Everyone knows who Merlin is – or do they?

For many the stories about a wizard who aids King Arthur are an integral part of the Arthurian Romance tradition. But trace that tradition back far enough and both Arthur and Merlin have separate existences unrelated to each other. The two were brought together by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136). Geoffrey had previously published a series of Prophecies of Merlin and included these in his ‘History’. Some years later he wrote a long verse ‘Life of Merlin’ which draws upon pre-existing Welsh legendary material about a character called Myrddin who lived as a wild man in the Caledonian Forest. Gerald of Wales, writing later in the twelfth century, speaks explicitly of two Merlins: Merlin Ambrosius and Merlin Silvestris. While he is likely to have drawn these from the work of Geoffrey he may also have seen other material and claimed he had his own ancient book of the prophecies of Merlin, though he never published these.

Geoffrey based the Merlin of his ‘History’ on a character called Ambrosius mentioned by Nennius in the ninth century and attached him to the stories about King Arthur. He may not have become fully familiar with the earlier Welsh legendary material about ‘Myrddin Wyllt’ until after writing his ‘History’, his later ‘Life of Merlin’ is based on earlier material in Welsh, some of which has survived. This Merlin, like Taliesin, was regarded as a prophet and had a number of verses attached to his name over an extended period of time. The earliest ones, probably from the ninth or tenth centuries rather than the sixth century when he was supposed to have lived, are contained in a series called the ‘Afallenau’ because they are addressed to an apple tree which seems to afford him some sort of protection and prevent others finding him:

In this glade a sweet apple tree

From Rhydderch’s men hides me

Though many are there to see.

(Awallen peren atif in llanerch/y hanger tae hargel rac riev Ryderch/amsaethir in y bon. maon yn y chilch.)

He was living in the woods as a wild man following the Battle of Arfderydd where Gwenddolau was defeated by Rhydderch Hael. This battle is an historically attested event and is thought to have taken place at Arthuret near to the border between England and Scotland in the year 573. It is likely that the legendary ‘wild man’ stories (which have parallels in the Scottish tale of Lailoken and the Irish tale of Suibhne Geilt) became attached to the story about a survivor from the Battle of Arfderydd. There are references in the ‘Afallenau’ to Merlin having the company of a “fair, wanton maiden” ( bun wen warius) in his early days in the forest but she has left him by the time the verses are written. There is also a dialogue between Merlin and his sister Gwendydd whose son Merlin has slain in the battle and this is given as a reason for the madness that made him flee to the forest.

Armes Prydein (‘Prophecies of Britain’) in The Book of Taliesin contains the phrase “Merlin predicts …” which appears as a parallel to “Awen predicts …” elsewhere in the poem. Also attributed to Merlin is a ‘conversation poem’ (Ymdiddan) between himself and Taliesin. And so he becomes one of the ‘Cynfeirdd’ (earliest poets writing in Welsh) located in the area known later in Wales as ‘The Old North’, and like Taliesin a bard with prophetic powers. Once his legend was established in Wales it also became associated with Carmarthen because his name seems to be contained in the Welsh form ‘Caerfyrddin’, though this actually originates in Moridunon which would naturally have developed into ‘Mer-ddin’ (Sea Fort) and the tautology ‘Caer’ would have been added when it was thought of as ‘Merlin’s Town’. This is compounded by the fact that the verses of Myrddin are recorded in the manuscript of The Black Book of Carmarthen and therefore seeming to record a local tradition. At the same time, Geoffrey’s composite Merlin was gaining fame across Europe as the wizard behind the throne of King Arthur and gaining further accretions as it did so. He has been reinterpreted in our own day among other things as, e.g., Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, and reconstructed by the writer Nikolai Tolstoy, as a remnant druid and priest of Lugh surviving in the Celtic kingdoms of the North. He still has the power to conjure such images as a figure who answers the call to something embedded deep in psychic space: the magician, the wise man, the hermit removed from but integral to our cultural life.


History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth (translated by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Books, various editions)

Life of Merlin (Vita Merlini) by Geoffrey of Monmouth (translated by Richard Barber in Myths and Legends of the British Isles, Folio Society 1998) ; also JJ Perry (Forgotten Books, 2008)

Journey Through Wales and Description of Wales by Gerald of Wales (translated by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Books, various editions)

‘Early Stages in the Development of the Merlin Legend’ by A.O.H. Jarman in Astudiaethau ar yr Hengerdd (ed. Rachel Bromwich a Brinley Jones, Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 1978)

Trioedd Ynys Prydain ed Rachel Bromwich (University of Wales Press, various editions) also contains useful discussion and quotations.

