In this blog we will look deeper at the story of Myrddin, son of Morfryn, one of the 3 skillful bards mentioned in the Welsh triads, the other two being Myrddin Emrys, discussed in the previous blog and the famous Taliesin. Myrddin ap Morfryn is said to have lived in the lowlands of Scotland in the 6th century. If this is the same Myrddin as the 5th century Myrddin Emrys of Carmarthen, he of the unusual conception and exceptional capacities, then perhaps he had the gift of immortality? Or was it that he was able to incarnate successively with full knowledge of who he was and with his powers intact? Are these simply two separate Myrddins? Britain was once known by the name Clas Myrddin/ Myrddins enclosure, so could it be that this great priest King of all Britain has supernatural longevity? Food for thought.
Myrddin in The Old Books
Prior to the Roman occupation, the Brythonic territory stretched from the West to the far North and East of Britain. The land was heavily wooded with few roads and so, travel by sea was common when long distances were involved and the whole western region from South to North was strongly connected. Indeed, there was also a strong connection with the Mediterranean and with Northern Africa including, most interestingly Egypt. During the occupation, the land beyond Hadrian’s Wall remained relatively independent, and tribes such as the Selgovae retained their territories and their close contact with the tribes of what is now Wales. Some of these tribes held true to the traditional pagan ways and beliefs and the stories of these times tell us much about the indigenous cultures of pre-Roman Britain. The tale of Myrddin as chief druid of King Gwenddolau of the Selgovae in the 6th Century, is a story that is well preserved in the most ancient writings we have, The Black Book of Carmarthen and The Red Book of Hergest. Here the legend is recorded in poetic stanzas which some believe can be attributed to Myrddin himself. J K Bollard in his analysis of the books considers that the poems, both legendary and prophetic represent a corpus of Myrddin poetry. He goes on to suggest that though it is by no means certain that the poems were written by him, references to Myrddin and his story do imply he held a prominent position in the consciousness of the authors.
By the 6th century, Christianity was already firmly established in Britain and from what I can gather, mostly coexisted peacefully alongside pagan spirituality. In his book King Arthur and the Grail, R. Cavendish suggests that Myrddin ‘represents an older understanding of man and nature, a profound wisdom from a pagan past, not in opposition to Christianity but in anticipation of it.’ There seems to have been an integration of the two traditions, though some chiefs adopted the new monotheistic views more fully than others. Even in far northern territories, remote from Roman rule, some of the tribal leaders made alliances with the Romans for political and trading advantages. So, it is not hard to imagine how these chiefs were persuaded to align with the new religion of the Church of Rome and to act as agents, forwarding the Roman agenda of eradicating the pagan beliefs and Druidic authority. Interestingly in previous centuries Rome had conquered Egypt, defeating the last Pharoah, Cleopatra and destroying the ancient mystery schools of that land. Could it be that some of these mysteries were linked with those of ancient Britain? Could it be that some of the Egyptian priests and priestesses were able to escape and make their way by sea routes to Britain? Certainly, it is known that in later times Christian monks travelled here by sea from Egypt, following trade routes around the coast of Spain and Portugal. We will pick up this thread again later when we explore the history and magic of Ynys Enlli/Bardsey Island. For now, the possibility of the British Druidic mystery schools being linked to those of Egypt, something there is intriguing evidence for, holds relevance to the story of Myrddin and in particular, the presence of the pig in this tale due to the sow being one of the forms taken by Isis, the primary goddess of Egypt.
Christianity versus Paganism
The evidence we have available for 6th Century life in Britain, as aforementioned was penned by Christian scribes. Whilst it is entirely possible that these scribes did their best to be as accurate and true as they could be, we must keep an open mind. Their work is of great interest and worthy of study, and perhaps these writings, can provide the bones which if we allow our instincts and imaginations to put flesh upon them, can lead us to deeper truths? Is it possible that there are communications from our pagan ancestors embedded in these stories?
The Black Book of Carmarthen tells us that Myrddin fought alongside Gwenddolau at the battle of Arderydd, a battle in which Gwenddolau was slain and his army, after continuing to fight for many weeks despite the fall of their chief, was defeated by their enemy, Rhyddyrch Hael. Rhyddyrch is said to have been aligned with the Church and that the battle was fought over a lark’s nest. It seems that this may be a reference to a place (temple?) of women in a location known to us now as Caerlaverock, (laverock being an old word for skylarks) on the Solway Firth. The offensive may have been due to strategic positioning, a move that posed a significant threat and provocation to Gwenddolau, or perhaps Rhyddyrch purposely targeted the pagan, female, spiritual enclave? Whatever the truth, the subsequent battle was a mighty blow to British paganism and a significant advancement of the authority of the church. Myrddin is said to have gone mad with the horror of the battle and devastating losses, and to have fled north to the forests of Celyddon where he sought the sanctuary of a magical apple tree and communed with the wild animals. His special companions were a pig and a wolf, and he lived on wild fruits and roots, apparently for many years. This story contains many intriguing elements which I strongly suspect may have symbolic meanings, and delving into these potentials unearths a rich humous from which sprout all kinds of imaginings and wild speculations. I’m guessing if you are reading a blog by a storyteller, you are up for flights of fantasy that do at least have some rootlets into historical literature? A major influence on my thinking or I should say my confidence to follow my hunches, is Nikolai Tolstoy and his book The Quest for Merlin. If you find this subject interesting why not check it out?
