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A study in Western Shamanism - By Professor Roland Rotherham.

When we read the stories of King Arthur and his knight's of the Round Table, we constantly find ourselves coming across the character of Merlin, the magician. This strange and enigmatic figure features so prominently in the tales that it is almost impossible to think of one without the other. He is, according the story, directly responsible for the emergence of the young king and is also of vital importance in the events that will bring about his birth.

The story is well known but let us briefly recapture the bare events to refresh our minds before we continue to explore the character in more depth.

We are told that Britain is ruled by a great 'High' king called Uther Pendragon, indeed, this name is telling about his status as it means Great Dragon and therefore we can recognise him as overlord of the other petty kings who rule their small kingdoms under his over-all rule.

One of the nobles subordinate to Uther is Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, he has a young wife called Ygraine and a daughter called Morgana. When Uther meets Ygraine he is so smitten with her beauty that he confides in Merlin that he MUST have her or die in the attempt. So it is that a great war ensues between Uther and Gorlois and Uther lays siege to Gorlois castle at Tintagel situated on the great, craggy coastline of Cornwall and standing like a defiant titan on the rocky headland.

Gorlois is aware that his castle is almost impenetrable to attack so Uther devises a plan. He fakes a retreat and as he does so Gorlois and his men leave the stronghold in pursuit and mean to attack Uther's force as it withdraws but are then surprised by troops held in reserve and a mighty battle takes place. While the battle rages Uther talks to Merlin, who, we are told, is a well known magician and adviser to the king, he asks Merlin's help in entering the castle so he can have Ygraine while her husband is away.

Merlin comes up with the perfect plan, he will make Uther look like Gorlois so that none will know that he has entered the fortress, not even the lady Ygraine and he can then have her as is his wish. However, then Merlin makes an astonishing request, he states that if a child should be borne of their union then it should be given to he, Merlin, as the reward of his help in the plan. The king agrees and weaving a spell so strong that even the heavens shake with it's power Merlin gives Uther the outward appearance of the duke and under cover of dark, while the battle still rages, he enters the castle and takes Ygraine. At the moment of the act of lust taking place, the real duke is killed in the battle and none in the castle are aware as they all believe that he is with Ygraine.

The story then tells us that the morning after the union the dukes body is brought back to the castle and Uther, by then back in his normal form, takes the widow of Gorlois to be his own wife. At this period in history, the 4th-5th-6th centuries, it was common for the victor to take the vanquished women and all goes well until the day the child is born, the child of Uther and Ygraine, begotten on the night of the great battle.

No sooner is the child born than Merlin appears to claim his reward and amidst much arguing and wailing he departs with the babe and delivers him to one Sir Ector of Malvern to bring him up as his own.

Next follows the story of the sword in the stone and the coming to the kinghood of the boy Arthur. After his crowning the boy has Merlin as his adviser for many years, he serves the young king well and instigates the building of Camelot and the institution of the Knight's of the Round Table. He arranges for the wedding of Arthur to the young princess Gwenhwyvar and all goes well until Merlin himself falls under the spell of a lady named Nimue who lures him with her charms and using magic knowledge gained from Merlin himself, she imprisons him in an ancient tree where he rests in perpetual sleep to this day.

Please remember, you may have seen the film 'Excalibur' and thoroughly enjoyed it (I know I did), but the details surrounding Merlin's fall were NOT portrayed correctly, dramatic though they were.

So, there we have the legend of the magician as we see him in most of the versions of the tales of King Arthur. Is there any truth to them? Did such a person really exist? The answer is 'Yes' and 'Yes' and here are some of the details.

We first encounter Merlin as a character in the story of Arthur in the writings of a certain Geoffrey of Monmouth, a learned man who was writing during the early 12th century and he wrote a book called 'The History of the Kings of Britain', it is still available now and well worth reading. We believe he wrote it in Oxford, that beautiful university town whose traditions date back to the reign of Alfred the Great, scourge of the Vikings. The book should not be considered as a true history of Britain by today's standards but when it was written it was hailed as a great masterpiece. In it we find the first reference to 'King' Arthur, before he had only been mentioned as a leader in battle and of course we find Merlin.

