Welcome to Kala’s Quick Five, where I chat with fascinating authors, artists, teachers and researchers and ask them five questions about their work. My guest today is Peter Lemesurier, a former Cambridge linguist and professional translator whose work has been included in programs including: the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, and the National Geographic Channel. Lemesurier is the author of ten books on Nostradamus, including The Unknown Nostradamus, Nostradamus: The Illustrated Prophecies and the topic of our discussion here, Nostradamus, Bibliomancer — The Man, The Myth, The Truth.
Kala: Peter, Nostradamus was said to have written a great number of prophecies. The one that appears the most accurate, was his quatrain which alluded to King Henry II, being injured and dying by his eye being pierced. This later happened during a tournament when the King was jousting and is pierced through his eye, resulting in his death days later. What has your research found in the validity of this prediction?
Peter: As I point out in the book, this is what quatrain I.35 says when translated into English verse:
The younger lion shall the old o’erride
On martial battlefield in single duel.
His eyes he’ll put out in a pit outside –
Two forces joined – and then a death most cruel.
It thus describes (a) a duel between an old and a young lion (b) on a battlefield, involving (c) the engagement of two armies, in the course of which (d) the younger lion puts out the eyes of the older (e) in a cage (Latin cavea: ‘animal enclosure’, ‘pit’, as per the definition of the word in Robert Estienne’s Dictionarium Latinogallicum of 1552), (f) with d’or simply the result of the compositor’s mishearing of dehors (‘outside’, ‘separate’). Thereafter (g) the older one suffers a cruel death. The death of King Henri II in 1559, by contrast, occurred as a result of (a) a joust (and not a duel) between two knights who, although aged 40 and 29 respectively, had no major connections (heraldic or otherwise) with lions, (b) at court, and (c) not in the presence of two armies, (d) in the course of which no eyes were put out (the fatal splinter from the Comte de Montgomery’s broken lance in fact entered the King’s brain just *above* the eye), (e) on open ground at the Palais des Tournelles, and not in an animal pit at all.
Keen as modern would-be interpreters are to suggest, by way of explanation, that the caige d’or ‘really’ refers to the ‘golden cage’ of the King’s helmet, the fact is that no contemporary illustration of the event suggests any resemblance between it and a cage, let alone a golden one (both helmets were in fact of the peaked visor type). Whence, no doubt, the fact that neither the Queen nor Nostradamus himself had evidently ever heard of the proposed connection between verse and proposed event. Nor, clearly, had the latter’s admiring secretary Chavigny, who published several adulatory books about him in the 1590s listing his claimed successes in great detail, and who would certainly have seized on this supposed prophetic triumph if it had ever occurred to him. In fact, the suggestion didn’t first appear in print until 1614, 55 years after the event and 48 years after the death of Nostradamus. Indeed, he himself, in an open letter to Jean de Vauzelles dated 1562, associated the event instead with a different verse entirely – namely, III.55 – and even then only by retrospectively changing the word ‘grand’ to read ‘grain’, to fit the fact that Montgomery’s family name was ‘de Lorge’ and that, in French, l’orge meant ‘barley’! In short, then, barely one of the details of the prophecy actually fits the proposed event.
But this, naturally, was not good enough for the re-interpreters. Clearly, there were sufficient superficial similarities to encourage them to persist with the proposed association. The main problem, though, was the expression ‘deux classes’ in the last line. In all of Nostradamus’s thirty-eight other uses of the word ‘classe’ in his Propheties, after all, it always carried its then-perfectly-normal meaning of ‘army’ or ‘fleet’, after the Latin ‘classis’. But, for reasons that seemed obvious (to the re-interpreters, at least), this time it had to be different. And so they felt impelled to drag in the Greek word ‘klasis’, which meant
‘fracture’ or ‘breakage’. This might not have fitted the King’s flesh-wound, but might conceivably have applied to the offending lance – whence, no doubt, the subsequent idea that it had split in two places. But then Nostradamus, if he had wished to, would presumably have used the Latinised form ‘clade’, just as he did in quatrain IV.5.
