Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Nostradamus and the missing urn

I have written daily on this blog for years now, and have steadfastly resisted mentioning the name "Nostradamus," noted 16th century wingnut and erstwhile prophet, who achieved fame for writing literally thousands of quatrains of bizarre predictions.

One of my reasons for so doing was that it was one of several things that seemed to attract the attention of Dennis Markuze, the Montreal resident better known as "Mabus."  Mabus gained notoriety by harassing prominent skeptics and atheists, and was known to target people like P. Z. Myers, Rebecca Watson, Jennifer Ouellette, and Tim Farley, bombarding them with hundreds of emails a day, the content of which ranged from obnoxious to downright threatening.

Markuze is rabid not only in his anti-skeptic stance, he is also deeply into the whole Nostradamus thing, and peppered his screeds with quotes from the "prophecies."  But Markuze was arrested recently after an online petition demanding action garnered more than ten thousand signatures, and the Montreal police had no choice but to act.

So, anyway, I've had this skeptical blog for four years, and thus far had avoided getting "Mabused."  I figured that mentioning Nostradamus was probably pushing my luck in that regard, so I decided that discretion was the better part of valor and found other things to write about.  But now that Markuze is out of commission...

Just this morning, I ran into an article which claimed that Hurricane Irene and the recent earthquake that hit Virginia and surrounding states were predicted by Nostradamus.  Curious, I took a look at the passage.  Here is the prophecy:
 Century 8, Quatrain 29: 
At the fourth pillar which they dedicate to Saturn
Split by earthquake and by flood;
Under Saturn’s building an urn is found
Gold carried off by Caepio and then restored.
Well.  My first thought was, "What?"  But the serious, and very earnest, author of the article (which you can read in its entirety here) went on to explain how this was clearly referring to the recent hurricane and earthquake:

The first line describes a fourth pillar dedicated to Saturn. In astrology Saturn ruled over matters of law, government and civilization. The monument’s cornerstone was laid with a ceremony sponsored by the Freemasons on the 4th of July.  The Washington Monument could be this pillar dedicated to Saturn (law and governance).
The second line is “split by earthquake and by flood”. The Washington Monument was split, cracked by the August 23rd earthquake. It had to be closed indefinitely until repairs could be made. This line also mentions a flood. A few days later hurricane Irene arrived, flooding the area with rainwater.
The next two lines are an enigma.  They have yet to happen but seem to follow the events of the first two lines.  “Under Saturn’s building an urn is found.”  This is not the pillar of the first line, but I suggest a government (Saturn’s) building. What is this urn, and what is its significance?
The last line speaks of Caepio, a general and statesman during the Roman Empire. Historically, Caepio was said to have plundered a fortune in gold and silver from ancient temples, so I assume this line refers to him. The stolen silver was sent to the Roman Empire, but the gold vanished (supposedly stolen by Caepio). Caepio had a disastrous military campaign and suffered greatly for his folly, being punished by the Empire. What does this mean in the modern day? As a metaphor it could represent many things, from monetary policy to the fate of politicians.
So, they take the part that kind of fits, and twist it until it fits better; and decide that the part that doesn't fit simply "hasn't happened yet."  Mighty convenient, don't you think?  Me, I'm thinking that if they were really all that convinced that he was right, they'd be hard at work looking for the missing urn, which sounds like it could contain a significant amount of gold.

This is the problem with all of the "prophecies" that Nostradamus wrote - they're vague, and weird, and make obscure historical and mythical allusions.  In that respect, they're a little like an extended version of the Sabian Symbols about which I wrote a couple of weeks ago, and like them, you can read into them anything you want.  Here's one I picked at random (Century X, Quatrain 71):
The earth and air will freeze a very great sea,
When they will come to venerate Thursday:
That which will be, never was it so fair,
From the four parts they will come to honor it. 
What does that mean?  Beats the hell out of me.  I'm guessing that you could apply it to a variety of situations, as long as you were willing to interpret it loosely and let the images stand for whatever you want them to.  Me, I think it has something to do with 2012.  Oh, and that global warming is a lie, because the sea is going to freeze.  I'm sure that the Planet Nibiru and global conspiracies are somehow involved, too.

What I find amazing is that there are literally thousands of websites, books, and films out there that claim to give the correct interpretation of Nostradamus' wacky poetry.  Some of them take a religious bent, and try to tie them into scripture, especially the Book of Revelation; some try to link them to historical events, an especially popular one being World War II; others, even further off the deep end, try to use them to predict future catastrophes.  These last at least put the writers on safer ground, because you can't accuse someone being wrong if they're using arcane poetry to make guesses about things that haven't happened yet.

In any case, I'm doubtful that Nostradamus knew anything about Hurricane Irene or the eastern earthquake, any more than he predicted World War II, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the assassination of JFK, or any of the hundreds of other things he's alleged to have forecast.  All we have here is once again, people taking vague language and jamming it into the mold of their own preconceived notions of what it means.  About Nostradamus himself, I'm reminded of the words of the Roman writer Cicero, who said, "I don't know how two augurs can look each other in the face while passing in the street without laughing out loud."

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