Netflix’s new fantasy series, Cursed reinterprets the ancient Arthurian legend by putting underdeveloped female characters front and center. But while the Lady of the Lake, or Nimue (Katherine Langford) is this fairy tale's hero, Merlin (Gustaf Skarsgard) is a huge part of her story. In the legend, and its many versions, Merlin guides Arthur to Nimue so she can give him the Excalibur sword. While there’s no historical evidence that Arthur, Nimue or Merlin existed, the hunt for proof of real people has been going on for centuries. Some scholars have reason to believe Arthur is a fictional stand-in for many real deeds done by various historical figures. Likewise, characters like Merlin could be based on real, non-magical people. Others think it’s absurd to even be having this conversation, but yet the question is asked time and time again: Who’s the real Merlin? Where did he come from? Did he really exist?
It’s important to note that there’s no one version of Merlin. The very first time he’s introduced is in Geoffrey de Monmouth’s book, History of the Kings of Britain, which dates back to 1130 AD. In History of the Kings of Britain, Monmouth says the idea of Merlin is merely based on ancient oral storytelling. This, could, of course, mean just about anything.
While there’s no concrete historical or scholarly evidence out there that proves Merlin the Magician’s real existence, theories about who the mythologized character is and where he came from have circulated for years.
Monmouth claimed that Merlin was based on a historical figure, with origins in Wales or Cornwall. Some literary historians, like Anne Lawrence-Mathers, who wrote The True History of Merlin the Magician (published in 2012) believe Merlin was based on a Druid, a kind of Celtic priest. We actually don't have many available facts about Druids because they were largely suppressed by the Roman Empire, which favored Christianity. As a result, Druids are depicted as everything from brutes, to priests, to sorcerers, but the strongest evidence of their role is in the origin of the word Druid, which has been roughly translated to mean seer. Seer could describe Merlin, and so could most of the other terms used to describe the spotty history of Druids.
Another theory, and possibly the closest we’ll get to figuring out Merlin’s origins, is that he was based on a Northern British bard and prophet called Myrddin Wyllt. Bolstering this theory is the fact that his name is actually similar to “Merlin.” Supposedly, Monmouth changed his name so that it was easier for those who spoke English to pronounce it.
This theory is supported by John Matthews, a historian who spent 30 years researching the origins of the “true” Merlin. Matthews’ book Merlin: Shaman, Prophet, Magician suggests that Merlin was pivotal to the Battle of Arderydd in the year 573, per The Independent. In folklore, Myrddin witnessed the death of his Scottish king, along with his entire army; afterwards, Myrddin was never the same, and lived out his days in Scotland’s Caledonian forest until he died.
“Potentially, what happened was that when storytellers started to put together the Arthurian sagas a few centuries later, they came across this character of Myrddin Celtic poetry, and decided to add him in. From there, he gradually evolved into the magician we have come to recognize,” Matthews said, per The Independent.
To complicate matters, some theorists have also suggested Merlin was based on Ambrosius Aurelianus, who was a war leader and possibly even the king of Britons. In Bede’s History of English People, Aurelianus is said to be one of the last of the Romans. In some versions of his story, he was also depicted as a prophet, like Merlin. But one of many reasons this theory is pretty shaky is that Monmouth depicts Aurelianus as Merlin’s friend and King Arthur’s uncle, who actually died before Arthur was born. There are also theories that Aurelianus is who Arthur is based on, which opens up another can of worms.
Ultimately, Merlin’s character is most likely based on a combination of various folktales with a sprinkle of actual history. But when it comes to the magical Merlin we’re watching on screen in Cursed — and in most other big and small screen iterations of the Arthurian legend — don't worry. There aren’t researchers trying to claim he existed.