Posts Tagged ‘Lailoken’

Scotland’s Merlin, A Medieval Legend and Its Dark Age Origins, by Tim Clarkson. Published by John Donald, of the Birlinn Limited imprint, 2016.
ISBN 97819065669991

This is a meticulously researched and even-handed investigation of the Merlin phenomenon.

Our story comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book, Historia Regius Brittania, AD 1139. The Merlin and also Arthurian topics were based on early Welsh sources.Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Arthurian characters were then transformed through the French chanson de geste. Their Vulgate Cycle became a magnificent and expanding series of tales around King Arthur, his court, and chivalry, and all in a British (southern) setting.
Geoffrey of Monmouth first published a collection, Phophetiae Merlini, in AD 1130.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s main book mentioned Merlin only marginally. He later dedicated a whole tale to his story, Vita Merlini. This tale was not as popular as the earlier book; the tale was set in southern Scotland.
Sources used the name Myrddin Wyllt, for this figure. It was this Welsh form, Myrddin, that supposedly gave the name to Carmarthen, in south Wales: Caer Myrrddin ie the castle of Myrddin.
The Merlin story also occured in earlier Irish sources.

The Scottish Merlin story dates from the 6th century AD, where the Merlin character, known as Lailoken,  runs maddened from the carnage of the battle of Arfderdd (AD 573). He lived in the forests and woods of Celibon in southern Scotland as a madman, spouting prophecies. His sister persuaded the king to help her find him and bring him back. His prophecies became famous. He later returned to the woods.

The source this Scottish tale drew upon was the St Kentigern tale of Lailoken, the madman in the woods. Connected with this tale is the 9/10 century Irish King Sweeney/Suibhne tale. Once again there is the warrior running maddened from the battle, but this time through being cursed by St Ronan. He was a prince/chieftain. There are two very moving episodes where his wife contacted him, to bring him back into the world of people. The first one Sweeney turned away from her; the second time he turned to her, but she had turned from him thinking him beyond help.
Sweeney met Lailoken, who was called Alladhan in the tale, on his sojourn in Britain. The region is identified as the south Strathclyde region.

The prophecies, Tim Clarkson, notes, were back-referenced: writers gave historical accounts of the figure, then fitted prophecies to past events (mostly AD 12th century local events).
The supernatural element to the story is an essential part, however.
The later Thomas the Rhymer legend took over a lot of the Lailoken characteristics.

The major researcher of the Merlin story was the Victorian scholar, William Forbes Skene. He went so far as to identify the site of Lailoken’s immediate locale, and supposed grave. He visited the most likely place for the tumultuous battle of Arfderydd, and identified from scattered sources the major figures of the battle.

The name can be traced back:
Merlin
Myrddin Wyllt (Myrddin the mad)
(Alladhan – Irish through the Dal Riata cultural and settlement connection)
Lailoken
Llallogan (Cumbric language)

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What we now know of the Merlin story seems to be the remnants of a much older and more complex one.
Merlin, the wizard and prophet, was confidante of King Arthur. In old age he was lured away into the woods by Morgana La Fay/Vivian and imprisoned within a tree/cave.

It is always these three, though: the man who runs mad in the woods, the king/chief who he was close to, and the woman who is wife, sister, or lover.

There was something niggling me about framework of this tale. What did it remind me of?
It was the Gilgamesh story, all the way from 1800BCE, and what is now Iraq. Gilgamesh and his companion the wild man, Enkidu.

Tim Clarkson notes the similarity of basic theme, but not the three-person structure.

Enkidu was lured from his wild life and into Uruk with Gilgamesh, by the temple ‘prostitute’ Shamesh. On Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh himself went wandering in Enkidu’s wilderness. He did not begin to prophesy, but he did go to seek out immortality. Already part god, he sought out the only survivor of the Flood to learn the secret of not-dying. He had to seek admittance from Siduri, the keeper of the tavern at the end of the world, to the domicile of the one survivor.
She allowed him through, but it was refused him.
One version has Gilgamesh later become a king of the Underworld, lord of the dead.

The Gilgamesh tale hinges on the roles of women: Enkidu accented to Shamhat; Gilgamesh refused the advances of love goddess Ishtar. That refusal cost him Enkidu, his state of mind, and his city of Uruk.
Gilgamesh spurned Ishtar’s advances; he sought out Siduri.

Contemporary with this tale is a tale from the Middle Egyptian period, The Tale of Sinuhe.
In this tale Sinuhe was returning from fighting in North Africa with the king’s son and their army. He overheard a messenger to the king’s son telling of the death of the king. The news caused him to lose his mind, and he wandered off. He wandered ‘like a rudderless barge’ and eventually ended up as warrior to a chieftain in what became Syria/Lebanon. Eventually he recontacted the new king, and was welcomed back to Egypt having won new territories for the king.
There is no prophesying, or seeking wisdom or secrets.

