Originally published as ‘Is This It Then?’ in Magonia 67, June 1999
Published in the month before the world was going to end, according to interpretations of Nostradamus, Gareth Medway reviewed the record of the world’s most famous prophet. Phew! We’re still here!
“In the Year 1999 and seven months a great king of terror will descend from the skies, to resuscitate the great king of Angolmois. Before and after Mars will reign for a good while.”
Few prophets, other than those of the Old Testament, have had such a high reputation for so long. the British Library’s pre-1975 catalogue has 101 Nostradamus items, with a further 25 post-1975. These figures should be at least doubled to get the world-wide total. A gauge of his current popularity is shown by the fact that of 15 April 1999, Kensington and Chelsea Libraries listed 39 Nostradamus books on their computer, of which fourteen were out on loan and at least nine had been stolen.
In 1501 Louis XII ordered that all the Jews of France must be baptised or banished. the Notredame family joined the church, but continued to practice Judaism in private. Such insincere conversion was common, but unsafe – Torquemada had recently set up the Spanish inquisition to root out ‘apostates’ (as he termed those who went on practising their old religion when no-one was looking), in his own country. Perhaps in consequence Michel de Notredam, born 1503, better known as Nostradamus, was a Protestant sympathiser in later life. When young, he studied medicine, and took up the risky career of a plague doctor. He was quite successful, but his own wife and children were killed by a plague in Agen.
Then he was accused of heresy, simply because he had described a workman casting a statue of the Virgin as making devils (he said he had merely been referring to the image’s artistic merits). To avoid the Inquisition (who, it seems, despite their fearsome reputation were not too efficient at catching suspected heretics) he led a wandering life for several years.
From about 1550 he began publishing annual almanacs. Not too much is known of these, since almanacs are ephemera which tend to be thrown away after, or even during, the period they cover, and those of Nostradamus have survived in one copy or not at all. Yet they were remarkably successful, being translated into several languages. the British Library has just one of the English translations, The prognostications of maister Michael Nostradamus… for the yeare of our Lords, 1559, Antwerp [118.] (1) It predicts everything from politics to the state of the weather and mysterious items such as “that which shall come into the worlds not out of the belly of a woman, but out of the belly of the earth, shal be wonderful”. (January 1559)
William Fulke was quickly moved to write a book, ANTI-PROGNOSTICON that is to says, an Invective agaynst the vayne and unprofitable predictions of the Astrologians as Nostradame &c., (1560), in which he complained that “in the last yeare” people were slow to worship God as they had been “seduced by the foolish propheseye of Nostradamus”. He went on:
“Yea thys Nostradamus reigned here so lyk a tyrant wyth hys south [sooth] saiyings, that wythout the good lucks of hys prophesies it was thought that nothyng could be broughte to effect. What shal I speaks of the common peoples voyce? Thys days the Bishoppe of Rome must be driuen out of the parliment. To morow the Queens shal take upon her the name of supreame head. After xx dayes all thing shall waxe worse. Such a day shall be the day of the last judgement, that except the true prechers of Goddes holye woorde hadde sharpelye rebuked the people for creditynge suche vayne prophesies, there shoulde haue bene none ends of fears and expectation.”
But the seer’s reputation rests on his Centuries, sets of one hundred quatrains. The first four appeared in 1555. Once again the earliest edition(s) are lost. The earliest known to be extant is a single copy of the 1557 edition, of the first seven centuries, in the Lenin Library (is it still called that?) in Moscow. The first complete edition of all ten centuries was published in 1568, two years after the seer’s death.
Obscure oracles were already popular: the Prophecies of Merlin, published (written?) by Geoffrey of Monmouth, circa 1136, in his Histories of the Kings of Britain, circulated on the continent as well as in Britain, and aroused enough interest for it to be printed at Frankfurt in 1603. They began: “Alas for the Red Dragon, for its end is near. Its cavernous dens shall be occupied by the White Dragon”. The Red Dragon refers to the heraldic beast of the Welsh Celts, who were driven from England by the Saxons.
