How Nostradamus Works

By: Tom Harris & Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 

Nostradamus makes some astronomical calculations.
For centuries people have pored over Nostradamus' prophecies. Bettman/Getty Images

When a momentous catastrophe occurs, people react in a variety of ways. One response is to seek out prophecies of the event — inspired predictions that foretold its coming. These forecasts can be comforting, because they suggest that the horrible incidents were inevitable — that they happened as part of a larger plan. Through the course of human history, there have been hundreds of notable prophets, but in the wake of modern tragedies, one name seems to pop up more than any other: Nostradamus.

Nostradamus has been credited with prophesying dozens of pivotal episodes in recent history, including the rise of Adolf Hitler, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and, more recently, the destruction of the World Trade Center towers. On the internet, Nostradamus followers and hoaxers alike have put together detailed interpretations of Nostradamus' works, as well as fabricated passages.

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In this article, we'll find out who Nostradamus was and what he did. We'll also look at the ongoing controversy surrounding Nostradamus, including his supposed predictions of the September 11 attack on the United States and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Early Years

Nostradamus is the Latinized name of Michel de Nostredame, a physician and astrologer who lived in 16th-century France. The details of his life aren't always clear, and they are hotly debated among modern Nostradamus followers and critics.

It is generally agreed that Nostradamus was born in 1503, into an educated, well-to-do family of grain traders. Apparently, he was instructed in a wide range of academic subjects at an early age, including traditional sciences, math, languages (Latin, Greek and Hebrew) and astrology.

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Nostradamus also received a broad religious education. His father's side of the family was Jewish but had converted to Roman Catholicism, either when Nostradamus was young or sometime before he was born. By some accounts, this heritage led Nostradamus to study Jewish scriptures, as well as the books of the New Testament. Throughout his life, Nostradamus was supposedly interested in the apocalyptic prophecies in the Book of Revelation, as well as Kabbalah, a mystical branch of Judaism.

Education and Early Work

Nostradamus
Nostradamus was originally a doctor before turning to writing prophecies. Rainer Binder/ullstein bild via Getty Images

According to many biographies, Nostradamus left home at just 14 years old to study medicine at the University of Avignon. Unfortunately, he had to leave one year later due to an outbreak of the bubonic plague, or Black Plague. Several years later, in 1522, Nostradamus enrolled at the University of Montpellier, where he earned a doctorate and a license to practice medicine. It was at this point that he Latinized his name from Nostradame to Nostradamus, a practice common among academics at the time.

After completing his education, he briefly worked as a professor of medicine before practicing as a physician throughout southern France, mainly treating bubonic plague sufferers. He gained acclaim for his ability to cure many sufferers, mainly by using different treatments than were the standards of the day. He eschewed bloodletting, mercury potions and dressing patients in garlic-soaked robes, for example, preferring to incorporate cleanliness, fresh air and healthy foods into his treatments. During this time, Nostradamus married and had two children. Ironically, his wife and kids soon died, most likely from the plague.

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In the late 1540s, Nostradamus moved to Salon-de-Provence, a French city near the Mediterranean coast, where he married a wealthy widow, with whom he had six children. Over the following decade, he dedicated his attention to formulating prophecies, primarily regarding battles and disasters in the years to come. These ominous warnings gained him both acclaim and notoriety throughout Europe, although mainly fame, as many people believed his prophecies were spiritually inspired. In fact, a fair number of European elites clamored for Nostradamus' services, including Catherine de' Medici, the wife of France's King Henri II.

Nostradamus died in 1566, after suffering from gout and arthritis for many years.

In the next section, we'll look at Nostradamus' seminal work, as well as his mysterious methods for looking into the future.

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His Writings

Nostradamus' major work of prophecies was originally titled "Prophecies of Michel Nostradamus" and published in installments over the course of several years. The work consists of about 1,000 quatrains, or four-lined verses that are collected in groups of 100. Today, the books is referred to as "The Centuries." This title, apparently added after Nostradamus' time, refers to the organizing structure of the work, not to periods of time.

Nostradamus said he was able to predict the future through a combination of astrological study and divine inspiration. He had long studied the supposed relationship between the movement of heavenly bodies and earthly events, and he claimed an angelic spirit helped him understand how these forces would manifest themselves. He sought out inspiration through various forms of meditation, generally focusing on fire or water, possibly while under the influence of mild hallucinogens, such as nutmeg. Meditating late at night, Nostradamus claimed, he would see and understand events in the near and distant future.

