16 Historical Characters From Ancient Mythology Who Actually Existed In Real Life

Illustration of “The Enchanter Merlin” from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, by Howard Pyle (c. 1903). Wikimedia Commons.

15. A persistent character from the Arthurian legend, the figure of Merlin is actually the product of an amalgamation of two real-life individuals from the fifth and sixth centuries

One of the most famous and prominent figures in the Arthurian legend, Merlin serves as an enchanter or wizard seeking to aid the eponymous king. Born of a devil intended as the Anti-Christ, Merlin becomes a close advisor but is eventually undone by his own lust and innate evil. Tricked by one of his female students after teaching her all of his knowledge, Merlin is trapped within a magical prison and left to die. Although seemingly entirely fictional, after removing the fantastical components of the Arthurian legend, the character of Merlin is surprisingly founded upon a combination of two separate historical individuals.

Amalgamated by 12th-century chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae, written in 1136, the person known to audiences today as Merlin is actually a merging of Myrddin Wyllt and Ambrosius Aurelianus. Wyllt, a prophet and madman associated with the town of Carmarthen in Wales, is believed to have been a wise hermit who fled into the forest following the Battle of Arfderydd during the late-6th century. Meanwhile, Aurelianus was a war leader of the Romano-British who fought against the Anglo-Saxons during the 5th century. Becoming a popular rendering of the duo, Monmouth’s character became immediately successful in folk literature, enduring since as a composite legend under a single moniker.