The jury is still out on the millennial prophecies of Michel Nostradamus, the French master physician, astrologer and Kabbalist of the sixteenth century. Many regard him as the greatest prophet in Western history, while others find his predictions, especially those concerned with our own era around the second millennium, irrelevant or simply too deep or too equivocal to interpret successfully.
Did he predict war or peace for our time? Did he foresee a coming Utopia or a descent into a Dark Age? The end of the world or a Golden Age a thousand years long? The appearance of a great spiritual Teacher or an Anti-Christ? These are the confronting questions that inevitably arise when considering the work of this famous Renaissance seer.
I believe the key to Nostradamus’ undoubted genius and equally undoubted capacity for paradox lies in the breadth of his religious affiliations, which, astonishingly, embraced all three Semitic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Without acknowledging this secret propensity for religious syncretism, regarded as heretical even in our own free thinking day, it is difficult to throw any light on the contradictions inherent in Nostradamus’ work. His religious beliefs simply cannot be left out of any in-depth evaluation of his prophetic legacy: they made him what he was, a mirror laid to the very heart of our polarised, suffering civilisation.
A true child of medieval Provence, the home of chivalric poetry and mysticism, Nostradamus was born in 1503 in Saint-Rémy-en-Provence of Christianised Jewish parents, was brought up as a committed Christian and died as one in 1566 in the small town of Salon-en-Provence.
At an early age his two grandfathers, who preserved in secret their Hebrew religious and cultural traditions, gave him a comprehensive classical education in literature, history, herbal medicines, Greek philosophy and a range of languages, as well as the ‘celestial science’ – astrology – in which he took a deep and abiding interest. As well, his two Jewish mentors clandestinely introduced the boy to the Judaic esoteric culture. He learned the occult arts and sciences forbidden by the Church, and acquired a knowledge of alchemy and the Jewish Kabbalah, the latter a mystical initiatic system of ten levels of consciousness akin to Hindu Kundalini Yoga. Yet he is believed to have remained at the same time a loyal son of the Christian Church.
Later, for fear of the Inquisition, Nostradamus burned the old Jewish family books on Kabbalistic magic that he had acquired from his grandfathers, along with other occult texts on alchemy, hermeticism and Chaldaean and Assyrian magic. But his most secret religious affiliation linked him to a belief-system that at that time was virtually unknown in Europe and its presence in his life was therefore to remain safe from discovery for almost five hundred years.
Not until the most recent decades has modern Western research discovered that this remarkable Jewish doctor and occultist, trained in Hebrew wisdom, was not only deeply committed to both Judaic and Christian principles but was also a member of a Sicilian Sufi brotherhood loyal to Islam. A true man of the Renaissance, Nostradamus secretly believed in the underlying unity of the three religions, and his prophecies yield their deepest meaning only on this basis.
Nostradamus’ Prophetic Genius
Nostradamus’ life has been chronicled from a variety of different perspectives by a great number of commentators. What emerges most clearly from these studies is confirmation that his prophetic genius owed much to this hidden background of wide-ranging religious connections. The principle of syncretism lies at the very heart of Sufism and was evidently espoused by the doctor. He was the very embodiment of a universal theosopher, a prophet without dogmatic or theological boundaries who would foreshadow and greatly influence the coming explosion of Renaissance universalist thinking. Nostradamus’ academic training was to reinforce this unusual spiritual breadth.
In Europe at the end of the Middle Ages, plague, famine and superstition were rife, men of enlightenment few. Nostradamus was one of those few. He attended the prestigious universities of Avignon and Montpellier where he qualified with high honours as a doctor of medicine and philosophy, and became renowned as a ‘plague’ doctor who effected amazing cures in times of severe pestilence. He was also an adviser to royalty and a deeply learned writer of philosophical works, as well as writing a book on food and cosmetics.
