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Michel Nostradamus was a 16th-century French physician and astrologer. His modern followers see him as a prophet. His prophecies have a magical quality for those who study them: They are muddled and obscure before the predicted event, but become crystal clear after the event has occurred.
Nostradamus wrote four-line verses (quatrains) in groups of 100 (centuries). (Note: All quatrains below in modern French are translations from esoterism.com. The translator prefers to remain anonymous.) Skeptics consider the "prophecies" of Nostradamus to be mainly gibberish. For example:
L'an mil neuf cens nonante neuf sept mois
Du ciel viendra grand Roy deffrayeur
Resusciter le grand Roy d'Angoumois.*
Avant après Mars régner par bonheur.
The year 1999 seven months
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. (X.72)*
Nobody, not even the most fanatical of Nostradamus's disciples, had a clue what this passage might have meant before July 1999. However, after John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife Carolyn Bessette and her sister Lauren Bessette, were killed in a plane crash on July 18, 1999, the retroprophets shoehorned the event to the "prophecy." Here is just one example culled from the Internet:
Could the crash of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s airplane in July of 1999 fulfill the line "from the sky will come "the great King of Terror"? Could the human fear of death and bodily injury be the intended definition of "the great King of Terror"? It might be possible!*
"It might be possible"--now there is a precise bit of terminology. Other disciples were generous enough to think that Nostradamus was referring to a solar eclipse that would occur on August 11, 1999. Others feared a NASA space probe would come crashing down on earth.
Some claim that Nostradamus predicted the Challenger space shuttle disaster on January 28, 1986. Of course, they didn't recognize that he had predicted it until it was too late. Here is the passage:
D'humain troupeau neuf seront mis à part,
De jugement & conseil separés:
Leur sort sera divisé en départ,
Kappa, Thita, Lambda mors bannis égarés.
From the human flock nine will be sent away,
Separated from judgment and counsel:
Their fate will be sealed on departure
Kappa, Thita, Lambda the banished dead err (I.81).
Thiokol made the defective O-ring that is blamed for the disaster. The name has a 'k', 'th' and an 'l'. Never mind that there were seven who died, not nine. The rest is vague enough to retrofit many different scenarios.
True believers, such as Erika Cheetham (The Final Prophecies of Nostradamus, 1989), believe that Nostradamus foresaw the invention of bombs, rockets, submarines, and airplanes. He predicted the Great Fire of London (1666) and the rise of Adolph Hitler and many other events.
Skeptics cast doubt upon the interpretation of Nostradamus's quatrains (Randi 1993). Here is how James Randi and Cheetham read one of the more famous quatrains, allegedly predicting the rise of Adolph Hitler to power in Germany:
Bêtes farouches de faim fleuves tranner;
Plus part du champ encore Hister sera,
En caige de fer le grand sera treisner,
Quand rien enfant de Germain observa. (II.24)
Beasts wild with hunger will cross the rivers,
The greater part of the battle will be against Hitler.
He will cause great men to be dragged in a cage of iron,
When the son of Germany obeys no law.
Beasts mad with hunger will swim across rivers,
Most of the army will be against the Lower Danube.
The great one shall be dragged in an iron cage
When the child brother will observe nothing.
Neither translation seems to make much sense, but at least Randi's recognizes that "Hister" refers to a geographical region, not a person. So does "Germania," by the way; it refers to an ancient region of Europe, north of the Danube and east of the Rhine. It may also refer to a part of the Roman Empire, corresponding to present-day northeastern France and part of Belgium and the Netherlands. (Because Hister is an ancient name for the Danube region near Hitler's childhood home, some think the reference is clearly to him.)
September 11, 2001
After the terrorist skyjackings and attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, a rumor was spread that Nostradamus had predicted it. The following quatrains were offered as proof:
In the year of the new century and nine months,
From the sky will come a great King of Terror...
The sky will burn at forty-five degrees.
Fire approaches the great new city...
In the city of York there will be a great collapse,
2 twin brothers torn apart by chaos
While the fortress falls the great leader will succumb
Third big war will begin when the big city is burning.
These quatrains are hoaxes. The first two lines seem to be an alteration of Centuries X, quatrain 72:
L'an mil neuf cent nonante neuf sept mois,
Du ciel viendra un grand Roi d'Angoumois.
Or in English,
The year 1999 seven months
From the sky will come the great King of Terror.*
There is no reference in Nostradamus to "the new century and nine months."
The next two lines are from Centuries VI, quatrain 97.
Cinq et quarante degrés ciel brûlera,
Feu approcher de la grand cité neuve,
Or in English,
At forty-five degrees the sky will burn,
Fire to approach the great new city:
Some rumormongers speculated that 45 degrees refers to the latitude of New York, but the latitude in Central Park is 40° 47' N. Any but the dimmest bulb should be able to shoehorn "at 45 degrees the sky will burn" with some aspect of the terrorist attacks. The remainder of VI.97 is
Instant grand flamme éparse sautera,
Quand on voudra des Normans faire preuue,
Or in English,
In an instant a great scattered flame will leap up,
When one will want to demand proof of the Normans.
The only thing in these lines that is even vaguely close to what happened is the mention of "a great scattered flame." Even the dimmest should be bright enough to find some way to connect "Normans" giving "proof" with what happened. ("In 911, a group of Scandinavian raiders under the leadership of Rollo sailed up the Seine and forced the French king to cede French territory." Coincidence?)
The only thing more detestable than these hoaxes are the psychics such as Silvia Browne, Patricia McLaine, and James Van Praagh. who claimed after the fact that they predicted the attacks. Browne even had the chutzpah to claim she couldn't tell us the details in advance because she's not "omniscient." One does not need to be psychic to know that.
According to Barbara and David P. Mikkelson's Urban Legends page, one of the hoaxed quatrains was written in 1997 by Neil Marshall, a Brock University (Canada) student. Marshall wanted "to demonstrate ... that the writings of Nostradamus are so cryptic that they can be interpreted to mean almost anything." If we have some imagination, we can shoehorn just about any event to some passage in Nostradamus, or Bob Dylan, for that matter. In 1981, Dylan wrote a song called Angelina, which is as clear a prediction of September 11 as anything Nostradamus wrote:
There's a black Mercedes rolling through the combat zone....
Your servants are half-dead, you're down to the bone....
I see pieces of men marching, trying to take heaven by force....
In the valley of the giants where the stars and stripes explode....
Begging God [sic] for mercy and weeping in unholy places.
Finally, there is the view of Jean-Claude Pecker of the Collège de France in Paris. He maintains that Nostradamus described not future events but events of his own and earlier times. According to Pecker, Nostradamus disguised "them in a sort of coded French" because "in his troubled period" he was "under constant threat" (Skeptical Inquirer, September/October 2001, p. 81).
One thing Nostradamus didn't predict was that he would become a one-man industry in the 20th century. Publishing houses will never go broke printing the latest predictions culled from the manuscripts of Nostradamus.
*note: "Angoumois" is the name of an ancient province whose capital was Angoulême (120 km NNE from Bordeaux and 120km ESE from La Rochelle). André Trichet.
books and articles
Pecker, J.C. 1984. "Des lyonnes en grimoire dans Ravenne," Le Débat-Gallimard, mars.
Prévost, Roger. Nostradamus, le Mythe et la réalité: un histoiren au temps des astrologues (Robert Laffont, Paris: 1999).
Did Nostradamus predict the day his tomb would be discovered? The Straight Dope by Cecil Adams
The Complete Nostradamus from Mabus
Nostradamiana - quatrains in French & English