The Merlin Files 6 – Who Was He?

According to the ancient Welsh White Book of Rhydderch, the first name that the island of Britain bore before it was taken or settled was Myrddin’s Precinct.

This has led some to believe that the name Myrddin was used to refer to a god of Britain, perhaps with a major cult centre here in south-west Wales. 

Carmarthen seems to have been long ago Caer-Myrrdin, the city of Myrddin. And of course the nearby bluestone quarries of Pembrokeshire’s Preseli Hills were the source of important stones for Stonehenge. Were the stones drawn from here because this was the main territory of Britain’s patron, guardian god, Myrddin?

The Roman name for Carmarthen was Moridunum – meaning sea fortress, but also sounding remarkably similar to Myrddin.

So, was Myrrdin the name of an ancient god and also of those inspired by this deity. Were there many Myrddins, or Myrrdin men (men like Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Merlin, and Scotland’s Lailoken and Ireland’s Suibhne, both of whom seem to be versions of Merlin the Wild) who moved in mysterious ways to weave their influence upon kings and country?

From the Middle Ages to the present day, the Merlin legend has grown and grown. As with characters such as Robin Hood, Dr Who, Sherlock Homes or James Bond, every generation has created new incarnations, new stories and new myths.

Despite the fact that Geoffrey of Monmouth initially recorded Merlin only being involved in King Arthur’s conecption and not at all in his life (only later sneaking in a mention of Merlin taking the stricken king to the Isle of Avalon), subsequent stories have had Merlin involved in Arthur’s upbringing, his sword-in-the-stone trial, and the establishment of his Round Table of knights. All utter fiction – but irresistible.

The name Merlin still appears to hold a tremendous amount of power – so much so that it has been purloined by Merlin Entertainments, owner of the likes of Alton Towers, Thorpe Park, Legoland, Chessington World of Adventures, the London Eye and Madame Tussauds. The company obviously felt that the old Merlin magic would work for it – and it certainly seems to have done so.

Merlin is also the name of the smallest of British falcons. It appears to have been derived from the Anglo-Norman merilun, or meriliun, by way of the Middle English merlyon.

And – not a lot of people know this – Merlin was also in the mid-20th century the name of the magazine of the Carmarthenshire Branch of Nalgo (the National and Local Government Officers’ Association – which is now part of the Unison trade union); a copy of the 1953 launch issue is preserved for posterity in the British Library.

The mag mentions Merlin as “the legendary bard and prophet of Arthurian times, traditionally associated with Carmarthenshire, where he is said to have dwelt in the hill that bears the name Abergwili; the self-same Merlin whose prophecy regarding the fate of Carmarthen is engraved beneath the Old Oak in the town…”

In the next part of this series, we will look at Carmarthen and the surrounding area which has so many sites connected with Merlin.

© Nigel Summerley

We’ll be concluding “The Merlin Files” series with a look at local places connected with the Merlin stories… when the lockdown comes to an end

Nigel Summerley

Nigel Summerley retired from The Oldie magazine to return to freelance journalism. He previously held executive staff jobs at the London Evening Standard, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Express before freelancing for 20 years for newspapers including The Times, The Sunday Times, The Independent, The Guardian and the ‘i’ paper, plus a wide range of magazines. He continues to write about music, travel and health, and blogs at www.nigel-summerley.blogspot.com.

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