Certainly various editors of the Prophecies from 1668 onwards evidently realized that the argument was a bit thin. And so some of them quite unashamedly changed the word classes to playes (‘wounds’) – as you would. After all, the verse just had to be made to apply to the death of King Henri II, didn’t it? Meanwhile the fact that the verse actually referred to a vision seen in the clouds over Switzerland in 1547 that was even illustrated in a near-contemporary book by Lycosthenes completely passed them by. The case, then, carries some salutary lessons.
Kala: As the quatrains of Nostradamus have grown more popular, it is said that his prophecies describe World War II and Hitler, referring to him as Hister as well as current events including 9/11 and the towers and an end of days prophecy for December 2012. What can you tell us about these prophecies?
Peter: As with the French Revolution and the First World War, there is absolutely no specific reference in the ‘Propheties’ to any World War, let alone a second one. At best, there are references to a variety of individual events that could have been part of any major conflict, and often demonstrably were. Frequently, indeed, they had already taken place across the same familiar battlefields, or had been anticipated by long-familiar sets of prophecies such as those of the anonymous ‘Mirabilis liber ‘of 1522/3, one of Nostradamus’s prime sources, which nevertheless majors on quite another conflict (namely an anticipated major Arab invasion of Europe, evidently based on the original Muslim expansion of the seventh century). What is particularly striking, though, is the way in which late 20th-century interpreters have seen far more associations with this more recent conflict than with its predecessors – a characteristic piece of retrospective myopia that is an almost inevitable result of the lack of temporal perspective with which we as humans tend to see history and consequently to twist the words of Nostradamus.
The reason for the widespread suggestions that Nostradamus predicted Hitler is simple: five of his predictions (II.24, IV.68, V.29, and Presages 15, 31) contain the name ‘Hister’, spelt with the old ‘long s’ or (in the associated collection of predictions taken from Nostradamus’s annual Almanachs known as the Presages) ‘Ister’. On the other hand, in his Almanach for 1554 Nostradamus himself explains that the word is simply another name for the River Danube. It was in fact first the Greek, and then the Roman name for the lower part of the river, only the upper part having been called Danubius. Which no doubt explains the fact that in two of the above it is coupled with the word ‘Rin’ or ‘Ryn’ (meaning ‘Rhine’, and not ‘nothing’!) – the Rhine having formed, with the Danube, the north-eastern frontier of the ancient Roman Empire whose history and cultural achievements were always in the forefront of the Renaissance seer’s mind.
As for 9/11, this one was inevitable. Surely Nostradamus, given that he allegedly always predicted whatever has just happened, must have predicted this most cataclysmic of events – most cataclysmic, at least, for Americans? Yet it has to be said that nowhere in his prophecies does he ever mention the United States of America, which didn’t exist in his day (even though he and his contemporaries were of course well aware of recent discoveries in the New World). Ignoring the ridiculous Anglophone spoofs that were put about at the time, quatrain I.87 merely says the following:
I.87. Original 1555 text Read as modern French:
Ennosigée feu du centre de terre Poseidon [gr. Ennosigaios, ‘ébranleur du sol’]
Fera trembler au tour de cité neufve: autour de Naples
Deux grands rochiers long temps feront la guerre Deux nobles ‘feront la guerre aux rochers’
Puis Arethusa rougira nouveau fluve. Puis Arethuse fera jaillir un nouveau fleuve rouge
Now it has to be said at once that Nostradamus just loved to break down classical place-names into their component bits. Thus, ‘cité neufve’, or ‘New City’, is much more likely to mean a town whose name means precisely that in Greek or Latin than merely any old city with ‘new’ in its name such as New York or New Orleans, while the ‘feu du centre de terre’ of the first line and the earthquakes of the second (to say nothing of the presence of Poseidon) immediately suggest a volcano (‘from the middle of the world’ would instead have been ‘du centre du monde’). In the third line, ‘deux grands’ is perfectly normal contemporary French for ‘two nobles’, and ‘faire la guerre aux ochers’ (‘to make war on the rocks’) is simply a standard idiom for ‘to struggle fruitlessly’. As for Arethusa, she was of course a Greek nymph of springs (there is, for example, a well-known ‘spring of Arethusa’ in Syracuse, Sicily), and not (as some have naturally suggested!) an English anagram of ‘the USA’, and if she sends forth a ‘new, red river’ it is presumably because the volcano is emitting a flow of lava. This suggests the verse-translation:
Earth-shaking flames from the world’s centre roar
And make the earth around ‘New City’ quiver.
