BY now everyone has heard it. The 16th-century prophet Nostradamus predicted the attack on the World Trade Center with uncanny accuracy. As proof of his prophetic powers, extracts from his writings were posted on the internet and reproduced by editors around the world. One of the passages most commonly seen was this:
In the City of God there will be a great thunder, Two brothers torn apart by Chaos, While the fortress endures, The great leader will succumb. The third big war will begin while the big city is burning.
Other, even more striking quotations included references to "the eleventh day of the ninth month", and "two metal birds" that crashed into "two tall statues". The public was astounded, but those who had actually read Nostradamus were quick to point out that all these "predictions" were sham. The lines about the City of God and the defunct great leader were written during the 1990s by a Canadian college student as an example of the sort of vague language Nostradamus used, which could be interpreted in any way one pleased. When this fictional oracle was posted on the internet as a fulfilled prophecy of Nostradamus, the line about the "third big war" was added to make it more apocalyptic. The decorative details about iron birds and giant statues were also 21st-century inventions.
Among all the supposed "predictions of Nostradamus" that overran the internet in September, only two were actually from the pen of the French prophet. One was a line from a quatrain (Centuries, 10.72) that long has fascinated Nostradamus buffs: "The year one thousand nine hundred ninety-nine, seventh month, from the sky will come a great King of terror". Before July 1999, there was much speculation that this referred to a calamity that would strike New York that month. Nothing terrible happened then, but when the towers fell two years later, the stanza was put forward as a prediction whose fulfilment was only slightly delayed. To make it more telling, it was linked with another quatrain (6.97) that begins: "Five and forty steps the sky will burn, fire to approach the large new city." The "new city", obviously, was New York, while "five and forty steps" meant 45 degrees or perhaps 40.5 degrees latitude. (New York lies just below 41 degrees north.) A Nostradamus specialist reproduces on his website seven other quatrains "possibly concerning the twin towers tragedy in New York". He is honest enough to add that the predictions are much too vague to be applied to any event for sure. Most people who search the internet for explanations of the unthinkable aren't interested in heeding such warnings.
It is unfortunate that Nostradamus is given a bad name by the credulous and the crazy, for he is one of the most interesting figures of the French Renaissance. Michel de Nostradame (1503-66) gained fame as an innovative physician during an outbreak of plague in southern France. Interested in astrology and divination as well as medicine, he published a series of yearly almanacs and, in 1555, the first edition of his Prophities de M. Michel Nostradamus (generally known as the Centuries because the prophecies are arranged in groups of hundreds). This book was widely read during his lifetime and has never been out of print since. (In the wake of the U.S. tragedies, an American edition became briefly the best-selling title on Amazon.com).
The Centuries is not an easy book to read. Written in archaic French (with some admixture of Latin and other languages), it consists of 942 rhymed four-line stanzas that speak, in a far from straightforward way, of things that were supposed to happen in the future. If they are read retrospectively, with a lively imagination, many appear to fit actual events. But as a rule, for the quatrains to work as predictions, they have to be read symbolically and loosely.
There are a few exceptions to this rule. Quatrain 9.49 includes the line "The Senate of London will put their king to death". Less than a century after this was written, Charles I was beheaded on the orders of Parliament. Even more intriguing for modern readers is quatrain 9.16, which can be, without much twisting of the language, translated as follows:
Out of Castille, Franco will leave the assembly, The disagreeable ambassador will cause a schism: Those of Riviera will be in the squabble, And they will refuse entry to the great gulf.
The association of Castille (Spain), Franco and Riviera is remarkable when we recall that Miguel Primo de Rivera was dictator of Spain between 1923 and 1930 and that Francisco Franco seized power in 1936. Remarkable results can sometimes be obtained by bringing together widely scattered lines. Quatrain 1.60 says that "an Emperor will be born near Italy" who will be judged "less prince than butcher". Quatrain 8.57 begins: "From simple soldier he will attain to Empire". By stringing together other disconnected statements, it is possible to construct the entire life of Napoleon. Other events that can be discovered in the Centuries are various episodes of the French Revolution, the rise and fall of Hitler, the abdication of the Duke of Windsor, the assassination of President Kennedy, the Gulf War and, of course, the September terrorist attacks. In all these cases, the reader's interpretation plays a more important role than the seer's inspiration.
From earliest times, people have sought foreknowledge of the future through dreams, divination, astrology, palmistry, and other methods. No prophet or system has given consistently good results, but there have been a few hits among the many misses. Nostradamus's senate putting the king to death is too striking to ignore completely. (On the other hand, one hit in 3768 tries is not such a great batting average.) Still, the existence of even a few fulfilled prophecies is enough to suggest that some kind of intuitive prediction might be possible. Among the hits is the one that made the psychic Jeane Dixon famous: that the American president to be elected in 1960 would be assassinated. Leaving aside the claims of professionals, which of us has not the experience of thinking, for no particular reason, of a long- forgotten friend, only to receive a letter or a visit from that person within a short time? Parapsychologists have tried to measure this latent power of "precognition" in ordinary people, and if their results have not been staggering, they have sometimes been better than what the laws of chance would permit.
Nostradamus's predictions deserve serious study, both as examples of prophetic literature (the genre that includes Blake's Prophetic Books and Yeats's The Vision) and as records of early experiments in precognition. In both areas of study, researchers will have to distinguish the roles played by the inspiration of the writer and the interpretation of the reader - and to reject completely the falsifications or frauds.
(Picture courtesy: Nostradamus, Prophecies for the Millennium, Bill Anderton, Parragon Books.)
Peter Heehs is director of historical research at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives, Pondicherry. He is the author of five books, the most recent of which is Nationalism, Terrorism, Communalism (1998).