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Nostradamus

Either Michel de Nostredame wrote the ultimate literary Rorschach test, or else Nostradamus accurately predicted the future course of civilization until its ultimate end. Or as the Straight Dope's Uncle Cecil puts it:

There are two schools of thought on Nostradamus: either (1) he had supernatural powers which enabled him to prophesy the future with uncanny accuracy, or (2) he did for bullshit what Stonehenge did for rocks.

Uncle Cecil votes for No. 2, but either way, the Centuries of Nostradamus are a fun and fruitless way to pass the years of your life unproductively while nevertheless maintaining a sense of high purpose.

Born in 1503, Nostradamus himself was a French doctor, who later ventured into astrology. In the former, he was noteworthy but not especially memorable. He fought the Great Plague well enough to earn a lifelong pension, after which he gave up medicine and took up prophecy.

In the latter field, he has attained an unrivaled stature. Nostradamus wrote a series of prophetic verses, known as the Centuries for their 100-line length (and not because they chronicle the coming centuries). He wrote another batch of prophecies known as the Presages or Prognostications around the mid-16th century. All of his work was written in French, as quatrains (stanzas of four lines).

Nostradamus himself believed his so-called gift of seeing the future was occultism or some form of sorcery. The technique was simple:

Gathered at night in study deep I sate,
Alone, upon the tripod stool of brass,
Exiguous flame came out of solitude,
Promise of magic that may be believed.

The brass tripod supported a bowl of water or a candle, into which Nostradamus gazed in order to see his visions, a technique called "scrying." There are various accounts which describe rituals of greater or lesser complexity around this basic activity. Any one's as good as the other. You get the basic idea.

According to legend, Nostradamus kept much of his work secret at first, for fear of being dragged before the Inquisition as a witch. Eventually, he decided that his gift was more important than his fear, and he published his prophecies beginning in 1555. The church did eventually condemn him as a heretic, but they had the courtesy to wait until after his death in 1566.

The contents of the Centuries and the rest have become a matter of some debate. That's not because there's any deep scholarly issue with the original manuscripts. Rather, it's because the only way you're going to be able to check the prophecies against reality is with a museum-vetted copy of the 1555 manuscript and a doctorate in Medieval French.

Starting about 30 seconds after his death, fans of Nostradamus began taking liberties with the text in order to make the passages match up better. If that wasn't bad enough, most of the material is cryptic, massively symbolic and arcanely astrological even when properly translated.

Enthusiasts explain that this obscure writing was intended to keep the Inquisitors away. That's as good a response as any. The net effect of the style is that the quatrains are... well, let's call them vague. Skeptics argue that you can twist them around to mean whatever you want them to mean. Adherents argue that the prophecies are startlingly accurate and plenty specific.

The skeptics are fighting a losing battle. Between the loose translations and the outright revisionism, the adherents have had a field day going over the many "hits" in the Centuries.

Consider, for instance, the most famous of Nostradamus's predictions: The coming of Adolf Hitler. Well, maybe. This is pretty much the Holy Grail of Nostradamus prophecies (aside from the forged 9/11 passage, of which we will say more momentarily). Erika Cheetham, author of The Final Prophecies of Nostradamus, corrects the obvious misspelling of "Hister" to "Hitler" in her translation, as Nostradamus enthusiasts are wont:

BÍtes 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.
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.

Whoa!! That sure sounds like Hitler! Of course, when skeptic James Randi translated the verse, he got something a little different. Unlike Cheetham, Randi interprets Hister as a reference to the lower Danube river, a section of which is actually named Hister. The Randi version:

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.

Uhhhhh.. Yeah, that's, uh, well, uh... Not so much the Third Reich. A third translation, lifted from the nonpartisan Sacred-Texts.com, splits the difference:

Beasts ferocious from hunger will swim across rivers:
The greater part of the region will be against the Hister,
The great one will cause it to be dragged in an iron cage,
When the German child will observe nothing.

Not so clear. You can't really tell from this whether Nostradamus was really foretelling Hitler. In fact, it's damned hard to figure how the idea these verse actually applied to Hitler ever came about. Actually, it's not that hard to figure. Hitler himself decided that the verses were about him and disseminated the idea for one of the most dramatic successes in the history of propaganda.

Oops.

We could go on and on, but we predict... Nay, we prophesy that others have done it before, and will do it again, without changing the minds of those whose minds were made up before they read the first word of this article. Suffice to say, it's wise to take the Prophecies of Nostradamus with a grain of salt... or maybe a whole shaker.

Especially if those prophecies seem to pertain to 9/11. One quatrain was circulated with great hysteria in the immediate aftermath of al Qaeda's attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, destroying the twin towers of the World Trade Center and damaging the Pentagon. It read:

In the City of God there will be a great thunder,
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.

Theoretically, the "City of God" is New York City. Why is that? Fuck it, who cares. Maybe it's Washington, D.C., which is only slightly less godless than the Big Apple. Put that aside. The "two brothers" would then be the "twin towers," the fortress is the Pentagon, etc.

If you got this passage in an e-mail forward, you might have noticed that it was dated to 1654. This presents a problem since that date is nearly 100 years after Nostradamus died. Whoops! Turns out the "quatrain" was written by Neil Marshall, a college student, in a paper entitled "A Critical Analysis of Nostradamus."

The point of the fake quatrain was -- you guessed it -- to demonstrate how Nostradamus-style writing can be twisted around to mean just about anything.

Another variant on the "9/11 prophecy" reads as follows:

Two steel birds will fall from the sky
On the Metropolis. The sky will burn
At forty-five degrees latitude.
Fire approaches the great new city.

If you're thinking that sounds a little too good to be true, well, you're right. For one thing, NYC is at 40 degrees latitude -- something like 350 miles off. On the bright side, however, this verse is actually loosely based on the following real quatrain:

At forty-five degrees the sky will burn,
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.

What does it mean? Tough call. The Norse haven't exactly been a major force in the world recently. The event, whatever it was, was predicted for somewhere between 1996 and 1998, according to astrological dating and a list of popes in the Nostradamus texts, or at least that's what the Nostradamus FAQ tells us. The sky didn't especially burn at that time, or at least not so as you'd notice.

And therein lies the difficulty. We have to take someone else's word for it, because there's barely anyone qualified to intepret the Prophecies of Nostradamus, even though you can find lots and lots of people who will try anyway. Nothing happened in 1996? Hell, make it 2001, and make the 45 degrees into 40 while you're at it. Who's qualified to tell you you're wrong? Let's see their doctorate in Medieval French...

Is Nostradamus a fraud, or a visionary? There's a verse from the Centuries that sums it up best:

When the still sea conspires an armor,
and her sullen and aborted currents
breed tiny monsters, true sailing is dead!
Awkward instant and the first animal is jettisoned.

You see, all the various interpretations are the "tiny monsters," and the "sullen and aborted currents" are waves of skepticism. "True sailing" means the real understanding of the prophecies, but the animal being jettisoned is...

Oh, never mind.


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