Michel de Nostradame was born in Provençe (France) in 1503, the son of a tax collector and the grandson of a grain dealer. Some time before Michel’s ninth birthday, his family converted from Judaism to Roman Catholicism. Many of Nostradamus’s prophecies reflect not only a devotion to Roman Catholicism but also an acquaintance with the form of Jewish mysticism called Qabbalah. His lifelong interest in astrology began when he was a teenager, and he is reported to have been expert at casting horoscopes.
Considering the era in which he lived, Nostradamus was well educated, and he became an itinerant physician upon receiving his baccalaureate at 22. In the 1540s, he began evidencing the clairvoyance that was later to make him famous, but he did not begin setting his prophecies into writing until the 1550s. By 1560, the 942 quatrains of his ten “Centuries” (sets of 100 quatrains; Century VII is mysteriously incomplete) were wowing Europe. Nostradamus died in 1566, while allegedly contemplating setting into writing his eleventh and twelfth sets of “centuries.”
As a girl I was intrigued by Nostradamus, and in the late 1970s I bought a paperback copy of the 1973 translation by Ericka Cheetham, who seemed to me a credulous soul obsessed with the three Kennedy brothers. (John, Robert, and Teddy, for you youngsters.) Most of Nostradamus’s quatrains seem to me either too vague to be meaningful or the result of inhaling too much “holy smoke,” shall we say. A very few of his quatrains, however, are startlingly accurate (for example, he predicted that the Great Fire of London would happen in 66), and the Prophecies comprise the only piece of literature other than the Bible that has been continuously in print since 1555.
To avoid being prosecuted as a magician by the Inquisition, Nostradamus wrote in a crabbed, obscure mixture of French, Provençal, Italian, Greek, and Latin, deliberately confused the time sequence of the Prophecies, and used anagrams, arcane allusions, and intentional misspellings. While my French is of the schoolgirl variety, I am professionally acquainted with both Latin and Greek, and this knowledge did help me as I read Ms. Cheetham’s translation and commentary.
Here are the prophecies I found that seemed to me to be the most pertinent, along with commentary of my own. The translation is mine, though largely based on Ms. Cheetham’s; I have not attempted to replicate Nostradamus’s ABAB rhyme scheme. The first quatrain is the prediction that impressed me the most. The remainder are in no particular order, although I tried for a rough chronology and to put the more plausible verses before the less.
The stinking and abominable shame, After the deed he will be congratulated. The great one excused, for not being favorable, Neptune [see I/87] cannot be tempted toward peace. (VI/90, p. 281)
When they heard the horrifying news on September 11, some Arabs celebrated, and some suspected members of al Qaida telephoned other suspected members to gloat. Today, children in Muslim schools in the U.S. are being taught that the authors of the outrage were Israel, the CIA, or both, attempting to “frame” Islam.
The “great one excused” would be George W. Bush, who upon being informed of the attack on the World Trade Center spent more than seven minutes staring blankly into space, wondering how he could pervert this atrocity into an excuse to make war upon Saddam Hussein (thus proving to the world that he is a manlier man than his Poppy).
Because of quatrain I/87, it is possible that “Neptune” refers to the United States. Alternatively, Neptune (god of the sea) may refer to Great Britain (“Rue Britannia, / Britannia rules the waves . . .”).
Earth-shaking (ennoisigée) fire as from the center of the earth Will cause the New City to tremble. Two great rocks will make war for a long time, Then Arethusa (puis Arethuse) will redden a new river. (I/87, p. 63)
Ennosigaeus, Greek for “earth-shaking,” is a title given to Neptune/Poseidon, god of the sea. (New York City, founded long after Nostradamus’s death, is a major port.) Each impact on the World Trade Center towers registered on seismographs. It is also possible that by “two great rocks,” Nostradamus meant fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam — in which case, God help us all. (And when, and where, did fundamentalist Christians get the idea that Jesus approves of warfare, preemptive or otherwise?)
Ms. Cheetham wrote, “Ingenious commentators interpret Arethusa as coming from Ares, God of War, and U.S.A.” It seems likelier that Nostradamus meant “Zarathustra,” an alternative spelling of Zoroaster. Zoroaster was the Iranian equivalent of Mohammed, although he lived more than 1,000 years earlier. Zoroastrianism, the ancestor to Islam, taught that life is a constant struggle between God and “his” equal, Satan. (In the Hebrew Bible, a “satan” (pronounced sah-TAHN) was a prosecutor, not a persecutor, until after the Babylonian (i.e., Zoroastrian) Exile.)
At five and forty degrees the sky will burn, Fire approaches the great New City. In an instant a huge, scattered flame leaps up, When it is seen, the Normans will want to prove [it] (faire preuve). (VI/97, p. 283)
New York City, founded long after Nostradamus died, is at latitude 40 N 45. “Normans” is usually a synonym for the French, but originally the word meant “north man.” Could the word here be a compressed version of “North Americans”?
