In the seventh month of 1999, Nostradamus predicted, a great king of terror would descend on the world. We seem to have made it past that day of reckoning, but have we made it past the fear?
One of Nostradamus's most famous prophecies strikes right within our immediate days:
The year one thousand nine ninety-nine seven month
From the sky shall come a great King of terror,
[Shall be] revived the great King of Angoulmois.
Before and after, Mars [shall] reign as chance will have it.
(Century X, No. 72)
One of the very few precisely dated prophecies among the 950 or so left by Michael Nostradamus (1503-1566), it is probably based on a combination of millennial speculation and the anticipated total solar eclipse of Aug. 11, 1999 (July 29 in the Julian calendar), visible in Europe. Nostradamus could have found the date in a table of eclipses, as Pierre Brind'Amour has stated in his Nostradamus Astrophile.
The quatrain has been interpreted in many ways through the centuries. In the older interpretations "Angoulmois" -- the former name of a province near Bordeaux -- was often read as an anagram of "Mongolois," predicting a Mongol invasion, perhaps with Genghis Khan revived as the Antichrist, although the changes needed to transform "Angoulmois" into "Mongolois" do not fit Nostradamus's usual method of forming anagrams. Continuing the theme of the threatening Orient, around the beginning of the 20th century the prophecy was taken to indicate the Yellow Peril, with air raids. Still another interpretation saw the King of Terror as the Antichrist and the King of Angoulmois as the revivified Francis I, who was Duke of Angouleme.
Today we can find more imaginative interpretations. Identifying Mongols with Russians, the quatrain has been taken (though the time is now past) to refer to Russian air raids in World War III or to the fall of the Russian space station. In line with rogue comets and asteroids, others expect an interplanetary collision and catastrophe.
The oddest interpretation that I have run into, however, comes from the spirit of Nostradamus himself, via a medium. He explains the quatrain as describing a genetic program, perhaps continuing Nazi eugenics programs, for creating supersoldiers irresistible in war. If you cannot see how this reading emerges from the quatrain, do not be discouraged -- neither can I.
Who was this Nostradamus, the man who wrote the above verse and many similar quatrains? He was a French physician who lived in Salon de Provence, not too far from Marseilles, and made a fortune by divulging things that should not or cannot be revealed. In 1552 he printed a collection of cosme-
tic formulas, revealing recipes used by pharmacists and physicians. One can guess the dismay of his fellow professionals. In a later edition of the same book, he included detailed instructions for making preserves, jams and jellies. According to his own statement, his preparations pleased the great of Western Europe.
Perhaps in 1550, perhaps later, he began to issue a yearly almanac, much like our Old Farmer's Almanac, with monthly predictions for the year. Many of these almanacs have not survived, but those that have (some in contemporary English translations) are in much the same vein as the prophecies. They were widely circulated and read.
Nostradamus also operated as a mail-order astrologer. Some of his horoscopes survive, as does correspondence concerning them. In them the dominant note is evasion: If his correspondent did not know French, Nostradamus wrote in French, though Latin was the obvious common language. He also insisted on using his own handwriting (instead of a professional scribe), which his recipients complained was indecipherable. And he dodged questions or gave answers ambiguous and general enough to please Delphi, though they did not always satisfy his correspondents.
In 1555 Nostradamus issued his first collection of prophecies: Les propheties de Me. Michel Nostradamus. Nostradamus's further bibliography is obscure, what with contemporary reprintings, lost editions, inadequate references in later editions and fraudulent imprints; but second and third collections in 1557 and 1558 offered the 10 centuries (groups of one hundred quatrains). A few scattered verses that turned up later may or may not be genuine. The result was one of the most vital occult books ever written.
Although details of distribution have been lost, it seems probable that Nostradamus circulated books around the fairs in France and sent copies to important personalities. He achieved renown almost immediately in France, and later in Germany and England, the ground having been prepared by his almanacs. After his first collection came to the attention of the French court, he received a royal summons to Paris, where Catherine de Medici, Henry II's queen, was an enthusiastic follower of occult systems.
Nostradamus's prophecies first appeared in English in 1672, in a very bad translation, and they have long been accessible to speakers of English. There are several partial or complete translations available now, but it must be added that almost all the translations work with bad texts, mistranslate, and misunderstand the Renaissance French in which Nostradamus wrote.
Why has this strange minor poet remained in favor for more than 450 years, even though his prophecies are worthless? Why has Nostradamus survived as the only Continental author of his day whose name is popularly recognizable and whose works are still consulted? As an example of this diffusion through many levels, some years ago, when the prizefighter Mike Tyson was asked in what round he expected to finish his opponent, he replied, "How do I know? I ain't Nostradamus."
One can, of course, only speculate beyond the generality that pretentious, numinous, obscure writing that makes great promises attracts a certain mentality. This can be seen through history: the (so-called but fake) Sibylline Oracles, the Chaldean Oracles, the Emerald Tablet, the Revelation of John, and similar texts. Semi-intelligibility and large claims are often in themselves causes for survival.
