wizard Merlin’s virgin conception in literary history

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain {Historia regum Britanniae}, which he wrote about 1138, the wizard Merlin was born of a woman who never had sex with a flesh-and-blood man. The sage Maugantius suggested to the British king Vortigern that Merlin’s mother had coupled with a daemon. Fear of such couplings subsequently contributed to burning men as witches across medieval and early-modern Europe. Poignantly dreaming of a beloved man became a real nightmare.

In a poem written about 2,500 years ago, a young woman dreamed of her beloved man. She longed for his left hand to cradle her head and his right hand to embrace her waist. She yearned to drink his kisses and taste his fruit:

I slept, but my heart was awake. A sound! My beloved is knocking. “Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one, for my head is wet with dew, my hair with the drops of the night.” I had put off my garment. How could I put it on? I had bathed my feet. How could I soil them? My beloved put his hand to the door-latch, and my heart thrilled within me. I arose to open to my beloved. My hands with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, dripped on the handles of the bolt. I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and left. My soul failed me when he spoke. I sought him, but I didn’t find him. I called to him, but he gave no answer. [1]

{ אני ישנה ולבי ער קול דודי דופק פתחי־לי אחתי רעיתי יונתי תמתי שראשי נמלא־טל קוצותי רסיסי לילה׃
פשטתי את־כתנתי איככה אלבשנה רחצתי את־רגלי איככה אטנפם׃
דודי שלח ידו מן־החר ומעי המו עליו׃
קמתי אני לפתח לדודי וידי נטפו־מור ואצבעתי מור עבר על כפות המנעול׃
פתחתי אני לדודי ודודי חמק עבר נפשי יצאה בדברו בקשתיהו ולא מצאתיהו קראתיו ולא ענני׃ }

The woman not wanting to put her garment back on and not wanting to place her clean feet on the dirty floor are realistic details. She arose from bed nonetheless when she heard her beloved’s hand on the door-latch. Perhaps without putting her garment on, she went to the door to greet him. Her dream didn’t end, but her beloved vanished. Her dream apparently became contaminated with reality. Her beloved actually was not of this world.

Another dream drama occurs in a poem from late in the tenth century. This dream has less realistically described circumstances, but reality similarly contaminates the dream:

The sun departed with his voyage done.
His sister the moon rode her chariots freely,
shedding her beams in woodland springs,
stirring wild beasts to fill their gaping mouths.
Mortal humans yielded their limbs to sleep.

The time was April, which just passed.
An image of my faithful love stood before me,
calling softly, he touched me gently.
His voice, weighed down with tears, failed.
Through his sighing he was unable to speak.

At his touch I trembled too much,
I leaped from the earth as if in fright,
I extended my arms and pressed his body to mine.
Wholly drained of blood I inwardly froze —
he had vanished! I had retained nothing!

Fully free of sleep I cried out loudly:
“Please, tell me, where are you fleeing? Why so swiftly?
Halt your step! If you wish, I’ll enter by your side,
since I want to live with you forever!”
Soon it grieved me that I had spoken this way.

The windows above were open.
The moon’s rays glistened in their beauty.
Ah me. Ah made wretched. I grieved so long.
Down my cheeks flowed streams of tears
never ceasing until the next day.

{ Foebus abierat subtractis cursibus:
equitabat soror effrenis curribus,
radios inferens silvanis fontibus,
agitando feras pro suis rictibus.
Mortales dederant menbra soporibus.

Aprilis tempore quod nuper transiit
fidelis imago coram me adstitit,
me vocans dulciter pauxillum tetigit:
oppresa lacrimis vox eius deficit,
suspirans etenim loqui non valuit.

Illius a tactu nimis intremui,
velud exterrita sursum insilui,
extensis brachiis corpus applicui,
exsanguis penitus tota derigui —
evanuit enim! nichil retinui!

Sopore libera exclamo fortiter;
“quo fugis, amabo? Cur tam celeriter?
Siste gradum, si vis inibo pariter,
nam tecum vivere volo perhenniter!”
Mox me penituit dixisse taliter.

Aperte fuerant fenestre solii,
fulgebant pulcriter Diane radii —
heu me, heu miseram! Tam diu dolui,
fluxerunt per genas ploratus rivuli;
donec in crastinum nunquam abstinui. }[2]

A new morning dried the tears from this woman’s dream encounter with her beloved. He was in the celestial realm. She grieved that she had wanted to go to that world with him. No one with Christian appreciation for the fullness of life should forsake in a dream the gift of a forthcoming new day here on earth.