Probably many other of these strange utterances referred to events which would have been in the future to Merlin, but were in the past to Geoffrey of Monmouth. Yet most of them are so elliptical that even knowing this it would be hard to work out what they might mean: “A hedgehog loaded with apples shall re-build the town and, attracted by the smell of these apples, birds will flock there from many different forests. The Hedgehog shall add a huge palace and then wall it round with six hundred towers.” Any guesses? Another says: “In the days of the Fox a Snake shall be born and this will bring death to human beings. It will encircle London with its long tail and devour those who pass by.” I have heard it suggested that this prophesied the M25. (2)
One method of predicting the future was based on the belief that the different ages of a person’s life, or of the world, were governed by the seven (astrological) planets in turn. This system probably derived from the East and something similar is still done in Hindu astrology. According to Johann Tritheim, the cabalistic Abbot of Spanheim, seven Angels, associated with the planets, presided for 354 years and four months each. The first age of the world – he dated the creation to 15 March 5201 BC – was governed by Orifiel, the Angel of Saturn. The third age of Mars ended in 1525, and was followed by the third age of the Moon, which, he wrote, would be the last: the world would end in 1879. (3)
Nostradamus evidently knew of this theory, for he mentions it in the letter to his son which prefaces the Centuries: “Man makes an end of his course… Now we are governed by the Moon…” However unlike Tritheim, he insists that there are other ages to follow: “…the Sun shall come and the Saturn.” (strangely enough no-one seems to have worked out what Nostradamus was talking about here. Even the most sophisticated commentator, Edgar Leoni, was content to describe this paragraph as “astrological gibberish”.) He goes on to refer to some other system: “We are now in the seventh millenary, which ends all and brings us near the eighth, where the firmament of the eighth sphere is…” (If he had heard of the novel cosmology of Copernicus, evidently he did not agree with it.)
However the biggest influence seems to have been his reading of The Egyptian Mysteries of Iamblichus. This describes the Oracles of the ancients, the Sybil of Delphi who sat on a brazen vessel, and the prophetess of Bronchus, who “holds in her hand a rod given by some deity, and moistens her feet or hem with water, or inhales some vapour from the water, and by this means is filled with divine illumination, and by the God she prophesies.” (4) The first two quatrains are a verse translation of this passage.
By some such means, Nostradamus claimed, “the Divine Essence hath revealed to me by astronomical revolutions” what was to come. However “if I should relate what shall happen hereafter, those of the present Reign, Sect, Religion and Faith, would find it so disagreeing with their fancies, that they would condemn that which future ages shall find and know to be true.” So he chose to write `tin dark and abstruse sentences”.
The majority of his verses are sufficiently vague or obscure that they could be taken to mean all kind of things.This of course has made life easier for his admirers. To make a quatrain fit an event one can interpret mythological allusions and veiled references in a variety of ways. In places he uses anagrams, Chyren for Henry, Rapis for Paris, noir for roy (king); so that when he explicitly says something that did not happen, one can always suppose that he meant something else. Some have taken the whole quatrains to be anagrams for messages totally unrelated to the surface meanings, such as the man who by this means found the names ‘Margaret Thatcher’ and `Ronald Reagan’, and foretold Armageddon in 1986. There has even been apocryphal citation: in 1975 someone told me that Nostradamus had predicted that the world would end in 1975. How he got this idea I don’t know, but it is one of those assertions that could have been passed around endlessly in casual conversation (until 1976).
Whether Nostradamus really could see the future to any extent is one of those questions effectively unanswerable. believers will say he did, others will deny it, and the two sides will never come to a concensus. However I see no reason to accept James Randi’s assertion that Nostradamus was a deliberate fraud. (5) Conjurors make a living by deceiving people and tend to see their own image whereverthey look. It is true that there are men cynical enough to base whole careers on untruths, but such a one would hardly have worked as a plague doctor for so many years, when there would be much safer and more profitable ways on making a dishonest living. (For comparison, historians have often denounced the Elizabethan astrologer Simon Forman as a vulgar fraud. Yet as A. L. Rowse pointed out, Forman often calculated his own horoscope, something no conscious charlatan would ever do.)
