When a momentous catastrophe occurs, people react in a
variety of ways. One response is to seek out prophecies
of the event -- inspired predictions that foretold its coming.
These forecasts can be comforting because they suggest that
the horrible incidents were inevitable, that they happened as
part of a larger plan. Through the course of human history,
there have been hundreds of notable prophets, but in the wake
of modern tragedies, one name seems to pop up more than any
Nostradamus has been credited with
predicting, among other things, the reign of Napoleon,
the atom bomb, the moon landing and the assassination of
Nostradamus has been credited with prophesying dozens of
pivotal episodes in recent history, including the rise of
Adolf Hitler, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and, most
recently, the destruction of the World Trade Center towers. On
the Internet, Nostradamus followers and hoaxers alike have put
together detailed interpretations of Nostradamus' works, as
well as fabricated passages.
In this edition of HowStuffWorks,
we'll find out who Nostradamus was and what he did. We'll also
look at the ongoing controversy surrounding Nostradamus,
including his supposed prediction of the September 11 attack
on the United States.
Who Was Nostradamus?
Nostradamus is the
Latinized name of Michel de Nostredame, a physician and
astrologer who lived in 16th-century France. The details of
his life aren't always clear, and they are hotly debated among
modern Nostradamus followers and critics. (This
site claims that most of the accepted biography is
generally agreed that Nostradamus was born in 1503, into an
educated, well-to-do family of grain traders. Apparently, he
was instructed in a wide range of academic subjects at an
early age, including traditional sciences, math, languages
(Latin, Greek and Hebrew) and astrology.
Nostradamus (1503 -
Nostradamus also received a broad religious education. His
father's side of the family was Jewish but had converted to
Roman Catholicism, either when Nostradamus was young or
sometime before he was born. By some accounts, this heritage
led Nostradamus to study Jewish scriptures, as well as the
books of the New Testament. Throughout his life, according to
legend, Nostradamus was interested in the apocalyptic
prophecies in the Book of Revelation, as well as Kabbalah,
a mystical branch of Judaism.
According to most biographies, Nostradamus left home in
1522 to study medicine in Montpellier. After completing his
education, he briefly worked as a professor of medicine,
before practicing as a physician throughout southern
France. Over the years, he gained some renown in his treatment
of bubonic plague sufferers. Through encouraging proper
sanitation and developing innovative medicines, he was able to
heal some seriously ill patients (though he lost his children
and his first wife to plague in 1538).
In the late
1540s, Nostradamus remarried and moved to Salon, a French city
near the Mediterranean coast. Over the following decade, he
dedicated his attention to formulating prophecies, primarily
regarding battles and disasters in the years to come. These
ominous warnings gained him wide notoriety throughout Europe.
In the next section, we'll look at Nostradamus' seminal
work, as well as his mysterious methods for looking into the
Nostradamus' major work of
prophecies, now referred to as "The Centuries," was
published in installments over the course of several years.
The work consisted of about a thousand quatrains,
four-lined verses, collected in groups of a hundred. The title
"The Centuries," which refers to the organizing structure of
the work, not to periods of time, was apparently added after
Nostradamus' time. His original title was simply "The
Prophecies of Michel Nostradamus."
Nostradamus said he was able to predict the future through
a combination of astrological study and divine inspiration. He
had long studied the supposed relationship between the
movement of heavenly bodies and earthly events, and he claimed
an angelic spirit helped him understand how these
forces would manifest themselves. He sought out inspiration
through various forms of meditation, generally focusing
in on fire or water, possibly while under the influence of
mild hallucinogens, such as nutmeg. Meditating late at night,
Nostradamus claimed, he would see and understand events in the
near and distant future.
Each quatrain, written predominantly in French, with some
Latin, Greek and Italian, foretells a particular event or era.
These accounts are undeniably confusing: They are full of
esoteric metaphor and anagrams; they include few dates or
specific geographical references and are not arranged in
According to the work's preface, a letter from Nostradamus
to his son Cesar (a child from his second marriage), the
verses were intended to be mystifying. Nostradamus said he was
afraid he would be persecuted and his work would be destroyed
if authorities in his time fully understood his predictions.
According to him, his cryptic prophecies would be better
understood by enlightened people in the future.
Many people today believe they possess such an
enlightenment. They say that if one interprets the quatrains
correctly, it is clear that a number of Nostradamus'
predictions have already come true. In the next section, we'll
find out how Nostradamus critics counter these claims.
Over the years, Nostradamus
followers have noted hundreds of instances where "The
Centuries" describes modern events. One of the most widely
known is Nostradamus' supposed prediction of Adolf Hitler's
Many believe Nostradamus predicted the rise
and fall of Hitler and
A notable quatrain (Century 2, Quatrain 24) reads:
Beasts ferocious with hunger will cross the
rivers,Nostradamus followers claim that the name "Hister" is a
direct reference to Hitler. Another quatrain refers to a
ruthless leader born in Western Europe, to poor parents (as
Hitler was), and yet another one refers to Hister's conflict
with Asia and Africa.
The greater part of the battlefield will be
Into a cage of iron will the great one be
When the child of Germany observes nothing.
Skeptics ascribe the apparent accuracy of these quatrains
(and others) to two major factors: problems with
translation and simple coincidence.
