Saturday 18 April 2009

Wizards and Wildmen: Son of an Incubus

Lud’s Church (XIV)
Part Two

Son of an Incubus
We discussed in Part VII – Lludd’s Dragons how Geoffrey substitutes the fatherless boy “Merlin, who was also called Ambrose” for “Ambrosius” in his account of Vortigern’s collapsing tower due to a subterranean pool containing the dragons. Geoffrey says that Vortigern came to Mount Erir, considered to be Eryri, 'Abode of Eagles', modern Snowdon, his magicians advise him that the solution is that he must sprinkle the stones and cement with the blood from a fatherless child. The earliest record of the story is found in the 8th Century Historia Brittonum, attributed to Nennius, c.800AD:

“Vortigern inquired of his wise men the cause of this opposition to his undertaking, and of so much useless expense of labour? They replied, "You must find a child born without a father, put him to death, and sprinkle with his blood the ground on which the citadel is to be build, or you will never accomplish your purpose." [9]

From the above passage it is quite clear that the fatherless child, Ambrose (Emrys in Welsh) was to be a blood sacrifice to prevent the building collapsing; there was a common belief that human sacrifices, usually a child, must be buried under the foundations of monuments and buildings. Archeology supports this tradition as human remains have been found in the foundations of many structures from the Neolithic age to Roman times.

The Mabinogion tale Lludd and Llefelys, was contained, albeit it in abridged form, in later Welsh redactions of Geoffrey’s Historia, no doubt to account for how the dragons came to be buried at Dinas Emrys as told by Geoffrey in his story of ‘Vortigern and Merlin Ambrose’ included in his "Historia Regum Britanniae" (History of the Kings of Britain). The dragons were buried at Dinas Emrys, or the ‘fortress of Ambrose’, which was considered to be the stronghold of Britain. This can be no other, than the site of the ancient hill fort near Beddgelert, Snowdonia, North Wales, still called to this day Dinas Emrys. [10]

In the Nennius version of the tale, the king sent messengers throughout Britain, in search of a child born without a father. After having inquired in all the provinces, they came to the field of Ælecti in the district of Glevensing”. This is variously called Elleti, Electi, Gleti, near Bassaleg in the district between the rivers Usk and Rumney in Monmouthshire. [11]

Geoffrey states that Vortigern’s magicians found a fatherless child for the foundation sacrifice, They came to Kaermerdin and heard Merlin, who's mother was the daughter of the king of Demetia, but his father was unknown. The king calls for Maugantius to be called who advises him that Apuleius tells us in his book concerning the Demon of Socrates that between the moon and earth live spirits called ‘incubuses’ who assume human shape and lay with women.”

In the Nennius account, when asked his name, the boy replies to Vortigern:

"I am called Ambrose (in British Embresguletic)”, returned the boy; and in answer to the king's question, "What is your origin?" he replied, "A Roman consul was my father." [12]

This passage is somewhat contradictory as previously Ambrose was a fatherless child but now would appear to be the precursor of Ambrosius from a later passage in Nennius where he is “Ambrosius, who was the great king among the kings of Britain”, a totally different character who Geoffrey says is “Ambrose, also called Merlin”. For some reason unknown to us, Geoffrey confuses his Merlin with the boy Ambrose. Geoffrey was no doubt aware of the prophet Myrddin from the Omen of Britain, possibly his inspiration for the wizard, and this may be the reason for his association of the two figures both with the gift of prophecy as one and the same persona, regardless of the chronology. Geoffrey’s Merlin then goes on to become the prophet and advisor to Uther Pendragon and brings about Arthur's conception in his Historia.

After the incident at Dinas Emrys the Ambrose of Nennius and Geoffrey diverge.

In Geoffrey’s Historia Merlin was responsible for magically transferring The Giant’s Dance (Stonehenge) from Ireland to Salisbury Plain in England. Geoffrey’s account may have been based on an earlier tradition of the stones being transported from a site across the water, as it is now accepted fact that the smaller Bluestones were brought to Salisbury Plain from Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire.