Nevertheless, Nostradamus stands apart from other self-proclaimed prophets. Historically, he received a remarkable running start whose momentum carried him beyond his day. The middle 16th century was permeated with supernaturalism, on both a folk level and a learned level. This was the time of Georgius Faustus, the exemplum of the Faust legend, who died around 1540. The concept of prophecy was in the air, with reprintings of older prophecies. Knowledge of the future was considered possible, if one had the right key.
Nostradamus had the wit (or insolence) to aim for the top, directly at the French court, with his quatrains, even to dedicating the last series to Henry II, and he was bold and aggressive in promoting his work. This bore results, for in 1565 he was appointed court physician to Charles IX. His work aroused the enthusiasm of important literary figures like Ronsard, and he was both acclaimed and denounced in England and Germany. He corresponded with cardinals and princes and was a truly international figure.
Apart from the crowned heads of Europe, whose favor might not have lasted long, there were internal reasons why Nostradamus's work has displayed an unusual staying power. He was remarkably clever in uniting the popular fair market and the learned humanists, relating prodigies and local events in Classical rhetorical devices.
The number of his quatrains was enormously impressive; it was by far the largest collection of such material ever issued, and may still be so. In a series of slightly fewer than a thousand pieces, almost four thousand lines, a reader with faith, imagination and little critical power has a good chance of finding something appropriate.
If, after the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, one is looking for something that could be taken as a forewarning, one can find, among several suitable lines: "Vn Empereur naistra pres d'Italie, Qui a l'empire sera vendu bien cher" (An emperor shall be born near Italy, who shall cost the empire a great deal," Century 1, No. 60.). This, selected from thousands of lines largely concerned with wars and disasters, can be fitted to Napoleon, but it could also apply to many other emperors, German and Austrian (to say nothing of past emperors) who were born near Italy.
Add to such a search the game factor as an element in the perpetual vitality of Nostradamus. There are almost a thousand little puzzles, and since they are called prophecies, it is a challenge to unravel them. There is undoubtedly an element of great satisfaction when one penetrates Nostradamus's poetic techniques to recognize what he has presented obscurely. For example, when Nostradamus says, "Religion du nom des mers vaincra" (The religion of the name of the seas shall triumph, Century X, No. 96.), recognition of the Latin form "maria" for "seas" reveals that he is talking about Christianity in terms of Mariolatry, especially since the subsequent lines describe, in metaphor, the downfall of Islam and Judaism. Or, as an example of his obscurity
The great old enemy, mourning, dead of poison.
Sovereigns without number subjugated.
Stones fall, hidden under the fleece:
Because of death, obligations claimed in vain. (II, No. 47)
A contemporary French reader might have recognized the great old enemy as the Emperor and the fleece as the Hall of the Golden Fleece in Brussels, where Charles V had just abdicated, and would read the quatrain as describing the mourning ceremonies, during which the roof collapses and the attendant rulers are buried. After this, things fall apart.
Nostradamus was careful to keep most of his verse on the high road of power. Unlike modern fortune tellers or divinatory specialists, he did not often deal with personal problems in his quatrains. Most of his verse is not concerned with health and wealth, love and hatred, but with national and international matters: kings, queens, popes, battles, sieges, slaughters, invasions, floods, fires, earthquakes, storms, persecutions religious and civil, and other recurrent events in history. Since such material, arousing fear and hope, is timeless and recurs repeatedly, it is always alive. Yet there are also quatrains about frosts that will damage the grape harvest, high prices of grain, alchemical cheats, and a stranded whale. He carefully avoided specifics.
To render his work widely applicable, Nostradamus devised an armory of stylistic weapons that are very effective at deception and enticement. Circumlocution and evasion of directness play a large part. He usually waffled in his astrological datings, since conjunctions are repeated. He deliberately used multivalent place names, such as the New City, which could refer to Naples, Cittanova, perhaps Villanova. How handy for New York! He used ambiguous words, like "nef," which can mean ship or nave of a cathedral; he invoked obscure Latin words to create possibilities of double meanings; he omitted prepositions, articles, reflexives and connectives, and favored the infinitive as a timeless, personless form that can be read many ways. All this was done within a rigorous application of contemporary vers commun.
The ultimate answer to the question why Nostradamus survives is that he was an extraordinarily clever man who gauged the needs of his market very well and devised a technique sound enough to last centuries.
Was Nostradamus a total charlatan, or did he sincerely believe that he had inherited supernatural powers, as he stated? The mind of Renaissance man often was strangely compartmentalized, but there are arguments against believing in Nostradamus's sincerity. It is generally conceded that he knew little about professional astrology/astronomy and faked instead; he was apparently not over-scrupulous in dealing with his clients; and his so-called prophecies are a series of contrived subterfuges. Many of them are versifications of incidents in past history. Can one believe that a man who worked in this manner was sincere in his doings?
Everett F. Bleiler is the author, under the pseudonym Liberte E. Levert, of "Prophecies and Enigmas of Nostradamus," which is the first and only non-supernatural translation of Nostradamus's quatrains into English.