Folklore Thursday: Ganieda; Merlin's Sister
A somewhat ignored or overlooked figure from older works of Welsh and Arthurian literature, Ganieda definitely deserves to be better known. The sister of the renowned magician and prophet Merlin (or Myrddin, as he is known in earlier works, but here he will be referred to as Merlin to avoid confusion) and perhaps even his twin, she is as obscure as he is famous and yet she is a fascinating character in her own right. She appears in early Welsh poetry and in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (ca. 1150) as Gwendydd; Ganieda is the Latinised version of her name.
In the legend, Ganieda was the Queen of Strathclyde in the lowlands of Scotland, married to King Rhydderch, who was known by his epithet of “Hael” (meaning generous). Rhydderch fought at the Battle of Arfderydd (or Arthuret) ca. 575. Some sources say he fought against the British prince Gwenddoleu, patron of his brother-in-law Merlin, and killed the former; however, in the Vita Merlini, Geoffrey of Monmouth places him on the same side as Merlin. Rhydderch’s sword, Dyrnwyn, was one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain: it was said to burst into flame from the point to the cross if anyone save its true owner drew it from its scabbard.
The conflicting versions concerning which side of the battle her husband was on give us two variants of Ganieda’s story. In the version where Rhydderch fights against Merlin’s lord and kills him, Merlin kills Ganieda’s son in battle and she disowns her brother, which drives him mad and into the forest of Celyddon (Caledonia) where he lives as a hermit and gains the gift of prophecy through his madness. In the version where Rhydderch fights on the same side as Gwenddoleu, Merlin’s grief for his fallen patron is what causes his descent into madness and Ganieda is so distraught by this that she sends out soldiers to find him.
Several early Welsh poems make mention of Ganieda (as Gwendydd) in relation to her brother. The most significant is the poem “The Conversation of Myrddin and his sister Gwendydd”, in which Ganieda and Merlin are shown to be close, and Ganieda is revealed to have powers of prophecy that rival Merlin’s. However, the Vita Merlini shows their relationship to be a difficult and complex one. After the soldiers Ganieda sent out bring the mad Merlin back to court, the latter tells Rhydderch that Ganieda has been unfaithful to him. But Ganieda very cleverly manages to convince her husband that Merlin is not only mad but that his powers of prophecy are suspect as well. She brings the same boy before them on three separate occasions, each time in disguise so that he appears to be a different boy, and each time she asks her brother how the boy will die. The first time, Merlin declares the boy will die falling from a rock; the second time, Merlin predicts the boy will die in a tree; and the third time, Merlin prophesies that the boy will die in a river. Rhydderch, convinced of Merlin’s insanity and lack of prophetic ability, dismisses his accusation against Ganieda. However, we later learn that the same boy fell from a rock, got caught in the branches of a tree, and, trapped upside down in the tree with his head in the river below, he drowned. This is reminiscent of the story of Lailoken, the early Scottish version of Merlin/Myrddin, whose name is very close to llalogan, meaning “twin brother”, which, in the poem “The Prophecy of Myrddin and Gwendyyd”, Ganieda calls Merlin/Myrddin. Lailoken famously predicted his own “triple death” in which he would be beaten with sticks and stones, impaled upon a stick, and then drowned in a river. In the Lailoken legend, the Scottish prophet also tells a king, Meldred, that his wife has been unfaithful.
Despite her brother’s attempt to discredit her, Ganieda maintains her affection for him and builds him an astronomical observatory in the forest, through which he can watch the stars and prophesy the future, gradually regaining his sanity. When Rhydderch dies, Ganieda mourns her husband and then joins her brother in his observatory, whereby she too renounces the world to become a hermit. The bard Taliesin later joins them and exchanges news with Merlin, helping him and giving him advice. When Merlin drinks water from a healing spring, Ganieda gains powers of prophecy even greater than Merlin’s own. Merlin eventually reliquishes his own prophetic powers to her as well and Ganieda takes his place as the great seer of the age.
Ganieda appears in later Welsh literature and folktales, such as the 15th-century Chronicles of the Six Ages by Elis Gruffydd in which she brings her hermit brother Merlin food and drink, and asks him to interpret her dreams, and an Anglesey folk tale in which she and Merlin are requested to resolve a love-match dispute. She does not feature in medieval Arthurian works or tradition and was largely forgotten until the 19th and 20th centuries, when she starts to appear again sporadically as a minor character in a number of Arthurian plays, poems and novels.
However, in the 21st century it would seem that Ganieda is gradually being rediscovered and not before time. In the second novel of Robert Treskillard’s Merlin Spiral trilogy, Merlin’s Shadow (2013), Ganieda is a young girl whose story runs parallel to that of her brother, at whom she is furious and upon whom she seeks revenge with magic talismans she has acquired. The first novel of J. A. Thornbury’s Prophet of Britain trilogy is titled Merlin’s Sister (2016), and focuses on Ganieda’s relationship with her brother and their attempts to protect the reign of King Arthur. And in the Fata Morgana series, Ganieda is one of the main characters and a close friend of Morgan; a little girl of Morgan’s age and Merlin’s twin sister. In this series, she is born blind, deaf and mute, but begins to discover as she grows older that she has burgeoning powers which will grow exponentially with time.
Ganieda appears in all three novels of the Fata Morgana series so far – Morgan le Fay: Small Things and Great (2017), Children of this World (2017) and Giants in the Earth (2020). She will feature prominently as a major character in the upcoming Book IV, Morgan le Fay: Hireth and the Missing Moon.