Some 20 miles from the Bluestone site is the town of Carmarthen, according to Geoffrey, Merlin was born here and the city was later named Kaermerdin ("Merlin's fortress") after him. However, the etymology of the Roman name is Moridunum, (the sea fortress), therefore it is more likely that Merlin was named from the later Welsh name of Caerfyrddin, (Myrddin’s city). Until recently the town used to have an old oak known as Merlin’s Tree and about two and a half miles away is Bryn Myrddin (Merlin’s Hill), the summit known as Merlin’s Chair, the wood below is called Merlin’s Grove and on the other side of the road is Merlin’s Stone (Carreg Fyrddin). Three miles south west of the town is another megalith known as Merlin’s Quoit. There is also a local legend of Merlin’s Cave, a secret chamber, in the lower part of the hill, stating that Merlin is still here and alive and if you could find the right place to stand you can hear the old wizard. [13]

In a later passage in Nennius we see the emergence of Ambrosius, the leader of the British against the Saxons, a historical figure totally unrelated to Geoffrey’s Historia where he is Ambrose Merlin, and then referred to simply as Merlin. The Ambrosius from Nennius’ account would appear to be the same man as the one Dark Age leader admired by Gildas in his rant against the British Kings that he terms ‘Tyrants’; the same Ambrosius who rallied the British in the fight against the Saxons, and leader of the victorious Britons at the Battle of Badon:

“[The British] …took arms under the conduct of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive. His parents, who for their merit were adorned with the purple, kind been slain in these same broils, and now his progeny in these our days, although shamefully degenerated from the worthiness of their ancestors, provoke to battle their cruel conquerors, and by the goodness of our Lord obtain the victory.” [14]

After this, sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, won the field ………. until the year of the siege of Mount Badon when took place also the last almost, though not the least slaughter of our cruel foes, which was (as I am sure) forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity”. [15]

Chapter 56 of Nennius, the famous list of Arthur’s twelve Battles, records the victory of Badon as one of Arthur’s victories; therefore if we are looking for a historical Arthur the sources direct us towards Ambrosius.

Ambrosius Aurelianus is named Aurelius Ambrosius in Geoffrey’s Historia; this is evident as one and the same person as he refers to the “book which Gildas wrote concerning the victory of Aurelius Ambrosius” brother to Constans and Uthyr Pendragon and a totally separate character from his (Ambrose) Merlin. There appears to be a hint of a tradition of civil war between the two factions of Ambrosius and Vortigern within the British Dark Age sources of Gildas, Nennius and Geoffrey (not that he can be considered a serious historical source); “And from the reign of Vortigern to the quarrel between Guitolinus and Ambrosius, are twelve years, which is Guoloppum, that is Catgwaloph”. [16] But that, as they say, is another story.

Geoffrey was no doubt aware of the prophet Myrddin in the 10th Century poem the Omen of Britain, which almost certainly influenced the main section of his Historia pertaining to Merlin, “The Prophecies of Merlin” which he inserted at Book VII, although they were certainly in circulation prior to the publication of the main opus c.1136AD. After bringing the Giant’s Dance (Stonehenge) to Britain, followed by Arthur’s conception, Merlin’s significance fades from the Historia.

Around 1150AD the “Vita Merlini” (Life of Merlin) was published and generally attributed to Geoffrey of Monmouth, although some dispute this as it depicts a totally different Merlin from Geoffrey’s earlier creation. Some consider that Geoffrey became aware of the Northern Myrddin tradition sometime after he had written his Historia and produced the Vita Merlini to put the record straight as it were, but the later account contradicts his earlier Merlin, leading to the situation of two Merlins, separated by chronology and geography.

Myrddin is recorded in only one Triad:

Three Skilful Bards were at Arthur’s Court
Myrddin son of Morfyn,

Myrddin Emrys,

And Taliesin.

This Triad makes the clear distinction that there are two Myrddin’s; the son of Morfyn of the Northern Tradition and Myrddin Emrys, the Ambrose Merlin of Geoffrey’s creation.

Geoffrey’s later Vita Merlini is set in Northern Britain and mentions a battle which appears to be based on an historical account listed in a 10th Century manuscript featuring historical Northern British characters such as Peredur campaigning against Gwenddolau and Merlin’s sister Ganieda being wife of Rodarch (Rhydderch) king of the Cumbrians. Following this terrible battle, Merlin fled into the forest and lived an animal life, becoming a wildman of the woods with the gift, some would say the curse, of prophecy, whereas Geoffrey’s earlier Merlin (Ambrose) was born with the gift of prophecy.

