Michel de Nostredame, better known as Nostradamus, is widely known as a French physician, astrologer and prophet. There were countless court physicians and astrologers over the centuries whose names have been lost to time. Nostradamus, however, remains well known more than 400 years after his death, mostly for a 1555 book he wrote titled "The Prophecies." Published later as "Centuries," it is a collection of quatrains (four-line rhyming verses), grouped into nine sets of 100 and one of 42, which many claim foretold the future.
Nostradamus has been credited with accurately predicting dozens of historical world events, including the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945; the space shuttle Challenger accident in 1986; the French Revolution in 1789; the Apollo moon landing in 1969; the death of Princess Diana and both world wars, among others.
Though widely regarded as a prophet by the public, many who have studied Nostradamus' works find that most of the amazing prophecies attributed to him are merely the result of poor linguistic and historical scholarship. In his book "Nostradamus, Bibliomancer: The Man, the Myth, the Truth," Peter Lemesurier, a former Cambridge linguist and author of nearly a dozen books on the French seer, concludes that Nostradamus was neither a doctor nor an astrologer, nor even (by his own admission) a prophet. He merely believed that history repeats itself, and thus projected known past events into the future. Lemesurier also debunks many of the modern myths about Nostradamus, such as his most famous predictions about the World Trade Center attacks.
Did Nostradamus predict 9/11?
It's a story that circulated widely in late 2001, and is still believed by many around the world: That Nostradamus predicted the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center with this verse:
"Two steel birds will fall from the sky on the Metropolis
The sky will burn at forty-five degrees latitude
Fire approaches the great new city
Immediately a huge, scattered flame leaps up
Within months, rivers will flow with blood
The undead will roam the earth for little time."
Could "steel birds" be interpreted as airplanes? Could New York City be the "Metropolis" that lies at about 40 degrees north latitude? Many people thought so; however this piece is a hybrid of real Nostradamus verse and fiction. Not only is it not in quatrain form, but the phrase "two steel birds" is particularly revealing, as steel suitable for airplanes wasn't invented until 1854 — nearly 200 years after Nostradamus died. Others point to a different (real) quatrain (I.87), which can be translated as,
"Earth-shaking flames from the world's center roar
And make the earth around a 'New City' quiver."
Again, it doesn't take much imagination to connect the dots: Could the "earth-shaking flames" be the explosions from the Twin Towers? And might the "New City" mean New York?
If you know nothing about Nostradamus it might seem plausible, but Lemesurier points out that the original phrase Nostradamus used for "New City" — cite neufve — "is much more likely to mean a town whose name means precisely that in Greek or Latin than merely any old city with 'New' in its name such as New York or New Orleans..." Furthermore, Nostradamus explicitly states that the "earth-shaking flames" will not be from the sky but instead "from the world's center" (i.e., lava from a volcanic eruption). Lemesurier concludes, "Of New York or the 9/11 tragedy he is clearly saying nothing." [See also: Psychology of Fear: Why Earthquake Prophecy Has Romans Fleeing]
Vague Language and Metaphor
Nostradamus wrote in Middle French, using vague words, metaphors and obscure, badly dated references. Fortunately for Nostradamus (but not for those trying to pin down what, exactly, he wrote and meant), all these variations created a lot of confusion. In fact, there are dozens of different translations of his "Centuries" book, with many variations on words and phrases. This wide variety of interpretations helps the prophecies come "true," since if one translation doesn't really support the historical evidence, another can often be found that fits better. [Countdown: Oops! 11 Failed Doomsday Predictions]
Sometimes his meaning was clear, but much more often even Nostradamus scholars can't agree on what he was trying to say. Several of the prophecies have been the result of simple ignorance of the language, history, or both. For example one famous line widely interpreted as referring to Adolf Hitler mentions "The major battle shall be close by the Hister / He shall cause the great one to be dragged in an iron cage, while the Germans shall be looking at the infant Rhine."
It mentions Germany, and a war, and Hister (which kind of sounds like Hitler to modern ears): amazing prophetic powers? No; in fact, "Hister" (which can also be translated as "Ister" or "Iter") is not the name of Adolf Hitler or anyone else; it is another name for the lower Danube River, a word that scholars know Nostradamus also used in his 1554 "Almanac."
Nostradamuswas clever enough to couch his quatrains in such vague terms that people read whatever they want into them. Despite his legions of followers, a close analysis of the "Centuries" reveals that Nostradamusdid not make predictions (statements that are read and known about before they happen) instead he made post-dictions (statements that appear to come true only after the events already happened). [Countdown: Tales of 10 Historical Predictions]
If Nostradamus had truly predicted the September 11 attacks, World War II, or the Challenger shuttle accident, for example, the world should have known about them decades (indeed centuries) before they occurred. There have been hundreds of Nostradamus scholars throughout the centuries, and millions of people have read his works. Yet not a single one apparently knew about the 9/11 attacks — or any of the other important "prophecies" — until after they happened. It's only afterwards that the clues and vague words can be interpreted to fit history.
For a man who hasn't written anything in well over 400 years, Nostradamus' works and biographies show no signs of slowing down. Researcher James Randi, author of "The Mask of Nostradamus," points out that "Nostradamus managed to produce more than any other prophet in history. His reputation, however, is due to the ardent horde of his disciples who continue to hyperbolize, bowdlerize, and invent in order to perpetuate his fame."
The world will be putting Nostradamus to the test very shortly; according to a documentary that aired on the History Channel, he predicted that the world would end in December 2012, although not necessarily on December 21 — after all, he was French, not Maya.
Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of "Skeptical Inquirer" science magazine and author of six books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries." His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.