Was Merlin Inspired by Irish Mythology? The Search for the Original Celtic “Wild Man”

image created with DALL·E mini based on the prompt "Celtic Wild Man"

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Sacrilege, I know. Suggesting a key figure from Arthurian Legend actually has his roots in Irish mythology. But here is my solemn vow:

I promise I’m going to let the evidence do all of the talking in this article.

Given the name of this blog/website/whatever-this-is-I-do-here, obviously I think it’d be grand if every story were somehow inspired by Irish mythology. It’d definitely give me a lot to write about. But as a staunch realist, I know that’s fanciful thinking.

And I’ll admit to you right now:

I don’t have a good feeling about this Irish-origin-for-Merlin hypothesis. Mainly because someone commented on an earlier article of mine, “Was Merlin a Real Person?”, and shared the following:

The standard historical trajectory is:

Lailoken (Southern Scotland) which then moves to Wales, Myrddin Wyllt and Ireland Sweeny.

Lailoken, oldest example of the wild man in Europe: transmission is thought to come from the Middle East, probable monastic, although yet to be fully determined.

Geoffrey would write a later manuscript much closer to the traditional British wild man, the Vita Merlin.

The relationship they have with history is that they are retrospectively placed at its start. Where you begin a historical narrative is always a retro determination.

Creatures of the historians’ craft, the beginning of British history.

Yes, a very thoughtful comment. And I have no reason to doubt the commenter’s assertions about the origins/trajectory of the Wild Man motif.

But for the sake of those who want to learn more about Suibhne Geilt, the Irish wild man; and Myrddin Wyllt, the Welsh wild man; and Lailoken, the Scottish wild man, I’m going to take a few steps back and go over the basics (re: what the heck is a “wild man”?).

Then I’ll drill down into the publication dates of the various medieval manuscripts that introduced these characters. That way, we can know for sure who came first: Suibhne, Myrddin, Lailoken… or someone else.

Granted, Celtic storytelling was a largely oral tradition, so “year published” may not actually be the best data point for dating ancient stories, as counterintuitive as that sounds. 

But I digress.

What Is the “Wild Man of the Woods” Celtic Storytelling Motif?

Merlin, The Enchanter vu par Louis Rhead dans Sir James Knowles's King Arthur and His Knights, 1923
Merlin, The Enchanter vu par Louis Rhead dans Sir James Knowles’s King Arthur and His Knights, 1923

I nearly started this section by attempting to describe the horrors of war. In particular, I wanted to describe the gory nature of ancient, close-quarters combat. The colliding of sword and spear and shield. And so on.

But that seemed unnecessary.

I’m sure you have a sufficiently vivid imagination to conjure an image of an Iron Age battlefield. And there, staggering away, face smeared with blood, is a man. The shell of a man.

He wanders. Aimless. Rudderless. But an invisible force pulls him toward the forest.

Yes, this is where he belongs now. In the wilderness. Amongst the sacred trees. Away from war. Away from civilization.

This is where the secret truth of the world, nay, the universe, shall be uncovered. 

This is where the Wild Man will gain the power of prophecy.

He returns to the kingdom he once served a changed man. Wise beyond his years. A long, white beard hanging down to his waist.

This is a story about Merlin.

This is a story about Myrddin Wyllt.

This is a story about Suibhne Geilt.

This is a story about Lailoken.

Indeed, this same story has been told about many a quasi-legendary Celtic druid-types. 

But who was the first Wild Man of the Woods?

Was Merlin the Original Celtic “Wild Man”?

Merlinus (Merlin) in the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)
Merlinus (Merlin) in the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)

No. Definitely not.

As I established in my earlier article, “Was Merlin a Druid?”, historians agree that the character of Merlin from Arthurian Legend was directly inspired by (at least) two earlier figures: the sixth-century Welsh bard/vate/druid Myrddin Wyllt and the fifth-century Romano-British war hero Ambrosius Aurelianus.

Those are the dual namesakes of the world’s most famous wizard, full name: Merlinus Ambrosius.

Clearly, he’s a composite character—not the original.

What’s more, we know precisely when (and how) Merlin was invented/introduced: 1130 C.E. in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Prophetiæ Merlini.

Was Myrddin Wyllt the Original Celtic “Wild Man”?