A man in a thirteenth-century poem peevishly declared that the woman he loved used secret magic to control his dreams. He knew that his dreams weren’t real, but false images nonetheless troubled him:

She knows secret magic
and is before my eyes day and night
just as if I saw her.
She’s close to me when I sleep.
But if I were to put my arms around her
in the manner of love,
it would all turn out to be a fraud
that deceives me while I’m sleeping
and lies to me in my hope for love.
This has given me gray hair.

{ Si chan zouberliste tougen,
si ist mir tag und naht vor minen ougen,
dem gelich sam ich si seh.
si ist mir in dem slaffe nahen.
sold ich si mit armen umbevahen
und daz minnechlich geschech,
daz ist allez ein getroch,
daz mich in dem slaffe triuget
und mir in dem lieben wane liuget,
da von han ich grawen loch. }[3]

His dreams have real effect in giving him grey hair. That’s worse than a dream revealing the actual absence of a beloved.

Merlin's virgin mother gets pregnant by a daemon-incubus

Through a dream encounter made fruitful in Historia regum Britanniae, a virgin gave birth to the human-like wizard Merlin. Merlin’s mother was the daughter of the King of Demetia. She lived as a nun in a city church of Saint Peter. She thus wasn’t a woman of low estate. She also wasn’t innocent of fleshly desire. She explained to King Vortigern:

By your living soul and my living soul, my lord king, I knew no man who fathered this child of mine. One thing, however, I do know. When my convent sisters and I were in our bedrooms, someone resembling a handsome young man used to appear to me very often. He would hold me tightly in his arms and kiss me. After remaining with me for a while, he would suddenly disappear from my sight. Often while I sat alone he would talk to me without appearing. He visited me in this way for a long time. He often in the form of a man had sex with me, and he left me full in my womb. You should know in your wisdom, my lord, that in no other way have I known a man who could have been this young man’s father.

{ Vivit anima tua et anima mea, domine mi rex, quia neminem agnovi qui illum in me generaverit. Unum autem scio, quod cum essem inter consocias meas in thalamis nostris apparebat michi quidam in specie pulcherrimi juvenis et saepissime amplectens me strictis brachiis deosculabatur. Et cum aliquantulum mecum moram fecisset, subito evanescebat ita ut nihil ex eo viderem. Multociens quoque me alloquebatur dum secreto sederem nec usquam comparebat. Cumque diu me in hunc modum frequentasset, coivit mecum in specie hominis saepius atque gravidam in alvo deseruit. Sciat prudentia tua, domine mi, quod aliter virum non agnovi qui juvenem istum generavit. }[4]

Vortigern asked his sage Maugantius if such fathering could occur. Maugantius responded:

In the books of our philosophers and in very many histories I have found that many persons have been born in this way. As Apuleius records in About the god of Socrates {De deo Socratis}, between the moon and the earth live spirits whom we call daemons-incubi. They are part human and part angel. They take on human form at will and sleep with women. Perhaps it was one of them who appeared to this woman and himself fathered this youth.

{ In libris philosophorum nostrorum, et in plurimis historiis reperi multos homines hujusmodi procreationem habuisse. Nam ut Apulegius de deo Socratis perhibet, inter lunam et terram habitant spiritus quos incubos daemones appellamus. Hii partim habent naturam hominum, partim vero angelorum, et cum volunt assumunt sibi humanas figuras et cum mulieribus coeunt. Forsitan unus ex eis huic mulieri apparuit et juvenem istum in ipsa generavit. }[5]

In De deo Socratis, Apuleius characterized daemons as benign, emotional beings. Hence they plausibly would love women. Apuleius, however, said nothing about daemons having sex with women and fathering children with them.[6] Unlike the Holy Spirit who fathered Jesus, Merlin’s spirit-father had no recognized, enduring identity. Merlin’s conception in Historia regum Britanniae differs from the Virgin Mary’s conception of Jesus in poetically regular ways. In depicting Merlin’s virgin conception, Geoffrey of Monmouth made historically eventful earlier poetic dream encounters with a vanishing beloved.

Neither Merlin’s mother nor Maugantius nor King Vortigern maligned the man-spirit who had sex with her. Not tainted by his conception, Merlin was merely disadvantaged in not having a worldly father to care for him. He nonetheless became a powerful wizard. He uttered all-encompassing prophecies, transported Stonehenge from Ireland to Britain, and facilitated the conception of the great British king Arthur. A woman’s dream of a man loving her produced a wizard who did extraordinary deeds in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history didn’t form the main stream of European history. Apuleius’s daemons became demons. The incubus became an agent of evil. With the same mentality that prompted the Mann Act in early twentieth-century America, medieval European leaders stoked fear of demonic men seducing women. In early modern Europe, about 25% of persons charged as witches were men. Embracing in a dream a vanishing beloved man, a drama poignantly expressed in pre-modern poetry, became a real nightmare like a wife fearing her husband as a rapist.