There is hardly room in one article to do more than outline the saga of Nostradamus’s popularity, mainly in England. Little or nothing was printed on Nostradamus in the decades leading up to the Civil War, probably because the licensing of the presses made it difficult to get that kind of work into print. But then certain quatrains suddenly came true:
Brusles and Gand ‘gainst Antwerp forces bring
And London’s Senate put to death their King (century 9: quatrain 49).
The Blood a’ th’ Just burnt London rues full sore,
When to thrice twenty, you shall add six more.
The Ancient Dame shall fall from her high place
And the like mischief of others shall deface. (2:51)
London was indeed burnt in 1666. The ‘Ancient Dame’ was taken to mean the old wooden St Paul’s Cathedral, the largest building destroyed in the calamity. 2.53 added:
From the Sea-Town the plague shall not retire
Until the vengeance of that blood by fire
This appears to refer to the plague that preceded the Great Fire, if you can allow that being on the tidal Thames makes London a ‘sea-town’.Theopilus de Garencieres made the first full English translation of the Centuries in 1672. He used the 1649 French edition, which had two quatrains referring to ‘Nizaram’:
When Innocent shall fold the place of Peter,
The Sicilian Nizaram shall see himself
In great honours, but after that he shall fall
Into the dirt of a Civil war.
Garencieres identified Nizaram as Cardinal Mazarin, who is well described by this quatrain: “…can anything be more plain, and yet when I read this forty years ago, I took it to be ridiculous.” (6) Evidently he was suffering from false memory: he could not had read the ‘Nizaram’ verses much more than twenty years previously, as they were forgeries concocted for the 1649 edition by opponents of Mazarin.
A number of other books followed, focusing on particular prophecies. In 1715 a book appeared by “D.D.” (Daniel Defoe?), which said that the quatrains proved that the Hanoverian dynasty would endure “to the Last Day of the World” (not yet proved wrong). In order to show that earlier predictions had been fulfilled he tended to force things. He rendered 4.15 as:
The Eldest of both Sisters in the British Island
Shall be born Fifteen Years before her Brother.’
Because of the fulfilling of her conditional Vow
Shall she mount the Throne of the Kingdom which holds the Ballance.
He thought this referred to the children of Henry VIII, even though they were already born when the quatrain was written. Of course Mary was not 15 but 22 years older than Edward. D.D. suggested the seer had slightly misheard his genius: “The Lingua Daemonia uses Septenarios in numerando as we do Denarios.” In modern terms, daemons (in the classical sense of spirits, not necessarily evil spirits) count in base 7 whereas we use base 10. So, Nostradamus was told the sister was 31 (base 7) years older, but heard it as 21 (base 10), that is 15.
Though no edition of the quatrains seems to have appeared for a couple of centuries after this, that Nostradamus still had a reputation is shown by two books which offered to teach you Nostradamus’s methods of seeing the future, though of course they did no such thing. The Wizard (1816) is a guide to dream interpretation padded out with various unrelated occult items, such as an essay on the ‘Difference between Natural and Diabolical Magic’. It does contain the interesting assertion that “his Mighty book called the Centuries … was iron clasped and iron bound, and was so full of spells that no one dared look into it, and indeed if any attempted to do so, some invisible agent immediately struck them a violent blow, and the clasps shut themselves as fast as they were opened…”, a claim which was presumably believed by someone. The Complete Fortune Teller (1899), is subtitled `The Magic Mirror of Nostradamus’, a book of lots (i.e. with a set of 20 stock answers to each of 140 stock questions); the querent is told to say the invocation ‘Eludor Marpan Gulith Harcon Dibo’, and the ‘Fateful Number’ (selecting the answer) will appear in the ‘magic mirror’.
