The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Witchcraft Hall of Fame
Merlin’s very name has become a synonym for wizardry. He was a poet, prophet, magician, hermit, teacher, and wizard. A Welsh origin is most commonly attributed although claims are also made by Brittany, Ireland, and Scotland. One version suggests he was born off the coast of Brittany, on an island associated with witchcraft during the Roman era.
There are countless legends featuring Merlin. Many are contradictory; they may not all be of the same person. In most versions, Merlin’s mother is a princess. His father is a mystery.
One story suggests that Merlin’s mother lost her way home and slept beneath a tree in the woods where a Wild Forest Man discovered her. Merlin inherited his prophetic ability from his father and was periodically seized by fits of wildness that drive him into the woods to live like a wild man. He finally arranges his own capture so that his prophetic ability will be of service to others. Disguised as a stag, he reveals how to capture a wild man (himself) who is the only one able to interpret the King’s ominous dreams.
Legends once suggested that Merlin was responsible for Stonehenge. One of the Welsh Triads suggests that Britain was once called Clas Myrddin (Merlin’s Enclosure) in his honor. Merlin may originally have been a deity or a deified ancestor. Some suggest he was worshipped at Stonehenge.
Merlin either fought with or against King Gwenddolau, a British king believed to have Druid connections, at the Battle of Arfderydd in 573 CE. Merlin and his brothers fought; all the brothers except Merlin were killed. In grief, Merlin escaped to the forest of Celidon in the Scottish Lowlands where he lived as a wild man (Merlin Wyllt) together with his sister Gwenddydd, living on berries, writing prophesies and consorting with spirits. He eventually emerged from the forest to become the sage Merlin Emrys.
In a later legend, the devil (or a demon) is Merlin’s father: Merlin was intended by Satan to be the Anti-Christ but his mother’s confessor had the foresight to baptize baby Merlin at birth so that he turns out to be benign not evil.
Merlin has powerful associations with women: in early legends, Merlin is closely identified with his sister, a female magician. Some legends suggest that Gwenddydd taught Merlin all he knew. In later Arthurian legends, Merlin is the “good” male magician as opposed to “wicked” female magicians, especially Morgan le Fay.
Merlin allegedly orchestrated the birth of King Arthur and supervised his upbringing until he could assume his throne. Merlin served as Arthur’s advisor and protector; it isn’t until Merlin eventually disappears that Arthur’s kingdom and the Society of Knights of the Round Table began their final deterioration.
Merlin’s disappearance involves his love life. One version suggests that Merlin fell in love with Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, but the feeling wasn’t mutual. She feels threatened by him, justifiably, as he creates a spell to bind her to him. She begs him to teach her magical arts. He agrees and takes her to a lakeside grotto where she casts a spell on Merlin that he himself taught her. Merlin now sleeps in that cave for eternity.
According to another version, Merlin met the fairy Vivien in the Forest of Broceliande in Brittany. He fell in love with her and allowed himself to be enchanted. Merlin was resting beside a spring in the forest when Vivien appeared and asked what he was doing. Merlin gave her a magical demonstration: he traced sigils in the grass and a castle complete with knights and ladies appeared.
Vivien is charmed and asks to keep the castle grounds, named the “Joyous Garden” after Merlin dismisses the vision. The pair promise to rendezvous a year later on Midsummer’s Eve. Merlin goes to England for Arthur and Guinevere’s wedding but then returns to Broceliande where he is enchanted by Vivien.
He tells her how to perform a binding spell and then goes to sleep. She circumambulates him nine times chanting incantations. Some depict her action as treacherous but the romantic might perceive that having found bliss, Merlin wished to retain it forever and that he and Vivien lived (and live) happily ever after. Some identify Vivien as the Lady of the Lake.
There are also other versions of what happened to Merlin:
He transformed himself into an oak following Vivien’s rejection
He fled in the face of Christianity accompanied by a party of nine including bards to Bardsey Island off the Lleyn Peninsula, taking with him Britain’s Thirteen Treasures
The first fully developed written account of Merlin was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The Little Book of Merlin or Merlin’s Prophesies, written c.1135. Nennius’ ninth-century History of the Britons told the tale of a fatherless boy and red and white dragons battling beneath the foundations of a tower. Geoffrey identified the boy as Merlin although this may have been based on oral tradition.
Geoffrey of Monmouth was also the first to turn Arthur from a Pagan warrior into a romantic (and Christian) hero. He wrote History of the Kings of Britain c.1160, combining legend and invention. How much was true? How much based on oral tradition, how much pure literary invention or embellishment? Who knows? Geoffrey was fluent in Welsh and Latin and he refers to an earlier book written in Welsh as his source of information. However this book has not yet been located.