Continued in Wizards and Wildmen Part III - Magicians and Madmen

* * *


9. Historia Brittonum, Attributed to Nennius, Translated by: J.A. Giles, in Six Old English Chronicles.
10. Archaeologist Dr H. N. Savory excavated the hill fort of Dinas Emrys between 1954-6, although it has long been known that there is a pool inside of the fort, he was surprised to find that not only were the fortifications of about the right Dark Age date for either Vortigern and Ambrosius, but there was also a later date, perhaps 11th Century, platform above the pool as described in the Historia Britonum.
11. Frank D. Reno, The Historic King Arthur, pp.42-43 states “... the village called in Welsh "Maesaleg," ie, campus Electi called at present ‘Bassaleg’ “.
12. Historia Brittonum, Attributed to Nennius, Translated by: J.A. Giles, in Six Old English Chronicles. It is generally accepted that "Embresgueltic" here refers to "Prince Emrys”. ‘Embreis guletic’ (Old Welsh) is glossed here in the manuscript (a ‘gloss’ being a later addition to the original, an explanatory note in the margin perhaps). In Modern Welsh this appears as Emrys Wledig; as we seen in the later medieval Mabinogion tradition The Dream of Mascen Wledig it can also mean ‘Imperator’ (Emperor). John Morris, in Nennius British History and the Welsh Annals, Phillimore, 1980, translates this as “Emrys the Overlord”. It has been suggested that Vortigern is a title rather than a name, from the Brythonic word "tigern" thus "Vor-tigern" would mean something like “high-king” or "overlord". Gildas does not directly mention the name of Vortigern, only by a probable deliberate pun on his name as the “superbus tyrannus”; the proud tyrant who invited the Saxons into the country.
13. Geoffrey Ashe, The Traveller’s Guide to Arthurian Britain, Gothic Image Publications.
14. Gildas - De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, trans. J A Giles. “Wearing the purple” is a clear reference to Ambrosius’s family being of imperial stock as it was the colour worn by Roman Emperors, typified by the Toga Purpurea, used by a triumphant army commander when he entered Rome after a victorious war and the Toga Picta, a purple robe embroidered with gold. It was one of the insignia of higher Republican officials, worn only on a triumphant occasion; the custom was later adopted by emperors.
15. Gildas - De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, trans. J A Giles. Giles translates "Badonici montis" as "Bath-hill".
16. Historia Brittonum, Attributed to Nennius, Translated by: J.A. Giles, in Six Old English Chronicles. Guoloppum, (Catgwaloph) that is the Battle of Wallop 437AD, generally considered to have taken place in North-West Hampshire, where there are the three villages Over, Middle and Nether Wallop, sited along three miles of the Wallop Brook, barely ten miles as the crow flies from Amesbury, the traditional stronghold of Ambrosius. This area of Hampshire appears to have been a stronghold of the Dark Age British as attested by survival of settlement place-names such as Andover and Micheldover.

Picture Credits:
• Dinas Emrys [circa 1795]
• Ambrose Merlin reads his prophecies to Vortigern, from a manuscript of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Prophetiae Merlini.

* * *

Saturday 11 April 2009

Wizards and Wildmen: Lleu's Death

Lud’s Church (XIV)
Part One

Pierced by a spear, crushed by a stone,
And drowned in the stream’s waters,
Myrddin died a triple death.
Lleu’s Death

Lleu’s transformation into an eagle at the end of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi has been the subject of much discussion, not least the similarities between Lleu and the Norse god Odin in what is claimed to be a shamanistic initiation ritual. The eagle features in many mythologies around the world, its majestic qualities leading to association with ancient kings throughout history.

The Mabinogi of Math details a strange sequence of conditions required to bring about Lleu’s death. Firstly, he can only be killed with a spear that must have been worked for a year and a day, only on Sunday, during the time of Mass; secondly he cannot be killed inside or outside a house; thirdly he can neither be killed on horseback or on foot.

These conditions are overcome when Lleu emerges from the bath in a gazebo-like bath house, having no walls but a roof, therefore neither “indoors or out”. He places one foot on the back of a buck-goat and the other on the edge of the bath, neither “on land nor on water” or “on horseback or on foot”.