There are aspects of the tale, however, that suggest his wanderings as a vision of the realm of the dead, a traverse through the Underworld. He ‘comes forth by day’ back in Egypt of the semi-divine ruler, the new king.

 

How far can we take this?

Think of the Buddha in 5thBCE India: a prince who wanders off with other ascetics into the wilds. An extreme ascetic, he eventually accepted a bowl of food from a woman: In a famous incident, after becoming starved and weakened, he is said to have accepted milk and rice from a village girl named Sujata. Such was his emaciated appearance that she wrongly believed him to be a spirit that had granted her a wish.
He realised from this that extreme fasting was not the way, that there had to be a Middle Way – he went on to develop his Middle Way, and with followers.
Think of Jesus of Nazareth, once again in the wilderness, and preaching, praying. Think of his relationship with both Herod, and indeed, God. And think of the relationship with Mary Magdalen. Think of him spurning Satan in the wilderness.

Did both of these life stories purposely use the older tale of the madman/holy fool/seeker of mysteries in the wildness?

Ok, maybe the Jesus one is stretching it. But Wiki does give us this:

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_man):
The description of Nebuchadnezzar II in the Book of Daniel (2nd century BC) greatly influenced the medieval European concepts. Daniel 4 depicts God humbling the Babylonian king for his boastfulness; stricken mad and ejected from human society, he grows hair on his body and lives like a beast. This image was popular in medieval depictions of Nebuchadnezzar. Similarly, late medieval legends of Saint John Chrysostom (died 407) describe the saint’s asceticism as making him so isolated and feral that hunters who capture him cannot tell if he is man or beast.

And, of course, Esau was an hairy man.

In the Greek world the figure of Heracles seems closest to the wild man in the woods. He does seem to have similarities in some respects to the earlier Enkidu figure.
The Roman world gives us Silvanus – although, as protector of woods, there is an echo here of the role of Humbaba, the cedar wood ogre of the Gilgamesh tale.

There are copious examples of ‘wild man’ tales – some become blended with other tales: Robin Hood, maybe even Hereward the Wake fits here. Think of William Tell. The madman element is essential, though, and these tales seem to omit that.

Where, if at all, does the Green Man figure fit into the story? He is more like the Roman Silvanus. Maybe that was the source of the Green Man legend: left-overs once again of Roman occupation, or even of Romans who stayed on after the dissolution.

What was it about the Lailoken tale that made it so memorable, though? There must have been many driven mad by battle over the centuries.
Was it the St Kentigern connection, hagiographic reverence, and the huge trade in Saint’s stories?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

/8 the tribal chief, and the wife/sister/lover?

 

 

 

 

 

 

I first came across the figure of Lailoken when I was reading up on Seamus Heaney’s version of the Sweeney tale: Sweeney Astray, Faber and Faber, 1983.
This version is based on the translation from the original Irish by James G O’Keefe, 1913.

www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T302018/index.html

Often referred to as King Sweeney, the tale has him as cursed by St Ronan on the battlefield of Mag Rath, 637 AD, for repeatedly spurning Ronan and his disciples, the last straw being when Sweeney threw a spear that cracked the Saint’s matins bell, and killed a disciple. Sweeney was cursed, and left the field of battle, to wander mad, part bird, for many years. There were occasions when his madness began to fade, but it was replenished.

mks

A freize of the Sweeney story.

The central part of the Sweeney tale, and where the whole tale turned around, is when Sweeney had left Ireland in his mad wanderings. He eventually arrived in Britain. There he met a madman, in a similar position and condition to himself. This ‘madman in the woods’: Fer Caille, ‘man of the woods’, was called Allan in the Sweeney Astray text, from  O’Keefe’s name, Ealladhan.
Seamus Heaney, in his Introduction, comments that the tale of the madman in the woods is a far older tale, that was incorporated into the Sweeney story.

The madman in the woods has been identified as Lailoken.
According to some sources he was the bard of King Rhydderch Hael, and based at the king’s castle of Dumbarton, on Dumbarton Rock on the River Clyde, just outside Glasgow. This was in the 6th century AD.

dumrock

Dumbarton Rock.

Lailoken himself has been connected with Partick, now part of west Glasgow.

At the time this area was, as the King’s name suggests, a part of the old Welsh territory. This territory took in all the west coast of northern England, through modern Cumbria, Ayreshire and up to the River Clyde. All spoke an earlier form of Welsh.
East of this, Nothumbria and modern Border regions, Lothian, including Edinburgh and to the Firth of Forth was Old English speaking.
North of this Central Lowland region was, to the east, Pictish land; their language has not come to us in any researchable quantity. To the west the new Irish incursions were creating Dal Riata, and their language would soon overtake the Pictish, to develop into the modern version of Gaelic: Scottish Gaelic.