During his wanderings through Europe after the death of his wife and two children from the plague, Nostradamus came into contact with an underground network of ex-Jewish occultists practising Hermetic and Kabbalistic magic, and gained training from them. This, allied to natural clairvoyant abilities, led to his dedication to the prophetic art. His cryptic book of prognostications, Prophéties, has vied with the Bible for being continuously in print since it was first published in complete form by Benoit Rigaud in 1568.
In the first part of the book, which was called Centuries and written in 1555, Nostradamus attempts to describe his method of divination. It is that of the fourth-century neo-Platonist Iamblichus, whose reprinted book was published in Lyons only a few years before Centuries was written, and had no doubt been perused by Nostradamus. A bowl of steaming water is laid on a tripod placed in the prophet’s study at the top of his house. He works at his magic practices while the household sleeps.
Sitting alone at night in secret study, it rests solitary on the brass tripod. A slight flame comes out of the emptiness… (Century 1 Q1) The wand in the hand is placed in the middle of the legs of the tripod. He sprinkles with water both the hem of his garment and his foot. Fear, a voice runs trembling through the sleeves. Divine splendour; the God sits nearby. (Century 1 Q11).
Nostradamus notes that fear, dread, accompanied the parting of the veil that revealed daemonic powers; but tells us that when the God came and sat invisibly beside him, fear departed. In this picture of divine collaboration in a herculaean human task there is something very moving. The God has often been interpreted as the magician’s own god-given gift, but it is more likely to have been the invisible presence of a higher being who accompanied him in order to give comfort, reassurance and guidance. For there is no doubt Nostradamus was treading a wild, uncharted path outside tradition, and an emissary from higher realms might well have been sent to companion him… as he himself apparently believed.
20th Century a Key Period
In the preface to Centuries, written in the form of rhymed quatrains grouped in hundreds, Nostradamus discusses his clairvoyant visions of the future in revolutionary terms. In them he foresees “great events, sad and prodigious and calamitous adventures approaching in due time,” events that would, however, precede, or perhaps accompany, a great transformation in humanity’s level of consciousness and spiritual understanding. His apocalyptic intimations clustered around the twentieth century, “the Century of the Sun,” and predicted the rise of new mystical teachings leading to radical changes in our traditional religious beliefs before 1999 – as indeed we are surely now seeing.
Nostradamus saw the twentieth century as humanity’s rubicon, a pivotal moment in history yielding a unique crisis of choice, of decision – a century of paradox in which enlightenment would spring from the deepest tribulation. He is often accused of being a prophet of doom, but if his prophecies are contemplated from a spiritual perspective, Nostradamus brings us a message of sublime hope. In biblical times seers like the doom-laden prophet Jeremiah were often killed for their pains, their messages rejected; but today the essentially ethical and optimistic philosophy at the core of Nostradamus’ predictions can strike a deeply positive chord in his readers. Right choices bring blessings, he is saying, out of pain comes spiritual regeneration.
After many wanderings after the death of his family, Nostradamus became a successful doctor of the plague in Marseilles and was rewarded with large sums of money by the government of the city. He then remarried and set up a medical practice in Salon, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. When many of his published predictions came true, Nostradamus became famous in his own lifetime and won the patronage of France’s then Medici royal family, Henri II and his consort, Queen Catherine de Medicis. At the Queen’s behest the prophet travelled to Paris to cast the horoscopes of her six Valois children.
Yet as an ex-Jew and a radical thinker suspected of dubious supernatural practices, he lived all his life as a stranger in society and in danger of the displeasure of the Church of Rome. Surviving by various stratagems in a violent and unforgiving century, he worked against a background of forbidden Jewish and Islamic mysticism and the threat of Inquisitorial persecution. It is in this context of religious tyranny and repression that Nostradamus’ enigmatic visions must be understood. At first he determined not to publish them for fear of a public backlash, but later understood that the Church’s hold on the minds and hearts of its people would one day give way to a new climate of religious freedom, and this gave him the heart to go public.
Because of foreseeing the advent of the common people, I decided… [to declare] in dark and cryptic sentences the causes of the future changes of mankind.
