Vortigern, Dinas Emrys, and the Prophecy of Merlin
While the factual existence of a Britonnic King Vortigern is subject to scrutiny, there is at least one myth attached to his name that is, without doubt, mere fantasy. Different schools of thought hold different positions on many issues regarding Vortigern, ranging from his actual existence all the way down to his name, technical position, and lineage. As is the case with many debates centered on events and people long since gone, it seems likely that we will never possess a single definitive proof to end all debate.
As was discussed last time (here), there are several medieval sources that describe aspects of Vortigern’s life and the events he supposedly initiated in Britain. Modern historians have begun to doubt whether Vortigern actually ever did exist. One point of debate involves the name “Vortigern.” While medieval historians and some modern historians take for granted that the word is the proper name of a 5th century king, some contend that the name is actually a title, pointing out that the Anglo-Saxon word Wyrtgeorn developed into the later Wortigernos. By combining wer-, meaning “over,” and -tigern, derived from the word for “house,” the rough meaning of the word today would be “overlord.” Most of the speculation concerning the name/title stems from the evolving language of Britain during the Anglo-Saxon and medieval histories that first mention Vortigern. Suffice it to say, the existence of Vortigern is by no means an established fact, but the preponderance of evidence would lead us to believe that some powerful individual, whatever his name, played an integral role in the development of 5th century Britain.
Debate aside, I thought it would be entertaining to examine one of the obvious myths attached to Vortigern in the medieval histories. The most fanciful, and most intriguing, is set in a wild corner of northwest Wales and comes mainly from the Historia Brittonum. Supposedly, Vortigern suffered defeat to the Saxons and fled north where he chose a site named Dinas Emrys on which to build an unassailable fortress. Vortigern’s artisans began construction of the fortress, but every night the progress of the day was erased and upon waking each morning, the artisans found the construction site was as it had been before they arrived. Perplexed by the invisible hinderance, Vortigern consulted his wise men as to what course he ought undertake. The wise men responded, somewhat morbidly, that the only way to stop the supernatural hinderance was to sacrifice a “boy without a father.”
The wishes of the king were law, so the boy was found and brought to the construction site, where Vortigern planned to sacrifice him. Conveniently, however, the boy struck up a conversation with the king and managed to turn the tables against the wise man who had started the whole sacrifice ordeal. The boy eventually revealed to the king that underneath the construction site were two dragons, locked in a fierce conflict. Understandably, the king decided to see this for himself and after his subjects dug into the earth they discovered two dragons, one red and the other white. The boy explained that the white dragon represented the Saxons and the red dragon represented the Britons. The white dragon prevailed at the outset, but in the end the red dragon managed to expel the red dragon from the pit. The boy interpreted that the Saxons currently had the upper hand in their struggle with the Britons, but the Britons would eventually prevail. The boy succeeded in pointing Vortigern to another place where he could build a fortress, and in the end the boy obtained ownership of the site, now known as Dinas Emrys.
The details of this story have changed over time and are part of the reason that the story is seen by almost all historians as a myth. In the Historia Brittonum, the boy reveals that his name is Ambrose and that he is the son of a Roman consul. In later history, one Ambrosius Aurelianus is named as an opponent of Vortigern and the Saxons. Later variations of the myth, particularly Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regnum Britanniae, name the boy as Myrddin Emrys who in time became the wizard Merlin. The chapter in which Geoffrey relates his version of the tales is titled “The Prophecy of Merlin,” a term which has served to connect the history of Vortigern with that of a certain King Arthur. In the end, regardless of what one concludes about King Vortigern and the debate surrounding him, the tales that are associated with him are quite intriguing and reveal much about the mediaval mindset toward their own history.