The Greatest Secret of Nostradamus
How much of the pop-culture information about Nostradamus is true?
by Brian Dunning
September 18, 2007
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Also available in Russian
Born in France in 1503, noted seer of the future Michel de Nostredame led an extraordinary life. As a Jew who converted to Christianity, he inherited his prophetic abilities from the Israelite tribe of Issachar. He was educated by his grandfathers, who were doctors in the court of King René of Provence. Nostradamus went to Montpellier in 1521 to study medicine, and was so successful that he stayed on there and became a teacher himself. After his wife and two children died from the plague, he studied and became a leading expert on the dreadful disease. He used advanced antiseptics and recommended a diet low in fat with plenty of good exercise. A noted astronomer, he deduced that the planets went around the sun even before Copernicus. Known for writing his prophecies, he was persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition for heresy, and was even placed on the Vatican's Index of Forbidden Books in 1781. Nostradamus adopted a very religious lifestyle to protect himself, but continued his magical pursuits in private. Once, in Italy, he suddenly bowed before a young Franciscan friar for no apparent reason — and later that young friar became the Pope. His astrological forecasts and books of prophecies, called the Centuries and written in codes and anagrams, sold well and made Nostradamus quite celebrated. He used a bowl of water called a "magic mirror" to assist him in writing his predictions. Nostradamus predicted the date of his own death in 1567 in his Presage 141. He had himself buried upright so that nobody could walk on his grave, and, most extraordinarily of all his predictions, when his body was dug up and moved during the French Revolution, workers were astonished to find him wearing a medallion engraved with that very day's exact date.
Oh, excuse me, wait a minute. I'm reading from the wrong text. That's all the contemporary modern hogwash. Let me turn instead to the factual historical record, more recently revealed by French scholars.
Michel de Nostredame led an extraordinary life. He was not a Jew who converted to Christianity, one of his grandfathers was; and so he inherited nothing special from the Issachar tribe. He had no grandfathers who were doctors in the court of King René of Provence. He did not go to Montpellier in 1521 to study medicine, and did not remain there as a teacher; instead, he wandered the countryside from 1521 to 1529 and taught himself the art of apothecary. His wife and two children did all die from disease, but there is no evidence to suggest it was the plague. He did not use antiseptics as they were unknown in his time, and he did not recommend a low-fat diet or exercise. There is no evidence that he made any Copernican style discoveries about the solar system. His only alleged contact with any Inquisition was an invitation to comment on the qualities of a bronze casting, but there is no documentation that this ever happened. All the actual evidence indicates that he was always on the best of terms with the Church. He was not placed on the Vatican's Index of Forbidden Books in 1781, because the Vatican had no such list in 1781, and he was never placed on any such list in any year. He never met and knelt before any Franciscan friar destined to become Pope. As an author, Nostradamus' prophetic writings were virtually unknown during his lifetime; he gained his notoriety from writing cookbooks and almanacs that were no more accurate than other almanacs of the day. His prophesies were not called the Centuries; they were called Les Propheties de M. Michel Nostradamus. They were not written in code, they were in rhyming verse. His astrologies were disastrously wrong, containing flagrant astronomical errors that even the other astrologers of the day found fault with. He did not use a bowl of water as a "magic mirror" when writing his prophecies, he used a regular mirror. If he predicted his own death in Presage 141, he missed it by a year — so some editions show a version of that Presage posthumously edited by his secretary to match the correct date. He was not buried upright and there is no record of any medallion or anything else with any date written on it. About the only popular notion that's true about Nostradamus is that he was a noted and reputable plague doctor, although he admitted regretfully that he never found any cures or preventive measures that worked.
Urban legends, and modern inventions, created to sell 19th century tabloids.
Everyone would love to believe that the future can be predicted, especially if it only costs you a few bucks at your local Barnes & Noble to pick up any of the numerous books interpreting Nostradamus' writings. His book Les Propheties is what he's best known for. It consists of ten sets (which he called Centuries) of quatrains. A quatrain is simply any four-lined poem. Various versions were published during his lifetime, and there is no one authoritative collection. Due to the poor state of printing at the time, all versions include various misspellings and errors, and there are many such differences even among copies of the same edition. Over 200 different translations and interpreted versions have been published since his death, so the folly of hoping to find Nostradamus' original text is quite hopeless. The books that were popularly published during his lifetime were his almanacs, some of which contained prophecies as well, and these are known today as his Presages.
How accurate are his predictions? You could fill a library with books claiming to match quatrains with major events in world history — all, of course, deciphered and published after those events occurred. The straight fact is that nobody has ever used Nostradamus' writings to predict a future event in specific terms which later came true. Nobody has ever used Nostradamus' writings to predict a future event in specific terms which later came true. Nobody has ever used Nostradamus' writings to predict a future event in specific terms which later came true.
So where are all these authors getting all this stuff? Nostradamus' writings are exploited in a number of fallacious ways. Ambiguous and wrong translations, "creative" interpretations, hoax writings, fictional accounts, and the breaking of non-existent codes within his quatrains all contribute to a vast body of work, all of it wrong, and many times the size of everything Nostradamus ever actually wrote.
The greatest problem with modern Nostradamus interpretations is the translation and various issues that it raises. Nostradamus wrote in 16th century French, which was significantly different from modern French. There have been various translations in various orders: first finding similar meanings in modern French and then translating to English, either literally or figuratively; or performing direct word-to-word translations into English; or by interpreting probable meanings and then translating into English or paraphrasing into modern French. All of these methods result in modern meanings that can be substantially different from whatever Nostradamus originally wrote.