So the seer wrote in the preface to Centuries dedicated to his son César, in celebration of a coming age of democracy – an age of freedom from the tyranny of the Inquisition. His words were an expression of the longing Nostradamus felt for a future time of intellectual and moral liberty in which advanced views like his own would be vindicated.
Because if the present kingdoms, sects and religions were to see the future kingdoms, sects and religions to come, and see how diametrically opposed they are to their pet fantasies, they would condemn that which future centuries will know to be true…
Although the prophet was forced to mix up his verses and present them out of their proper order as a means of obscuring their message, so avoiding the attention of the Inquisition, they have nevertheless time and again been found to present uncannily accurate forecasts of historical events over the ensuing centuries, and never more so than in those of the climactic twentieth century that would usher in a new millennium.
Interpreting Nostradamus’ Predictions
Some of the Centuries have proved to be indecipherable as predictions, but Erica Cheetham, one of Nostradamus’ most respected modern translators and interpreters, notes how fascinating she found it to be, while reading the Prophéties for the first time, to come across so many familiar names and historical events. “Names such as Hitler, Napoleon, Franco, Pasteur sprang to the eye. There were many dates too…”1 The prophet accurately predicted that the city of London would be destroyed by fire in 1666, he foretold the violent end of the French monarchy and the assassination of the two Kennedy brothers in recent times, and many more famous historical events.
Subscribing to the Chaldaean astrological tradition fashionable in his era, Nostradamus’ prophecies were concerned with a time frame of seven thousand years, spanning what he called the Age of Man. Jean-Charles de Fontbrune, a modern authority on the prophet, believes that by counting five thousand years from Adam to Christ, the seer arrived at 1999 as the end of the seventh millennium and the climax of a great evolutionary cycle.2 Actually, says Fontbrune, according to biblical chronology the prophecies end with the conclusion of the Piscean age, approximately CE 2000. And according to Cheetham, there are indeed many indications in the text that Nostradamus seemed to see the period around the second millennium as the possible date of Armageddon in the form of a Third World War, and perhaps the end of the world, although he sometimes contradicts this. In any case, projected throughout the prophecies in shadowy outline, Cheetham glimpses the idea of a great polarisation of good and evil at the beginning of the third millennium, and a stark choice for humanity.
In common with the Book of Revelation and with the mystical ideas of the Renaissance then incubating in Europe, Nostradamus foresaw in the twentieth century the advent of democracy and the resultant transformation of consciousness that would bring in sweeping new religious reforms and a new, more enlightened dispensation for humanity. At the same time, the seer was not blind to the terrible downside of the twentieth century and acknowledged that it would be a most fateful and afflicted century in which to be born. The historian Barbara Tuchman notes its phenomenal parallels to the calamitous fourteenth century with its plagues and famines, which she qualifies as a “violent, tormented, bewildered, suffering and disintegrating age… when there was no sense of an assured future.”3 In the sixteenth century Nostradamus predicted of the twentieth “evil century” that its final quarter would be “filthy, pestilent and violent,” and would culminate in unprecedented catastrophes.
Cheetham, like many other researchers, has exclusively focused on these negative aspects of the prophecies: our great plagues such as the AIDS epidemic, famines and floods, appallingly destructive wars, the decline of the Catholic church and the resurgence of militant Islam. She sees little light penetrating this gloomy picture of a civilisation on the edge of destruction, and links it to the coming of the series of Anti-Christs predicted by the seer. With the increasing incidence of earthquake activity, spreading deserts and political malfeasance, it will be a time of great calamity for humanity and even for the planet itself, a time of death – and yet, in the view of Fontbrune, of new life from the East. For according to his interpretation of the prophecies, many spiritual leaders would arise at the threshold of the second millennium to give warning of the disasters to come and would simultaneously bring hope to the world with their new religious teachings.
Before these [apocalyptic] events, many rare birds will cry in the air, ‘Now! Now! And some time later will vanish.
