Posts Tagged ‘the madman in the woods’

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)

2
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?