Bestselling author Elen Sentier looks at Merlin in history and mythology and considers his continuing relevance for people today. Best known as the wizard from the Arthurian stories, Merlin has been written about for well over 1000 years and is considered to be both a magical and historical figure. Over the centuries many people have had relationships with Merlin and in this book the author brings him to life for us once again in yet another way and from yet another perspective.
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Pagan Portals - Merlin: Once and Future Wizard
By Elen Sentier
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2016 Elen Sentier
All rights reserved.
Who is Merlin?
This book is about the intimate lifelong relationship I've had with Merlin and what I've learned from him. I learned to know him as a little child and that knowing, we call it kenning in the old ways, has grown all my life. I now live in one of his places, a place where one of his stories has taken root, in the Welsh Marches on the borders of Wales and England. I see him here in many of his guises ... he's huge, ancient, wise and powerful, and also kindly, but he's a trickster, as all the best teachers are, so you do have to be on top of your game with him.
The book's title – The Once and Future Wizard – somewhat gives away who he is. The word once means before, past, as in 'once upon a time', and Merlin is from the past, the very ancient past. His essence goes back all the way in our human journey on Planet Earth and very likely he was around, as were the other powers we call gods, from the Earth's very beginning, maybe even before that. The word future means just that, the future, what is ahead of us, and Merlin is our future too, he holds the threads of all possible futures in his hands. The future means at least all the next several billion years, however-long, until the sun becomes a red giant and burns us all back to our component atoms again. Merlin will likely go on even beyond that, for the death of our sun is an end that enables another beginning. The atoms that come apart then will come together again somewhere else, into new forms of life, and so the cycle continues.
And at the centre, between past and future, stands Merlin.
Merlin is a liminal being. Liminal means a threshold, a place between past and future, between here and there, between one world and another ... and he is always standing at that threshold. He is that place. And that ever-changing but constant threshold is now, the here-and-now, and it's constantly in motion like the sea, never the same from one instant of time to the next.
The now is the only place that is real. Past and future are memories and dreams, they are not where we are, and those memories and dreams are like virtual reality games, great fun but not genuine or authentic to the life we're currently living. Now is the only place we are able to live, but most of us are rarely conscious there. So many of us live in the next moment, or the previous moment, remembering or dreaming, so we never really know the present. We're getting ready to go out for a lovely evening with friends and our mind is not on the getting ready but imagining how it will be when we get there, how our friends will like our new dress, the compliments we'll get on the new tie. Driving home after the evening, our mind is not fully on the drive but on remembering what went well and the lumpy bits that didn't go so good. We do not live in the here-and-now.
Merlin is about living in the here-and-now. He is that continuous and ever-changing threshold that is reality.
As the poet TS Eliot says in Quartet No 1: Burnt Norton, 'humankind cannot bear very much reality'. We're worse than cats at change and that's unfortunate as it's truly the only place we can live. We like to live in what we know, have known, how it always has been – which, of course, it hasn't. We want things to get back to normal. We are afraid of change. Standing at, let alone crossing, thresholds and so leaving the old behind to go to the new, going from the known to the unknown, is very difficult for us. But, unconsciously, we do it all the time. The trick is learning to be continuously and consciously aware that you stand in the middle of change all the time, whatever is going on. Trust me, or rather trust Merlin, it really does work!
Merlin is there for all of us. This incarnation, this time around, I've known him consciously for all my life, since I was a baby, and he's here all the time for me. I walk between worlds as we call it in the old ways of Britain, a phrase from one of our old awenyddion, seannachie as they call them in Scottish Gaelic. His name was Thomas of Erceldoune, but you may know him better as Thomas the Rhymer from the old song and his story is well worth reading although you will have to go to several sources to piece it together, there's my own version on my website.
Walking between worlds means having a foot in the everyday world at the same time as having the other foot in otherworld; I am here-and-there at the same time. No, I'm not nuts, if you saw me in the pub you'd just think I was an ordinary elderly woman – for I am! But I'm also an awenydd – it means spirit-keeper in the old Brythonic tongue – I live with otherworld as well as with this world, and Merlin taught me how to do this.
What I've learned is available to any and all of us, he will come to anyone who calls out to him that they want to learn, are ready to learn. But you have to mean it!
This work isn't a cute little weekend course that you can put away in its box on Sunday night and come back to 'normality'. It's your life, a lifetime commitment. That doesn't mean you have to become an ascetic, give up everyday life and your mobile phone, live a spartan and abstemious existence – no, far from it. Merlin needs those he works with to be deeply involved in everyday human life as well as learning as much as they can about the unseen worlds. He wants us to mingle and twine and integrate spirit and matter, not to dash unthinkingly and hedonistically between the weekend trip and the working week. To do that, to live either in the everyday or in spirit, is as much use to him as an ashtray on a motorbike!
So how do we come to know Merlin for who he truly is?
