"I woke up on 9/12 and I turned on my Outlook Express and it froze," said Baines, 45, of Ft. Worth, Texas. “I had something like 11,000 e-mails. It just collapsed my system.”
Nostradamus, it seemed, was hot stuff -- again.
Five hundred years after his birth, this French-born physician who claimed to see the future is the subject of a seemingly endless stream of books, articles and web sites. Many, Baines included, believe anxiety fueled by terrorism and war has driven much of the recent interest in Nostradamus. Others credit a savvy public relations machine run by an ardent fan club of “believers.” Either way, his popularity shows little sign of waning.
"I’m amazed at the number of books that keep coming out," says J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute of the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif. “You go down to Borders and there’s always three or four on the bookshelves and one or two come out every year.”
Born Michel deNostredame, a Catholic with Jewish ancestry, Nostradamus was renowned even in his lifetime for his apparently prophetic talents. He counseled kings and queens but also met the wrath of the Catholic inquisitors, and harbored a deep interest in the occult and biblical revelations of Armageddon. He died in 1566, leaving behind “Les Propheties,” volumes of four-line verses claiming to predict the future for centuries to come.
Wading through these cryptic “quatrains,” his fans have found evidence for everything from the French Revolution and the rise of Hitler to signs foreshadowing Sen. Ted Kennedy and global warming. Many interpreters have been flat-out wrong, including those who predicted a nuclear attack on New York in July 1999. But with every major historical event, Nostradamus’ devotees pore over the quatrains, looking for signs that the great seer saw it coming.
Some of these Nostradamus interpreters believe the world is now poised at the brink of seeing several of the seer's predictions come true, including a lengthy world war, the "Mediterranean War" he predicted would begin at the dawn of a new millenium. Quatrain 2:62 refers to "Mabus," a tyrannical ruler who will suffer defeat. Although Mabus has been identified with numerous tyrants, many now speculate he could be Saddam Hussein. Numerous quatrains (1:67 and 4:67 and others) also speak of global flood, fires and famine, which some have linked to contemporary concerns about global warming.
After the World Trade Center attacks, some turned to Nostradamus for “sheer survival,” argues Baines, a writer, musician and one-time paralegal who created the web-based Nostradamus Society in 1996, in part to promote his own book.
Such an argument befuddles Jon Stone, a professor at California State University, Bakersfield, who teaches a course called "Prophecy and the Apocalypse." "For me it’s an odd way of looking at the world, saying that I feel comfort in knowing what happened was supposed to happen."
Still, he notes that in every age, from the time of Jesus to post-9/11 America, people have turned to prophecy in times of political turmoil and fear. "It seems like nothing ever is resolved, and I think that may be behind some of this. The world has always presented people with terror, and I think this is some way of making sense of terror."
Melton notes that some people "can’t live with the anxiety of an uncertain future." He believes seekers turn to Nostradamus not to find out what might happen next, but to help them "cooperate with the inevitable" of the past. In other words, "you can’t change the future, but you can get out of the way of it."
One new title for fall 2003 will be “Nostradamus: A Life and Myth," by the prolific John Hogue, to be published by the Element imprint of Harper Collins. Hogue's seven books on the subject have been translated into 18 languages and sold more than one million copies since his first bestseller, “Nostradamus and the Millennium,” debuted in 1987.
Hogue agrees that anxiety over world affairs has fueled his popularity, noting his website got more than 1 million hits in the two months after Sept. 11, 2001. He also allows that Nostradamus’ quatrains are ambiguous and filled with symbols, coded words, and antiquated language wide open to interpretation.
Skeptics and scholars say such ambiguity allows Nostradamus fans to find whatever they want. A "man from the East" wielding a rod in one quatrain has been identified as everything from a Sept. 11 hijacker to Ayatollah Khomeini to one of several Hindu gurus popular in the West.
"One of the reasons that he’s successful is that his prophecies could be anything," Melton notes. "They are so vague and filled with interesting symbols and the like that you can read anything into him. That allows the constant reinterpretation of these cryptic sayings. Nostradamus can keep on being right forever."
Hogue agrees--to a point. Noting quatrains that describe a phenomenon like global warming, a tyrannical Middle Eastern leader and a global war at the dawn of the new millennium, he says years of research have led him to believe Nostradamus could predict the future.
But Hogue warns against "dilettantes" who claim to understand the mysterious prophecies, saying those who approach the quatrains must have a credible guide. Even in his own books on Nostradamus, "you are probably going to find out more about me than about what (Nostradamus) actually meant."
"When you look at those numbers, you realize not everybody who buys them is an Evangelical Christian," Garrett says.
Chris Conrad of El Cerrito, Calif., who self-published "Nostradamus and the Attack on New York" in late 2001, admits he's no expert on Nostradamus. An activist dedicated to the legalization of industrial hemp and medical marijuana, Conrad isn’t even fluent in French, the original language of the quatrains.
But when he turned to them, shaken by the World Trade Center attacks, he was "amazed" by what he found. When he read in quatrain 2:46 of a “running fire dragging along a spark,” Conrad felt certain it was describing the burning towers. “That’s the kind of stuff that really blew my mind.” Is Conrad right? Could Nostradamus have known?
It depends whom you ask. Writing more than a year before the Sept. 11 attacks, R.W. Welch took a different view of that verse. Quatrain 2:46 is “obviously” about a deadly comet, Welch writes in “Comet of Nostradamus.” Published in December 2000 by Llewellyn of St. Paul, Minn., the book is subtitled “August 2004: Impact!”
Now in its third printing, the book has sold more than 33,500 copies. That’s considered a successful run, although it lags behind the house’s more popular Pagan and Wiccan titles, says Llewellyn publicist Jerry Rogers.
Still, Rogers notes that Nostradamus fans are fickle. Llewellyn’s other book about the seer, “Nostradamus World War III 2002” by David Montaigne, sold more than 9,000 copies that year, but lost steam after 2002 came and went without a world war.
“Comet of Nostradamus” is a success so far, Rogers says, but “I imagine after August (2004) comes and goes, if we’re still here, that one would do the same.”
If we are still here, Welch's book will be proven wrong. But it doesn't take a prophet to see that chances are good another Nostradamus book will soon take its place on the shelves.