‘Mountain ghosts come to me
here in Aber Caraf’
A Fugitive Poem of Myrddin in his Grave
He haunts me. He who speaks from his grave at Aber Caraf with other wyllon mynydd, ‘mountain ghosts’ – Myrddin Wyllt.
He entered my life when he broke from a scene we both despise. In Stobo Kirk, in a stained glass window, he kneels before Kentigern, begging for the sacrament, as The Life of St Kentigern claims.
“This isn’t true!” the gnosis struck me like shattering glass as Myrddin leapt free in an explosion of splinters; ethereal blue, red, green. The bishop fell in pieces with his chalice and crozier. The light swept in. Not just sunlight but that otherlight, the unendurable brightness that Myrddin gazed upon after the Battle of Arfderydd, which made him gwyllt, ‘wild’, ‘mad’. The light of truth. The ‘White/Clear Light’ of Vindonnus, Vindos, Gwyn ap Nudd, Lord of Annwn.
It illuminated Myrddin in all his naked glory, leafy-haired, bony-limbed, spry and supple as a sapling even in his old age. It glinted in the scintillae of his pupils, declaring him wildman, madman, prophet, awenydd: one who speaks the Awen from the tangled heart of the forest, from the wind-swept mountains where ghosts scream, from the deep wells of Annwn.
The stories of this wild Myrddin have been smothered beneath the fusty robes of Merlin. The popular wizard, who is frequently depicted as an advisor to King Arthur in film and television, was created by Geoffrey of Monmouth in The History of the Kings of Britain (1136) and The Life of Merlin (1150) from the lives of two very different men.
Merlin Ambrosius was based on the Romano-British war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus. He acted as advisor to Vortigern and helped Uther Pendragon to father Arthur by magically disguising him as Gorlois, the husband of Igraine, so he could sleep with her.
Merlin Caledonensis was based on Myrddin Wyllt: a northern British warrior who became gwyllt after the Battle of Arfderydd in 573 and retreated to Celyddon (the Caledonian forest) where he learnt the arts of poetry and prophesy and used them to warn against future wars. The two Merlins became conflated.
In Robert de Boron’s Merlin (1190-1200), Merlin became Uther Pendragon’s advisor and responsible for Arthur’s fosterage, his pulling the sword from the stone, and building the Round Table. The ‘Mage Merlin’ appears as Arthur’s advisor and as a guide to the grail quest in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (1485). His later depictions draw upon these associations.
The conflation of the two Merlins and the downplaying of Myrddin Wyllt’s stories is deeply problematic. Firstly Myrddin lived after Arthur making their association impossible. Secondly Myrddin would never have supported the warmongering of Arthur and his ‘knights’.
Yet he has been subsumed within the Arthurian tradition and its vile strain of Christian militarism, which brought about the slaying of the dragons, giants, and witches of ancient Britain, then the Anglo-Saxons, then ‘the infidels’ who fell in the Crusades, leading to our War on Terror.
He rages against his identification with Merlin: a political advisor to the warlords of Britain who supports going to war over chemical weapons that don’t exist and approves arms sales to countries using our weapons in attacks that breach international humanitarian law.
He calls to me, a fellow awenydd, to shatter the illusion of his complicity in Arthurian imperialism with the otherlight of Annwn from our god, Gwyn ap Nudd. Here I share his story.
Myrddin grew up amongst the warband of Gwenddolau, the last Pagan warlord of the Old North. He was fierce in those days, blood thirsty, callous, with a love of gold and strong mead. Warring in nothing but the golden torque gifted him by Gwenddolau, his battle-madness was legendary. He piled up corpses for Gwenddolau’s two sea-eagles to strip their flesh.
A great change came over Myrddin after the Battle of Arfderydd. This was fought between the armies of Gwenddolau and Rhydderch, who was married to Gwenddydd, Myrddin’s twin sister. Rhydderch had allied with a number of Gwenddolau’s kinsmen.
Gwenddolau was slaughtered. Aggrieved by the death of his lord Myrddin was consumed by such a battle rage that he killed his niece and nephew, the son and daughter of Gwenddydd and Rhydderch, who were fighting on Rhydderch’s side.
