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

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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.

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