A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Was Nostradamus really able to predict the future?

July 13, 1984

Dear Cecil:

Recently I saw a movie on cable TV called "The Man Who Saw Tomorrow," about Michael Nostradamus the prognosticator. That film scared the hell out of me.  Nostradamus claims that first Halley's comet will screw up the entire world and then in the 1990s a Middle East/Russian collaboration will wage nuclear war on the West for 27 years, after which the U.S. and Russia will join together again to defeat the Islamic horde.  Should I begin to say my prayers? How good was Nostradamus at predicting the future? Did Orson Welles (the film's narrator) con me once again?

Cecil replies:

There are two schools of thought on Nostradamus: either (1) he had supernatural powers which enabled him to prophesy the future with uncanny accuracy, or (2) he did for bullshit what Stonehenge did for rocks. I incline to the latter view.

Michel de Nostredame (Nostradamus in Latin) was born in southern France in 1503. Intelligent and well-educated, he worked as a traveling physician for many years, but late in life his reason failed him and he decided to become a free-lance writer. Among his works (which included a collection of jelly recipes, charmingly enough) were several books of prophecy, organized into sets of 100 quatrains, or "centuries."

There were so many of these prophecies and they were so vaguely written that they could be made to apply to nearly anything. For example, one quatrain predicted prosperity for Henry II, the king of France. Unfortunately, Henry was killed in a jousting accident a couple years later.

No problem — someone discovered the following gem among the 940 or so other quatrains: "The young lion shall overcome the old/On the field of battle in single combat;/In a cage of gold he shall pierce his eyes:/Two knells one, then to die, a cruel death" (sic). It was pointed out that a sliver from the lance of Henry's opponent had penetrated the king's golden helmet and pierced his eye and brain. Furthermore, the king was seven years older than his opponent. Ergo, Nostradamus had really been on target after all. (After Nostradamus's death, some editors amended the enigmatic last line to read, "two wounds [from] one," which fits the circumstances even better.) Fast shuffles like this do wonders for a guy's reputation.

True believers have since applied Mike's predictions to nearly every significant event in the 400 years since his death in 1566. This effort has been aided, for those not fluent in French, by convenient mistranslations.

For example, the People's Almanac gives one verse as follows: "The captive prince, conquered, to Elba,/He will pass the Gulf of Genoa by sea to Marseilles,/He is completely conquered by a great effort of foreign forces,/Though he escapes the fire, the bees yield liquor by the barrel."

The mention of Elba makes this otherwise ambiguous quatrain appear to apply to Napoleon. In fact, however, the original has "aux Itales," which is generally translated as "in Italy," not "to Elba." (The more imaginative, it must be conceded, claim "Itales" derives from "Aethalia," the classical name for Elba.)

Similarly, some say the following verse predicts the Great Fire of London in 1666: "The blood of the just shall be dry in London./Burnt by the fire of 3 times 20 and 6./The ancient dame shall fall from her high place,/Of the same sect many shall be killed." The ancient dame supposedly was the statue of the Virgin on St. Paul's cathedral. Sounds convincing, but a literal translation of the first two lines is far more cryptic: "The blood of the just will commit a fault at London,/Burnt through lightning of twenty three the sixes."

Yet another verse mentions a certain "Hister," which some claim refers to Adolph Hitler. In fact, though, Hister is simply the classical name for the Lower Danube, and Nostradamus uses it as such in several instances.

Supposed predictions by Nostradamus of future wars and disasters are equally implausible. I didn't see the movie you allude to, but other scenarios I've come across talk about an alliance between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. followed by a joint Arab-Chinese invasion of Europe.

Another quatrain that the sky-is-falling crowd drags out whenever a comet is sighted goes like this: "A great spherical mountain [i.e., a meteor] about one mile in diameter/ … Will roll end over end, then sink great nations," etc. Once again an overenthusiastic translator has been at work — the first line is more plausibly rendered as "a great mountain seven stadia around," and many Nostradamus buffs say it refers to Vesuvius. In any case, it's not worth worrying about.

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