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Each quatrain, written predominantly in French, with some Latin, Greek and Italian, foretells a particular event or era. These accounts are undeniably confusing. They are full of esoteric metaphor and anagrams; they include few dates or specific geographical references; and they are not arranged in chronological order.

According to the work's preface, a letter from Nostradamus to his son Cesar (a child from his second marriage), the verses were intended to be mystifying. Nostradamus said he was afraid he would be persecuted and his work would be destroyed if authorities in his time fully understood his predictions. According to him, his cryptic prophecies would be better understood by enlightened people in the future.

Many people today believe they possess such enlightenment. They say that if one interprets the quatrains correctly, it is clear that a number of Nostradamus' predictions have already come true. Nostradamus and his predictions have been so consistently popular over the centuries that his book has rarely been out of publication since his death.

In the next section, we'll find out how Nostradamus critics counter these claims.

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Nostradamus' Accuracy

Nostradamus prophecies, Napoloeon
This book of Nostradamus' prophecies has an illustration of Napoleon, whose reign some believe is foretold inside. Stephane Ruet/Sygma via Getty Images

Over the years, Nostradamus followers have noted hundreds of instances where "The Centuries" describes modern events. One of the most widely known is Nostradamus' supposed prediction of Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime.

A notable quatrain (Century 2, Quatrain 24) reads:

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Beasts ferocious from hunger will swim across rivers:
The greater part of the region will be against the Hister,
The great one will cause it to be dragged in an iron cage,
When the German child will observe nothing.

Nostradamus followers claim that the name "Hister" is a direct reference to Hitler. Another quatrain refers to a ruthless leader born in Western Europe to poor parents, and yet another one refers to Hister's conflicts with Asia and Africa.

Three more instances where Nostradamus supposedly predicted future events include the 1789 French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon and the creation of the atomic bomb. The French Revolution prediction is based on this quatrain (Century 1, Quatrain 14):

From the enslaved populace, songs, chants and demands,
While Princes and Lords are held captive in prisons.
These will in the future by headless idiots
be received as divine prayers.

Napoleon is thought to have been referred to in Century 8, Quatrain 1 because you can rearrange the names of the towns in the first line to get Napaulon Roy (close to King Napoleon):

Pau, Nay, Loron, more fire than blood,
Swimming in praise, the great man hurries to the confluence.
He will refuse entry to the magpies,
Pampon and Durrance will confine them

The atomic bomb's creation and detonation come from this somber quatrain (Century 2, Quatrain 6):

Near the gates and within two cities
There will be two scourges the like of which was never seen,
Famine within plague, people put out by steel,
Crying to the great immortal God for relief.

Skeptics ascribe the supposed accuracy of these quatrains (and others) to two major factors: problems with translation and simple coincidence.

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Skeptical Interpretation

In general, many of Nostradamus' prophecies include 16th-century French terms that aren't clear to most modern interpreters. Particular words could be interpreted in any number of ways, and they can be twisted easily to fit an actual event. In Nostradamus' time, for example, "Hister" referred to a geographical region near the Danube River. Most likely, skeptics argue, Nostradamus was referring to this area, not to a person. (Hitler was, in fact, born near the Danube River, so many believers actually embrace this interpretation).

The most compelling argument against Nostradamus' powers is that his apparent "hits" are the result of random chance and creative interpretation. There are nearly 1,000 quatrains, most containing more than one prediction, and all but a few are described in vague, obscure terms. Over the course of hundreds of years, it's certainly possible that some events would line up with some predictions simply due to coincidence.

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In fact, Nostradamus may have phrased his prophecies with exactly this in mind. Most quatrains refer to deaths, wars or natural disasters — events that are sure to occur again and again throughout history.

Nostradamus' esoteric style also increases the chances of a perceived hit. His metaphorical writing highlights general relationships and conflicts, not specific details. People, or possibly nations, are described as animals; major figures are referred to by their attributes. The Hitler quatrain, for example, refers to "beasts ferocious from hunger," "the great one," and "an iron cage," all general terms with metaphorical elements. This imprecise language does lend itself well to subjective interpretation; when the exact meaning is unclear, it's easy to plug in one's own experiences to reach some sort of understanding.