It is said that when bombs are dropping no-one is an atheist. Certainly World War I produced a wave of interest in old prophecies. and other occult matters, in industrial nations which had prided themselves on their rejection of superstition. Nostradamus pamphlets appeared in French and German, the latter reproducing engravings of the execution of Charles I and the Great Fire of London. Catholic apologist Herbert Thurston wrote The War and the Prophets: Notes on Certain Popular Predictions Current in this Latter Age, in which he felt the need to denounce you-know-who as a humbug: “Nostradamus provides an ingenious system of divination in which the misses can never be recorded and only the hits come to the surface. For the reputation of the would-be prophet such conditions are naturally ideal.” (7)
In October 1939 Frau Goebbels was sitting up in bed reading a popular occult book with a chapter on Nostradamus, which mentioned a German interpretation which had predicted upheavals in Great Britain and Poland in 1939. She promptly woke her husband, who realised at once that such material could have propaganda value for the Nazis. So he summoned the author, who nervously said that he did not have any Nostradamus material relating to contemporary affairs, but suggested that he try the Swiss born astrologer Carl Ernst Kraft, who enthusiastically took on the job. Whilst Goebbels no doubt regarded the prophecies in a wholly cynical way, Krafft did believe they had forecast Germany’s glorious destiny, in which he believed. These were circulated in various ways, including a fake edition of the Evening Standard dropped on London in 1940.
Meanwhile Louis de Wohl had convinced British intelligence that Hitler was employing Krafft as his personal astrologer. The British establishment did not believe in as-trology, but recognised that Hitler might, so they employed de Wohl to tell them what astrological advice Krafft could be giving Hitler, which if correct might enable them to guess what Nazi offensives would be launched. In fact, since then no evidence has emerged that Hitler consulted Krafft or any other astrologer. Moreover the interpretation of horoscopes is quite a personal thing, and it is doubtful if one astrologer could predict what another would be saying.
So British intelligence created their own counter-interpretations of Nostradamus. The references to `Hister’ were likely they meant the river Ister, better known as the Danube. 3:30 says:
- He who is wrestling and martial deeds
- Had carried thee prize before his better
- By night six shall abuse him in his bed
- Being naked and without harness he shall suddenly be surprised
They changed ‘He’ (Ce-luy) to ‘Hister’ making it look as if Hitler was going to be assassinated in his bed. James Lover’s Nostradamus or the Future Foretold, published in London in 1942, was seemingly an independent work, but he mentions that Louis de Wohl had worked out his horoscope “in order that I might understand the method of procedure”, suggesting that the work had at least government approval.There was also a spontaneous interest over in America: Leone lists half a dozen books which appeared in the U.S. during the war, of which the least prophetical was Hugh Allen’s Window in Provence (1943), which claimed that all the predictions actually referred to the period 1933 to 1945, and mostly to the United States.
“Accordingly, Allan specified the exact timing and manner in which England would again be-come Catholic and the United States would be invaded and devastated (twice) by various German and Italian forces. the siege of New York by the ‘Nazi-Fascist-Communist’ force was to begin ‘before sunrise on October 29 or 30, 1942′. Alas, this and other dates had already gone by before the book was published!” (8)
The most recent wave of interest in Nostradamus had its beginning in the Taylorian Library, Oxford, when an original edition of the quatrains was delivered by mistake to the desk of the mediaeval scholar Erika Cheetham. In due course she produced a large study which was helped to succeed by its date, 1973: it was just then that a mass market for esoteric literature had sprung up. The Prophesies of Nosdamus rode on the wave of popularity of such titles as were advertised at the back of the Corgi paperback edition – Chariots of the Gods and The Ancient Magic of the Pyramids.