According to this prediction, then, a window of spiritual opportunity will open in the millennial era, but for a time only.
Fontbrune notes that a full two-thirds of Nostradamus’ prophecies are devoted to this millennial theme of apocalypse and spiritual rebirth. In fact, he believes that the great French magus and doctor of medicine wrote his quatrains in the sixteenth century for the express purpose of depicting the twentieth, knowing that “his text would be expounded and understood only in the century which was the focus of his vision” – the century of the common people. Nostradamus shared the hopes rife in Renaissance circles of the time, of an end to feudalism and religious bigotry, hopes that were closely bound up with the spiritual Solar principles from the past which still dominated the worldview of Europe’s esoteric luminaries.
In the symbology of the old Sun temples whose influence had once dominated the entire planet, the sun, birth, life and the brilliant energies of the daytime were identified with the East, while twilight, the moon, death and the shadows of the afterworld were identified with the West. In Minoan Crete new life was brought into the temples by the eastern gate, while the dead were carried out through a western portal and ferried across a stream to the necropolis built on the western side of the city; and these principles reigned throughout pagan times and passed in secret into Christendom, largely through Gnostic channels.
The same esoteric symbolism played its part in the conviction held by Renaissance astrologers that, however dark the end of the millennium might be, a new and wondrous epoch surely shone on the eastern horizon, promising the rise of new nations, new democratic and utopian principles and a new spirit of religious liberty. It is significant therefore that in Nostradamus’ prognosticative scheme the Solar sign should have fallen precisely to that century that has seen the burgeoning in the Pacific region of new civilisations and ideologies, and that in some of these cultures we are witnessing the birth of the most creative concentration of clairvoyance and spirituality, of egalitarian idealism – however distorted in form – to be found at any time in history. The Pacific lands – China, eastern Siberia and Russia, North and South America, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia – while by no means immune to geological disasters, may well represent the most viable cradles of new life, new acculturation, in the millennia to come.
Nostradamus prophesied that the twentieth century would see developments in keeping with its Solar sign, which signifies material expansion and power but as well wisdom, the Christ as Logos, the Solar Word; the whole body of Hermetic-Kabbalistic knowledge inherited from the ancient world; inner harmony and integration. Another authority on Nostradamus, John Hogue, suggests in his first book on the subject that this spiritual knowledge foreseen by Nostradamus shows similarities to Hindu Tantra.
[Nostradamus’] Hermetic mysticism… has many parallels with the Eastern school of Tantra or Shivaic Hinduism, which saw the universe as a divine play or dance of paradoxes.4
The Teacher from the East
Hogue notes further that in the midst of world cataclysms and wars, Nostradamus predicted that a great spiritual teacher, a man from the East, would be born who would become the scourge of outworn religions and the revelator of spiritual mysteries the world over. The quatrains dealing with the “long-awaited one,” the sage from the East mentioned in C10 Q 75, Hogue believed might possibly refer to the coming of Maitreya, the fifth Buddha.5 The quatrain says: “He will appear from Asia, [and be] at home in Europe, one who is issued from great Hermes.” “He will fly through the sky, the rains and the snows and strike everyone with his rod [of Hermes, of enlightenment]. (C10 Q 75, C2 Q29)
As has been said, while at the same time professing Christian beliefs, Nostradamus’ Sufic initiation was one of the most important keys to his genius. Hogue tells us that, like so many of the Renaissance scholars and mystics who never disclosed the source of their exceptional talents, the Provencal prophet succeeded in keeping secret his membership in a Sufi brotherhood. Although he was familiar with all the occult systems of magic and self-transformation then known and with the writings of Iamblichus, the alchemists Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa, Pythagoras and the Kabbalistic Keys of Solomon, the main source of the seer’s grasp of Tantra and the trance techniques that underlay his prophetic visions was the Sufis he met during his travels in Sicily.