An older Merlin as portrayed in Alfonso the Wise's compilation of texts of astronomy (c. 1400)
An older Merlin as portrayed in Alfonso the Wise’s compilation of texts of astronomy (c. 1400)

Probably not.

As I explained in an earlier article about Merlin’s origins, the Annales Cambriae, the earliest copy of which dates back to the twelfth century—but is presumed to be a copy of a 10th-century original—tells the tale of Myrddin Wyllt (“Myrddin the Wild”). Myrddin, who was likely a druid (or at least performed the function of one), fled the Battle of Arfderydd after witnessing the death of his king, Gwenddolau. He took up residence in Scotland’s Caledonian Forest. You know the rest: Myrddin turned into a wild man, gained the power of prophecy, etc., etc.

The Annales Cambriae gives a precise year for Myrddin’s flight, 573 C.E., but it’s important to remember that precise dates aren’t always the best indicators of precise history.

Most historians agree that Myrddin was more myth than man—just the latest incarnation of the Wild Man of the Woods folk motif.

What’s more, it’s very likely that the Welsh poets who wrote of Myrddin “stole” the character from Scottish folklore.

Was Lailoken the Original Celtic “Wild Man”?

image created with DALL·E mini based on the prompt “Celtic Wild Man”

It’s certainly possible.

The first detail that stuck out to me when I began researching the Scottish wild man Lailoken was that he—like Myrddin—fled to the Caledonian Forest. 

What a freakin’ coincidence!

(This was not a coincidence.)

Arthurian studies professor A. O. H. Jarman argued that the Lailoken story was brought from Scotland to Wales sometime in the ninth or tenth century.

O. J. Padel, also a professor of Arthurian studies, places the Lailoken-Myrddin tale transfer closer to the mid-twelfth century, but agrees that, of the two, Lailoken is the older Celtic Wild Man (source: Arthuriana: Early Arthurian Tradition and the Origins of the Legend).

Lailoken made his first textual appearance in the hagiography Life of Kentigern, where he featured in two stories: “Kentigern’s encounter with Lailoken”, and “Lailoken in King Meldred’s court,” both of which likely date back to the early 11th century (source: Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia).

However, it’s believed that the original source materials for the Kentigern stories could date back to the 10th century if not earlier—including one source that likely had a Gaelic origin. This source was a “little volume written in the Scotic dialect”, according to Life of Kentigern scribe Jocelyn of Furness, an English Cisterian monk who also penned (quilled?) The Life and Acts of St. Patrick.

While Jocelyn’s Kentigern hagiography was written “probably before 1185,” there was an earlier manuscript that predated it by some three decades. Known as the Herbertian Life of Kentigern, this version likely relied on the same “Hiberno-Latin composition” that Jocelyn used. To quote Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia:

“Jocelin’s ‘little book’ was probably a Hiberno-Latin composition, the same as had been used to compile the earlier Life of Kentigern. In the earlier Life, St Servanus, learning of the babe Kentigern’s discovery, utters a Gaelic phrase, which indicates Gaelic roots for one of Jocelin’s sources. The ‘little book’—-probably a product of 11th-century Gaelic influence from the kingdom of Alba on Strathclyde (Ystrad Clud)—was known to the Herbertian author, and continued in use at Glasgow (Glaschu) until it was superseded.”

For context, the Kentigern I’m referring to here was the patron saint and reputed founder of the city of Glasgow. Born in Culross (a village in Fife, Scotland)—and known lovingly as “St. Mungo” among his fellow Scots—Kentigern was a missionary in the Brittonic Kingdom of Strathclyde.

The earliest historical accounts of Strathclyde come from Welsh and Irish sources, including the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland. This is not that surprising, given that “[s]warms of Irish from Ossory and Wexford” had started settling “along the west and north coasts” of Britain near the end of the fifth century (source: Legends & Romances of Brittany). Indeed, the Gaelic influence of these Irish immigrants is reflected in the source material Lailoken appears in.

