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He was Dumbledore before Dumbledore. Gandalf before Gandalf. Merlin was the original long-beard, pointy-hat wizard.
You know the type.
He can shapeshift. Control the weather. Predict the future. Anything the heart desires (or a plot requires).
Turns out, this was a pretty common storytelling trope across medieval Northwestern Europe. To quote French dramatist Xavier Boniface Saintine:
“Of magicians and wizards I could say much, but the road is long and I am in haste to reach the end. And who does not know the story of the prowess of Merlin and of the Maugis? In all the ancient traditions of the North there are found innumerable tales of wizards, witchcraft, and ghosts. Now rocks are changed into palaces, and now brutes into men and men into brutes; and the same fantastic but always epic element prevails largely in all the old romances of chivalry as well as in the great poems of Ariosto and Tasso.”source: Myths of the Rhine
It’s clear that Saintine places Merlin within a broader, mythological context. And who can blame him? This is a figure who, according to the oldest written account of Arthurian Legend, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1138 CE work Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), is responsible for the construction of Stonehenge.
Although to be fair, in Monmouth’s account, Merlin steals the monument from Ireland, and a team of giants do most of the heavy lifting (naturally).
But here we reach an impasse in our exploration of Merlin. Because while it seems obvious that he is a mythological figure, the fact that Merlin is part of Arthurian *Legend* implies he is a legendary figure, i.e., that he is based, at least in part, on some actual, historical person.
Merlin: Man, Myth, or Legend?
Ask British historian Nikolai Tolstoy and he’ll tell you without hesitation:
“Merlin was indeed an historical figure, living in what are now the Lowlands of Scotland at the end of the sixth century A.D. … he was an authentic prophet, most likely a druid surviving in a pagan enclave of the North. Much of the early poetry attributed to him in Welsh manuscripts is drawn, it seems most likely, from an earlier body of authentic prophetic verse uttered by Merlin himself.”source: The Quest for Merlin
Prepare to swallow a very large grain of salt. Because when Tolstoy writes about “Merlin” in the above paragraph, he isn’t really describing Merlin.
Allow me to explain.
The character of Merlin first appeared in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1130 C.E. work Prophetiæ Merlini (Prophecies of Merlin). This was a prequel of sorts to Historia Regum Britanniae (in which King Arthur made his first appearance), and Geoffrey of Monmouth would go on to incorporate Merlin’s prophecies into later editions of Historia Regum Britanniae.
Now, Geoffrey of Monmouth maintained that the prophecies he recorded were the actual words of Merlin, King Arthur’s right-hand mage, magician, sorcerer, druid—whatever you want to call him. But when you consider that many of these “predictions” dealt with events contemporaneous with Geoffrey’s lifetime, it’s clear that poetic license was taken.
Even if he did rely on ancient Welsh poetry and other Brittonic sources (as he claimed), Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century fingerprints are all over the sixth-century figure of Merlin. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say he invented the character, and it’s absolutely true that he came up with the iconic name.
So if you’re asking if Merlin was a real, historical person, if he actually existed, the short answer is…no
That being said, Geoffrey of Monmouth didn’t create Merlin—or come up with the name Merlin—in a vacuum. He had a LOT of inspiration.
I can hear some of you shouting in the back right now: Ugh! This writer is so stupid! Merlin is based on a real guy named Myrddin! Does he not know about Myrddin?!
Relax, my friends. I know about Myrddin. We’re going to learn more about him right now.
Was Merlin Based on a Real Person?
See, this is the question we should be asking. Not was Merlin a historical person, but was Merlin based on a historical person? (With apologies to my British-English readers for not using “an”s with my “historical”s).
Historians agree that Geoffrey of Monmouth definitely drew inspiration for Merlin from the historical-ish figure Myrddin Wyllt (“Myrddin the Wild”). I say historical-ish because, well, you’re about to find out.
According to the Annales Cambriae, in 573 CE Myrddin went mad after participating in the Battle of Arfderydd. He ran off into Scotland’s Caledonian Forest, lived in the wilderness, communed with wildlife, and gained the gift of prophecy. It’s a narrative the fictional Merlin follows closely in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1150 CE work Vita Merlini (The Life of Merlin).
The problem with this story, if you want to call it a problem, is that man-flees-war-goes-crazy-in-the-forest is a Celtic folklore motif. It shows up in at least one other Brittonic/Brythonic tale (re: Lailoken) as well as in the Gaelic/Goedelic tradition with Buile Shuibhne (The Madness of Sweeney / The Frenzy of Sweeney), a famous story from Irish mythology.
It makes me think of the meme with the multiple Spider-Men (Spider-Mans? Spiders-Man?) pointing at each other.
Who is the real Merlin archetype here?
Who is the original?
Nikolai Tolstoy, for his part, acknowledges the shared backstory between Myrddin (whom Tolstoy considers to be the historical Merlin) and Irish mythology’s Mad Sweeney. What’s more, he doesn’t view the Sweeney parallel as an encroachment upon or somehow a diminishment of Myrddin’s status. Instead, he sees it as evidence that Myrddin was a druid (perhaps among the last of them) who shared a Celtic religion and culture with Irish druids, the latter of whom made regular voyages to ancient Britain.
Regardless of whether he was more man than legend or legend than man, Myrddin inspired (or at least partially inspired) Geoffrey of Monmouth’s creation of Merlin. Indeed, it is likely that the name Merlin (Merlinus) is a Latinization of the Welsh name Myrddin.
