He’s been given credit for predicting everything from Princess Di’s death to the rise of Hitler to the September 11 attacks. You know him (or do you?), you love him (or will you, once you learn more about him?), he’s your prophetic pal straight outta sixteenth-century France, Nostradamus!
Who is Nostradamus?
Michel de Nostredame was born on Dec. 14, 1503, in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, way down in the Deep South of France. This backwater birth was not a sign of things to come for the future seer to royalty, however. After a brief stint at the local university, where he was studying to become a doctor, was cut short in 1520 by an outbreak of the plague that closed the school, young Michel took to the road as a traveling apothecary. Unable to complete his schooling after a second attempt in 1529, he put his medical skills to use as a plague doctor (the plague just kept on coming; it popped up twice during his wandering apothecary days, then killed his first wife and children in 1534).
Michel finally decided to trade his plague gear for the easier-to-wear costume of a writer. He gave himself the credibility-inducing Latin name Nostradamus and published a sort of medical cookbook slash jelly (yes, the fruity kind) recipe list, Traite des fardemens et des confitures, in 1555. This was followed by a series of almanacs described by biographer Peter Lemesurier as “glorified annual weather-forecasts-cum-calendars, spiced with additional predictions for the political and military climate.” Then he made the big leap into publishing pure prophecy.
Nostradamus gained fame almost immediately for his Les Propheties, a series of four-line poems that were published in collections of 100 called “centuries” (as in “groups of 100 poems” not “groups of 100 years”) from 1555 until 1568. Originally intended to number 1,000 in all, Nostradamus only produced 942 before his death on July 2, 1566.
Could Nostradamus predict the future?
No. But you already knew that.
A better question would be, did Nostradamus believe that he could predict the future? The answer is a bit complicated.
Nostradamus’s goal in writing, always, was profit. That’s profit with in “f” as in “francs.” That doesn’t mean he was an utter fraud, however. When writing his prophecies, he consulted astrological references and adopted a quasi-magical technique similar to water scrying. He described the composition of his prophecies as “a poetic frenzy” rather than a cynical scheme to appeal to would-be book buyers.
However, he also consciously cribbed from previously published prognostications, dressed up historical and mythological events to pass off as the future foretold, and intentionally made his revelations confusing and obscure. Remember, his goal was to sell books, not to make it big as prophet to the royal court … or end up called before the Inquisition for witchcraft.
It’s no wonder an aura of skepticism mingled with credulity surrounds Nostradamus to this day, with new interpretations of his prophecies cropping up constantly and fake predictions circulating after major events like the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.
With that in mind, let’s explore six steps you can take if you want to build — or tear down — a Nostradamus prophecy.
How to write like Nostradamus
1. Be vague
Very, very vague. Do not name names, do not give dates. Do not describe in clear terms what will happen. Cloak everything in a veil of ambiguous verbiage sprinkled with mythological allusions.
Nostradamus himself admitted to King Henry II that he intentionally made his predictions impossible to understand: “Stuffy people will complain that the poems are easier to read than understand. Most of the prophetic quatrains are so difficult that there is no way of making sense of them or even of interpreting them.”
He had a good reason for doing this.
“The problem was not merely that the uneducated would not be able to understand his verses, but that the semi-educated might think they could. Largely ignorant of mythology, history, and even French grammar, they would imagine that, merely because they could read and write, they were entitled to read into his predictions absolutely anything that currently took their fancy,” writes Lemesurier in The Nostradamus Encyclopedia: The Definitive Reference Guide to the Work and World of Nostradamus. “There were dangers in being thought right, too. Too much success in this area might hint at Black Magic, which would not endear him to the Inquisition. It might even be suggested that, in predicting the events, he had actually helped to cause them — which would not endear him to anybody at all.”
When you’re predicting the future, you want people to believe you, not blame you. So keep your writing enigmatic.
2. Read the Left Behind series
Actually, don’t subject yourself to that. Instead, read Fred Clark’s breakdown of the series.
You now have the proper religious, social, and political outlook to write a Nostradamus prophecy. To wit: you are afraid of a Muslim invasion, you acknowledge that climate change is occurring though ’tis but a manifestation of God’s wrath, you worry about the way-out spiritual innovations your fellow Christians are toying with, and you are sure the end times are a-comin’.
3. Steal from Nostradamus’s favorite source
In constructing his prophecies, Nostradamus “borrowed” heavily from a number of books that were available to him at the time. Chief among them was an anthology titled Mirabilis Liber (or Marvelous Book) that was published when he was a young man. What made it so marvelous? It was a sort of Renaissance-era wiki that gathered together famous prophecies by big-name seers from the seventh through the sixteenth centuries. The prophecies in Mirabilis Liber ain’t pretty: war, natural disasters, plague (yet again; poor Nostradamus!), famine, and general apocalyptic collapse of society are major themes of the future as seen by the collected authors.
4. Rewrite history
As Lemesurier writes in Nostradamus: The Illustrated Prophecies, “Like any Renaissance man, after all, Nostradamus always looked to the past for his answers — and it went without saying that it would repeat itself.”
Grab an incident from the mists of time, dress it up in unclear language, and send it on its way. If it happened once, it’s bound to happen again eventually.
5. Brush up on your poetry writing skills
Now that you know what to write about, you’re ready to package your prediction in Nostradamus’s unmistakable style. Almost without exception, his prophecies were presented as poems that:
- Are four lines long
- Have ten syllables per line
- Use an ABAB rhyme pattern
That’s it. No titles, no overarching leitmotif (besides “Behold … the bleak future!”), no interconnections between the poems. Each prediction is a one-and-done affair, almost like a sixteenth-century fortune cookie.
6. Throw in some anagrams, abbreviations, puns, and Latin words
Nostradamus was a big fan of these, as a way of muddling the text. Also, throw in a few locations. Nostradamus favored cities in France (no surprise), as well as a smattering of famous places around Western Europe and the Classical Greek and Roman world.
Ready to churn out some prophecies of your own? Just be sure to use your powers for good, not evil. Check out an example of some harmless fun, “Nostradamus reviews Japanese DIY candy.”
Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.