus as “King” Arthur, and Ambrosius Aurelanius as a Briton/Celtic king. Reno is currently working on his third non-fiction book, an annotated paradigm of Arthurian history and legend, as a continuation of his first two books and various articles he has written.

More from Frank Reno:

Vortigern Studies:

Vitalinus appeared to be a minor character in British history, mentioned but twice in the Historia Brittonum, firstly 'son of Gloui' and a later reference to 'the discord between Vitalinus (Guithelinus) and Ambrosius'. Reno argues that far from being a minor part that Vitalinus plays, his was a role of major importance in Arthuriana.

Vortimer: Welsh Hero of the Arthurian Age
Vortimer is the "Over-Prince" who replaces his father Vortigern and defeats the Saxons in four crucial battles as recorded in the Historia Brittonum. Reno equates him with Cunedda, thus making him one of King Arthur's allies.

The Heroic Age:

O, Ambrosius, Ambrosius! Wherefore art thou Arthur?
Littleton and Malcor identify Arthur with the 2nd Century Roman Officer Lucius Artorius Castus and argue that there is no King Arthur in fifth-century Britain. Reno embarks on a quest to discover a great fifth-century Briton who can be identified as an "Arthur."

Frank Reno and his wife Lavinia have just completed a 1000-page historical novel Ambrosius Aurelianus: Legacy of the Phoenix King which is preparation for publication. Occasionally, Frank D. Reno gives presentations and lectures on a variety of Arthurian aspects, in 2002 was invited to Britain to contribute information to the BBC documentary Arthur: King of the Britons. He lives in Colorado, USA.

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Sunday 20 September 2009

The Shaman and the Sorcerer: The Feathered Cloak

Part Two

The priest talks to God,
but God talks to the Shaman

The Feathered Cloak
There is a modern trend to claim that these medieval tales of the wildman of the forest are loaded with shamanistic symbolism and not without good reason as an important function of the shaman is to access knowledge from the gods and spirits by way of the otherworld journey. As we have seen described above, it is the supernatural spirit, the night wanderer, that Myrddin calls 'Hwimleian', that passes on occult knowledge from the Otherworld to him while he is living in the forest where he has fled following the Battle of Arferydd, prior to ultimately undergoing the threefold death; is this symbolic of the otherworld journey before a ritual death as depicted in the rites of shaman initiation? As we have discussed, there would appear to be several similarities between the tales of Lleu, Myrddin, Lailoken and Shuibhne; were they just deranged wildmen or all shaman?

We have already noted how Lleu Law Gyffes, whose ordeal we have been following since starting our journey in the remote North Staffordshire countryside, undergoes a transformation into an eagle at the closing stages of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi after Blodeuedd tricks Lleu into telling her how he can be killed:

I'll tell you gladly,' he said 'It is not easy,' he continued 'to kill me by a blow . It would be necessary to spend a year making the spear to strike me with - and without making any of it except when one was at mass on Sundays.'

'…...I cannot be killed inside a house, nor outside,' he continued 'I cannot be killed on horseback or on foot.'
'I'll tell you,' he replied. 'By making a bath for me by the side of a river, making a curved, slatted roof over the tub, and thatching that well and without [leaving] any gaps. And bringing a buck,' he continued 'and putting it next to the tub, and me putting one of my feet on the buck's back, and the other one on the side of the tub. Whoever would strike me [while I am] like that would bring about my death.'

On being struck with Goronwy's spear Lleu turned into an eagle and took flight. Gwydion finds him perched atop an oak tree between two pools in a valley which is called Nant Lleu (Nantlle), western Snowdonia. Gwydion coaxes him down from the tree on to his lap and transform him back to human form and nurses him back to health. These peculiar conditions required to bring about Lleu's death, somewhat reminiscent of the threefold demise of Myrddin, have been compared to a shamanic initiation rite. [10]
The shaman also has close associations with the eagle, the father of the first shaman, the feathered cloak being an important part of shamanic ritual to enable flight to the otherworld. The eagle is associated with prophecy and foresight in ancient British tradition. As we saw in Wizards and Wildmen Part II - Magicians and Madmen the source of the name Myrddin is still the subject of some debate between scholars; the popular claims that Carmarthen, originally the Roman fortress Moridunum, was named after the wizard are untenable and there is a distinct absence of pre-Geoffrey primary source material to associate 'Myrddin' (Geoffrey's 'Merlin')with the Welsh town. Although the precise origin of the name remains a mystery, it has been suggested that it may have derived from the Brythonic words meaning something similar to 'voice of the eagle'. Contained within the Red Book of Hergest is a poem called the 'Prophecy of the Eagle' in which the speaker is Myrddin as the Eagle. [11] 

Celtic mythology features many seers, druids and magicians who in modern literature have been compared to the shaman. In the Irish Mirabilia we saw how “… it is said of these men then when they have lived in the woods in that condition for twenty years, that feathers grew on their bodies like birds.” When the shaman puts on his feathered cloak it is to give his soul the ability of flight to the realm of the gods during his trance; significantly it is reported that early Irish bards used to wear a cloak of feathers. [12]

In the Irish tale the Siege of Druim Damhgaire (Knocklong), from the account in The Cycle of Kings, it describes how Cormac mac Art took his forces into Munster in order to exact the tribute due to him from Fiachu Muillethan, the king of southern Munster. Cormac lays seige on Druim Damhgaire, his druids dry up all the water in Munster until the opposing side is about to surrender. Cormac appears to be triumphant until Fiachu and the Munstermen decide to call upon chief mage, the Druid Mog Roith, who has a beautifully ornamented chariot, drawn by fierce and impatient oxen as fast as the March winds, who has acquired his wisdom over seven centuries. Mog Roith demands a large area of land, a hundred cows, a hundred steers and a hundred horses, fifty mantles and a beautiful girl. Fiachu has no choice but to meet the demands of the Druid.

The Druid Mog Roith is brought his brown hornless bull's hide, and his 'encennach', the bird head-dress, speckled with flying wings, and other druidic tools; “he rose into the air and the heavens at the same time as the fires and he started to beat the air, so as to turn the fires to the North, all the time chanting this spell, 'I make the druid's arrow'...” turning the victory in the Munstermen's favour. [13] The description of Mog Roith has been described as akin to an African or Native American sorceress and not typically Celtic, appearing as a typical warrior-priest. He has limitless power over the four elements of fire, water, air and earth. He has many similarities with the Shaman. [14]

Of all the pagan gods of Northern Europe, it is Odin who displays behaviour closest to the shaman. The Norse god Odin has many parallels with the Celtic god Lugus who we see descended as Irish Lugh and Welsh Lleu Llaw Gyffes. The Roman historian Tacitus equated Odin with Mercury and Julius Caesar wrote of Mercury in his Commentaries on the Gallic War as being the most popular god among the Celts of Britain and Gaul, being regarded as the “inventor of all the arts.” The god Lug(h) has a very similar epithet, 'Samhildánach' meaning "equally skilled in many arts", which is generally agreed upon as equating the Gaulish Mercury with the Celtic god Lugus.

