Nostradamus – Latin for “Useless”

Michel de Nostredame (1503-1566) was a French poet who is now mostly known as the prophet Nostradamus.

Given recent newsworthy events worldwide, one might wonder why we weren’t able to save countless lives using Nostradamus’ reputable skills as a seer. One might also wonder what use modern interpreters are when they can’t seem to “predict” any of these events until after an event has already taken place — a notable handicap. They generally apply a particular quatrain (i.e., stanza) and conclude “Gee, wasn’t Nostradamus amazing”. I would consider it amazing if there was any practical use to this process, but even if he was a 100% accurate seer, I’d still wonder why anyone should care given that modern post-event interpretations of his prophecies are completely useless.

Of course, this is all building up to something: What did McProphecy have to say about the recent BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and what can we learn from the prediction? Luckily, at least two Nostradamians have the answer.

We’ll begin with John Hogue (apparently modeling his look after a certain someone…) who presents the answer amidst rambling astrological nonsense and various commentary on Obama and Big Oil. You may remember Hogue from a previous Skeptic North post about his 2009 “predictions”. About the oil spill, Hogue has this to say:

To what extent the vast semi-submerged oil clouds underwater can be cast ashore in storm surges is unknown. To what extent torrential tropical storm downpours will fall tainted with hydrocarbons is unknown. Will they come down in reddened rains as some macabre fulfillment of Nostradamus’ prophecies of blood-soaked red rains in his prophecy of the Third Antichrist in Century 8 Quatrain 77? (See Third Antichrist for the full prophecy and all of its possible interpretations.)

He was vague enough to give this a questioning “maybe” sort of tone, but let’s have a look at the quatrain he mentioned anyway:

French

L’antechrist trois bien tost anniehilez,
Vingt et sept ans sang durera sa guerre.
Les heretiques mortz, captifs, exilez.
Sang corps humain eau rougi gresler terre.

English

The Antichrist very soon annihilates the three,
Twenty-seven years the blood of his war will last.
The unbelievers are dead, captive, exiled;
With blood, human bodies, water and red hail covering the earth.

Um…what the heck does any of that have to do with an oil spill? Apparently this oil spill might be linked to the anti-Christ — a poorly-defined figure who changes with each edition of his book, depending on the relevant “evil” in the world (see the Penn and Teller: Bullshit! episode entitled “End of the World”, specifically the James Randi segments, for more details). But to the untrained eye, this appears to be simply a giant non sequitur. But he continues:

I said last year in Predictions for 2010 that the next global economic crisis looming in the latter half of 2010 will be triggered by the oil industry. We would return to a barrel of oil soaring beyond the $100.00 range.

Did he? A search for the word “oil” in his link for 2010 predictions turns up nothing. He didn’t even mention it. Moving on.

Secondly, there’s this article by the also-bearded Joseph Robert Jochmans: “Did Nostradamus foresee this event over 450 years ago?” I bet I can guess the answer to that… Curiously his analysis stems from a different quatrain than the one John Hogue thought was relevant, Century I, Quatrain 29.

French

Quand le poisson terrestre et aquatique,
Part forte vague au gravier sera mis,
Sa forme étrange suave et horrifique,
Par mer aux murs bien tôt les ennemis.

“A strict translation can be given in these modern English words”

When fish and other land and sea life,
By force will be put upon the beach by a strong wave,
Its form will appear strange, oily and horrible,
Coming by seawater very steadily it shall climb the walls as an enemy.

Luckily, I happen to speak French and this is by no means a “strict” translation to modern English. For example, the word “suave” appears to have been translated as “oily”. There are several translations for the word suave, none of which mean “oily”. Here’s my rather literal (i.e., strict) translation, without added poetic flare:

When the terrestrial and aquatic fish
Will be placed on the beach by an upsurge,
Its strange shape will be smooth and horrific,
The enemies come to the walls by sea.

Debate can certainly be had over poeticism and whatnot (especially given his odd phrasing), but therein lies a major drawback of interpreting Nostradamus’ predictions: He wrote them in old French, yet they are often interpreted as English poetry. Many French words have several potential English meanings, particularly if the text is given poetic license. So depending on what we want, we can translate a passage into almost anything. For example, the translation of “suave” as “oily” is the linchpin in the alleged relevance of this passage, but that definition is contentious. Also, from another source of Nostradamus translations (the same as I used for Hogue, above), I retrieved the following English translation of Century 1, Quatrain 29:

When the fish that travels over both land and sea
is cast up on to the shore by a great wave,
its shape foreign, smooth and frightful.
From the sea the enemies soon reach the walls.

So it seems that even Nostradamians can’t even agree on the translations. Note that the word “oily”, the most important word in the entire passage to make it even remotely relevant, is not present. Jochmans justifies his usage thusly:

Usually, suave in English, modern French and Latin can mean agreeable, polished, refined. But as it is used in the negative context in this verse along with the words “strange“ and horrible,“ in the Old French, it has the additional more obscure usage connotations of being silky smooth, slick, sickenly [sic] sweet-smelling, oily, greasy, also discolored, pestilant [sic], disease-producing, deadly. [emphasis added]

He’s apparently not thrilled with we bloggy pundits who have mistranslated Nostradamus and misconstrued his analysis. Ok, so let’s assume for a second he is right because I speak modern French, not old French (though he doesn’t appear to be right) — he still presents several different definitions for suave. How do we know which one Nostradamus intended? He could be literally referring to an enemy invasion and the slick motion of the boats or their smooth formation on the water (rather sinister in that context without having to invoke a sketchy excuse to use the word “oily”). In fact, speaking of context, let’s look at the very next quatrain which seems to continue the story:

Because of the storm at sea the foreign ship
will approach an unknown port.
Notwithstanding the signs of the palm branches,
afterwards there is death and pillage. Good advice comes too late.

So apparently he was talking about a boat. More and more this passage does not appear to be relevant to an oil spill — unless we want it to be after it’s already happened, completely ignoring the context of the original text.

So what have we learned? Nostradamus’ poetry is too vague to be applied to anything practical even assuming he is 100% accurate in all of his predictions. This makes the application of his poetry to these events rather callous. If there was a prediction sitting around about a lasting and far-reaching oil spill, and no one could do anything about it until after the fact, that is a rather useless ability and it seems a bit rude to then rub it in people’s faces that Nostradamus knew it all along.

All along … great. [Source: NASA]

2 Responses to “Nostradamus – Latin for “Useless””

  1. ErikD says:

    See: Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy

  2. Great timing. We also talked about Nostradamus on The Reality Check, but didn’t talk about the oil spill. Hogue is an amazing person, but not the good kind of amazing.

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  • Kim Hebert

    Kim Hébert is an occupational therapist. She is interested in the promotion of science and reason, particularly regarding therapeutic health interventions. She blogs occasionally about occupational therapy and other health topics at Science-Based Therapy. Her hobbies are art and astronomy. **All views expressed by Kim are her personal views alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of current or former employers, associations, or other affiliations. All information is provided for discussion purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for consultation with a licensed and accredited health professional.