The story goes that the High King of Britain was a certain Vortigern, who wished to build a castle in a particular spot but the castle kept falling down. His advisers told him that if he wished his castle to stand he would have to bless the ground the building was on with the blood of a child not borne with a father of a mother. His spies find a boy whose mother was a nun and whose father was an incubus demon, this was, of course, Merlin. They discovered him in Carmarthen in Wales, interestingly Carmarthen takes its name from the ancient word 'Caermyrddhin' or City of Merlin.

His actual name at this point was Emrys, which is a variance of Merlin and he is taken before Vortigern. The young man astounds the king's magicians and advisers by telling them that under the foundations of the castle he is trying to build is a large pool and in that pool are two dragons fighting, one white and one red. He explains that the battle is between the red dragon of the British people and the white dragon of the usurping king and that the red dragon will be victorious over it. It signifies, (In Geoffrey's book), the return of the rightful rulers Uther and Ambrosius who did indeed return and Vortigern was overthrown, Uther became high king and you know the rest.

In a later book called the 'Vita Merlini' Geoffrey gives a different account and here he makes Merlin not only a sage and wizard but also King of Demetia (Present day Dyfed in Wales), here he takes up arms to help his friend Peredur (Percival), who is King of Venedotia, which is Gwynnedd, also in Wales, in a war against Guennolous, King of Scocia. After a great battle in which three of Percival's brothers are killed, Merlin goes mad with grief and horror and retires to the forest of Calidon and there lives alone with an ageing wolf for company.

His sister, Ganieda, persuades him back to live her and her husband, the King of Strathclyde, but after a while he can stand it no longer and after a very confusing chapter on him denouncing his sister as having an affair with a young nobleman, she however, builds him a home and an observatory with 70 doors and 70 windows in which to live and work and this he does, releasing prophecies on the future of Britain and it's people at regular intervals. These 'Prophecies of Merlin', can also be found in the 'History of the King's of Britain' but please, do NOT take them too seriously.

All well and good you might think. Well I'm afraid NOT !!

All we have done has been to hear more tales of a strange magician-like person who appears and disappears into legend with astonishing ease. What about some REAL HISTORY? OK, here goes.

Firstly, we must not call him 'Merlin' as we often do but THE Merlin, as with 'The Arthur', 'The Merlin' is a title and not a name. It may surprise you to find out that there has always been a Merlin and that there is even one today!

To go back to the roots of this strange tradition we have to travel back in time to a period when history as we know it was still in an infant state and the world of dreams and demons held us within it's power. In those days the population of the world was involved with that which we now call 'Nature Religions', or to be more correct 'Atavistic' worship. There! That's a new word you've learned!

It was a simple belief and one that focussed on man and nature working together in total harmony. The seasons and plants, animals and weather acted as guides to the everyday life of the people who lived in this way and the people, in turn, lived, worshipped and lived with the forces of nature that they believed, perhaps rightly so, were superior to their own existence and had been placed on this earth by a benevolent spirit to provide them with food and sustenance, PROVIDING they did not abuse the gifts that were given them (Hmm, perhaps we can learn something here)?

The priesthood who administered this religion were far more than ordinary priests, they dealt with visions, prophecies, healing, story-telling, agriculture and, most importantly, with the spiritual welfare of the people in their charge. Sacred places were given over to worship, places where the priests had said were definite 'Earth powers' that made the worship more relevant to the spirits they invoked. Many of these were the famous sacred lakes and pools that hold so much mystery today. You see, they knew that water was the most important element to man, without water all things perish, it is only natural that these places should be special. The priestesses who held worship at these sacred spots would go on in legend to become the famous 'Ladies of the Lake' in the Arthurian stories.

Men and women held equal place in the early priesthood for it was commonly believed that the creation was due to a goddess and not a god. This simple belief in nature as a controlling force is the very start of and emergence of our Merlin, because the high priest of this culture was known as The Myrddhin, (This is pronounced MERTHIN), this is the person whose training in the ancient nature religions will become the Merlin of our stories.