Odin of the Scandinavians was descended from the German Wotan (Woden of the Anglo-Saxons), both representing a development of the Proto-Germanic god, *Wōdanaz. Gwydion has been linked both etymologically and mythologically to be the Celtic form of Wotan/Wodin and therefore reciprocally to Mercury.

The etymology of the name 'Gwydion' is complex and continues to be the cause of much debate between scholars. An early form of the name appears in the Harleian 3859 genealogies as "Lou hen map Guidgen" suggesting a derivation from *Uidugenos who is likely related to the Celtic god Mercury Uiducus, Mercury the woodsman, or Mercury the wise, suggesting “one who knows the knowledge of the trees” or put simply “woodwise”, with clear correlation to the Druid and underlining the association of Mercury with Odin/Woden. The word 'druid' has been interpreted from the Proto-Celtic stem *dru-wid combining the Proto-Indo-European elements *deru = oak tree and *weid = to see (as in knowledge/wisdom), therefore we can interpret “druid” as “one who has knowledge of the oak tree” which is remarkably similar to Mercury Uiducus. Modern interpretations in Welsh and Irish universally equate the word 'druid' with the meaning magician, seer, enchanter. There can be little doubt that Gwydion is a Druid, performing extraordinary magical acts throughout the Mabinogi of Math.

A more recent suggestion for the derivation of the name 'Gwydion', containing the same root *weid as in 'druid', is from the Proto-Celtic *Weidī-kondos from the elements weid/weido = know/knowing and kondos = sense. [15] The confusion of the Gwydion/Lugus/Mercury god(s) would appear to be due to the religious syncretism of the incoming Romans, blending the indigenous Celtic and Teutonic belief systems of a Northern pantheon with their own gods.

It appears to be quite clear that whichever meaning of this disputed name we accept they all would appear to be indicating an association with 'knowledge', 'knowing' or 'to know'. The word 'shaman' originates from the Siberian Tungus people's word šamán containing the Tungusic root ša' = 'to know'[16] shaman meaning literally 'he who knows' which is remarkably similar to the meaning of the Proto-Celtic *Weidī-kondos as the origin of the name Gwydion. Indeed it is Gwydion who is the prominent character throughout the tale of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. Gwydion is the chief mage, sorcerer par excellence, displaying what some see as typical shamanistic behaviour; his role being similar to that of the Master Shaman; his protégé being Lleu the initiate. 

The similarity of the etymology of the name seems beyond coincidence but can we justifiably make a comparison between the Druid and the Shaman?

Archaic Religion
Shamanism has been termed the oldest organised religion. Evidence for this claim is based on the paintings and art of the caverns of the European Upper Palaeolithic epoch.

On 12th September 1940 four teenagers digging in a large hole left by the root ball of a large pine tree which had fallen a couple of years previously on a hill near village of Montignac in the Dordogne region of France, broke through to a narrow crevice. The boys squeezed through into a larger void decorated in magnificent paintings of horned cattle across the walls. They had discovered the Great Hall of the Bulls in the Lascaux cave system, perhaps the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century. The cave was found to contain a stunning collection of 1,500 engravings, 600 drawings of horses, aurochs, bison, reindeer, felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros, and one human, dated from 17,000 to 18,500 years old.

Lascaux may be one of the most visually stunning of all the decorated caverns but it is not the only European cave found to contain art dated to the Upper Palaeolithic, others include Altamira, Spain, discovered in 1879, Les Trois Frères, in Montesquieu-Avantès, in southwestern France (1910), Pech-Merle (1922), Chauvet, Ardèche Valley of south eastern France (1994), Creswell Crags, Derbyshire, England (2003). Over 300 decorated caverns have been discovered containing often-overlapping paintings and engravings of bison, horses, stags, reindeer, ibex, mammoths, and a small percentage of human, or part-human figures, the so-called masked dancing sorcerers. The great majority of these images have been dated to the mid-Magdalenian period of the Upper Palaeolithic, about 14,000 years ago, and some substantially older. To date, the world's oldest known cave paintings have been discovered in Fumane Cave, near Verona, Northern Italy where archaeologists have found tablets of stone showing images of an animal and a human-like creature believed to be between 32,000 and 36,500 years old.

These images have been termed the origins of religion and art: the genesis of religious art, as they seem to represent more than simple hunting magic; the anthropomorphic figures, the masked sorcerers, are one of the most discussed topics in Palaeolithic Art. Clearly something was happening in the Upper Palaeolithic as attested by this fantastic cave art but the recurrent question is why did our not so distant ancestors adorn the cave walls with these images?

A shamanic explanation has been given for this ancient mystery of Europe’s ancient decorated caverns, with claims that the cave wall paintings depict scenes experienced by the shaman when in trance, the half man - half animal therianthropic figures being either the shaman in transformation or his meetings with supernatural entities. This remarkable cave art is cited as evidence of shamanism as the first religion practised by ancient hunter-gatherer people originating in the Upper Palaeolithic epoch of Europe 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. [17] It can be no coincidence that the first cave art appeared around the same time as the presumed first religious figurines dated to approximately 30,000 BC; the Lion-Man, from Hohlenstein-Stadel, Germany carved from Mammoth ivory and the Venus of Dolní Věstonice, the oldest known ceramic in the world. The ivory figurines and the paintings clearly posses a significance beyond simply hunting, appearing to be evidence of man's first venture into a religious belief system.

The Shaman has been described as the priest of the Ural-Altaic peoples, a ritual practitioner in hunter-gatherer societies who can enter into ecstatic trance as a means for the shaman's soul or spirit to leave his or her body and go on a spirit-journey, acting as an intermediary between the natural and supernatural worlds using a spiritual-magic to cure the sick, foretell the future, meet spirit animals, change the weather, and control real animals by supernatural means.