Goronowy Pebyr cast the spear which struck Lleu, he immediately turned into an eagle and took flight to be found later on an oak tree by Gwydion at Nantlle in western Snowdonia. A suggested translation for Goronwy Pebyr has been “shining/radiant, spearman”. “Shining/radiant” has also been suggested as an etymology for the name Lleu which has led to suggestions that he is a sun deity

The conditions required to bring about Lleu’s death bring to mind the 14th Century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, conjectured at being written in the Staffordshire Moorlands, nearby to Lud’s Church. We have already discussed how this medieval tale probably derived originally from the much earlier 8th Century Irish tale Bricriu’s Feast (The Champion’s Bargain or Portion). [2] A shorter, more archaic version of Bricriu’s Feast, called the Yellow or Terror version (sometimes the Uath version), and differs from the Champion’s Bargain in that the warriors must travel to meet the challenger. They meet a man known as Yellow son of Fair, who sends them onto meet a man called Terror son of Great Fear who challenges them to the Beheading Contest beside a lake.

The Beheading Contest always features three strikes, or axe cuts in this tale, which is symbolic of the threefold death reserved for Kings and Deities in Proto-Indo-European mythology holding a particular obsession in Celtic myth. There are essentially two distinct types of threefold death in Indo-European myth, the first being, the death of one individual simultaneously in three ways; hanging from a tree (strangulation); drowning; wounding. The threefold death is foretold, often by the victim himself, and can be considered as retribution for an offence against one, or more, of the three functions of Indo-European society. [3]
The second form of the threefold death is divided into three distinct deaths as sacrifices to three distinct gods of the three functions.

The threefold death as three distinct sacrifices can be found in the epic poem Pharsalia, (also known as De Bello Civili or On the Civil War) telling of the civil war between Julius Caesar and the forces of the Roman Senate, written by Lucan in 61-65AD. The poem describes Caesar's conquest of Gaul; he describes three Celtic gods to whom are delivered human sacrifices:

”And those who pacify with blood accursed
Savage Teutates, Hesus' horrid shrines,

And Taranis' altars cruel as were those”

According to a marginal note in a medieval manuscript of the Pharsalia:

“Taranis was propitiated by burning, Teutates by drowning, and Esus by means of suspending his victims from trees and ritually wounding them”.

Book III of the The Pharsalia recounts the Roman vexation at the horror of the Druid groves, giving another life in their affirmation of the transmigration of the soul, which permeated Celtic religion at the time. The following passage paints a macabre scene of the Druid’s forest groves and appears to portray firsthand experience by the poet:

“Now fell the forests far and wide, despoiled
Of all their giant trunks: for as the mound

On earth and brushwood stood, a timber frame

Held firm the soil, lest pressed beneath its towers

The mass might topple down. There stood a grove

Which from the earliest time no hand of man

Had dared to violate; hidden from the sun

Its chill recesses; matted boughs entwined

Prisoned the air within. No sylvan nymphs

Here found a home, nor Pan, but savage rites

And barbarous worship, altars horrible

On massive stones upreared; sacred with blood

Of men was every tree. If faith be given
To ancient myth, no fowl has ever dared

To rest upon those branches, and no beast

Has made his lair beneath: no tempest falls,

Nor lightnings flash upon it from the cloud.

Stagnant the air, unmoving, yet the leaves

Filled with mysterious trembling; dripped the streams
From coal-black fountains; effigies of gods
Rude, scarcely fashioned from some fallen trunk”

Lleu in Y Gododdin
In Part XIII – Gwydion’s Eagle we discussed Y Gododdin the Dark Age poem recalling a raid by the Gododdin, a tribe occupying modern Lothian, on Catraeth, an event usually dated around the end of the 6th Century. The raid was a disaster for the Northern Britons; in one account only the poet Aneirin survives. We noted how there are in existence various renditions of that poem owing to the fact that it survives in the mid-13th Century manuscript in at least three variants, namely A, B1 and B2 texts.
All three texts, and therefore the oldest variant, B2 text, contain the lines “the rock of Lleu’s tribe, the folk of Lleu’s mountain stronghold at Gododdin’s frontier” a reference to Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, also known as The Crag or The Rock.

