Evans Lansing Smith, Ph.D.
MS 502: Arthurian Romances of the Holy Grail
The Sorceresses of Merlin
There have been numerous variations and intertwining stories relating to King Arthur, Camelot, Excalibur, and Merlin. The women involved in the stories, particularly the “fay”, have been referred to as sorceresses, apprentices of Merlin, or more literally interpreted simply as women of superior knowledge. These women include the Lady of the Lake and the Lady of Avalon. Not only did these figures potentially serve as inspiration to women of the time, they may very well be representative of the Druidic view of women’s roles in an otherwise male dominated world.
The Lady of the Lake and the Lady of Avalon not only held a relevant role in the Arthurian Legends but offer a representation of the Druidic society, particularly with their connection to the mythological city of Avalon. While scholars argue over the historic significance between the Druids and Arthurian Legend, such a connection cannot fully be ignored historically and in regard to modern day musings and imagination. Tolstoy notes that the character Merlin originated as Myrddin, a sixth century historical figure “famed for his prophetic powers”; a poem composed ca. 930 CE entitled Armes Prydein is translated with parallel terms “Merlin foretells” and “the druids foretell” indicating that Merlin was a Druid (84).
In considering the Druidesses, the Lady of the Lake and the Lady of Avalon, it is relevant to understand Merlin’s teachings and his methods for acquiring such female apprentices. Modern day depictions of Merlin as elderly and with a pointy hat are not entirely accurate according to the Arthurian texts. Merlin was also not so much a wizard as a prophet, though capable of imparting his great skills and knowledge. In fact, some interpret Merlin as having been born a demon, fatherless or a beguiling son of the devil (Berthelot 55). This darker and more sinister reputation may stem from his methods involving his female apprentices, as Merlin only agreed (and not always) to teach his magic and his prophetic skills to virgin women in exchange for their virginity. Criticized for his tactics, it has been argued that these women were never deceived but in fact were fully aware of the arrangement requirements and oftentimes proactively sought him out (Berthelot 72).
These types of situations commonly caused rivalry and jealousy between Merlin’s women, including the two most prominent women of his tale, the Lady of the Lake and the Lady of Avalon.
Both women have been known by various names, depending on the particular tale and translation. The Lady of the Lake has been known as Niniene, Niviene, and Viviene, among others. The Lady of Avalon is most commonly named Morgan le Fay, Morgana, or Morgaine.
Morgan le Fay is said to be Arthur’s half sister who was sent to a nunnery during her youth, being too young to marry, and manages to become accomplished at the art of necromancy (Berthelot 61). Her character tends to veer into two different directions: on the one hand she is depicted as somewhat innocent and seduced by the lustful Merlin and is a healer from Avalon; while on the other, she is portrayed as unscrupulous, deceitful, and a selfishly ambitious seductress (Berthelot 59). It is possible that her negative portrayal is a result of the jealousy infused by Merlin’s involvement with Viviene, the Lady of the Lake. According to Fries, however, this negative depiction of Morgan is possibly a result of the male outlook of the time and their inability or unwillingness to imagine powerful women in positive terms (5).
Fries quotes Morgan from Taliesin in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini as being “skilled in the healing arts… knows an art by which to change her shape, and to cleave the air on new wings like Daedalus… and she has taught mathematics to her sisters” (1). Chrétien de Troyes also depicts her as a healer and a much more positive figure. She is beautiful, she is a “mistress of Avalon” (Fries 2); overall she is depicted as an archetypal heroine, capable, intelligent, discerning, and with much to contribute to her family and to her community. Geoffrey of Monmouth writes of her act of saving King Arthur, after receiving serious wounds by Mordred.
Yet her identity takes a dramatic shift into very much an anti-hero, using her healing powers to create illness, engaging in illicit sex and acts of deception. Later stories, such as in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, describe her acts against King Arthur and Guinevere, creating them as enemies. Morgan takes on illicit lovers, including Merlin and Accolon, and lusts after Lancelot. Malory writes of her act of creating a battle between Accolon and Arthur, where she presents a false Excalibur to Arthur with the intention of securing Accolon’s victory.
