Merlin: The Medieval Embodiment of Overcoming the Devil
By Ilana Ben-Ezra
Binghamton Journal of History (Spring 2013)
Introduction: Merlin, child of a demon and pious woman, first appears in late twelfth century literature and develops uncanny prophetic abilities and unnatural powers rooted in his supernatural heritage, transforming him into a mysterious figure empowered by knowledge and cloaked in dichotomies resulting from his mixed parentage. The Cantigas de Santa Maria, a mid-thirteenth century Iberian collection of exemplum honoring Holy Mary reportedly composed by Alfonso X of Castile, emphasize Merlin’s complex nature relating how Merlin – referenced as “Satan’s son” – retaliated against a Jew who insulted Holy Mary by appealing to God to cause the Jew’s child to be born with a backwards head. In Cantiga 108, Merlin is dually associated with Satan and God while defending Christian faith by contorting nature highlighting his multifaceted and contrasting characteristics and abilities. In Metamorphosis and Identity, Caroline Walker Bynum argues that identity was one aspect of medievals’ fascination with change. She suggests that particularly by the turn of the thirteenth century, people began focusing on identities and change as represented by hybrids –paradoxical mixtures – or as metamorphosis. According to Bynum, hybrids and metamorphosis reveal the true nature of something. Thus, Merlin is hybrid human-demon – a paradoxical mixture – who demonstrates that human nature’s intrinsic good and evil facets constantly conflict. Consequently, he symbolizes the everyday struggle people experience in overcoming moral challenges presented by demons.
Historian James Charles Wall explains that the Church used the story of Lucifer and the rebel angels’ fall from heaven to teach people the importance of recognizing Jesus as Christ by equating those who did not actively believe with outright deniers. Medievals thus employed demons to impart moral and religious lessons: Merlin is an example. Twelfth and thirteenth century authors depicted Merlin as a hybrid human-demon who overcame his demonic half to demonstrate that defeating demonic temptations was possible. In twelfth-and-thirteenth century romances, Merlin imparted a moral lesson by epitomizing how humans could defeat challenges presented by demons. Though this was not Merlin’s sole purpose in any work, his portrayal as a human-demon hybrid – physically and characteristically – carries these undertones.
Merlin’s birth and conception are critical narrative moments in establishing Merlin as a hybrid human-demon. French romance writer Robert de Boron, writing in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries for an aristocratic audience relates the story of Merlin’s birth and conception in Merlin, the second book in his Holy Grail trilogy. He describes how God angered the demons when he freed Adam and Eve from their grasp in hell, leading them to conclude that prophets preaching repentance are the source of their woes. Consequently, the demons devise a plan to create a prophet who will “converse with the people on Earth and help [demons] greatly to deceive men and women alike, just as the prophets worked against [demons] when [demons] had them here.” In contrast to most prophets, who work to strengthen belief in God and religious practice, the demons made Merlin as an aid to help induce sin. Robert explicitly states that “the demons plotted to conceive a man who would work to deceive others.” Merlin’s conception was the result of this plan.