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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