Was Merlin a Druid?

An illustration of Merlin as druid from “Merlin and the Knight,” an engraving from a gift book published in 1847

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Merlin, the famed wizard, seer, enchanter, sorcerer (etc.) from Arthurian Legend, certainly bears all of the superficial hallmarks of a Celtic druid.

He’s got the robe, the long beard, a healthy affinity for nature, and perhaps an unhealthy affinity for the supernatural. As King Arthur’s right-hand magic man, Merlin advises not only on spiritual matters, but also on matters of politics and war.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say this character was definitely a druid. (The fact that there’s a myth/legend/folktale about Merlin overseeing the construction of Stonehenge, the most famous of ancient druid hangouts, is icing on the cake.)

Giants help the young Merlin build Stonehenge in a manuscript of Wace's Roman de Brut (c. 1325-1350)
Giants help the young Merlin build Stonehenge in a manuscript of Wace’s Roman de Brut (c. 1325-1350)

But I do know better. And so do you.

We know that Geoffrey of Monmouth, the famed chronicler of Arthurian Legend who introduced the character of Merlin in his 1130 C.E. work Prophetiæ Merlini (Prophecies of Merlin), was an Anglican bishop.

And we know that in later interpretations of the character, starting with French poet Robert de Boron’s in the 13th century, Merlin was thoroughly Christianized. He even became the prophet of the Holy Grail—despite being born the antichrist.

Conception of Merlin in Lancelot en prose (c. 1494)
Conception of Merlin in Lancelot en prose (c. 1494)
Jean Colombe’s illumination of the story of Merlin’s unholy birth as told in the Prose Merlin (c. 1480)

Another potential issue with the Merlin-was-a-druid theory:

Were there still any druids around in Britain in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, when most of the stories from Arthurian Legend are set?

We’ll get to that later.

As it stands, the medieval stories that tell of Merlin never explicitly refer to him as a druid (caveat: to the best of my knowledge). So when faced with the question: Was the Merlin from Arthurian legends and other Brittonic/Welsh folklore a druid? The answer has to be “no.”

Or does it?

Just because the Christian chroniclers of Arthurian Legend never called Merlin a druid, does that for sure mean he wasn’t one? Scottish journalist, folklorist, and occult scholar Lewis Spence didn’t think so. To quote his 1917 work Legends & Romances of Brittany:

So far research on the subject seems to show that the legend of Merlin is a thing of complex growth, composed of traditions of independent and widely differing origin, most of which were told about Celtic bards and soothsayers. Merlin is, in fact, the typical Druid or wise man of Celtic tradition, and there is not the slightest reason for believing that he was ever paid divine honours. As a soothsayer of legend, he would assuredly belong to the pagan period, however much he is indebted to Geoffrey of Monmouth for his late popularity in pure romance.

source: Legends & Romances of Brittany

Chroniclers like Geoffrey of Monmouth might not even have known that they were shining a light on the intellectual elites of the ancient Celtic world. Their “new” stories about this magical fella Merlin were based on older stories, which in turn were based on older stories, which in turn were based on older stories, and so on. Details were lost—sometimes deliberately—in translation/transcription.

And we also have to remember that there was no Celtic scholarship going on in the Middle Ages. Hence, even the most highly educated Arthurian chroniclers of the day wouldn’t have known about A) the role of druids in ancient Gaul, as described Strabo and other classical writers, or B) Julius Caesar’s assertion that Britain was a global headquarters of sorts for druids, with Celtic peoples traveling there from all over mainland Europe in order study the druidic doctrine.

But I digress.

The bigger takeaway here is that I’ve been asking the wrong question. Instead of waxing historical about the hypothetical occupation of a fictional character, I should be asking: Were any of the real, historical people who inspired Merlin—specifically his namesake, Myrddin Wyllt—druids?


Was the “Real Merlin” (Myrddin) a Druid?

First things first. Was Merlin a real person? Already answered it.

No.

BUT—and this is one gigantic “but”—Merlin was based on at least a couple of historical(ish) people. Notably, Myrddin Wyllt (Myrddin “The Wild”) and Ambrosius Aurelianus. 

That latter guy, Ambrosius Aurelianus, was a celebrated fifth-centruy CE Romano-British battle commander who, while a wise strategist, was clearly more fighter than moral philospher or prophet.