As linguist and Celtic languages specialist Kenneth H. Jackson points out, two stories that appear in the Life of Kentigern, “The Ring in the Salmon” and “The Miracle of the Blackberries/Mulberries”, have “characteristically Irish features.” To quote Jackson:

“The former was familiar in Ireland at this time; the latter was well established there, and there must be some close connection between the version in the Life and that in [the Irish satire] Tromdám Guaire. Besides, the words honorem asportare point to a Gaelic origin. Both of these motifs must have been current as popular tales among the Gaelic-speaking immigrants in Strathclyde. Miraculous stories of that type, full of folk-lore and popular motifs, are absolutely characteristic of Irish saints’ Lives, and are very much rarer and less well-developed in Brittonic ones.”

source: “The Sources for the Life of St. Kentigern” via Studies in the Early British Church

It’s clear that Irish folklore influenced the local folklore of Strathclyde. But does that mean that Lailoken, the Strathclyde Wild Man, had a legendary Irish predecessor?

Was Suibhne Geilt the Original Celtic “Wild Man”?

image created with DALL·E mini based on the prompt “Celtic Wild Man”

It’s complicated.

At first glance, there’s plenty of evidence to support an Irish origin for the Celtic Wild Man and, by extension, Merlin.

There’s the aforementioned “Hiberno-Latin composition” that served as the source material for Lailoken’s appearance in Life of Kentigern. 

Then there’s the fact that that same source material contained two stories (one about a salmon, one about berries) with parallels in the Irish satire Tromdám Guaire.

But that’s really just the tip of the standing stone

(Sorry, lame attempt at a “Celtic” joke. Maybe “tip of the menhir” would’ve been better? But I digress.)

Suibhne Geilt—“Sweeney the Mad” or “Frenzied Sweeney”—was the king of Ireland’s Dal Raidhe (a.ka. Dál Riata/Riada) kingdom, which covered areas of modern-day Antrim, Down, and the Bann valley. He famously/infamously fled the battle of Magh Rath (the plain of the forts) in 637 C.E., as recorded in the story Buile Shuibhne (The Madness of Sweeney, a.k.a. Sweeney’s Frenzy, a.k.a. Sweeney’s Flight).

Archaeological evidence supports this date for the battle of Magh Rath a.k.a. Moyrath a.k.a. Moira. During the construction of the Ulster Railway, crews uncovered the remains of thousands of soldiers and horses, supporting the ancient claim that 100,000 soldiers took part in the battle.

Add to this the historical evidence: Suibhne’s name appears in the Book of Aicill, a law track that dates back to the ninth century. That’s earlier than anything we have for any of the other Celtic Wild Men.

True, the events of Lailoken and Myrddin’s lives take place earlier. For example, Myrddin is said to have fled the Battle of Arfderydd in 573 C.E., but that’s according to the Annales Cambriae, the earliest extant copy of which is from the twelfth century (although its content likely dates back to the tenth). And while there is a suggested site of the Battle of Arfderydd—Arthuret—there’s been no conclusive archaeological evidence on the scale of Magh Rath/Moira. 

Then there are all the similarities between Suibhne and his Welsh and Scottish counterparts, indicators that these legendary figures are linked and not independent creations. For example…

Flight of the Irish Bird Man

Suibhne and Myrddin both adopt bird-like features when they take up residence in the wilderness.

Here, take a gander at historian Peter Berresford Ellis’s entry for Suibhne:

“A king cursed by St. Ronan so that, in spite of his human form, he assumed the characteristics of a bird, leaping from tree to tree. In this Suibhne, interestingly, has a Welsh counterpart in Myrddin Wyllt. He is said to have fled frenzied from the Battle of Moyrath.”

source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology

And consider this observation from British historian Nikolai Tolstoy:

“Coming closer to the legend of Merlin proper, it is notable that his Irish counterpart Suibhne is represented not only as flying high above the trees and clouds, but actually as growing feathers. It is quite clear that Suibhne is here envisaged as adopting the guise of ‘the bird-soul in travail’”

source: The Quest for Merlin

Tolstoy further argues that in early Arthurian legend, references to Merlin’s “esplumoir”—including the one in the Didot Perceval, which was written perhaps as early as 1190—clearly invoke the same type of druidic/prophetic transformation one finds in the Suibhne story: And I quote:

“Had the critics glanced at the story of Suibhne Geilt, they must have seen immediately that we have here a parallel to Suibhne’s feathers. Whatever the original source of the esplumoir reference, it surely represented Merlin as donning his ‘feathers’, i.e. a feathered cloak. The Welsh plufawr, ‘feathers’, derives from Latin pluma and one can easily see how during translation from either language incomprehension could creep in. The wizard clad himself in his feathered costume, perhaps on top of a high mountain, and flew off beyond the gaze of man. Having no knowledge of such an unusual garb or procedure, the poet imagined Merlin had disappeared into some sort of mysterious ‘feathered’ building.”