Long shall two nobles wage a fruitless war
And Arethusa redden a new river.
The source thus seems to be the ‘Annales Cassini’ (the annals for the years 1000 to 1212 of the major Benedictine abbey and library of Monte Cassino, which had already served as a source for Dante’s ‘Divina Commedia’). These recorded the first known lava eruption in 1036 of Mount Vesuvius overlooking Naples (Greek Neapolis = ‘New City’), at a time when the Lombards of Capua and the Byzantine dukes of Naples were constantly at war over the city prior to the decisive intervention of the Normans. For the year 968, similarly, Leo Marsicanus had reported in the same annals that ‘Mount Vesuvius exploded into flames and sent out huge quantities of sticky, sulphurous matter that formed a river rushing down to the sea.’
Nostradamus, then, is evidently projecting the eruption into the future as an omen of an imminent civil war that will, like the volcano, produce a ‘red river’, this time presumably of blood. But of New York or the 9/11 tragedy he is clearly saying nothing. Much the same applies to the other verse often mentioned in this connection, namely VI.97, which actually mentions the Normans in question:
VI.97. Original September 1557 text Read as modern French:
Cinq & quarante degrés ciel bruslera, Cinq. (cinquante)
Feu approucher de la grand cité neufve,
Instant grand flamme esparse saultera, Avec violence/véhémence [lat. instanter]
Quant on vouldra des Normans faire preuve :
A suitable English verse-translation of this might be:
Latitude five and forty, sky shall burn:
To great ‘New City’ shall the fire draw nigh.
With violence those flames shall spread and churn
When they conclusions with the Normans try.
Here, once again, Nostradamus refers to a ‘cité neufve’ (presumably the same one), and specifies its latitude as ‘cinq & quarante degrés’. This is not, as is often claimed, the latitude of New York City, even though the state itself does extend that far north. But then neither, strictly, is it that of Naples (Greek Neapolis = ‘New City’). For that, the rather strange expression would have to be read as an abbreviation of ‘cinq[ante minutes] & quarante degrés’ – there ought, in other words, to be a dot after the first word, so as to signify anabbreviation – which, of course, is not unusual in Nostradamus, and would certainly be correct. The burning sky, the bursting forth of flames at a time when the Normans are being put to the test – all this is redolent of the Norman capture of Naples in 1139, the very year when the Annales Cassini also record an explosive eruption of nearby Vesuvius for 1-8 June, when ashes covered Salerno, Benevento, Capua and Naples. There is thus no need for the usual tortured and notably unconvincing explanations to the effect that the ‘Normans’ are somehow really’ the notably multi-racial inhabitants of New York.
And 2012? In his Prophecies Nostradamus mentions neither the End of the World nor the date 2012. This misconception is due almost entirely to the History Channel’s misidentification of a painted collection of prophetic papal emblems from long before Nostradamus’s time, known as the ‘Vaticinia de Summis Pontificibus’, as what it suggestively called ‘The Lost Book of Nostradamus’, assimilated to a widespread misunderstanding of the next significant date from the Mayan calendar. In fact, under the terms of Mayan cosmology, the end of the current world is not due (according to Schele and Freidel’s
authoritative ‘A Forest of Kings’) until day 184.108.40.206.220.127.116.11.18.104.22.168.22.214.171.124.