The island of Sicily had been a strong centre of Islamic mystical activity since the thirteenth century, when the Templar Crusaders brought back to it much of the Saracens’ wisdom acquired in the East. It was in Sicily that Nostradamus would have learned the secrets of ‘magic and alchymia’ and the ‘ministry of angels’ on which his visions depended, and would have understood the correspondence between the sephirothic ‘rays’ of the Kabbalah and the human chakras. Proficient in Sufic alchemy, few would have been more familiar than he with the Sufi-inspired ‘Rose garden of the philosophers’, the alchemical-tantric work that gave symbolic instructions for the union and transformation of inner energies. By uniting the two opposing archetypes of the psyche, the Solar king and the Lunar queen (the mind and the heart), the practitioner, so it was said, was led to the ultimate goal, the birth of the ‘divine child’ of enlightenment.
“The flame of a sect shall spread the world over…” So Nostradamus foresees in a letter to Henry II of France. He speaks of a new religious consciousness which culminates in a new religion during the final decade of the twentieth century, and of “the rose [appearing] upon the middle of the world… Then at the time of need the awaited one will come late.” (C5 Q96). Fontbrune has identified the rose symbol with socialism, a valid enough interpretation; but a mystical association for the rose is contextually also probable. As we shall see, in the Sufi terminology with which Nostradamus was familiar the rose is the symbol of Tantra and the fire of kundalini, of spiritual love. The rose was an important chivalric icon in the Sufi-inspired occult societies of the time, as it was later to be in Rosicrucianism.
One of the most influential and widespread of the Sufi Orders was the Qadiri Order, probably a vital influence in Nostradamus’ life. Founded by the followers of the so-called Rose of Baghdad, an eleventh-century Sufi from Central Asia named Abdul Qadir el-Gilani, it taught a dervish technique leading to ecstatic trance states and specialised in the science of psychic states. It invested its initiates with extraordinary psychospiritual powers that were said to put them in touch with angels. In the Qadiri Order, as in Rosicrucianism, the rose symbol figured prominently.
The rose, lily and lotus are traditional symbols of the chakras, and in the Qadiri Order the rose (ward in Arabic) was an emblem and symbol of the rhyming word wird, which referred to the ecstatogenic dervish method practised by its members to open the heart chakra.6 The rose symbol also had a sexual connotation much employed in the chivalric romances of the time, linking it with the love energy of the heart awakened by initiation, and many illustrations in Rosicrucian literature were to feature angels, roses and lions, the latter the Solar animal of the zodiac.
The rose symbol entered the Christian mystical stream with the cult of chivalry, whose secret message of initiation, dedication and metamorphosis informed every aspect of medieval culture. It would appear in England in the red cross of St. George, in the Order of the Garter, in the rose windows of European cathedrals and in a certain grade or set of Masonic rituals. In alchemical parlance it symbolised the fiery spiritual energy released during the transmutations of the magus’s laboratory. The symbol of the rose may therefore be seen as virtually synonymous with Sufism, as with Rosicrucianism also. And so when Nostradamus refers to the rose taking the centre of the world stage, he may well be making a highly significant statement about the new role of Sufism in modern times as the bearer of a specifically mystical and esoteric type of spiritual awakening.
Not all researchers agree on this point, however.
The Riddle of the Three Anti-Christs
Nostradamus mentions three negative influences or Anti-Christs in the course of his work, the third to be expected before the millennium (C8 Q77); and some writers, Erica Cheetham among them, identify this definitive figure of evil with the man from the East, “the long-awaited one” who will visit the Western nations by air. For Hogue the man from the East is a spiritual avatar, whereas for Cheetham he is the third Anti-Christ, bearing with him to the West what she sees as “dangerous” and “pernicious” cults that have broken away from the mainstream religious traditions. Coupling this evil guru figure with the current rise of occultism and the spread of esoteric New Age cults, she regards many of “these so-called covens… as worshipping Satan as their God.”7
Cheetham is not the only scholar to take a negative view of the New Age counter-culture that deviates from traditional religious teachings, whatever their hue. Frithjof Schuon, a Sufi metaphysician who belongs to the austere modern school of Neo-Traditionalists, gives little comfort to those looking forward to a new spiritual paradigm as part of the reforming agenda of the future. Sacred tradition, Schuon insists, belongs to an immutable, everlasting, incorruptible and unchanging order. If it is abandoned today in the hope of better things to come, it is not because it has outlived its usefulness or because people no longer understand its language, but because they don’t wish to understand.8
Cheetham would agree with this traditionalist viewpoint. There is, she contends, a demonic aspect to our present era, “a malevolent side to all these [psychic] happenings, very often desired by those who dabble in them.”9 Unlike Hogue, she therefore interprets Nostradamus’ twentieth-century predictions as giving biblical warning that many evil cults, offspring of the Anti-Christ, will undermine civilisation and its traditional religions around the time of the millennium.