source: The Quest for Merlin

I, for one, agree with Tolstoy. Donning a feathered cloak makes much more sense than sleeping in a feathered house. Side note: I first noticed this wild Celtic fashion trend when I was working on an article about casting the Celtic gods in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In one of the images I found, Taliesin—the most famous of the Welsh bards and, in later legend, a druid-esque figure capable of enchantment—wears a cloak of feathers.

an illustration of the Welsh bard Taliesin (source: mypoeticside.com)

Taliesin and Myrddin were ostensibly contemporaries, appearing together in “The Dialogue of Myrddin and Taliesin,” a poem from The Black Book of Carmarthen (circa the 13th century).

But here’s the thing: If we’re trying to figure out whether or not Suibhne is the oldest Celtic Wild Man, we need to compare him more directly to Lailoken, as a majority of historians agree his legend preceded the legends of Myrddin and Merlin.

And there is a distinct connection to be found: Both Lailoken and Suibhne had interactions with Christian saints.

Oh, When the Saints…

illustration of dozens of saints commemorating All Saints Day
The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs by Fra Angelico (circa 1395 –1455)

According to Jackson, the events described in the primary source material for Lailoken—Life of Kentigern“would be quite at home in an Irish saint’s Life.” In a footnote, Jackson elaborates on this Irish connection to Lailoken:

“In fact Suibhne, the corresponding Irish Wild Man, is closely linked with the legend of an Irish saint, Moling, and one would say that this is a necessary part of the story, if it were not that the fragmentary Welsh versions of the Strathclyde Wild Man (Myrdin) have nothing comparable.”

source: “The Sources for the Life of St. Kentigern” via Studies in the Early British Church

Now, technically, Suibhne has connections to two Christian saints: St. Ronan, the saint who cursed Suibhne for his refusal to allow the establishment of a new church in his kingdom, and the aforementioned St. Moling, who befriended Suibhne toward the end of his life and may have helped transcribe (and thus preserve) Suibhne’s story. To quote J. G. O’Keeffe, translator of Buile Suibhne:

“The evidence so far would seem to point to the fact that the tradition of Suibhne’s madness and of his poems and of the stories about him goes back to the time of Suibhne himself, and that Moling may have had a share in the actual moulding of the tradition.”

Buile Suibhne (Introduction & Notes)

The presence—if not influence—of St. Moling in the Suibhne material is another date-marker, a historical signpost for Suibhne’s existence. We know that Moling lived from 614 to 696 C.E., and we know that ole Sweeney went “mad” in 637. 

Meanwhile, St. Kentigern (a.k.a. Mungo), who had encounters with the Scottish “madman” Lailoken, lived from…

…518 to 614 C.E.

A lifetime that coincides perfectly with the Battle of Arfderydd in 573 C.E.—the defining moment in Lailoken’s life.

There’s a consistency there. As is the case with the Suibhne tradition, the Lailoken tradition revolves around both a historical battle and the life of a historical saint.

And whose tradition is older?

Well…Lailoken. But…

Nope. No buts.

I’m done making excuses.

Most Historians Agree Suibhne Geilt Was Based (At Least Loosely) on Lailoken

image created with DALL·E mini based on the prompt “Celtic Wild Man”

Yes, I’ll admit it: I’ve been strategically withholding expert testimony for dramatic effect.

Consider this the big reveal.

Most historians are in agreement that Lailoken predates Suibhne, and that the latter was based—at least in some small part—on the former. 

The degree to which Suibhne was based on Lailoken, however, is still a matter of debate. 

According to O’Keeffe, Buile Suibhne is a composite story, combining the historic personage of Suibhne with the same Celtic Wild Man of the Woods motif that inspired Merlin.

“The story on the whole seems to be made up of a small folk element, probably deriving from the same source as the Merlin legends, and a historical element, with the battle of Magh Rath for a background.” 

