When a momentous catastrophe occurs, people react in a variety of ways. One response is to seek out prophecies of the event -- inspired predictions that foretold its coming. These forecasts can be comforting because they suggest that the horrible incidents were inevitable, that they happened as part of a larger plan. Through the course of human history, there have been hundreds of notable prophets, but in the wake of modern tragedies, one name seems to pop up more than any other: Nostradamus.
Nostradamus has been credited with predicting, among other things, the reign of Napoleon, the atom bomb, the moon landing and the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Nostradamus has been credited with prophesying dozens of pivotal episodes in recent history, including the rise of Adolf Hitler, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and, most recently, the destruction of the World Trade Center towers. On the Internet, Nostradamus followers and hoaxers alike have put together detailed interpretations of Nostradamus' works, as well as fabricated passages.
In this edition of HowStuffWorks, we'll find out who Nostradamus was and what he did. We'll also look at the ongoing controversy surrounding Nostradamus, including his supposed prediction of the September 11 attack on the United States.
Who Was Nostradamus?
Nostradamus is the Latinized name of Michel de Nostredame, a physician and astrologer who lived in 16th-century France. The details of his life aren't always clear, and they are hotly debated among modern Nostradamus followers and critics. (This site claims that most of the accepted biography is pure myth).
It is generally agreed that Nostradamus was born in 1503, into an educated, well-to-do family of grain traders. Apparently, he was instructed in a wide range of academic subjects at an early age, including traditional sciences, math, languages (Latin, Greek and Hebrew) and astrology.
Nostradamus (1503 - 1566)
Nostradamus also received a broad religious education. His father's side of the family was Jewish but had converted to Roman Catholicism, either when Nostradamus was young or sometime before he was born. By some accounts, this heritage led Nostradamus to study Jewish scriptures, as well as the books of the New Testament. Throughout his life, according to legend, Nostradamus was interested in the apocalyptic prophecies in the Book of Revelation, as well as Kabbalah, a mystical branch of Judaism.
According to most biographies, Nostradamus left home in 1522 to study medicine in Montpellier. After completing his education, he briefly worked as a professor of medicine, before practicing as a physician throughout southern France. Over the years, he gained some renown in his treatment of bubonic plague sufferers. Through encouraging proper sanitation and developing innovative medicines, he was able to heal some seriously ill patients (though he lost his children and his first wife to plague in 1538).
In the late 1540s, Nostradamus remarried and moved to Salon, a French city near the Mediterranean coast. Over the following decade, he dedicated his attention to formulating prophecies, primarily regarding battles and disasters in the years to come. These ominous warnings gained him wide notoriety throughout Europe.
In the next section, we'll look at Nostradamus' seminal work, as well as his mysterious methods for looking into the future.
Nostradamus' major work of prophecies, now referred to as "The Centuries," was published in installments over the course of several years. The work consisted of about a thousand quatrains, four-lined verses, collected in groups of a hundred. The title "The Centuries," which refers to the organizing structure of the work, not to periods of time, was apparently added after Nostradamus' time. His original title was simply "The Prophecies of Michel Nostradamus."
Nostradamus said he was able to predict the future through a combination of astrological study and divine inspiration. He had long studied the supposed relationship between the movement of heavenly bodies and earthly events, and he claimed an angelic spirit helped him understand how these forces would manifest themselves. He sought out inspiration through various forms of meditation, generally focusing in on fire or water, possibly while under the influence of mild hallucinogens, such as nutmeg. Meditating late at night, Nostradamus claimed, he would see and understand events in the near and distant future.
Each quatrain, written predominantly in French, with some Latin, Greek and Italian, foretells a particular event or era. These accounts are undeniably confusing: They are full of esoteric metaphor and anagrams; they include few dates or specific geographical references and are not arranged in chronological order.
According to the work's preface, a letter from Nostradamus to his son Cesar (a child from his second marriage), the verses were intended to be mystifying. Nostradamus said he was afraid he would be persecuted and his work would be destroyed if authorities in his time fully understood his predictions. According to him, his cryptic prophecies would be better understood by enlightened people in the future.
Many people today believe they possess such an enlightenment. They say that if one interprets the quatrains correctly, it is clear that a number of Nostradamus' predictions have already come true. In the next section, we'll find out how Nostradamus critics counter these claims.
Over the years, Nostradamus followers have noted hundreds of instances where "The Centuries" describes modern events. One of the most widely known is Nostradamus' supposed prediction of Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime.
Many believe Nostradamus predicted the rise and fall of Hitler and Mussolini.
A notable quatrain (Century 2, Quatrain 24) reads:
Beasts ferocious with hunger will cross the rivers,
Nostradamus followers claim that the name "Hister" is a direct reference to Hitler. Another quatrain refers to a ruthless leader born in Western Europe, to poor parents (as Hitler was), and yet another one refers to Hister's conflict with Asia and Africa.
The greater part of the battlefield will be against Hister.
Into a cage of iron will the great one be drawn,
When the child of Germany observes nothing.
Skeptics ascribe the apparent accuracy of these quatrains (and others) to two major factors: problems with translation and simple coincidence.
In general, many of Nostradamus' prophecies include 16th-century French terms that aren't clear to most modern interpreters. Particular words could be interpreted in any number of ways, and they can be twisted easily to fit an actual event. In Nostradamus' time, for example, "Hister" referred to a geographical region near the Danube river. Most likely, skeptics argue, Nostradamus was referring to this area, not to a person. (Hitler was in fact born near the Danube river, so many believers actually embrace this interpretation).