Mad Dead or a Poet
Tolstoy proposes that this episode in Myrddin’s life represents a druidic or shamanic initiation. He draws comparisons with existing animistic cultures such as the traditions of Siberia and points to some interesting parallels. It is common for initiates to be exposed to powerful experiences that dislodge the initiate from their ordinary state of consciousness. They are often sent out into the wilds for a period to live by their wits and to rediscover their true nature, to know themselves as a part of nature. With this in mind, the image of Myrddin driven mad by the battle and making his way to a wild and powerful place where he hides out in a cave, becomes invisible in the branches of a magical apple tree and communicates with wild animals takes on a very different complexion. Additionally, there are stories in both Scottish and Irish mythology of characters in very similar circumstances seemingly undergoing parallel rites of passage. In Scotland we hear of Lailoken, a wild man and seer whose story mirrors that of Myrddin and who became equated with him. It is not the first time that symbolic reference to initiation rites has been made in the myths of early Britain as anyone who knows the tale of The Birth of Taliesin can tell you. Additionally, it is told of several locations in Wales, most prominently of Cadair Idris, that if you spend the night there you will wake up ‘mad, dead or a poet’. Cadair is a favoured place for vision questing to this day. Tolstoy has identified the location of Myrddin’s wild retreat as Hartfell, a mountain to the north of the village of Moffat in Dumfries. In the next blog I will share my experiences visiting this incredible place and write more on the shamanic aspect of Myrddin.
Reason in Madness
The Myrddin poems in The Black Book of Carmarthen and the Red Book of Hergest detail conversations between Myrddin and those who visit him during his retreat in the forests of Celyddon. Taliesin is among them, along with Myrddin’s sister Gwyndydd and also Arthur. Myrddin dialogues with the apple tree and with the pig and there is a series of prophecies attributed to Myrddin. In order for us to fully appreciate the content of these poems we need to understand the historical context in which they emerged and I am not in a position to do this justice in this blog. I will just reflect that it may well be that some of this material was genuinely derived from 6th century sources, perhaps is even authentic Myrddin poetry, but there are also additions that have a specific purpose. Giraldus Cambrensis in his book Itinerarium Kambriae, a Journey through Wales, refers to a discovery in Nefyn y Llyn in 1188 of an old and revered manuscript containing translations of the prophecies. He is of the opinion that these prophecies were an expression of the British and English battle for supremacy, the struggle of the red and white dragons. Over the centuries great Welsh heroes have fought to reinstate Brythonic authority, and the prophecies have played a role in giving hope to this cause.
‘All around the reaper
English to the sickle put
By the venomous bile
Of the lord of Eyri . . .’
‘ . . . with spears of ash
Giving the English
With their heads . . .’ The Black Book of Carmarthen.
Hope for us Now
Perhaps Myrddin and his story can continue to give us hope in our current times? The traditions he represents are deeply animistic, a worldview that despite centuries of religious persecution, war and industrialisation, powerfully persists to this day. Even in modern Western societies it cannot be wiped away. Who amongst us has not felt the characterful presence of mountain ranges, the atmosphere of forests, been aware of trees as beings or been drawn to hold a particular stone? To be sure, anyone who has experienced being lost in the wilds will know that when one is fully present to the environment and everyday thoughts are dropped for a time, the living essence of nature, its varying atmospheres and the many beings that inhabit it become more vividly apparent. This animistic worldview is what perpetuates the understanding that all life is sacred, consciousness expresses itself in the infinite diversity of life forms we experience as separate beings. This leads to a way of life that is based on reciprocity and balance in order to achieve sustainability. The reductionist view of nature being inanimate leads to exploitation and mindless destruction for selfish motivations. This is clearly not sustainable and has indeed driven humanity to a dangerous edge, one which I deeply believe we can avoid, not just by reconnecting to the past but certainly by remembering who we really are and what the true nature of existence is. Myrddin leaps out of the old stories and into the now with as much energy and relevance as ever, rebirthed indeed to assist us in this remembering.
I hope this blog has given you a taster of what may be discovered in the ancient books and how this is relevant to our current times? In my next blog I will share with you my experiences in Scotland where I visited the very site that some believe was Myrddins Celyddon retreat. I aim to bring together further research with my own thoughts and insights and to paint a picture for you of this amazing location!