Buile Suibhne (Introduction & Notes)

And as several historians have already established, the “source” of the Merlin legends is—more likely than not—Strathclyde, giving rise first to the Scottish Lailoken, then the Welsh Myrddin. That doesn’t mean the Wild Man folk motif originated in Strathclyde, but, according to Jackson, it’s clear that the Wild Man was a cultural fixture there prior to the arrival of Irish immigrants en masse in the fifth century. To quote Jackson:

“Whatever its ultimate origin, [the story of the Wild Man] was very likely a well established popular tale in Cumbric Strathclyde, belonging to the saga of the Battle of Arfderydd, before the Gaelic immigration ever took place…Quite possibly our Glasgow Gaelic cleric who compiled the ‘Scottic’ Life was responsible for this too, taking it however from local Cumbric lore, not from Gaelic; and if so, the connection of the Strathclyde Wild Man with the Strathclyde saint may be due in the first place to him.”

source: “The Sources for the Life of St. Kentigern” via Studies in the Early British Church

The Irish Celtic studies scholar James Carney further argued that “the Myrddin-Lailoken-Merlin legend and the Suibne legend are not merely cognate but rather identical themes” (source: Studies in Irish Literature and History). He went on to state definitively that “the Laoloken-Myrddin story was the origin of the Suibne story,” noting that the story jumped from Britain to Ireland sometime before 800 C.E.

When you consider that the Welsh word for “wild”—gwyllt—was the likely inspiration for Suibhne’s nickname, geilt, the case for a Britain-to-Ireland transmission of the Wild Man motif becomes even stronger.

Oh, and then there’s the little matter of Suibhne’s historicity, which, as it turns out, is lacking.

To quote creative writing professor Susan Shaw Sailer’s research paper, “​​Suibne Geilt: Puzzles, Problems, and Paradoxes”:

“Of the avenues open to us, then, none can establish Suibne’s historicity…I designate as the only Suibne we can know the Suibne of supposition and legend. But here, too, Suibne tantalizes us through the paradox, inconsistency, and indeterminacy that surrounds him.”

source: The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies

Speaking of inconsistency: Suibhne, as I mentioned earlier, was the king of Ireland’s Dál Riata kingdom. What I failed to mention was that he was a Pictish king—the Picts, of course, being originally from Scotland. (FYI: The Picts spoke a Brittonic-Celtic language, which would later be absorbed into Gaelic as the entire culture underwent Gaelicization.)

While the Suibhne found in the pages of the Buile Suibhne is described as the son of Colman Cuar, there is no man by that name/lineage on any of the Dál Riata’s meticulously kept kings’ lists, nor does that name appear in any of the earliest references to the Battle of Magh Rath, such as the one found in Adamnani Vita Columbae (Prophecies, Miracles and Visions of St. Columba) from the seventh century.

One of the first times we find Suibhne described as the son of Colman Cuar is in the Annals of Tigernach, written during the eleventh century. And I quote: 

“A.D. 637.— The Battle of Magh Rath was fought by Domhnall, son of Aedh… in which fell Suibhne, the son of Colman Cuar.”

Sooo yeah. This Suibhne clearly didn’t flee from battle—or if he tried, he didn’t make it too far.

According to Carney, the reality is that in the original version of Buile Suibhne, a version that has long-since been lost to history (or some dusty shelf), the main character was not Suibhne son of Colman Cuar, as the later manuscripts style him, but Suibhne son of Eochaid Buide, king of the Dal Riada in Scotland from 608 until 629 CE.

There you have it. The final nail in the coffin.

The “Irish” Wild Man of the Woods, Suibhne Geilt, was very likely Scottish. There is even poetry from the early medieval period (re: Anecdota) that refers to Suibne Geilt as “an t-Albanach”—the Scotsman.

So, after all that, it seems clear that the Irish-origin-for-Merlin theory has been thoroughly, and satisfactorily, debunked. 

Or has it…? 

Was Goll the Original Celtic “Wild Man”?

image created with DALL·E mini based on the prompt “Celtic Wild Man”

I was ready. So ready to turn the page on Merlin and Myrddin and Lailoken and Suibhne and to start writing about something else. Anything else.

