Skimble-skamble stuff

Merlinus, from the Nuremburg Chronicles (the same woodcut was used for other prophets)

The dreamer Merlin

In Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I Hotspur refers irritably to Owen Glendower’s tales “of the dreamer Merlin and his prophecies … and such a deal of skimble-skamble stuff”. He leaves us in no doubt that Welsh divination is all “rambling” and “worthless” nonsense (as Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable interprets it). Prophecies attributed to Merlin have had mixed reviews over the centuries, largely depending on the mindset of the audience. Have they any relevance now?

Trying to divine the future has been a human activity that long predates press horoscopes. The Old Testament had its prophets and its interpreters of dreams such as Joseph, and Insular Celts were no less keen on divination than other cultures. However, unlike the personal divination familiar to folk practices, most foretelling that has been recorded historically relates to the political fates of societies, peoples and their rulers. To this latter class belongs the tradition of Merlin’s prophecies.

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