I keep seeing references to a supposed medieval Welsh manuscript called The Book of Pheryllt. I have a suspicion that most, if not all of these references, are inspired by the truly wretched and quite idiotic book The 21 Lessons of Merlyn by Douglas Monroe. Monroe, who has neither Irish nor Welsh, refers to The Book of Pheryllt as a sixteenth century manuscript of arcane Welsh mystical learning.
“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 no scholarly value as an authentic early manuscript 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.
What then, is The Book of Pheryllt ?
Pheryllt is 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 B. C. E. 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 c.41 or 40 BCE) was thought by many, including St. Jerome, to predict the birth of Christ. Indeed, Virgil’s medieval and renaissance popularity was close to that of the Bible, so popular that a letter by Jerome praising Virgil’s wisdom was included as a Preface to most Latin Vulgate Bibles from the ninth century (Williams and Pattie 1982, 86).
By the twelfth century Virgil’s reputation as a poet, and sometimes prophet, had evolved to that of a magician. Gervase of Tilbury reports various “miracles” attributed to Virgil, like a piece of meat that kept other meat from ever spoiling, no matter how old it got (Williams and Pattie 1982, 90). Eventually Virgil’s reputation grew until he was the magical protector of the city of Naples. There are numerous medieval references to Virgil as a magician, and folklore about his prowess continued to multiply until the Renaissance.
The medieval tradition of Virgil as a worker of wonders and as a magician flourished in Welsh literature as well. The Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilim refers to the patterns on a garland of peacock feathers given him by his beloved as “drychau o ffeiriau Fferyll, “mirrors from Virgil’s fairs.” In another poem ap Gwilim’s beloved (one of many) is described as an enchantress; ap Gwilim describes a silver harp to be given to her as
Ei chwr y sydd, nid gwydd gwyll,
O ffurf celfyddyd Fferyll.
Its frame not made from forest wood
but conjured by Virgilian art (Bromwich 1982, 38-39).
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.
Ag yna yr orediniodd hi drwy gelfyddyd llyfrau Pheryllt i ferwi pair o awen a gwybodau oi map fal y bai urddassach ei gymeriat am ei wybodau ai gyfrwyddyt am y byt a ddelei rrag llaw (“Y Hanes Taliessin.” In Ystoria Taliesin. ed. Patrick K. Ford. 133).
And so to encompass this matter, she turned her thoughts to the contemplation of her arts to see how best she could make him full of the spirit of prophecy and a great prognosticator of the world to come” (Ford, Patrick K. 1977, “The Tale of Gwion Bach,” 162).
The reference to the Book of Pheryllt in the Hanes Taliesin is not to a genuine book, but rather to the myth of Virgil the wondrous magician (Wood 1983, 97). The scribe, needing a suitable magical text, seized upon Virgil as the magician’s magician. Patrick Ford has edited one manuscript of the Hanes Taliesin in his Ystoria Taliesin, and translated the tale in his The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Lady Charlotte Guest also translated the Hanes Taliesin, but Ford’s translation is much better, and more reliable. Lady Charlotte, like many first generation Welsh scholars, was taken in by the various forgeries Iolo Morganwg/Edward Williams (1747-1826) created in the 1790s, and inadvertently relied on some forged material for her translation. Indeed, Williams’ forgeries are still wreaking havoc today since many neopagan scholars have been as taken in by Williams’ inventive scholarship as Lady Charlotte was in her era.
There are other references to Virgil as a magician in the Taliesin material, including “Cad Goddeu,” where the poet claims “And I shall be in luxury because of the prophecy of Virgil” (Ford, Patrick K. 1977, 187).
The word “pheryllt/fferrylt” itself is not cited in Welsh until 1632, and most of the citations for fferyll(t) in the major Welsh dictionary are more pharmaceutical than wizardly (Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru. p.1284 Ed. R. J. Thomas, Cardiff: University of Wales, 1950-). Fferyll(t) became synomynous with “magician,” so great was Virgil’s reputation for wonder working. Even today Virgil’s mythic reputation as a maker of potions has left its mark. In Modern Welsh fferyll(t) usually means “pharmacist.” There’s a false etymology for pheryllt floating around the web that links it to “fferu” or “congeal” and hence to the Modern English “ferrous.” This folk etymology is inaccurate because ferrous is a Latin borrowing from “ferrum,” the word for iron.
If you’re truly interested in druids and authentic pagan Celtic practices, go to legitimate scholarly sources based on genuine scholarship. If you’re still not convinced that Monroe’s Twenty-One Lessons of Merlyn and The Lost Books of Merlyn are works of fiction, (after all, I’m a Celticist, not a druid) take a look at what these Neo Pagan authorities have to say about Monroe’s works:
Bromwich, Rachel. Ed. and trans. Dafydd Ap Gwilym: A Selection of Poems. Llandysul, Dyfed, Wales: Gomer Press, 1982. A facing page English and Welsh edition.
Ford, Patrick K. Trans. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
Ford, Patrick K. Ed. Ystoria Taliesin. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992. An edition of the “Hanes Taliesin” based on Peniarth MS 111, ff. 1-12, c. 1607.
Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru< Vols. 1–IV/cite>. Ed. R. J. Thomas, Cardiff: University of Wales, 1950-2002. You can visit their web site here
Williams, R. D. and T. S. Pattie. Virgil his Poetry through the Ages. London: The British Library, 1982. “The Popular Traditions.” 84-93.
Wood, Juliette. “Virgil and Taliesin: The Concept of the Magician in Medieval Folklore.” Folklore 94 no. 1 (1983): 91-104. This is the best discussion of Virgil in the Welsh tradition; it’s also a useful discussion of Taliesin.