After the battle Myrddin was near-blinded by an unendurable brightness illuminating the carnage. By it he recognised the pale faces of his sister’s offspring who he had hacked apart. Martial battalions filled the sky. To his horror he realised they were the victims he had slaughtered gathered in the form of a cold and angry god staring at him with countless dead eyes.
One of those spirits swept down and tore Myrddin out of himself. With a howl of terror and pain that became a whimper and squeak he leapt and fluttered up like a bird-puppet on a string. He was tossed on the winds of Annwn, on a merlin’s wings, to the forest of Celyddon where he shivered in the branches of an apple tree.
That image of Gwyn ap Nudd containing all the dead who he had killed was indelibly impressed on his mind like an irremovable afterimage from staring foolishly at the sun.
Myrddin does not remember the days when he flitted from tree to tree, a lost soul, birdlike, unable to feel or think or see. He remembers some of his slow return to himself, to chill recumbent flesh, relearning the contours of his body and its need to eat and drink, sights, sounds.
The birds of the forest guided him to tasty berries, the squirrels to hazelnuts, and a happy little piglet to roots and grubs and the most exquisite truffles. When the bleak northern winter brought snow to his hips and icicles to his hair a white-haired wolf taught him the secrets of endurance.
Words came last. Stuttering, stammering, then in a sudden stream. With them the wells of the past opened. Every memory flooded back to him and he poured them out to his apple tree and little pig in a poetry that was only stemmed when each wound had bled, was cauterised, could heal.
Most terrible were his outpourings of guilt and desire for death; his attempts to drown and leaps from trees. Gwyn ap Nudd would not take him. Instead he showed him black holes in the fabric of reality from which the otherlight of Annwn streamed in illuminating future battles.
Myrddin knew then that he must give his suffering a purpose by using his prophetic abilities to warn against those devastating wars. Knowing the influence of Kentigern he took himself to the stone above Molendinar Burn, where the bishop spoke his sermons, to share his prophecies.
Kentigern did not listen. Preoccupied with teaching the word of the one true God he had little time for the words of a wildman naked as a new born rabbit and rambunctious as a rutting stag. Yet the truth of Myrddin’s words pierced some of Kentigern’s followers like antlers. The otherlight in his pine-green eyes terrified and enticed them and some began to believe him.
When Myrddin came to Kentigern to prophesy his death the bishop did not think he could die thrice: by being stoned, pierced by a stake, and drowning. He thought the impossibility of this prediction coming true would put an end to his peoples’ belief in the madman’s prophecies.
Myrddin died as predicted. Kentigern constructed the story of him begging for the sacrament to prove his power over him and his uncanny prophecies, which he claimed were no match for the word of God.
Afterward Myrddin haunted Kentigern with the furore of a soul unable to live out its entelechy because more powerful forces have got in its way.
The poetry of a lonely voice was not enough to stop the rise of Christian militarism seeded by Arthur which dominates Britain to this day. Yet Myrddin opened in many people the portals through which the otherlight comes in, illuminating the horrors Merlin’s illusions cannot conceal.
Myrddin walks amongst us opening doors and haunting us with the countless eyes of the dead until we cannot bear to be complicit with the world of Arthur and the wizard Merlin anymore.
Breaking every window, every text, every screen, he tears us out of ourselves and takes us back to the forest.
The ghost of Myrddin Wyllt sets us free.
*First published in Pagan Dawn, 204, August 2017
Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, (Penguin Classic, 1973)
Geoffrey of Monmouth, The Life of Merlin, (Forgotten Books, 2008)
Meirion Pennar (transl.), The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Neil Thomas, ‘The Celtic Wild Man Tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini: Madness or Contemptus Mundi?’, Arthuriana, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 2000)
Nikolai Tolstoy, The Quest for Merlin, (Sceptre, 1985)
Robert de Boron, Merlin and the Grail: Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin, Perceval (DS Brewer, 2008)
Thomas Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur, (Cassel, 2003)
Tim Clarkson, Scotland’s Merlin, (Berlinn, 2016)
William F. Skene, The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (Forgotten Books 2007)