Beginning in 1550, French philosopher, physician, and alchemist Michel de Nostradame, more commonly known as Nostradamus, wrote and published prophecies that some people believe are startlingly accurate in foretelling future events. For example, he is said to have predicted the birth of Napoléon, the rise of Nazi Germany, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center.
Nostradamus’s first prophecies appeared in an almanac; he then published a ten-volume work called Centuries that carried his predictions to the year when he said the world would end, 3797. He did not, however, make his predictions in a straightforward, easy-to-understand form. Instead, they appear as four-line verses that make use of metaphors and allusions that are often obscure and can be interpreted in various ways.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that Nostradamus’s works, which were written in French, can be translated so as to make them extremely vague or highly specific. Depending on the translation, both skeptics and believers in prophecy claim support from Nostradamus. For example, skeptic James Randi has translated some of Nostradamus’s verses in ways that strip them of any possible references to world events or world leaders, while believer Erika Cheetham, author of The Final Prophecies of Nostradamus (1989), has translated them in ways that strengthen their connection to such events and people. This is evident, for instance, in their respective analyses of one of the most famous quatrains, verse twenty-four from Centuries, volume 3, which many people believe concerns the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism in Germany. The typical translation of the verse reads:
Beasts wild with hunger will swim
The greatest part of the field will oppose
In a cage of iron he will drag the
When German offspring knows no
Believers have said that the first two lines refer to the fact that Hitler crossed rivers to take over other countries, which tried to oppose him. Some have also said that cage of iron refers to the iron cross, the symbol of Nazi Germany, and that Hitler is the “German offspring” who knew no law. And, of course, they note that the word Hister is very close to Hitler, suggesting that Nostradamus almost provided the exact name of the German leader. In Cheetham’s translation of the verse, however, she replaces Hister with Hitler (since she thinks it was clear what Nostradamus meant) and German offspring with son of Germany. In Randi’s translation, he replaces Hister with the Lower Danube (arguing that Hister is an ancient name for this region) and German offspring with the child brother. Similar battles over translations, involving other believers and skeptics besides Cheetham and Randi, have occurred for every quatrain that strongly seems to have predicted a future event.