In 1993, a book was published called 21
Lessons of Merlyn: a Study in Druid Magic & Lore, by
Douglas Monroe. Many people in the Druidic and Celtic Reconstructionist
movements, as well as historians, Celtic scholars, and botanists,
have never forgiven Llewellyn Publications for this act, which
was made even worse by the release of The Lost Books of Merlyn
in 1998. It's difficult to explain why these works so offended
and horrified knowledgeable scholars without descending to extremely
rude language. But the reader deserves to know why Douglas Monroe
is on so many modern druids' "not-wanted" lists. Unfortunately,
there are so many, many mistakes in his writing that it is difficult
to know where to begin.
He quotes constantly from Iolo Morganwyg,
hardly ever with attribution (see below), yet denounces the Mesopagan
Druid orders [started by Iolo] for being based on Christian Welsh
bardic traditions. He references various Irish and Welsh manuscripts,
but ignores any scholarship younger than forty years ago.
His Imaginary Sourcebook
In the first book, Monroe claims that all
his material comes from The Book of Pheryllt, a supposed
sixteenth century manuscript of secret druidic lore. As medievalist
Lisa Spangenberg puts it, in What
is the Book of Pheryllt?,
"Drivel" is the most polite way
I can refer to Monroe's claims. There is no such sixteenth century
manuscript. Monroe's recent "sequel" to 21 Lessons
of Merlyn, The Lost Books of Merlyn is an obvious
fake from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, full of egregious
factual errors and offensive sexist and racist assumptions. At
best it is a piece of poorly thought out fiction; it has absolutely
no scholarly value at all. Monroe clearly knows nothing about
ancient Celtic practices, languages, druids, botany, or mythology,
and his ritual practices are derived from modern Wicca and ceremonial
magic rather than authentic ancient Pagan Celtic practice.
the Welsh spelling for Virgil; the Latin V in Vergilius
goes to an initial "F" in Welsh, which in medieval
manuscripts may be written "Ph." You may also see "ff,"
as in fferyllt. The Book of Pheryllt then, is a
reference to The Book of Virgil. Virgil is the Latin poet
who wrote the Eclogues and The Aeneid and lived
70-19 BCE. During his lifetime, Virgil was famed as a poet and
his works became classics soon after his death. Both Christians
and Pagans would select a passage at random from Virgil's works
as method of divination. The Roman Emperor Hadrian is said to
have consulted the sortes Vergilianae in an effort to
inquire into his future. Virgil's fourth Eclogue (written
circa 41 or 40 BCE) was thought by many, including St. Jerome,
to predict the birth of Christ. ... There are numerous medieval
references to Virgil as a magician, and folklore about his prowess
continued to multiply until the Renaissance.
The central Welsh reference to the Book
of Pheryllt is in the late sixteenth century Welsh prose
tale the Hanes Taliesin in which Ceridwen is described
as knowledgeable about gelfyddyd Llyfrau Pheryllt, or
"the art of the Books of Virgil," in reference to a
spell intended to make her son wise. This reference is not to
a genuine book, but rather to the myth of Virgil the wondrous
magician. The scribe, needing a suitable magical text, seized
upon Virgil as the magician's magician.
On the one occasion when Monroe offered to
show proof of the existence of this book, the photocopies he
showed a group of (dare I say it?) "real" druids was
recognized by several of us as pages from [Iolo Morganwyg's]
Bardas. Later it was discovered that the four pages he
showed us were of the very ones that had been cut with a razor
blade from the New York Public Library's rare book room copy!
His "ancient druidic spells" are
just as fake. My favorite is the reference to the "three
ancient Spells of Making, the three master triads of the Druids!"