There was a major battle, one of ‘the three pointless battles’ according to readings of the collections of Welsh Triads. The battle of Arfderydd, 573 AD.
This was where Lailoken came unstuck. One version is he killed a cousin of his King, and was cursed. Whatever the cause, he left the battlefield, and lived a life much like Sweeney.
(In the O”Keefe he had insisted his lord’s warriors wore their best silk clothes to battle. The result was predictable.)

We know of Lailoken through St Kentigern (known as St Mungo), and patron saint of Glasgow. St Kentigern’s story was recorded in the 16th century.

The character we know through St Kentigern as Lailoken was closely connected with the Welsh figure of Myrddin Wyllt, that is, Murthin the Mad.
Sweeney’s name in the Irish is Suibne Geilt: Sweeney the mad one. Wikipedia has him as Sweeney mac Colmain, king of Dal Araidhe. The Sweeney Tale is usually attributed to the 12th century.
The closeness of Wyllt and Geillt, Brithonic and Goidelic, is shown here.
Likewise, the closeness of the name Myrddin to our legendary Merlin has drawn many to presume they were one and the same. Geoffrey of Monmouth first made this connection in his twelfth century History of the Kings of Britain.
Following up place names in the text W F Skeen identified the battlefield of Arfderydd as based on or near the present day church of Arthuret, just outside the small village of Longtown, Cumbria.

Like many of these old scenes of importance, they look rather underwhelming in the present day.
https://www.google.co.uk/maps/place/Longtown,+Carlisle/

From Arfderydd, Lailoken was supposed to have fled into the Caledonian Forest. The area is now an open patch of country, close to the River Esk. There are no woods, never mind forest. The Caledonian Forest clings on, supposedly the last relics of the fir trees that followed the retreat of the ice sheet, only in a couple of patches in Deeside and that area.

So, what happened when Sweeney met Lailoken/Alan/Ealladhan/Myrddin?
He sought him out, befriended him, and travelled with him for the next year. Then Lailoken had a date with his death at the waterfall of the Black Mount.
Sweeney himself then returned to Ireland, and tried to return to his people. The whole story had changed: instead of avoiding people, he now sought them out.

When Sweeney came to Britain both the Heaney and the O’Keefe say ‘he left the fortress of the Britons on his right side’, before meeting Lailoken.
Taking that fortress to be Rhydderch Hael’s Dumbarton Rock, then Sweeney must have travelled either north, from Strathclyde, or west from Stranraer. Either way he was north of the Clyde-Forth border. Language-wide this would make sense also.
Travelling for a year – they could have travelled a long way, or circled, like St Brendan on his voyage.
My argument is they travelled north, up to the Black Mount near modern Bridge of Orchy and the celebrated Ben Dorain.

blkmt

The Black Mount.

The Myrddin story is set in the Border country. This fits with the battlefield being near Longtown in Cumbria.Whether Myrddin’s is a different story, or a corrupted later version are questions as yet unanswered.

Lailoken, like Myrddin Weillt, was also known as a prophet, divinely inspired. Sweeney was not.
Were people looking for a world beyond the world, that only disordered senses could detect? There were few, if any, sane prophets: the speaking in madness was considered the authentic method.
The prophet tradition goes back so far, it is beyond sight. We cannot put it down to the split-world scenario that that the Christian religion promoted: this world, and the next, and ne’er the twain shall meet. It was older than that, this belief in a world, or worlds, beyond our known one, worlds where true reality and authority lay. Yet its communications had not our syntax, barely our vocabulary; their communications with ours were garbled, highly metaphorical, or more probably referential to an order of the world that was not ours, with different priorities, values.
We see this in many religions -and how many now have been influenced by Christianity? Most, if not all – how the ways of God are different from the ways of man. And yet we are to attain to the god’s ways, to ways not of this world, in order to save a part of ourselves, the part that lives on while the this-world part must die.

It could well be that the legendary ‘madman in the woods’ is connected to the Green Man image. Who came first, though?

100_0561

We could posit connections to the legendary Robin Goodfellow character, who appears in Shakespeare (Midsummer Night’s Dream), and who also gave provenance to the Robin Hood tales/songs.
These tales and characters gather more and more barnacles as they travel through the seas of time.

The most moving description I have come across has Lailoken wandering ‘like many battle-maddened men’ in the woods and forests.
Was Lailoken their epitome? Was his figure a way of portraying the effects of post-traumatic stress/battle fatigue? Was this a way of giving these people a measure of dignity by making them ‘holy fools’ of a sort?
Myrddin Weillt was described as telling his tale of the terrible battle, after which he immediately jumped up and ran wildly away. It is the same with Sweeney. This reaction to reliving the trauma does make this theory sound plausible.

See ‘Scotlands’s Merlin’, by Tim Clarkson, John Donaldson Publishers Ltd, 2016
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Scotlands-Merlin-Medieval-Legend-Origins/dp/1906566992/