Taking Nostradamus at His Word
Carl Reiner just couldn't believe that Mel Brooks was 2000 years old. In the pair's famous 1960s comedy routine, "The Two-Thousand-Year-Old Man, Reiner observes incredulously, "Sir, you really don't look 2000." Undaunted, Brooks retorts, "Well, I take care of myself." Still not satisfied, Reiner demands that Brooks produce a birth certificate of some kind. Brooks answers, "We didn't have that then". Reiner prompts his subject, "So you were primitive." Nodding, Brooks elaborates, "We were primitive; we were atavistic; we were--what is the word I'm searching for--dumb."
Judging from the popular response to the Common Era's fast-approaching 2000th birthday, the Two-Thousand-Year Old Man must marvel at how little we have changed. With only three or four years to go (depending on whom you ask) until the dawn of the next millennium, the commotion is already reaching a fever-pitch.
Clearly, the millenarian fuss is not attributable to any one thing. But one of its sources has long fascinated me: the prophecies of Nostradamus. Nowadays, every pulp television program on the millennium seems to place this enigmatic 16th century French citizen at center stage. He is touted constantly as the predictor of the Kennedy assassinations, Saddam Hussein, Hitler, AIDS and just about everything else. Finally, my curiosity compelled me to sit down and read his main work, Les Propheties.
As a historical figure, Nostradamus cannot help but fascinate. Born Michel de Nostredame in 1503 in St. Remy, Provence, to a family of converted Jews, Nostradamus achieved celebrity as a physician long before his foray into prophesy. After excelling as a medical student at Montpelier, he enjoyed unprecedented success in treating the 1546 charbon, the Black Death. Always the iconoclast, he achieved his results by rejecting traditional treatments such as bleeding and, instead, stressing hygiene and diet, and giving his patients lozenges made of rose petals and other herbs (really, vitamin C). He seems truly to have been ahead of his time.
But his current celebrity derives from his many prophesies. His Les Propheties, begun in 1554, consists of 10 volumes, each containing 100 cryptic quartrains (hence the work's common English name, "The Centuries"). John Hogue, a self-styled "Nostradamian," has edited a recently published version of the work entitled Nostradamus: The Complete Prophesies. Hogue fancies himself something of a prophet in his own right and his commentaries give new meaning to the term "exegesis." Nonetheless, he does reproduce the original, archaic French text, so I sat down with his volume to discover what all the clamor was about.
Nostradamus does indeed seem to predict a major catastrophe on the verge of the millennium
L'an mil neuf cens nonante neuf sept mois,
Du ciel viendra un grand Roy d'effrayeur.
Resusciter le grand Roy d'Angolmois.
Avant apres Mars regner pour bon heur (10Q.72).
Taking several liberties, Hogue translates the passage as follows: "In the year 1999 and seven months [July], A great King of Terror will come from the sky. He will bring back the great King Genghis Khan. Before and after Mars rules happily."
Of course, people only pay attention to Nostradamus's doomsday prophesies because of his alleged success in predicting other major events. But actually reading these famous prophesies would make a skeptic out of even the most enthusiastic investigator. Take, for example, the quatrain that Hogue and company take to be Nostradamus's prophesy of the Kennedy assassination(s):
Le grand du fouldre tumbe d'heure diurne,
Mal & predict par porteur postulaire:
Suivant presage tumbe d'heure nocturne,
Conflit Reims, Londres, Etrusque Pestifere (1Q.26)
Hogue takes this passage as follows: "The great man will be struck down in the day by a thunderbolt, the evil deed predicted by the bearer of a petition: according to the prediction another falls at night time, conflict in Reims, London and pestilence in Tuscany."
In addition to the utter vagueness of this passage, two major problems with Houge's interpretation present themselves. First, who is the "bearer of a petition?" No doubt one would expect a character similar to the intrepid Artemidorus in Julius Caesar, who stands outside the Senate waiting to give the doomed Caesar a written warning of his demise. But whom does Hogue submit? "Jeane Dixon, one of the foremost prophets of modern times" who claims to have predicted the Kennedy assassination. A little shaky,no?
And what about the last line's "conflict" in the three locales? Hogue suggests that they refer to various disturbances around the time of Robert Kennedy's assassination in 1968. But, at a loss for a problem in Reims at that time, he simply concludes that "Reims is a synecdoche [part-for-the-whole] for France." Funny how that works, since London isn't used as a synecdoche for England and Tuscany is mentioned instead of Florence.
Lastly, consider the famous Hitler prophesy:
Bestes farouches de faim fleuues tranner,
Plus part du champ encontre Hister sera.
En caige de fer le grand fera treisner,
Quand rien enfant de Germain observera (2Q.24).
Here Hogue takes one too many liberties: "Beasts ferocious, with hunger will cross the rivers, the greater part of the battlefield will be against Histler. Into a cage of iron will the great one be drawn, when the child of Germany observes nothing." But "Hister" or "Ister" is simply the Latin name for the Danube; all the second line says is "the greater part of the field will be against (or along) the Hister." But facts don't get in Hogue's way--just slap the "L" in to make "Histler" and you're cooking.
Hogue employs a "seek and ye shall find" method of prophesy-hunting. Nostradamus wrote 1,000 quatrains, so anything has got to be in there somewhere. As for Nostradamus's prophetic powers, we'll be able to judge better in three years. But I for one won't be holding my breath waiting for Genghis Khan to come back. I am confident that the Class of 2000 will be welcomed into "the community of educated men and women" on a sunny June day in Harvard Yard.
Eric M. Nelson's column appears on alternate Mondays.