Then I read the following passage from Ellis’s A Dictionary of Irish Mythology:

“Geilt. One who goes mad with terror or flees panic-stricken from the field of battle. During the Cath Fionntragha (Battle of Ventry) when Fionn Mac Cumhail fought with Daire Donn, the King of the World, one of his young warriors named Goll fled frenzied from the battle. He made his way to Gleann na nGealt (Co. Kerry), the glen of lunatics, which was the one place in all Ireland to which — so it was said — lunatics left to their own devices would go. In the glen (Glennagalt) he found Tobergalt, the lunatics’ well, and by drinking from it and eating the cresses that grew near, and living in seclusion, he recovered his senses. Suibhne, who fled frenzied from the Battle of Moyrath, also made for Glennagalt.”

source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology

Turns out Suibhne was not the only Irish “Geilt”. Before Suibhne, there was Goll—a character forever immortalized in William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Madness Of King Goll”.

Not to be confused with Goll mac Morna (former leader of the Fianna and killer of Fionn mac Cumhaill’s father), this Goll—a.k.a. Gall—was an Ulster prince who would have lived in the second and third century C.E., making him, by far, the oldest example of the Celtic Wild Man…

…assuming he actually existed. 

While there isn’t a lot of information on Goll Geilt, it’s very plausible that the Wild Man motif was applied retroactively to the character during the transcription of the Fenian Cycle stories—the Fenian Cycle being one of the four main cycles of Irish mythology, which focuses primarily on the exploits of the Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhaill and his warriors, the Fianna.

The debate around Fionn’s historicity continues—and thus we can consider Goll the same way. Perhaps, like Suibhne, he was a historical person, upon which was thrust the burden of legend.

(Or something.)

Now, as far as I can tell, the name Fionn mac Cumhaill first appeared in the 10th century, courtesy of Cináed ua hArtacáin, Ireland’s Chief Ollam from 946 to 975 C.E.

But that’s not really all that helpful, because the story we’re interested in, Cath Finntrágha, or The Battle of Ventry, didn’t appear in written form until the 15th century.

However, historians agree that the Cath Finntrágha relied on older source material. 

So perhaps there was an even older Irish Wild Man who inspired Goll…

Was Bolcán the Original Celtic “Wild Man”?

image created with DALL·E mini based on the prompt "Celtic Wild Man"
image created with DALL·E mini based on the prompt “Celtic Wild Man”

A quick primer on the Battle of Ventry:

Bolcán, the king of France, had a daughter, Mis, who fell in love with Fionn mac Cumhaill and ran off to Ireland to be with him.

It wouldn’t have been that big of a deal, except for the fact that Mis was already married to Dáire Donn (a.k.a. Dáiri/Dairi Donn), the self-styled “King of the World”. Dáire Donn gathered forces from across Europe—Bolcán’s army included—and made for Ireland.

Oisín (a.k.a. Oisin, Ossian), son of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, fights Bolcán in single combat. Bolcán gets flighty and makes for the woods. Unlike in the Goll-flees-Battle-of-Ventry story, in this French Wild Man tale, Bolcán doesn’t seek refuge in the Glennagalt. Instead, he ends up in a different Irish “forest of lunatics”, Glen Bolcan (also: Bolcáin), identified as modern-day Glenbuck in County Antrim.

Same battle, two different Wild Men, two different forests.

If only it were that simple…

Was Mis the Original Celtic “Wild Woman”?

Merlin and Nimue in Romance of King Arthur (1917) abridged from Le Morte d'Arthur by Alfred W. Pollard, illustrated by Arthur Rackham: "How by her subtle working she made Merlin to go under the stone to let wit of the marvels there and she wrought so there for him that he came never out for all the craft he could do."
The romance of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. Abridged from Malory’s Morte d’Arthur by Alfred W. Pollard. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Published 1920 by Macmillan in New York.

There is a third Celtic Wild Person associated with the Battle of Ventry: the aforementioned Mis. 

Mis is the daughter of Bolcán, the king of France; the wife of Dáire Donn, the King of the World; and the lover of the Irish champion, Fionn mac Cumhaill.

After witnessing the death of her father during the battle, Mis goes mad and seeks refuge in what will soon be called the Slieve Mish Mountains, or Sliabh Mis, which likely translates to “mountains of Mis”.

Here, I’ll let author Conor McCarthy tell the story:

“[In] its Gaelic form it is Sliabh Mis, the mountains of Mis, a mythological figure who resembles Sweeney. In the surviving version of her story, Mis goes mad when she sees her father’s death at the Battle of Ventry, drinking his blood and fleeing to the mountains, where she grows hairy and lives like an animal. She is found on Sliabh Mis by Dub Ruis, the harper to king Feidlimid mac Cruithainn, who tames her…”

source: Seamus Heaney and Medieval Poetry

So, is the original Celtic Wild “Man” of the Woods really a woman?

