False Prophecy

Claim:   A 1654 Nostradamus prediction said World War III would begin with the fall of "two brothers," a reference to the destroyed World Trade Center towers.

Status:   False.

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2001]

"In the City of God there will be a great thunder,
Two brothers torn apart by Chaos,
while the fortress endures,
the great leader will succumb,
The third big war will begin when the big city is burning"

Nostradamus 1654

Origins:   The turmoil of recent events has us all scrambling, some to look for solace and meaning, others for the terrorists responsible, and yet others for signs that what happened could have been prevented or at least foreseen. The 11 September 2001 attack on America destroyed not only the two World Trade Center towers in New York City, a chunk of the Pentagon in Washington, and caused untold loss of life, it also shook America's sense of invulnerability. No longer do Americans presume safety in an unsafe world.

For some, that realization is an eye-opener, unsettling but necessary, in that a child's blissful unawareness has been replaced (at great cost) with an adult's more clear-eyed view of the world and its sometimes horrifying ways. For others, it spells the beginning of the end, in that they equated an illusion of safety with its reality and thus now feel their world is ending. It is the fears of that second group that are given voice in the Nostradamus prediction circulated on the Internet even before the dust had settled in New York.

The I can't see French physician and astrologer Nostradamus (1503-1566) penned numerous quatrains populated by obscure imagery that the credulous have ever after attempted to fit to the events of their times. These predictions can often ring somewhat true in that the images employed are so general they can be found in almost every event of import, but by the same token, the prophecies are never a dead-on fit because the wordings are far too general. Not that this stops anyone from believing in them; our society's need for mysticism runs far too deep to ever allow for that.

Those looking for the certainty of a Nostradamus prophecy come true have been known to sledge hammer the results to force a fit by inventing fanciful translations from the original French, bend over backwards to assert one named term is really another, and (as in this case) outright fabricate part or all of the prediction.

Nostradamus did not write the quatrain now being attributed to him. (One wonders how a guy who died in 1566 could have written an item identified as being penned in 1654 anyway.) It originated with a student at Brock University in Canada in the 1990s, appearing on a web page essay on Nostradamus. That particular quatrain was offered by the page's author, Neil Marshall, as a fabricated example to illustrate how easily an important-sounding prophecy can be crafted through the use of abstract imagery. He pointed out how the terms he used were so deliberately vague they could be interpreted to fit any number of cataclysmic events. (And no, this quatrain didn't appear in the 1980 Orson Welles documentary The Man Who Saw Tomorrow. Welles used a different piece of writing to posit a conflict between the U.S. and a Middle Eastern country -- no great feat of prognostication given that at the time, the U.S. and Iran were at loggerheads over the Iranian takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, a move that many people at the time also felt was tantamount to an "act of war.")

It appears someone mistook Marshall's illustrative example for an actual Nostradamus prophecy and, not content to let well enough alone, added "The third big war will begin when the big city is burning." A fabrication was thus further fabricated.

But that wasn't the end of it. More fakery was piled on in later versions that now included all of the text quoted in the Example section above but now concluded with:

On the 11th day of the 9 month,
two metal birds will crash into two tall statues
in the new city,
and the world will end soon after.

Similarly, another enhanced version incorporates the "Example" text quoted above into a more detailed prophecy:

And Nostradamus predicted this (who knows how long ago):

In the year of the new century and nine months,
From the sky will come a great King of Terror.
The sky will burn at forty-five degrees.
Fire approaches the great new city

In the city of york there will be a great collapse,
2 twin brothers torn apart by chaos
while the fortress falls; the great leader will succumb;
third big war will begin when the big city is burning

This "prophecy" is bogus. The second quatrain is entirely made-up, and the first quatrain is composed of lines taken from two completely different prophecies of Nostradamus' linked together for effect (Lines referencing "Normans" and "Mongols" which have no plausible application to current events have been excised by whoever concatenated these two pieces.) The first two lines are from a verse which describes events that would supposedly have taken place in July of 1999 (not September of 2001) and has long since been associated with a wide variety of occurrences -- both real and fictional. (An excellent dissertation on this "prediction" can be found here.)

The only thing that's remotely real here is that the second two lines of the first quatrain are taken from what is often cited as a Nostradamus writing identified as Century 6, Quatrain 97:

Cinq et quarante degrez ciel bruslera
Feu approcher de la grand cité neuve
Instant grand flamme esparse sautera
Quand on voudra des Normans faire preuue.

An approximate English translation would be:

Five and forty steps the sky will burn
Fire approaching the large new city
Instantly a great thin flame will leap
When someone will want to test the Normans.

This one is marvel of the all-purpose prophecy. If you want to ensure that your "prediction" will be correct, just make some vague allusions to fire, because then you're covered for a whole host of circumstances: fire (including those started by natural disasters), war (or any type of killing or attack involving bombs or firearms), crashes of motorized vehicles (cars, trains, boats, airplanes), natural phenomena (such as volcanoes and lightning), and astronomical phenomena (such as comets and novas). Surely all of those things are bound to occur within the next few centuries -- probably more than once -- and your prophecy can be applied to every one of them.

"Five and forty steps"? That's a good one -- it covers the reckoning of angles, degrees of latitude and longitude, temperature, time elapsed on a clock, and a bundle of other measurements. You're bound to find a fit here in any disaster.