126.96.36.199.0.0.0.0 after the theoretical end of the previous world in 3114 BC (an ‘end of the world’ totally unknown either to history or to archaeology!) – which, with each column equal to twenty times its predecessor, lies some 41,341,050,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years in the future, and not in 2012. So we all have time for a cup of coffee yet!
Kala: In your new book on Nostradamus, you share that you believe Nostradamus made his predictions using the “Janus principle’. Janus was the Roman god with two faces, representing beginnings and endings. The month of January is named for Janus, celebrating the new year. How did Nostradamus use the Janus principle in his predictions?
Peter: The ‘Janus principle’ is named after the two-faced Roman god of ends and beginnings after whom January is named and whose archetype we still celebrate at the year’s end by looking back at the old year and forward to the new. It is the age-old principle which states that only by looking back into the past can we can learn what is likely to happen in the future. The approach goes right back to classical times and beyond, and not merely to Cicero. The associated idea that there is no such thing as the future, but only a repetition of the past, consequently has an equally long pedigree. As Cicero’s brother puts it in the De Divinatione (I.lvi.127), ‘Things that are to come do not suddenly spring into existence, but the evolution of time is like the unwinding of a cable: it creates nothing new and merely unfolds each event in turn.’ Or as Nostradamus himself neatly puts it in verse III.79,
The sempiternal order of fate’s chain
Shall thereby in such order come again.
The idea can even be found in the Old Testament, in the form ‘Whatever is has been already, and whatever is to come has been already, and God recalls each event in its turn’ (Ecclesiastes 3:15). Among classical historians, and notably Plutarch, the argument was that, since humans create history, and human nature doesn’t change, history can only repeat itself. Plutarch demonstrated the idea in his ‘Parallel Lives’ by comparing the lives of a whole range of figures from Greek and Roman history respectively, such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar – under the terms of which Caesar could consequently be described as ‘another Alexander’.
And, paradoxically, there is ample evidence for the suggestion in the writings of that supposed futurologist whom we know as Nostradamus, and not only in verse III.79. In his royal dedication he refers, rather after Cicero’s analogy, to having ‘reckoned and calculated the present prophecies entirely according to the order of the chain that contains its own revolution [i.e. periodic recurrence]’. Moreover, not only does he constantly call up reports of ancient omens by classical writers such as Julius Obsequens, but he refers specifically to future figures called ‘Anibal’ and ‘Neron’ in a way which demands that we read them as ‘another Hannibal’ and ‘another Nero’. In his annual Almanachs he mentions and ‘brings to life again’ a whole range of such ancient figures, often preceded by the words ‘a new’ (or other indications to that effect) – among them (in no particular order) Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Pompey, Augustus Caesar, Mark Antony, Lepidus, Marius, Achilles, Hippocrates, Hieron of Syracuse, Brennus, Thrasybulus, Democritus, Jason, Leonidas, Dionysius of Syracuse, Sylla, Themistocles, Ataxerxes, Zoroaster (together with ‘a repetition of the Persian age’), the Carthaginians generally, Scipio, Hannibal, Fabius, Marcellus, Aristides, Caligula, Cato, Claudius, Nero, Ogmius, Palamedes, Pyrrhus, Hippolytus, Parmenion, Trajan, Tiberius, Harmodius and Aristogiton, to mention only a number of classical examples. All of which should of course remind us that the very Renaissance in which Nostradamus was such a prominent, if controversial figure was specifically based on the idea of historical recapitulation – and notably that of resurrecting the arts and culture of ancient Greece and Rome in contemporary Europe so that, as the poet Petrarch famously put it as early as 1338, ‘our grandsons shall be able to walk back into the pure radiance of the past.’
