Merlin: Ambrosius and Silvester


  • Sonya Jensen


In speaking of the ancient seer known to us as Merlin, Giraldus Cambrensis distinguishes two separate prophetic characters, each with a different name: 'iste qui et Ambrosius dictus est' ('the one who was also called Ambrosius'), begotten by an incubus and prophesying in the time of King Vortigern; the other coming from Scotland, 'qui et Celidonius dictus est' ('who was called both Celidonius') from the Caledonian Forest in which he prophesied, 'et Silvester' ('and Silvester') because in battle he perceived a fearsome monster, became demented, and, fleeing to the forest, 'silvestrem usque ad obitum vitam perduxit' ('lived out the rest of his life as a man of the woods'). This second Merlin is placed by Giraldus in the time of King Arthur! For the prophecies of his character Merlin Ambrosius, Giraldus sometimes draws on Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, although he ignores the prophecies presented in Geoffrey's later Vita Merlini. In the earlier of these two works, Merlin (Ambrosius) has the role of prophet. He enters the text in the time of Vortigern, but disappears from it after the time of the birth of Arthur. In the later work, Merlin's character is very much altered: here he is a wild man, living intermittently in the Caledonian Forest, though also a soothsayer who has knowledge of events from the time of King Vortigem, through the time of Arthur, and up to the time of Conan (pp. 88-96). The name 'merlinus siluestris. siue caledonis' ('Merlin Silvester, or Caledonis') forms part of the heading of one manuscript of the poem;4 but nowhere is it suggested that the character of this text is separate from the Merlin portrayed in the Historia Regum.