The most compelling argument against Nostradamus' powers is that his apparent "hits" are the result of random chance and creative interpretation. There are about a thousand quatrains, most containing more than one prediction and all but a few described in vague, obscure terms. Over the course of hundreds of years, it's certainly possible that some events would line up with some predictions, simply by coincidence.
In fact, Nostradamus may have phrased his prophecies with exactly this in mind. Most quatrains refer to deaths, wars or natural disasters, events that are sure to occur again and again throughout history.
Nostradamus' esoteric style also increases the chances of a perceived hit. His metaphorical writing highlights general relationships and conflicts, not specific details. People, or possibly nations, are described as animals; major figures are referred to by their attributes. The quatrain above, for example, refers to "beasts ferocious with hunger," "the great one," and "a cage of iron," all general terms with metaphorical elements. This imprecise language does lend itself well to subjective interpretation -- when the exact meaning is unclear, it's easy to plug in one's own experiences to reach some sort of understanding.
This is a lot like modern horoscopes. Horoscopes typically detail things a wide range of people experience regularly, such as "conflicts at work," "happiness in relationships" or "exciting new changes." Chances are, these predictions will line up with your life, at least some of the time.
In the next section, we'll examine the most recent burst of controversy surrounding Nostradamus -- debate over his possible prediction of the September 11 attack on the United States.
September 11, 2001
Following the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, there was renewed interest in Nostradamus and his prophecies.
Photo courtesy Wayne Lorentz: Glass, Steel & Stone
According to some believers, Nostradamus foresaw the city of New York and the attack that destroyed the World Trade Center towers. In several quatrains, he describes "the new city," often suggesting an attack on it. He also refers to "hollow mountains," which many believe to indicate skyscrapers.
A lot of this interest was fueled by a series of e-mail messages. One anonymous message, widely circulated in the United States, claimed that Nostradamus foretold the destruction in some detail. The message included this quatrain:
In the City of God there will be a great thunder,
Ostensibly, the "two brothers" refers to the twin towers, the "fortress" refers to the Pentagon, the "great leader" refers to President Bush and "the big city" refers to New York. In fact, this quatrain is not the work of Nostradamus -- it is a complete fabrication.
Two Brothers torn apart by Chaos,
While the fortress endures, the great leader will succumb.
The third big war will begin when the big city is burning.
According to Snopes.com, an urban legend information site, the first three lines were taken from an essay written a few years ago by Neil Marshall, then a student at Brock University in Canada. Supposedly, Marshall included the lines in the essay to demonstrate how Nostradamus pieced together general, vague images that could fit with a wide range of events. Apparently, someone picked up the verses from the Web, added an extra line and distributed the quatrain over the Internet. If these lines were written a few years ago, Nostradamus critics say, they support the case that Nostradamus had no special talent -- any vague prediction, even by a disbeliever like Marshall, has a good chance of connecting with later events.
Several other Nostradamus-related e-mail messages followed. One described "metal birds" crashing into "two tall statues," an image that does not show up anywhere in "The Centuries." Others referred to "the city of York," another invention meant to sound like Nostradamus. One widespread message included these lines:
In the year of the new century and nine months,
While this quatrain, as such, is not the work of Nostradamus, it does include some of his verses. It is an adaptation of two different quatrains:
From the sky will come a great King of Terror.
The sky will burn at forty-five degrees.
Fire approaches the great new city.
Century 10, Quatrain 72:
The year 1999 seven months
Century 6, Quatrain 97:
From the sky will come the great King of Terror.
To resuscitate the great king of the Mongols.
Before and after, Mars reigns by good luck.
At forty-five degrees the sky will burn,
Many Nostradamus followers believe that both Quatrains refer to the attack on the World Trade Center. The references to fire and terror from the sky fits with the aerial attack, they argue, and New York city is around 40° 5' N latitude (relatively close to "forty-five" degrees). The date is also not far off. Additionally, several other quatrains refer to an antichrist figure called "Mabus," who supposedly will start a world war. The letters in Mabus can be rearranged to spell Usam B, leading some to believe Nostradamus saw the coming of Osama bin Laden.
Fire to approach the great new city:
In an instant a great scattered flame will leap up,
When one will want to demand proof of the Normans.
Skeptics suggest that believers are paying attention only to the pieces that fit, and ignoring the parts that do not ("the great king of the Mongols," for example). Additionally, they argue that "the great new city" is a skewed translation of Nostradamus' lines. In the original French, Nostradamus referred to "Villeneuve," which literally means "new city," but is also the name of a town outside of Paris, near 45 degrees latitude. Critics credit the similarity of Mabus and Usama bin Laden to coincidence, noting that up until recently, many Nostradamus followers claimed Saddam Hussein was Mabus (Mabus spelled backward is Subam).
Despite these critics' arguments, Nostradamus is more popular than ever. In the wake of the September 11 attack, Nostradamus books climbed to the top of Amazon.com's sales list, and shot off bookstore shelves all around the country. In such an uncertain time, it's understandable that people would look to Nostradamus and other prophets -- when people have no idea what to expect in the years ahead, they may look for answers wherever they can find them.
For more information on Nostradamus, his prophecies, his followers and his critics, check out the links on the next page.
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