According to the Christian stories, Merlinâ€™s mother lay with a demon, an otherworldly spirit, who fathered him upon her.
The word demon has largely been dumbed down to mean something evil and out to get us, but it has far older and deeper meanings than that. In modern parlance, it can mean expert, genius, wizard and ace as well; in older terms it comes from the word daemon which means inspiration and muse as well as spirit and even demigod. Iâ€™m tempted to misquote Life of Brian â€¦ â€œWhat have the Christians ever done for us?â€ â€¦ well, a whole lot of bad misinformation for a start! Talk about political spin-doctors! And all to rubbish our old ways and traditions and knowing out of existence, but theyâ€™ve not succeeded.
Lying with a demon/daemon is a wonderful thing, known to all old ones throughout the world and the issue of intercourse with otherworld was deeply respected, honoured, revered and valued for most of our human time. This is the fatherless child and Merlin is such a one. Being born of both worlds, spirit and human, enables Merlin (and all the fatherless children through history) to walk between worlds, always in contact with both matter and spirit at the same time. Their stories turn up all over the place and one of those places is the ancient British kingdom where I live. Here Merlin is known as Dyfrig of Ergyng.
I didnâ€™t know this story before we came to live here. I was looking for a place to live, quiet, no near neighbours or roads, its own water and a big garden where I could grow food and help wildlife. Several times, I thought Iâ€™d found it but each time I thought Iâ€™d got it all together somebody moved the ends and it all fell apart! So, I got a bit cross and then, eventually, started doing the intelligent thing â€¦ calling otherworld for help. Immediately, my feet (and the car) began to go in a different direction, an advert for what looked like the ideal place fell into my lap, I came and looked, and fell in love with it. We moved in a month later.
I still knew little about the place but once weâ€™d unpacked most of the boxes I went for a wander around the city of Hereford, our local town. I love maps so my feet took me to the local map shop and while I was ferreting about looking for large-scale walking maps of the area a book fell on my head â€“ literally! I picked it up and the title grabbed me, Arthurian Links with Herefordshire by Mary Andere. Of course, I bought it immediately and began reading it as soon as I got home. Wow! Now all that moving of ends and frustrating my previous plans began to make sense, where I now lived was an ancient spot where Merlin had one of his birthing places. Heâ€™d been pushing and shoving to get me here all that time Iâ€™d not been listening but, at last, I was here, where he wanted me to be.
Merlin has been with me all my life, since I was a wee kiddie and Dad first told me the stories and introduced me, but Dad had never told me this story, perhaps heâ€™d never known it although there are strong family connections here.
And the story? Well, here it is â€¦
Dyfrig was the son of Princess Efrddyl the daughter of King Peibio Clafrog of Ergyng. A quick aside on pronunciation â€“ you pronounce Dyfrig as Duvrig. You say Efrddyl as Avrthil, but I usually shorten it to Avril. Peibio Clafrog is peebeeo clavrog and clafrog means leprous. So â€¦ one day, Peibio came home from the wars and, as is the Celtic custom, Efrddyl washed and combed his hair and beard. As she was doing this he saw that she was heavily pregnant. â€˜Who is the father?â€™ he demanded, â€˜I cannot tell,â€™ she replied. He asked her again, and then a third time, and every time Efrddyl would not tell. So Peibio had her taken down to the River Wye and thrown in to drown, but the river pushed her gently back to the shore. Again Peibio threw her into the river and again the river sent her back again, and a third time she was thrown in but the Wye would not take her but gave her back to her father.
Defeated by the river Peibio now had a great pyre built to see what fire would do. He set his daughter upon the bonfire to be burned to death, set light to it and went back to his home on the hill.
The next morning, he sent a servant down to the pyre to see the ashes. The servant took one look and ran straight back. â€˜My lord! My lord!â€™ he panted breathlessly, â€˜you must come, yourself, at once.â€™ So Peibio followed the servant down to the remains of the pyre by the river and there he found his daughter, sat upon a tall standing stone, nursing her new-born son. The place is now called Chilstone which is a contraction of Child’s Stone.
Peibio was dumbfounded. His daughter climbed down from the stone and showed him his grandson. The child reached up to touch his grandfatherâ€™s cheek and straightway the leprosy was gone. Needless to say, Peibio was even more astonished, and delighted, for a new-born child that could do such a healing was well worth rearing, whoever his father might have been.
Peibio ceded the whole of the land around Madley (as itâ€™s now called) to Dyfrig. It was then called Ynys Efrddyl, the island of Efrddyl and she was guardian to the waters, priestess of the sacred well and of the river, for water is the lifeblood of the land. Women of that time, who were born into her position as daughter of the ruler, were usually the goddessâ€™ representative. The river Wye, which flows just down in the valley below here, is the mother-water of Ergyng. This story is so much part of the old, ancient, magic, the coming together of fire and water. Efrddylâ€™s ordeal is an initiation, a rite of passage, a threshold for both her and her son. They go through water and fire in order for him to be born. His name, Dyfrig, means â€œwater babyâ€ for indeed he is.
The story goes on â€¦
Dyfrig became a very wise and well-known teacher and set up his first school down river from Madley, Ynys Effrddyl, at a place called Hentland. They say he was there seven years until the dream came upon him, the dream of a beautiful woman, dressed all in white and with long golden hair. She told him to leave the Hentland and go up-river until he came to the place where a white sow was suckling her piglings, and there to found a second and greater school. Dyfrig did this thing.
The description of the goddess, Ceridwen in her maiden-mother form and the white sow is one of Ceridwenâ€™s tylwyth beasts (tylwyth means the same sort of thing as totem in our tongue). Â The place was called Moch Ros which means â€œpig moorâ€ â€“ moch means pig and ros means moor, in her honour and it lies down the hill from Caer Ergyng, Peibioâ€™s stronghold. Itâ€™s now called Moccas, a contraction of the old name.
Dyfrig remained at Moch Ros for the rest of his life but he did travel a lot as well. I soon found yet another connection with him. I was brought up on Exmoor and I remembered that Porlock church, on the southern bank of the Severn and the northern edge of Exmoor, is dedicated to Dyfrig. He had crossed the river and come to the land where I grew up too.
When Dyfrig grew old he left Moch Ros and go to Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island) where he died and was buried, as the other stories say Merlin did too. Itâ€™s one of the sites for the magic land of West-over-the-Sea, one of the Isles of the Faer, where Merlin took the wounded Arthur after the final battle for him to be healed.
Christianity conflated Dyfrig into their faith although there is no reason to think he was Christian. According to their story, Dyfrig was Bishop of Ergyng, and, later still, Archbishop of Wales, and to have crowned Arthur as High-King at Caer Fudi which is likely Woodchester, in the Nailsworth Valley, in Gloucestershire. Itâ€™s possible he was all these things for this was the time was when Christianity was just beginning to work its way into our culture and there was no heavyweight attempt to convert us, as yet. Christians worked alongside us in those early days and we might have grown well together, perhaps, if it hadnâ€™t been for the Augustine mission in 597AD, some sixty-odd years after Dyfrigâ€™s death. But the old ways continued underground, hidden, coming down through families like my own.
He called and pulled and pushed me to come and live in one of his places. Since he succeeded, since I stopped resisting and thinking I knew best (ha!), Iâ€™ve been able to write, able to get the old ways out there again now the time is right for them to come out of the closet. And I love it here, it has all the peace and beauty I wanted and needed for the work.
For me and mine, Dyfrig is the son of the servant of the goddess and an otherworldly father, he is the magical child, one of our Merlin-figures, and I live in his land.