Thus, it could almost be said that Nostradamus, paradoxically, didn’t believe in the future – or at least not in one that had not already been prophesied or foreshadowed on the basis of past events. Indeed, of the 942 verse-predictions in Nostradamus’s seminal book, ‘The Prophecies’, no less than 653 have been traced back with a high degree of probability to earlier events or ancient prophecies, and in many cases to specific historical accounts of the former – accounts which are therefore referred to by some scholars as Nostradamus’s ‘hypotexts’.
Kala: You also discuss the technique of bibliomancy. I’ve played with bibliomancy myself at times with books and even with a deck of cards. Describe how Nostradamus may have used bibliomancy in his work…
Peter: Nostradamus, clearly, was passionately interested in divination of all kinds, as his evident study of Cicero’s ‘De divinatione’ confirms, and so it is reasonable to suppose that even his choice of books and source-texts may have taken some kind of divinatory form.
Was there, then, such a technique available to him? In the event, there was. It was a very ancient divinatory technique, practised (especially among the religious) almost since the dawn of time – or of literary time, at least. It was practised among the ancient Hindus, the Hebrews and the Greeks, and was well known to Christians, too, right up until Nostradamus’s time. Some people still indulge in it today. Among the Romans it was a state-sanctioned technique known as the ‘sortes virgilianae’, and was practised, as the name implies, on the basis of the supposedly prophetic works of the poet Virgil (which Nostradamus himself knew and imitated, calling their author the ‘Prince of Poets’). The Emperors Hadrian, Alexander Severus, Gordian II and Claudius II are all known to have practised it. Even St Augustine of Hippo is said to have identified his future vocation by applying the technique to the text of St Paul’s letter to the Romans.
This technique was and is called ‘bibliomancy’, and it is inconceivable that a man as fascinated by ancient divinatory techniques as Nostradamus was should not have heard of it. Basically, it involves
- randomly selecting a book from a bookshelf,
- letting it fall open of itself at any page at random,
- randomly selecting a passage or passages from that page as a source of guidance.
This final phase can be based either on (as it were) selecting a passage with a pin, possibly while wearing a blindfold (which might be called the ‘strict’ method), or on simply seeing which passage jumps out at the eye (which might be called the ‘psychic’ method). Knowing Nostradamus’s personal proclivities, the latter approach seems more likely to have appealed to him as being more in keeping with his role as an esotericist.
Kala: There is some dispute as to whether Nostradamus was a doctor, an astrologer and a prophet. What has your research shown in this regard?
Peter: I’m afraid I have to report that Nostradamus was almost certainly ‘none of the above’. Not only was he expelled from medical college (we still have the handwritten documents to prove it), but he himself never claimed to be a doctor, and is reported as having on one occasion specifically denied it. His astrology was truly awful (he was constantly putting planets in the wrong houses or signs, for example), and his horoscopes turned out to be almost entirely wrong. And he himself wrote on several occasions that he wasn’t a prophet. You can’t say fairer than that, can you?
Kala: Peter, thank you for joining me here on Kala’s Quick Five. Peter’s book on Nostradamus can be found on Amazon.
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More about Kala Ambrose: Kala Ambrose is an award winning author, intuitive and talk show host of the Explore Your Spirit with Kala Show. Her thought-provoking interviews entice listeners to tune in around the globe! Described by her guests and listeners as discerning, empowering and inspiring, she speaks with world renowned authors, artists, teachers and researchers delving into metaphysical, holistic and paranormal topics. Kala’s book, 9 Life Altering Lessons: Secrets of the Mystery Schools Unveiled delves into the mysteries of ancient Egyptian mystery schools and explains their wisdom teachings. Kala Ambrose is a highly interactive teacher on a mission to educate, entertain and inspire. She lectures on the Ancient Wisdom Teachings of Egypt and the Mystery Schools, Developing Business Intuition, Working with Auras, Chakras and Energy Fields, and Wise Woman Wisdom.