Council of the demons of Hell decide to create Merlin via intercourse with a virgin

* * * * *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] Song of Solomon / Song of Songs 5:2-6, Hebrew text via BlueLetterBible, ESV translation (modified insubstantially). See also Song of Solomon 2:5-6. The woman wants to bring her beloved to her mother’s house. That reflects the gynocentrism of ancient Hebrew culture. See also Genesis 2:24 and Ephesians 5:31.

[2] “The sun departed with his voyage done {Foebus abierat subtractis cursibus},” anonymous Latin poem from northern Italy late in the tenth century. Latin text from Dronke (1965) vol. 2, pp. 334-6, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. and Eavan Boland’s translation. While the speaking voice is that of a woman, the author perfectly well could have been a man, since men and women typically knew well each other’s voices then.

This poem has survived in Oxford, Bodley 38, folios 56v-57r (from late in the tenth century) and in Roma, Vatican lat. 3251, folio 178v (from the first half of the twelfth century). The poem is only partially legible in the latter manuscript. The poem is written in the Latin language of its time. It has thematic similarities with other medieval Latin poetic dream visions, including those of men.

For the “swiftness and passionateness of its narration,” Dronke calls this poem “one of the most remarkable poems in Medieval Latin.” It is “an archaic ballad of the demon lover.” Dronke (1965) vol. 2, pp. 337, 340. That’s how Percy Bysshe Shelley would have read it early in nineteenth-century England. That’s probably not how the poem was read in northern Italy early in the tenth century. For Dronke’s similar misinterpretation of “Surgens Manerius summo diluculo {Arising in the early dawn, Manerius},” Bate (1974). For literary context of “Surgens Manerius,” see note 3 in my post on the dangers of gyno-idolatry.

Here are Boland’s interpretive translation notes. They seem to me parochial in a modern way. For a fawning review of Boland’s translation, Murray (2017).

Here’s an Italian translation of “Foebus abierat.” A recording of this song is included on Sequentia’s album Lost Songs of the Rhineland Harper (2006).

[3] Neidhart, Riedegg Manuscript 46 (R46), “Alas winter, what dark days {Owe winder, waz du bringest},” stanza 2, Middle High German text and English translation (modified slightly) from Starkey & Wenzel (2016). For a freely available online edition of Neidhart’s songs, Keinz (1889).

[4] Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain {Historia regum Britanniae}, 6.531-40 (sec. 107), Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Reeve & Wright (2009). The subsequent quote above is from Historia regum Britanniae 6.544-50 (sec. 107) and is similarly sourced. For a freely available Latin text of Historia regum Britanniae, Giles & Virunio (1844). For freely available English translations, Evans (1904) and Giles (1848). Thorpe (1966) is a relatively low-cost English translation with text-section numbering and an excellent index.

Geoffrey states that Merlin is also called Ambrosius. Ambrosius was the name of the Merlin figure in Nennius’s History of the Britons {Historia Brittonum}, written about 829. In Historia Brittonum, the mother of Merlin / Ambrosius is similarly a virgin. But in the earlier account, she says only that she “didn’t know a man {virum non cognovi}.” Vortigern corresponds to Guorthigirn in Historia Brittonum. Of Geoffrey’s elaboration of Nennius’s account of Merlin’s virgin conception, Curley (2015).

Curley noted:

Although Geoffrey’s new hybrid creation, Merlin-Ambrosius, has been the subject of intense scrutiny for many years, the encounter of the young nun with a mysterious handsome young man, and the lecture by the wise man Maugantius on this encounter, although they function as inaugural episodes in Geoffrey’s account of Merlin’s life and career, have received relatively little scholarly attention.

Id. p. 220. Merlin’s conception in Historia regum Britanniae isn’t even mentioned in Henley & Smith (2020).

[5] Curley stated:

Maugantius’s discourse on the incubus, one of Geoffrey’s boldest strokes in his revision of Nennius’s Historia Britonum, is highly selective and runs directly counter to what was generally believed of the incubus by Geoffrey’s contemporaries in one important respect: the incubus was a malevolent, libidinous creature, an agent of pollution, and a woman who had sex with an incubus was committing sin.

Curley (2015) p. 233. Curley credits Geoffrey with a “novel imaginative construct of the genesis of Merlin at the intersection of the realms of flesh and spirit, free from taint of shame and scandal.” Id. p. 238. Geoffrey’s construct of Merlin’s virgin conception is less novel when understood within the context of the Song of Solomon and medieval Latin poetry about dreaming of one’s beloved.