This is a lot like modern horoscopes. Horoscopes typically detail things a wide range of people experience regularly, such as conflicts at work, happiness in relationships and exciting new changes. Chances are, these predictions will line up with your life, at least some of the time.

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Did Nostradamus Predict the Events of Sept. 11, 2001?

world trade center
According to some believers, Nostradamus foresaw the city of New York and the attack that destroyed the World Trade Center towers. In several quatrains, he describes "the new city," often suggesting an attack on it. Terraxplorer/Getty Images

Following the terrorist attack on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, there was renewed interest in Nostradamus and his prophecies.

A lot of this interest was fueled by a series of email messages. One anonymous message, widely circulated in the United States, claimed that Nostradamus foretold the destruction in some detail. The message included this quatrain:

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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 when the big city is burning.

Ostensibly, the "two brothers" refers to the twin towers, the "fortress" refers to the Pentagon, the "great leader" refers to President Bush and "the big city" refers to New York. In fact, this quatrain is not the work of Nostradamus — it is a complete fabrication.

According to Snopes.com, the first three lines were taken from an essay written in 1997 by Neil Marshall, then a student at Brock University in Canada. Marshall included the made-up lines in the essay to demonstrate how easy it was to take vague imagery and use it as "proof" that a certain event had been foretold long ago. Apparently, someone picked up the verses, added an extra line and distributed the quatrain over the internet.

Other people added on even more lines to it, supposedly from Nostradamus, as the message made its way around the internet. One version described "metal birds" crashing into "two tall statues," an image that does not show up anywhere in "The Centuries." Others referred to "the city of York," another invention meant to sound like Nostradamus. One widespread message included these lines:

In the year of the new century and nine months,
From the sky will come a great King of Terror.
The sky will burn at forty-five degrees.
Fire approaches the great new city.

While this quatrain, as such, is not the work of Nostradamus, it does include some of his verses. It is an adaptation of two different quatrains:

Century 10, Quatrain 72:

The year 1999, seventh month,
From the sky will come a great King of Terror:
To bring back to life the great King of the Mongols,
Before and after Mars to reign by good luck.

Century 6, Quatrain 97:

At forty-five degrees the sky will burn,
Fire to approach the great new city:
In an instant a great scattered flame will leap up,
When one will want to demand proof of the Normans.

Many Nostradamus followers believe that both quatrains refer to the attack on the World Trade Center. The references to fire and terror from the sky fit with the aerial attack, they argue, and New York City is around 40° 5' N latitude (relatively close to "forty-five degrees"). The date is also not far off. Additionally, several other quatrains refer to an Antichrist figure called Mabus, who supposedly will start a World War. The letters in Mabus can be rearranged to spell Usam B, leading some to believe Nostradamus saw the coming of Osama bin Laden.

Skeptics suggest that believers are paying attention only to the pieces that fit, and ignoring the parts that do not ("the great King of the Mongols," for example). Additionally, they argue that "the great new city" is a skewed translation of Nostradamus' lines. In the original French, Nostradamus referred to "Villeneuve," which literally means "new city," but is also the name of a town outside of Paris, near 45 degrees latitude. Critics credit the similarity of Mabus and Osama bin Laden to coincidence, noting that up until recently, many Nostradamus followers claimed Saddam Hussein was Mabus (Mabus spelled backward is Subam).

Since 2001, there haven't been any substantive claims of any Nostradamus predictions coming true. There was one rumor circulating in 2020 that he'd accurately predicted the Covid-19 pandemic, although the supposed prophecy circulating online — one referencing a plague originating in the East and spreading to Italy — doesn't appear anywhere in "The Centuries." He also did not say that a "feeble man" would "rule the western world with a jezebel" after the plague, which some Americans took as a reference to Donald Trump or to Joe Biden, depending on their political persuasion. Nostradamus' works make many references to plagues, which were common at the time he lived, but not in conjunction with these other elements.

Stephane Gerson, professor of French, French Studies, and History at New York University, told Reuters that Nostradamus' lasting appeal was due to the fact that his "arcane predictions could mean anything."

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Originally Published: Sep 24, 2001

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