The History Channel Monday night screened a two-hour special on Nostradamus – apparently it’s 500 years since he was born, or something. I suppose that is history, of a kind. The program was pretty bad. True, they did have Michael Shermer on to debunk a few of the interpretations. Penn & Teller too. But the skeptical portion was at most ten minutes out of a two hour show. The overall impression given was that Nostradamus really did predict the future. Which is pretty stupid because he did no such thing.
One of the things that set me on the skepticism road was Nostradamus. I first heard of him in the early 1970s, when his predictions began to be featured in several newspapers. I was fascinated by the idea, and decided to buy a book with all his prophesies, one by Erica Cheetham – a celebrated Nostradamus interpreter. It lists the entire ten “centuries”, in the original French, with English translations, and Cheetham’s interpretations. I remember being excited that I was going to know more than anyone else about these prophesies – I would be the expert, and couldn’t wait to read it.
As I read the book, it struck me that there was a big difference between Cheetham’s interpretations and what Nostradamus actually said. At least, I found it hard to see how the vague wording applied to the specific events ascribed to them. Sometimes I actually said out loud, “no he didn’t!” to one or another thing that Cheetham claimed Nostradamus meant. One of my favorites was 5:28, that Cheetham said was about the assassination of King Umberto of Italy in 1900. In Cheetham’s own words: “Nostradamus seems to imply that the assassin had his arm in a sling, which was not the case in this instance.” Then why does it predict the assassination of King Umberto of Italy in 1900?
I didn’t understand how it was that I didn’t get these predictions that everyone else seemed to be so sure about. It took me several years before I really accepted that Nostradamus didn’t predict anything, and that the books, newspapers, TV etc were just wrong. (I now know the media just goes with whatever is good for ratings.) But it’s obvious, really. Write up 942 vague four-line predictions, be sure to include plenty about war and pestilence, great leaders and armies rising and falling, natural disasters and the like, cover all known nations on Earth, use confusing symbolism, be as ambiguous as possible, wait 500 years, and many of your predictions will seem to have come true. Add bad translations from the French to English, and the huge liberties the interpreters allow themselves, and we’re off to the races. What finally did it for me was the realization that you couldn’t figure out any of Nostradamus’ so-called predictions until after the thing they were supposed to be predicting had actually happened. To me, that didn’t seem like much of a prediction. More of a post-diction, if that’s a word.
Still, I had to admit he made a couple of good guesses. He predicted the fire of London in 1666 (actually just 66 – but still good), and Hister is pretty close to Hitler. But, I figured, coincidence.
Then I read James Randi’s “the Mask of Nostradamus”, one of my recommended books. It’s a surprisingly interesting read, covering a lot of ground. Among other things, Randi examines the many predictions Nostradamus made for people during his lifetime. Included were some very rosy predictions for Catherine de Medici, the Queen of France, who wanted to know the fate of her children. He correctly said they would all be kings, but neglected to say that was because they would all die young, leaving no descendants. In fact, Nostradamus specifically predicted that Catherine’s son Charles, who would become Charles IX, would “live as long as (Milord Conetable), who (shall see his) ninetieth year”. Unfortunately, Conetable died three years later aged 77, and Charles IX died at age 24. Randi examines many other specific prophesies drawn up for people of the day, and finds that Nostradamus’ predictions, where they can be checked, were almost always wrong. It’s a telling indictment on his supposed ability to predict affairs even further in the future.
Randi explains the “fire of London” prediction. Nostradamus hadn’t forecast the year “66”. In the original French, Nostradamus wrote (2:51) “vingt trois les six”. Cheetham had translated that as “three times twenty plus six” (66). Looking at it again, even I know enough French to say that vingt trois is twenty three, not three times twenty (which would be trois fois vingt). Nostradamus was writing about the execution in his lifetime of 23 protestant heretics, in groups of sixes.
As for Hister, a Google search of Hister and Danube will reveal 25 pages of links informing you that “Hister” was the old name of the lower Danube. Nostradamus was writing about events that happened in his day, on or by the Hister, not of Adolf Hitler in the future. Of course, the Nostradamus interpreters on the TV show said that Nostradamus, when writing about Adolf Hitler, decided to write the name of the river Hister, as a kind of “anagram” (which it isn’t) of Hitler. If you think that makes any kind of sense then you’ve never heard of Occam’s Razor. Or as Penn said, “why wouldn’t Nostradamus have just written Hitler?” Why indeed?
Randi goes on to debunk another eight of the more popular interpretations, including (not) predicting the death by jousting of Henry II of France, (not) predicting the Montgolfier balloons, and (not) predicting Napoleon.
I recommend getting the book. It’s a good antidote to people who insist on quoting Nostradamus at you. And if that doesn’t work you can hit them with it.