By Philip Arnol
The image of the witch clad in black, pointed hat, white hair, broomstick in hand, stirring
a black cauldron is something we are familiar with, it is the depiction we all know.
However the origin of this image is not so clear. For that we need to travel back in time some 1,500 years . . .
While there is some historical evidence of Merlin in ancient sources, virtually none exists
for Nimue. What we have concerning her is mostly legend, but legends do have a point of
origin. What follows is my historical interpretation of Merlin and Nimue, their lives, the events
which surrounded them, what became of them based upon what we know, and what I believe
to be the way it was . . .
The fifth century (all dates are CE) British Isles were in tremendous upheaval. The
Roman Empire collapsed leaving Britain with no central government – all was localized
kingdoms. Grab and hold what you can was the rule, sheer force was law. The only exception
was Camelot. Life in Camelot, although difficult, was better than in the surrounding kingdoms.
There was at least a semblance of safety and fairness there partly due to the Arthurian dynasty
which spanned some 60 to 80 years.
At this time druids were being forced underground by various local kings and especially
by rapidly encroaching Christianity. Merlin was a high druid, the most knowledgeable of his
time. As such he received great respect from the common people – something which both
kings and the church feared. He would be unwelcome in many of the fledgling kingdoms except
Camelot. Camelot became his home base and he became advisor to the Arthurian dynasty.
In Camelot Merlin collected volumes, scrolls, relics, anything he deemed necessary for
his continued learning. Here his alchemy flourished along with more complex spell casting.
City people might see him as a magician while country people would know him as a high druid.
He would have appeared to people of his time as a superstar appears to us today – larger than
life with a following. As the high druid when he passed through a village people would look in
awe, many would ask advice, some would ask what medicines would cure various ailments.
Some would ask for magic.
Merlin frequently would leave Camelot for months at a time during his wanderings.
When he passed through Nimues village she saw him not as a superstar, but rather as a person
who possessed knowledge of things she wanted to learn, to understand, to be able do.
Nimue was a child living in a land of hardship where the only rule was force. She was
probably an orphan with no immediate family to care for her. She may have been an outcast,
an unwanted child allowed to survive, but largely ignored. Her home was likely the edge of
town in a makeshift shelter in the forest making her an almost wild child, but a very bright wild
child. She received scraps of food and clothing from the village and she knew how to survive in
the forest. Young Nimue was close to nature and understood it. Life there was not pleasant,
but it was home.
How and why Merlin accepted Nimue and in what capacity is pure conjecture. I believe
he allowed her to come on initially as his servant/apprentice because he saw great potential in
her and she immediately impressed him. Picture a waif 10 or 12 years old, tattered clothing,
barefoot, approaching Merlin near the edge of the village. She has a crow on her shoulder, is
accompanied by a badger, and is speaking to them in their language while cautiously
approaching at the edge of the village. Nimue gained Merlin's immediate attention . . .
Nimue told Merlin she had no family, no one to care about her. She was free of any
restrictions and therefore could accompany him wherever he went. Merlin knew that Nimue as
a youngster could absorb new ideas quickly and would be loyal to him for helping her leave a
difficult and probably very short life of hardship and frequent terror. Based upon the way she
presented herself when they first met he also knew she possessed great natural talent and skill.
At this time Merlin was probably healthy for his age, but getting older and he knew he
would need someone reliable in the coming years to assist him. Nimue came along at the right
time. It was a symbiotic union. Initially the relationship was one where he was master,
teacher, friend and everything, while she was apprentice, servant, partner and everything.
Whatever the situation required at the time is what they were to each other. Sex between
them was perhaps used for whatever was necessary in certain spells and divinations. They
shared mutual dedication, passion, and love of the arts, using nature to its fullest. It was a
natural team . . .
They travelled together. Nimue soaked up everything Merlin had. She learned
herbology, astrology, alchemy, foreign languages, dead languages, she learned to read, write,
learned divination, runes, more animal languages, spells, and all the knowledge Merlin had to
offer – which was immense. Over time Nimue became grandmaster of the arts, a very close
second to her mentor and destined to become his equal.
The fall of the Arthurian dynasty and Camelot forced Merlin and Nimue into wandering
and hiding. They were allowed to live, but only as long as they stayed out of the way of nobles
and the church. They retreated to remoteness, away from authority, living for years as two
recluses. Merlin was probably 100 years old and possibly more when Nimue was around 50 or
so. Due to his extreme age and with various maladies afflicting him Merlin gradually became
incapacitated. Nimue became the head of the duo. She was now the high druid of all the
British Isles and Western Europe . . .
Merlin may have been in constant pain and Nimue knew she would have to end his
suffering. With her knowledge it would have been a simple task for her to brew a concoction of
herbs to end his life painlessly and she did that. This left Nimue as possessor of many centuries
of druidic knowledge. She knew everything Merlin knew, could do everything he could do, had
inherited all his possessions. Nimue was now one of the most powerful women in the world,
yet ironically with nowhere to go, no one to trust, and her life in constant peril . . .
Chaos surrounded her, Camelot had crumbled, the church was gaining an increasingly
stronger foothold and it taught people in cities to fear her and others like her. Knowing life as
she knew it was over she retreated to less hostile areas in the countryside. Perhaps near a
small village she lived in a hut as the old reclusive woman who knew things and remembered
the old ways - the old woman who children were told to keep away from, yet adults sought out
in secret. To survive Nimue would put together various potions for local people who came to
her. She would have done divination for a select few, read the stars and planets for others,
given advice on anything from love to death and everything in between. She may have at
times, even performed magic. This went on for decades . . .
If we could step into her hut during her later years we would see cats, ferrets, and other
animals of the like sharing the same space amicably, while larger animals were mostly
outdoors. Perhaps wolves, bears, badgers, and others dropped by regularly to visit. Crows
would be on her rooftop and in the trees, serving to warn her of any approaching people. Wild
and cultivated herbs of the most potent varieties surrounded her hut. Smoke filled with
strange aromas drifted from her hut.
Picture an old Nimue, bedraggled, wrinkled, wearing worn clothing blackened with age
and soot, stirring a large three-legged cauldron sitting on an open fire. She would have some
teeth missing, perhaps a problem with one eye, or maybe both. She may have a slight limp
when walking. Her hair is long, streaked grey or white, and bedraggled. She is muttering to
herself in different languages, some contemporary, others long dead. In their language she tells
the crows outside to be on alert because she is spell casting. Her hut smells of various herbs,
spices, and concoctions she is brewing. Picture all this and you see the image of what we have
for centuries commonly depicted as the classic witch.
Nimue wasn’t the first, nor the last to have this appearance, there were and are others.
She was however, the most powerful, the most respected, the most whispered about, and the
most remembered. She was the one who could do things and did them. When we view the
classic image of the witch we are seeing an image which has withstood the test of time. We are
seeing Nimue at the peak of her powers.
For ancient works consulted I used many, but primarily Bede, circa 730, Nennius, circa
830, The Annals of Wales, circa 950, and Geoffrey of Monmouth, circa 1135. My modern
sources were the literally hundreds I’ve read over the decades. I filled in the blanks with my
own interpretations based upon a half century plus of looking at arcane knowledge, my
university studies, wanderings, and meetings with interesting people.