In describing the shaman's role as similar to that of the priest, there is, however, is an essential difference between the two as the priest is the ceremoniously inducted member of a recognised religious organisation and holds a particular rank and functions as the holder of that office that was held by others before him; whereas the shaman is one who, as a consequence of a personal psychological crisis, has gained a certain power of his own. The spirits that visit him in vision had never been seen by any other; they are his particular familiars and protectors. In effect, shamans are mystics; their initiation is not one of office or ceremony. [18] It has been said that the essential difference between priest and shaman is that the priest talks to God, but God talks to the shaman. He is intermediary between the realms of the living and the spirits of the dead; having direct contact with the spirit world, the shaman walks with the supernatural.

According to shaman belief, the soul of the shaman climbs up the world tree towards God when he 'shamanizes', in a state of ecstatic trance. During the rite the tree grows and invisibly reaches the summit of heaven. The shaman is intercessor between man and the gods. He also has the power to descend into the realms of the dead. The shaman's spirit is believed to leave his body while in trance and journey to the otherworld. The shaman can induce the conditions of ecstasy by beating his drum or by an elaborate and exciting dance.

Essentially the shaman enters into a trance state to enable his spirit to depart on a journey to the otherworld in which he can converse with the gods and obtain prophetic information or visit the spirits of the deceased and retrieve the souls of the dead. The shaman enjoys a special relationship with the spirits, who's role is to give the Shaman the necessary information to perform healing work, but the Shaman only acts as an intermediary in the healing, as all instruction has been given by the spirit helpers. The trance state is a self induced altered state of consciousness which the shaman can enter at will. This can be induced by drumming, dancing, starvation, enforced isolation, sensory deprivation or by using hallucinogenic substances. The shaman will often put on a bird costume prior to entering trance for his flight to the realm of the gods or spirits. Shamanism can also involve the magical transformation of humans into animals. Accordingly, Mircea Eliade provides a definition of Shamanism as: "techniques of ecstasy". [19]

Technician of the Sacred
Shamanic vocation can manifest in the form of illness, sometimes this can be seen as a progressive change in behaviour where the neophyte becomes meditative, seeks solitude, sleeping a great deal, displays absent mindedness, experiences prophetic dreams and sometimes seizures. Illness, dreams and ecstasies in themselves constitute an initiation in that they transform the profane, pre-'choice' individual into a technician of the sacred. [20]

There are three possible ways to become a shaman; the first being the call (spontaneous vocation); secondly hereditary transmission; thirdly, by personal ‘quest’ or, more rarely, by the will of the tribe. [21] Shamanic initiation often takes the form of a sickness or psychological crisis. Traditionally, the evolution from ordinary human state to shaman is marked by a series of visions and dreams of the neophyte being killed, dismembered, eaten, regurgitated, and put back together by the spirits, his or her bones being replaced with quartz crystals or similar magical substances. The death and mystical resurrection by means of a descent to the underworld is followed by an ascent to the sky. While undergoing this shamanic initiation, the neophyte receives fulfilment of the divine.

When a young child is chosen to be a shaman, the neophyte is excluded from society and must exist in the mountains and remain there for a period of time, feeding on animals 'caught... directly with their teeth' later returning to the village dirty, bleeding, with torn clothes and hair dishevelled 'like wild people'. [22]

As with admission to many secret societies the neophyte must undergo essentially suffering, death and resurrection whilst enduring the following rituals:

- seclusion in the forest- face and body daubed with ashes to take on ghostly appearance: funerary masks
- difficult ordeals: beatings, torture
- symbolic burial in the temple

- hypnotic sleep: drink makes candidate unconscious
- symbolic descent to the otherworld
- symbolic resurrection

These rituals are designed to make the candidate forget his past life, on returning to the village he appears to have lost his memory, community considers while in the bush he has died and on his return consider them as ghosts. [23]

This immediately strikes a cord with the Celtic 'wildmen' we have discussed earlier enduring a period of solitude in the forest. Again, this is very similar to the motifs we have seen in Celtic literature in which we have already discussed the Hwimleian, the supernatural night wanderer, spirit of the forest, encountered by Myrddin, which has been translated at times as 'wildman'. Seclusion in the forest would appear to be a form of an initiation rite that we see experienced by the Celtic wildmen of the woods prior to symbolic death.

The shaman of the Buryats, the largest ethnic Siberian group, undergoes an initiation ceremony involving a he-goat and purification bath [24] which seems remarkably similar to the conditions that Lleu stipulates to bring about his death when he states he must stand with one foot on a buck goat and the other on the bath tub. As we have seen initiation is considered the death of the old way and start of the new.

In the Mabinogi of Math we see Lleu experiencing a psychological crisis and after being struck with a spear while in that particular pose, he then transforms into an eagle and then undergoing a period of isolation in the wilds until found by Gwydion. We have seen many of the Celtic wildman take on avian characteristics and perch in the treetops. It is the shaman who retrieves the souls of the sick and significantly, it is Gwydion who makes the symbolic journey to the otherworld to retrieve Lleu's soul from the oak tree in Nant Lleu As we saw above, the term 'dihenydd' is used by W J Gruffydd to describe Lleu's execution in the Fourth Branch, which can also be written as 'dienydd' meaning 'death, extinction of life' but containing the compound 'dien' which can have the spiritual meaning 'the separation of body and soul'. Gruffydd's choice of word would appear to be very apt as Gwydion retrieves Lleu's soul from the tree and nurses him back to full health, from then we can safely assume he has now graduated as a shaman. This episode is mirrored perfectly by the description given by the Tungus shaman Semyonov Semyon:

“Up above there is a certain tree where the souls of the shamans are reared, before they attain their powers. And on the boughs of this tree are nests in which the souls lie and are attended. The name of the tree is “Tuuru”. The higher the nest in the tree, the stronger will the shaman be who is raised in it, the more he will know, and the farther he will see”.[25]

In the Mabinogi of Math, the ordeal of Lleu meets all the requirements of shamanic initiation; he is struck by the spear as the symbolic death of the soul, transforms into the eagle and flies to the tree tops. He undergoes ritual dismemberment while in the tree as his flesh falls from his body and is devoured by the sow below. Gwydion retrieves his soul from the tree and rebuilds him.