[6] Apuleius described daemons as having human-like emotionality. He gave examples that didn’t include love:

For just as they are placed between us and the gods in their physical location, so they are in their mental nature, having immortality in common with those above, but emotionality with those below. For just as we are, they are capable of experiencing everything that calms or irritates the mind. Thus anger rouses them, pity moves them, gifts attract them, prayers mollify them, abuse infuriates them, and honors appease them. They change with every other such stimulus just as we do.

{ Sunt enim inter nos ac deos ut loco regionis ita ingenio mentis intersiti, habentes communem cum superis immortalitatem, cum inferis passionem. Nam proinde ut nos, pati possunt omnia animorum placamenta vel incitamenta, ut et ira incitentur et misericordia flectantur et donis inuitentur et precibus leniantur et contumeliis exasperentur et honoribus mulceantur, aliisque omnibus ad similem nobis modum varient. }

Apuleius, About the god of Socrates {De deo Socratis} 13, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Jones (2017). Although not enumerated, love seems to be implied. De deo Socratis is freely available online in the translation of Taylor (1822).

[images] (1) Merlin’s virgin mother gets pregnant by a daemon-incubus. Illumination in a prose version of Lancelot. First printed in 1494. The rubric associated with this image states, “How Merlin was conceived by a devil. And how he was in love with the Lady of the Lake {Comment Merlin fut engendre du diable. Et comment il fut amoureux de la dame du lac}.” Excerpt from folio 8v of Paris, Bibl. Mazarine, inc. 1286. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Council of demons plan and enact Merlin’s conception via a virgin woman. From an instance of the thirteenth-century romance History of Merlin {Histoire de Merlin}, copied in Bourges about 1480-1485. Excerpt from folio 1r of BnF Français 91. Via Wikimedia Commons. A BnF exposition notes that this illumination encompasses a tableau of events: “Council of Devils; Devils Slaying the Beasts of Merlin the Elder; Merlin the Elder mourning his own; Blaise and Daughters of Merlin the Elder; Blaise and Merlin’s future mother; conception of Merlin by a devil; confession of Merlin’s mother.” The beginning red rubric on this folio states: “Here begins the story of Merlin with how the council of the demons of hell decided, with their damned master Lucifer, to engender through the body of a virgin girl {Ici commence l’histoire de Merlin et comment, le conseil des diables de l’enfer décidèrent, avec leur damné maître Lucifer, d’engendrer par le corps d’une fille vierge}.”

References:

Bate, A. Keith. 1974. “The Manerius Poem: A Demythification and a Demystification.” Latomus. 33 (3): 688-690.

Curley, Michael J. 2015. “Conjuring History: Mother, Nun, and Incubus in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 114 (2): 219-239.

Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. 2 vols. Vol. 1Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Evans, Sebastian, trans. 1904. Geoffrey of Monmouth. Histories of the Kings of Britain. London: J.M. Dent.

Giles, John Allen and Ludovico Pontico Virunio, ed. 1844. Galfredi Monumetensis Historia Britonum: nunc primum in Anglia novem codd. msstis. collatis. 1967 reprint. New York: Burt Franklin.

Giles, John Allen, trans. 1848. Six Old English chronicles, of which two are now first translated from the monkish Latin originals. London: Bohn. Alternate, annotated presentation, including Geoffrey of Monmouth’s British History.

Henley, Georgia, and Joshua Byron Smith, eds. 2020. A Companion to Geoffrey of Monmouth. Leiden: Brill.

Jones, Christopher P., ed. and trans. 2017. Apuleius. Apologia. Florida. De Deo Socratis. Loeb Classical Library 534. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Keinz, Friedrich, ed. 1889. Die Lieder Neidharts von Reuenthal auf Grund von M. Haupts Herstellung zeitlich gruppirt. Leipzig.

Murray, Christine. 2017. “Modern Encounter with ‘Foebus abierat’: On Eavan Boland’s ‘Phoebus Was Gone, all Gone, His Journey Over.’” In Campbell, Siobhán, and Nessa O’Mahony, eds. Eavan Boland: Inside History. Dublin, Ireland: Arlen House.

Reeve, Michael D., ed. and Neil Wright, trans. 2009. Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History of the Kings of Britain: an edition and translation of De gestis Britonum (Historia regum Britanniae). Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press.

Starkey, Kathryn and Edith Wenzel. 2016. Neidhart: selected songs from the Riedegg Manuscript (Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, mgf 1062). Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Taylor, Thomas, trans. 1822. The Metamorphosis, or, Golden ass, and other philosophical writings: viz. On the god of Socrates & On the philosophy of Plato. London:London: Sold by R. Triphook and T. Rodd. Alternate presentation.

Thorpe, Lewis, trans. 1966. Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. London: Penguin Books.

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