The terror that suddenly appeared will be great, The ringleaders of the affair hidden. Woman on/in the charcoal will no longer be seen. Little by little the great ones will feel loathing. (V/65, p. 233)
I have no idea what the “woman en braise” is supposed to mean, unless Nostradamus confused brasa (Germanic for “live coals,” the root of braise and braisier) with burqa — which is probably too big a stretch. The women in the charcoal-colored robes? As I write this, women have been invisible in Afghanistan for more than five years, except for the occasional beggar or corpse.
The dart from the sky will make its journey, Death while speaking: a great execution: The stone in the tree, the proud nation brought down; Rumor of a human monster, purge and expiation. (II/70, p. 102)
Ms. Cheetham wrote, “This is often interpreted as referring to Napoleon [Bonaparte], though it seems too general in its meaning for this to be satisfactory.” And Napoleon was no human monster. The tragic conversations reported on September 11 were what made my husband and me finally decide to get a cell phone of our own. I have no idea what “the stone in the tree” refers to, unless Nostradamus was trying for “the big heavy thing in the tall thing that houses life-forms” —there were no skyscrapers in the sixteenth century.
In the land with a climate opposite to Babylon There will be great shedding of blood. By land and water, the sky will seem unjust, Sects, hunger, reigns, plagues, confusion.
Sooner and later you will see great changes made, Extreme horrors and vindications: For as the moon is led by her angel, The heavens draw near to the Balance. (I/55,56, p. 49)
Babylon is the name the Hebrew Bible used for an area just north of the Persian Gulf, at roughly longitude 50 E. Afghanistan lies roughly between 60-75 degrees East; New York City is at 74 degrees West. On September 11, the Moon in late Gemini was “led” by Jupiter, the planet ruling good fortune, a few degrees away in Cancer. The Balance refers to the astrological sign of Libra, which the Sun was 11 days from entering.
Gray and brown in half-declared war, At night they will be besieged and pillaged. The captured brown one will pass through the prison, His temple opened, two grilled in the plaster. (VI/65, p. 272)
Ms. Cheetham translated grillez as “slipped,” which makes no sense at all to me etymologically — not that it makes sense anyway when coupled with “in the plaster.” (Could Nostradamus have been trying for “plaza” or “plastic”?)
One (m.) of the infernal gods of Hannibal Will be reborn, the terror of humanity. Never more horror, nor have papers written of worse, Than will come to the Romans through Babel. (II/30, p. 84)
Hannibal’s terrain covered North Africa and the Middle East. There were no newspapers in Nostradamus’s time, which makes his use of journaulx striking. “Babel” here may refer to the Middle East or to Islam (Babylon may have encompassed Mecca and Medina) and “the Romans” to the West or to Christianity (equivalent to Roman Catholicism in Nostradamus’s Protestant-hating mind). The Qur’an says frequently that Allah delights in torturing the souls of deceased unbelievers.
Those well at ease will suddenly be cast down By the three brothers the world will be put in trouble, The marine city will be seized by enemies, Hunger, fire, blood, plague, all evils doubled. (VIII/17, p. 313)
In 1973, Ms. Cheetham naturally thought “the three brothers” referred to John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy. Today I wonder whether the phrase might refer to the Taliban, Hamas, and al Qaida, or perhaps to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
One day the two great leaders will be friends, Their great power will be seen to grow. The new land will be at the height of its power, To the man of blood the number is reported. (II/89, p. 111)
The “man of blood” may be the third of the three antichrists Nostradamus predicted. In Nostradamus’s time, North America was a very new terre indeed.
In a black head-dress the Barbarian fights. Blood shed, Almatia trembles. The great Ishmael will make his promontory, Frogs (ranes) tremble with the aid of Lusitania.
Pillage taken on the sea coast, The New City and relations (parents) brought forward Many of Malta through the deeds of Messina Will be closely shut up, poorly rewarded. (IX/60,61, p. 373)
Almatie may refer to Dalmatia (now part of Yugoslavia); Alma-Ata was the capital of Kazakhstan when my dictionary was published.
Muslims allege that Allah — who, Muhammad repeatedly told us, enjoys nothing more than the sadistic torture of non-believers — is the same God worshipped in Judaism and Christianity. This assertion is based on their claimed descent from Ishmael, the older (and less legitimate) of the two sons Abraham had in roughly 1600 BCE. By mettra son promontoire, Nostradamus may have meant “become prominent.” Ms. Cheetham translated ranes as “frogs” because the Latin word for frog is rana; the French ramas means “rabble.” The Roman province Lusitania covered Portugal and some of western Spain.
Malta is a group of islands close to Sicily. The medieval Knights of Malta, or Hospitallers, were famed as soldiers of Christianity and for building and maintaining some of the earliest hospitals. Messina is one of the two cities Muslims consider holy. During the time that Malta was a possession of the Islamic empire, its resident dhimmis — non-Muslims living under the control of shari’a — were treated very poorly indeed.
