©1997 by Heather Rose Jones. All rights reserved.
Last updated 30 October 1996
This is what is known about the use of Myrddin as a personal name in the middle ages:
The name Myrddin is normally encountered as the Welsh equivalent of Merlin, the name of a wizard associated with Arthur's court.
Possibly the earliest known reference to Myrddin occurs in the prophetic poem called "Armes Prydein" (the prophecy of Britain). The earliest extant copy of this text dates to ca. 1275 CE, however the contents can be dated on linguistic and historic grounds to ca. 930 CE. The name appears only once in the poem, in the opening line of one stanza that reads, "Dysgogan Myrdin ..." (Merlin fortells ...). A similar opening formula occurs three other times in the poem, twice with "Dysgogan Awen ..." (poetic inspiration fortells ...) and once with "Dysgogan derwydon ..." (wise men fortell ...). It is possible that the name Myrddin has been substituted for a different formula at some point later than 930 CE (but obviously earlier than 1275 CE). [Williams Armes Prydein]
A similar reference occurs in one of the two versions of the poem called the "Gododdin". This poem purports to describe events of the 6th century, however the earliest manuscript of it dates to the mid-13th century. This manuscript contains two different versions of the poem, one using an earlier form of the language (and thus probable copied from an older original) dating to somewhere in the 9-10th c.; and one using a later form of the language, from around the 12th century. [Jarman Aneirin: Y Gododdin] The later version includes the lines, "amuc moryen gwenwawt mirdyn. a chyvrannv penn prif eg weryt ..." (Morien defended the fair song of Myrddin and laid the head of a chief in the earth ...) in stanza 43. But the earlier version omits these lines from the verse. The inclusion of Myrddin in the poem, then, would not appear to be original, and in fact cannot be firmly dated earlier than the 12th century. [Williams Canu Aneirin]
There is a group of poems in the Black Book of Carmarthen and Red Book of Hergest referring to a prophetic Myrddin and giving the outlines of a legend about a warrior who fought at the 6th century battle of Arfderydd in the north of Britain and who went mad after his lord was killed in the battle. Although the manuscripts date to the 13th and 14th centuries respectively, linguistic evidence dates the poems to some time before the 12th century. This evidence argues against the possibility that Geoffrey of Monmouth's "Vita Merlini" was the origin of the association of the name with the character. [Bromwich The Welsh Triads] Other scholars, however, believe that Geoffrey was the first to use the name, deriving it from the place name Caerfyrddin, and that the name "never occurs in any document earlier than the "Historia [Regum Brittanniae]", and never in a context uninfluenced by that work." [Hutson British Personal Names in the HRB]
However the story about a prophet/warrior who goes mad after a similar battle can be traced in various aspects to the 9th century Irish legend of Suibhne Geilt, and to legends about a character named Lailoken associated with St. Kentigern in northern Britain. The name Myrddin becomes associated with the Lailoken story only after the tale has been relocated to south Wales and the region around Caerfyrddin (Carmarthen) -- the name Myrddin is not associated with the character in any versions of the tale originating in the north of Britain, nor in anything older than the appearance of the tale in South Wales. Subsequently to this event, the name Caerfyrddin is given the etymology "Myrddin's castle" (caer + myrddin) -- an etymology that is demonstrably spurious (the second element derives from Brythonic Moridunum, which appears in Roman records).
Geoffrey of Monmouth is the first writer who distinguishes two different Myrddins: the prophet/magician Myrddin Emrys (Merlin Ambrosius) and the madman Myrddin Wyllt (Merlin Celidonius). Although medieval tradition credited Myrddin as a poet as well as a prophet, no surviving poems are attributed to him, even falsely. [Bromwich The Welsh Triads]
In summary, there was a northern tradition of a prophet (and probably poet), most likely named Lailoken. There was also an Irish tradition of a warrior who went mad after his lord was killed. These two were merged at some point. The story was relocated to South Wales where the character's name was changed to a false back-formation from a local place name. This may have been done by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who brought the character into the Matter of Britain and re-separated the two original traditions. Or it may have been done by unknown persons sometime during the 10-11th century and Geoffrey then used the tradition for his own purposes.
There is no evidence to suggest that Myrddin (or any of its variants) was the name of any actual historic person in the medieval period, nor is there any evidence that once the name had been created for the Arthurian literary character it was subsequently brought into ordinary use during the pre-1600 period.
(The earliest modern example I can find of it is as the "bardic name" of John Jones (1836-1921). [The Dictionary of Welsh Biography] The taking of "bardic names" from ancient literature and tradition began some time in the 18th century.)
Bromwich, Rachel. Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1978.
Dictionary of Welsh Biography (down to 1940). London: The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1959.
Hutson, Arthur. British Personal Names in the Historia Regum Britanniae. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1940.
Jarman, A. O. H. Aneirin: Y Gododdin. Llandysul, The Gomer Press, 1990.
Williams, Ifor (trans. Rachel Bromwich). Armes Prydein. Dublin: The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1982.
Williams, Ifor. Canu Aneirin. Caerdydd: Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 1978.
Problem Names Project articles are published by Sharon L. Krossa (contact), with the assistance of The Academy of Saint Gabriel.
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