“Serious investors do not ask an economist what is going to happen in the future,” a wealthy man might once have remarked. “They visit an astrologer. Superstition is as good a way of forecasting as any other.”
After the year that was 2020, there cannot be anyone on Earth who would not like to look even just a few months into the future, to see what we can expect – in the hope that 2021 offers something better.
There can be small wonder, then, that the works of the world’s favourite astrologer, Nostradamus, are more popular than ever.
His prophecies are endlessly raked over for the warnings they are seen to contain. So what has he got to tell us and why should we believe him?
Michel de Nostredame, better known by his Latinised name, was born in St Rémy-de-Provence, probably in 1503 into a family that had converted from Judaism to Christianity. He attended the university of Montpellier until it was closed by a visitation of the plague.
He made his living as an apothecary healer – though we do not know how successful he was – and astrologer, offering his services to the celebrities of the day.
His best-known work is Les Prophéties (the Prophecies), which was first published in 1555. It consists of 942 rhyming quatrains organised into blocks of 100 called “Centuries”.
Since his death, people have been arguing about what his prophecies might mean – or even whether they mean anything
It might help to know where he got his ideas.
Nostradamus studied the occult but did not claim to have any supernatural insight. He remained a devout Catholic, trusting in the will of God.
It has been argued he drew heavily on existing literary sources to devise many of his predictions, rather than having any original – let alone omniscient – views.
This reasoning has not stopped modern-day interpreters believing he was privy to the secrets of the future.
Some are certain he predicted major events of history, including the Great Fire of London; the French Revolution; the rise of Napoleon and Hitler; both world wars; the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the Apollo moon landings; the death of Diana; the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center... it is all there in Nostradamus’ work. Apparently.
There are a few problems with scrying the future. One is that almost all predictions ever made are vague.
Forecasters who are too specific quickly go out of business when they are proved wrong. Those that remain scrape by on the law of averages: make enough predictions and keep them opaque enough, some are bound to come true.
They know that their customers hear what they want to hear and will most likely justify any predictions that do seem to come true in retrospect – a process known as “postdiction”.
Nostradamus is the most opaque forecaster of them all
He speaks in imagery and riddles – his supporters say he had to use code to avoid being branded a heretic – and every event he foresees is undated. Readers have no idea if he is talking about 1920 or 2020.
The only thing we do know is that his prophecies stop at the year 3797.
But Nostradamus, despite popular belief, does not talk about the end of the world.
Another problem with prophecy is that it is generally incomplete. The fact is that Nostradamus’s “hits” are outweighed by his silences.
You would have thought he would have warned his leading supporter, the queen mother Catherine de’ Medici that her husband Henri II would be killed in a joust four years after the publication of his book.
Other events he apparently missed in his lifetime and immediately after it are the death of three of Catherine’s sons and the catastrophic loss of her dynasty to a Protestant family; the launch of the wars of religion; the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre; the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots; and the assassination of Henri IV.
The list goes on. In any case, we have to ask: what good does it do to know what is going to happen if you can’t change things? If we can get a sneak preview and avoid the first disaster predicted by Nostradamus, won’t that change the course of destiny?
The Nostradamus who lived all those centuries ago was almost certainly not a charlatan. He was a learned man, a Renaissance humanist, who was as interested in medicine as he was in astrology.
He spent time as an apothecary and worked to heal plague victims.
He did not seek fame from his fortune-telling for wealthy clients, and he would certainly be surprised to know that, 400 years later, he would be a household name.
Most of his reputation today is a posthumous creation
There are legends about him predicting his own death and even the debate of his reburial.
There are fake quatrains attributed to him as well as additions and mistranslations. But there is no “original” authoritative version of his book to tie down the real Nostradamus.
If you want to find something of the real man, you need to go to Salon-de- Provence, where he married a wealthy widow and settled down to live out the last 19 years of his life.
Today, the town celebrates him with a statue, a mural and a museum.
When he died, he was buried in a Franciscan chapel in the town but during the Revolution his bones were dug up, disrespected and scattered.
They were later gathered together and buried in the chapel of the Virgin in the Eglise de Saint Laurent.
His epigraph reads:
Here lie the bones of Michel Nostredame, whose almost divine pen was considered by all worthy of recounting and reporting coming events beyond Earth’s sphere to men, according to the influence of the stars.
He departed this life in Salon-de- Craux in Provence, in the year of grace 1566, on July 2, aged sixty-two years six months and seventeen days.
Do not take his ashes, and be not envious of his rest here.
That we still talk about him today says more about us than him. It speaks of our desperation to understand and control the future.
Despite our technology, we are no more able to time-travel forwards than we were in the 16th century.
Our powers of scientific forecasting are sometimes no better than superstition or even guesswork.
The most we can say about the future for certain is it will surprise us and that, looking back, we will be surprised that we were surprised and did not prepare better.
The verse that supposedly foretells the rise of Hitler is Century III 35
Du plus profond de l’Occident d’Europe,
De pauures gens vn ieune enfant naistra,
Qui par sa langue seduira grande troupe,
Sont bruit au regne d’Orient plus croistra.
This translates as:
From the very depths of the West of Europe,
A young child will be born of poor people,
He who by his tongue will seduce a great troop:
His fame will increase towards the realm of the East.
Hitler was born in western Europe (actually, central Europe) and his parents were not well off, but he seduced a ‘great troop’ of people and was well known in the east.
Then, there is: Century II 24, which ‘names’ him...
Bestes farouches de faim fleuues tranner;
Plus part du champ encontre Hister sera,
En cage de fer le grand fera treisner,
Quand rien enfant de Germain obseruera.
Beasts ferocious from hunger will swim across rivers;
The greater part of the region will be against Hister*
The great one will cause it to be dragged in an iron cage,
When the German child will observe nothing.
It seems Nostradamus almost got the name Hitler, but Hister is the Latin name for the Danube. Germany is mentioned, but there is a heavy reliance on metaphor to see ‘iron cage’ for stormtroopers and Panzer tanks.