Now the name of these is stolen from the hilariously bad Arthurian
movie, Excalibur. This spell, which goes something like
"Anal Nathrock, Uthvass Bethud, Dochiel Dienve"
in the movie, isn't Welsh of any flavor, as Michael Everson points
out in an essay called Merlin's
Charm of Making, and doesn't make a whole lot of sense in
Welsh, Irish, or English! But then, the actual text of the one
Spell of Making that Monroe presents (in badly transliterated
form) isn't much better: "A elfyntodd dwyr sinddyn duw
cerrig yr fferllurig nwyn os syriaeth ech saffaer tu fewr echlyn
mor necrombor llun." This more or less means something
like, "Elements of water which lead the god of rocks that
mail hunger if knighthood your sapphire the great side of the
axis as dark as the moon." Wow! What great and powerful
poetry that isn't--in any language.
His Historical Errors
Let's see, where to begin. Monroe has the
druids, and the Book of Pheryllt, coming from Atlantis,
a place modern scientists know never existed (at least as it
is usually described) in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. He
claims that the Paleopagan Druids were all vegetarians, though
this supposed fact shows up nowhere in the Celtic heroic literature
where it would be expected to be mentioned amid all the descriptions
of feasts. Some or all of the druid caste might have been,
after all most of their brother Brahmin caste are, but we have
no evidence of it in Celtica.
Some of Monroe's mistakes can be forgiven
as having been common "facts" thirty years ago, such
as "druid" coming from roots meaning "oak-man,"
a confusion from the fact that it is related to Indo-European
and Proto-Celtic roots having to do with strength, firmness,
and oak trees (see Appendix E). Others will be obvious by this
point in this book--he uses the four classical (and Wiccan) elements
of Air, Earth, Fire, and Water instead of the Three Worlds or
Three Realms. He insists that the sun is masculine and the moon
is feminine, despite Celtic peoples having had solar, lunar,
and earth deities of both genders. He leaves the sacred birds
and animals out of his descriptions of druidism, despite the
important role they played in the myths and legends.
Monroe uses other bits of western (Judeo-Christian)
ceremonial magical tradition, including four elemental tools,
correspondences to the astrological planets, tarot cards, Mesopotamian
deities, etc., claiming them all to be druidic. He mixes up his
Gaulish, Welsh, and Irish deities, and has the Germanic goddess
Eostre and the Roman god Janus described as Celtic. He claims
that ogham was used only for divination, when we have plenty
of Celtic grave stones with ogham writing upon them; the divinatory
use of ogham is a modern invention (see Chapter 19). He uses
the modern Wiccan calendar of eight holidays instead of the ancient
druid one of four. It just goes on and on (for a page-by-page
listing of these errors and many others, visit Ceisiwr
This makes it all the more ironic that his
Web site quotes the Welsh druid saying "Y Gwir yn Erbyn
y Byd: the Truth Against the World," while describing
his group as "a Gnostic Brotherhood committed to upholding
the ancient Druid tradition." That's odd--the ancient gnostics
weren't druids or vice versa... He just doesn't seem to be able
to open his mouth without telling a whopper!
His Botanical Mistakes
Druids, of course, are historically renowned
for being knowledgeable about plants, especially healing herbs,
so we should expect Monroe's Merlyn character to be the same.
So in the first book he makes references to pumpkins as having
been "sacred druid trees" and lists echinacea and goldenseal
as having been among their healing herbs--without mentioning
the herbs which we know they really did use (see Tree Medicine
Tree Magic, by Hopman). He also explains how to make a tincture
of mistletoe without mentioning that the berries are deadly poisonous,
or whether he is referring to European or American mistletoe,
which have very different medicinal properties. Of course, he
obviously doesn't know the differences between European and American
plants, because goldenseal, echinacea, and pumpkins are all New
World plants that the Paleopagan Druids would never have known.
Apparently Monroe knows nothing about them either, because he
has Merlyn telling Arthur to garnish a pumpkin soup with fresh
pumpkin blossoms--in early November!
Monroe's books positively drip with disdain
for women, ignoring the many historical and mythic references
to female druids, bards, seers, healers, and warriors. Here's
a typical exchange between kindly old Merlyn and cute, blonde
"See what we have here?" Merlyn
exclaimed, "Nothing less than a true life case-in-point,
courtesy of Mother Nature! Observe closely. The larger spider
is the female, and she is preying upon the male. Why? Because
now that they have mated and his life-force is within her, he
poses nothing but a threat to her un-born young--and so she absorbs
him as well. So you see, Arthur, it is not for nothing
that the female has come to be called: deadliest of the species!"