That’s not what history tells us.

It’s likely that the 16th-century Irish poet Aonghus Fionn Ó Dálaigh is responsible for writing Dubh Rois do ba ríoghdha a mhais, or “The Romance of Mis and Dubh Ruis”, which means there’s no way we can consider Mis the original “Wild Person” archetype. Even if the Battle of Ventry was historical, it’s obvious that the storyline of Dubh Ruis (also: Rois) taming Mis was tacked on later.

Final Thought: Tree-Bathing Is Good for the Brain

Decoration by Aubrey Beardsley from the Dent edition of Le Morte d'Arthur (1894)
Decoration by Aubrey Beardsley from the Dent edition of Le Morte d’Arthur (1894)

Go spend some time in the woods if you can. It’s good for your mental health. Whether it’s the Caledonian Forest, Glennagalt, Glen Bolcan, or your local park or hiking trail, getting outside and surrounding yourself with nature is always a good idea.

Was this the intended meaning/message behind the Celtic Wild Man of the Woods motif? To make like Henry David Thoreau and live, simply, in the wilderness? (To be fair, I grew up fishing at Walden Pond—Thoreau wasn’t in the wilderness; he was in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s backyard! But I digress.)

No, I don’t think the medieval scribes and poets of Scotland, Wales, and Ireland had tree-bathing in mind when they wrote about their Wild Men. There was something deeper going on there.

Especially with the Lailoken and Suibhne stories, there is, perhaps, a Christian element set in opposition to established Celtic paganism. Which makes sense, given the “changing of the guard” that was happening across the Celtic world as power shifted from the druids/ollamhs of old to the Christian clergy. (Granted, many of those very druids/ollamhs were recruited into the priesthood.)

Of course, there’s no avoiding the interpretation of the Celtic Wild Men stories as condemnations of war. That interpretation is a tenuous one, in my humble opinion, as throughout Celtic mythology, warriors are celebrated to no end. Severed heads are displayed on pikes and dragged from chariots. And in Irish mythology in particular, the brains of noteworthy enemies are preserved and transformed into slingshot projectiles.

Yeah. It’s a whole thing (re: the Celtic Cult of the Head).

Moving on.

I think what we can be sure of when it comes to the Wild Man motif, is that a forest is the perfect setting for a Celtic folk tale. 

Trees were sacred to the ancient Celtic druids—some more sacred than others.

The only historical documentation of a druidic ritual in ancient Gaul takes place in a forest. During Midwinter, a druid climbs an oak tree and cuts away some mistletoe with a golden sickle. 

Again, it’s a whole thing (re: “The Origins of Kissing Under the Mistletoe“).

And as I’ve already told you ad nauseam, the very word druid originally meant “knower of the oak”. Oak groves served as druidic headquarters. It’s where druids, male and female, would convene to have discussions and pass judgments.

The Wild People go to these sacred places to find peace and enlightenment, to find cures for their “madness”, to decompress, and take a break from the pressures and horrors and hardships of human-run societies. The forest is the cure.

I’ll leave you with this quotation from Irish studies professor Joseph Falaky Nagy:

“In the title of the primary Middle Irish text about Suibne, his experience as a geilt is termed a buile ‘vision’, a word that originally meant a revelation of the otherworld, or a revelation which a visitor to the otherworld receives there…Suibne’s buile is presumably the revelation of the new and unknown places beyond society which the geilt seeks—namely, nature (imbued with the supernatural in Celtic ideology) and, more generally, a world free of the restrictions and distinctions upon which society proper is based.”

source: “The Wisdom of the Geilt.” EIGSE, A Journal of Irish Studies xix.1 (1982)

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…

Irish Myths in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 1)

40+ images, hundreds of fascinating facts about Irish mythology, and one Celtic Otherworld-shattering showdown between Ireland’s two greatest legendary heroes. That’s just a taste of what you’ll find crammed into the nooks and crannies of this literally pocket-sized guide to Irish mythology. The paperback version of Irish Myths in Your Pocket: A Tiny Little Book About Irish Legends, Folklore, & Fairytales for Impressing Friends & Family on St. Patrick’s Day and Other Special Occasions is 4 inches by 6 inches, the same size as a photograph. Learn more…

Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy

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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