To speak of Merlin, King Arthur’s most powerful advisor, is to speak of an archetype; the sorcerer in its purest form. The oldest writing in which the persona appears is a pseudo-historical chronicle, Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136) by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Monmouth is often considered the creator of the personae from the mythical Arthurian Court. In the text, multiple versions of the figure of Merlin evolved, and not all are related to the famous King from Camelot. Many are inconsistent, and this makes the legendary Merlin even more enigmatic; the myth that comes down to us today.

Scholars claim that Geoffrey of Monmouth relied on two historical characters in creating Merlin. One was Myrddin Wyllt (or Merlinus Caledonensis), a bard, prophet, and madman from the south of Scotland, and a character who never had any historical connection with Arthur. Legend has it that, after witnessing the Battle of Arfderydd (in the 6th century), Wyllt lost his mind and retreated to the life of a savage in the woods. A second character believed to have inspired Geoffrey of Monmouth was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a Roman military leader in Britain. Monmouth calls the sorcerer “Merlin Ambrosius.” This character, in turn, appears in versions of the story as a brother of Uther Pendragón, uncle to the legendary King Arthur.

Legend has it that Merlin was the son of a noble woman and an incubus or demon. Some versions of the tale portray her as the daughter of the King of Northumberland. Shortly after Merlin’s birth, the little one was baptized and cleansed of his demonic inheritance. A paradoxical figure, he embodies an encounter between good and evil: a kindly servant endowed by his father with supernatural powers.

In some versions of the story, Merlin built what we now call Stonehenge with stones brought from Ireland as a burial site for the great Aurelius Ambrosius. But the best-known tales of the magician place him as a key figure in the story of King Arthur of Camelot, in Arthur’s crowning and even in his conception. Through magic, Merlin helped Uther Pendragon to disguise himself and to enter the kingdom of Tintagel (now Cornwall). Once there, he impregnated Igraine, the wife of his enemy. From this union Arthur was born and became one of the most legendary kings in the history of Great Britain.

In a later poem, Merlin by Robert de Boron – a French poet from the beginning of the 13th century – Merlin has the power to change shapes. At times he’s an old bearded man, and then a handsome young man, a little boy, or even a deer. In this version of the story, the magician is deeply connected with the legend of the Holy Grail.

magic-1
Many of the legends of Merlin also relate him closely to legendary women. Merlin was the lover and teacher of the witch, Morgan Le Fay, half-sister and adversary to King Arthur. Still other versions of the story have him falling in love with Nivian (or Viviane), daughter of the King of Northumberland, and to whom Merlin teaches the powers of conquest. In the end, she rejects him and bewitches him, and in one version brings about his death. Other sources put the death of the magician at the hands of the famous Lady of the Lake, the sorceress responsible for having given Arthur the famous sword, Excalibur.

All of these sources have, over the centuries, created and recreated a figure who’s become one of the most famous magicians in history. They portray him as many beings at once, sometimes in contradiction one from another, and often forcing us to rethink Merlin’s character as an archetypal value; as a complex set of values ​​that define humanity, our deepest desires and needs. It is at this point that the historical value of the character ends and it is then possible to see him as a product of the magic he actually bore.

 

*Images: 1) An Alchemist in his laboratory by David Teniers the Younger / Public Domain; 2) English alchemy scroll manuscrip by George Rippley, 1490 / Public Domain

To speak of Merlin, King Arthur’s most powerful advisor, is to speak of an archetype; the sorcerer in its purest form. The oldest writing in which the persona appears is a pseudo-historical chronicle, Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136) by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Monmouth is often considered the creator of the personae from the mythical Arthurian Court. In the text, multiple versions of the figure of Merlin evolved, and not all are related to the famous King from Camelot. Many are inconsistent, and this makes the legendary Merlin even more enigmatic; the myth that comes down to us today.

Scholars claim that Geoffrey of Monmouth relied on two historical characters in creating Merlin. One was Myrddin Wyllt (or Merlinus Caledonensis), a bard, prophet, and madman from the south of Scotland, and a character who never had any historical connection with Arthur. Legend has it that, after witnessing the Battle of Arfderydd (in the 6th century), Wyllt lost his mind and retreated to the life of a savage in the woods. A second character believed to have inspired Geoffrey of Monmouth was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a Roman military leader in Britain. Monmouth calls the sorcerer “Merlin Ambrosius.” This character, in turn, appears in versions of the story as a brother of Uther Pendragón, uncle to the legendary King Arthur.

Legend has it that Merlin was the son of a noble woman and an incubus or demon. Some versions of the tale portray her as the daughter of the King of Northumberland. Shortly after Merlin’s birth, the little one was baptized and cleansed of his demonic inheritance. A paradoxical figure, he embodies an encounter between good and evil: a kindly servant endowed by his father with supernatural powers.

In some versions of the story, Merlin built what we now call Stonehenge with stones brought from Ireland as a burial site for the great Aurelius Ambrosius. But the best-known tales of the magician place him as a key figure in the story of King Arthur of Camelot, in Arthur’s crowning and even in his conception. Through magic, Merlin helped Uther Pendragon to disguise himself and to enter the kingdom of Tintagel (now Cornwall). Once there, he impregnated Igraine, the wife of his enemy. From this union Arthur was born and became one of the most legendary kings in the history of Great Britain.

In a later poem, Merlin by Robert de Boron – a French poet from the beginning of the 13th century – Merlin has the power to change shapes. At times he’s an old bearded man, and then a handsome young man, a little boy, or even a deer. In this version of the story, the magician is deeply connected with the legend of the Holy Grail.

magic-1
Many of the legends of Merlin also relate him closely to legendary women. Merlin was the lover and teacher of the witch, Morgan Le Fay, half-sister and adversary to King Arthur. Still other versions of the story have him falling in love with Nivian (or Viviane), daughter of the King of Northumberland, and to whom Merlin teaches the powers of conquest. In the end, she rejects him and bewitches him, and in one version brings about his death. Other sources put the death of the magician at the hands of the famous Lady of the Lake, the sorceress responsible for having given Arthur the famous sword, Excalibur.

All of these sources have, over the centuries, created and recreated a figure who’s become one of the most famous magicians in history. They portray him as many beings at once, sometimes in contradiction one from another, and often forcing us to rethink Merlin’s character as an archetypal value; as a complex set of values ​​that define humanity, our deepest desires and needs. It is at this point that the historical value of the character ends and it is then possible to see him as a product of the magic he actually bore.

 

*Images: 1) An Alchemist in his laboratory by David Teniers the Younger / Public Domain; 2) English alchemy scroll manuscrip by George Rippley, 1490 / Public Domain