The sixth-century “madman” Myrddin Wyllt, on the other hand, is a different case altogether. To quote British historian Nikolai Tolstoy:

“…Myrddin was a pagan druid or bard, surviving in a predominantly Christian age, and…his poetry was of an overtly heathen nature.”

source: The Quest for Merlin

That poetry, unfortunately, no longer exists in its original form. As Tolstoy explains:

“Indeed it may be that the disappearance of his original work was no accident, but the work of censorious copyists in early times. In any case, the pagan elements in the Myrddin poetry are so archaic as to make it inconceivable that they could be concoctions of the mediaeval Christian mind.”

source: The Quest for Merlin

What are these “pagan elements” Tolstoy is talking about here? One such example could be the numerology/prophecy found in “The Dialogue of Myrddin and Taliesin,” a poem from The Black Book of Carmarthen (first published in the 13th century). Here’s an excerpt:

Myrddin:

A host of spears fly high, drawing blood.

From a host of vigorous warriors–

A host, fleeing; a host, wounded–

A host, bloody, retreating. 

Taliesin:

The seven sons of Eilfer, seven heroes,

Will fail to avoid seven spears in the battle. 

Myrddin:

Seven fires, seven armies,

Cynelyn in every seventh place. 

Taliesin:

Seven spears, seven rivers of blood

From seven chieftains, fallen. 

Myrddin:

Seven score heroes, maddened by battle,

To the forest of Celyddon they fled.

Since I Myrddin, am second only to Taliesin,

Let my words be heard as truth.

It’s notable that this poem establishes Myrddin as a bard, contemporaneous with Taliesin, the sixth-century Welsh “chief of bards” (Ben Beirdd). And while a bard isn’t the same thing as a druid, both roles were part of the same Celtic spiritual-cultural-political system. (Arguably, becoming a bard was the first step toward becoming a druid.)

What’s more, in the poem “Armes Prydein,” which Tolstoy dates to around 930 CE, Myrddin (retroactively anglicized to “Merlin”) is described as making prophecies, a function that that very same text attributes to druids. Here, I’ll let Tolstoy explain:

“An enormous amount of speculative nonsense continues to be written on the subject of druidism, but it seems possible that Merlin was a druid, or at any rate fulfilled some druidical functions. The implication seems to be present in the earliest reference to his prophetic powers, the poem Armes Prydein, composed about the year 930. This prophecy of the coming expulsion of the English begins one section with the words, ‘Merlin foretells’ (dysgogan Myrdin), and another with the ‘druids foretell’ (dysgogan derwydon), which suggests at the least that their roles were similar, if not identical.”

source: The Quest for Merlin
The young Merlin reading his prophecies to King Vortigern in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Prophetiae Merlini (c. 1260)

Tolstoy goes on to recall the classical accounts of druids making prophecies in ancient Gaul, further cementing the case that Myrddin performed a similar function. And Tolstoy’s right, of course: many of the prophecies made by Gaulish druids (especially female druids) sound very similar to the political/ascension prophecies (e.g. who will be the next king?) attributed to Myrddin and his later incarnation, Merlin. Here’s Tolstoy again:

“The Emperor Aurelian (A.D. 270-75) consulted a druidess, who told him of the glorious future awaiting his descendants. His successor Diocletian was told by a Gaulish druidess that, ‘When you have killed The Boar, you will indeed be Emperor’, a prophecy fulfilled when he slew the Prefect Arrius, nicknamed The Boar. Merlin frequently employs such symbolism, prophesying in the Vita Merlini that, ‘Dumbarton will fall, with no king to rebuild it for an age, until the Scot is defeated by a boar’.”

source: The Quest for Merlin

Yes, all signs point to Myrddin being a Celtic druid. And if you’re still unclear how Tolstoy feels about the subject, this following quotation is about as unambiguous as it gets:

“Possibly in name and certainly in function he [Myrddin] was the Chief Druid, who presided over rituals necessary to preserve the harmony of the natural order.”

source: The Quest for Merlin

But historically, does this even make sense? I guess what I’m really wondering is….


Were Druids Still Around During Myrddin’s (Hypothetical) Lifetime? 

Remember, by the sixth century CE, Christianization was in full swing. Across the pond in Ireland, St. Patrick had already completed his famed ministry.

Were there any druids left?

Short answer: Yes. There was at least one druid still operating in an official capacity in Britain. And, over in Ireland, despite Patrick’s best efforts to convert Irish druids into Christian priests, there were still plenty of druids running around. To quote Tolstoy:

“Irish druids were not confined to Ireland. All along the western seaboard of Britain were Irish colonies, established during the declining days of the Roman Empire and only reabsorbed into British culture in the fifth and sixth centuries. They doubtless brought their druids with them, and an inscription c. 500 on the Isle of Man appears to commemorate the ‘son of a druid’. To the north of the Britons of Strathclyde lay the territory of the Piets, whose King Bruide (a contemporary of Rhydderch and Gwenddolau) maintained a druid (mentioned by Adomnan) at his court near Inverness.”

source: The Quest for Merlin

Timeline-wise, the Myrddin-as-druid story checks out.

Granted, there are no historical accounts of Myrddin studying druidic doctrine for the prescribed twenty years.