In conclusion, the Shaman and the Druid share many similar traits as attested by the ancient tales recorded in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi; certainly a form of North European Shamanism existed in the Celtic lands.

for Leigh Ann

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10. Leigh Ann Hussey - The Ordeal of Lleu as Shamanic Initiation.
11. Graham Phillips - Merlin and the Discovery of Avalon in the New World – Bear and Company 2005, p.8.
12. Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees – Celtic Heritage, Thames and Hudson, 1978, p.17.
13. The Siege of Druim Damhgaire.
14. Jean Markale - The Epics of Ireland: Ancient Tales of Mystery and Magic – Inner Traditions 2000, pp 183-187.
15. Proto-Celtic - English, University of Wales, 2002.[PDF] 'Gwydion' would therefore be interpreted as 'knowing sense'. *Weidī-kondos would have descended into the Brythonic form *Vedicondos, which in turn would render Old Welsh *Gwydichonn, giving the Welsh Gwydion.
16. The word's etymology is uncertain and often disputed, however, it does appear to be connected to the Tungus root ša- "to know". According to Michael Ripinsky-Naxon the term 'SHAMAN' is derived from the Tungus-Mongol, or the Tungus-Manchu noun word 'saman' which is constructed from the Indo-European verb root 'sa' meaning 'to know'.Thus the French 'savoir' and the Spanish 'saber', “to know”, produce also linguistic relationships with such words as 'witch' and 'wizard' from the Indo-European root “to see” or “to know” as in the French 'voir' and Latin 'videre' and the German 'wissen', “to know”. Hence the cognate saman conveys the literal meaning “he who knows”. It is very possible that the Tungus-Mongol saman possesses a cognate in the Sanskrit 'sramana', meaning “an ascetic”. While in Pali, a samana, 'a beggar monk' may represent a true, but a later, cognate of the Altaic saman. - Michael Ripinsky-Naxon, The Nature of Shamanism: Substance and Function of a Religious Metaphor, State University of New York Press, 1993, p.69.
17. Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams - The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves – Trans. Sophie Hawkes. New York: Abrams, 1998. Lewis-Williams, in particular, has pushed the theory that the cave art of the Palaeolithic period depicts the same images as experienced by modern volunteers in hallucinatory experiments carried out during altered states of consciousness. Central to the argument is that modern man possesses the same neurophysiological system as Palaeolithic man, we have not changed in 40,000 years, and therefore the ancient shamans would have witnessed the same images which they then adorned on the cave walls. This explanation for the cave art has not been universally accepted by any means.
18. Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, 1969, p. 231
19. Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Princeton University Press; New Edition, 2004, p.4. First published in French in 1951, first English edition 1964.
20. Ibid. pp.31-33.
21. Ibid. p. 13
22. Ibid. p.18
23. Ibid. p.64
24. Ibid. p.116
25. Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, 1969, p. 256, quoted from “Legendy i rasskazy o shamanach u Yakutov, Buryat i Tungusov”, collected by G. V. Ksenofontov (Moscow 1930). Translated from the Russian (into German) as Schamanengeschichten aus Sibirien, (Legends of Siberian Shamans) by A. Friedriech and G. Buddruss, Clemens Zerling, Munich 1955, pp 213-14, While carrying out serious research into Christianity and its early history Ksenofontov, termed an 'outstanding Yakut scientist', claimed to have discovered a similarity between Christianity and 'shamanstvo' (shamanizing). The title of Ksenofontov's second book, Christ: Shamanism and Christianity indicates that he considered it was not just a casual similarity. It is incredible that such important works in this discipline have not been translated into English considering the modern popularity of shamanism.

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Thursday 13 August 2009

The Shaman and The Sorcerer: Voices of the Forest

Lud’s Church (XV)
Part One

The way is shut
It was made by those who are Dead
And the Dead keep it
The way is shut

Voices of the Forest
The Myrddin and Lailoken legends show a clear relationship to the tale of Lleu Law Gyffes from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi; following a traumatic event they all flee into the forest existing as wildmen. The condition termed as ‘wyllt’, as in Myrddin Wyllt, is derived from the old Welsh form ‘gwyllt’ meaning ‘wild, deranged, mad’, and ‘gwylleith’ = ‘madness’.

The tales of Lailoken and Myrddin are not the only accounts of ‘gwyllt’, the roots of which can be traced back to a similar primitive motif found in ancient literature such as the the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Indian tale of Rishyasninga. The Rishyasninga, meaning 'deer-horned' in Sanskrit, tells the account of a boy born with the horns of a deer who lives a solitary life in the forest. This tale appears in the Mahabharata originating from the 8th Century BC.

The story of Lleu Llaw Gyffes found in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi has been suggested as having its roots in the prototype of the legend of the Wild Man of the Woods found in the Celtic countries throughout Northern Europe. [2] 'Lleu' contains all of the essential elements associated with the stories of Myrddin and Lailoken, murder (or attempted murder), flight and recovery; elements of the tale which can also be found the story of Buile Shuibhne from the Irish texts of the Cycle of the Kings, also known as the Historical Cycle.

The Story of Suibhne Geilt
The Frenzy of Suibne is set in the 7th Century Battle of Moira (Mag Rath), a historical battle fought in 637AD near Lurgan in Co. Down. Suibhne is a vassal of Congal, the King of Ulster, and went mad during the battle and fled into the forest. The Battle of Moira corresponds to the Battle of Arfderydd and has similarities in the relationship between Congal and Suibhne to Mryddin and Gwenddolau. The Frenzy of Suibhne (Buile Shuibhne) evolved as a separate tale, in its present form dated to the 12th Century but references to the tradition of Suibhne can be found from the 9th Century. One of the contributory factors of the battle was that Congal considered himself to have been insulted when a silver dish with a goose egg placed in front of him suddenly changed into a hen’s egg on a wooden dish. This has been compared to the ‘futile’ causes of the Battle of Arfderydd ‘which was brought by the cause of the lark's nest’ as recalled in the Triads.

The story recalls how before the Battle of Moira, Suibhne had been irritated by the sound of a bell. When he found that the sound came from Bishop Ronan Finn [3] setting up a church, Suibhne stormed naked to the church, threw the Bishop’s psalter into a lake, he would have killed the bishop but at that instant he was called to battle. Bishop Ronan blessed the troops before the battle which Suibhne took the sprinkling of holy water as a taunt and killed one of the bishop's psalmists with a spear and threw another spear at Ronan himself. The spear struck Ronan's bell and broke it. Bishop Ronan placed a two fold curse on Suibhne, known as Ronan’s Curse, this was firstly, as the bell had been broken any sharp sound would send Suibhne into madness, and secondly, as he had killed one of Ronan's clerics, he too would die at by the spear. When the Battle of Moira began, three mighty shouts went out from the opposing armies:

“………when Suibhne heard these great cries together with their sounds and reverberations in the clouds of Heaven and in the vault of the firmament, he looked up, whereupon turbulence (?), and darkness, and fury, and giddiness, and frenzy, and flight, unsteadiness, restlessness, and unquiet filled him, likewise disgust with every place in which he uséd to be and desire for every place which he had not reached. His fingers were palsied, his feet trembled, his heart beat quick, his senses were overcome, his sight was distorted, his weapons fell naked from his hands, so that through Ronan's curse he went, like any bird of the air, in madness and imbecility”. [4]

From then on, Suibhne had acquired the power of levitation like a bird. Also like a bird, he could not trust mankind; people sent him mad with fear, so he fled living hungry and naked, perching on trees. After several years living as a wildman and wandering throughout Ireland, uttering nature poems (which comprise much of the content of Buile Shuibhne), his sanity was briefly restored after he was captured by his kinfolk. His mental state failed again and he returned to his wildman existence. Later he received the protection of St Moling who gave him the sacrament and entrusted his care to a woman from the parish. Unfortunately, her husband grew jealous and killed Suibhne with a spear, fulfilling the prediction of Ronan’s Curse.