It has been proposed that the youngest variant of Y Gododdin, the A text, moved to Gwynedd following the Battle of Winwaed, recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle as 655AD. This variant became enlarged with additions from a Welsh scribe to 88 stanzas and was no doubt influenced by a similar oral tradition as the Mabinogi as it contains references to characters from Culhwch ac Olwen and mentions Twrch Trwyth, the boar hunted by Arthur. The A text contains the reference to “Gwydion’s Eagle” generally accepted as a direct reference to Lleu from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. [6]

The episode of Lleu’s death at the end of the Mabinogi of Math would appear to contain all the details of the threefold death in Celtic society, even transmigration of his soul as an eagle. Significantly, this same stanza also alludes to Myrddin, who also suffered a threefold death.

Myrddin in Y Gododdin
In that same stanza of the A text variant of Y Gododdin mentioning Lleu as Gwydyen’s Eagle there is also an allusion to Myrddin, included in the following lines,

Morien defended,
The fair song of Myrddin and laid the head,

Of a chief in the earth….. [7]

Compare with another translation of the same passage:

Morien defended,
Myrddin’s praise song, and placed the chieftain,

In earth…..

The earlier, B text, version of the poem omits this line, therefore it cannot safely be regarded as part of the original 6th Century poem, and suspiciously looking like a later addition to the A text variant of Y Gododdin, dated to 900-1100 AD, as we have seen above, developed with Gwynedd influence. Although Myrddin does not appear in the Mabinogi, his influence would appear to be from an independent Northern tradition.

The earliest known reference to Myrddin occurs in "Armes Prydein" (the Omen or Prophecy of Britain). The earliest extant manuscript copy of this prophetic poem dates to c.1275 AD, contained within the Book of Taliesin. However, the poem has been dated on linguistic and historic grounds to c.930 AD. The name Myrddin appears only once in the poem, in the opening line of one stanza that reads:

"Dysgogan Myrdin ..." (Myrddin fortells)

We cannot totally dismiss the possibility that the poem experienced later additions in Gwynedd as with Y Gododdin textual variations, and the name Myrddin substituted at some point later than 930 AD, it is generally considered to be original as it safely fits the poem structure as a similar opening formula is used on two other occasions in the poem:

"Dysgogan Awen ..." (poetic inspiration fortells)
"Dysgogan derwydon ..." (wise men fortell)

Myrddin is considered by some commentators to be a genuine historical character from Dark Age Northern Britain, but there would appear to be no evidence to support this. Historically he is an even more elusive than the warrior Arthur. The basic element of the Myrddin legend no doubt has its provenance in Northern Britain and as we have seen with Y Gododdin, became influenced by later Welsh medieval literature.

However, there does appear to be an independent tradition regarding a prophet called Myrddin as we have seen in the Omen of Britain, although we cannot securely date this tradition prior to the 10th Century. The common perception of a wizard in a pointed hat with long white beard as familiar to most people from childhood tales are no more than modern interpretations of the Merlin creation of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey had to rename him as Merlin as Myrddin sounds too much like merde, excrement to a Norman audience.

Continued in Wizards and Wildmen Part II - Son of an Incubus


1. "Meldred and Lailoken”, British Library manuscript Cotton Titus A. XIX.
2. See Part III – The Hawk of May
3. The Trifunctional Hypothesis is a controversial conjecture proposed by French mythographer Georges Dumézil. The hypothesis states that Indo-European religion has societies and religions divided into three similar roles: warriors, priests, and farmers, as seen in the Welsh story Lludd & Lleuelys, which echoes three elements of the story of Naudu and Lug, in the Irish tale The Second Battle of Mag Tuired.
4. Pharsalia (“On The Civil War"), BOOK I, The Crossing of the Rubicon - Marcus Annaeus Lucanus. The Online Medieval & Classical Library []
5. Pharsalia (“On The Civil War"), BOOK III Massilia, The Online Medieval & Classical Library []
6. John T Koch, The Gododdin of Aneirin: Text & Context from Dark Age North Britain, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1997.
7. A O H Jarman, Aneirin: Y Gododdin, Gomer Press 1990, stanza 45, p.30.
8. Joseph P Clancy, Medieval Welsh Poems, Four Courts Press 2003, A text, stanza 40, p.55.

Picture Credits:
Lleu’s Bath House from The Mabinogion by Lady Charlotte Guest
Merlin and Vivien enter the woods. Engraving by Gustave Dore.

* * *