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What was Merlin’s real name?

Merlin is one of the most famous wizards in history and legend. He is most well-known as the wizard mentor and advisor to the legendary King Arthur. Merlin has been portrayed in countless books, films, tv shows and more over the centuries. But what was Merlin’s actual real name? That is a question that does not have a definitive historical answer, since Merlin is a mythical figure. However, we can examine some of the historical texts and legends to get an idea of what Merlin’s origins and real name may have been.

Merlin in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain

One of the earliest known literary references to Merlin comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century work History of the Kings of Britain. This chronicle traces the history of the Britons through legend and myth, beginning with the Trojan Brutus as the first king of Britain through to the Saxon domination. It is considered a pseudohistorical account, with many fanciful embellishments and fabrications. However, it does provide the first known account of Merlin’s origins.

In this text, Merlin is described as a figure steeped in magic, prophecies, and mystical powers. His birth is surrounded by magical signs – his father is an incubus demon, and his conception and birth is associated with falling stars and storms. Geoffrey does not provide Merlin’s true name at birth. However, he states that Merlin was renamed as Merlin after the small falcon species known as the merlin. This renaming occurred once his magical talents were recognized in his youth. Thus, one possibility is that Merlin’s birth name was never recorded, but was replaced with his iconic name Merlin during his childhood.

Ambrosius in Historia Regum Britanniae

In another section of Historia Regum Britanniae, Geoffrey relates a prophecy of Merlin’s referring to an Ambrosius. Merlin says that an Ambrosius, as the sole remaining descendant of the conquered British king Constantine, will eventually defeat the Saxons and restore British rule. Based on this reference, some scholars have theorized that Geoffrey intended Ambrosius to be Merlin’s real name before he took on his prophetic title. Ambrosius is a Roman name, and the inclusion of Ambrosius as a pivotal figure may have been intended to connect the medieval Britons to their Roman imperial heritage.

Myrddin Wyllt in Welsh Legend

Beyond Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account, Merlin may have origins in Welsh legends and mythology. In particular, Merlin shows similarities to a mystical poet and madman named Myrddin Wyllt. Myrddin was said to have fled into the Caledonian Forest in Scotland after the Battle of Arfderydd in 573 AD, where he witnessed the death of his lord Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio. In the forest, Myrddin supposedly went mad and acquired prophetic abilities.

In this traditional tale, Myrddin Wyllt (meaning ‘Myrddin the Wild’) is the figure that later traditions transformed into the wizard Merlin. Myrddin was likely an actual living person, a 6th century bard in the Old North kingdom of Rheged. However, his story became hugely embellished and mythologized over centuries of oral retellings. The name Myrddin lends credence to the idea that Merlin was originally a Welsh figure, before being incorporated in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s British legends.

Merlin Ambrosius

Some Arthurian texts synthesize the names Ambrosius and Myrddin, giving Merlin the full name Merlin Ambrosius. This merges his dual origins as both a prophetic wildman of Wales and a descendant of Roman authority. Using the Roman name Ambrosius connects him to royalty and power, while leaving his childhood name of Myrddin adds mystical wisdom. This blended name Merlin Ambrosius became quite common in later Arthurian legend.

Merlinus or Merlinnus

Another possibility for Merlin’s real name comes from rare medieval Latin references. Certain texts contain Latinized versions of the name Merlinus or Merlinnus. This suggests his name may have originally been the Welsh Myrddin or Old Cornish Merlinnos before being Latinized. Variants like Merlinnus lend support to the idea that Merlin has origins in Celtic Britain, with a real Welsh or Cornish name that was only later Latinized for texts like Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History.


In the end, there are numerous possibilities but no definitive answer for what Merlin’s true original name and identity was before he became the legendary sorcerer. Candidates include Ambrosius, a nod to his alleged Roman imperial lineage; Myrddin, connecting him to Welsh poetry and prophecy; or Latinized versions like Merlinus or Merlinnus, pointing to Celtic origins. His real name was likely lost to history and myth, subsumed into his iconic persona as the great wizard Merlin. While we may never know for certain, exploring the linguistic clues in medieval legends gives us some tantalizing hints at the real roots behind one of history’s most famous magicians.

Merlin in Legend and Literature

Beyond just his mysterious origins and name, Merlin appears as a key figure in legends and literary works throughout British history. He plays a pivotal role in many famous Arthurian tales and texts that shaped our modern perception of Merlin as the archetypal wizard of medieval lore.

Robert de Boron and the Holy Grail Mythos

While Geoffrey of Monmouth first put Merlin into British pseudohistory, later writers expanded on Merlin’s mythical roles and attributes. Robert de Boron, a 12th-13th century French poet, helped integrate Merlin into the mystical grail quest mythology. In works like Merlin and Perceval, de Boron ties Merlin’s powers and prophecies to the Holy Grail. Merlin helps arrange the conception of King Arthur, whose knights go on to seek the Holy Grail. This incorporation of Christian lore would become an essential element of the Merlin legend.

Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur

The major work that cemented Merlin’s place in Arthurian legend was Sir Thomas Malory’s 1485 text Le Morte d’Arthur. This was one of the first cohesive compilations of Arthurian mythos into an English prose work. Malory draws on myriad earlier French and English sources in crafting his legendarium. Merlin features prominently as both prophet and magician, guiding King Arthur’s rise and fall. Many modern retellings of Arthurian legend are built on Malory’s work, which brought together and standardized the characterization of Merlin and other key figures.

Later Literary Appearances

After Malory, Merlin continued to be a fixture of British literature. He appears in Edmund Spenser’s epic 16th century poem The Faerie Queen, where he is presented as a complex figure of mixed parentage and magical talents. Merlin’s origins from demonic beings allowed later writers to craft him as a morally ambiguous wizard in early modern works. He is an important influence in fantasy literature, with figures like Tolkien’s Gandalf showing similarities. Merlin continues to be reimagined in contemporary fiction, television, and movies as well.

Characteristics and Role

Across these works of legend and literature, common characteristics and roles define Merlin the wizard. He is consistently portrayed as a figure of magical power and prophetic knowledge, though moral motivations vary. He often serves as a tutor or counselor to King Arthur. Merlin is pivotal in Arthur’s conception and ascension to the throne. He aids the establishment of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table, creating the setting for Arthur’s golden reign and quests for the Holy Grail. Merlin also retains mystical connections to the natural world of forest and animals. His magic allows him to shapeshift and disappear. These core traits solidified through medieval and early modern lore passed down through centuries of storytelling.

Historical Merlin Theories and Candidates

Beyond literary legends, scholars have searched for real historical figures who contributed to the creation of the Merlin mythos across Welsh and early British lore. Several ancient bards, madmen, and mystics have been proposed as possible real-life inspirations behind the legend.

Myrddin Wyllt

As mentioned earlier, Myrddin Wyllt is considered by many to be the primary inspiration. This madman of the woods linked to 6th century Northern Britain appears in early Welsh poetry of the 9th to 12th centuries. Tales of Myrddin became jumbled with stories of Ambrosius, creating the hybrid figure of Merlin Ambrosius.

Suibhne Geilt

In Irish folklore, Suibhne Geilt was a 7th century mad king also associated with prophecy and living wild in the forests. Called ‘Suibhne the Mad’, his story shares similarities to Myrddin Wyllt. Crossover between Irish and Welsh legends may have blended details of Suibhne into the developing Merlin myth.

Aurelius Ambrosius

Some researcher connect Merlin to a likely real 5th century war leader known as Aurelius Ambrosius. He led British forces to victory against invading Saxons. As a historical military figure, he could have contributed ‘Ambrosius’ elements to the mythical Ambrosius ancestry Geoffrey assigns to Merlin.

Ancient Druids

Aspects of the ancient druid priests and seers have also been cited as potential influences. The druids were revered for knowledge of nature, divination magic, and counsel given to kings. Merlin inherits several of these druidic traits. Early Christian demonization of pagan druids may also connect to Merlin’s partial demonic heritage.

While Merlin seems to primarily arise from the blending of bardic figures like Myrddin with Ambrosius lore, his character likely integrates traits from these various oral traditions. His longstanding iconic status proves these stories wielded great power in medieval culture and left a lasting legacy.

Modern Portrayals in Fiction and Media

Merlin remains an intriguing and popular figure over 800 years after his first introduction by Geoffrey of Monmouth. He continues to be reinterpreted and portrayed in various media.


  • The Crystal Cave tetralogy by Mary Stewart (1970-72) – popular series narrated by Merlin himself
  • The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (1982) – Merlin as a priest of the Celtic Old Religion
  • The Lost Years of Merlin epic by T.A. Barron (1996-2011) – Merlin’s coming-of-age story
  • The Last Dragonlord novels by Joanne Bertin (1999-2002) – Merlin’s relationship with dragonkind

Film and TV

  • Excalibur (1981) – influential modern film portraying Merlin as a central figure
  • The Sword in the Stone (1963) – classic Disney animated adaptation of Merlin and Arthur’s early lives
  • Merlin (2008-2012) – popular BBC series focusing on Merlin’s early tutelage of Prince Arthur
  • Cursed (2020-2022) – Netflix series centering on Nimue and Merlin’s complicated alliance


Modern fictional portrayals allow much more variation from tradition than past adaptations. Merlin ranges from sage mentor to troubled antihero. However, his ancient magical wisdom and abilities remain integral. He illuminates the mysteries of magic and the paranormal realms. Merlin’s continued relevance as a flawed but powerful figure fuels his longevity in pop culture.


In the end, Merlin remains a figure wrapped in enticing mystery despite centuries of legend. The origins of Merlin’s name, nature, and narrative draw from multiple strands of obscure history, passed down through centuries of oral and literary reinterpretation. He emerged as a uniquely British magical icon, symbolizing ancient Celtic wisdom, mystical forces, and the island’s legendary past. Merlin’s longevity as a character testifies to the potent cultural power and intrigue woven through his ever-evolving mythos. The wizard Merlin continues to cast his spell over imaginations across the world today.