Instead, all we have is a passage from the Annales Cambriae establishing that in 573 CE, Myrddin went mad and fled into the wilderness of Scotland’s Caledonian Forest after witnessing the death of his king, Gwenddolau, during the Battle of Arfderydd.

It is presumed that Myrddin had been Gwenddolau’s bard. Then, during his time in the forest, he had unlocked the power of prophecy, effectively leveling himself up to “druid” status (or at least “vate” status).

Of course, you’re probably well aware that druids had a special affinity for trees and forests. The word “druid” likely means “knower of the oak.” And it is in oak groves where druids would often convene to conduct official druidic business. Hence, Myrddin’s stint as a forest-dweller further hints at him having been a druid. As Tolstoy explains:

“What has been conjectured of [Myrddin’s] refuge in the Caledonian Forest certainly accords with druidic practice. Roman writers describe them as ‘meeting in secret either in a cave or in secluded groves’, and declare that, ‘the innermost groves of far-off forests are your abodes.’ It has been suggested that they sought out these remote woodland haunts only as a result of Roman persecution or disapproval, but such circumstances would in any case apply to Myrddin’s condition after the battle of Arderydd. Perhaps the most that can be said is that if Merlin was not a druid, his inspiration was very much in the druidic tradition.”

source: The Quest for Merlin
The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones (1874)
The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones (1874)

But Did Myrridin Actually Exist?

The only problem with all of this fun conjecture about Myrddin being a druid is that Myrddin’s historicity has never been confirmed.

Yeah, it’s kind of a big monkey wrench in this whole exercise.

For starters, there’s the missing Myrddin poetry, which Tolstoy explains away by suggesting it was intentionally destroyed.

Then there’s Myrddin’s conspicuous absence from the Historia Brittonum (written around 830 CE), in which all of the great Welsh poets are listed.

Taliesin, Myrddin’s presumed contemporary, is on the list.

Myrddin is not.

And if you’re thinking to yourself, well, maybe Myrddin didn’t make the list because he wasn’t Welsh—maybe he was Scottish, like Tolstoy argued, today’s academics would counter that the name “Myrddin” is a derivation of the Welsh place name “Caerfyrddin” (source: Arthuriana: Early Arthurian Tradition and the Origins of the Legend). Sooo yeah, Myrddin was Welsh. Or rather, the legendary figure of Myrddin was intended to be Welsh.

Because here’s the thing:

The more one learns about Myrddin Wyltt, the more one realizes he is more myth than man. 

Remember that thing I said earlier about stories on stories on stories?

Turns out, it is likely Myrddin Wyltt was based on an earlier “wild man” figure who was Scottish: Lailoken. 

Lailoken was a sixth-century prophet/seer/possible druid who lived in the Caledonian Forest.

Sound familiar?

But it gets even weirder. Because in Irish mythology, there’s the story Buile Shuibhne (The Madness of Sweeney, a.k.a. Sweeney’s Frenzy a.k.a. Sweeney’s Flight).

Guess what happens in that story?

Exactly.

Our main character “goes mad” following a battle and runs away into the wilderness.

At least the details are different.

In the Irish version of the “wild man” story, Suibhne mac Colmain a.k.a. Suibhne Geilt (“Suibhne the Madman”) starts out as a king—the king of the Dál nAraidi. When he goes mad, he doesn’t hunker down in one particular forest. Instead, to elude capture (he is a king who fled a battlefield, after all), Suibhne wanders Ireland, and in some accounts he even wanders all the way over to Scotland.

It’s the same. Story. Over and over and over. Four versions of it. Suibhne. Lailoken. Myrddin. Merlin.

Geoffrey of Monmouth certainly knew he was ripping off Myrddin lore when he told his own version of the wild man story in 1150 CE’s Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin). But did Merlin’s de facto inventor also know he was promulgating a much older Celtic motif?  

We’ll probably never know.

But what I do think we can figure out is….which of these “mad men” came first? (And no, this isn’t a Don Draper joke).

In my next article, I’ll attempt to answer the question:

Who was the *original* inspiration for Merlin? Suibhne, Lailoken, or Myrddin?


Further Reading

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.


Interested in Irish & Celtic mythology? Check out…

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The hardcover Collector’s Edition of the short story collection Pyles of Books called “a thrilling romp through pubs, mythology, and alleyways. NEON DRUID is such a fun, pulpy anthology of stories that embody Celtic fantasy and myth.” Cross over into a world where the mischievous gods, goddesses, monsters, and heroes of Celtic mythology live among us, intermingling with unsuspecting mortals and stirring up mayhem in cities and towns on both sides of the Atlantic, from Limerick and Edinburgh to Montreal and Boston. Learn more…


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