Great bookstore score this weekend! I found Jean Markale’s Merlin: Priest of Nature at our wonderful Haunted Bookshop–and I devoured it. It will get re-read, probably numerous times, so I don’t feel too bad about speeding my way through. Maybe I knew instinctively there was a puzzle piece in there that I had been searching for.
Books find us, sometimes right when we are ready for them.
My dad was big into the Arthur stories, and passed that spark on to me when I was very young, so it’s a story cycle I know well. As a fledgling Bard I studied Merlin, Taliesin and Amergin voraciously, reading their stories and meditating on them until they made a strange kind of sense, but something always bothered me about the whole Merlin-Vivian (Nimue) thing. The coolest customer, the most highly trained, in control dude can lose it over a woman, absolutely. But the way Merlin lost it over Vivian? Not bloody likely.
The story goes, that toward the end of Merlin’s life, he withdrew back into the woods, which was his natural habitat and where he spent most of his life–not in Arthur’s court, as most people believe. He was around when he needed to be, but only for the minimum amount of time possible, and then he would either hop on a stag or turn into one and run as fast as possible back to the woods. Based on some of his poems, if I were to diagnose him I’d say he had a severe case of social anxiety disorder, because there were times when he couldn’t even get down from the apple tree he chose to live in. He claimed he was a prisoner, but there was no one keeping him there.
But I digress. Toward the end of his life, he went back to the woods, and there he met a woman who would be his undoing, or so the story goes. Depending on how Christianized they are, some versions have her as a young girl, barely out of her childhood, and some have her as a mature young woman. She enchants the enchanter, who becomes totally, helplessly smitten. She demands all his secrets, promising sex and then withholding (big red bullshit flag right there–a real Celtic woman would never trade information for sex in the first place, but then to wiggle out of her promise? Never). So, according to some legends, he became her stalker and wouldn’t leave her alone until she got so fed up with him that she tricked him into telling her how to seal him away in a tomb of air, or under a giant rock, and she imprisoned him forever and ever and ever out of sheer immature spite, or more likely some writer’s misplaced piety.
This always struck me as utterly discordant. No way would he become a weak, pathetic little puppy dog over a pretty girl, especially one so very young.
One of the big keys to the riddle is the frequent use of the word “cycle” to describe the tales. They are cyclical. Things shift, people change. Merlin’s sister, Ganeida/Gwyndydd, who may also be his lover or his wife (much like Isis and Osiris are brother and sister, but because they are gods they don’t have the same risks and taboos we mere mortals do with the inbreeding), goes through her own growth cycle, becoming the wife and then the widow of a king, and then a powerful seer and prophetess after her husband’s death. Merlin’s wife only appears in one version, for a very short and specific story that doesn’t even remotely appear anywhere else, and her name? Guendolena. Most scholars have written her off as a literary device to explain away any possible whiff of incest between Merlin and Ganeida.
According to one of the oldest and probably most accurate versions of the story, Merlin starts out his literary/archetypal career as a King, and during the course of a very bloody war, goes “mad” and runs away to the forest where he forsakes civilization to become the Wild Man. There he befriends a baby wild boar, some stags, a few wolves, and several trees, some of which he lives in for periods of time. His sister Ganeida is devoted to him, and brings him food frequently, and attempts to lure him back to society, using her (ahem) sisterly wiles. She is the wife of King Rydderch, who is also very fond of Merlin and wants him to return so they can take care of him. Finally he allows himself to be persuaded to return, and hijinx ensue.
At one point, he witnesses the King removing a leaf from his wife’s hair, and Merlin bursts out laughing. The King inquires of the cause for his laughter, and Merlin refuses to tell him three times. Finally when the King promises to free him if he will enlighten them as to the cause of his laughter, Merlin explains that the leaf came to be in his sister the Queen’s hair because she was in the woods gettin’ it on with her lover, and the implication is that he knew this not because he was clairvoyant, but because he was there, if you know what I mean. Ganeida immediately says, “Oops, he’s gone mad again!” After testing his sanity by asking him to prophecy the death of a young man three times, and the prophecy being totally different each time, it was agreed that he had gone back around the bend, and they reluctantly let him return to the woods. The young man dies shortly after in exactly all three ways that Merlin predicted.
Ganeida, now estranged from her husband, insists that a house be built for Merlin, with seventy doors and seventy windows, so he can see the stars.
Eventually, Ganeida goes to live in the big glass tower with her brother, and when word comes to them that Rydderch has died, Merlin tells her to go say the eulogy. She does. and when she returns, she has become a powerful seer and prophetess, much more powerful than her brother. Merlin says he will no longer be a prophet, and that is kind of the last he is heard from–at least in that version, which is probably the closest one to accurate.
Where does Vivian come into all this? Vivian and Ganeida are very likely to be the same person, and the entire cycle of Vivian’s cat-and-mouse with Merlin was invented to try to hush up the incestuous relationship Merlin and Ganeida so clearly share. However, Vivian has a powerful presence, and if we shut the hell up and let her tell us her story, it is a beautiful and touching one.
Vivian might be considered the aspect of the fully actualized Ganeida, a beautiful, strong, mature woman who upon the death of her husband has come into her power–and is now in a place where she is totally supported in embracing and embodying it. She is referred to as a White Lady, by which most people assume she is blonde, but I have to question that as well. Maybe she is a fully grown, mature, beautiful, powerful white haired woman instead of a young maiden. Merlin never tries to stop Vivian/Ganeida from becoming more powerful; in fact, he is her greatest teacher. Already powerful, she learns all his tricks, too, and becomes a force to be reckoned with. Vivian doesn’t imprison Merlin in order to get away from him; on the contrary. She releases him from the cares of this life, and takes on his burden herself, becoming, according to yet other sources, Arthur’s fiercest protector yet.
Merlin had accomplished everything on his to-do list, and was about half-past ready to check out.
Vivian not only opened the portal that allowed Merlin to pass into the Otherworld, she inherited all his power when he went through, and became powerful enough to cross the veil at will to be his nightly companion. The invisible fortress, the glass tower, the impenetrable, immovable stone in which Merlin was imprisoned/entombed, all metaphors for the crossing to the Otherworld, which only the most powerful magicians can do.
If he could have crossed over himself, he would have done it years before, but he couldn’t–it took a woman to allow him that crossing.
Merlin was born a fatherless child of a pure and beautiful woman; Vivian is the mother that birthed him to his eternal self, to be healed and restored so that he can return again. It’s beautifully symmetrical if we allow Vivian to be her bad-ass self.
What does this have to do with us, here, now?
Women are rising, coming into our own, reclaiming our birthright as co-creators, with the power to give birth and transcend death, to be The Goddess in the Sacred Wood, healers, lovers, learners, teachers, mothers, sisters, daughters, Priestesses, Queens, enchantresses, more than simply alive. We all have the capacity to be Vivian, ushering the patriarchy beyond the veil and taking our place as equals in the new world we are creating.