The Lady of the Lake, Viviene, is written to be Merlin’s true love and the sorceress who bestowed the enchanted sword Excalibur to King Arthur, thus securing his kingship. She also foiled Morgan’s trickery by revealing the true Excalibur to Arthur during his battle with Accolon. Viviene is most famous for her “Beguiling of Merlin”: Because of Merlin’s prophetic skills, he foresees her betrayal to him, yet by the very nature of prophecy there is no avoiding what is to come. He proceeds to teach her his secrets – more secrets than he had bestowed upon Morgan, which results in jealousy from Morgan – only to have Viviene entrap him in a dream-like state equivalent to death by stealing his magic and using it against him.
While Mallory offers this heroic, justice-seeking depiction of Viviene based on her actions involving Arthur and Excalibur, Tennyson paints her as a deceitful villainess who ensnares Merlin with this enchantment. As we saw with Morgan, the question arises as to whether or not this shift in character is a result of the male-dominated perspective of the age.
These female sorceresses are multi-faceted and inspiring. Berthelot compares Viviene to Diana the Huntress of Roman Mythology and to a Celtic goddess of the sea (60). Marion Zimmer-Bradley focused her popular fictional book The Mists of Avalon on the Arthurian Legend as told from the perspective of the women and continued with additional books to contribute to a series; the Mists of Avalon was also created into a TV mini-series due to its popularity. Zimmer-Bradley writes of the alluring isle of Avalon and the history of the Druids as they relate to these women and to Merlin.
Sorcery, magic and alchemy are mysterious and intriguing. They are the basic nature of the Avalon characters. Modern day Paganism and Wicca derive much of their practice and spirituality from these influences, naturally stemmed from ancient Druidic rituals, as much as we know.
Berresford Ellis elaborates that the word magi came to be applied to the Druids by the monk Muirchú in the 17th century Life of St. Patrick; other terms applied were magician and magus. These terms also stemmed from the priests of ancient Persia and the priests of Zoroastrianism, ultimately referring to the power members of these castes held over supernatural forces: Magic. Quoting Pliny: “Even today Britain is still spell bound by magic, and performs its rites with so much ritual that she might almost seem to be the source of Persian customs” (247).
The Druids did in fact hold great influence and power ca. first century Britain. According to Manda Scott, author of Boudica in the TV documentary Warrior Women the “Druids were the Shamanic base for the early Britains… [They were the] connection between the people and the gods of the land”. During the Roman invasion, the Roman leaders were very aware of the importance of conquering the Druids in order to fully establish their claim and power over the British and Welsh populations.
The Celtic civilization as a whole viewed women differently than their Roman and Greek counterparts; therefore the existence and relevance of women in Druidic society has been confirmed by Celtic sources (Berresford Ellis 91). Unlike Roman and Greek civilizations, Celtic women could be head of household and hold political office, as has been confirmed by the ruler of the Iceni, Boudica. Berresford Ellis suggests the argument that Boudica may have been a Druidic priestess (92). The Celts, women included, were warriors and female warrior queens appear in many stories (Berresford Ellis 92), verifying their validity, particularly by those such as the Greek historians Tacitus and Plutarch (ca. 46-120 CE).
Druidic women held an array of skills and powers. Not only capable warriors and leaders, they were said to hold the sight of prophecy, of healing, and were priestesses to the pantheon of gods and goddesses (Fig 1). To view Morgan and Viviene as ladies of Avalon, the mystical land connected with the deities and magic, does not require much stretch of the imagination. In fact, a Welsh tale called Mabinogion contains a story of a warrior at King Arthur’s court who encounters a mysterious Druidess while on a quest. The Druidess aids the warrior in claiming the Lady of the Fountain as his wife; consider the Lady of the Lake as a succeeding water spirit of Druidic origin (Berresford Ellis 135).
However, some scholars critique this idea, such as C.F. Keary who critiques Studies in Arthurian Legends by John Rhŷs. Rhŷs writes of the undeniable connection between the Celtic mythologies with Arthurian Legend. Keary dismisses much of this writing as more of a mythological account than a historical one (130). However, by his own admission, mythologies are stories of the people of the time and can certainly offer insight into the historical accounts (130).
