Who was Merlin, really -- more intriguing, what was Merlin? Was he a sorcerer? A Seer? A magician? A prophet? A warrior? A shapeshifter? Was he a trusted counselor and emissary to the High Kings, including Arthur? Merlin was all this and more. He was also the author of "Prophecy" which Geoffrey of Monmouth translated for the world. Merlin was loved by many and feared by most.
He was known by different names (Myrrdin, Ambrosius Merlinus, The Emrys) however, as Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed in the year 1136, Merlinus qui et Ambrosius dice-batur, "His name is Merlin" -- and that is the name most people use for him.
Most of us know Merlin as King Arthur's trusted advisor and mentor. The first appearance of Merlin seems to appear in the Historia Regum Britanniae (History Of The Kings Of Britain), which was written in 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth. It is believed that Geoffrey based Merlin's character on earlier figures of both legendary and historical significance.
These figures Geoffrey supposedly drew on were Myrddin Wyllt (Merlinus Caledonensis), and Ambrosius Aurelianus. From these two men, Merlin Ambrosius was created.
Myrddin Wyllt, a historical person, lived in the late sixth century in Britain (c. 540 - c.584). He was a North Brythonic prophet and madman with no connection to King Arthur. Apparently, Myrddin Wyllt fought in the Battle of Arfderydd in Cumberland and lost. After losing the battle, Myrddin went insane and retreated to the forests to live with animals. The battle that Wyllt lost was in the same general area that another person by the name of Lailoken fought in and lost. It is possible that Wyllt is the same person known as Lailoken, who was also a Northern Brythonic seer and prophet of the late 6th century and was considered a fool.
The story of Lailoken as a wild man and seer living in the forests of Southern Scotland very closely matches that of Myrddin Wyllt, who was one of Geoffrey's prototypes for King Arthur's Merlin.
The other prototype Geoffrey used for the Merlin of Arthurian legends was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a Romano-British war leader. Aurelianus was of aristocratic heritage of high birth and had Roman ancestry. Aurelianus fought against the Saxon invaders and won.
In Historia Brittonum (History of Britain, by Nennius), it is the Ambrosius Aurelianus who met with Vortigern to discuss the two dragons beneath Dinas Emrys (the castle Vortigern was trying in vain to build). Geoffrey used this bit of history for one of Merlin's famous adventures.
By combining the stories and characteristics of these two historical figures and possibly others, Geoffrey of Monmouth created a Merlin of very interesting character.
Geoffrey has Merlin born a cambion of a mortal woman and an incubus (demon in male form). Merlin inherits his supernatural powers and abilities from this demon. A cambion is a being that shows no sign of life yet appears alive. It has no pulse, no breath, and only slightly resembles a human child. By the time the being is around seven years old it is difficult to distinguish from a human. At the age of seven, Merlin had knowledge and abilities far beyond human capabilities.
Geoffrey made Merlin the creator of Stonehenge, which Merlin built with the help of a giant. This circle of stones was the burial place of Arelius Ambrosius. Merlin, still under Geoffrey's control, then arranges the birth of Arthur. By magic and intrigue Merlin brings together Uther Pendragon with Igraine, the wife of his enemy, so that Arthur becomes the next in line for the High King.
Geoffrey also gave us the great Propheitiae Merlini (Prophecies of Merlin), which he claims to be the actual words of the legendary Merlin during his days of madness in the wilds.
Having created such a fascinating character (what we would today call an overnight sensation) with great and seemingly unlimited power and potential, Geoffrey of Monmouth then leaves Merlin to wander off into obscurity. Was this to be the end of the legendary Merlin?
Merlin advising King Arthur
Illustration by Gustave Doré, 1868