Again Merlyn smiled, and gave me a friendly slap on the back.
Laughing at a point well-done, we made across the field once
Oh, yeah, I'm sure druidesses such as Banbhuana,
Fedelm, Nessa, and Bridget would have found that a real howler!
Monroe seems to believe that only men can
be intellectual, assertive, and active, while women are supposedly
"better suited" to being emotional, demure, and passive.
He claims that the Paleopagan Druids were all celibate men, which
unfortunately would have made it difficult to produce heirs for
their caste--not to mention the many Irish and Welsh references
to sons and daughters of druids.
Ellen Evert Hopman, in an
open letter to Monroe, says:
But now let us examine your views: to be born
as a man indicates a need to develop the qualities of intellect,
assertiveness and outer world mastery. To be born as a woman
indicates a need to develop passive, emotional, inner-world qualities.
As we have seen from the examples of Celtic deities and queens,
the ancients felt that women were just as capable as men of being
warriors, healers, artists, etc.
[You say that] women absorb life energy, while
men radiate it. This is a fascinating concept that points to
a pathological fear some men have that women will somehow steal
their life force by absorbing their semen. If it were true that
women absorbed the life force how on earth could they nurture
a baby in their womb ? Women's bodies give life, in the
form of milk, warmth, nurturing, their very blood.
So how does Monroe answer his many, many critics?
By restating his claims (this is known as "assertionism,"
the idea that if you just keep saying the same thing over and
over again it becomes true). He insults the scholars pointing
out his errors, changes the subject, and calls upon the authority
of other New Age or Pagan authors who are notorious for the poor
quality of their research. He skips around the sexism and misogyny
by claiming that he is only talking about separate-but-equal
magical systems based on the "gender polarity" of male
and female psychic energy (as in Wicca). As for the reality of
The Book of Pheryllt, he says in The Lost Books of
Well ... let it be stated for the records,
that this author has no intention whatsoever in "disputing
the experts," for the question is without value to him.
Why? Because my concern is not how authentic my sources
are; this, one may only guess at, but rather how effective
their philosophies and methodologies. I merely state that the
manuscript--forged or original, ancient or recent--exists as
an absolutely fascinating collection of writings, and that the
framework works. Here objectivity ceases, when I state
what I have come to believe through studying the text:
that most of the fragments are very old, and are remnant of genuine
mystic tradition; this is my assertion wholly.
How very interesting. Mesopagan Druids sometimes
make the sincere argument that the magical/psychic/spiritual
validity of a custom or belief is not the same thing as
its historical authenticity, and that sometimes the former
is more important to them. Fair enough. Many of Monroe's readers
have claimed that they found the book useful from a magical point
of view (although how anyone other than an absolute beginner
could believe that, I don't know). Except that, as independent
Indo-European scholar and excellent Pagan author Cei Serith mentions
(in the above linked review),
The book itself, and the back cover, claims
the book to be "authentic druidry." The back cover
alone uses the word "authentic" three times, and "genuine"
once. Now I know that Monroe may not have written the back cover,
but I do know that almost all of the back cover [copy] of my
own book came from my submission letter, so I would suspect that
he at least had a hand in it, and he makes the claim in the text
As another author, I can confirm that most
publishers run the intended cover text pass their authors before
printing. Certainly in the conversation Monroe had with myself
and other druids at the Starwood festival many years ago, he
claimed that the Book of Pheryllt and the druidic teachings
based upon it were absolutely genuine--until we recognized his
photocopies. The real reason he doesn't care whether modern druids
or scholars believe in his claims is that those claims have made
him thousands of dollars. The fact that naive readers might follow
his advice and poison themselves doesn't seem to bother him much.
It's nice that his magical system "works" for some
readers, but this doesn't change the fact that it's far more
Wiccan and ceremonial magical than druidic. So I agree with Cei
Serith: "Bottom line: Friends don't let friends buy the
21 Lessons of Merlyn."