Today I would like to share with you a guest post from my friend Kenneth McIntosh. Kenneth is co-author (with Lilly Weichberger) of Brigid’s Mantle: A Celtic Dialogue Between Pagan and Christian along with The Soul of the Green Man and the Celtic historical fantasy novel Magic Reversed. We share a common interest in the stories of Merlin and the intersection of Christianity and Celtic pagan religion. In this article, Kenneth reflects on a legendary interaction between Merlin and Mungo and what we in our modern world can glean from it.
There are some places so invested with meaning that one cannot escape getting goose bumps. It was a wet gray evening in May of 2018 as I and my wife trudged up to the doors of Stobo Kirk near Peebles in the Scottish Lowlands. Once inside we quickly found what we had come for: within an aisle chapel there was a stained-glass window unlike those in any other church, and a stone that testifies to the presence of two mythic figures, a major Christian saint and the most famous of all wizards.
The stained-glass window shows two figures. On the left is a man in a monks’ hooded robe, his left arm pointing a finger to heaven and his right arm offering a communion chalice. Underneath him is the label, “Kentigern.” Kentigern—also known by his affectionate name Mungo (“Beloved” in the old Celtic Tongue)—is the patron saint and founder of Glasgow. He is famous for converting a great many Picts to Christ’s fold, yet his legends are filled with pre-Christian Celtic symbolism, following a boar to find his place of calling, saving a woman caught in adultery by means of a ring pulled out of a salmon, both tales containing vestiges of Celtic totemism. And he was Christlike—being as merciful to that woman caught in a scandal as was his Savior.
To the right of the saint, kneeling, is a man with long tangled hair and bushy beard, covered only with a rough hide, his hand receiving communion bread. Underneath him the name “Myrddin” (Merlin).
Scholars of the Arthur legends have formed a rough consensus that there are two sets of tales—one Welsh, the other from Scotland—that blended together in the high Middle Ages to form Merlin as we know him today. The earliest written mention of Merlin appears in a ninth-century copy of a sixth-century document, the Annales Cambriae. It notes in the year 573 “The battle of Arderydd..in which Gwenddolau fell; Merlin went mad.” This notation is scant but significant; there’s no reason to doubt its historicity. King Gwenddolau is attested in other histories of the time, and PTSD from battle was as likely for combatants then as it is now. One legend of the battle tells how Merlin was forced to fight and kill his own nephew.
Other accounts tell the same story but Merlin is named Lailoken (in Gaelic ‘Brother, Friend, or Lord’). These legends recount his fate after the battle. Lailoken lived alone for years in the woods like a wild creature. Enfolded by the Caledonian forest, he became imbued with extraordinary knowledge. Some humans regarded him as a fool—yet he had kenning of things distant in time and space. This is a classic Shamanic conversion; such experiences can be found in accounts from the First Nations of the Americas to the Indigenous people of Australia. Shamanic sages are also in the Bible, such as Elijah who was fed by the ravens and John the Baptist eating locusts in the wilderness.
In Stobo Kirk, the Kentigern / Myrddin window overlooks a large rock with a flat surface. According to legend this was a pagan altar table and the place where Kentigern and Lailoken met and spoke.
What happened when Lailoken and Mungo met? Was it a contest between faiths, or a sharing of common experience? In the medieval document titled Saint Kentigern and Lailoken the forest sage professes that he is a Christian who—despite the blessings of becoming a seer—suffers without remedy from his battle trauma. He begs the saint to serve him communion, which heals his soul, and shortly after this he dies (the account of his manner of death is fascinating and I look forward to discussing that when Justin Coutts and I share our online event Wisdom from the Wilds: Lessons from Merlin and Taliesin.)
It seems to me that the stained-glass window at Stobo Kirk portrays this version of their meeting. However, the literature at Stobo Kirk church tells a different story—that Lailoken was a Pagan until they met, that Kentigern converted Lailoken, baptized him, then shared communion with him. And there are yet other tales. A poetic account of their meeting centers on religious discussion between the two. Merlin declares:
“Preach the cross to savage Saxons;
Crosses come when they are nigh:
As old Druid wisdom taught me;
I have lived and I will die!”
Despite the shaman’s refusal to convert, Kentigern blesses him and expresses hope that God—who is great in mercy—will welcome Merlin into God’s Kingdom for “his heart is good and true.”
Did the saint and seer actually meet in Stobo Scotland, and sit at this stone table? If so, were they both Christians, or was it an inter-faith dialogue? Did Lailoken convert or continue in his ‘Oak-Wise’ ways (‘Oak-wise’ is the literal sense of ‘Druid’)?
I like to think that the two found ground for common understanding, regardless of whether they professed the same religion. They both knew the weight of spiritual leadership—both were consulted for their prophetic utterances. Both looked to animals for guidance, and both found solace in the natural world. Both knew loss and suffering, and apprehension of higher wisdom after their struggles. The One that Kentigern called Christ—the Logos of John’s Gospel—could be encountered in every living thing. It is likely that Lailoken—if he was a Druid— perceived the same Soul within nature, which he would have called Neart (pronounced like ‘Narsht,’ the Strength, Power, or—dare we put it in the terms of a Galaxy long ago and far away—The Force).
In our time Buddhist and Catholic monks, Celtic Pagans and Christians, Western Missionaries and Hindu holy men, have found that they seem to be experiencing the same Great Love as they delve into mystical and contemplative reality. Standing in the darkened interior of Stobo Kirk, looking at Merlin and Kentigern in their stained-glass window fading into the dusk, I could imagine them sitting beside us at that stone table, connecting their minds and hearts in the One.
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