It’s hard to get any authentic details of the life of Nostradamus, because different sources contradict each other. Still, we know that he lived in sixteenth-century France, and his real name was Michel de Nostredame; he Latinized it in the same way that Carl Linnaeus changed his first name to “Carolus.” His grandfather got the name Nostredame when he
traded a mule won a Rename Card at the Colosseum converted from Judaism to Catholicism. Since “Nostredame” means “Our Lady,” he really should have held out for a better one. Anyway, Michel started his career as an apothecary, and he studied at Avignon until being expelled for criticizing doctors. Considering that he also dispensed pills made from rose petals, he could perhaps be considered the equivalent of modern purveyors of alternative medicine, although medicine in general wasn’t particularly good in that time and place anyway. Nostradamus tried various methods to treat plague victims, but eventually had to admit that none of them worked. He then went on to practice astrology, and wasn’t particularly good at that either, to the point that he had to say he considered himself a mere astrophile rather than a serious astrologer (which wasn’t quite as ridiculous a thing to call yourself in the sixteenth century as it is today). Apparently undeterred by this, he also wrote poetic prophecies of future events. Despite the fact that he wasn’t even that good at predicting the present, there are still plenty of people who hold to his prophecies as being uncannily accurate. Fortunately for them, Nostradamus’ predictions were pretty vague, usually didn’t specify dates, and were written in a stylized form of French that isn’t always that easy to translate. A lot of what he predicted was pretty typical for his time and place: the Muslims, led by the Antichrist, would attack Europe, but eventually be defeated. This was stated more clearly in predictions by other people. Nostradamus included some of this, but also threw in references to events in the present or past, assuming things like them would happen at some point in the future. He was sort of correct about this in a very broad sense, but not so much in the details. For some reason, Nostradamus has been popular with people predicting the world would end in a certain year, despite the fact that he himself said his prophecies covered events up through 3797. A Google search brings up a lot of pages tying him to a 2012 apocalypse (why these people didn’t remove their pages after their prophecies failed, I don’t know). Another one insisted that he had predicted John Paul II would be the next-to-last Pope. I guess this person now has Eggs Benedict on his face. Anyway, here are a few events and individuals adherents have claimed the prophet predicted, and why I think they’re full of crap:
The Great Fire of London – This took place in 1666, and it’s been tied to a quatrain that mentions London, then “Burnt by thunderbolts in twenty threes the six.” Sure, it’s tempting to tie “twenty threes the six” to 1666, but is there any reason to do that other than wanting to make it fit?
Napoleon – Nostradamus sometimes used anagrams to refer to people, and at one point he mentions “Pau, Nay, Loron.” Some believers have rearranged this into “Napaulon Roy,” which is vaguely similar to “Napoleon the King,” although Napoleon never took the title “king.” Without the rearranging, they’re the names of French towns, as mentioned here.
Hitler – There are a few references in the prophecies to “Hister.” This is actually an old Latin name for the lower Danube, and most likely has nothing to do with a genocidal dictator.
September 11th – This is even more ridiculous than the others, because the people who perpetrated this interpretation couldn’t even stick to actual quatrains. Instead, they combined two, one of which is one of the few to mention a specific year:1999. When you’re given the year and set it two years later, you know your prophecy has some problems. That said, I seem to recall seeing a video game screenshot that talked about some tragedy on 11 September 1999, but I can’t find it now, so I’m probably misremembering. For good measure, hoaxers threw in a verse that was actually intended as a parody of Nostradamus, used to demonstrate how his predictions could fit many different situations. There’s more explanation of this here and here, with additional quotations (both actual ones from Nostradamus and made-up ones) debunked.
So what’s this 1999 prophecy I mentioned? Well, it’s apparently about a great King of Terror coming from the sky and reviving the King of the Mongols. Or maybe (see question 14 in Section A on this page) the King of Terror is a hosting king, “from the sky” is actually “from that region,” and “Mongols” is more accurately translated as a region in France. But that’s not as scary, and people like their Nostradamus to be frightening. I don’t know which translation is more accurate, but did anything resembling either of these interpretations happen in 1999? I’m sure something could be stretched to fit. It was popular at one point to think this quatrain referred to the beginning of World War III, perhaps because the last line mentions Mars, the god of war, ruling. Never mind that it didn’t say anything about the two other World Wars.
Finally, we come to Mabus, the Third Antichrist. Why the third? There’s a quatrain that mentions “L’antechrist trois,” which some interpreters have taken as meaning “three antichrists” or “the third antichrist,” although this has been challenged. (I realize I’m referencing Peter Lemesurier a lot when I don’t have any clear evidence of his ideas being accurate, but I’ll admit to being drawn to them because he seems to be one of few people with any Web presence examining Nostradamus in the context of his own time rather than trying to fit his prophecies into their own preconceived notions. Maybe I’ll have to read one of his books, if I can find a copy.) Anyway, the idea of three antichrists has probably also gained popularity due to the three monsters in Revelation (the dragon, the beast from the sea, and the beast from the earth) and the fact that it parallels the Trinity. So why are we looking for the third one when we still haven’t identified the first two? Well, the consensus among Nostradamus fans seems to be that the first two are Napoleon and Hitler, as they’re specifically mentioned in the prophecies (even though they’re really not). The name Mabus appears in a quatrain that says when he dies, some bad stuff will happen. This quatrain doesn’t mention the Antichrist at all, so I’m not entirely sure why people link the two. If he’s a being of pure evil, surely the bad stuff would happen when he was still alive, no? Among others, Mabus has been identified as Saddam Hussein (“Mabus” is sort of “Saddam” backwards, provided the B is lower-case), Osama bin Laden (the letters can be rearranged into “Usama B,” if you add an extra A), and President Obama (either by adding “US” to his name or combining it with that of President Bush, presumably on the assumption that one president is basically the same as the last). There’s also a Raymond Mabus who’s a former Governor of Mississippi and Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and current Secretary of the Navy. And sure enough, some websites strongly suggest that he’s the Antichrist. Mind you, all you really need to do for people to suggest that is to have significant amounts of people love you and hate you. Then again, do that many people who weren’t residents of Mississippi in the late eighties and early nineties have any opinion whatsoever on Ray Mabus? There was also a sixteenth-century Flemish painter named Jan Mabuse, although he died before Nostradamus started his prophetic career.
So, what do you think of Nostradamus? I do find the idea of someone who could predict the future quite intriguing, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.