The part of St Moling in the tale of Suibhne is reminiscent of St Kentigern role in the tale of Lailoken which has raised much debate as to which version came first and thereby influenced the other. An odd episode recalled during the time of Suibhne’s wanderings is his visit to the ‘land of thee Britons’. Suibhne came to a great forest were he encountered another wildman similar to himself, lamenting and wailing. The British madman explained that he was known as Fer Caille (Man of the Woods) but his name was Alladhan. Again, this account is strikingly similar to the story of Lailoken who had done the same sitting on his rock while St Kentigern held mass. The two wildmen became friends and lived together for a year in the forest. The story associates Suibhne with a place called ‘Dun Rodairc’, (The Fort Of Riderch) which is clearly the historical 6th Century king Rhydderch Hael of Strathclyde associated with Myrddin and Laiolken. [5]

The name Alladhan has been explained as being possibly derived from ‘allaidh’ meaning ‘wild’ and similar in meaning to geilt or gwyllt[6] It has also been suggested that the name Lailoken was assimilated to allaidh by the Irish writer of the Buile Shuibhne who may have seen both Geoffrey’s Vita Merlini and the Lailoken material [7] which would indicate the route of transmission of the original tale.

An extended account of Suibhne’s madness (geilt) is included in a later 14th Century version of the Battle of Moira, in which he sees phantoms and demons:

“…horrible aerial phantoms rose up, so that they were in cursed, commingled crowds tormenting him; and in dense, rustling, clamorous, left-turning hordes, without ceasing; and in dismal, regular, aerial, storm shrieking, hovering, fiend-like hosts constantly in motion, shrieking and howling as they hovered about them in every direction………from the uproar of the battle, the frantic pranks of the demons and the clashing of arms………Suibhne was filled and intoxicated with tremor, horror, panic, dismay, fickleness, unsteadiness, fear, flightiness, giddiness, terror and imbecility; so that there was not a joint of a member of him from head to foot which was not converted in to a confused, shaking mass, from the effect of fear, and the panic of dismay………his very soul fluttered with hallucination, and with many and various phantasms…. ”. [8]

The parallels in these stories from Northern England, Wales and Ireland are quite obvious: Shuibhne , like Lailoken/Myrddin predicts his own 'dihenydd'[9] there are conditions or stages to each punishment, adopting bird-like behaviour with flight to the forest (or tree tops) and ultimately it is a spear that strikes the final blow. Even the term for these madmen is similar in both languages; the Welsh wildman being known as ‘gwyllt’ and the Irish being ‘gelt’ (geilt) from the Old Irish word meaning ‘he who goes mad from terror’ the condition being known as ‘geltacht’.

In the Irish Mirabilia a definition is given for the term ‘gelt’:

“It happens that when two hosts meet and are arranged in battle-array, and when the battle-cry is raised loudly on both sides, cowardly men run wild and lose their wits from the dread and fear which seize them. And they run into a wood away from other men, and live there like beasts and shun the meeting of men like wild beasts. And it is said of these men then when they have lived in the woods in that condition for twenty years, that feathers grew on their bodies like birds, whereby their bodies are protected against frost and cold,…………Yet there swiftness is said to be so great that other men cannot approach them and greyhounds just as little as men. For these men run along tress almost as swiftly as monkeys or squirrels”. [10]

The two Myrddin poems in the Red Book of Hergest both contain references to 'mountain ghosts' who he blames for his madness.

Cyfoesi Myrddin a Gwenddydd ei Chwaer ('The Conversation of Myrddin and his Sister Gwenddydd'):

Since mountain ghosts have taken my reason
And I myself am full of thoughts--

After Beli, his son Iago.

Since mountain ghosts have taken your reason,

And you are filled with thoughts--
Who will rule after Iago?

Gwasgargerdd fyrddin yn y Bedd, ('The Diffused Song of Myrddin in the Grave'):
The mountain ghosts come to me,
Here in Aber Carav

This is confirmed by the following passage from Afallennau in which Myrddin states he is amongst spirits:

“Fifty years the plaything of lawless men
I have wandered in gloom among spirits

After great wealth, and gregarious minstrels,
I have been here so long not even sprites

Can lead me astray.. .. ’

In Wizards and Wildmen Part III - Magicians and Madmen we saw how in a line from the Afallennau a mysterious figure known as Hwimleian appears: Hwimleian foretells, The tidings will come”, translated as ‘Disogogan Hwimleian’ this is reminiscent of Myrddin’s first appearance in literature; in the Omen of Britain we have the line: "Dysgogan Myrdin ..." (Myrddin fortells).
The Hwimleian also appears twice in the Oianau (Greetings).

Hwimleian (sometimes given as Chwimleian) is usually translated as ‘pale wanderer’ is yet another word for a spirit, which can also mean supernatural night-wanderers. The Hwimleian seem to possess occult knowledge from the Otherworld and pass on prophetic tidings to Myrddin. As a later development of Myrddin’s companion in the forest, the hwimleian, has come to be associated with the female fairy, the Lady of the Lake, Viviane of medieval Arthurian Romance. Viviane’s name originated variously as Niniane, Nineve, Nyneve, and as Nimue she has a connection with the sacred groves or nimidae, which associates her with Diana, the Roman goddess of the wild places.

The hwimleian, the spirits of the Myrddin poems, are the source of the wizard's prophetic inspiration and therefore must possess access to otherworld occult knowledge not accessible to Myrddin himself. It is a well known concept that psychics and mediums throughout the ages obtain access to the otherworld through a spirit guide.

An essential function of the shaman is to obtain information by consulting with the gods and to retrieve the spirits of the departed.