French scholar Gaston Paris further suggested that Geoffrey switched the double “d” in Myrddin to an “i” because it sounded like shit.
Geoffrey might’ve been worried that “Myrddin” was too close to the French word for shit, merde.
But as we’ve already hinted at, to treat Myrddin Wyllt as the only inspiration for Merlin would be fallacy. Despite being the wizard’s likely namesake, a more thorough accounting of Merlin’s appearances in Arthurian Legend reveals that more than one quasi-historical wiseman inspired Geoffrey of Monmouth’s creation of the famed character.
Once again, I’ve been asking the wrong question. What I should be asking is…
Was Merlin Based on Real People?
So, Merlin. Man? Myth? Legend? All of the above? It’s looking more and more like all of the above. Merlin’s origins are a mosaic, weaving together tales and attributes from multiple quasi-legendary figures.
According to Undiscovered Scotland, there are two figures who definitively inspired Merlin: the aforementioned Myrddin Wyllt, and Ambrosius Aurelianus. And I quote:
“What seems clear…is that King Arthur’s Merlin as described by Geoffrey of Monmouth was a combination of two separate historical characters. One was our Myrddin Wyllt, and the second was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a war leader of the Romano-British who won an important battle against the Anglo-Saxons in the 400s. The result of this merger was the wizard “Merlin Ambrosius”.
Ah, yes. Merlin’s last name: Ambrosius. Turns out our old pal Geoffrey was not very subtle. In fact, it’s been argued that he deliberately tried to conflate characters—including Merlin—with heroes from Britain’s ancient past, legendary figures in their own right who had been remembered for fighting off Saxon invaders.
Heroes like Ambrosius Aurelianus, a.k.a. Ambrose Aurelian, or, as Geoffrey of Monmouth styled him in Historia regum Britanniae, Aurelius Ambrosius.
A ninth-century Welsh monk named Nennius wrote about Ambrosius Aurelianus’s exploits and wonder-workings in his work Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons). Geoffrey of Monmouth liked Nennius’s Ambrosius stories so much he copied them, replacing Ambrosius with Merlin Ambrosius. This can best be seen in the story of Merlin as an adolescent, when he goes to the Celtic king Vortigern and uncovers two underground dragons.
Yeah, welp, that was originally a story about Ambrosius Aurelianus. Geoffrey didn’t even bother to change the name of the king.
Why would Geoffrey of Monmouth plagiarize so blatantly? It’s simple, really. Because he needed to flesh out the character of Merlin!
His 1130 C.E. work, Prophetiæ Merlini (Prophecies of Merlin), didn’t tell readers much about the character. So in order to give Merlin more depth, he “borrowed” formative moments and biographical details from Myrddin Wyllt and Ambrosius Aurelianus.
And perhaps from other historical/legendary figures too…
For example, there are obvious similarities between Merlin and Taliesin, the latter of whom was a sixth-century C.E. bard (who was later reimagined as a powerful druid / enchanter). In medieval Welsh manuscripts, he is often referred to as Taliesin Ben Beirdd (Chief of Bards).
Geoffrey of Monmouth even wrote about Taliesin in Vita Merlini, having likely drawn inspiration from an earlier poem, “Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin” (“The Conversation between Myrddin and Taliesin”), which was featured in The Black Book of Carmarthen.
The Breton philologist Théodore Claude Henri, vicomte Hersart de la Villemarqué—whom I shall henceforth refer to as Villemarqué in an effort to preserve my sanity—had a different theory. He argued that the French holy man Saint Martin of Tours was the true historical persona behind Merlin.
This was an odd choice, of course, as St. Martin was known for shutting down pagan shrines and rituals (source: The Religion of the Ancient Celts by J. A. MacCulloch) whereas Merlin was known to be a builder and practitioner of them.
So, what did Villemarqué see in St. Martin that made him think of Merlin? I mean, it was probably the superpowers.
In his hagiography, St. Martin of Tours can raise the dead, heal the sick, cast out devils, and bend fire to his will. Sounds like a wizard to me. What’s more, in St. Martin’s early days he was a soldier, but he became disillusioned with the army and left the service. For a while thereafter he lived on an island as a hermit, eating wild herbs and roots to survive.
Yes, the parallels are there, for those who wish to seek them out.
Final Thought: Xavier Boniface Saintine was right.
And he was right on two fronts.
“In all the ancient traditions of the North there are found innumerable tales of wizards…”source: Myths of the Rhine
“Of magicians and wizards I could say much, but the road is long and I am in haste to reach the end…”source: Myths of the Rhine
The Druids and King Arthur: A New View of Early Britain by Robin Melrose
The Book of Merlin: Magic, Legend and History by John Matthews
Scotland’s Merlin: A Medieval Legend and Its Dark Age Origins by Tim Clarkson
The Lost Years of Merlin (Book One) by T. A. Barron
The Merlin Trilogy by Mary Stewart
The True History of Merlin the Magician by Anne Lawrence-Mathers
Magic in Merlin’s Realm: A History of Occult Politics in Britain by Francis Young
Want to learn more about Arthurian Legend?
I recommend the audiobook King Arthur: History and Legend, written and narrated by Dorsey Armstrong. Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 15-hour audiobook for free.
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