The future will never be predictable, but few of us can resist glancing at the prophecies of soothsayers, particularly at the turn of the year or in the wake of great calamities. Following Sept. 11, more people searched "Nostradamus" than "Osama bin Laden" on the Web. Osama may well have been plotting darker atrocities, but the fans of Nostradamus believed he would know about them in advance. After all, he's been regarded since the Renaissance as a seer with a key to the future. To those who admire him, he's the Leonardo of oracles.
Michel de Nostredame (1503-1566), his name before he Latinized it, was a doctor, a pharmacist, a writer of cookbooks and an astrologer. His status as prophet rests on The Centuries, a collection of 942 obscure quatrains. Peter Lemesurier, author of The Unknown Nostradamus, published last year on the 500th anniversary of his birth, says the predictions are so generic that they can refer to almost any incident at almost any time. It takes special powers to interpret something like "Arms will be heard clashing in the sky" or "For a long time a grey bird will be seen."
Obviously a bit of a fraud, Nostradamus inspired fraudulence in others. His followers insist that he predicted the abdication of Edward VIII, John Kennedy's assassination and the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. Usually his prophecies are identified only after the events happen. A few have been noted ahead of time, such as the death of Pope John Paul II in 1996 and the presidency of Ted Kennedy.
David Ovason, a British author who takes the master seriously in his book The Secrets of Nostradamus, admits that over the years a variety of prevaricators have used The Centuries to concoct spurious predictions. In 2000, shortly after George W. Bush's election, someone posted a fake Nostradamus quatrain on the Web predicting that at the millennium, the village idiot will be acclaimed leader of the greatest power. Phrased in the style of Nostradamus translations, it was passed around gleefully, quoted in many publications and apparently accepted as genuine by a writer in the Times of London. Ovason says it was too clear to be authentic, and www.nostradamus-repository.org called it a hoax.
Nostradamus made one prediction that was precise by his standards: "In the year 1999, in the seventh month, from the skies shall come an alarmingly powerful king." Nostradamians interpreted that to mean that great earthquakes and satellites from space would destroy Earth. But little happened in July, 1999. Recalculating, Nostradamians announced that disaster would occur instead in August. Another disappointment!
The interpretation of Nostradamus works much like teacup reading, the I Ching, or tarot cards: Prediction depends on the interpreter's imagination. A talented fortune teller can turn soggy tea leaves into signs of catastrophe, love or prosperity to come. In ancient times, the haruspex performed the same function. A soothsayer who knew haruspicy could see the future in the entrails of a sacrificed animal.
In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, on the night before the Ides of March, dark portents are everywhere -- reports of a lioness giving birth in the streets and graves springing open, yielding up their dead. Shakespeare, who probably borrowed the anecdote from Plutarch, has Caesar send out for haruspex service when he's deciding whether to appear at the Forum. The soothsayers root through the innards of a sacrificed beast and discover it had no heart. They pronounce this a bad sign and tell Caesar to stay home. Silly man, he ignores their advice and goes anyway, with, from his point of view, regrettable results.
Fortune tellers and astrologists cry out for parody. I like the scene in Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite, in which Cassandra (so famous in ancient Greece for unpalatable predictions that her name became a synonym for pessimist) pronounces: "I see disaster. I see catastrophe. Worse, I see lawyers!" When someone tells her not to be such a Cassandra, she says, "But I am Cassandra."
The 18th century, like the 21st, was infested with astrologers. One of them, John Partridge, published the Merlinus Liberatus, an annual almanac in which he predicted the future and gave his views on public events. His attacks on the church attracted the hostile attention of Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels, a man you didn't want to annoy.
Swift's satire of Partridge took the form of an imitation almanac, said to be by one Isaac Bickerstaff, a pseudonym for Swift. Early in 1708 a publication, Predictions for the Year 1708 by Isaac Bickerstaff, went on sale. Among other events it predicted the death "by a raging fever" on March 29 of Partridge, who had himself predicted a fever epidemic during roughly the same period.
Partridge fought back, accusing Bickerstaff of lying. Swift pressed on. On March 29 he published a black-framed announcement of Partridge's death, along with the news that Partridge had confessed on his deathbed to being a fraud. When Partridge issued a pamphlet insisting he was still alive, "Bickerstaff" answered that no living human could have written the nonsense in his last almanac. The incident made Partridge a joke and discredited his astrology; eventually he stopped publishing his almanac.
He suffered severe intellectual discomfort, but nothing compared to what Raveendra N. Batra, an economist specializing in cycles of history, has had to endure. In the 1980s, Batra glimpsed hard times ahead -- really hard times. He was the first to predict the depression of 1990, possibly "the worst economic turmoil in history," an event that would "plague the world through at least 1996." He followed up his best-selling book, The Great Depression of 1990 (Simon & Schuster, 1987), with Surviving the Great Depression of 1990 (Simon & Schuster, 1988), in which he told his readers to convert all holdings to cash -- a strategy that, had everyone followed it, would have been certain to bring on a crash. Few did as instructed; there was no depression.
Unlike Partridge, Batra didn't disappear. He has tenure. He went on to write Crash of the Millennium, about surviving the depression, whenever it finally comes, and he continues to teach at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Who would be cruel enough to deny him his position? Like Nostradamus and many others, he provides a sense of superior wisdom for those who read him and innocent amusement for the rest of us.