Born in Saint Rémy de Provence in the south of France, he was the son of either a Jewish grain dealer or a prosperous notary. He was Jewish by birth, but since the authorities of Provence insisted that Jews either move or convert to Catholicism, his family outwardly converted and practiced the Roman Catholic faith. As a child, Nostradamus showed an aptitude for mathematics and astronomy/astrology. In fact, his teachers were upset by his defence of Copernicus and astronomy/astrology. He studied medicine at the University of Montpellier, and finished his baccalaureate exams in 1525. The plague soon disrupted his schooling and he traveled around France helping cure the sick with ideas that included a better diet, clean bedding, clean water and clean streets. It was while Nostradamus was traveling that he met and exchanged information with various underground Renaissance doctors, alchemists, Kabbalists and mystics — a practice he would continue throughout most of his life. He was also skilled as an apothecary, having created a "Rose pill" (apparently mostly a large dose of Vitamin C) which was widely believed to alleviate the plague. In 1529 he returned to Montpellier to receive his doctorate and then teach, but the conservative views of the university forced him once again to establish a medical practice and help cure the plague.
In 1534 he was invited by Julius-Cesar Scaliger, considered to be a leading Renaissance man, to come to Agen. There Nostradamus married a woman whose name is still in dispute, but who bore him two children. In 1537, however, his wife and children died, presumably from the plague. After their death he continued to travel, passing through France and Italy many times. On these travels he began to explore more mystical teachings, and it was during this time that rumors about his prophetic powers emerged.
He settled down in 1547 in Salon where he married a rich widow named Anne Ponsarde Gemelle and had six children - three daughters and three sons. He began to move away from medicine and towards the occult, at the same time opening a cosmetics business. He wrote an almanac in 1550, and was so encouraged by its success that he decided to write one yearly. He then began his project of writing 1,000 quatrains (four-line poems), which form the supposed prophecies for which he is famous today. Due to the scrutiny and pressure of the Inquisition, however, he devised a method of obscuring his meaning by using word games and a mixture of languages such as Provençal, Greek, Latin, Italian, Hebrew and Arabic.
The quatrains, written in a book titled "Les Propheties", received a mixed reaction when they were published. Some people thought Nostradamus was a servant of evil, a fake, or insane, while many of the elite thought his quatrains were spiritually inspired prophecies. Soon nobility came from all over to receive horoscopes and advice from him. Catherine de Medici, the queen consort of King Henry II of France, was one of Nostradamus' admirers. After reading "Les Propheties" she invited Nostradamus to the royal court in Paris to explain Century I, Quatrain 35 regarding her husband, as well as to draw up horoscopes for her royal children. After this meeting, Queen Catherine was a staunch supporter of Nostradamus and by the time of his death in 1566, she had made him Counselor and Physician in Ordinary.
By 1566 Nostradamus' gout, which had painfully plagued him for many years and made movement very difficult, finally turned into dropsy. One night in July, he made it known that he wished to spend his last night alone, and when his secretary Chavigny took his leave with an "Until tomorrow, Master?" Nostradamus replied to him, "You will not find me alive by sunrise." The next morning Chavigny led friends and family upstairs to the study (which had been converted into a bedroom) and found Nostradamus' body lying on the floor between the bed and a makeshift bench.
Nostradamus was interred standing upright in the Church of the Cordeliers of Salon. However, his story does not end there; he was disinterred twice, once on purpose and once maliciously. In 1700, his body was moved by the city to a more prominent crypt. When a necklace was found on his skeleton bearing the date '1700', his body was hurriedly reinterred.
During the French Revolution, in 1791, some drunken soldiers broke into his tomb. The mayor quickly placated the mob by describing how Nostradamus had predicted the revolution, and they replaced the bones in the crypt.
However, Nostradamus had the last laugh. In Century 9, Quatrain 7, he had written:
The man who opens the tomb when it is found
And who does not close it immediately,
Evil will come to him
That no one will be able to prove.
Reputedly, the soldiers who desecrated his tomb for the final time were ambushed on their way back to base and killed to the last man.
Biographical accounts of Nostradamus' life state that he was afraid of being persecuted for heresy by the Inquisition, as many of those who spoke or wrote anything not sanctioned by the church in those days were tortured or burned at the stake. It was for this reason, and also because he did not want anyone in the future to change them, that Nostradamus chose to cloak his prophecies.
Preparation and methods for prophecy
Nostradamus's medical studies included writings from Alberto Magnus, Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa. Paracelsus maintained that the soul must first be healed, that the source of disease was the mind, and he used astrology as a tool to "diagnose" how to treat the soul. Agrippa held the belief that man's "conscious" knowledge was useless, and that the societal conditioning to feel separate from existence/nature must be explored and released. The use of occult language in his prophecies suggest a familiarity with Hermetic magic, which has parallels with Tantra and Shaivite Hinduism. Nostradamus studied the Jewish Kabbalah, as well as astrology, which formed much of the basis of his predictive technique.
In Sicily, he connected with Sufi mystics and read "The Elixir of Blissfulness" by Sufi master al-Ghazzali, who stated that every seeker must pass through seven valleys or "dark nights of the soul" which included knowledge, repentance, stumbling blocks, tribulations, thunders, the abyss, and the valley of hymns and celebration. Nostradamus also appears to have studied "De Mysteriis Aegyptorum" (concerning the mysteries of Egypt), a book on Chaldean and Assyrian magic written by Iamblichus, a 4th century neo-Platonist.
It is also practically certain that Nostradamus consulted many other occult works during his life, including perhaps works lost to history. Near the end of his life, Nostradamus burned all the occult works in his library, and no one can say exactly what books were destroyed in this fire.
Nostradamus employed various techniques to enter the meditative state that he believed were necessary to access future probabilities. For entering a trance state (theta brain frequency), he attempted the ancient methods of flame gazing, water gazing or both simultaneously. He also seems to have used a technique of sitting on a brass tripod and gazing into a brass bowl filled with water and various oils and spices, which, according to an interpretation of C1 Q1, is to be referred to as Branchus, a divinity sometimes equated to Apollo, or an ancient seer by that name. In the Epistle to Henry II Nostradamus says "I emptied my soul, brain and heart of all care and attained a state of tranquility and stillness of mind which are prerequisites for predicting by means of the brass tripod."
Skeptics of Nostradamus state that his reputation as a prophet is largely manufactured by modern-day supporters who shoehorn his words into events that have either already occurred or are so imminent as to be inevitable, a process known as as "retroactive clairvoyance". No Nostradamus quatrain has been interpreted before a specific event occurs, beyond a very general level (e.g., a fire will occur, a war will start).
A good demonstration of this flexible predicting is to take lyrics written by modern songwriters (e.g., Bob Dylan) and show that they are equally "prophetic".
Some scholars believe that Nostradamus wrote not to be a prophet, but to comment on events that were happening in his own time, writing in his elusive way - using highly metaphorical and cryptic language - in order to avoid persecution. This is similar to the Preterite interpretation of the Book of Revelation; John the Apostle intended to write only about contemporary events, but over time his writings became seen as prophecies.
The bulk of the quatrains deal with disasters of various sorts. The disasters include plagues, earthquakes, wars, floods, invasions, murders, droughts, battles and many other themes. Some quatrains cover these in over-all terms; others concern a single person or small group of persons. Some cover a single town, others several towns in several countries.
Go to the original text