"The large new city" -- ooh, it sure takes a lot of insight to "predict" that a fire, war, explosion, crash, or natural disaster will hit a large city sometime in the next several hundred years. I mean, what're the odds of that? If you don't identify the city in any way (except to note that it's "large"), your "prediction" can be applied to hundreds of events in cities all over the world for hundred of years to come!

So, even if this is a real prophecy of Nostradamus', it simply provides more evidence of how much shoehorning has to be performed to get one of these vague "predictions" to fit modern occurrences:

  • The quatrain cites no date whatsoever, and thus the very same verse has already been widely cited a a "prediction" of many different events over the last several years, such as the discovery and approach of the spectacular Hale-Bopp comet in 1995 and the mysterious crash of TWA Flight 800 in July 1996. (And since Nostradamus' writings were widely cited as predicting the end of the world in the year 2000, we can't figure out why he'd be prophesying anything beyond that date anyhow.) Like the Energizer bunny, this is the prediction that just keeps on predicting, and predicting, and predicting . . .

  • The quatrain says absolutely nothing about New York City, the United States, or even North America. Ooh, but the "new city" must be a reference to New York, everyone claims. Sure, if you overlook that there's nothing "new" about New York other than its name (it's actually one of the oldest cities in North America), that many other of the world's major cities have the word "new" in their names (such as New Delhi), and that any city settled, built, or rebuilt in the last four hundred years -- in other words, just about any city in the world -- could be considered "new" relative to Nostradamus' time.

  • The line about a sky that "will burn at five and forty degrees" has to be stretched to the point of ridiculousness to pertain to the events in New York City. The Big Apple is nowhere near 45° latitude (it's below the 41° mark), and several major North American cities (e.g., Boston, Milwaukee, Chicago, Minneapolis, Toronto, Montreal) are much closer to 45° latitude than Gotham. Oh, but Nostradamus was so close -- so close, in fact that people have been busily working overtime to invent a few dozen other ways of explaining away the discrepancy: It's the angle at which two airplanes hit the World Trade Center towers. (You have to wonder if the people claiming this actually understand what a 45-degree angle is.) No, wait, it's the resulting fires "burning at 45 degrees." (This is just silly -- fire burns up, so obviously flames shooting out the sides of a building are going to have to travel sideways in order to go upwards). Ooh, I've got it -- at the time of the first crash, the hands of a clock formed a 45° angle. (No doubt somebody would have a found a time zone where this held true if New York's didn't fit.) You can bet that if events had occurred in a city with a colder climate, the Nostradamus buffs would now be claiming that the "five and forty degrees" was obviously meant to refer to air temperature, too.

    All in all, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is a much better fit for this one. So is the explosion resulting from the collision of the ships Mont Blanc and Imo in 1917, which killed thousands of people and destroyed much of Halifax -- a city just a few degrees shy of 45° latitude. In fact, the devastating Peshtigo forest fire (which occurred on the same night as the Great Chicago Fire) claimed 1,200 lives and occurred right on the 45th parallel.

  • What do "Normans" (what we would call "Vikings" or "French") have to do with hijacked airliners crashing into American cities? Nobody knows, but that hasn't stopped people from inventing all sorts of far-fetched explanations (e.g., "Normans" really means "North Americans" -- even though "Normans" had a very specific meaning in Nostradamus' time, and it certainly wasn't "North Americans.") Even if a prophecy contains something that makes no sense whatsoever, believers will find a way to make it fit.

This prophecy is truly the Mr. Potato Head of predictions -- if the parts don't fit to your liking, just rearrange them and try again. Just once, we'd like someone to (accurately) tell us what one of Nostradamus' "prophecies" means in advance of the events it supposedly describes. (That a few 1980s interpretations of Nostradamus posited a conflict in the Middle East is meaningless -- after the takeover of the American embassy by Iranians in 1979, everybody was predicting war in the Middle East, a "prediction" which required nothing more insightful than an ability to grasp the obvious. Nobody was reading a Middle Eastern war into Nostradamus' writings back in the 1950s or earlier.) If Nostradamus was such a profound prophet, then why is it that not one person in the world was able to decipher his "prediction" in time to sound a warning about the horrors of 11 September 2001?

Bottom line: A prediction that can only be interpreted after the events it supposedly foresees have occurred is not a "prediction" at all. If I could spew out a thousand vague "prophecies" and not have to explain what they meant until after the events they supposedly predicted had occurred, I'm sure I could manage a pretty impressive record for accuracy too.

Barbara "la cosa nostradamus" Mikkelson

Additional information:

    Nostradamus Called It!   Nostradamus Called It!   (Salon.com)

Last updated:   17 September 2001

The URL for this page is http://www.snopes.com/rumors/predict.htm

Urban Legends Reference Pages © 1995-2001
by Barbara and David P. Mikkelson
This material may not be reproduced without permission

  References: Sources:
    Brown, Janelle.   "Nostradamus Called It!"
    Salon.com.   17 September 2001.

    Coetsee, Rowena.   "Nostradamus Prediction Has No Link to Terrorism."
    Contra Costa Times.   21 September 2001.

    Lynch, Stephen.   "Non-Prophets"
    Orange County Register.   21 September 2001.
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