The poems attributed to Myrddin are contained in the manuscripts of The Black Book of Carmarthen and some are anthologised though these are hard to find in translation (the translation above is mine). A good source of extracts is the edition with translations by Meirion Pennar (Llanerch, 1989)

Author: Greg Hill

Awenydd/Poet, Cultural Critic

6 thoughts on “MYRDDIN becomes MERLIN”

  1. Thanks for bringing this all together. Gerald’s distinction between Merlins Ambrosius and Silvestris is interesting, with the latter sounding like he has sylvan qualities, hence Wyllt.

    By the way, do you have any idea where the conversation between Myrddin and Taliesin took place?

    Also, would your recommend Meirion Pennar’s translation of ‘The Black Book of Carmarthen’ over William Skene’s translation in ‘The Four Ancient Books of Wales’? Are there any additional poems included?

  2. Good question, Lorna; the ‘conversation poem’ between Myrddin and Taliesin contains references to both the northern tradition of The Battle of Arfderydd and also references to a battle in Dyfed in Wales. As the poem that we have is several centuries later than these battles it’s usually assumed either that it brings together diverse earlier material or, in the view of Meirion Pennar, that it records different battles but between the same rival factions or clans.

    Skene’s pioneering translation is now regarded as flawed. Meirion Pennar is more accurate but his version only provides extracts of what is anyway a diverse range of material. The edition of J Gwernogfryn Evans (1906) Reproduces the complete text.

    (Further discussion on …)

  3. I’d always wondered if any soldiers with PTSD after battle are called/call to Myrddin. He seems a really good deity for those with PTSD to go to for recovery, led to a focus on the healing protection of the mystical side of plant and animal life, away from humans. The shelter of the apple tree would perhaps bring back the security lost. I’ve meant to blog about this and thank you for reminding me.

    1. Yes, I certainly think Myrddin Wyllt can be a focus for retreat and recovery and the safety conferred by the apple tree and its cloak of invisibility can be seen as a place of healing and renewal.

      I’ve always thought of him more as a druid than a deity, but people who lead exemplary lives enacting otherworldly patterns of behaviour often take on a divine status in their legends which then become mythological in their significance, as here.

      1. Yes, I would consider him an ancestor of spirit. Often people have shrines for the beloved dead of their calling – you’ve certainly done a lot of research about who the Awenydd of Britain are, which is a great gift for any modern awenydd wishing to have a shrine!! Perhaps he’d be an ancestor of spirit for veterans who turn from war to poetry, nature study, magic etc.

        I very much appreciate your ability to research and translate! I’ve seen that with Celtic Reconstructionists who focus on Scotland or Ireland, but Brythonic is very neglected. I suppose Manx, Cornish and Bretton would be even harder.

        Funny that the center of living Celtic culture is Nova Scotia. The language dies in many places, but pops up across an ocean! They have more Celtic language everyday speakers than anywhere and many competitions and festivals in poetry, dance etc. I don’t have any links, but I thought you might interested in how the last surviving Celtic culture is writing.

        Funny, there’s no Nova Scotia Celtic Tradition! The poet competitions and festivals I thought you might enjoy, being isolated in a non-Celtic culture. I hear Wales is having a rather successful language revival,, which is hopeful. When the language is lost, the cosmology is lost. I know many Celtic Reconstructionists work with indigenous language activist groups to prevent cultural genocide.

        On my mom’s side I’m descended from Gwynedd, starting with Maelgwyn “the hedonistic bisexual”. I found Timothy Venning book The Kings and Queens of Wales REALLY helpful. One interesting note I hadn’t known was Rhun Hir mother is down as “a daughter of Afallach” and not Maelgwyn wife. I wondered if you’d heard that before? it doesn’t necessarily mean Modron, but it would lend even more credit to her being a Sovereignty goddess who furthers the claim to rightful kingship.

        I wish you had a book!

  4. Yes I think more Welsh people see the Language as an important cultural identifier, even if they are not fluent themselves. And yes, language activism does become a social responsibility in a place like Wales.

    I don’t know Timothy Venning’s book. Genealogies can get quite tangled and claims for links to legendary origins might be contested when competing claims are made. The Ancestors are, however, there for all of us who identify with the land and the cultural heritage that grew from the communities that have lived on it.

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