The tradition of story telling was vital to the early people and many of our earliest tales of Arthur and his warrior's date from the early oral traditions of the story-tellers or 'Bards' as they are known. The people at that time had no written alphabet with which to write down these tales so it was important for trained bards to retell these tales of famous warriors and their exploits because the people believed that while your name was remembered your soul would never die but would continue to go on in other worlds as a continuation of your previous life, in much the same way that Hindu's believe in re-incarnation today but with some differences.

'Penn Bardd' or Chief Bard was therefore a very important title in this culture and it is this Chief Bard who is The Merlin. It is a traditional post that was elected every time a Merlin passed away from this earth, (I couldn't really say DIE could I? You never know, they might have the right idea). Only the most highly trained and skilled of the priests would be eligible for election and therefore it was only right as time went on and society became more formal, with a hierarchy of priests, lords, kings and others being given, or taking, positions of authority that the Chief Bard or Merlin would be the adviser to the 'Chief of Chief's, in a way that in our stories our Merlin becomes adviser to King Arthur. Remember that this mixture of 'Church and State' is still with us today in some countries, it is just that the Merlin's have different names and their religions are no longer the old nature path followed by so many for so long.

How many of you have read T.H.White's superb story 'The Sword in the Stone'? I would imagine many of you have been delighted with tales of young 'Wart' as he struggles to become king with the aid of his old wizard to help him. In the story we are given an intriguing glimpse of the old Atavistic religion when we read about the young Arthur being turned into a bird or a fish or an ant to learn his skills that will help him become king as he gets older. What if I were to tell you that it really happened? Well it's a fact, the priests of the old faiths would assist a young warrior in becoming a man by undergoing a ritual whereby the young man has drugs administered to him by the priest and then he sets of for the forest to link with one or more creatures that will become his 'Totem' animal and he will identify with this animal or animals for the remainder of his life. Have you never wondered why American Indians were given animal names or names associated with nature processes? It is all down to the totem spirit that inhabits your body and soul, the soul that links you with the animals and forests.

It is also true that our perception of Merlin is of an old man with a long white beard and flowing robes, OK, some of the Merlin's may have been old but others could have been quite young men, as long as they were trained or showed great skill in the way of the priesthood they would be chosen. We believe that at the time of the warlord who may have been the actual Arthur there were possibly 2 Merlin's who existed during his time, one at a time of course. We believe that the first was named Taliesin and the second Anuerin, these are actual historical figures we can date to the period of the warlord the Arthur, mainly due to an ancient book called 'The Black Book of Carmarthen' which actually contains some of the original poems of these two Penn Bardd written down as the growth of culture allowed.

It is strange to read the magical passages and to think that these are the words spoken by the men who legend would turn into Merlin the magician as they recite their stanzas to the man who the same legends would turn into King Arthur. Now surely THAT'S MAGIC.

As you will recall, I told you there were Merlin's today, well, every year an organisation called 'The Gorsedd of Bards' elects an new Penn Bardd at a ceremony called 'The Eistedfodd' which always takes place in Wales and is open to all Celtic speaking people, such as Irish, Welsh, Scots, Cornish, Breton, Manx, in fact any nation that has a Celtic tongue can participate and at the end of this festival, which now celebrates the cultural aspect of the Celtic people and is not any longer a primarily religious function, the new Penn Bardd is crowned in a ceremony that is truly breathtaking. Each person taking part is now judged on their ability to compose poetry or songs in the ancient Celtic tongue and as the winner is announced and crowned (Or 'Chaired' to give it it's official title), you can feel the majesty of the occasion overwhelm you as you realise that here you too are witnessing a Merlin come to life.

There is much that can be said about this subject and these study pages are only designed to give you a brief outline in the hope that you will then go out and 'Quest' for more knowledge. But I warn you now, take care, it just may take over your life. I know, it happened to me!

Happy questing, good reading and may the light of Merlin's staff guide you.

Prof. Roland Rotherham
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