Continued in The Shaman and the Sorcerer Part II - The Feathered Cloak


1. Recited by the King of the Dead, in J. R. R. Tolkien's Return of the King, Book 5, Chapter 3, The Muster of Rohan
2. Lleu Wyllt : An early British prototype of the legend of the Wild Man?, A E Lea - Journal of Indo-European studies, 1997, vol. 25, no1-2, pp. 35-47.
3. St Ronan was Abbott of Druim-ineascluinn (modern Drumiskin) in the County of Louth.
4. Buile Suibhne (The Frenzy of Suibhne) being The Adventures of Suibhne Geilt - Author: unknown, translated by J. G. O'Keeffe. CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts, University College, Cork.
5. John Koch, The Gododdin of Aneirin: Text and Context from Dark Age Britain, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1997, p.lxxvii, footnote.4.
6. AOH Jarman, The Merlin Legend and Welsh Prophecy in The Arthur of the Welsh, University Of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1991, p.129.
7. AOH Jarman, Ibid p.130 (see end note 32).
8. John O'Donovan - The Banquet of Dun Na N-Gedh and The Battle of Magh Rath: An Ancient and Historical Tale, Published by For the Irish Archaeological Society, 1842. Available through Google Books - Digitized 2006.
9. W J Gruffydd in his masterful work Math vab Mathonwy: An Inquiry into the Origins and Development of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, Cardiff, 1928, uses the term 'dihenydd' to describe the manner of Lleu's death, modern meaning = 'end, death, execution' with associations of 'dienyddio = put to death, execute' and 'dienyddwyr = executioner'.
10. Kuno Meyer: On the Irish Mirabilia in the Old Norse Konungs Skuggsjd "Speculum Regal” - Eriu, Vol. IV. 1910, pp. 11-12.
11. Afallenau – Appletrees, The Black Book of Carmarthen

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Sunday 5 July 2009

Wizards and Wildmen: Magicians and Madmen

Lud’s Church (XIV)
Part Three

Magicians and Madmen
There are several medieval poems that mention, or are attributed to, Myrddin, the origin of Geoffrey’s Merlin, found in the Black Book of Carmarthen (compiled mid-13th Century), and the Red Book of Hergest (late 14th Century):

Gwin y Bid hi y Vedwen (The Birch Trees)
Yr Afallennau ('The Apple-trees')
Yr Oianau ('The Greetings')
Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin ('The Dialogue of Myrddin and Taliesin')
Cyfoesi Myrddin a Gwenddydd ei Chwaer ('The Conversation of Myrddin and his Sister Gwenddydd')
Gwasgargerdd fyrddin yn y Bedd, ('The Diffused Song of Myrddin in the Grave')
Peirian Faban ('Commanding Youth')

These poems recount the events of a ferocious battle in the North of Britain, in which Myrddin killed his own nephew. The relationship between uncle and nephew is considered sacred in many societies; in the Mabinogi we see examples of this with Gwydion and Lleu as discussed previously and also in the Second Branch with Bran and his nephew Gwern. Tacitus, 1st Century Historian of the Roman Empire, notes the relationship between a man and his sister’s son was closer than that to his own son amongst the Germanic people and exploited this bond when taking hostages. After the battle, Myrddin flees in to the forest of Celyddon, laden with guilt, displaying classic symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, being of questionable sanity he acquires the gift of prophecy, living the life of a wildman (Wyllt). [17]

In the Afallennau a mysterious figure known as Hwimleian appears:

Hwimleian foretells, The tidings will come

The Hwimleian (meaning a pale, wild wanderer) may represent another aspect of Myrddin’s persona; perhaps here he is displaying schizophrenia. In this aspect he is known as Myrddin Wyllt, Merlin the Wildman of the forest.

'The Conversation of Myrddin and his Sister Gwenddydd', often referred to as the ‘Cyfoesi’, recalls Myrddin’s madness after the bloody battle of Arfderydd to his twin sister who refers to him as a ‘wiseman’, and ‘diviner’, and calls him “my Llallogan Myrddin”. [18] Later in the poem Gwenddydd calls him “Myrddin, son of Morvryn the skilful”. Peirian Faban ('Commanding Youth') reiterates Morvyrn (mab Morwrynn) as his father but neither Myrddin or his father appear in the Northern Genealogies, opening to door to speculation that he is purely of literary creation.

The ‘Cyfoesi’ contains two stanzas referring to Moryen, “Dead is Moryen, bulwark of battle”, which may be a reference to the same Morien alluded to in the Battle of Catraeth, recorded in the Myrddin stanza in Y Gododdin as we have seen above. The ‘Cyfoesi’ and Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin ('The Dialogue of Myrddin and Taliesin') are the only two Welsh Myrddin poems that can be securely considered pre-Galfridian (prior to Geoffrey - certainly composed prior to 1100AD), which contain the concept of Myrddin the Wildman, therefore having a provenance prior to the Vita Merlini.

From the Myrddin poetry in the Black Book of Carmarthen and the Red Book of Hergest, we can deduce that the Battle in Northern Britain that Geoffrey refers to in his Vita Merlini is one and the same event, The Battle of Arfderydd, a historic event as recorded in the Annales Cambriae:

573 - The battle of Arfderydd

The primary text of this translation is from the Harleian manuscript collection, Harlian 3859, appended to the earliest copy is the Annales Cambriae (The Welsh Annals), compiled no later than the 10th Century. The battle is listed in the Triads as one of the Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain, which was brought by the cause of the lark's nest.

Later versions of the Annals contain the following text:

573 - The battle of Arfderydd ‡between the sons of Eliffer and Gwenddolau son of Ceidio; in which battle Gwenddolau fell; Merlin went mad.‡

The text enclosed within thedouble dagger symbols are entries which are not found in the Harleian manuscript, but in a later manuscript written at the Cistercian Abbey of Neath, South Wales, towards the end of the 13th century, and therefore cannot be guaranteed to be free of influence from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini. However, whereas Geoffrey’s Historia has survived in over 200 manuscripts, the Vita Merlini survives complete in just one manuscript; it therefore must have had a very limited circulation and cannot be relied upon as the sole source of the Northern Merlin, termed Merlinus Caledonius, or Myrddin Wyllt. Whereas Geoffrey appears to have developed the Merlin legend from the earlier Ambrose episode at Dinas Emrys and the prophet Myrddin from the 10th Century poem the Omen of Britain, he cannot claim to have invented the Northern Myrddin tradition as it was in existence prior to his Vita Merlini, and therefore we must find another Northern source.