In general, many of Nostradamus' prophecies include
16th-century French terms that aren't clear to most modern
interpreters. Particular words could be interpreted in
any number of ways, and they can be twisted easily to fit an
actual event. In Nostradamus' time, for example, "Hister"
referred to a geographical region near the Danube river. Most
likely, skeptics argue, Nostradamus was referring to this
area, not to a person. (Hitler was in fact born near the
Danube river, so many believers actually embrace this
The most compelling argument against Nostradamus' powers is
that his apparent "hits" are the result of random chance and
creative interpretation. There are about a thousand quatrains,
most containing more than one prediction and all but a few
described in vague, obscure terms. Over the course of hundreds
of years, it's certainly possible that some events would line
up with some predictions, simply by coincidence.
In fact, Nostradamus may have phrased his prophecies with
exactly this in mind. Most quatrains refer to deaths, wars or
natural disasters, events that are sure to occur again and
again throughout history.
Nostradamus' esoteric style also increases the chances of a
perceived hit. His metaphorical writing highlights general
relationships and conflicts, not specific details. People, or
possibly nations, are described as animals; major figures are
referred to by their attributes. The quatrain above, for
example, refers to "beasts ferocious with hunger," "the great
one," and "a cage of iron," all general terms with
metaphorical elements. This imprecise language does
lend itself well to subjective interpretation -- when the
exact meaning is unclear, it's easy to plug in one's own
experiences to reach some sort of understanding.
This is a lot like modern horoscopes. Horoscopes typically
detail things a wide range of people experience regularly,
such as "conflicts at work," "happiness in relationships" or
"exciting new changes." Chances are, these predictions will
line up with your life, at least some of the time.
In the next section, we'll examine the most recent burst of
controversy surrounding Nostradamus -- debate over his
possible prediction of the September 11 attack on the United
September 11, 2001
Following the terrorist
attack on the United States on September 11, there has been a
renewed interest in Nostradamus and his prophecies.
Photo courtesy Wayne Lorentz: Glass, Steel
some believers, Nostradamus foresaw the city of New York
and the attack that destroyed the World Trade Center
towers. In several quatrains, he describes "the new
city," often suggesting an attack on it. He also refers
to "hollow mountains," which many believe to indicate
A lot of this interest has been fueled by a series of e-mail
messages. One anonymous message, widely circulated in the
United States, claims that Nostradamus foretold the
destruction in some detail. The message included this
In the City of God there will be a great thunder,Ostensibly, the "two
brothers" refers to the twin towers, the "fortress" refers to
the Pentagon, the "great leader" refers to President Bush and
"the big city" refers to New York. In fact, this quatrain is
not the work of Nostradamus -- it is a complete
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.
According to Snopes.com,
legend information site, the first three lines were taken
from an essay written a few years ago by Neil Marshall, then a
student at Brock
University in Canada. Supposedly, Marshall included the
lines in the essay to demonstrate how Nostradamus pieced
together general, vague images that could fit with a wide
range of events. Apparently, someone picked up the verses from
the Web, added an extra line and distributed the quatrain over
If these lines were written a few years ago, Nostradamus
critics say, they support the case that Nostradamus had no
special talent -- any vague prediction, even by a disbeliever
like Marshall, has a good chance of connecting with later
Several other Nostradamus-related e-mail messages followed.
One described "metal birds" crashing into "two tall statues,"
an image that does not show up anywhere in "The Centuries".
Others referred to "the city of York," another invention meant
to sound like Nostradamus. One widespread message includes
In the year of the new century and nine months,While this quatrain, as such, is not the work of
Nostradamus, it does include some of his verses. It is an
adaptation of two different quatrains:
the sky will come a great King of Terror.
The sky will
burn at forty-five degrees.
Fire approaches the great new
Century 10, Quatrain 72:
The year 1999 seven monthsCentury 6, Quatrain 97:
From the sky will come the
great King of Terror.
To resuscitate the great king of
Before and after, Mars reigns by good luck.
At forty-five degrees the sky will burn,Many Nostradamus followers
believe that both Quatrains refer to the attack on the World
Trade Center. The references to fire and terror from the sky
fits with the aerial attack, they argue, and New York city is
around 40° 5' N latitude (relatively close to "forty-five"
degrees). The date is also not far off. Additionally, several
other quatrains refer to an antichrist figure called "Mabus,"
who supposedly will start a world war. The letters in Mabus
can be rearranged to spell Usam B, leading some to believe
Nostradamus saw the coming of Usama
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.
Skeptics suggest that believers are paying attention only
to the pieces that fit, and ignoring the parts that do not
("the great king of the Mongols," for example). Additionally,
they argue that "the great new city" is a skewed translation
of Nostradamus' lines. In the original French, Nostradamus
referred to "Villeneuve," which literally means "new city,"
but is also the name of a town outside of Paris, near 45
degrees latitude. Critics credit the similarity of Mabus and
Usama bin Laden to coincidence, noting that up until recently,
many Nostradamus followers claimed Saddam Hussein was Mabus
(Mabus spelled backward is Subam).
Despite these critics' arguments, Nostradamus is more
popular than ever. In the wake of the September 11 attack,
Nostradamus books climbed to the top of Amazon.com's
sales list, and shot off bookstore shelves all around the
country. In such an uncertain time, it's understandable that
people would look to Nostradamus and other prophets -- when
people have no idea what to expect in the years ahead, they
may look for answers wherever they can find them.
For more information on Nostradamus, his prophecies, his
followers and his critics, check out the links on the next
Lots More Information!
More Great Links