Some Nostradamus believers insist that he wrote in code or that he used word substitutions. Obviously this gives them license to make just about any claim they want about what he was trying to communicate. Some allege that fear of prosecution for heresy compelled Nostradamus to write only vaguely, but there is no historical evidence for this. Some books and web sites even go so far as to allege the presence of meaningful anagrams found in modern English translations, or even more strangely, English anagrams found within French translations.
The most creative of Nostradamus interpreters was also his most ardent believer and prolific biographer, Erika Cheetham, author of some of the most popular books on Nostradamus predictions. She's best known for reinterpreting Nostradamus' reference to Hister, a part of the lower Danube river region, as a misspelled reference to Adolf Hitler. Cheetham's books were full of historical events into which she shoehorned Nostradamus' quatrains, with word, name and number substitutions whenever convenient, and she called them "amazingly accurate predictions". Occasionally she went out on a limb and made future predictions, and when those years came and went with none of her predictions coming true, she'd issue updated editions of her books with new names and dates and make the same tired old predictions again. First she interpreted references to Moammar Qaddafi, and later changed them to the Ayatollah Khomeini, and later changed them again to Saddam Hussein. Erika Cheetham's books should be approached with extreme skepticism. Despite her convincing revelations, be aware that her creative translations and interpretations are openly discredited by Nostradamus scholars.
Nostradamus' prophecies are also complicated by hoax writings falsely attributed to him. Many people have heard that he accurately predicted the 9/11 terrorist attacks, although none of these predictions surfaced until after the event happened. Listen to these ominous quatrains:
In the year of the new century and nine months,
From the sky will come a great King of Terror.
The sky will burn at forty-five degrees.
Fire approaches the great new city.
In the city of York there will be a great collapse,
2 twin brothers torn apart by chaos
While the fortress falls; the great leader will succumb;
Third big war will begin when the big city is burning.
And the particularly chilling:
On the 11th day of the 9 month,
Two metal birds will crash into two tall statues
In the new city,
And the world will end soon after.
As you've probably guessed, those are completely bogus Internet circulations. The last two quatrains are completely made up, and the first one consists of lines taken from two unrelated quatrains. I found at least two other Internet versions of Nostradamus 9/11 predictions, both equally false. Please, always be skeptical of anything you receive in an Internet chain email, especially when it makes far-fetched claims.
Finally, it turns out that a lot of the anecdotal stories you hear about the life of Nostradamus are fabrications, or at least there is no evidence for them. One of the most popular folk tales about Nostradamus is that he was buried standing up so that nobody would step on his grave; and when his body was later disinterred during the French Revolution to be relocated, he was wearing a medallion on which the exact date of the disinterment was engraved. These are both modern urban legends, there is no evidence that either event happened. His will made no provision that he be buried standing up, and of all the various stories you can find on the Internet telling of the date either carved on a medallion or written on a slip of paper, there are no references to any contemporary accounts and the dates vary as widely as the stories.
If you're one of the many who got their Nostradamus information from the 1981 Orson Welles movie The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, based on Erika Cheetham's book, you might want to pause and rethink. That movie consists largely of dramatized content, and what biographical facts it attempts to present are almost all wrong. In the 19th century there were a lot of unsourced stories about Nostradamus floating around in print, sensationalizing and even fictionalizing his story. Much of The Man Who Saw Tomorrow came from these 19th century equivalents of pulp tabloids. When you're evaluating a TV show or movie for accuracy, always remember that movies are first and foremost made to entertain and to sell. You should only trust unpaid podcasters like me.
A wave of facts swept over the Nostradamus community following the release of the movie. In 1983, French scholars made a counterattack and published a lot of Nostradamus' private correspondence, original editions, and all of the unearthed contemporary material from the archives that they could lay their hands on. What was revealed was that virtually all popular information about Nostradamus, scholarly sounding though some of it be, was basically all fabricated and bore little resemblance to the actual life and writings of the real man. The French academics revealed that not a single one of the popular facts and fallacies about Nostradamus' biography or significant predictions had any basis in truth or matched the contemporary literature.
Michel de Nostredame was truly one of the brilliant lights of his day, but to subscribe to false stories and urban legends is to disrespect who the man actually was. Appreciate his contributions to medicine and Renaissance literature, and don't trivialize his good works in favor of a pretended history of paranormal magical powers.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Greatest Secret of Nostradamus." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
18 Sep 2007. Web.
25 Jul 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4066>
References & Further Reading
Carroll, Robert T. "Nostradamus (1503-1566)." The Skeptic's Dictionary. Robert T. Carroll, 23 Feb. 2009. Web. 12 Jan. 2010. <http://www.skepdic.com/nostrada.html>
Leoni, Edgar. Nostradamus and His Prophecies. New York: Bell Publishing Company, 1982.
Nickell, J. "Nostradamus: A New Look at an Old Seer." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 Sep. 2010, Volume 34, Number 5.
Randi, James. The Mask of Nostradamus: The Prophecies of the World's Most Famous Seer. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1990.
The Straight Dope Science Advisory Board. "Did Nostradamus predict the day his tomb would be discovered?" The Straight Dope. Creative Loafing Media, Inc, 3 May 2000. Web. 12 Jan. 2010. <http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1772/did-nostradamus-predict-the-day-his-tomb-would-be-discovered>
Wilson, Ian. Nostradamus: The Man Behind the Prophecies. London: Orion Books, 2002. 1-13.
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