Saint Kentigern
St Kentigern, commonly known as Mungo, was a Briton of the Strathclyde region in the 6th Century. He was apparently called In Glaschu, "the Grey Hound," by the Goidels and according to legend was of royal descent. His mother, Thenaw, or Theneva, who became known as St. Thaney, was the daughter of the Brythonic king Lleuddun, (Leudonus in Latin) alias the legendary Lot Luwddoc (of the Host) the early king of Gododdin, from who Lothian was named. She fell pregnant after being seduced by Owain mab Urien, King of Rheged. Her angry father threw her off Dunpelder (Traprain Law) but she survived and escaped to Culross on the other side of the Firth of Forth, where Kentigern, grandson of Lot, was born. St Kentigern’s ancestry is recorded in the Bonedd y Saint (‘Descent of the Saints’) compiled in the 12th Century.

After becoming the bishop of Garthmwl, (in the Glasgow region) Kentigern was opposed by a pagan king called Morken. After his death his relatives succeeded in forcing the saint to retire from Strathclyde. He consequently took refuge with St David at Menevia (St David's), South Wales, and then founded a monastery at Llanelwy (St Asaph), in Gwynedd, North Wales. Kentigern was recalled to Strathclyde following the battle of Ardderyd in 573 in which King Rhydderch, leader of the Strathclyde Christians was triumphant.

Kentigern’s adventures are recorded in The Life of Kentigern by Jocelyn, a monk of Furness, North Lancashire, writing in the late 12th century. Accounts of Kentigern describe how he met a crazed, half-naked man in the woods when he had gone to a solitary place to pray. The wildman told Kentigern that he was a Christian, but not a good one, and was living among the beasts of the wilderness as he was paying a lifelong penance for his guilt for stirring up a battle that took many lives. This wildman was cursed with seeing the future. A day came when he foresaw his own death, sometimes he expected to die by being impaled, sometimes by drowning. Kentigern allowed the Wildman to receive the sacrament but later he returned to the forest. In the northern sources this Wildman is always referred to in the Cumbric form of Lailoken, or Lalocen, corresponding to the Welsh form Lallogan, which as we have seen above is the term his sister Gwennddydd calls her brother Myrddin in the ‘Cyfoesi’. [19]

A later 15th Century manuscript, known as Cotton Titus A. XIX, contains the tales of Kentigern and Lailoken and Meldred and Lailoken. The first tale actually refers to him as Merlin, “He was known as Lailoken, and some say he was Merlin” and records how as soon as he had received the sacrament he:

“rushed away like a wild goat breaking out of the hunter's noose and happily seeking the undergrowth of the wilderness………… it came to pass that on the same day he was stoned and beaten to death by some shepherds of King Meldred, and in the moment of death had a fall, over a steep bank of the Tweed near the fort of Dunmeller, on to a very sharp stake which was stuck in a fish pool. He was pierced through the middle of his body with his head bent over into the shallows, and so yielded his spirit to the Lord as he had prophesied.”

The tale of Meldred and Lailoken is actually referred to as a Scottish Tale of Merlin:

“As he had predicted and as it is recorded above, so we have heard was his end accomplished. It is said that the king handed over his lifeless corpse for burial in just that place which he had chosen while he lived. Now that fort is some thirty miles from the city of Glasgow. In its plain Lailoken lies buried.
Pierced by a stake, suffering by a stone and by water,
Merlin is said to have met a triple death.”

The Northern tradition, based on the Lailoken legend, states that the wizard is buried near the village of Drumelzier (Dunmeller), near the point where the Powsail Burn joins the River Tweed. Across the Tweed from Drumelzier is a spot called Merlindale. The location of Merlin’s grave seems to have been well known by the 13th Century, as Thomas the Rhymer, prophesied:

“When Tweed and Pausayl meet at Merlin's grave,
Scotland and England shall one monarch have”

In 1603 King James VI of Scotland was crowned James I of England, and the River Tweed rose to an unprecedented height and overflowed into the Powsail as predicted.

Geoffery of Monmouth was consecrated as bishop of St Asaph on 21 February 1152 by Archbishop Theobald, though there is no evidence he ever visited his see, it does suggest a possible exposure to the tradition of St Kentigern and the Wildman as the source of his Vita Merlini. Although written down some thirty years or so previous to the Life of Kentigern, the Vita Merlini’s very limited number of extant copies indicates that transmission moved from the North of Britain to Wales.

According to A O H Jarman, the Myrddin legend developed in 5 stages:

1. Basic themes of the constituent elements of the legend developed prior to their association with characters and localities.
2. These basic themes became linked to Battle of Arfderydd (North Britain), St Kentigern and Lailoken.
3. The basic legend transferred from Northern Britain to Wales, and the identification of Lailoken with Myrddin.
4. The development of the legend in Wales.
5. The development of Myrddin as Merlin under the influence of Geoffrey of Monmouth. [20]

Which we can summarise as such:

Myrddin does not appear in any northern source
Lailoken (Lallogan) is the name always used in the northern sources
Myrddin associated with Lailoken as both possess power of prophecy
Merlin (the boy Ambrose) associated with Myrddin (Omen of Britain poem) as both possess power of prophecy
Merlin is only found in documents later than Geoffrey’s Historia

The source of the name of the wizard is still the subject of much debate, with popular claims that Carmarthen, originally the Roman fortress Moridunum, was named after the man, but the opposite would appear to be the case as it is doubtful that originally Myrddin had anything to do with the town:

Moridunum - constructed from the elements mor, mer, myr (sea) and ddun, ddin (fort)
Myrddin - derived from the Roman name Moridunum = myr + ddin (sea fort)
Caerfyrddin - Myrddin mutated to Welsh Fyrddin, popular prefix ‘caer’ (fort) became attached to mythical persons name to became known as the ‘fortress of Myrddin’.
Carmarthen - anglicized name of Caerfyrddin - Geoffrey’s 'Kaermerdin'.

We can only assume that some 15 years after completing his Historia, Geoffrey became aware of the northern tradition, possibly through St Asaph, concerning Myrddin/Lailoken the Wildman of the woods following the 6th Century Battle of Arfderydd and writes his Vita Merlini. Why he associated him with the 5th Century account of the boy Ambrose (Emrys or Merlinus Ambrosius) we don’t know, we can only assume it was the association of both Merlin and Myrddin with prophecy – perhaps if we knew the source he claims to have used, the “certain ancient book”, we could forgive his confusions. However, although Merlin would appear to be the sole creation of Geoffrey, we must not underestimate the impact of his Historia; for 500 years his fables were considered genuine history and corrupted the Arthurian legend beyond recognition.

