Merlin is the archetypal Wizard of Arthurian lore. Merlin is a Latinized version of the Welsh myrddin. His exact origins are lost in myth; he may have been a god, perhaps a version of Mabon or maponos, the British Apollo, the divine ruler or guardian of Britain. The name Merlin may have been given to a succession of wizards. There is no concrete evidence, but it is likely that a Merlin, who was a prophet or a bard, existed toward the end of the fifth century and has become the basis for the Merlin myths.
Merlin’s first appearance in literature occurs in the Latin works of Geoffrey of Monmouth, a 12th-century Welsh cleric. The Prophecies of Merlin, written in the early 1130s, comprise verses of prophecies made by an alleged man of the fifth century, named Merlin. Monmouth made up many of the prophecies, which stretched beyond the 12th century. In the History of the Kings of Britain, which Monmouth finished around 1135–36 and which laid the foundation for the Arthurian legends, Merlin becomes a character, though Monmouth muddles chronology by placing him in both the fifth and sixth centuries. He is a magical boy, born of a union between a mortal woman and a spirit (a daemon, which later Christian writers interpreted as the Devil). He has great magical powers of prophecy and matures quickly.
Merlin uses Magic to bring great stones from Ireland to the Salisbury Plain for the building of Stonehenge and arranges for king Uther Pendragon to seduce Ygerna, who bears the infant Arthur. At that point, Arthur vanishes from monmouth’s story. He reappears in a third poetic work, The Life of Merlin, in which he has a sister, Ganieda, who also has prophetic vision. Vita Merlini, written by Monmouth around 1150, is a biography of the adult Merlin, but it is also a text of Western magical and spiritual enlightenment. It sets down oral lore of mythology, cosmography, cosmology, natural history, psychology and what are now called archetypes of the human personality.
In 1150 a French poetical version of History of the Kings of Britain has Arthur constructing his round Table under the aegis of Merlin. The best-known portrait of Merlin comes from Sir Thomas malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, published in 1485, a romantic tale in which the infant Arthur is raised by Merlin. Upon the death of Uther Pendragon, Merlin presents the youth Arthur to the knights of the land and has him prove he is heir to the throne by withdrawing the sword Excalibur from the stone in which it is embedded. Merlin serves as Arthur’s magical adviser but disappears from the story early in Arthur’s reign. He is brought down by his passion for Nimue, or Viviane, a damsel of the lake who tricks him into revealing the secret of constructing a magical tower of air, which she uses to imprison him.
In contemporary fiction, Merlin usually is presented as a wise old man, despite his youthfulness in early writings. It may be said that he has three aspects: youth, the mature prophet and the wise elder. He has been subject to many interpretations: magician, mystic, shaman, lord of the earth and animals, seer of all things, embodiment of time and trickster. He appears in the form of Mr. Spock of Star Trek and Obi Wan kenobe of Star Wars.
Further Reading :
- matthews, John, ed. At the Table of the Grail. 1984. reprint, London: Arkana, 1987.
———. An Arthurian Reader. Wellingborough, England: The Aquarian Press, 1988.