To know him we have to put aside all the scripts we most of us have learned and grown up with, lived with all our lives; all those scripts we got from our parents and at school, from our friends, and from employers, bank managers, tax men and politicians. He really and truly isn't in them. They're about conformity, about making life comfortable amongst millions, billions, of other people, and Merlin most certainly is not about comfort. He's about stretching and growing, expanding the envelope, going beyond our limits, crossing frontiers, letting go and jumping off cliffs. He's about joy.
As I said before, letting go of what we know is hard for humans, we want things to be normal and we all resist like mad if somebody tells us things really are not as we believe them to be, and want them to be. But when, with Merlin's help, we start to get the hang of change and begin to walk the old ways, we climb out of this pattern of conformity. I come from a background with a lot less cultural conformity-baggage to drop, so letting go has always been less of a problem for me. I'm part of a group – larger than you might think – of folk who have been in the old ways from birth, and their families before them. For me and mine Merlin is a reality, he's really there and no question about it, and that makes a huge difference to how you feel about change.
Most people come through birth with a serious dose of spiritual amnesia, they remember little or nothing of the otherworld they've just left. Many children do go through the stage of what psychology and parenting books call 'imaginary friends', but this often results in parents and school quashing such ideas with the intention of making the kids normal. So the children do as they're told in order to gain the love and attention they need, and this need for approval continues on through life until and unless some form of awakening happens and is able to birth itself without further inhibition from society. With all this peer-pressure on people to conform, being able to let go and make room in your thinking so you really can get to know Merlin is not an easy job.
Awakenings do happen, and in all sorts of ways. When they do it's good to find someone you can talk about all this with, someone who's been there, done that, got the T-shirt and licked the stamp, someone who isn't going to be afraid of what you say or try to tell you to get a grip and be normal. It's even better if you can find someone who knows Merlin intimately and is willing to walk beside you on your own journey to know him – and there are quite a few of us about if you go look. Doing it completely on your own, with nobody to talk to, is incredibly hard and many would say impossible. The experiences are just so wonderful, and they can be so far from what is normally acceptable and, indeed, off-the-wall to many, that someone who's gone there before you is a real help. You don't feel alone, and they help you stop that nasty subliminal feeling that you really are nuts.
Having, building, making a relationship with Merlin is so worthwhile.
I'm by no means the only person I know who has a deep and strong relationship with Merlin, many of my friends and students do too. It's most certainly not the sort of relationship to ever get jealous about!
Perhaps you already have an idea of how huge he is – like he tries to show us when he shapeshifts into the figure of Custennin, Lord of the Animals. Such a being, power, mover and shaper, will need far more than just little me to help him get the work done that he needs done, so he comes to a great many of us. Each of us has different skills and abilities. I know artists, craftspeople, singers and musicians, writers, herbalists, woodsmen (like my Uncle Jack), people who work with animals and birds, fishermen, architects and builders, policemen, hunters, trackers and stalkers, and wildlife photographers who work with him. Even some of my old friends from when I worked for the MoD, folk in the Army, Air Force, Royal Marines and the SAS/SBS, know and work with him. Oh yes, Merlin gets about and not just amongst the luv-n-lite brigade either.
He's been a part of my life for all of my life, has helped me, guided and guarded me when I needed it, and kicked my butt when I need it too! But I share him with everyone else, we're all part of his team, his gang as many of us call it, and the longer I work with him the more of the gang I get to know. That's seriously reassuring; I too like to know I'm not on my own, that not only are there many otherworldly friends but there are many in this world too.
Having a relationship with Merlin does require you to be conscious, awake and aware, and to have a strong personality as well as an excellent sense of humour. You really need the latter because he will send you down the shop for a tin of striped paint on those days when you're being particularly dumb and naïve! But that's the case with all otherworld teachers, you have to be prepared to trip over your feet and fall flat on your arse then get up saying ouch, and maybe swearing, but definitely laughing at your own daftness. You have to know when you screwed up and be happy to admit it.
I still remember lying in bed, in my high-sided cot up in the attic bedroom. I must have been about one-and-a-half or maybe two. Looking on Google Earth it seems Number 9 East Street, Okehampton, is now a purple Co-op Funeral-care palace, but back then it was where we lived. It was my aunts' house, a big three-storey terrace building where my aunts also had their hairdressing business. Under the arch, which is now a car park, was Gunn's pop factory.
Dad had come to tell me the bedtime story as he did every evening. I loved the stories, and this evening he began to tell me the story of a man who lived in the woods, under an apple tree, with a young pig. As always, Dad stopped the story halfway through so we'd continue it the next night. He'd been watching my eyelids droop so he knew when to stop, kissed me goodnight and went out, softly closing the door behind him.