The Tomb of the Wizard
The corpus of the Stanzas of the Graves (Englynion y Beddau) are found in The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin), compiled around 1250AD, and give no mention Myrddin’s grave. These are considered the earliest stanzas and referred to as Series I.  [21]However, this is not the only manuscript which contains Stanza of the Graves, a further 11 stanzas are to be found in the Red Book of Hergest, also once contained in the White Book of Rhydderch, and referred to as Series II.

A third series of a further 18 stanzas is found in the 16th Century manuscript Peniarth MS 98B. The Series III stanzas are considered very corrupt and to be used with caution, however, they do contain an allusion to Myrddin in the following stanza:

The grave of Ann son of a nun on…..mountain
Causing gaps in a host, lion of Emrais;
Chief magician of Myrddin Emrys.

This stanza has generated much debate and leaves us no wiser in finding the tomb of the wizard.

Some 25 miles north of Stonehenge there is a site claiming to be Merlin’s grave at Marlborough, Wiltshire. Merlin's Mount (or Mound), probably of Neolithic origin, can be found in the grounds of Marlborough College, at 60 feet high being reminiscent of a smaller scale Silbury Hill, which lies just five miles to the west near the giant stone circle of Avebury. [23] There is a tradition, tantalisingly close to the date of Geoffrey’s Vita Merlini (c.1150AD), in which it was recorded in 1215AD that the town was named after 'Merlin's Tumulus', when Alexander Neckham wrote in a poem: "Merlin's tumulus gave your name, Merleburgia". [24] The town's motto 'Ubi nunc sapientis ossa Merlini' meaning ‘Where now are the bones of wise Merlin’ adds further speculation to the location of the wizard’s grave. It is possible of course that Merlin’s Mount was known by that name prior to the circulation of Geoffrey’s tales of Merlin, but as we have seen above the name ‘Merlin’ is not found recorded prior to Geoffrey, indeed in 1086AD it was recorded as ‘Merleberge’ (Maerla's Hill), a Saxon name.

In later Arthurian Romance Merlin is said to be held captive by the enchantress Viviane, The Lady of the Lake. There is a further tradition that Merlin’s last resting place is on an island reputed to be the burial place of twenty thousand saints. Bardsey Island (Ynys Enlli), 2 miles off the Llyn Peninsula, Gwynedd, North Wales, where Merlin is said to be in a cave or glass tower guarding the thirteen treasures of the Island of Britain. Ynys Enlli has also been claimed to be the Island of Avalon by some self styled ‘historical detectives’.

Geoffrey does not mention Merlin’s death in either of his accounts, perhaps if he had we would expect him to say that Merlin was in the otherworld with Arthur, as he states in the Historia that following the strife of Camlann:

“Arthur himself, our renowned King, was mortally wounded, and carried to the isle of Avalon, so that his wounds might be attended to”. [25]

In the later Vita Merlini he tells how the mortally wounded Arthur was taken to Morgen and her sisters, the nine maidens, on the Island of Apples, known as "The Fortunate Island" but in this account he fails to make the connection with Avalon.

Geoffrey states that Aurelius Ambrosius and his brother Uther Pendragon were buried within the Giants Dance, and their nephew Constantine:

“They buried him by the side of Utherpendragon within the circle of stones, called Stonehenge in the English language, which had been built with such wonderful skill, not far from Salisbury”[26]

Logically, this is the place we would expect to find Merlin’s tomb as he is intimately connected with the site but, to date, no Dark Age burials have been found within the stone circle of Stonehenge. [27] Thus, after making his first literary appearance in the 10th Century, the wizard disappears as mysteriously as he arrived.

Continued in The Shaman and the Sorcerer Part I - Voices of the Forest 


17. Wyllt’, derives from the pre-7th century word "gwyllt" meaning wild, deranged, mad.
18. A O H Jarman, Early Stages in the Development of the Myrddin Legend, in Studies in Old Welsh Poetry, University of Wales Press, 1978, p.348.
19. Jarman, op cit. p.346.
20. Ibid. p.327.
21. Thomas Jones, The Black Book of Carmarthen ‘Stanzas of the Graves’ – Sir John Rhys Memorial Lecture 1967.
22. Ibid.
23. Michael Dames, The Silbury Treasue, Thames & Hudson, 1976, pp. 134-136. Dames suggests there is a clear relationship between Silbury, Merlin’s Mount and the Avebury complex. Both hills are situated on the River Kennet, one near its source, the other near its margin.
24. Geoffrey Ashe, The Traveller’s Guide to Arthurian Britain, Gothic Image Publications, 2nd Edition, 1997, p.170.
25. Geoffrey of Monmouth - The History of the Kings of Britain, translated by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Books, 1966, p.261. Geoffrey does not name Avalon in the Vita Merlini and does not equate it with "Glastonbury" as the place the dying Arthur is taken; this is a common misconception. He mentions Avalon just twice, on both occasions in his Historia, the first as cited above, the second time he states that it is the island where Arthur’s sword Caliburn was forged. (see Thorpe p.217).
26. Ibid. p.262. This is the only occasion that Geoffrey refers to the stone circle as Stonehenge.
27. A skeleton unearthed at Stonehenge in 1923 (and subsequently lost until refound in 1999) was radio carbon dated to the 7th or 8th century, several hundred years later than the Arthurian period. This skeleton was found with a small nick on the lower jaw and a cut mark on the fourth neck vertebra. This clean cut from behind and being found in a single grave, suggests decapitation with a sharp sword; an Anglo-Saxon execution.
Apart from this find only one other complete skeleton from the prehistoric monument exists. It was excavated in 1978 from the ditch around the circle; the body was buried in a shallow grave south-east of the main stone circle but within the main outer ditch, the man appears to have died in a hail of flint-tipped arrows and considered by some to have been a site 'guardian'.
Two other skeletons have been found at the monument but now lost. The first skeleton excavated at Stonehenge was thought to be Roman, was reburied in 1922 in an unmarked grave. The other was excavated in 1926 from the center of the circle, apparently lying under the axis of the monument, and was thought to be contemporary with the site.
However, a significant portion of the northwest of Stonehenge remains unexcavated.

Picture Credits:
Merlin and Vivien. Engraving by Gustave Dore.
Stobo Kirk Stained glass window of St Kentigern baptising Myrddin. One of the oldest churches in the Borders, although much of the present building dates from 12th century, it stands on the site of a 6th-century church reputedly founded by St Kentigern (St Mungo).
• Engraving of Merlin’s Mount, Marlborough, 1810.

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