Merlin Wizard in Celtic and Arthurian lore. Merlin, whose name is a Latinized version of the Welsh Myrddin, may be a composite of real and mythical characters. He may be in part a deity, perhaps derived from Mabon, or Maponos, the British Apollo who served as the divine ruler of Britain. He may have been a real prophet or a bard, or several bards. In modern times, Merlin has been interpreted as a Celtic mystic and shaman and as the archetypes of the Trickster (see TRICKSTER GODS) and the magician (see HERMES). In lore his consort is VIVIANE, the Lady of the Lake. In the Western magical tradition, Merlin and Viviane represent Jachin and Boaz, the male and female principles of the cosmos, force, and form. The first written references to Merlin are in the Latin works of Geoffrey of Monmouth, a 12th-century Welsh cleric. In the early 1130s, Monmouth wrote The Prophecies of Merlin, verses of prophecies going into the future beyond the 12th century, which were attributed to a “Merlin” who lived in the fifth century. It is likely that Monmouth made up much of the book himself. Monmouth mentioned Merlin again in the History of the Kings of Britain, completed in about 1135–36, which provided the basis for the Arthurian legends. Monmouth described Merlin as a magical boy whose parents were a mortal woman and a daemon (daimon), a Greek-derivative term meaning “spirit” but which, later, Christians interpreted as an evil Demon. According to Christianized legend, Merlin’s father was the devil himself, sent to Earth to obstruct the works of Jesus. The devil assumed the shape of a DRAGON or a serpent (the symbol of wisdom and, in Christianity, of evil) and seduced Merlin’s mother. However, the boy decided to devote himself to good and discarded all of the Merlin 193 The Mercury of the Philosophers, in Della transmutatione metallica, by Giovanni Battista Nazari, 1589. (Author’s collection) devil’s powers that he inherited save two: Prophecy and MIRACLE-making. In Monmouth’s account, Merlin possesses great powers of prophecy and Magic because of his half-supernatural nature of mortal and daemon. He arranges for the birth of Arthur through the seduction of Ygerna (Igraine) by King Uther Pendragon. After Arthur is born, Merlin drops completely from Monmouth’s story. Monmouth also confused matters by placing Merlin in both the fifth and sixth centuries. Monmouth wrote of Merlin the prophet in a third poetic work, The Life of Merlin, and composed Merlin’s adult biography in Vita Merlini, written in about 1150. Vita Merlini has been interpreted as much more than a biography but as a text of Celtic mysticism. The Vita presents a series of questions such as why is there suffering, death, and love, which are answered in the form of cosmic visions that lead to greater questions, and reveal the small part humans play in a much greater cosmic landscape. Merlin appears in other medieval works and in later chivalric tales and romantic poems. A French poetical version of History of the Kings of Britain, written in about 1150, tells of Merlin directing King Arthur on the establishment of his Round Table. Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, published in 1485, tells how Merlin raised Arthur, secured him the throne by having him pull the sword of Branstock from the stone, and served as his magical adviser. Merlin appears and disappears at will, possesses omniscient awareness, and casts the most powerful of Spells. Malory’s work provides the modern popular conception of Merlin, despite the fact that Merlin disappears from his story early in Arthur’s reign, after the Round Table is formed. According to the Mort Artu by Robert Boron, part of the 13th-century Vulgate Cycle of French writing on Arthurian lore, Merlin gives magical instruction to MORGAN LE FAY but falls passionately in love with Viviane (also called Nimue). Viviane persuades Merlin to teach her all his magical arts, too, which she then uses to trap him in a tower of hawthorn, a spiny shrub or tree associated with Fairies and WITCHES. She weaves the hawthorn around him nine times while he sleeps in the Forest of Broceliande, a magical place where no one who enters comes out quite the same. When Arthur misses Merlin from his court, he dispatches Sir Gawain to find him. In the Forest of Broceliande, Merlin speaks to the knight from a cloud of smoke, tells him that he will never more be seen, and instructs him to tell Arthur to undertake without delay the quest of the Holy Grail. There are other versions of the legend: • Viviane traps Merlin in a tower of air. • Merlin simply disappears into thin air, where he continues to exist as a shadow who has the power to communicate with humans. • Merlin retires to a stone vault and seals himself inside. • Merlin is buried alive under a stone in the Forest of Broceliande. Merlin usually is portrayed as a wise, old man, tall and gaunt with a long white beard. He has in fact three aspects: youth, mature prophet, and elder. As the magician archetype, one who uses the powers of both Earth and sky (the microcosm and macrocosm) to transform, he serves as the model for many fictional characters, including Mr. Spock in Star Trek and Obi Wan Kenobe in Star Wars. The deeper meanings of Merlin are the subject of ongoing research by Arthurian experts and conferences; the first international Merlin Conference was held in London in 1986.
Hall, Manly P. The Secret Teachings of All Ages. 1928. Reprint, Los Angeles: The Philosophic Research Society, 1977. Matthews, John (ed.). At the Table of the Grail. 1984. Reprint, London: Arkana, 1987. Stewart, R. J. (ed.). The Book of Merlin. Poole, Dorset: Blanford Press, 1987. ———. The Mystic Life of Merlin. London: Arkana, 1986.