Merlin: Prophet, architect, holy man

(ORDO NEWS) — The character of Merlin has been a recurring figure in Western popular culture since the Middle Ages.

In his many guises, Merlin is most often associated with the legendary King Arthur, thanks to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, published in 1135, which sparked an explosion in popularity for both characters.

However, in a lesser-known text by the same author, The Life of Merlin, Geoffrey reveals many other aspects of the powerful mage.

Over the centuries, Merlin became known as the sorcerer who pulled the strings of fate and controlled the course of history.

In Jeffrey’s “History” he is like that and even more, but his “Life of Merlin” tells about the “madness of the bard-prophet” Merlin.

In the “Life” we see the other side of the prophet and adviser to kings, who acted as the architect of history – a side mystical and powerful, but at the same time more human.

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The Merlin we know from popular literature first appeared in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History Book 6. Although he is better known as an adviser to King Arthur, his first advisory role was to King Vortigern.

In a retelling of the story of Ambrosius, borrowed from an earlier text known as The History of Brittonia, Geoffrey presents Merlin as the fatherless son of Princess Demetia.

In this tale, Merlin appears before Vortigern in order to make a human sacrifice to strengthen the foundations of the royal castle. Instead, Merlin tells the king that his tower will not stand because there is a pool below it, in which two dragons – red and white – are fighting.

After his prophetic vision is confirmed, Vortigern spares Merlin’s life and raises him to the rank of royal advisor.

In this version, Merlin is not an ordinary person, but a supernatural being. Merlin was not fatherless, his father was one of “the spirits we call incubi… part human, part angel, they take on human form at will and sleep with women.”

Some modern interpretations of Merlin’s birth story portray him as the son of the devil and his supernatural abilities as the work of evil, but in the Middle Ages his role as a prophet made Merlin a holy figure.

Medieval writers considered prophecy to be a direct message from God. In fact, these prophecies have been highly regarded by historians as one of the most reliable sources of historical information, providing a solid basis for the course of history.

The art of prophecy does have biblical roots, such as the prophecies of King Saul, but in later centuries it came to be seen as something repulsive to the Christian faith.

Prophecy was an extremely popular form of literature in the Middle Ages, partly because of its malleability, which allowed it to be adapted to the historical events of any era – an obscure prophecy could not be proved wrong.

Prophecies were a useful tool, especially as political propaganda to glorify a ruler or justify his actions and ideas.

The Merlin prophecies of Geoffrey of Monmouth were more popular than the History of the British Empire, which included them. They were published separately as a separate volume, which has been translated into several different languages, including Icelandic and French.

Although Geoffrey popularized the Merlin prophecies, he did not invent them, but rather borrowed from a much earlier Celtic tradition of prophecy often attributed to the bard known as Myrddin.

It was Geoffrey who combined the Welsh bard Myrddin with the supernatural soothsayer Ambrosius from the History of Brittonia to create the character of Merlin, the herald of history.

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The Merlin of Geoffrey’s “History” was not just a herald of history, but also a powerful wizard who manipulated the course of history, setting in motion a chain of events that he himself foretold – the most famous example being, of course, the birth of Arthur.

A familiar story: King Uther Pendragon, overcome by a desire to get Igerna, the wife of the Duke of Cornwall, turns to his adviser Merlin with a request to find a way to get to the object of his desire, hidden in Tintagel Castle by her husband. Merlin advises the king the following:

“To fulfill your desire, you must resort to such arts, which were not heard of in your time. I know how, by the power of my drugs, to give you an exact resemblance to Gorlois, so that in all respects you will appear to be none other than himself.

Therefore, if you obey my instructions, I will turn you into a true likeness of Gorlois … and in this guise you can safely go to the city where Igerna is located and enter her.

Thus “the most famous Arthur” was conceived, and the fulfillment of Merlin’s prophecies began. Merlin remains an important figure in the Arthurian story throughout the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth, but not as a hero who takes part in the action.

Instead, Merlin remains in the background until he is called upon for help as a royal adviser and sage. Like a puppeteer pulling invisible strings, Merlin is an architect whose guiding hand helps shape the story, just as Geoffrey himself does as the author of the story.

The character of Merlin takes on even greater significance when we see him as the embodiment of the historian himself within his own history.

Merlin as a metafictional construction placed in the narrative to give authority and credibility to the story helps the reader to interpret events and shapes his perception.

In short, Merlin becomes larger than life: more than a man, more than a prophet, even more than a sorcerer. It was this fantastical, superhuman version of Merlin that became dominant in subsequent literature, but in The Life of Merlin we see a different portrayal of Merlin.

The Merlin of Life is not so much a meta-fantastic mystery as a much more physical, emotionally complex, human character.

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Geoffrey of Monmouth is believed to have written The Life of Merlin around 1150, about 15 years after his major work, A History of the British Empire, was first published.

The poem has survived to this day only in one complete manuscript of the 13th century, as well as in several incomplete copies. In some of these copies, Merlin is referred to as Merlini Calidonii, which immediately implies that he is different from the Merlin of the History.