I always had a night-light candle as a baby. I don't recall being afraid of the dark but I do remember loving the shadows flickering up the walls from the candle. Now, as I lay watching them make patterns, I saw a figure begin to materialise at the end of the cot. It was a tall, slim man with a long thin face, his dark hair hung over the collar of the tunic he wore under a leather waistcoat. He looked a bit like my Uncle Jack but I knew it wasn't him. His dark eyes held me, there was a light flickering in them and the lids crinkled as his long, thin mouth smiled at me. 'Hello,' he said.
I whispered hello back and lay there holding my breath. Who was this? He felt good and I wanted him to stay. He came round to the side of the cot and touched my hand. The skin tingled like electricity.
'Hello, little one,' he said. 'You're a friend of mine and we're going to know each other very well. I'll come to see you every day but now it's time for you to go to sleep, to dream ... and dream of me.' His fingers touched my eyelids.
I certainly remember the dreams. They've continued all my life and I now know they were my first experience of travelling, journeying, for our folk have always worked and travelled through dreams.
Looking back now with my mind's eye I can still see that room, the flickering candlelight and the tall figure at the end of my cot. It's something I'll never forget and I hope that when I die he will be there to lead me back over the threshold into otherworld.
That figure from my babyhood experience was Merlin. I didn't learn this for a while. Dad told me lots of stories about him, but it was a couple of years before I cottoned on that the figure who visited me was the same person as the one in Dad's stories. When I did know who he was I told Dad. He just nodded and smiled.
Dad's stories told me lots about Merlin and Merlin would show the stories to me again as moving pictures in my mind's eye, like a film of the bedtime stories inside my head. I know now these films were another version of travelling, journeying.
Merlin is a legendary figure and best known in the everyday world as the wizard from the Arthurian stories. He's been written and rewritten, bent and twisted and reshaped by every generation since at least 400AD/500AD, some 1,600 years and maybe even longer. Television still creates new versions of Merlin and his stories. Of the more recent versions I find I like Mary Stewart's trilogy the best, her style and writing come closest to my own experience of him.
But it's a whole different experience when you actually meet him. He, like all the Powers, is a shapeshifter and so able to appear to each of us in the way that we will find most appealing. The TV versions that I don't like certainly do appeal to others and so enable him to be known by more people. This has happened all through his written history as each generation builds and discovers the Merlin most acceptable to them. Continuously changing and shifting.CHAPTER 2
Merlin in History, Stories and Poetry
Merlin is our wizard here in Britain. He is a spirit of the land and Britain is called Clas Merlin in some of the stories, meaning Merlin's place.
One thing to remember right from the start is that Merlin is far, far older than the Arthurian legends or indeed any of the written history about him. Our written records only go back about 2,000 years, which is no time at all, even in human history. Interestingly, a BBC article of 20 Jan 2016 tells of recent research that shows our fairy stories are very much older than historians previously thought. Using techniques normally employed by biologists, Durham University anthropologist, Dr Jamie Tehrani, studied links between stories from around the world and found some tales that were far, far older than the earliest literary records. In fact, Dr Tehrani traced several stories back more than 5,000 years ago to when Eastern and Western Indo-European languages split. The stories' roots are prehistoric, dating back to the Bronze Age. It's quite possible (likely even) that all our stories are this old, if we come to be convinced of this it's another area of change we're going to need Merlin's help with as it will set our current ideas of 'progress' right on their heads. And we'll need his help getting to their roots so we can understand what they really say rather than translating them into modern-speak with modern concepts that are not what the stories are about at all.
Nowadays, there's an absolute plethora of books, writing, films, stories, pictures and legends about Merlin; some good, some not so good and some just downright awful, at least in my opinion. It all depends on what you're looking at and where you're looking from and, of course, what you want to either do with, or gain from, your story or history.
Merlin's tales tell us he has had many incarnations, in many places around the country and indeed around Europe, add in that many of them have apparently been at the same time, so you cannot think of them in linear time, and you see why he confuses academics like crazy! If we really want to get to know him then Merlin requires us to think outside the box. We will lose the plot entirely if we get stuck in university libraries or lectures, or between the hide-bound covers of some ancient tome. Most of all he needs us not to want to have a perfect answer about who he is – and that not-wanting is hard to do. He is never still, he never stops moving, never stops growing and changing and evolving, he is continually in motion in both time and space, and he is always with us, just as he promises in the stories.
Excerpted from Pagan Portals - Merlin: Once and Future Wizard by Elen Sentier. Copyright © 2016 Elen Sentier. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
1 Who is Merlin? 1
2 Merlin in History, Stories and Poetry 9
3 Shapeshifting 20
4 Dragons, Demons and the Fatherless Child 32
5 Pig Moor: Dyfrig, Ergyng and Mynydd Myrddin 39
6 Merlin and Broceliande 53
7 Vivien: Keeper of Doorways 67
8 Merlin and Liminal Thresholds 81
9 Having a Relationship with Merlin 93