Here we encounter once again the extreme polarisation that seems to accompany everything to do with Nostradamus’ forecasts centring on the second millennium – yet another instance of the many symptoms of terminal social crisis and transformation that are today clustering around the Mayan calendar end date in 2012. The Quechua shamans of Peru refer to the time period between 2002 and 2012 as “Pachacuti,” “the time when everything is turned upside down and reality is restructured.”10 At such a time, and it is now upon us, humanity is confronted with the paradox that “the path toward extinction is very likely also the path toward a more enlightened state.” Nostradamus seemed to be well aware of this paradox.
Yet neither the text of his Renaissance prophecies with their emphasis on Hermes, the Greek god of wisdom, nor his reverence for his family’s magical and occult background which furnishes the basis for his prophetic gifts, offer likely grounds for Cheetham’s interpretation of C10 Q75 as a warning about the satanic nature of the cults arising in the Century of the Sun and beyond. Indeed, as a closet Sufi Nostradamus was the least likely of all the occultists of his day to denigrate in his prophetic writings the very sects he was helping to bring into being. Rather, there is much in the Centuries to suggest that he may have had access to the ancient star charts preserved by the Arab scholars of Cairo and known to the medieval poet Dante, and that as a Sufi astrologer as well as a Judaic and Christian philosopher he was aware of the very positive spiritual trends that would flower in our epoch.
Alberto Villoldo, a long-time student of Quechuan shamanism, speaks of another Quechuan belief, one that may throw light on the strange paradoxes of the present time. The shamans say that at the time of Pachacuti there may be a break between Homo sapiens and what Villoldo refers to as an emerging new species, Homo luminous. We are reminded here of today’s ‘Indigo Children’.
As a species begins to collectively realise that it is dying out, an inner mechanism, possibly built into the blueprint of the DNA, begins to create the next level of being, a new species.11
Are we, then, undergoing, or about to undergo, a mutation of the race? And was Nostradamus aware of this possibility nearly five hundred years ago? If so, it would explain why his more enigmatic utterances clustered around the second millennium continue to baffle commentators with their profoundly prescient and yet ultimately elusive significance. Was the prophet unwilling to reveal the full extent of the transformation that may await our species?
1. Erica Cheetham, The Final Prophecies of Nostradamus, Macdonald & Co., London, 1989, p.7.
2. Jean-Charles de Fontbrune, Nostradamus: Countdown to Apocalypse, Pan Books, London, 1983.
3. Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, Macmillan, London, 1979.
4. John Hogue, Nostradamus and the Millennium, Bloomsbury, London, 1987.
5. John Hogue, Nostradamus: New Revelations, Element, Shaftesbury, Dorset, 1993.
6. Ernest Scott, The People of the Secret, Octagon Press, London, 1983, p.257.
7. Cheetham, op. cit., p.38.
8. Frithjof Schuon, “No Activity Without Truth” from The Sword of Gnosis, ed. Jacob Needleman, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1986.
9. Cheetham, op. cit., p.38.
10. Jay Weidner and Vincent Bridges, The Mysteries of the Great Cross of Hendaye, Destiny Books, Rochester, 1999, 2003, p.392.
11. Ibid., p.392.
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