Cheetham modernised interpretations by suggesting that Nostradamus had foreseen the rise of technology: “When weapons and documents are enclosed in a fish, out of it will come a man who will then make war” (2:5) – a military submarine, she said. “There will be let loose living fire and hidden death, fearful inside dreadful globes” (5:8), which sounds like an attack by (nuclear?) bombs.However, one must be cautious here, since whilst people in the sixteenth century didn’t know much about science, they certainly believed in miracles. 1:64 refers to “battles seen and fought in the skies”, which Cheetham calls a “remarkable” account of aeroplane battles. Yet in Nostradamus’s time there were frequent reports of people seeing, or thinking they saw, aerial men fighting (with contemporary weapons) in the sky. These were regarded as prodigies, sent by providence. Another common alleged prodigy was of animals that spoke, and this was referred to in the next line of the same quatrain: “The brute beasts will be heard to speak”.
As the seventh month of 1999 draws near (but bear in mind that in some old calendars the year began in March), some people are going to get nervous. Erika Cheetham thought that the enigmatic Angolmois meant the Mongolian Antichrist, and said it was a “gloomy prediction” of the end of the world. J. H. Brennan is more positive: “…it is possible we are back to the extra-terrestrial hypothesis, with national and international differences abruptly dwarfed by the appearance of a terrifying, but technically advanced, alien life force capable of cloning the cells of our ancient dead to produce a spurious resurrection?” (9)
Anyone tempted to do away with themselves to avoid the coming terror should consider this: apart from the ‘London burning’ quatrain (which didn’t specify the century), there are only seven quatrains, out of more than 900, which give an actual date, and for six of them it has passed.
6:2 says that 1580, more or less one, “will await a very strange century”, which means little, and that in 1703 “the skies as Witness that several kingdoms, one to five, will make a change” – which might refer to the War of the Spanish Succession. (D.D. Wrote.- “It is very well known that it was not in the Year 1703, but at the End of the Year 1700 that the king of France has broken the Partition Treaty and exchanged Five Kingdoms for one. Thence it is very likely that the Verse, En l’an sept cents & trois, cieux en tesmoins, might have formerly run thus: En l’an sept cents je crois cieux tesmoins“)
5:64 predicts for 1607 “the Arabs captured by the King of Morocco” (or vice-versa?), which Erika Cheetham concedes to be “one of Nostradamus’s total failures”. According to 8:71, that same year astrologers would be “drive out, banned and their books censored” by a church council. Believers have said this was fulfilled when the 1607 Council of Malines forbade astrology – a curious conclusion, since the nearest Catholic reference book will tell you that the Council of Malines was held in 1570, but not one mention that astrology was on its agenda. 10:91 said a wicked man from Campania would be elected Pope in 1609, but in the event Paul V held the papal seat from 1606 to 1621. People of the East would almost subdue the North in 1700, said 1:49, but they didn’t. 3:77 foretold, in October 1727, “the king of Persia captured by those of Egypt” – that month a peace was made between Persia and the Turks, whose empire included Egypt – so this was not totally wrong, but not totally right either.
We are living in unsettled times. All the same I don’t see a need to sell your home and move to the South Pole on the basis of Nostradamus alone. Still, without any clairvoyance at all, one can prophesy a coming panic.
- Edgar Leoni lasts two other American libraries. An almanacke for 1559 (different from the Prognostications for that year?), in the Huntington Library, and An Almanacke For… M.D.LXII, Folger Shakespear Library. Edgar Leone, Nostradamus and his Prophecies, Bell Publishing, New York, 1982 (1st 1961), p.54.
- Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, translated by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Classics, 1966, pp.171, 178, 180.
- Johann Tritheim, De Septum Secundeis, (2nd? ed.), Frankfurt, 1545.
- Iamblichus, De Mysteries Aegyptiorum, Lyons, 1549, p.67
- James Randi, The Mask of Nostradamus, Prometheus, 1993, p.154.
- The True Prophecies or Prognostications of Michael Nostradamus, p.294
- Thurston, The War and The Prophets, Burns & Oates, 1915, p.165.
- Leone, p.74.
- J. H. Brennan, Nostradamus; Visions of the Future, Thorsons, 1992, p.211