However, it is certain that Geoffrey of Monmouth wanted them to be perceived as the same person, judging by the description of his character:

“Merlin of Brittany was famous all over the world. He was a king and a prophet; he gave laws to the proud people of the southern Welsh, and predicted the future to the leaders.”

Merlin inherited the rule of the south Welsh kingdom of Demetia, to which, as we know from the History, he is entitled by his mother’s side.

Although Arthur is not mentioned until the end of the poem, it becomes clear that Merlin is indeed the same person who served the legendary king and Vortigern before him, as Merlin recalls the famous prophecies he made in his youth:

“All this I had previously predicted in detail to Vortigern, explaining to him the mystical war of two dragons, when we were sitting on the shore of a drained pool.”

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In this version, Merlin is still a powerful diviner and sage, but he is no longer a sorcerer. In fact, Merlin from “Vita” is a war veteran suffering from psychological trauma after the horrors he witnessed on the battlefield, and therefore, seeking refuge in the wilderness, he decided to live as a hermit in the forest:

“At the sight of this, Merlin, you were saddened and poured out sad lamentations throughout the army, and exclaimed in these words:” Can fate be so disastrous as to take from me so many and so great comrades, whom so many kings and so many distant kingdoms?

O dubious lot of humanity!… He became a sylvan, as if dedicating himself to the forest. For a whole summer after that, hiding like a wild beast, he remained buried in the forest, not found by anyone and forgetting about himself and his relatives.

In this version of the story, Merlin appears as a traditional Celtic “wild man”, bringing the character back to his origins as the wandering Welsh bard Myrddin.

There are several examples of “wild men” in other cultures of the region that bear similarities to the Vita Merlini, including the Scottish tales of Lailoken and the Irish sage Suibhn.

Stories of traumatized warriors or simple hermits hiding in the forests to live like wild men can be found for thousands of years, but this idea is so ingrained in the culture of the Celtic peoples that it has become part of their languages ​​and literature.

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Some of Merlin’s prophecies are directly borrowed from Celtic stories, such as the prophecy of the triple death, which is also found in the story of Lailoken. Merlin correctly predicts the “threefold death” of a young man who fell from a cliff, from a tree, and into a river:

“Meanwhile, it so happened that when his swiftness led him forward, his horse slid off a high cliff, and the young man fell off a cliff into the river, but in such a way that one of his legs caught on a tree, and the rest of his body plunged into the stream.

So he fell, and drowned, and was hanged on a tree, and by his threefold death he made a true prophet.”

However, the difference in this case is that unlike other Celtic stories about wild people, Merlin is not a fugitive or social outcast.

He is not a madman fleeing his pursuers, not a sinner seeking absolution for the atrocities he has committed, he is simply a soldier saddened by the fact that he witnessed the massacre, and he shows his humanity in his suffering and injuries.

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Far from a madman or a sinner, the character of Merlin that Geoffrey wrote in “The Life” is closer to a holy man or even a saint. Following the Celtic tradition, Merlin Geoffrey repeats the same biographical patterns as the lives of some saints, such as the miraculous nature of his birth as a descendant of a man and an incubus.

While some would prefer to interpret Merlin’s parental background as evil and portray him as a sinner, Geoffrey prefers to paint a more saintly image, endowing Merlin with other qualities usually attributed to saints, including his close relationship with nature and animals, as well as his choice of image. the life of a hermit.

The Merlin of the Life is a harmonious counterpoint to the heroic tradition at the heart of Geoffrey’s History, offering a reflection on the human sacrifice of military heroism and suggesting religious spiritualism as a solution to the destruction caused by the warrior lifestyle.

Merlin finds healing and peace through spiritualism and experiences a religious revival similar to that found in most saints’ biographies.

When Merlin hears about a fountain of water bursting out of the ground at the foot of the mountain, he hurries to witness this Divine miracle:

“Shortly afterwards, thirsty, he stooped to the stream and drank freely and washed his temples in its waves, so that the water passed through the passages of the intestines and stomach, settling in vapors within him, and immediately he regained his mind and knew himself, and all his madness was gone, and the feeling that had long remained sluggish in him revived, and he remained what he was before – sane and unharmed with his mind restored.

Therefore, praising God, he turned his face to the stars and uttered pious words of praise ” .

Once again, Merlin appears before us as somewhat larger than life, following in the footsteps of the legendary saints and holy men who came before him, but in this version of the story, he remains very human-like.

Merlin, whom Geoffrey writes about in The History, is not so much a man as a supernatural being with near-omniscient powers, and it is this version of his character that has captivated the imagination for almost a millennium.

The Vita version of Merlin, while largely overshadowed by his alternate personality, is much more likable and trustworthy while retaining its power and mystique.

Although the image of Merlin the sorcerer, the product of infernal forces, is not so popular, it is the image of Merlin the hermit and holy man that will probably stand the test of time.

Rooted in much older traditions and deeply rooted in the culture of the ancient Celts, the legend of the “mad bard-prophet” Merlin will probably live quietly in the background for many more centuries to come.


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