The Skeptics SA guide to
Nostradamus: June 17 1999
“In the year 1999, and seven months,
From the sky will come the great King of Terror:
To bring back to life the great King of the Mongols,
Before and after War reigns happily.”
One of the more puzzling of life’s mysteries is why the late 20th century was so interested in a mediocre 16th Century astrologer and doggerel writer known as Nostradamus.
While a considerable amount of detail is ‘known’ about Nostradamus, much of this is very unreliable. Over the centuries his biographers have added details to his life without giving any historical source, and one suspects that most of the life of Nostradamus is a fiction that has been building over the centuries.
Details have been added to the Nostradamian life, in most cases with only the enthusiasm and imagination of the biographers to support them. What is known is that Nostradamus was born December 14 1503, at Saint-Remy in Provence of formerly Jewish Parents.
After a career in medicine, he married a rich widow in 1547 and began his more well known career as a writer. After a few poor quality literary efforts and rather better perfume and cooking recipe books, he took up prophecy, beginning with the publication of Almanacs in 1550.
In 1555 he produced the first edition of his Centuries, the work he is best known for. Unlike the almanacs which only covered the next year, the Centuries would supposedly run to the year 3797.
So, why is Nostradamus known today for his execrable poetry than for his quince jelly recipes?
Because it is claimed that Nostradamus’ writings can be used to predict the future. Even though in there is no recorded case, in 400 years, of anyone actually doing that.
What all commentators do is to use his writings to predict the past. That is they take some of the vaguely worded verses and fit them to past events, and then having established credibility use other verses to ‘predict’ the future.
Not only do the predictions never come true, but the interpreters cannot even agree about the past. There is so much ambiguity in the writing that the same verses have been held to refer to Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon, Hitler, and Saddam Hussein.
One quatrain referring to ‘An Emperor will be born near Italy’ has been usually taken for Napoleon or Hitler, but it could just as well refer to the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II (who was actually living when Nostradamus wrote the verse).
This is the fundamental problem with using Nostradamus, because the verses are so vague and are not dated, they can be made to refer to many events that have happened or could happen at any time.
There is one and only one exception to this. The verse at the start of this article is Nostradamus’ Quatrain X:72, and the only quatrain in the all the Centuries to give a specific date. (Because of calendar adjustments this date could be as early as 17 June 1999.)
This verse is the current flavour of the month with Nostradamus ‘interpreters’, and has been seen by various commentators as predicting the Apocalypse, the rising of Genghis Khan from the dead, and an invasion from outer space. All fairly spectacular events encouraged by the proximity of the date to the year 2000.
However the verse as usually quoted exhibits another trait of the Nostradamus industry: loose translation. The original does not mention ‘a King of the Mongols’ , but ‘Roy d’Angolmois’. The House of Angoulême (from the Angoumois district) was the ruling royal house of France in Nostradamus’ time. An alternative translation of the quatrain would read as a revival of the prestige of French Royalty arising from the response of the French King in saving France from an invasion. This is a fairly common theme in Nostradamus’ writings. Nostradamus was a 16th Century French Catholic and France and the Catholic Church feature strongly in his writings. Most modern commentators lose sight of this.
They also lose sight of the background form of the work.
The literary form was to be a Milliade: a collection of ten Centuries, each comprising 100 quatrains, or four line verses. The editions prior to 1558 are incomplete. The first complete edition is dated 1568, two years after Nostradamus’ death, however there are good grounds for assuming the centuries were complete (at least to verse 10:53) by 1559.
The quatrains were published in a form of French which was already archaic, which does not help present day translators.
The form was very common, which required four lines of ten syllables, with a strong pause after the fourth syllable of each line. Nostradamus frequently achieved this by either adding or taking a syllable away from words and proper names.
Needless to say this obscures the meaning even further, and provides a wide latitude to his interpreters, who usually claim he did it to lessen the attractions of his writings to the vulgar crowd.
In fact it was the vulgar crowd (or specifically those members of the leisure classes who had been, in the words of Peter Medawar: ‘educated far beyond their capacity for rational thought’) who were the target market of Nostradamus’ writing.
His reputation among contemporary professional men was not high. Both doctors and astrologers considered he was bringing disrepute on them. As did, with even more justification, poets.
Finally, why need we not have panicked as June 17 1999 approached?
Nostradamus also gave another prediction in the Preface to the Quatrains, when, in the only precise Nostradamian date beyond all dispute, he came up with a prediction of pestilence, famine, war and flood, which would all but wipe out the entire population, for 22 June 1732. A date which turned out to be in the middle of one of the few tranquil periods of European history. It requires a rather perverse talent to get anything that wrong.