Nostradamus, the 16th century French medical doctor, poet and astrologer, is widely acclaimed as the greatest prognosticator of all time. Today, in the 21st century, millions of people worldwide and many in the Cayman Islands view him as a man who saw clearly and deeply into the future. Books continue to be published that praise his alleged powers. Scarcely a week goes by that the History Channel doesn’t include a Nostradamus program on its schedule. All of this attention is even more remarkable when one considers the fact that he never wrote anything that can sensibly be considered an impressive confirmed prediction.
One of the primary reasons for the enduring Nostradamus mystique is that his prophecies are contained in four-line poems called quatrains. This helps to validate them for some people because predictions can sound somewhat credible and hold up to scrutiny better if they are artfully written for maximum ambiguity. For example, if Nostradamus simply wrote, “The world will end in a horrible explosion of fire at noon on December 1, 1927,” it would be much easier for everyone to know exactly what he meant. Furthermore, at precisely 12:01pm December 1, 1927, everyone would have known beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was wrong. Instead, however, his proponents present mysterious predictions that are never clear as to their meaning. Conveniently, they must be interpreted by them to glean any significance.
Perhaps it is unfair for people like me to judge Nostradamus harshly. After all, it’s possible that he really could predict the future. But we’ll never know for sure because none of his original writings exist. That’s right; all those weird quotes and predictions you may have read are actually the work of Nostradamus fans who copied, translated, and passed down his words from the 16th century. What could possibly have gone wrong?
There are numerous known forgeries of Nostradamus writings. Some were done to make him look good by faking predictions of events that had since occurred and others were done simply to cash in on his fame by conning suckers. But even if the Nostradamus writings that we know of today are authentic, so what? They are so vague that they are meaningless. Like any well-written horoscope, the Nostradamus quatrains can be interpreted in numerous ways which increase the chances of them being correct, at least in the judgment of some.
Look no further than the experts who promote Nostradamus to see the absurdity of the predictions. One single quatrain, for example, has been interpreted by various Nostradamus scholars to have contradictory meanings. One said it was a warning about the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. Another determined that it was a clear foretelling of the rise of Adolf Hitler. A third concluded that it predicted an earthquake. There is no telling which of them is closest to what Nostradamus actually meant. Most likely all are far off the mark. The truth is that no one can really know for sure what Nostradamus meant with the four lines of that manuscript. Maybe it was his shopping list.
It’s easy to see why Nostradamus was a successful astrologer. Not only did he make his predictions too vague to easily pin down and pass judgment on, he also made a boatload of them. This is one of the ways fortune tellers impress people who don’t think critically. They make hundreds if not thousands of predictions. This way, at least some of them are bound to come true and success can be claimed because most people don’t think to crunch the numbers and expose the scam. Duration works well too. Simply repeat the right prediction long enough and eventually it will be right. For example, if I predicted in January of each year that a hurricane would hit the Cayman Islands and cause great destruction, it’s safe to say that one of my predictions would be correct sooner or later. A year will come in which my prediction will be accurate. Then I could forget all about all those other years when my predictions failed and only speak of the one time I got it right. It’s ridiculous but it works.
My favorite Nostradamus nonsense is the multiple predictions of the coming of the Anti-Christ. According the world’s leading experts, Nostradamus predicted that Napoleon was to be the anti-Christ and usher in a global catastrophe. Thanks to a bad day at Waterloo, world domination never worked out for the little Frenchman. Then Hitler was the one Nostradamus foresaw. The German dictator was obviously the evil ruler who would take over the world and bring about the end of humankind. Wrong again; the Soviet Army made him tap out in a Berlin bunker well before he brought on the end of the world. Other figures that experts have confidently claimed Nostradamus had predicted would be the anti-Christ include: the Ayatollah Khomeini, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. Oops. How many strikes does Nostradamus get before somebody calls him out?
It fascinates me to no end—and offers us all a lesson on credulity run amok—to see that Nostradamus’s name is now being attached to 2012 doomsday predictions. “It’s clear,” says a growing chorus of Nostradamus believers, “he wrote that the end of world is set for 2012.” This shows us once again that not only is human imagination infinite, but so too is our ability to believe just about anything. In the style of Nostradamus, I will close with my own humble quatrain:
In the year of reckoning some will struggle, So too some will triumph.
Amidst all events, one thing will remain true, Millions will believe in Nostradamus, no matter what we do.
Guy P. Harrison is the author of two non-fiction books. Contact him at [email protected]