Myrddin Wyllt (Welsh: [ˈmərðɪn ˈwɨɬt]), Myrddin Emrys, Merlinus Caledonensis, or Merlin Sylvestris (a legendary figure associated in some sources with events in the sixth century), is a figure in medieval Welsh legend, known as a prophet and a madman. He is the most important prototype for the modern composite image of Merlin, the wizard from Arthurian legend.
Texts about Myrddin Wyllt have similarities to an account of a north-British figure called Lailoken. He was probably born sometime around or in AD 540, and is said to have had a twin sister called Gwendydd or Gwenddydd or Languoreth. Myrddin Wyllt is said to have gone mad after the Battle of Arfderydd at Arthuret, which was waged between the victor Rhydderch Hael or Riderch I of Alt Clut and Gwenddoleu in AD 573. He fled into the forest and lived with the animals. There he is said to have found his gift of prophecy.
Myrddin reportedly prophesied his own death, which would happen by falling, stabbing, and drowning. This was fulfilled when a gang of jeering shepherds drove him off a cliff, where he was impaled on a stake left by fishermen, and died with his head below water. His grave is reputed to lie near the River Tweed in the village of Drumelzier near Peebles, although nothing remains above ground level at the site. This strange threefold death is a theme common to many Indo-European mythologies, and according to Georges Dumezil suggests a strong threefold division in Proto-Indo-European religion.
In Welsh literature
The ‘altarstone’ in Stobo Kirk on which Merlin was converted to Christianity.
The earliest (pre-12th century) Welsh poems that concern the Myrddin legend present him as a madman living an existence in the Caledonian Forest but said to be born in Carmarthen South Wales. Carmarthen in the Welsh language is Caerfyrddin; caer translates into English as “fort”. When Britannia was a Roman province, Carmarthen was the civitas capital of the Demetae tribe, known as Moridunum (from Brittonic *mori-dunon meaning “sea fort”). Legend has it that second part of the towns name fyrddin was representative as Myrddin and of his place of birth, Caer-fyrddin (Fort-Merlin). There he ruminates on his former existence and the disaster that brought him low: the death of his lord Gwenddoleu, whom he served as bard. The allusions in these poems serve to sketch out the events of the Battle of Arfderydd, where Riderch Hael, King of Alt Clut (Strathclyde) slaughtered the forces of Gwenddoleu, and Myrddin went mad watching this defeat. The Annales Cambriae date this battle to AD 573, and name Gwenddoleu’s adversaries as the sons of Eliffer, presumably Gwrgi and Peredur.
A version of this legend is preserved in a late fifteenth-century manuscript in a story called Lailoken and Kentigern, which probably happened in August 584, after Myrddin, also known as Lailoken, had finished writing his prophecies in July of that year. In this narrative, St. Kentigern meets in a deserted place with a naked, hairy madman who is called Lailoken, although said by some to be called Merlynum or Merlin, who declares that he has been condemned for his sins to wander in the company of beasts. He adds that he had been the cause for the deaths of all of the persons killed in the battle fought on the plain between Liddel and Carwannok. Having told his story, the madman leaps up and flees from the presence of the saint back into the wilderness. He appears several times more in the narrative until at last asking St. Kentigern for the Sacrament, prophesying that he was about to die a triple death. After some hesitation, the saint grants the madman’s wish, and later that day the shepherds of King Meldred capture him, beat him with clubs, then cast him into the river Tweed where his body is pierced by a stake, thus fulfilling his prophecy.
Welsh literature has examples of a prophetic literature, predicting the military victory of all of the Celtic peoples of Great Britain who will join together and drive the English – and later the Normans – back into the sea. Some of these works were presented as prophecies of Myrddin; while others such as the Armes Prydein were not.
Clas Myrddin, or Merlin’s Enclosure, is an early name for Great Britain stated in the Third Series of Welsh Triads.
Geoffrey of Monmouth
The modern depiction of Merlin began with Geoffrey of Monmouth. His book Prophetiae Merlini was intended to be a collection of the prophecies of the Welsh figure of Myrddin, whom he called Merlin. He included the Prophetiae in his more famous second work, the Historia Regum Britanniae. In this work, however, he constructed an account of Merlin’s life that placed him in the time of Aurelius Ambrosius and King Arthur, decades before the lifetime of Myrddin Wyllt. He also attached to him an episode originally ascribed to Ambrosius, and others that appear to be of his own invention. Geoffrey later wrote the Vita Merlini, an account based more closely on the earlier Welsh stories about Myrddin and his experiences at Arfderyd, and explained that the action was taking place long after Merlin’s involvement with Arthur. However, the Vita Merlini did not prove popular enough to counter the version of Merlin in the Historia, which went on to influence most later accounts of the character. One exception to this is the work of Count Nikolai Tolstoy titled The Coming of the King.
- Seymour, Page 9
- Arthurian Period Sources, Page 45
- Phillimore, Page 175
- Rhys: Hibbert Lectures, p. 168.
- Seymour, Camilla & Randall, John (2007) Stobo Kirk: a guide to the building and its history. Peebles: John Randall
- Tolstoy, Nikolai (1985) The Quest for Merlin. ISBN 0-241-11356-3
- Morris, John (gen. ed.) (1980) Arthurian Period Sources volume 8, Phillimore & Co, Chichester (includes full text of The Annales Cambriae & Nennius)
- Phillimore, Egerton (1888), “The Annales Cambriae and Old Welsh Genealogies, from Harleian MS. 3859”, in Phillimore, Egerton, Y Cymmrodor, IX, Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, pp. 141 – 183.