The king will want to enter the New City By enemies violated from afar. A captive falsely freed to speak and act The king to be outside, he will stay far from the enemy. (IX/92, p. 385)
Ms. Cheetham commented, “The king far from the enemy is probably the President in some secret underground shelter.” I’m not sure where she got the secret underground shelter, but I’m reminded of a verse I heard during “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central: “Osama bin Ladin, you say you’re strong and brave. / So, now tell me why you’re [vulgar synonym for defecating] in a cave.”
The year one thousand nine hundred nine seven months, From the sky will come the great King of Terror. He will bring back to life the great King of the Mongols. Before and after War reigns happily.
The year of the great seventh number accomplished, It will come at the time of the Games of Slaughter (Hecatombe), Not far from the age of the great millennium, When the dead will come out of their tomb.
Long awaited he will never return In Europe, he will appear in Asia One of the league issued from great Hermes, And above all other kings in the East. (X/72,74,75, pp. 417-18)
July 1999 came and went with no great King of Terror. But a year from a great millennium, let us recall that September is Latin for “seventh month,” and that Nostradamus was capable of mistakes. The Mongols were the first non-Arabs to be seduced by Islam.
(In November 2002, an Internet correspondent named “Atossa” wrote to point out that Vladimir Putin was appointed Prime Minister of Russia on August 9, 1999 — which was actually July 27, 1999 according to the Russian Orthodox Julian calendar. (The Gregorian calendar was promulgated in 1582, 16 years after Nostradamus’s death, and 1582 or 1583 is when most countries adopted it.) Putin was born and reared in St. Petersburg, whose symbol is the griffin (see the discussion of X/86, below).)
A hecatomb was a feast at which 100 cows were slaughtered (hecaton + bous), but generally meant a great public sacrifice (or perhaps Nostradamus was envisioning the World Series!). As I write this, seven weeks after the Atrocity, the dead are still coming out of their tomb.
A league is an association of people formed to promote common interests; in that sense, al Qaida is a league. Hermes was the Lord of Death, a phallic god whose herms, or stone penises, protected crossroads throughout the Greco-Roman world. In the Middle Ages, it was said that Hermes Trismegistus (thrice-great) founded magic, astrology, and alchemy, and Sufi (Muslim) mystics claimed him as one of their own. Originally a hermit was a religious man who lived in a cave in the wilderness.
The king of Europe will come like a griffin Accompanied by those of the North. He will lead a great troop of red and white And they will go against the king of Babylon. (X/86, p. 421)
A griffin is a mythological animal with the body and hind legs of a lion (a symbol of Britain) and the head, wings, and talons of an eagle (a symbol of the U.S.). As I write, the “king of Babylon” is Saddam Hussein, but Nostradamus may have been referring to any leader in the Middle East or Egypt. It is striking to read this quatrain in conjunction with X/72, since it links Vladimir Putin, “the North,” red (for communism), and the king of Babylon — at this writing, Saddam Hussein.
When those of the Arctic pole are united, In the East will be great fear and dread. A new man elected, supported by le grand tremble, Rhodes and Byzantium will be stained with barbarian blood. (VI/21, p. 257)
“Le grand tremble” may mean “the great one who trembles”; as I write, some people in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area are sealing shut their front-door mail slots for fear of anthrax. A friend whose native language is French offers the translation “the earthquake,” but I’m not sure whether that helps here. Rhodes (ancient Greek for “rose bush or tree” [the rose is the U.S. flower]) is the largest island in the Aegean, and Byzantium is an ancient name for the empire whose capital was Istanbul (Constantinople).
Mars and the scepter will be found in conjunction, Under Cancer a calamitous war. A short time afterward, a new King will be anointed, Who will bring peace to the earth for a long time. (VI/24, p. 258)
Mars and Jupiter (the ruler of the zodiac) will be in close conjunction in Cancer between June 20 and July 14, 2002 (exact, June 30-July 1). (2005 note: This period corresponds strikingly to the time frame in which the Bush administration made it clear to the British, according to the Downing Street memos, that Bush was more interested in preemptive war with Iraq than in catching Osama.) The next conjunctions of Mars and Jupiter will be in September 2004 and December 2006.
The horrible war that is prepared in the West The following year the pestilence will come, So very horrible that young, old, nor beast [will survive], Blood, fire, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter in France. (IX/55, p. 371)
This quatrain is usually applied to the influenza epidemic of 1917-18, when Mars was in Virgo and Jupiter was three signs away in Gemini. (Mercury is never far from the Sun.) The three planets will be conjunct July 20-27, 2002 (Cancer, almost an anagram of France).
The head of London through American power Will burden the island of Scotland with a cold thing: Reb the King will have so dreadful an antichrist Who will bring them all into the mélée. (X/66, p. 415)
Ms. Cheetham’s theory about this quatrain was that Harold Macmillan, who was prime minister 1957-63, allowed America to base Polaris submarines in Scotland. Living in a state whose governor’s nickname is Jeb, I wonder. . . .