Druidic lore would be incomplete without discussion of Stonehenge, with whom Merlin is said to have associations. Tolstoy argues in The Quest for Merlin that Stonehenge is a “Sacred Centre of Britain and was traditionally connected with Merlin,” likely as the Shamanic type of guardian (121). Stonehenge is a basis for the practice of Druidism, later including other variations of Pagan and Wiccan traditions and spiritual practices. While still regarded as an archaeological mystery, modern day spiritual practitioners assert feeling a sense of awe and power and magic stemming from this spectacular monument. From an engineering standpoint, the monument is awe-inspiring, and the terrain undoubtedly beautiful. (Fig 2)
Arthurian Legend as well as Druidism have inspired many works of art. Edward Burne-Jones created a famous portrayal of the “Beguiling of Merlin” as Viviene uses his own magical knowledge against him and draws him into an eternal sleep (Fig 3). As mentioned previously, the depiction of Merlin did not originate as the elderly, pointy-hat wearing wizard, but more akin to Burne-Jones’ imagery of a younger and more alluring man. In this image Viviene is draped in beautifully elegant folds of fabric while holding what may be the Book of Spells containing magical secrets. The coils in her hair may be likened to the snakes of Medusa or perhaps an association with the seduction of Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Merlin appears entranced and enveloped in the tree, perhaps even floating slightly as the spell is cast over him.
This Pre-Raphaelite piece was not the only of its kind; many pre-Raphaelite artists were drawn to the allure and romanticism of the Arthurian Legends with their stories of love, chivalry, betrayal, magic, and nobility. With a focus on classical poses and elegance, the Arthurian Legends provided an alluring subject matter. John William Waterhouse is another such artist enraptured with the Pre-Raphaelite style, although he lived and worked decades after the Pre-Raphaelite movement, with art focusing on Greek mythology and Arthurian Legend. His piece entitled The Magic Circle depicts a sorceress. Imagination offers the possibility that this sorceress is Morgan le Fay or Viviene or another Druid priestess of Avalon. The imagery is powerful with the unnatural upward spiral of the cauldron smoke; the wand drawing the circle of protection around her; a live snake coiled around her neck; the determined expression; her wild hair and her bare feet; and the crow or raven, animal messengers between the realms (Fig 4).
The Sorceresses of the Arthurian Legends, of Avalon, of Merlin are complicated, multi-faceted figures of independence, power, and intrigue. Their influence has spanned generations and cultures, and continue to offer inspiration to feminism as well as romanticism. There is no doubt as to their contribution to the Arthurian Legends in that the stories would be severely lacking without their presence. Evidence suggests the influence they held over the women of the ages relating to independence and authority. The association with Druidic, Pagan, and Wiccan practices is ever-present with reverence offered to the divine qualities of these women. Women of the modern era indeed carry forth the dynamic qualities inspired by these Sorceresses.
Baughan, Denver Ewing. “The Role of Morgan Le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” ELH 17.No. 4 (1950): 241–251. Print.
Berresford Ellis, Peter. The Druids. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994. Print.
Berthelot, Anne. “Merlin and the Ladies of the Lake.” Arthuriana Vol. 10, No. 1.Essays on Merlin (2000): 55–81. Print.
Bradley, Marion Zimmer. The Mists of Avalon. 1st edition. New York: Del Rey, 1984. Print.
Burne-Jones, Edward. Beguiling of Merlin. 1872-1877. Oil on canvas. National Museums Liverpool, UK.
Coleman, Chadwick J. Druids. 2012. Sketch. Private collection.
Fries, Maureen. “From The Lady to The Tramp: The Decline of Morgan Le Fay in Medieval Romance.” Arthuriana Vol. 4, No. 1.Spring 1994 1–18. Print.
“Geoffrey of Monmouth, Book VII Chapter III, The Prophecy of Merlin.” N.p., n.d. Web. 18 June 2016.
Holbrook, S.E. “Nymue, the Chief Lady of the Lake, in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur.” Speculum 53.No. 4 (1978): 761–777. Print.
Keary, C.F. “Review of Studies in the Arthurian Legend by John Rhŷs.” The English Historical Review 7.25 (1892): 130–136. Print.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte D’arthur. New edition. Ware, Hertfordshire England: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1997. Print.
McCarthy, Terence. “Did Morgan Le Fay Have a Lover?” Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature 60.No. 2 (1991): 284–289. Print.
“Merlin – Merlin’s Prophecies – Crystalinks.” N.p., n.d. Web. 18 June 2016.
“Prophecies of Merlin, Predictions by Myrddin.” N.p., n.d. Web. 18 June 2016.
“Swords and Sorceresses: The Chivalry of Malory’s Nyneve – 27870429.pdf.” Web. 19 June 2016.
Unknown. Stonehenge. N.D. Photograph. English-Heritage.org.uk.
“Warrior Women.” Boudica. Discovery Channel, 2003. TV Series.
Waterhouse, John William. The Magic Circle. 1886. Oil on canvas. Tate Britain, London, UK.